This Green Beret gave his life defending their motto, “De oppresso liber,” in true fashion

There are few elite units in the world’s militaries that pride themselves on protecting human life as much as that of the United States Army’s “Green Berets,” with many of their men laying down their lives to protect their teammates and allies.

In the Vietnam War, Specialist Five John James Kedenburg of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) embodied this ideal after finding himself engaged in a fierce firefight in June of 1968 while conducting a so-called “Bright Light” mission, which involved counterinsurgency operations deep behind enemy lines.

The Brooklyn native had come a long way since joining the army nearly three years prior and had established himself as a great adviser to a long-range reconnaissance team of South Vietnamese guerrillas.

During the mission, the team came under intense enemy fire and were encircled by a battalion-sized element of North Vietnamese troops.

Under fire and at risk of being wiped out, SP5 Kedenburg assumed command of the team and took advantage of violence-of-action to push them through the encirclement. As the team made their way out of ground zero and into the jungle, Kedenburg took up the rear, holding off enemy advances while calling in air units for Close Air Support and extraction.

Holding off the hordes of North Vietnamese, Kedenburg’s ferocity allowed the unit to reach a predesignated landing zone, with only one man going missing in the process.

Upon arrival at the LZ, Kedenburg set his men up in an established perimeter to hold off the battalion until air support could arrive. Utilizing his radio under heavy enemy fire, Kedenburg skillfully directed airstrikes against the enemy in such an effective manner that helicopters were actually able to hover over the LZ and drop extraction slings to lift them out of the hot zone.

As Kedenburg was preparing to hook into his sling, the missing South Vietnamese team member appeared at the landing zone. Ever the selfless man, Kedenburg gave up his sling, volunteering himself to stay behind and hold off the enemy.

When the helicopters began peeling from the LZ, Kedenburg’s men watched in horror as a swarm of NVA soldiers surrounded him. While he killed six more men in the ensuing close quarters battle, Kedenburg was ultimately overpowered and killed.

Kendenburg’s actions exemplify the Green Beret’s motto, “De oppresso liber” (the Latin phrase which translates to “from (being) an oppressed man, (to being) a free one”) to its fullest.

“Sp5c. Kedenburg unhesitatingly gave up his place in the sling to the man and directed the helicopter pilot to leave the area,” sates his MOH citation.  Putting the care of another -in which his SF team was fighting to liberate from Viet Cong oppression- he chose to sacrifice his life to save another.

Units later sent in to find Kedenburg’s body would later report finding Kedenburg’s body seated against a log, with his mangled CAR-15 and ammo bandoleers nearby. The team would engage in yet another firefight just to remove his body.

Twenty-one years of age at the time of his demise, Kedenburg posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart for his actions, his body later interred in New York’s Long Island National Ceremony. His Medal of Honor citation would read that “Sp5c. Kedenburg’s inspiring leadership, consummate courage and willing self-sacrifice permitted his small team to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy and escape almost certain annihilation. His actions reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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