The Hero Who Never Was
Jim Capers fought in some of the most savage battles in Vietnam. Many believe he’s the ultimate Marine. But does he deserve the nation’s highest award for valor?
In late January 1967, a team of elite Marines belonging to the Third Force Reconnaissance Company dropped one by one from a CH-46 helicopter into the cold and rain-soaked jungle near the border of Laos in central Vietnam. They were some 20 miles behind enemy lines. Among them were Captain Ken Jordan, a rangy Texan with sandy blond hair, and his assistant patrol leader, Second Lieutenant James Capers Jr., the only black commando on the team. Eight other Marines, an interpreter, and a Viet Cong defector rounded out the group.
Their mission was risky, handed down from the CIA: The defector claimed that four American POWs were being held in a Viet Cong prison camp, and the Marines were charged with getting them out.
As the noise of the chopper grew faint, the commandos silently proceeded through the jungle. After three days, they located the camp. It was abandoned. Some of the team quickly formed a security perimeter, while others began documenting what they found. Jordan stood with his back to a tree, surveying the eerie scene. Suddenly, a noise from the woods, followed by a blast from one of the Marines’ M16s, ruptured three days of perfect tactical silence, and a Viet Cong soldier collapsed into the bush.
Spotting another VC soldier aiming a gun directly at him from 15 meters away, Jordan swung his M16 up and squeezed the trigger, dropping his would-be killer with a single shot. Within seconds, the team was racing through the jungle, a Viet Cong response force amassing in its wake.
As the commandos moved swiftly through the bush, Capers dropped back to booby-trap the path behind them with grenades. The enemy was everywhere, but for hours, the team evaded them. Sergeant Ron Yerman, the radio operator, called for an extraction, and they made their way up a steep, rutted slope to higher ground. The topography was less than ideal, forcing the CH-46 to hover above the thick jungle canopy while it lowered a harness to hoist the men one at a time. Bullets began whipping in from all directions. Above, the helicopter’s 50-caliber machine guns roared to life, hammering the wilderness around them.
By Yerman’s account, Captain Jordan was one of the first Marines up into the bird. When Capers led patrols, he always insisted on being the last man on the ground. On this occasion, he again waited until the rest of the commandos were safely in the chopper, darting from tree to rock to tree again, squeezing off a few rounds at each point to give the illusion that there were multiple soldiers still on the ground.
The hoist finally descended once more. After struggling to secure himself to the harness, Capers was lifted into the air. As he dangled, a single round slashed his face—a grazing wound, but it burned like hell.
Years later, Yerman credited Capers for getting the team out alive: “Chaos ensued, and Lt. Capers took charge and organized a rapid egress toward a landing zone. He was the most professional Marine I ever knew.”
Yerman’s testimony is contained in a series of interviews compiled for Jim Capers’ 2007 recommendation for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. It is granted only to a service member who has “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Capers was, by all accounts, an extraordinary Marine. His tactical innovations earned him a place in the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor. So thoroughly did he represent the ideals and mythology of the Corps that his picture graced a near-ubiquitous and highly successful recruiting poster focused on attracting minority officers in the early ’70s: ASK A MARINE, it said under an image of Capers in dress uniform, the ornate Mameluke sword, unique to Marine officers, at his side.
Of the 3,493 Medals of Honor awarded since it was established early in the Civil War, nearly all have been in recognition of exceptional performance over a period of a short duration—events that occurred over the course of days, minutes, or even seconds.
In Capers’ case, however, the POW rescue mission was just one chapter in a lengthy chronicle of heroic actions during his eight-month tour in Vietnam—an exemplary record of dangerous missions that ultimately earned him the reputation as the so-called “spiritual founder of Marine Corps special operations,” in the words of Major General Paul E. Lefebvre. Indeed, the “summary of action” submitted to the Marine Corps Award Branch on Capers’ behalf ran 5,700 words. Its length was unprecedented, as was its scope. To some, Capers’ exploits—his numerous acts of heroism and the lethality he brought to bear against the enemy—demanded no less.
But do they meet the Medal of Honor criterion of “personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades”? The Marine Corps says no. But at 77, Capers isn’t through fighting.
