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Carter County heroes to be honored by bridge dedications this weekend

John Thompson • Oct 25, 2018 at 9:51 PM

HAMPTON — Carter County has made a tradition of remembering some of its most heroic and distinguished citizens by naming bridges after them. This weekend, the county will continue that tradition by naming one of its bridges to the man who was the highest decorated Carter Countian who served in the Vietnam War and another bridge after a husband and wife who dedicated their long lives to serving their community.

On Saturday there will be a bridge dedication ceremony conducted for Command Sgt. Maj. James Caroll Gilbert, who received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for his actions on March 12, 1969. Gilbert was credited with saving the helicopter he was riding in, its crew and his unit’s commanders by exposing himself to enemy gunfire.

The bridge to be named in Gilbert’s honor spans Laurel Fork on U.S. Highways 19E and 321. The ceremony had originally been planned to take place at the bridge, but because of predicted rainy weather, the ceremony will begin at nearby Hampton High School at 2 p.m. Saturday.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the audience will proceed to the bridge for the unveiling of the sign.

The second bridge dedication ceremony will be for career educators James William Potter and his wife, Edna Von Cannon Potter. The ceremony will be held at Lower Shell Creek Christian Church beginning at 2 p.m.

Following the ceremony, the new sign honoring the couple will be unveiled on the Main Street Bridge in the village of Roan Mountain.

The Potters had a great love of Roan Mountain and Carter County, which was shown in their many contributions that still continue, such as helping start the Roan Mountain Naturalists Rallies and the Wildflower Tours. The Friends of Roan Mountain established the James and Edna Potter Conservation Award in their honor.

The dedications are events that families of both Gilbert and the Potters have been looking forward to since the Carter County Highway Department first heard the proposals a year ago.

Wanda Marlow, a cousin of Gilbert, said family members will be traveling to the event as well as the son of a veteran who served with Gilbert and spoke of his heroism.

Gilbert was serving as the sergeant major for the Operations Section of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division when he boarded a UH-1H helicopter that was serving as command and control over a battlefield near the Pole Kleng area.

“The family has just learned that J.C. did not have to get on that helicopter, he just got on board to help,” Marlow said.

On board the helicopter were Giblert’s boss, Maj. Albert J. Sheehan, the brigade operations officer, and Col. Hale H. Knight, the brigade commander.

They observed one of the brigade’s units, A Company of the first battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, get pinned down by a North Vietnamese Army force larger than a battalion. Several of the solders were wounded. A medevac helicopter extracted some of the wounded, but had to take off before all were on board because of the heavy enemy fire on the landing zone.

According to Sheehan, Gilbert knew full well the medevac helicopter would not be able to make it into the landing zone and that there were wounded men who needed to get out. Gilbert urged the commander to use the command and control helicopter to get the wounded men.

The pilots made three attempts to reach the landing zone. Sheehan said on each attempt the North Vietnamese small arms and automatic fire was intense and accurate. He said that during this time Gilbert repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to fire on the enemy positions. He was also directing the door gunners to place accurate fire on those positions.

On the third attempt, with the helicopter about 50 feet above the landing zone, enemy fire tore into the plexiglass windshield, narrowly missing the pilot. Sheehan said another automatic weapon wounded the right-side door gunner and his M-60 machine gun was disabled.

Knowing the right side of the helicopter would now be defenseless, Gilbert stepped up his own firing at enemy positions. Sheehan said Gilbert realized that accurate enemy fire was “engaging the pilot and crew, and also narrowly missing the brigade commander.”

In response, Sheehan said Gilbert “moved to completely block the doorway with his own body, thereby protecting the brigade commander and allowing himself to accurately engage two enemy automatic weapons positions. At that instant, CSM Gilbert was hit with a burst of automatic weapons fire and mortally wounded.”

Sheehan concluded by saying “CSM Gilbert’s heroic actions and accurate fire saved the aircraft and most certainly protected his commanders. His concern for the wounded men of A Company, for the safety of his commander, and for the protection of the aircraft crew reflect his courage and devotion to duty.”

Knight said “It was only by his heroism and complete disregard for his personal safety that the aircraft, crew and command group were saved.”

For such action, Gilbert became the only Carter Countian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross during the Vietnam War.

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