Under intense enemy fire, U.S. troops pulled back as Sgt. 1st Class Ron Hagen lay wounded, unable to move. A battalion commander went for him but was also shot.
What happened next that September day in 1969 near Chi Lang, South Vietnam, was a cinematic act of bravery from a Green Beret named Melvin Morris.
Dodging bullets, throwing grenades and enduring shots to the chest, arm and hand, Morris "continued to advance toward his own lines, and succeeded in returning Hagen's body, before he collapsed from his efforts," according to an Army account.
For his actions, Staff Sgt. Morris was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1970.
On Tuesday he got an upgrade — and a historical injustice was corrected.
The 72-year-old Florida retiree received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony honoring 24 Army veterans whose heroism was not fully recognized because of race or ethnicity.
"Today we have the chance to set the record straight," Obama said. "No nation is perfect, but here in America, we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal."
Obama introduced Morris, who lives in Cocoa with his wife, as one of the nation's first Green Berets. "Think about that. That's legendary."
Morris stood stonefaced at Obama's right as his actions were recounted in the East Room, filled with family and ranking military members, as well as the musician Lenny Kravitz, whose uncle, Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, was posthumously honored for his service in Korea.
"In the thick of the fight, all those years ago, for your comrades and your country, you refused to yield," Obama said to Morris and the two other living recipients, Spc. Santiago J. Erevia and Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela, both of San Antonio.
Obama called Morris last month to break the news. "I fell to my knees, I was shocked," Morris told the Associated Press at the time. "President Obama said he was sorry this didn't happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago."
Morris, who retired in 1986 as a sergeant first class, said he never begrudged the military. "I never really did worry about decorations." But he said recognition was due to those who were passed over.
The medals stem from a review Congress ordered in 2002 and initially focused on Jews and Hispanics "to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice." Eventually the review was expanded to all deserving cases from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Morris grew up in Oklahoma and joined the Army because "I just wanted to be in that uniform, I wanted to be a soldier, I wanted to do things, go places, that was it. No regrets," he told Army News Service.
The action began Sept. 17, 1969, with an ambush in the jungle. Sgt. 1st Class Hagen led the charge but was shot and his troops withdrew under unrelenting fire, according to the Army citation.
"They were unable to retrieve Hagen, whose wounds were serious, and as a result, was unable to move himself." A battalion commander went for Hagen, "but as he moved forward, he was also met with an onslaught of enemy resistance, and also was wounded. Hit in the arm and the mouth, he was completely unable to suppress the enemy fires. However, as he advanced, the enemy's fire again struck Hagen, killing him instantly."
Morris, hearing on the radio that one of his leaders was killed and another wounded, got several soldiers together and advanced. He reached Hagen and covered his body with a poncho but enemy fire intensified.
"Once they reached a secure area, Morris jumped up, and with complete disregard for his own safety, began directing the fires of his elements by running from man to man and physically pointing their fires. Having established a base of fire, Morris again began advancing in a crawl toward Hagen."
But he was turned back again. He regrouped.
"Realizing the futility of a covered, and thereby slower, advance, Morris began running toward the enemy positions. In retaliation, the enemy again blazed away with extraordinary fire power. As Morris approached the bunker on which the body of Hagen lay, a machine-gun inside the bunker was directed against him. The weapon firing from the port in the bunker was unable to elevate because of the narrowness of the port, and the rounds went directly between Morris' legs. Had he not been rapidly advancing, he would have been cut to pieces by those fires. As a result, however, Morris dove to the side and dropped a hand grenade into the bunker.
"Morris began moving from bunker to bunker, using each bunker as cover from the next one, until he had successfully knocked out three of the immediately adjacent bunkers. So fierce was his single-handed attack, as Morris approached one of the bunkers, two NVA soldiers, totally bewildered by his actions, chose to flee the bunker in which they were fighting, rather than face the onslaught of this seemingly half-crazed American.
"Morris promptly killed the two enemy soldiers. Single-handedly, Morris had succeeded in reducing the fires that had completely stopped his entire battalion. He was eventually shot in the chest, arm and hand but succeeded in returning Hagen's body.
"From the beginning of the encounter, until he was medically evacuated, Morris reacted to each situation with a professionalism, and single-minded determination possessed by few men," the citation reads. "Ignoring his personal safety repeatedly, on no less than three occasions he faced insurmountable odds, and finally overcame them. His ability to direct and lead indigenous soldiers into what was for some, certain death, has rarely been equaled. His personal courage was of the highest order, and as a result of his actions, many casualties were avoided."