Born to a South Carolina sharecropper in 1937, capers is a child of the Jim Crow South. Four of his seven brothers and sisters died before the age of 10. In 1943, after a local sheriff issued a warrant for his arrest, Capers’ father fled to Baltimore, and the family soon followed. “My father was a violent man,” Capers recalls. “He got into an altercation. I’m not sure if the crime was serious enough for a lynching, but he felt that to survive, we had to leave South Carolina.” In Baltimore, the Caperses were poor, but his mom ran a tight household, and they got by.
Jim Capers was a smart, restless 18-year-old kid when he enlisted in the Marines with a high school pal in 1956. “A lot of people had helped me and my family get by,” he says, “and the Marine Corps seemed like a good way to give something back.” On the hot September day he left for boot camp, his father drove him to the train station. The elder Capers had served time on a chain gang, and he understood the struggle of being a black man in a country rife with institutional racism. “You’re a man now,” his father told him. “You know what you’ve gotten into. You’ve chosen it.”
From day one, Capers was determined to distinguish himself among his white peers. “The Marine Corps did not welcome individuals like me,” he says simply. “But the hierarchy thought, If he’s got the skills, at least give him the chance to try. That’s all I wanted.”
“We’re getting out of here – all of us,” Capers yelled to his men. “We’re not going to die on this trail.
Capers set his sights on becoming an elite commando, volunteering for duty with the First Force Reconnaissance Company. Force Recon was the only Special Ops unit in the Corps in those days, dedicated to the dangerous task of long-range reconnaissance—observing and documenting activity deep in enemy territory—as well as unconventional warfare tactics similar to those of the Navy SEALS and the Green Berets. The bar was set high: Team members needed to possess an extremely diverse—and deadly—skill set. Capers rose to the challenge, completing every tactical school or course the military could throw at him.
In 1965, he transferred to Third Force Recon Company, bringing with him a rep as a noncommissioned officer entirely devoted to the Corps and its values. Capers was placed in charge of an all-white 20-man platoon. With his hard stare and formidable build, his authority was never in question. “[He] was standing in front of the formation with confidence and charisma,” one of his men wrote. “I am Sergeant Capers,” he told them, “and we will be the best platoon of Marines in the world.”
By early 1966, Capers had achieved the rank of staff sergeant. In August of that year, the First and Fifth platoons were deployed to central Vietnam. After a decade in the Marines, Capers was about to put his years of training to the test, arriving in-country just as the most brutal and crucial phase of the war was getting under way. “I wasn’t afraid because I had a job to do, and my job was to lead and to look out for my guys,” he recalls.
Force Recon’s primary mission was to gather critical intelligence, usually with little support and few resources. They were ghosts—commandos who, by definition, only emerge to fight their way out of a fix.
By November 1966, the relentless pace of operations had taken a staggering toll on Third Force Recon. The unit had suffered many casualties, including two officers killed in action, creating a leadership vacuum. Meanwhile, Capers’ team—which had adopted the nickname Broadminded—had evolved into a highly lethal and agile one under his leadership. His reputation for cold-eyed efficiency was growing fast.
On a rainy day in late November, Capers reported to his battalion commander’s tent in Phu Bai. Lieutenant Colonel Gary Wilder told Capers to raise his right hand and take the oath to become a commissioned officer. Captain Ken Jordan was there to pin on the second lieutenant insignia. During the entire Vietnam War, only 62 enlisted men were battlefield commissioned. “A lot of the Negro Marines came over and saluted me and shook my hand,” Capers recalls. “And these were guys who I felt had paved the way for me, guys who had been through the segregation years and World War II and Korea. Suddenly I was a lieutenant, and they were saying ‘sir’ to me. It felt odd because these were men who I looked up to.”
Capers knew that it was standard procedure to transfer newly commissioned officers to another unit. For him, that would mean assuming a more comfortable, and less dangerous, role in the war. But he refused to abandon his men. His request to stay with Team Broadminded was granted, and he returned to the fight, leading patrols as if nothing had changed.
