It is absolutely forbidden to do drugs in a war zone. It’s illegal to do drugs as a member of the Armed Forces — it always has been. Still, by the 1970s, marijuana use by U.S. troops in Vietnam was widespread. Tim O’Brien even wrote about it in The Things They Carried. One U.S. troop even earned the nation’s highest honor while high on it.
Peter Lemon was stationed at Fire Support Base Illingworth in Tay Ninh province, South Vietnam on Apr. 1, 1970. It was that day he became one of the youngest-ever Medal of Honor recipients at just 20 years old.
He was born in Toronto, an immigrant who willfully joined the U.S. Army to fight against the spread of Communism. He was from a family of military veterans, after all. He became an American citizen at 11 and enlisted as soon as he could. His optimism about the war in Vietnam quickly fell away after a series of disappointing events: allied troops killing surrendering enemy combatants, the fragging of a hated lieutenant, and the loathing the locals had for American troops.
(Photo from Peter Lemon)
So, when things got slow, he and his buddies passed the time by smoking a little pot. After a recon patrol one night, they blew off some steam with a little partying. He had no idea the next day would be the defining event of his life.
“We were all partying the night before,” Lemon said. “We weren’t expecting any action because we were in a support unit. It was the only time I ever went into combat stoned. You get really alert when you are stoned because you have to be.”
His fire base was located near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, admittedly bait for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops to attack as they entered South Vietnam. There were many fire bases like it, as it was a common tactic to draw out masses of enemy troops. Unfortunately for the tired revelers at Illingworth, the night wasn’t as quiet as they expected.
At 2:06 am, the enemy struck in full force. 400 hardened NVA troops swarmed the 220 Americans at the fire base. The Americans lacked the critical piece to their fire base tactics: air support. The NVA destroyed the base’s communications and rained mortars and artillery on the sleepy Americans.
Lemon, despite finishing a joint before bed, jumped out of his rack and manned a heavy machine gun until it couldn’t fire anymore. He did the same with his rifle. Both weapons malfunctioned. When those no longer worked, he switched to tossing hand grenades at the oncoming enemy. The NVA returned with a grenade of their own, injuring Lemon. He managed to take down all but one enemy. As soon as the Communist soldier reached his position, Lemon dispatched him in hand-to-hand combat.
That’s when fate stepped in. The day before, Illingworth received a shipment of 40 tons of 8-inch artillery shells it couldn’t use. The ammo was dumped in the middle of the base, and as soon as Lemon killed his attacker, the shells all detonated. The blast knocked Lemon to the ground and tore apart anyone near it.
Still, he managed to pick himself up, take a buddy to the aid station, and grab more grenades. He was shot by incoming NVA bullets for his trouble, but he pressed on. Then, realizing the base was about to be overrun, he charged the incoming enemy waves, tossing grenades and knocking them down with his fists as he moved, completely routing them.
He then retook another machine gun and fired into the NVA hordes (while standing fully in the open) until he passed out.
If all of that wasn’t enough, he refused medical evacuation until his more seriously wounded friends took off first. Lemon, now a motivational speaker, dedicates his Medal of Honor to his three friends who died in the fighting, Casey Waller, Brent Street, and Nathan Mann.