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By Katie Lange, Department of Defense
Selfless sacrifice is a common theme among Medal of Honor recipients, as many of them give their own lives to save their fellow comrades during war. Army Pfc. Leslie Bellrichard was no exception.
Bellrichard was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Dec. 4, 1941 — three days before America was thrust into World War II — and his life was a struggle almost from the start. His father died in a truck-train collision when he was only 11 months old. A year later, a similar collision killed one of his brothers and severely injured another brother. Their mother, who had been driving them that day, fell into a depression afterward, and eventually county officials took the children away from her.
Bellrichard and one of his brothers bounced around the foster system for years after that. They eventually landed in a good home, but it didn’t last. According to the book "Nine Days in May," by Warren Wilkins, Bellrichard had a breakdown when he was about 12, so he was moved to a children’s home, where he remained until he dropped out of high school and moved to California to be closer to his birth mother, who had relocated there.
Newspaper clippings show that Bellrichard got his GED, taught Sunday school and worked for Lockheed Aviation in San Jose for five years before being drafted into the Army in 1966. He volunteered to go to Vietnam and was sent over to serve with the 8th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion.
The 25-year-old had been in Vietnam for less than a month when he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers.
On May 20, 1967, he and four other men were in a foxhole on their unit’s perimeter when enemy combatants started firing mortars at them. After about 30 minutes, Vietcong troops came at them on the ground.
Bellrichard stood up from the foxhole and threw grenades into a mass of enemy soldiers charging them. The explosions took out several of the enemy and forced the rest to retreat.
It didn’t take long for them to regroup, though, and fire more rockets and mortars before again charging the American soldiers. Bellrichard went back to throwing hand grenades, but just as he was about to heave one that was armed, a mortar landed right in front of him and knocked him backward into the foxhole. Bellrichard lost his grip, and the live grenade fell out of his hands.
Without thinking, Bellrichard threw himself on top of the grenade to protect his fellow comrades in the ditch. It went off.
Amazingly, Bellrichard didn’t die right away. He was seriously injured, but he still managed to sit up and fire his rifle toward the enemy until the wounds became too much. He died a few minutes later.
Bellrichard’s sacrifice and heroism helped the men he was with successfully defend their position. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, which his wife accepted on his behalf in August of 1969.
While Bellrichard spent the last years of his civilian life in California, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in his Wisconsin hometown. His name is inscribed on the Vietnam Wall.