“All night long, they're telling us: 'Put on your helmets, Marines. You're gonna die in the morning,' ” recalled Calhoun, who now lives in Scripps Ranch.
The enemy didn't lie. Three-fourths of the men in Calhoun's platoon were killed or wounded. Throughout the battle, the 19-year-old Calhoun alternately aimed grenades at enemy bunkers and bandaged his dying buddies. Twice he passed out from his own wounds, only to wake up and resume the fight.
Today, nearly 42 years later, Calhoun will receive a Silver Star – the nation's third-highest award for combat bravery – during a ceremony at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
Two of Calhoun's platoon mates also were awarded Silver Stars recently. Don Hossack of Kalispell, Mont., received his medal last month, and Tommy Wheeler of Lutz, Fla., will get his April 13.
The presentations follow six years of Pentagon review, through a process approved by Congress to recognize overlooked valor from past wars. The law has been invoked to credit ethnic or religious minorities whose heroism was ignored or initially downgraded. In this case, though, the delay happened because the 1967 battle wiped out so many in Calhoun's chain of command.
“There were very few that remained alive to write up the awards,” said retired Maj. Gen. John Admire, who commanded Calhoun's platoon until shortly before the battle and who ultimately crafted the three Silver Star nominations. “A lot of Marines did a lot of great things, but they never got the recognition they deserved.”
Calhoun's road to Hill 881 started one day in February 1966, when he and seven of his college-football buddies were playing a poker game. They grew angry when they heard an anti-war march outside, and they vowed to join the military. All but one eventually did.
Calhoun, a native of Encino, enlisted in the Marine Corps the next day. Four months later, he arrived for boot camp in San Diego. The first night, a recruit committed suicide in his barracks by slitting his wrists.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Calhoun said.
Assigned that fall to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, he was sent to Vietnam almost immediately. Mike Company saw action from the start.
But nothing matched the battle that came the next spring. The North Vietnamese hoped to lay siege to the U.S. military outpost near Khe Sanh, which was on a vital supply route.
The Marines countered with a series of assaults on the uplands surrounding Khe Sanh that came to be called the “Hill Battles.” They succeeded, but at a frightful cost.
On April 30, 1967, the men of Mike Company set out through the tall grass about 8 a.m. They reached a saddle between two hilltops, and two platoons fanned out across a clearing.