Military and Defense

Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Capt. James A. Graham

Marine Corps Capt. James Albert Graham could have fled to safety with the rest of his company during a firefight in Vietnam. Instead, he chose to stay behind with a comrade too injured to move. Knowing he wouldn’t survive, Graham gave his life so a fellow Marine wouldn’t have to die alone. His leadership and bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.  

Graham was born on Aug. 25, 1940, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. After his parents divorced when he was still small, he moved with his father to Accokeek in southern Maryland.  

As he grew up, he helped his father run their own grocery store and gas station, but he wasn’t happy there and constantly fled back to his mother’s family in western Pennsylvania, only to be brought back to Maryland by his father, according to a detailed profile on Graham’s life from the Frostburg State University Foundation.  

According to the profile, when Graham was 15, he took his father’s car and drove to El Paso, Texas, where he lied about his age to enlist in the Army. His father eventually figured out where he was and went to get him, but by that point, Graham had already served nearly two years on active duty as an officer’s secretary.  

When Graham returned home with his father, he got his GED certificate before attending FSU in western Maryland. Graham was a member of the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity who earned good grades, even while working a full-time job at a local supermarket. During his college career, Graham also spent two years with the District of Columbia National Guard, a year with the Army Reserve and two years with the Marine Corps Reserve, respectively.  

 

It was during this time that Graham also met his future wife, Janice Pritchett. She introduced him to the Baptist church, which led Graham to become a born-again Christian, the FSU Foundation said. The couple married in February 1962. 

About a year and a half later, Graham graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. According to the FSU Foundation, he received honors as the top student in that field.  

On Sept. 30, 1963, Graham accepted a regular appointment to the active-duty Marine Corps. By Nov. 1, 1963, he had earned his commission. Graham then enrolled in flight school, but his wife said he couldn’t get past the airsickness, so he had to find another path forward.  

By this point, the couple had two children, a boy named John and a girl named Jennifer.  

In January 1965, Graham was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. That April, he was part of a team that was sent to the Dominican Republic after an uprising in the Caribbean country’s capital, Santo Domingo, threatened the lives of Americans living and working there.  

In December 1966, a then-Capt. Graham was sent to Vietnam with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Initially he commanded Company H before switching to command Company F in January 1967.  

According to the FSU Foundation, Graham was known to be a strict disciplinarian, but one whom troops respected. He often led his company in prayer and sometimes held eulogies for those killed in battle.  

“He was born to lead others in war,” a fellow Marine once wrote, according to the FSU Foundation.  

In late May 1967, the 5th Marine Regiment launched Operation Union II, a search and destroy mission that led Graham’s unit to the Quang Tin Province. On June 2, several of the regiment’s units launched an attack against an enemy-occupied position.  

Company F helped lead the charge. As it proceeded across an open rice paddy about 1,000 meters wide, it came under heavy mortar and small-arms fire, which killed and injured several Marines. The second platoon in Graham’s company was the hardest hit, having been pinned down out in the open by two concealed machine gun nests.  

Graham did what he could to help. He gathered 10 men and led a fierce assault through the pinned-down unit’s position, forcing the enemy to abandon one of the machine guns. The victory relieved some of the pressure on the platoon and allowed those who were injured to be evacuated.   

Graham’s men were hoping to take out the second machine gun, too, so they stood their ground in the hard-won enclave they had taken over and continued to fight. According to Graham’s Medal of Honor citation, he was injured twice during this time, but he also managed to kill about 15 enemy combatants.  

Eventually, however, the constant and heavy fire raining down on them took its toll, and Graham had to call for his team to fall back to safety. He, however, chose to remain at their location with a critically injured lieutenant who couldn’t be moved. 

In his last radio transmission, Graham reported being assaulted by a force of at least two dozen enemy soldiers. He died while protecting himself and the wounded man he refused to leave behind.  

Graham’s efforts that day kept the company’s second platoon from being annihilated. For his leadership and sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 29, 1968. His wife received it from Navy Secretary Paul R. Ignatius during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Graham was subsequently buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  

Graham’s children were very young when he died, but they said their mother kept his legacy alive for them.  

“We were very fortunate that our mother made him an active part of our lives,” Jennifer Graham said in 2003, recalling the stories and photos that her mother shared. “So many families handled it differently, and many children grew up in homes where they didn’t talk about it.” 

They decided to follow in their father’s footsteps. John Graham joined the Marines and became a helicopter pilot. Jennifer Graham attended the Air Force Academy and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1999, the pair went to Vietnam to find where their father had died. While there, they buried a time capsule in his memory, according to the FSU Foundation.  

In the 1980s, Graham Hall at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, was named in the fallen captain’s honor. A highway interchange in western Pennsylvania was also named for him in 2002. 

Graham’s Medal of Honor is located at the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  


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.

Source: Department of Defense

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Katie Lange

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