Bridge recommended for Carter County's highest decorated Vietnam veteran

John Thompson • Updated Nov 14, 2017 at 11:01 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The most highly decorated Carter County soldier of the Vietnam War could be gaining another, very local, honor.

The Carter County Highway Committee is considering naming a bridge on U.S. Highway 19E after Command Sgt. Major James C. Gilbert, who was killed in the  war.

Gilbert was credited with saving his helicopter, its crew and his unit’s commanders by exposing himself to enemy fire.

Gilbert was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on March 12, 1969, when he was serving as the sergeant major for the Operations Section of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.

On that day, Gilbert was flying in a UH-1H helicopter above a battlefield near the Pole Kleng area. The helicopter was serving as the command and control aircraft, and on board were Gilbert’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 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.”

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