In late 1966, Khe Sanh Combat Base was the blood-soaked tip of the spear of north-central Vietnam. Even by the standards of a brutal conflict, it was hell, a squalid hilltop outpost overlooking a valley through which Communist forces moved supplies to battlefields farther south. Third Force began arriving at the outpost in December, replacing a detachment of exhausted Green Berets. “The bunkers they left behind were so rat infested, the rats would chew on your ears and nose at night,” wrote Walter Doroski, Broadminded’s point man, in 2008. “[Corporal Michael] Scanlon was the first to get amoebic dysentery. I dug a hole in the side of the trench to protect him from incoming rounds, slid him in, and fed him when he could eat.”
When Jordan was transferred out of Khe Sanh in February, the task of coordinating the entire detachment’s patrols fell to Capers. Assaults on the outpost were constant, punctuated by explosions and cries of “Corpsman!” echoing across the valley. The preservation of Khe Sanh depended on Capers’ “raggedy-ass recon teams.” In the jungle, the Marines were clashing daily with a growing enemy force.
Efforts to convey that reality up the chain of command had been fruitless. The American brass, under General William C. Westmoreland, remained undeterred in its stance that activity around Khe Sanh was insignificant. Ten months after Capers’ tenure, the infamous Battle of Khe Sanh—immediately followed by the Tet Offensive—would prove that the size and scope of North Vietnamese Army operations in the area had been tragically miscalculated. But for now, it was all about staying the course.
“There was no backslapping,” Capers recalls. “For us, death and killing had become business as usual.”
Unless they were “shot out of the jungle,” the teams of Third Force Recon typically spent three to six days on patrol at a time, with little rest in between. In early February, Team Broadminded set out into the jungle, accompanied by a German shepherd named King. They were hunting an NVA platoon in the area. Early in the patrol, King alerted, signaling the enemy was close. Capers figured they were outmanned at least 3 to 1, so he motioned for his men to hold their fire until they could maneuver into a better position.
Within minutes, the dog alerted again, and Capers noticed three NVA soldiers just a few feet away. He opened up on full automatic, dropping all three in a single stroke. Capers’ M16 jammed, but Team Broadminded had already initiated its well-rehearsed contact drill, unleashing a barrage of grenades and bullets as the enemy platoon scrambled. Capers, struggling to unjam his rifle, saw two more NVA soldiers emerge, full tilt in a desperate counterattack. He drew his 9 mm and gunned them down. Then he ordered his men to finish off what remained of the enemy platoon. When the battle was over, at least 20 NVA soldiers lay dead, their corpses obscured beneath a haze of gunpowder and smoke. From the surrounding vegetation, the screams of the wounded rang out.
On the chopper back to Khe Sanh, the team was subdued. “There was no backslapping,” Capers recalls. “For us, death and killing had become business as usual.” They’d be back in the jungle in just a few days.
By march 1967, the surviving Third Force Marines were severely battle fatigued. They had killed or wounded hundreds of enemy soldiers, but their growing legend within the Corps came at a cost. Three quarters of the original 40 Marines were killed or wounded. Capers and his men were transferred back to Phu Bai, a welcome change from Khe Sanh’s daily artillery and rocket attacks.
But the missions kept coming. Capers told his battalion commander that unless he got more men, the survivors of Third Force should not run any more patrols. Nonetheless, in late March, Capers was given orders to locate a suspected North Vietnamese regimental base camp in the sparsely populated coastal district of Phu Loc. He didn’t like the mission, but in Vietnam, undesirable missions had become all too routine.
Capers gathered Broadminded’s core members, Sergeant Yerman, Sergeant Richard Crepeau, and Billy Ray “Doc” Smith, the team’s medical corpsman, and laid out the situation. “He asked us if we would volunteer to go on our last combat patrol into an almost impossible situation,” recalls Crepeau. “He told us, ‘I’ve been ordered to go, but you don’t have to.’
“When your mentor, your boss, your surrogate father asks you to do something, and you’re a Marine, what do you do? You say, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Broadminded’s mission was to stealthily cover the flank of a much larger infantry force. They were charged with spotting the enemy and thwarting an attack—and anything else necessary to keep the mission going. Over the four days the patrol lasted, the team averaged two firefights a day. The terrain was flat, with elephant and beach grass, hedgerows and streams, all of it peppered with seemingly endless tunnels and holes from which enemy fighters would periodically emerge and then melt away.
