||Roy Mitchell Wheat, KIA August
|| Born and raised in rural Mississipi,
Roy Wheat (shown here in a 1966-67 photo) was typical of many of the soldiers,
sailors, airmen and Marines who served their country and madr the ultimate
||Slender Mississippian Roy Wheat
believed in what he was doing, and what his country was doing, when he arrived
in Vietnam in March 1967. He was assigned to the 1st Marine Division as a
rifleman (Courtesy of Phil Hearn).
||Roy Wheat's parents, J.C. and
Stella Wheat, receive the Medal of HOnor awarded to their son posthumously
in 1968 for his sacrifice while leading a security team on August
||Also attending the Medal of Honor
ceremony were Marines Vernon Sorenson (left) and Bernard Cannon, whose lives
were saved by Wheat's actions.
Article written by Phil Hearn, published
in the magazine "VIETNAM" -
'You NEVER KNOW Until You TRY'
Marine Lance Corporal Roy Wheat, a Mississippian who earned the Medal Of
Honor in Vietnam, was a common soldier but an uncommon man.
During the course of one year in the mid-1960's, Roy Mitchell Wheat went
from sacking groceries in a small Southern town to a hero's death in the
blood-soaked battlefields of South Vietnam. Wheat was barely 20 years old
when he died fighting on August 11, 1967. By hurling his body onto an
anti-personnel mine that he had accidentally triggered, he saved two fellow
Marines from certain injury and possible death
Although a common soldier, Wheat was not a common man. Twice wounded before
he was killed, he had already shown remarkable courage under fire. Despite
the fact that history eventually may judge the Vietnam War as ill-founded,
Roy Wheat did not choose to reason why. He chose to do-and died.
Roy was the eldest of four sons of hard-working, churchgoing, loving parents-J.C.
and Stella Wheat. Roy and his brothers grew up near the sleepy community
of Moselle in Jones County, Mississippi. His home was located along State
Highway 11, about two miles south of town. J.C. did some farming and worked
for the county as a heavy-equipment operator. Stella supplemented the family
income by working as a seamstress at a nearby garment plant.
Roy and his younger brothers Dale, Wayne and John grew up in the country.
Between attending school and church and doing chores around the family place,
Roy hunted in the surrounding woods and became adept with firearms.
"He couldn't have been more than 10 when he'd go hunt half the night in the
woods by himself," his father remembered in a 1968 newspaper interview. "I
can see him with that little old .410 sliding quiet, not a whisper," in pursuit
of game. "He never had a scared bone in his body-but he would dodge
you to keep from hurting you."
While Roy was getting his early education at Moselle Attendance Center in
1954, the North Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap were
ending French domination of Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. Four years before
Wheat finished the eighth grade in 1963, America had experienced its first
combat death in Vietnam. By the time South Vietnam's President Ngo
Dinh Diem was overthrown and assassinated in an American-orchestrated coup
the following November (the same month President John F. Kennedy was assassinated
by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas), Wheat already was attending South
Jones High School at nearby Ellisville. After dropping out of high
school in 1965, Wheat found a job bagging groceries at the Winn-Dixie supermarket
in Hattiesburg, a larger city two hours north of New Orleans.
"I don't know how to explain it about Roy, but it seemed he wanted to help
everybody," his mother said in 1968. "That sounds funny for a kid that
age, but that's how it was with him ever since I can remember. He used
to carry out groceries at Winn-Dixie on Hardy Street, and later he got to
be produce manager. Everybody liked him. Least I never saw anybody
On March 8, 1965, America committed its first combat troops to Vietnam when
3,500 Marines waded ashore at Da Nang with the announced mission of providing
security for the U.S. air base located there. On April 10, 1965, the
United States sent in Marine reinforcements, and the buildup of American
forces began in earnest. It was, in fact, expanding into a war that
would sweep Roy Wheat out of south Mississippi's piney woods during the course
of the next 18 months and into the killing fields of South Vietnam.
By the end of 1965, General William Westmoreland had 184,000 American troops
in Vietnam and more were on the way. Back in Hattiesburg, grocery sacking
must have seemed a pretty tame occupation to a vigorous, rawboned young man
looking for something more challenging, more adventuresome. Wheat enlisted
in the U.S. Marine Corps on September 19, 1966. Soon afterward, he
was sent off to basic training wiht the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion to
the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.
Roy quicky adapted to t6he rigors of military life and wrote frequently to
his family back home. Thoughts of Vietnam also began to weigh upon
his mind. His letters contain frequent misspellings, but they reveal
the thoughts of a patriotic and unusually compassionate young Marine.
"I am doing fine up hear," he wrote to his mother on October 8. "The
drilling is hard but I like it."
