The military takes all kinds of people- and that’s a good thing, as the military depends upon all kinds of people to succeed. Sometimes, you need the rank-and-file soldier who will follow orders without question and sometimes the situation calls for those who can think outside the box, even if it means they aren’t very popular most of the time.
Captain Paul Bucha fell into the latter category. A self-proclaimed “loser”, Bucha was the commander of a company in the infamous D Company of the Rakkasans’ 3rd Battalion.
Known as a place where the “second kind of soldiers” -such as writers, intellectuals and problem children- were sent from units that didn’t want them, Bucha remembers them by a different name.
“We were called the ‘clerks and the jerks,'” he recalled. “We were a few smart guys and a lot of badasses … considered the losers of all losers.”
While most new company commanders would be daunted by the idea of commanding such a unit, Bucha felt right at home.
“I, too, was a loser,” Bucha said. “So we were sort of meant for each other. They ended up being a very disciplined, proud, and frightening force.”
It was the leadership of this “loser” Captain and the loyalty of his misfits that would ultimately earn Bucha the Medal of Honor.
On March 16th of 1968, Bucha and his company of eighty-nine miscreants were dropped into the suspected North Vietnamese stronghold near Phước Vĩnh, where D Company spent the next two days clearing out North Vietnamese positions with only light resistance.
However, on the third day of operations, D Company settled down for the night in the dark jungle when they encountered heavy resistance in the lead elements of their formation after firing a few rounds to probe for the enemy.
“The entire mountain returned fire,” Bucha said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.”
With his forward element pinned down, Bucha sprung into action, crawling on his stomach towards his men and destroying an NVA bunker along the way.
“I figured the easiest thing to do was to just blow the tree up,” Bucha said. I just … started throwing hand grenades. When the weapons stopped, I looked around and no one was firing at me. There was a calm, and I’m not sure if the calm was in my mind or if it was actual calm.”
Upon return to his company perimeter, he ordered his men to withdraw, tightening their position into a more defensible stance.
Throughout the night, Buca was rarely in once place at any given time- he could be seen scurrying about under heavy fire as he distributed ammunition, encouraged his men and directed fire support from aircraft and artillery.
Bucha also tricked the North Vietnamese by making his force seem a lot larger than they really were. Assigning every soldier a number, he would call a number on the radio to cue each soldier to throw grenades from their position, giving the illusion of a larger and more potent force.
At one point, an Australian pilot contacted Bucha and offered two drop two 750-pound bombs. When Bucha directed the bombs to some nearby hills, the shockwaves rattled his men.
“We bounced … and when I turned around, my men were all laughing, and I started laughing, and we realized we’re not in this alone,” he said. “[I thought] we might make it.”
At one point, the Captain stood up -exposed to enemy sniper fire- and used flashlights to direct helicopters which were evacuating the wounded as well as coordinating supply drops.
By morning, Bucha and his men breathed with pride and relief as the North Vietnamese melted away from the battlespace. It was only then that he learned they had killed over 150 North Vietnamese, at the loss of only ten of his own men.
To Bucha, these losses -no matter how minimal- were unacceptable.
“Every day of my life, I think back to what I could have done better that night … To bring those 10 [Americans] home,” Bucha lamented.
When bucha later learned that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, he told one of his NCOs that he didn’t deserve it. However, the sergeant told Bucha he would wear that medal on behalf of his men.
On May 14, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon awarded Captain Paul W. Bucha of the 101st Airborne Division with the Medal of Honor.
To this day, Bucha does his very best to try and give back to the military whenever possible. A West Point graduate with Airborne and Ranger school under his belt, Bucha speaks to cadets and servicemembers.
“I try to go somewhere one day a week, 52 times a year, to where troops are.… When I see them and listen to them, I come away grateful…for the privilege to be among them,” he said.
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