The song recorded by Big and Rich, “8th Of November”, is about Niles Harris, Lawrence Joel, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade during a fierce battle during Operation Hump on November 8th, 1965.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade was ambushed by Viet Cong during Operation Hump. One of the wounded, Niles Harris, was among the several soldiers saved by Lawrence Joel, who later became the first living black American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War. Years later, Harris gave Big Kenny (one half of the duo) the top hat he often wears in public appearances.
Lawrence Joel (February 22, 1928–February 4, 1984) was a United States Army Sergeant First Class who served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While serving in Vietnam, as a medic with the rank of Specialist Five assigned to 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Joel received the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor for his heroism in a battle with the Viet Cong that occurred on November 8, 1965. He was the first medic to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam conflict and the first living black American to receive this medal since the Spanish-American War in 1898.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery Arlington, Virginia. His grave can be found in section 46, lot 15-1.
On November 8, 1965 Specialist Five Lawrence Joel and his battalion of paratroopers were sent on a patrol for Viet Cong soldiers near Bien Hoa, war zone “D” in the heart of Vietnam, conducting Operation Hump. Joel and his battalion shortly found themselves in a Viet Cong ambush, outnumbered six to one.
Under heavy gunfire, Joel did his duty as a medic, administering first aid to wounded soldiers. Joel defied orders to stay to the ground and risked his life to help the many wounded soldiers; nearly every soldier in the lead squad was either wounded or killed in the battle. Even after being shot twice (once in the right thigh and once in the right calf), Joel continued to do his job; he bandaged his wounds and continued to help the wounded in not only his unit, but in the nearby company as well. When his medical supplies were depleted, he hobbled around the battlefield for more, using a makeshift crutch while SP4 Randy Eickhoff ran in front and provided covering fire. Eickhoff later was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.
Joel attended to thirteen troops and saved the life of one soldier who suffered from a severe chest wound by improvising and placing a plastic bag over the soldier’s chest in order to seal the wound until the supplies were refreshed. After the firefight which lasted over twenty-four hours, Joel was hospitalized and shipped to locations including Saigon, Vietnam and Tokyo, Japan to recover. Shortly after, he received the Silver Star for his activities on November 8, 1965.
Medal of Honor citation
On March 9, 1967 on the White House lawn, President Lyndon Johnson presented Joel with the Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War. His citation reads as follows:
- For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. SP6. Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Sp6. Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Sp6. Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aidman and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Sp6. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
Niles Harris, who was saved by Joel that day, is an unassuming vet from South Dakota, puts on a suit and tie on the same day each year, and heads down to the local pub to raise his glass as a toast to his fallen comrades. Let’s join him. Let’s do it as a show of respect and gratitude for Harris and all the other men and women who served with him in Vietnam. Here is the video “8th Of November” by Big and Rich, featuring Niles Harris and Kris Kristofferson.