Kenneth Stumpf, who received the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam, died on April 23 at age 77 of pancreatic cancer. Born in Wisconsin in 1944, Stumpf was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965.
The deeds that earned him America’s highest valor award took place on April 25, 1967, when Stumpf was sent on a search-and-destroy mission in Quang Ngai province. The 22-year-old specialist was then a squad leader serving in 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division.
After a helicopter gunner opened fire on two enemy combatants, one survived and “crawled into a spider hole,” disappearing from view, Stumpf later recalled in an interview. He was given orders to “take my squad and try to find this dude.” His group had only walked about 100 meters when they found themselves being fired upon by unseen foes from all directions.
Stumpf was told by one of his men that “three of the guys were hit real bad and there was a bunker complex. So four of us then went into the ditch and we just fired away.”
The wounded Americans lay vulnerable in vegetation so dense that their comrades could not see them. Two of them were new soldiers, Stumpf said, while the third he affectionately referred to as “my old-timer.” “All the time my thoughts were of my three guys,” he said.
Stumpf and his comrades fired fiercely at the Viet Cong shooting at them from trees, bushes and spider holes all around. “I used to carry a sandbag full of hand grenades on my back, on my harness. People thought, ‘He’s crazy,’” Stumpf recalled. Yet he put the grenades to use in battle, expending all of them and most of his ammunition in two hours of fierce combat, he later said.
Prospects looked grim when Stumpf decided to risk it all to save his buddies. “I told the guys, ‘I’m going in to get my men.’” Although he could not see where the wounded were lying in the dense scrub, Stumpf charged into the open. “My mind and everything was like a blur to me,” he said, but thankfully he “guessed right.”
He located the three wounded about 15 to -20 meters ahead of him and transported them to safety one by one — alternately carrying and dragging them, and even pulling one man by his shirt to get them back to the safety of the trench where he and others had taken cover. All three needed to be medevaced. Additional men and fire support arrived. Fighter bombers and artillery fire razed the landscape and exposed the Viet Cong bunkers to full view.
By this time, Stumpf was angry. Casualties had torn apart his squad and one of his comrades had died fighting beside him, according to an article published in the July 1996 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
Armed with a fresh batch of grenades, Stumpf began charging the enemy bunkers, blazing a path of destruction. “I just started throwing grenades,” he recalled. Yet one of the enemy fighters, peering through a slit opening in a bunker, dared to mock him. “The one that I really wanted bad — I could see the guy …. He was actually laughing at me, with a grin like he got caught in the cookie jar. He had that smile on his face. [I thought], ‘“I’m getting you!’”
Stumpf’s effort nearly got him killed. After throwing the grenade into the bunker, the enemy threw it back out at him. Stumpf flattened himself on the ground and prepared to die. Miraculously, he was unharmed by the ensuing explosion. With only two grenades left to spare, Stumpf threw both into the bunker. The enemy did not get the last laugh. The battle ended in the wake of the terrific explosion.
In 1968, Stumpf was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Because of his daring actions, his unit had successfully overrun the enemy position. He served for a total of three tours in Vietnam and afterwards remained in the Army for 29 years. He retired in 1994.