Army Maj. John J. Duffy often operated behind enemy lines during his four tours of duty in Vietnam. During one of those deployments, he single-handedly saved a South Vietnamese battalion from decimation. Fifty years later, the Distinguished Service Cross he received for those actions was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Duffy was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 16, 1938, and joined the Army in March 1955 when he was only 17. By 1963, he’d earned his commission as an officer and joined the 5th Special Forces Group as an elite Green Beret.
Duffy deployed to Vietnam four times during his career; in 1967, 1968, 1971 and 1973. It was during his third tour of duty that he earned the Medal of Honor.
In early April 1972, Duffy was a senior adviser to an elite battalion of the South Vietnamese army. When North Vietnamese forces tried to overrun Fire Support Base Charlie in the country’s Central Highlands, Duffy’s soldiers were tasked with holding off the battalion-sized unit.
As the offensive neared the end of its second week, the South Vietnamese commander working with Duffy had been killed, the battalion’s command post was destroyed, and food, water and ammunition were running out. Duffy had been injured twice but refused to be evacuated.
In the early morning hours of April 14, Duffy tried but failed to set up a landing zone for resupply aircraft. Pushing on, he managed to make his way close to the enemy’s anti-aircraft positions to call in airstrikes. The major was wounded a third time by rifle fragments but again refused medical attention.
Shortly after that, the North Vietnamese started blasting the base with artillery. Duffy remained out in the open so he could direct U.S. gunships toward enemy positions to shut down the assault. When that success led to a lull in battle, the major assessed the damage to the base and made sure the wounded South Vietnamese soldiers were moved to relative safety. He also made sure any leftover ammunition was distributed to the men who could still defend the base.
Soon after, the enemy resumed its assault; Duffy continued directing gunship fire on them. By the late afternoon, enemy soldiers started to move onto the base from all directions. Duffy had to move from position to position to adjust counterfire, spot targets for artillery observers and even direct gunship fire on his own position, which had been compromised.
No Man Left Behind
By the evening, it was clear that Duffy and his men would be overrun. He started organizing a retreat, and, under the code name Dusty Cyanide, he continued calling in gunship support for cover fire and was the last man to leave the base.
Early the next morning, the enemy ambushed the remaining South Vietnamese soldiers as they retreated, causing additional casualties and scattering the able-bodied men. Duffy set up defensive positions so his soldiers could push the enemy back. After, he led the remaining men — many of whom were seriously injured — to an evacuation area, even as the enemy continued to pursue them.
Once they got to the evacuation site, Duffy again directed gunship fire on the enemy and marked a landing zone for the rescue helicopters. Duffy refused to get on one of the choppers until all the other men were onboard. According to an account of the evacuation in the San Diego Union Tribune, as Duffy balanced on a strut of his helicopter while it pulled away, he saved a South Vietnamese paratrooper who had begun to fall out of the helicopter, grabbing him and pulling him back in. He then helped a helicopter door gunner who had been wounded during the evacuation.
An Upgraded Honor
Duffy initially received the Distinguished Service Cross for the actions described above; however, that honor was recently upgraded to the Medal of Honor. With his brother, Tom, by his side, the now-84-year-old Duffy received the nation’s highest award for military valor from President Joseph R. Biden during a White House ceremony on July 5, 2022.
“It seemed unfathomable that some 40 men with no food, water or ammunition could still be alive amidst the swarm of enemy fighters,” Army Gen. Joseph M. Martin, the vice chief of staff of the Army, said during the ceremony. “It was Major Duffy’s many heroic acts, including calling for strikes on his own position to allow his battalion to retreat, that enabled the escape. Major Duffy’s Vietnamese brothers … credit him with saving their battalion from complete annihilation.”
Three other Vietnam War service members received the medal at the same time as Duffy; Army Spec. 5 Dennis M. Fujii, Army Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro and Army Spec. 5 Dwight Birdwell.
From Warrior to Poet
Duffy retired in May 1977. During his 22 years of service, he received 63 other awards and decorations, including eight purple hearts.
The major moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., after his retirement and eventually met and married a woman named Mary. As a civilian, he was the president of a publishing company before becoming a stockbroker and founding a discount brokerage firm that was eventually bought out by TD Ameritrade.
Duffy also became a poet, detailing some of his combat experiences in his writings as a way to pass the stories along to future generations. Many of his poems are posted online. The major has written six books of poetry and was once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
One poem Duffy wrote, called “The Forward Air Controller,” was inscribed on a monument in Colorado Springs, Colo., to honor the sacrifices of forward air controllers. According to Duffy’s website, he also wrote a requiem that he delivered during the monument’s dedication ceremony. That requiem was later added in bronze to the monument’s centerpiece.
A fellow former soldier, retired Army Col. William Reeder Jr., wrote “Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill in Vietnam,” a book that details Duffy’s exploits during the 1972 battle.
According to Duffy’s website, he was a founding member of the Special Operations Association and, in 2013, was inducted into the Infantry OCS Hall Of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.