James Gardner was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee on 7 February 1943. He was recruited as a football player for West Point by Coach Tony Bullotta along with a number of other promising talents from Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. He played plebe football as an undersized interior lineman/fullback. He was most notable for his humor, red hair and foot-speed.
Jim attended Dyersburg High School in Dyersburg, Tennessee where he was a star athlete, in the 4-H and sometimes a prankster. Janie Putnam, Jim’s 4-H advisor, recalls a time when rounding up the energetic boys after swimming in a lake observed Jim staying with his friend, Bert, who had reduced swimming ability. Jim accompanied the young boy safely to shore and Janie believes that but for Jim’s action his friend would not have been able to return to shore. It was a good thing Jim stayed with Bert. Burt returned the favor some time later by introducing Jim to his first cousin, Joella, the girl Jim eventually married.
In 1964 Jim joined OCS Class 4-64, 52nd Company (OC), 5th Student Battalion, Fort Benning, Georgia where he excelled in sports and military aptitude. He “maxed” the PT test … twice … and was an excellent marksman with the M-14. He was a star on the intramural flag 4-64 football team (football at OCS was anything but “flag” with the Benning games being just short of semi-pro) justifying the talent Coach Bullotta saw in him 5 years before.
After Airborne training Jim joined the 101st Airborne Division. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 327th Infantry, 1st Brigade in Vietnam. Jim was in operation Gibraltar and shortly thereafter organized and was the first commander of the 1/327 Infantry’s elite Tiger Force. He led the Tiger Force with skill and without fear or concern for his personal safety while always concerned for the safety and well-being of his paratroopers. On his 23rd birthday, 7 February 1966, Jim distinguished himself in combat earning the Medal of Honor while leading his Tiger Force near My Canh. Jim’s platoon sergeant, Phill Belden, wrapped Jim’s body in a poncho liner and then wrapped himself in one next to him and watched over his friend and leader all night until the medevacs were able to land in the morning. Jack Easton was not surprised to hear Jim distinguished himself as he considered Jim one of the most “gun-ho” OCS candidates on record.
The official citation reads: “1st Lt. Gardner’s platoon was advancing to relieve a company of the 1st Battalion that had been pinned down for several hours by a numerically superior enemy force in the village of My Canh, Vietnam. The enemy occupied a series of strongly fortified bunker positions which were mutually supporting and expertly concealed. Approaches to the position were well covered by an integrated pattern of fire including automatic weapons, machine guns and mortars. Air strikes and artillery placed on the fortifications had little effect. 1st Lt. Gardner’s platoon was to relieve the friendly company by encircling and destroying the enemy force. Even as it moved to begin the attack, the platoon was under heavy enemy fire. During the attack, the enemy fire intensified. Leading the assault and disregarding his own safety, 1st Lt. Gardner charged through a withering hail of fire across an open rice paddy. On reaching the first bunker he destroyed it with a grenade and without hesitation dashed to the second bunker and eliminated it by tossing a grenade inside. Then, crawling swiftly along the dike of a rice paddy, he reached the third bunker. Before he could arm a grenade, the enemy gunner leaped forth, firing at him. 1st Lt. Gardner instantly returned the fire and killed the enemy gunner at a distance of 6 feet. Following the seizure of the main enemy position, he reorganized the platoon to continue the attack. Advancing to the new assault position, the platoon was pinned down by an enemy machine gun emplaced in a fortified bunker. 1st Lt. Gardner immediately collected several grenades and charged the enemy position, firing his rifle as he advanced to neutralize the defenders. He dropped a grenade into the bunker and vaulted beyond. As the bunker blew up, he came under fire again. Rolling into a ditch to gain cover, he moved toward the new source of fire. Nearing the position, he leaped from the ditch and advanced with a grenade in one hand and firing his rifle with the other. He was gravely wounded just before he reached the bunker, but with a last valiant effort he staggered forward and destroyed the bunker, and its defenders with a grenade. Although he fell dead on the rim of the bunker, his extraordinary actions so inspired the men of his platoon that they resumed the attack and completely routed the enemy. 1st Lt. Gardner’s conspicuous gallantry were in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.”
We honor you, James Alton Gardner.