And on October 10, he wrote: "If you are fat you had better stay out
of the Marines, for it's hell for fat people....How is the war in Vietnam
going? I will be over there in approximately 7-9 months after I go
on my 20-day leave to go home."
By November, Wheat was champing at the bits to get home for Christmas while
basking in his newfound identity as a trained fighting man. On November
4, he wrote: "Dad and Mother...Boy, the girls had better watch out
when I hit Moselle and Hattiesburg. I feel real mean. That's
a Marine for you...tuff and expert fighter. I can tear a man's head
off and he won't realize it for about 10 minutes."
On November 13, he reported: "I guess 99 percent of us will be in some kind
of fighting force. In the Marines, you are trained for every kind of
fighting there is. And you are only taught how to kill your enemy before
he gets you.
Even though Wheat was eager to get home for the holidays, he believed deeply
that it was his duty to serve his country. Like many young Americans
of that era, he was imbued with a sense of responsibility, believing that
military service was the price of freedom in a war-torn world. It never
would have occurred to him that America's intervention in Vietnam was anything
other than a just cause.
"I just can't wait to get into civilian clothes again," he wrote in a December
13 letter home from Camp Geiger, N.C. "But I am still proud to wear
the Marine Corps uniform. It shows everybody that you are a simble
of freedom and honor. To many men fought and died for the uniform and
their freedom of living as they wish."
Although he could not have known it, Wheat's 1966 Christmas furlough would
be his last visit wth family, friends and a special girlfriend, Sybil Drennan.
His parents told a newspaper reporter in 1968 that Sybil was the only
girl Roy ever really cared about. She would write to him in Vietnam,
and she also sent him a crucifix for his 20th birthday. It was around
his neck when he died.
But during that 1966 holiday break from the grueling regimen of Parris Island,
Roy was full of himself and proud of his hard-earned status as a Marine.
His father said in the 1968 interview that his normally easygoing son
got into an altercation during Christmas leave when some young locals made
fun of his uniform, which he continued to wear instead of civilian
"The only fistfight we ever heard about him having was when he came home
on furlough, right before he shipped out," J.C. remembered. "Roy went
to a truck stop one night for a cup of coffee. A couple of long-hair
types started making fun of his uniform. He was proud of being ni the
Corps. I don't think those fellows will get another giggle out of a
Following the Christmas furlough, Wheat traveled to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where
he would complete his advanced infantry training. Family members drove
him to New Orleans to catch his flight, and his father walked him to the
As J.C. Wheat recalled in a 1993 video documentary, "He turned around
and looked at me, with tears running down his cheeks. He said, 'Daddy,
I'll se you,' and that was it."
By early 1967, General Westmoreland had 390,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, including
seven divisions, two airborne and two light infantry brigades, an armored
calvary regiment and a Special Forces group. It was the year Westmoreland
attempted to conduct a big-unit war. Wheat was promoted t private first
class in February and sent to Camp Pendleton, Calif., his point of departure
Arriving in Chu Lai in mid-March 1967, Wheat was assigned to duty as a rifleman
with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1stMarine Division. The
young Mississippian was quickly introduced to combat in the field.
In a letter dated March 31, he wrote to his family: "Yesterday (actually
March 27), we swept through a village killing 23 Viet Cong and captured 25
suspects. We lost 1 sargent and one man injured when he stepped on
a booby trap."
In that same letter-revealing the spontaneous battlefield behavior that cut
to the character of the man-Wheat described other fighting that occurred
on March 23. "Boy, I sure did some crazy things when we got hit. I
did some things that if I had thought twice about, I never would have done,
but you have no feeing for them when you load your friends aboard a chopper
all shot up or stepped on a booby trap and torn all to pieces."
Within weeks, Wheat was getting news about the growing antiwar movement back
in the States. He expressed his feelings in an April 5 letter to his
dad: "I heard the Marines were called 'Baby Killers' for killing 14
to 17 yr old boys. Well, the hard-core VC over here range from age
12 to 75 years of age. These kids over here have real guns and real
ammo and they have been taught how to use them very good. People in
the states are crazy. They are sending blood and first aid to Hanoy
and...VC when we had two Marines who died because of the loss of blood. I
had better not here of anyone doing this if I can get my hands on him...It's
not funny when you hear lead go zing by and I have heard a few rounds go
by and I know."
In the letter home the following day, the young Marine was already counting
the months left in his one-year tour, asking his mother to buy him a recording
of "Green, Green Grass of Home," and reminding her that his 20th birthday
was only a few months away. Then Wheat wrote with remarkable insight
for a lad of only 19: "I will be alright over here but they will never
get peace over here, not now or 10 years from now.
The themes of love of family, God and country occur throughout Wheat's letters.
