SP5C Clarence Eugene Sasser, class of 1973
Medal of Honor recipient
Born Sept. 12, 1947
Clarence Eugene Sasser was born in 1947 in Chenango, 7 miles north of Angleton. Sasser was studying chemistry as a part-time student at the University of Houston when he was drafted in 1967. Sasser completed a 10-week course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to be a medical aid man.
In a 1987 interview with the U.S. Army Medical Department Regiment, Sasser said he “had entertained hopes maybe of some day becoming a physician.” He was unable to financially pursue a degree in the medical field, but “being sent to medical corpsman school sort of filled a little bit of that desire,” Sasser said.
The 20-year-old went to Vietnam in late September 1967, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. The division was sent to the Mekong Delta, in southwestern Vietnam. The southern coastal region is dominated by flat flood plains with the Mekong River and its distributaries emptying into the South China Sea.
As the medic for 1st Platoon, Company A, Sasser would accompany the unit when it left base camp to go on patrols, missions or nighttime ambushes. The 9th Division worked in cooperation with the Navy in patrolling the area's rice fields, irrigation canal and river banks. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese's guerrilla warfare tactics, which included ambushes, sniping and traps, were effective in the delta area, Sasser said in the 1987 interview. “Every time we went out, there was a problem with the booby traps and things of that nature that could be detonated and sustain casualties to a unit,” he said.
Because of the region's tropical climate, the battalion policy was that a unit could stay away from base camp a maximum of five days (four nights), “because of what it would do to the human skin,” Sasser said. The war forced the military to recognize skin diseases as “a major cause of disability among combat soldiers” because of the widespread number of cases and drain on medical supplies, according to Skin Diseases in Vietnam, 1965-1972 by Lt. Col. Alfred M. Allen. Aside from treating bullet and shrapnel wounds, Sasser's duties included dealing with infections, insect bites and leech infestations.
'The longest day of my life'
The battalion was sent out on a search-and-destroy mission in January 1968. Company A, Sasser's unit, was assigned as a backup company and stayed at base camp until it was needed in combat. The third day into the mission, January 10 at 10 a.m., Company A was sent out in 12 helicopters to a large, flooded rice paddy where enemy forces had been seen. The rice paddy was framed on three sides with dense woods, entrenched with enemy forces. The lead helicopter was hit with enemy fire and crashed, so the rest had to land. Immediately, more than 30 Americans were either killed or wounded. Upon stepping off the helicopter, Sasser was shot through his right leg. Snipers targeted the soldiers with automatic weapon fire, mortar and rocket fire all day.
The rice paddy was flooded about 2½ feet with mud and water. Sasser found it easier to grab tufts of grass and rice plants to pull himself and glide through the paddy to render medical aid. It was faster than trying to walk, and being low made him less exposed to enemy fire.
Sasser treated injuries until his supplies ran out, then continued going to soldiers calling for help when all he could offer was emotional support, “which I thought was part of a medic's job, too,” Sasser said in the 1987 oral history transcript. During Sasser's training, he was ordered not to endanger his life excessively to see to injuries. The military could not afford to lose a medic treating one soldier, when he could have given aid to 30 others, Sasser said. Medics, easily identifiable by their bags, were prime targets for enemy snipers.
“You live right there with them, day in, day out. … You built up companionship, you built up friendship," Sasser said. "There's no way that I could have, in my mind, not went to see about someone when they hollered 'medic,' or when they called 'Doc' … or at least attempting to go."
Sasser pulled one man to safety near an embankment that provided some cover and was going back across the rice paddy when he became aware of incoming enemy fire. He headed for the closest embankment. Mortar fire landed about 5 or 6 feet from him, and shrapnel struck his back and left side just as he reached cover. “These [wounds] were extremely painful because of the heat that was associated with the broken metal,” Sasser said.
“He pulled out [the fragments] himself, waving off help from medics from other platoons,” according to Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.
Despite his legs being immobilized from injuries, Sasser continued sliding through the paddy and answering fallen infantry soldiers calling for “Doc.” “Every one that I could,” he said in the 1987 interview. “Regardless of whether or not I had medical supplies or not, regardless of whether or not I was hurt. If he called, and I possibly could, I went.”
Into the afternoon and through the night, Sasser treated wounds and offered support. “We laid there that night,” Sasser recalled in 2011 for a collection interview with Medal of Honor recipients. “All you could hear was guys moaning, calling for their momma, 'Help me.' There's nothing I can do.”
During the night, F14 Phantom jets dropped napalm in the treeline to keep the Viet Cong from continuing its assault. Army helicopters were finally able to come into the area and the platoons were evacuated about 4 a.m., 18 hours after they first arrived in the rice paddy.
“That day is probably the worst/best, however you want to look at it — depending on what perspective you put on it — day in my life,” Sasser said in the 1987 interview. “Certainly it was the longest day in my life.”
Hardly anyone in the company made it out without at least a minor injury; the majority was killed. Sasser was only platoon medic who survived that day. “It was a relief,” Sasser said in the 2011 video. “We were out of there and I was still alive. I was hurt, but not in mortal danger, and I knew me, and I knew I would heal fairly quickly.”
Sasser was evacuated in March to Camp Zama, Japan, where he underwent rehabilitation to be able to walk again. President Richard Nixon presented 21-year-old Sasser with the Medal of Honor on March 7, 1969, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the medal citation.
“It's confirmation to me that I did my job. And that's how I had to deal with it,” Sasser said in the 2011 interview. “It was my job, and I don't think what I did was above and beyond. I never have.”
Of the 246 Medals of Honor awarded during the Vietnam conflict, 20 were given to black servicemen. Of the 53 Vietnam War-era recipients still living, Sasser is the only black veteran.
“I'm particularly proud that my Medal of Honor is for saving lives and not taking lives,” Sasser said during a speech on the Texas A&M campus in November 2013, according to The Eagle. “That's not to say I have a problem with taking lives. I do not. If it had been my job to kill that soldier over there, I would have killed him, make no doubt about that.”
Sasser enrolled at A&M in August 1969 as a chemistry student. A&M president Gen. James Earl Rudder recruited him to attend the university on a scholarship. “Without him, his understanding, his pull and his thoughts, I never would have come,” Sasser said during the speech.
Sasser left school to work at an oil refinery for five years before working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Houston.
Honoring an Aggie
On Veterans Day in 2010, Brazoria County unveiled an outdoor memorial in front of the courthouse called Ring of Honor. The memorial is a 40-foot-ring of black marble monuments with names of fallen soldiers from Brazoria County on one side and photo reproductions of battle scenes on the exterior of the ring, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. Two life-size bronze statues are also part of the memorial. One is titled “Gold Star Mother,” a seated woman receiving a folded American flag that honors all branches of the military. The other statue is of Sasser in a crouched run, carrying his medic bag while in action.
-- Compiled by Claire Heathman