Medal of Honor remains elusive for L-13’s Gresko

Gresko’s boot camp graduation photo, 1969.

Supporters hope four decades of denial will be reversed

A HEROIC DEED from 39 years ago continues to inspire Local 13 (Philadelphia) Boilermakers to seek the Medal of Honor for one of their brothers, retired member Richard Gresko.

Fighting in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division, then-Lance Cpl. Gresko, age 20, threw himself on an enemy grenade on March 11, 1970, to save three fellow Marines during a night ambush. The Philadelphia native received the Navy Cross in 1976, the second-highest award for valor a Marine can earn.

But family members, friends, other Marine veterans, and fellow Boilermakers believe Gresko deserves America’s highest military honor. They point to numerous other cases where the Medal of Honor has been awarded to members of the military who cover a grenade with their bodies to shield their comrades. Not only did Gresko leap on the grenade, he continued to fight and to direct his men despite suffering grievous wounds to his torso and legs. Another Marine, just a few miles from Gresko’s unit, also dove on a grenade on the very same night. Like Gresko, Gunnery Sgt. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. survived the ordeal. Kellogg received the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon in 1973.

Military citations describe heroism

IN DECEMBER, 2006, newspaper columnist Jerry Jonas read a prepared statement to the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on behalf of Rich Gresko. He included portions of two military citations for heroic actions during the Vietnam War. The citations describe the deeds of two Marines on the same night, just a few miles apart. One of the Marines was Gresko, the other Gunnery Sgt. Allen J. Kellogg Jr. While Gresko received the Navy Cross for his action, Kellogg received the Medal of Honor.

Jonas argued that the two citations are virtually indistinguishable, concluding that Gresko also deserved the Medal of Honor. The citation excerpts are reprinted below.

Citation 1

“With complete disregard for his personal safety and fully aware of the dangers involved, he unhesitatingly threw himself on top of the grenade, absorbing most of the blast fragments with his own body in order to protect his men from certain injury and possibly death. Although painfully wounded, he continued to direct his men’s actions until the squad made their sweep.”

Citation 2

“He threw himself over the lethal weapon and absorbed the full effects of its detonation with his body, thereby preventing serious injury or possible death to several of his fellow Marines. Although suffering multiple injuries to his chest and his right shoulder and arm, he resolutely continued to direct the efforts of his men until all were able to maneuver to the relative safety of the company perimeter.”

Gresko’s citation is listed first, Kellogg’s second.

Gresko’s supporters believe the military erred by not conferring the higher award to him for actions that went above and beyond the call of duty. They continue to petition the Marine Corps and the Navy for redress nearly four decades later.

Boilermakers learn of Gresko’s heroism

RICH GRESKO WORKED as a construction Boilermaker for 10 years, until 1990, when difficulties from his war wounds and an unrelated injury forced him off the active work list.

He wasn’t one to advertise his military background, said Bill St. John, a retired Local 13 Boilermaker who has become Gresko’s closest friend. “I met Richie on a refinery job in the early 1980s. I liked the way he handled himself, his competence on the tools, and the fact that he never complained [despite being in pain every day]. I didn’t find out until later about Richie’s combat record.”

As word of Gresko’s actions in Vietnam gradually became known, St. John and other members began collecting information and seeking help from politicians. “Our LEAP committee began presenting this information when we lobbied Capitol Hill during our annual conferences,” St. John recalled.

Over the years, a number of U.S. senators and congressmen along with state and local officials have taken up the matter. Most recently, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-8th PA) introduced a bill in the House to authorize Pres. Bush to award Gresko the Medal of Honor. Murphy’s predecessor, Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, had sponsored similar legislation. Neither bill passed Congress.

Local 13 dispatcher Bill Bradley said Boilermakers are encouraged by Rep. Murphy’s involvement. “Since he was elected in 2006, Pat has been a big supporter. We are hopeful that he and Pres. Obama’s new administration can move this along.”

Marine vets fight for Gresko

TWO MARINE VETERANS have also figured prominently in the fight for Gresko’s Medal of Honor. Jerry Jonas, a columnist with the Bucks County, Pa., Courier Times, and a combat veteran with the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War, has written extensively about Gresko’s case.

Dan Fraley, Bucks County’s director of Military and Veterans Affairs, has worked closely with Jonas in compiling research and pursuing Gresko’s case with members of Congress, Marine Corps brass, and the Department of Defense. Fraley served in combat with the 3rd Marine Division during the Vietnam War.

Jonas and Fraley tracked down the two living eyewitnesses who fought alongside Gresko the night he leapt on the grenade. They also located the commanding officer who submitted Gresko for the Medal of Honor the day after the March 11, 1970 firefight.

Jonas then put together a pamphlet titled “No Way to Treat a Hero,” documenting their findings, including an explanation of how Gresko’s Medal of Honor request became pigeonholed as it worked its way up the chain of command.

In December 2006, accompanied by Fraley and Gresko, Jonas testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel. When introduced, Gresko was roundly applauded by high-ranking military officers for his service.

Last year Jonas wrote in a column: “Neither Fraley, [Congressman Patrick] Murphy, nor I have given up on eventually seeing Gresko receive his proper award, and several Marine Corps generals have told me privately that they felt Gresko should have gotten (or should still get) his medal.”

Gresko carries on

TODAY RICH GRESKO lives a quiet life with his wife, Katey, in Newtown, Pa. He still struggles every day with pain from his war wounds. “But it’s okay,” he says. “I did my job. A lot of guys have it a lot worse. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”

For Gresko, life is about responsibility. It’s one of the things he cherished about the Corps. And it’s what he liked best about being a Boilermaker.

“Local 13, those guys really put out [the work]. They always produced. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the close friendships. I’m still proud of being a Boilermaker.”

As to the Medal of Honor, Gresko said the effort of so many on his behalf “is very, very humbling. Sometimes your heart is up in your throat, that these guys are doing that for me. If I would get the medal... it’s not for Rich Gresko; it’s for all those who served. Other people gave so much.”

Rep. Murphy expressed the same sentiment in a letter to Boilermakers. He wrote: “This isn’t just about Sergeant Gresko. It is about all veterans. George Washington once said, ‘The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.’”

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Boilermaker Reporter Issue

Published February 23, 2009

The Boilermaker Reporter

Volume 60, Number 1
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