He wanted nothing more than to return to south Mississippi, purchase
land adjoining his parents' property and raise cattle and hogs for a living.
For the most part, his letters tended to shield family and friends
from the gravity of his situation, although many contained graphic accounts
of the realities of war. Letters to Roy from home were filled with
family news and constant admonitions to take care of himself.
In a letter of April 8, Wheat expressed a good-natured pride in his increased
physical prowess, revealed a growing disillusionment with the cause for which
he was fighting and reflected his fatigue, resulting from the strain of combat.
"I have got a whole lot stronger and probably weigh more to," he wrote.
"I even have a few hairs on my chest. How about that. Boy,
this is one place if I get out of I will never come back
to unless I have a high rank or something...it's not worth it over here.
About all we do is sweat and kill all the time."
For Wheat and the other front-line combatants, the threat of instant death
or serious injury was a constant companion. On April 10, he suffered
the first of two battle wounds when a fragment from a mortar round tore a
hole in his helmet and grazed his head as he was bounding from a truck under
enemy fire at Chu Lai. He was removed to the hospital ship USS Santuary,
where he remained under observation for several days because of continuing
dizzines. "Now I can tell you what happened to me which put me
here," Roy wrote his parents from aboard Sanctuary on April 17. "A
mortar round fell not to far from me and my rifle went flying from my hand
and a metal [fragment] from the mortar tore my helmet off my head. I
was luckier than some of my other buddies. Some of them went home in
a box or a coffin."
Wheat's mother was unnerved at the news of her son's wounding, and she wrote
to him in response: "I received your letter that you wrote to me on
the hospital ship and it like to have scared me to death when I got it...Your
daddy like to have went crazy when I read it to him...Roy, we are all praying
for you. Roy, I want you to ask the Lord to help you threw this terrible
war so he can send you back home to us all."
In an April 19 letter, written one day before his discharge from the hospital
ship, Wheat turned the attention away from himself and focused on the plight
of soldiers who had sustained more life-threatening wounds. "I have
seen some Marines here that I don't see how they are living," he wrote.
"Some burned so bad they had to be put in cool water and you can't
touch them for if you did their hide would peal off. This is something
over here, It's like being in a dream over here. Everything don't
Meanwhile, back in the States, massive demonstrations against the war were
commanding national attention. On April 15, protesters in New Yourk
City's Central Park burned 200 draft cards. On April 22, Wheat rejoined
Company K on Hill 55, located about 12 miles south of Da Nang. Farther
north in South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border, in one of the fiercest
battles of the war, U.S. Marines were fending off North Vietnamese attackers
on the hills near the airstrip at Khe Sanh. Wheat received news from
home that his father's brother, Troy Wheat, had lost his battle against cancer,
and he wrote back: "I almost started crying myself, but I have seen
so many of my buddies get killed over here until you just can't cry anymore....I
also read where the preacher from Moselle prayed for me. I am glad
that he did. I am always praying for my dear mother and dad and my
brothers every night." By this tme, Roy was experiencing a recurrence
of dizziness and briefly considered the possibility of a medical discharge.
He wrote home on April 26: "I just can't get to hot over here
or I will start having dizzy spells, but I am going to give it a try and
see what happens. You never know until you try."
Wheat had rejoined his company earlier that day without his seabag, rifle
and billfold, all of which he had lost during the mortar attack that had
nearly claimed his life. He did, however, still have a box of cookies,
candy and chewing gum that had been sent to him by his family, and he shared
those goodies with his buddies.
While Americans back home debated the apparent ineffectiveness of Rolling
Thunder, the U.S. Air Force's saturation bombing campaign against the North,
Roy offered his own front-line perspective; "I know one thing, if the
U.S. stops its bombing of the North, we can hang it up in our wall locker.
Some of those people back in the states that have never been over here
before don't know what in the hell they are talking about. You just
wait until I go back to the States. I am going to take names and kick
ass, show them a little of my hand to hand combat."
In that same letter, written from a post located about 15 miles south of
the DMZ, Wheat became more introspective. He painted a humorous, surreal
picture of the battlefield, writing: "Well, Dad, I just got up and
found me another shade so I could finish this letter. I am a shade
jumper. I jump from one shade to another. There is a hill off
to my front and I am sitting here watching jets dump their bombs. It
is really a sight to watch, just like in the movies."
In a poignant letter of May 18 to Mrs. F.C. Brent, who had been his third
grade teacher back in Moselle, Wheat conveyed some of his feelings about
the Vietnamese people and the war he was immersed in: "Sometimes, it
is not a very pleasant sight over here but I am fighting over here to keep
America free so that the people in the States might keep their freedom and
their rights and to keep these people free over here. These people
are human just like you and me....I wish people in the states could see the
way these people live and what they eat and how many are killed by VC because
they, in a way, are helping us because they want freedom."
