Jesse Joseph Peña was born on Jan. 9, 1949, the son of Alvino Henry Peña and Jane Marie Peña of Davenport, Iowa. He was born in Moline, Ill., and graduated from Assumption High School in 1967. He attended Palmer Junior College and Black Hawk College before enlisting in the Navy on June 10, 1968, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Peña, a hospital corpsman, arrived in Vietnam on Oct. 4, 1969, where he was attached to Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division Reinforced Fleet Marine Force.
On Feb. 12, 1970, about five miles from Fire Base Ross, Company B’s 2nd Platoon was moving in a column toward the east along a trail close to the south bank of the LyLy River when the North Vietnamese Army caught the platoon in an ambush. The Marines came under fire from an enemy light machine gun to their front, then automatic weapons fire from the right. Coming out into a small paddy, they met small arms fire which quickly killed two of them and wounded another. Other members of the platoon, including a staff sergeant and two Navy corpsmen, ran into the paddy to aid the first group and were themselves cut down. The rest of the Marines took cover at the edge of the trail and tried to bring rifle, M60 machine gun, and M79 grenade launcher fire to bear on the attackers. The NVA fired only when a Marine tried to move out into the paddy or otherwise broke cover, making it difficult for either platoon to find targets.
Reinforcements and supporting arms broke the deadlock. Company C was dispatched as a reaction force. The fighting continued most of the day when the enemy finally withdrew.
At day’s end, the Marines lost 13 men in the action, and another 13 required medical evacuation. Peña was one of the casualties, killed in action. He risked his own life to save others and was killed while providing aid.
Peña was posthumously promoted to HM3 and awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V,” which was subsequently upgraded to a Silver Star Medal, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action on Feb. 12, 1970.
Peña’s brother, cousin, and an uncle served in the military; they’re all buried at Rock Island National Cemetery in Illinois. Peña’s father, Alvino, had served 18 years in the National Guard and had tried to join the Army for a year to prevent Jesse from being sent to Vietnam. Alvino, the father of 10, wanted to take Jesse’s place in Vietnam but was told he was too old.
We honor the Peña family’s service and sacrifice.