West Point Grad Saved Others, Sacrificing Himself in Vietnam

By Katie Lange
Department of Defense

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor. 

You might be surprised to learn that some service members volunteered for more than one tour of duty in Vietnam, but several did, including Army Lt. Col. Andre Lucas. He lost his life during that second tour, but he saved a lot of other men and earned the Medal of Honor.

Army Lt. Col. Andre Lucas. Army photo

Lucas was born in 1930, so much of his childhood was spent watching World War II unfold. He wanted to join the service and enlisted out of high school. Lucas eventually went to West Point, where he graduated in 1954 and began serving in the same Army company that his father had commanded in World War I.

Lucas made a name for himself quickly, serving as a unit leader overseas and as an aide to Fort Benning’s deputy commander before heading back to West Point to become a tactical officer. When Lucas first deployed to Vietnam in the mid-1960s, he advised a battalion of Vietnamese soldiers and earned his first Silver Star (he would later get another).

When Lucas returned home, he rose through the ranks to become one of the most promising infantry officers in the Army. He wasn’t slated to go back to Vietnam, but in the fall of 1969, he decided it was his duty to lead a battalion in combat. So, he volunteered, despite his wife’s objections.

Lucas was in command of a battalion in the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord, a fight that was a hidden chapter of the Vietnam War for decades. It took place in the A Shau Valley, which was a key strategic focal point for the North Vietnamese Army. In early 1970, Lucas’ battalion and several others were sent there to try to diminish NVA supply bases in the region. They set up Fire Support Base Ripcord, but it often come under attack by enemy forces.

Those forces became overwhelming by July 1970. The small number of U.S. forces at the base were heavily outnumbered and forced to fight off the North Vietnamese for three weeks.

Army Lt. Col. Andre Lucas.

Lucas went above and beyond the call of duty to try to stop the NVA’s advance, at one point flying in a helicopter for three hours at treetop level while directing company fire on an enemy entrenchment. The chopper was heavily damaged, but he didn’t land until the company had used all of its grenades. Lucas then switched helicopters and dropped more grenade supplies down to that company before again directing their fire from above. His efforts kept the company from being surrounded and wiped out.

On a different occasion, Lucas was part of a rescue crew trying to extract an American trapped in a burning helicopter. As the fire began to spread and the enemy attack became more intense, Lucas ordered his unit to evacuate while he stayed behind to continue the rescue until the fire grew too intense and engulfed the aircraft.

On July 23, 1970, 101st Airborne Division leaders ordered a full withdrawal of Ripcord, sending every aircraft they could to get the remaining men out. Lucas was in one of the last helicopters out of the base when he was hit by an artillery round that killed him.

His actions throughout July 1970 not only saved several of his men, but they inspired them as well. He was posthumously given the Medal of Honor on July 17, 1974.

The Battle of Fire Base Ripcord marked the last major combat operation involving U.S. forces in Vietnam, and it was also one of the deadliest. In one day alone – the day before Lucas died – 14 Americans were killed and 56 were wounded.

While Lucas didn’t survive, he left an indelible mark on the Army.

During his first Vietnam tour, the rapid development of helicopter gunships happened in part because of an incident involving him and his troops. As his unit was surrounded by Viet Cong, Lucas radioed to a flight of U.S. helicopters passing overhead and talked them into firing small arms at the enemy forces. It was apparently the first attack of that kind, and it caused the Viet Cong to withdraw.

In 1993, Lucas was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame, and a computerized training field and elementary school were named after him. In 2006, as a 50th reunion gift to the U.S. Military Academy, the Class of 1954 opened the Andre Lucas Military Heritage Center at West Point.

Thank you for your hard work and sacrifice, Lt. Col. Lucas!

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West Point Grad Saved Others, Sacrificing Himself in Vietnam