Thursday, March 20, 2014

RIP: Colonel Ola 'Lee' Mize, US Army, Medal of Honor

I just learned through the site WeaponsMan, an excellent web log with a focus on (though not limited to) weapons and related topics from the perspective of a retired Special Forces 18B, that a legend in the Army SF community has passed on – retired Colonel Ola 'Lee' Mize of Alabama, at the age of 82.

I had thought, if it had occurred to me, that he would have already passed away.  The colonel was before my time and from a different neighborhood (I was of the Naval Service though I often crossed paths with SF and Fort Bragg) but I was aware of his story and his lingering influence, noted professionally as a former chief of the Advanced Training Committee (HALO, Scuba, and the extinct Skyhook) in what is now the JFK Special Warfare Center and School (I suppose they still call it the 'Swick'), and was the father of the Army Combat Divers Qual Course at Key West.

The fame of Colonel Mize peaked yet plateaued early in his career.  Son of an Alabama scratch farmer, he joined the Army as soon as he could, though it took several attempts (too small, re-created birth certificate).  With World War II over by then, he did the best he could, considering the times, by joining the 82nd Airborne Division.  He was about to leave the Army at the end of his enlistment to attempt higher education when he heard of the outbreak of the Korean War.  He re-enlisted instead in order to have a chance at combat, and soon found himself on the evening of 10 June 1953 in the 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division at Surang-ni, Korea as a 21-year-old sergeant.

SGT Mize's squad was assigned an outpost on high ground some 320 yards from the Chinese lines.  As he relates it, he questioned his superiors about the large amounts of vehicular activity on the Chinese side that he could hear at night.  They replied (as if he didn't already know) that the trucks were standard re-supply for the Chinese troops, but Mize protested that the numbers were high – 50 to 100 a night.  He strongly suggested some artillery interdiction fire but that wasn't acted upon by that night.

Late that night, as he was checking on his unit's dug-in positions, one of his soldiers told him that the bushes to his immediate front seemed to have increased in number.  The two carefully studied them in the darkness and prudently opened fire, which kicked off a huge Chinese assault on his position that lasted throughout the night.

The entire unit was immediately engaged in close-quarters combat between the rolling artillery rounds that the Chinese rained down on the position.  Moving throughout his squad's coverage, Mize and his troops fought and repelled successive Chinese assaults.  He rescued one his wounded men from a fighting hole with the help of his Medic.  Later in the battle, he turned to see that Medic attacked by six Chinese soldiers.  Before he could reach the spot, the Chinese killed the soldier and Mize, as he says, "returned the same favor".

Mize and his men had to move from bunker to bunker, giving the impression to the Chinese that there were more soldiers and to evade the artillery that kept coming in waves.  Throughout the night, when not repelling assaults, they were clearing out the bunkers of Chinese stay-behinds.  Artillery and grenade rounds continued to land close, and three times Mize was so blasted that he thought he was dead.

Soon into the battle, he came upon one of his BAR men swinging his weapon like a club, with bandoleers of ammunition around his neck.  After shooting the attackers, Mize yelled at the man to load his weapon and use it "the way it was intended".  That was when he was told that the position had been supplied with the wrong ammunition – plenty of .30 caliber rounds for Mize's carbine, but none of the .30-06 rounds for the BARs and M-1s for the troops.  Mize, who had lost count of the Chinese soldiers he had killed up to that point, said that was when he really became "hostile".  Proper attention to the needs of his troops became his major calling for all his career thereafter.  He chose a commanding position and had a few troops continually loading his magazines with his unfortunately unique surplus ammunition so that he could pour constant fire into the enemy.

By the early light of the next morning, the Americans were slowly pushed off the hill but Mize organized a counterattack that retook the position with the assistance of an ample supply of grenades.  Once reinforced and the attack broken off, his position consolidated, Mize was finally able to shuffle back to report to the company HQ.  His face burnt, his uniform shredded from the artillery barrage, with a smoking flak jacket, he reported to one of the officers, who asked who he was.  When Mize replied, the officer said, "You're not Mize.  He's dead."

His actions that night were indicative of his qualities, and he was quickly promoted to master sergeant.  That was the rank he held when he received the Medal of Honor some fifteen months after the battle.

That would be enough action to last a lifetime for some men, but it just re-confirmed Mize's calling.  He entered the new Special Forces soon thereafter and received a commission.  He later spent three tours in Viet Nam with 5th Special Forces Group, his last being as a commander of a Cambodian Mobile Strike Force that earned him a Silver Star.  By the time that he retired in 1981 as a colonel, he had also earned two Legions of Merit, five Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart.

WeaponsMan has thoughtfully found and posted an interview with Mize in his later years, recounting his experiences.  It is worth listening to, not the least for the down-home modesty of the man.  When he was initially informed of the Medal of Honor, he first turned it down, saying that it should go instead to his platoon.  It is a refreshing humility and draws me to him as a leader even more.  I have no doubt that he was exacting (he had that reputation) but he gives you that desire to live up to his expectations.

I never had the privilege of meeting the colonel, but I knew him by reputation, hearing some of my Army compatriots speak quite well of him.  Hearing his testimony above, now, brings back a faded memory that involved him, and clarifies and sharpens my reaction to it.  I was perplexed and vexed one night when I heard a small coterie of the older members of the community, relaxing with some adult beverages at the Rathskeller at the Fort Bragg O Club, only slightly aware that they were speaking blasphemy, nevertheless deride him as a "cowboy", a hick who succeeded through sheer determination because he couldn't have been real smart, not like ('you know') a college graduate or someone from the northeast.

That has stuck in my craw ever since, that and many other examples but this is the one that typically comes to mind, and not so much because I'm from Texas and rode fence for a brief time in my younger years.  The arrogant effrontery of the Anointed gnaws away, those who extol how enlightened they are with their appeal to toleration but only for the right people, like their own, but not so much for Asians, and all those Germans are militaristic, and everybody in the South is a racist.  All Southern characters on television must be played by an actor or actress (it's still a word) from Connecticut, with an atrocious imitation of a drawl, a sure-fire sign that they can't be too bright.  These pop critics don't have a chip on their shoulder so much as they have a plank in their eye.

But for the good colonel, he fought the good fight and has gone to his deservéd reward.  God rest him.


  1. Good stuff, thanks. Never heard of him before, though I, too, went through the JFK school at Bragg. Could be I didn't pay sufficient attention. The weapons training was fun, but I was asleep half the time in the classes on filling out Vietnamese supply forms. Got to VN and never saw a single one of them. So it was just as well.

    1. He wasn't what you would call a legend per se, but I was with some folks who remembered him with a great degree of respect, except for that one instance of social commentary with the 3 or 4 straphangers at the next table. I don't even know if they were in or even associated with SF, but it stands to reason that they weren't -- that's how these things typically go.

      Your comment about the emphasis on forms that turned out to be absent in truth reminds me of any number of instances during my several and varied stints with foreign forces, wherein I was the obvious liaison with US forces as they stopped by for bilateral training or operations. Each one of them had the straight scoop on how some system or policy worked that was inevitably different from the next batch that showed up.

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