Around May 21, Company K moved to Hill 10, which was closer to Da Nang. In
June, Wheat was promoted to lance corporal and given an assignment of leading
a security team. One of the team's responsibilities was to check for
booby traps before other personnel entered an area. He wrote home on
June 16: "Last night [on June 15], I led 4 Marines outside of our perimeter
into a VC area without being spotted or heard." He continued, "After
we got in about 10:30 their were bursts of machine gun fire about 25 feet
to our left and they were firing at our hill and I opened up with my M-16
rifle killing 1 VC and wounding another....I don't mind getting into a fire
fight ever now and then. It makes up for the times that we missed
In a letter to Mrs. Brent on June 27, Wheat wrote about the close relationships
he had developed with fellow soldiers in combat. He also told her about
the pain of seeing many of them die: "Yes, I have got some buddies
over here and I have also lost some good buddies, but I guess it was just
their time to go and the Lord called for them. Yes, it is just like
a big family all living together."
In a June 27 letter to old friend Bobby Joe Strahon, Wheat revealed another
dark side of the war. "Bobby, I just got out of a court," he said.
"I was a witness for one of my buddy for beating a South Vietnamese
farmer to death. He was lucky he got off with not guilty." On
a lighter note, Wheat acknowledged news of Strahon's recent engagement to
be married and added: "Wow, how does it feel...Bobby Joe, I have not
seen a good-looking girl since I left the States. Boy, I can't wait
until I hit the States again."
On July 24 a homesick Wheat celebrated his 20th birthday. It would
be his last. In a letter home that day, he wrote: "Well today
I am 20 years old....I wish I was home for my birthday, but I can't have
everything over here....I will sure be glad when the next 8 months are over
with and I can come home."
In a July 30 letter to Strahon, Wheat wrote that he had been recommended
for a medal becasuse of a recent incident which, once again, revealed his
tendency to put himself at risk for the sake of others. As he casually
described it, "Oh yes, I am a hero to the Marines in Kilo Co. 1st Plt. because
I saved 4 of my buddies from getting blown up by a booby trap."
Wheat also vividly described the horror of combat when he wrote in the same
letter: "I wish you could see me shoot with an M-16. I shot a
VC in the chest and where it came out I could stick my fist all the way through
him." In a postcript, he added: "Here is you a coin from Vietnam.
I took it off a dead VC."
Later that same day, July 30, Wheat was wounded for a second time when a
hand grenade exploded near him. From the Da Nang hospital, he explained
in an August 3 letter home what had happened to him and two other soldiers:
"We was setting up an ambush and Charley threw a grenade and it got
all three of us. One was hit in the face and the other was hit in the
back and I was hit in the right thi. It didn't hurt to bad, all I felt
was a little sting....The doctors couldn't get the schraptnel out so I guess
I will be carrying a little piece of medal around in my tail."
By the time he wrote that letter, however, Wheat's family had already been
informed of his latest brush with death. In a letter to her son, the
last he would receive from home, Stella Wheat wrote on August 2: "I
heard about you being hurt and they told me you would be in the hospital
10 days. I hope they send you home this time....You know that it was
the Lord that pulled you threw....Well son I will close and go to church.
So be real good and let me hear from you. And we will all be
praying for you. With all our love, Mother and family."
|Roy Mitchell Wheat,
who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam in
August 1967, was born 24 July 1947, in Moselle, Mississippi. He attended
Jones County schools in Ellisville, Mississippi, leaving high school, after
two years, in 1965.
In September 1966, he
enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at Jackson, Mississippi. Private Wheat
then reported to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.
He underwent recruit training with the 2d Recruit Training Battalion, after
which he completed special infantry training with the 1st Infantry Training
Battalion, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Upon completion of infantry training,
he was promoted to private first class, February 1967.
Private First Class Wheat
arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in March 1967, and was assigned duty as
a rifleman with Company K, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
His unit participated in numerous combat operations, including Operation
DeSoto, Duc Pho District, Quang Ngai Province; and Operations Webster, Arizona,
Butler and Gem in Quang Nam Province. He was promoted to lance corporal,
While assigned, with two
other Marines, the mission of providing security for a Navy construction
battalion crane and crew operating along Liberty Road in the vicinity of
Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province on 11 August 1967, LCpl Wheat was killed
by multiple shrapnel wounds received when he unintentionally triggered a
well concealed antipersonnel mine.
His medals and decorations
include: the Medal of Honor, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart
with one Gold Star, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service
Medal with two bronze stars, the Vietnamese Military Merit Medal, the Vietnamese
Gallantry Cross with Palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Medal of Honor Citation
Page copied from
UNITED STATES MARINE
CORPS HISTORY DIVISION