First Lt. Philip H. Sauer and four Marines were sent on a reconnaissance mission to the top of hill 861 to get a better view of a cave complex suspected to be a North Vietnamese Army holdout in the bamboo-filled jungle. It was April 24, 1967 — the heart of the Vietnam War.
The squad — two Marines from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines; a two-man artillery forward observer team; and Sauer — were thrown together for the mission that followed an attack of mortars that had pounded the hilly terrain outside Khe Sanh.
As they began their climb, it started to rain. Minutes later, they were ambushed by a group of more than 30 entrenched North Vietnamese. The Marine on the point was hit and killed instantly and Sauer, 24, armed with a .45 caliber pistol, fired against the North Vietnamese machine guns.
“It was real close combat,” Bill Marks said Tuesday, April 24, recalling the incident. “I looked at the lieutenant and he had his .45 and I had my M-16. He said, ‘You fall back and I’ll meet up with you.’ We (Marks and another Marine) were running and the bullets were flying. Suddenly, I stopped hearing the distinct sound of his .45. The other Marine had been hit and I found the radio operator with a bullet in his back. I kept running.”
Marks, 72, of Rockport, Mass., then a private first class, was the squad’s sole survivor. Sauer died in the opening skirmish of the Hill Fights. The battles at Khe Sanh, including the Hill Fights, would later be known as the siege of Khe Sanh. About 155 Marines died and 455 were wounded in the Hill Fights.
On Tuesday — 51 years to the day after Sauer’s death — Marks was among more than 60 who gathered in a Silver Star Medal award ceremony at the 1st Marine Division headquarters at Camp Pendleton to recognize his heroic efforts.
Also in attendance were Sauer’s four siblings — Coulter Winn, 66, of Monrovia; Tom Sauer, 70, of La Jolla; Nick Sauer, 77, of La Jolla; and Mary Schoelch, 74, of Minneapolis, Minn. Seven nieces and nephews also were on hand.
The ceremony began with music from the 1st Marine Division Band. As Marines and sailors looked on, the award was presented to Sauer’s siblings by Major General Eric M. Smith, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.
The Silver Star is the nation’s third-highest valor decoration.
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving with the 1st Battalion/9th Marines in the Republic of Vietnam 24 April 1967,” Sauer’s citation reads. “Lt. Sauer’s bold action, courage under fire and complete devotion to duty reflected in great credit to him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.”
“This is what right looks like,” said Smith, reinforcing Sauer’s role in sacrificing his life for Marines he had just met. “Today, 51 years to the date after he gave his life for his country and fellow Marines, we’re able to recognize Lt. Sauer. Lt. Sauer did what was right. He did it armed with a pistol against 30 men. Who does that? Phil Sauer did that. That act is a matter of Naval record.”
But neither Sauer, nor his family, would have received the recognition were it not for a conversation between Sauer’s brother Tom Sauer and retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Little, 77, of La Jolla. The two men, friends through a mutual love of open water swimming, first discussed Phil Sauer in 2015.
Tom Sauer mentioned his brother had been killed in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart. Details of the death prompted Little, who served from 1963-1983, to do some investigating. After poring over the Internet, the National Archives, oral interviews, and an article in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Little thought Phil Sauer might deserve more.
“The more I found, the more I realized he had been overlooked,” said Little, who in his active duty role had compiled awards recommendations for Marines. “Then it was, ‘How do you do this? Marine Corps is pretty stingy, they don’t give awards out easily.”
Little found Marks — a surviving eyewitness to Sauer’s heroism — and Sauer’s company commander, Barclay Hastings, of Columbus, Ohio, both needed for the award recommendation.
Nine months after Marks began researching Sauer — and 49 years after Sauer was killed — Little submitted a 25-page recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy in January 2016. When he heard back in August 2017, with a request to contact the family, Little thought it might be time to tell Tom Sauer what he had done.
Though the men swim up to three miles together every morning in the coves of La Jolla, Little had never mentioned the hundreds of hours he had spent working on trying to get the Silver Star for Phil Sauer.
“He sent me an email saying,’ I need to talk to you,’” Tom Sauer said, Tuesday, adding he thought the formality between men who see each other daily was odd.
The next day, following their swim, Little told Sauer, “I submitted a recommendation for an award for Phil. They told me there will be something but I don’t know what.”
“I was in awe of him,” Tom Sauer said. “I had tremendous respect for what he had done.”
In March, the Sauer family was notified that Phil would receive the Silver Star. Winn, Sauer’s youngest brother, credits Little for his brother’s award.
Winn said he still remembers coming home from school on Coronado Island and seeing a government vehicle in front of the house. His parents were given the report that Phil Sauer was missing. Later, he recalled, his father told him, “Don’t get your hopes up, they don’t take prisoners in Vietnam.”
A week later, Winn said, he was at school and as he walked through the hallway, students stood staring at him. He was told to go to the principal’s office and found his father there waiting for him.
“Phil is dead,” he recalled his father saying.
Winn remembered his brother as someone with compassion for others and for animals.
“He had this 1962 Chevy Impala, and he’d work on it in the driveway,” Winn said. “He explained how the car engine worked. It was cool — he’d actually take time to do that. He’d take me on ride-alongs in Coronado and on a two-man rubber raft in Coronado Bay. He was a hero, too. He saved kittens lost in a drain pipe.”
Finding out about his brother’s sacrifice wasn’t surprising.
“None of us ever know if we have that kind of bravery,” Winn said. “Until you’re put into a situation where you have to make that choice.”
© 2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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