He became a Vietnam hero at age 20, saving the lives of his Army comrades under a hail of enemy fire.
On the day in May 1968, when Charles Hagemeister was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor at the Pentagon, President Lyndon B. Johnson clasped the young man’s hand, and reportedly asked him how much time he had left to serve.
“I have 72 hours, sir,” Hagemeister responded. As Hagemeister would later tell the tale, the president turned to a four-star general nearby and said, “You talk to him. Convince him to stay.”
Hagemeister did stay in the military, for 22 more years. On Wednesday afternoon, with full military honors — a bugler’s mournful taps, a 21-gun salute — Ret. Lt. Col. Hagemeister, 74, was laid to rest at Leavenworth National Cemetery.
On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, it was the first day the Department of Veterans Affairs allowed such a gathering since COVID-19 hit last year. No more restrictions on the size of funeral gatherings or the wearing of masks — for people who are fully vaccinated.
And the occasion also marked the first Medal of Honor recipient to be buried among the cemetery’s nearly 40,000 graves in more than 100 years.
All other Medal of Honor recipients at the cemetery — six besides Hagemeister — are veterans of the Civil War or before. The last to be buried at Leavenworth was Daniel A. Dorsey in May 1918, the year of the influenza pandemic, for his actions in the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862.
The nearby Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery is the final resting place of nine Medal of Honor recipients. The most recent, buried in 1996, is Lt. Commander William E. Hall, honored for his actions in the Coral Sea during World War II.
Hagemeister died on May 19. A cause of death was not given. Some 75 people attended the Leavenworth ceremony.
“This is an important step in restoring full operations,” Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ronald Walters had announced in a press statement. “We are pleased families will no longer have to limit the number of people attending a service or physically distance themselves from each other after they are fully vaccinated.”
Prior to Wednesday, a maximum of 10 people could attend a service at Leavenworth. For the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, until June 8, burials were held, but services with military honors were not performed at the 155 national cemeteries. No taps. No honor guards.
On Memorial Day weekend last year, there was no large, organized effort to place flags on the graves of veterans. Now, on Saturday starting at 9 a.m., with COVID-19 restrictions lifted, members of local Boy Scouts of America troops will begin placing flags on the thousands of graves, saying the name of each veteran when the flag is placed, and pausing for a moment of silence.
Charles Hagemeister, a resident of Leavenworth, will be one of those names.
Born the youngest of four children in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Aug. 21, 1946, Hagemeister credited his mother for raising him. His father, who managed lumber yards, died when he was 3.
He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before deciding to take a semester off to earn money to return to school. He was drafted into the Army in May 1966. He was 19.
“My comment was, you serve. You don’t refuse it,” Hagemeister said in a video about his actions recorded by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Trained to be an Army medic, Hagemeister, then a specialist fourth class, arrived in Vietnam in November 1966 with A Company of the 1st Cavalry Division.
“Whenever there was a fight, A Company got sent into it,” Hagemeister recalled.
His medal was awarded for his actions on March 20, 1967. His company had been patrolling and searching villages in Binh Dinh Province. They were told the day before that they were going to link up with a company that had been ambushed.
“They had lost most of their chain of command,” he said. A Company was searching for the other company when they were suddenly assaulted by a barrage of machine gun fire and later mortar rounds.
“More fire than I had ever seen in my life was coming in,” Hagemeister said.
The North Vietnamese army had them surrounded on three sides. His platoon took heavy casualties.
His medal citation on the National Medal of Honor Museum website offers an account:
Seeing two fellow soldiers wounded, “Hagemeister unhesitatingly and with total disregard for his safety, raced through the deadly hail of enemy fire to provide them medical aid.
“Upon learning that the platoon leader and several other soldiers also had been wounded, Sp5c. Hagemeister continued to brave the withering enemy fire and crawled forward to render lifesaving treatment and to offer words of encouragement.
“Attempting to evacuate the seriously wounded soldiers, Sp5c. Hagemeister was taken under fire at close range by an enemy sniper. Realizing that the lives of his fellow soldiers depended on his actions, Sp5c. Hagemeister seized a rifle from a fallen comrade, killed the sniper, 3 other enemy soldiers who were attempting to encircle his position and silenced an enemy machine gun that covered the area with deadly fire. “
He would go on to run through a fusillade of fire to get help from a nearby platoon, placed fellow soldiers in positions to cover him as he moved into the fray to evacuate more wounded. He then moved to another area to remove even more wounded.
“Hagemeister’s repeated heroic and selfless actions at the risk of his life saved the lives of many of his comrades and inspired their actions in repelling the enemy assault,” the citation reads.
‘I just did my job’
In 2001, The Star profiled Hagemeister and his efforts, with other medal awardees, to ferret out Medal of Honor frauds, those who falsely claim to have received one.
“The medal is too important,” Hagemeister then said. He would become a leading officer with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “We don’t wear the medal just for ourselves. And when someone does something that would defame the medal, we … act on that.”
Hagemeister found frauds on both the internet and television, including a centenarian profiled by former “Today Show” weatherman Willard Scott. Scott mentioned that the man had received a Medal of Honor.
In his video, Hagemeister recounted joking about earning a Medal of Honor before being sent to Vietnam.
“I had heard about the Medal of Honor,” he recalled. “They told the stories of some of the Medal of Honor recipients. It was almost comical because, when they were announcing who was going to what unit in Vietnam … when they announced we were going to the 1st Cav Division, I said, ‘What a great opportunity. I can go to the 1st Cav., get my Medal of Honor, no Purple Heart, come back and get out of the Army.”
He said that, later, people who were there for that conversation accused him of intentionally going out to earn the medal.
“I always tell them, ‘No, it just happened,'” he said, and added later, “What I did on the 20th of March, I just did my job. … What I was doing that night was for the love of my fellow soldiers and taking care of Chuck Hagemeister and doing all those things just to make sure the majority of us, or as many as possible, came out of that ambush alive.”
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