Feature   Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Cpl. Larry Smedley

Dec. 21, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

On the 106th anniversary of Congress authorizing the Medal of Honor for sailors and Marines, young Marine Corps Cpl. Larry Smedley earned it by giving his life to protect his comrades in Vietnam. 

A man in a uniform and a cap looks at the camera.
Marine Corps Cpl. Larry E. Smedley
Marine Corps Cpl. Larry E. Smedley, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 201211-M-ZZ999-058

Smedley was born on March 4, 1949, in Front Royal, Virginia. When he was young, his family moved him and his two siblings to Georgia before settling in Union Park, Florida, just outside of Orlando. Smedley's family said he was really interested in the military, so, in 1966, the 17-year-old dropped out of high school and joined the Marine Corps. 

Smedley first served as a rifleman and fire team leader with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. By July 1967, he was in Vietnam. Two months into his deployment, Smedley was promoted to corporal and served as a rifleman and squad radioman with Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. 

On the evening of Dec. 21, 1967, Smedley led a six-man squad to an ambush site at the mouth of an area known as Happy Valley near Phuoc Ninh, west of the vital Da Nang military complex. During the night, they noticed about 100 enemy fighters carrying 122-mm rocket launchers and mortars toward a hill that was within range of the complex.

Realizing the enemy was about to launch an attack on Da Nang, Smedley immediately radioed for a reaction force; he then maneuvered his men to a better position so they could attack the enemy – even though they were outnumbered 15 to 1. 

A man leans against the side of a dirt embankment.
Defensive Position
A unit from Battalion Landing Team 1/4 establishes a night defensive position in the middle of a broad expanse of muddy rice paddies in Vietnam during Operation Deckhouse VI in 1967. The Marine in the foreground has obtained a non-issue rifle, which rests against a pack on the ground.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 201211-M-ZZ999-059

The squad quickly drew heavy machine gun fire, wounding several of the men. At the same time, an enemy grenade exploded, knocking Smedley to the ground and seriously hurting his right foot. He ignored the injuries and struggled to his feet while shouting encouragement to his men. 

Smedley then led a charge toward the enemy machine gun emplacement, firing his rifle and throwing grenades until he was again knocked to the ground by enemy fire.

By this point, Smedley was gravely wounded. He was losing a lot of blood and getting weak, but he refused to give up. He stood up and proceeded to single-handedly attack the machine gun nest, which he managed to destroy. Unfortunately, he was struck a third time by enemy fire and died on the spot. 

Smedley's body was returned home, and he was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Two men in combat gear crouch down near a shelter’s opening.
Operation Arizona
A peasant family’s bomb shelter provides a place for a machine gun team from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines to set up to provide cover fire for infantrymen searching a village during Operation Arizona, one of the many searches conducted by the 1st Marine Division to maintain control over the populated areas south of Da Nang, Vietnam.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo
VIRIN: 201211-M-ZZ999-060

Although he was only 18 at the time, Smedley managed to inspire his injured comrades into action to thwart the enemy, despite certain death. Those actions earned him the Medal of Honor on June 20, 1969. His family received the medal from President Richard Nixon during a White House ceremony. 

Smedley's home state of Florida has not forgotten him. The Cpl. Larry E. Smedley National Vietnam War Museum (formerly the National Vietnam Veterans War Museum) in Central Florida was renamed in his honor in 2000. In 2004, a nearby section of highway was also named for him. 

Various other roads and facilities throughout the country have been named in Smedley's honor. Perhaps the biggest honor, however, came in 2008 when Orange County Public Schools awarded him an honorary diploma. 

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