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EVANSVILLE, IND. — On March 20, 1968, James R. Below’s 5-ton truck hauling 105 artillery gun tubes was traveling with a convoy from Pleiko to Da Nang in Vietnam when the truck in front of his set off a delayed land mine.
“Just as I got over the top of it, it blew me and my co-driver up. We ran up on the side of a hill, off the road, and my truck was on fire,” Below told the Evansville Courier & Press.
After getting himself out of the fiery truck, Below pulled his co-driver out of the passenger side window. Then the skies opened up with mortar and gunfire from the Viet Cong, he said.
Below and his partner, who was hit with a mortar fragment in his back side, made it out alive, but for 45 years, Below never received his Purple Heart medal for the injuries he endured from that day — until Tuesday.
Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Indiana, presented Below with his Purple Heart during a special afternoon ceremony in the Law Library of the Winfield K. Denton Federal Building.
Below’s family and Commander James M. Stewart, the commanding officer for the Crane Naval Center, also attended the ceremony.
“On behalf of everyone here in Indiana and the United States of America, we sincerely thank you for your service and your sacrifice,” said Bucshon before pinning the medal onto Below’s shirt.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Below was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, with three bronze stars, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Unit Citation.
Bucshon, who served just under a decade in the Navy Reserves, also presented the former Army Reservist with a certificate and a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
After the presentation, Below talked about the day he was injured in Vietnam.
After freeing his co-driver — “Of course that was my main concern to get him out,” he said — his partner was flown by helicopter to be treated for his injuries. Below was taken to a nearby medic unit to be treated for burns to his arms.
“A funny thing about it, I had a little bit of a mustache on and part of it got burned off,” he said, followed by a chuckle.
He eventually went to Yokohama, Japan, to be treated and was then transferred back to Fort Knox, Ky., to finish the remainder of his enlistment. He continued to serve as an Army Reservist until 1995.
Below said Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military operations in Vietnam from 1964-68, was supposed to award him the medal at the time, but with years of moving around the country, the paperwork got lost in the mix, he said.
Last year, a co-worker of Below’s at Mead Johnson Nutritionals provided some numbers and information to get the medal he’s had coming since the late ‘60s.
After the ceremony, Bucshon offered to take the medal that he pinned on Below and put it in its respective box. Below politely refused, opting to instead proudly display it, hanging from the pocket of his short sleeve button-up shirt as he talked after the presentation.
“It means a lot,” Below said on receiving the award he’s waited more than four decades for, but he added, “The real heroes are the ones that are engraved on the Vietnam wall ... the real heroes are our POWs. This is just a little bit of me trying to help my country for my fellow people. Your freedom is not free.”