President Lyndon B. Johnson awards Delbert O. Jennings the Medal of Honor on September 19, 1968.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 5/19/2015
  • Essay 11070
See Additional Media
On September 19, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) awards Delbert Owen Jennings (1936-2003) the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. The award recognizes Sergeant Jennings's heroism on December 27, 1966. On that day he led an army squad in the defense of a firebase named Landing Zone Bird in the Republic of Vietnam. The firebase came under heavy attack by a North Vietnamese army regiment. The enemy attacked with mortar, recoilless rifle, and machinegun fire. Sergeant Jennings rushed to a bunker on their main attack route, slowing the attack with his well-aimed machinegun fire. The attack was too fierce to halt so he covered his troops as they withdrew. The attack forced a second withdrawal that he again protected. He fought the North Vietnamese attackers in hand-to-hand combat, killing one with the butt of his rifle. After his troops established a secure defense, he went to the landing pad and illuminated it with white phosphorous grenades. This illumination exposed him to enemy fire, but enabled reinforcements to arrive. With reinforcements the attack was overcome. The North Vietnamese suffered heavy casualties in this battle. For his heroism, Sergeant Jennings is awarded the Medal of Honor. 

First Army Tours 

Delbert Jennings was born in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 23, 1936. The family moved between New Mexico and Stockton, California, and Delbert graduated from Stockton High School. He attended college for a short period and then became an electrical apprentice. On January 24, 1956, he enlisted in the army. He received basic training at Fort Ord, California, and advanced training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Jennings also completed airborne school.

He served three years and was discharged as a sergeant in January 1959. He returned to civilian life, but missed the army and reenlisted in November 1959. Although he excelled in the army he also found himself in trouble. He was reduced in rank several times, but through hard work and good soldiering made up his lost rank each time. His second army service ended in March 1964.  

The Vietnam War 

Delbert Jennings remained a civilian only a short time and reenlisted in November 1964. He returned to the army as a corporal. Corporal Jennings volunteered for duty in Vietnam but received orders for a 13-month tour in South Korea. The Korea tour was followed by a stateside assignment. He again requested Vietnam.

Finally his desire was realized. Sergeant Jennings arrived in Vietnam in July 1966. He was promoted to staff sergeant in September. His rifle company, Company C, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, regularly saw action. In November 1966 Jennings was reduced rank to sergeant for insubordination 40 days before his heroic actions recognized by a Medal of Honor.  

A Day of Battle

In mid-December 1966, Company C was manning a firebase Landing Zone Bird in the Kim Song Valley, Republic of Vietnam. It was named Bird for its aerial appearance of a bird's head. It was not a good defensive location, but selected because of its flat grassy area for helicopter operations.

On December 27, 1966, elements of Company C were defending Landing Zone Bird when it came under attack by a North Vietnamese army regiment supported by mortar, recoilless rifle, and machine-gun fire. Immediately Sergeant Jennings ran to a bunker astride the main attack route. He laid deadly machine-gun fire into the main attack force. Sergeant Jennings and his squad replied with effective fire, but were over numbered and had to fall back. He covered the squad as they withdrew. 

As Jennings rejoined his squad, the enemy penetrated farther into the firebase. He destroyed an enemy demolition team about to blow up an American artillery weapon. With the enemy advance, he ordered his troops to withdraw farther into the landing zone. Sergeant Jennings again covered their withdrawal and he fought the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He killed one enemy soldier with the butt of his rifle. Once his forces established a new position, he guided attack and rescue helicopters into the landing zone by illuminating it with white phosphorous grenades. This effort lighted the zone but made him visible to the enemy and drew gunfire. With reinforcements arriving and transporting out the wounded, Sergeant Jennings organized a final resistance. He helped in the recovery of the wounded.  

The battle was over in one hour with heavy casualties. The North Vietnamese army lost about 266 soldiers. The 1st Cavalry Division had 58 killed in action. Later the North Vietnamese admitted that it was a disastrous defeat for them. The American victory owed a great deal to Sergeant Jennings and other cavalrymen. Two Distinguished Service Crosses and five Silver Stars were awarded to heroes of Landing Zone Bird.      

After the battle Brigadier General (retired) S. L. A. Marshall (1900-1977), who was serving as an army historian recorded these events and Jennings's heroism. Marshall recommended Jennings for the Medal of Honor. Also, Marshall and Sergeant Jennings discussed drinking issues and Sergeant Jennings recognized that he had a problem. After the battle he was made staff sergeant again.

The Medal of Honor

On September 19, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Staff Sergeant Jennings the Medal of Honor in a White House South Lawn ceremony. In this ceremony the president awarded the Medal of Honor to five servicemen. 

Following the Medal of Honor presentation Jennings spent some time at Letterman General Hospital, San Francisco, recovering from his wounds. He remained in the army, serving in Germany and Panama.

Fort Lewis Years

In the mid 1970s he was assigned to Fort Lewis as a first sergeant. Troops serving under him regarded his leadership highly.

He and other Medal of Honor recipients were honored guests at Jimmy Carter's (b. 1924) inaugural in January 1977. Army promotions continued and he reached the highest enlisted rank, Sergeant Major. His final army position was the important role of Command Sergeant Major 1st Cavalry Division, which he held from July 1983 to February 1985.

Jennings retired in 1985 to Olympia, Washington. He attended a number of Medal of Honor events at the state and national level that included presidential inaugurals and patriotic events. In February 1990 he and 14 other Washington Medal of Honor recipients were honored at the state capitol.

Last Years

In 1992 Delbert Jennings moved to Honolulu. In 2002 he spent some time in Lodi, California, caring for his ailing mother, Etta M. Jennings (1919-2004).

Delbert Jennings died on March 16, 2003, in Honolulu. He was initially buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Punchbowl. His remains were relocated to Arlington National Cemetery. A son continued to reside in Olympia.

Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); S. L. A. Marshall, The Battle for Bird (Nashville, Tennessee: Battery Press, 1983);  "LBJ Urges U.S. To Hold War View," Oregonian, September 20, 1968, p. 11; Walt Evans, "Tami Will Be in Honorable Company,” The Seattle Times, January 19, 1977, p. 10; 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You