Aston Residents Pens Letter that Leads to Congressional Medal of Honor for Fellow Soldier
by Loretta Rodgers
Aston resident John “Mac” MacFarland fought back tears as President Barack Obama recently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to 24 U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Of the 24 individuals recognized with this country’s highest award for valor in action, only three are still living. And when one of the three, Sgt. Santiago Jesse Erevia, proudly accepted his medal, MacFarland was finally able to put his greatest demon to rest.
It was MacFarland, who in 1969, was assigned the task of writing the recommendation that eventually was used as the basis for Santiago finally receiving what MacFarland thought should have been bestowed 45 years ago. “This has haunted me for the past 45 years,” said MacFarland. “I lost many nights sleep wondering if I missed something. Maybe my letter of recommendation wasn’t written well enough. There were times I really thought it was my fault that Jesse didn’t receive what we all knew he rightfully deserved.”
MacFarland was a 23-year-old private who had been drafted into the U.S. Army on his birthday in 1968. At the time he was attending the Pennsylvania Military College studying for a degree in engineering. Erevia, also 23, who hailed from Nordheim, Texas, was a 10th grade high school drop-out who enlisted in the Army after working as a cook.
Both men served in Charlie Company with the 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. “I remember Jesse, looked up to him and respected him,” said MacFarland. “When asked, Jesse said he didn’t remember me. That was not unusual, because Jesse had been in Viet Nam for several months before I arrived. The guys who were in country longer had a tendency to associate only with other guys who were there for the same length of time. They were hesitant to become friends with the new arrivals for fear the friendship would be short lived due to inexperience.”
MacFarland and his squad were in the A Shau Valley on St. Patrick’s Day 1969 patrolling village areas and rice paddy’s, watching for North Vietnamese soldiers coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail heading to South Vietnam. His division was on their way to join the battle of Hamburger Hill when they were diverted and flown to Tam Ky, south of Da Nang, where a fierce battle was taking place.
It was there he encountered Erevia, a radio telephone operator.
MacFarland remembers the events of May 21, 1969 like they happened yesterday. He said at about 4 p.m.,his unit was ordered to engage the enemy to allow time for the dead and wounded to be evacuated. While firing his weapon knee deep in a rice paddy, a fellow soldier got shot and MacFarland went to aid of his friend. “It was at that time Erevia came over, dropped the radio, and asked if we had extra ammo,” MacFarland recalled. “The wounded soldier gave him his M-16 rifle, rounds of ammunition and hand grenades. It was the last time I saw Jesse until later that evening, but I heard of his bravery.”
According to eye witnesses and statements, while under heavy fire, Erevia was able to make it across the rice paddy, where he and Sgt. Patrick Diehl took cover. Diehl was shot and Erevia sprung into action. He ran toward an NVA bunker and tossed a grenade. He continued to a second and third bunker and in MacFarland’s words “took out all three bunkers.” MacFarland said after using all of the grenades he had, Erevia went to a fourth bunker shooting two rifles, and killed an NVA soldier at point blank range. “Captain David Gibson, our company commander, and others were pinned and taking heavy fire,” MacFarland said. “If it had not been for Jesse, they would most likely not have made it out of there.”
Certainly on that day and time MacFarland had no idea the role he would eventually play in Erevia’s future. Prior to the battle, MacFarland had been at the base camp, where he had the opportunity to meet the soldiers responsible for writing letters of commendation. While there, he was told that one soldier would be leaving and asked if he could write. Not thinking about it any longer, MacFarland was surprised when he got called to the rear to serve as battalion clerk. “I remember when Jesse’s nomination came through,” said MacFarland. “The other clerk told me to write the recommendation for the Medal of Honor because I was there at the battle.”
It was Lieutenant Don Gorley who initially nominated Erevia and Captain David Gibson who approved the recommendation. MacFarland, keenly aware of the awesome responsibility he had been assigned, took a few days to write the recommendation, then forwarded it up the chain of command to the division. “The letter was returned asking for more information like maps of the battle area, eyewitness accounts and statements,” MacFarland said. “I re-wrote the entire thing and sent it back.”
MacFarland was sure that Erevia would be selected because of his incredible act of bravery, but as time went on and months turned to years, the prospect dimmed. “I never forgot,” MacFarland said. “Jesse deserved to be recognized. When I would attend company reunions, I brought the letter and asked guys to read it, just to see if I left anything out.”
MacFarland returned to Aston in 1970 to the home built by his grandfather in 1929, where he still resides. And Erevia returned to Texas, but MacFarland never forgot Jesse nor did he forget the letter of recommendation. “I was up visiting friends in the Poconos when I received a call from my longtime friend, our Company Battalion photographer, Don Kelsen,” said MacFarland. “Don told he that Jesse was going to finally receive the Congressional Medal of honor. I felt so proud and I was very happy to get that ghost off my back.”
Established during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,471 individuals. The recipient must have distinguished themselves at the risk of their own lives and go beyond the call of duty against an enemy of the United States. Erevia’s was one of 6,000 recommendations reviewed during a 12 year Pentagon examination ordered by the U.S. Congress to see if possible recipients were overlooked due to ethnic or religious discrimination.
The 24 recipients, honored last Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, marked the single largest group recognized since World War II. Erevia, Sgt. Jose’ Rodela and Green Beret Melvin Morris, all veterans of the Vietnam War, are the three living recipients of the prestigious medal. With family members looking on, the others were awarded posthumously.
MacFarland, who was born and raised in Aston, and was among the first graduating class at Sun Valley High School, said he’d be remiss if he did not thank his high school English teachers, Charles P. Yeagley and Patricia Muldoon, for teaching him the principles of English composition and proper writing techniques.
MacFarland, an Eagle Scout, had been actively involved in scouting his entire life. Retired from teaching science in the Haverford School District, he enjoys bird watching and attending his company reunions. “Jesse and I have corresponded via letters and we are supposed to meet up at our upcoming reunion in November in Key Largo, Florida,” said MacFarland. “That’s one I surely won’t miss. I am looking forward to seeing Jesse again and shaking his hand.”