Kenneth Stumpf was 20 years old and seven months into his first tour of duty the day he became a living legend for his actions in perhaps the most beautiful and dangerous province in Vietnam.

Stumpf was a specialist first class in Company C, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division and humping it northwest through Quang Ngai province near Duc Pho.

In April 1967, U.S. forces were engaged in a series of small search-and-destroy operations to try to break the nearly invincible Viet Cong hold in the area.

Midmorning of April 24, Spc. 4 Stumpf of 3rd Platoon was ordered to take his six-man squad to check out an enemy bunker in the hamlet of Bich Chieu, where VC soldiers had been spotted by a patrolling Huey gunship. Stumpf put himself on point and struck out with his men; no one realized they were without a radio until they were deep into their hike.

Sgt. John Madonich double-timed down the trail with an extra field radio and two more men, but they were pinned down moments later by enemy gunfire. Stumpf heard the gunfire from his position some yards away. He was already heading back for a radio after positioning his crew in a trench but raced back to join his men — only to find that three of the six were nowhere to be found.

Over the noise of gunfire, Stumpf learned that three of his men had gone to check out the area east of the trench; a VC machine gunner had filled their legs with lead, and they now lay helpless on the ground 20 yards away.

Stumpf knew they had to have a radio to survive, but moments into his second run back, he met Madonich and his 10-man squad. All rushed back to the trench.

The men took up positions there but the VC took notice, and began to pour down fire. Stumpf’s trench crew returned fire with their rifles, under relentless bunker and soldier fire from the well-camouflaged enemy. Within minutes, every man but Stumpf had been wounded by grenade shrapnel.

Saving the wounded

Around this time Stumpf noticed a grenade between his legs and calmly lobbed it back and continued firing as the enemy retreated — only to return moments later in a deadly flanking assault.

Stumpf shouted that he was going after the three wounded men; incredibly, he wasn’t hit in the hail of tracer fire the VC dumped on him as he brought out first Larry White, whose leg was broken. Then he hauled Anthony Hernandez by his shirt front — at which point Stumpf collapsed a few yards from the trench, allowing his fellow soldiers to drag Hernandez to safety. Undaunted, Stumpf went back for William Bush, looping his fellow soldier’s arms about his own neck and hauling him through the ever-increasing fire to the trench.

They’d barely gotten the wounded out on a medevac helicopter in the gunfire-hot landing zone when Stumpf and Madonich ordered a Huey gunship to strafe the woods with machine gun fire. The VC only seemed emboldened; they advanced on the tiny American position, tightening the deadly noose with every step.

His fellow soldiers recall Stumpf suddenly screaming out, “It’s time to give some back!” before stripping off everything but his field suspenders and pistol belt, packing an empty sandbag full of grenades, and striking out through the jungle.

‘One-man wrecking crew’

With William Latimer from Madonich’s squad, Stumpf quietly dropped grenades into bunkers and fired on the enemy. When Latimer was fatally wounded, those who witnessed the scene called Stumpf a “one-man wrecking crew,” pouring grenades and M16 fire in an enraged 10-minute assault that destroyed bunkers and countless VC soldiers.

Madonich’s crew were stunned to see Stumpf emerge alive. Immediately the whole crew withdrew to meet 2nd Platoon as they arrived on the scene. Stumpf returned once more into the jungle with a bag of grenades, Madonich in tow this time. He filled bunker after bunker, occasionally having to shout off friendly fire.

The enemy finally fled. Stumpf had taken out every single bunker they had. For 2nd Platoon and what remained of 3rd Platoon, the fight for Bich Chieu was over.

In September 1967, Kenneth Stumpf was discharged from the Army, and returned to his former factory job in Menasha, Wis. In spring of the following year, he received word from an Army officer that he was to receive the Medal of Honor. Stumpf later served another tour in Vietnam and was wounded while assaulting an enemy position; he retired as a sergeant major in 1994, after 29 years with the Army.

SOURCES: cmohs.org, wikipedia.com, msnbc.com, Soldier of Fortune magazine, July 1996.

The Medal of Honor feature runs every other Sunday alternating with “Voices of Valor,” which focuses on Central Texas veterans. To suggest a story of a Central Texas veteran, email voicesofvalor@wacotrib.com.