Gilbert is the only Carter County soldier to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in the Vietnam War. The second-highest award that can be given to a soldier for extraordinary heroism was posthumously awarded to Gilbert for his action on March 12, 1969, when he was aboard the command and control UH-1H helicopter of Col. Hale H. Knight, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division at a battlefield near the Pole Kleng area.
Gilbert urged his boss, brigade operations officer Albert J. Seehan, and Col. Hale to try and maneuver the helicopter near the landing zone while it was under automatic weapons fire in order to rescue wounded soldiers even after a medevac helicopter had been unable to get to the wounded men.
The command and control helicopter made three attempts to reach the wounded men. Seehan wrote in the citation for the medal to Gilbert that during these three attempts Gilbert repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to fire on 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 Plexiglas windshield, narrowly missing the pilot. Sheehan said another automatic weapon wounded the right-side door gunner and his M-60 Lima machine gun was disabled.
This meant the right side of the helicopter was now defenseless. Sheehan wrote that Gilbert realized that accurate enemy fire was now “engaging the pilot and crew, and also narrowly missing the brigade commander.”
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 died a few years ago, but his son, Patrick C. Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, was able to attend Saturday’s ceremony for Gilbert.
The son of Gilbert’s last boss addressed the audience Saturday and told them how meaningful this was to him. Even though he had never met Gilbert, the younger Sheehan said the sergeant major was among his first memories.
“He was a wonderful man…Command Sgt. Major Gilbert was a name I have known from my first memories,” the younger Sheehan said. His father told him about what kind of a man Gilbert was and about his ultimate sacrifice.
There was another speaker who did know Gilbert on that fateful day in Vietnam. Tom Finch told the audience he was just a 19-year-old soldier during that time, but Gilbert had made a large impression on him.
Finch said he had on piece of advice he gave when soldiers would gripe about things. He said Gilbert would look at them and say “do your job.”
He felt that if everyone just stopped worrying about things beyond their control and just concentrated on doing their job the best they could, things would work out.
Finch said that was what the sergeant major was all about, just doing his job the best he could. Finch said the day he was killed in that helicopter, “he was just doing his job.”
Sue Gilbert Cooper, a niece of Gilbert, spoke for the family about what a good man he was with the family, who called him J.C. She said the family last saw him when he came home for his mother Bertha’s death in April 1968. He would die less than a year later. His father, Eller, would die only a month after his son. All three lie together in Elk Mills Cemetery.
For many Carter Countians, the job they had to do Saturday was to honor this hero from Carter County. State Sen. Rusty Crowe and state Rep. Matthew Hill talked about the pleasure they had in getting the state legislature to honor Gilbert with a bridge on U.S. Highway 19E/321 named for Gilbert.
Carter County Mayor Rusty Barnett read the resolution passed by the Carter County Commission. “Sgt. Major Gilbert was a true American hero and bravely sacrificed his life for his country,” Barnett read from the resolution.
The Carter County Honor Guard presented an American flag to the family, fired a rifle salute and performed taps.
Following the ceremony, the crowd gathered by U.S. Highway 19E/321 where the bridge crosses Laurel Fork to unveil the sign proclaiming the bridge as the “CSM James Caroll Gilbert Bridge.”