The young infantry force commander who directed the operation radioed Capers’ team, ordering them to walk down large, open trails, which contradicted their doctrine of stealth. By the fourth day, Broadminded had found four booby-trapped trails—likely ambush sites, a dangerous situation Capers reported to the commander. On the last day of the patrol, however, he was ordered to take his team back the way they’d come.
The team all understood the nature of the mission. Under General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition, body counts had been deemed the primary metric of success. And you can’t stack bodies if you can’t find an enemy to attack and kill. The cold reality was that Broadminded was being used as bait—flushing out enemy forces so the regular infantry could swoop in for the kind of glorious protracted battle the generals craved.
“I could have refused those orders,” says Capers. “But I knew if I didn’t walk down those trails and locate that base camp, the regular grunts would, and a lot more people might get killed. I couldn’t live with that.”
The team maneuvered slowly and carefully, identifying and withdrawing from three ambush sites. As the Marines were about to withdraw from a fourth, King alerted.
A Claymore mine is an 8.5×3–inch convex slab of inch-deep plastic, packed full of C4 explosives and hundreds of steel balls. It usually sits a few inches above the ground and functions like a giant shotgun shell. Vietnamese fighters had daisy-chained several mines together. Crepeau recalls the moment they detonated like a scene from a film: The five men in front of him were flung to the ground in slow motion. As he watched the shock wave of violence, a steel ball punched through his leg.
From the jungle darkness, a platoon of NVA soldiers unleashed hell from two directions. Within seconds, nearly every member of the team was badly wounded. The blast knocked Capers against a tree and punctured his body in 14 places. His right leg was broken, and as he lay severely concussed, he looked over and saw King, limp and lifeless on the bloody jungle floor. The dog had been between Capers and the blast.
Lance Corporal Harry Nicolaou, a mountain of a man who carried the heavy M60 machine gun with ease, sprayed fire toward the enemy, despite having his right leg nearly blown off at the knee. “Goddamn it, you motherfuckers!” he screamed.
Yerman crawled over to Capers. “We’re all down, sir!” he yelled. “But we can still fight!”
Private First Class Henry Stanton carried the team’s only M79 grenade launcher. He was bleeding through his mouth and nose when he said to Capers, “I don’t think we’re going to make it this time.”
“We’re going to make it, son,” Capers said, trying to catch his breath. “Just hold on.”
Enemy grenades were exploding from every direction. Capers ordered Yerman to redistribute the team’s ammo, and his injured men to form a tight security perimeter. Doc Smith, bleeding from his neck and face, sprinted from man to man, treating and dressing their wounds.
Soon he got to Capers. “Doc, I’m OK!” Capers barked. “I’m only hit a little. Take care of Nic. I think he caught most of it.”
Doc gave Capers a shot of morphine and then sprinted over to Nicolaou. Yerman was working on getting the team extracted, calling for help from the grunts. Capers told Crepeau to call in mortars on their position. He knew the mortar men would intentionally offset the rounds by a few hundred feet and Crepeau could then call in adjustments until the mortars were falling on the enemy. Still, it was a dangerous gamble.
Soon mortars started tearing through the canopy. “That’s it. More!” Capers was shouting. “Move ’em closer!”
The enemy fire died down, and Capers called off the mortars. There was an awful smell—acrid smoke and burned flesh and blood and shit. But reinforcements were arriving. “We’re getting out of here—all of us,” Capers yelled to his men. “We’re not going to die on this trail.”
The grunts arrived and helped the team toward the extraction site, down a rain-swept path. Capers used his rifle as a cane, blood sloshing in his jungle boots as he walked. The group took turns carrying King’s body.
Dusk was descending as they approached the extraction point. One H-34 helicopter landed while another circled overhead, providing cover from the remaining enemy forces. The crew chief helped everyone onto the bird. King’s body lay on the ground.
Capers, hazy from morphine and blood loss, drew his gun. The dog was coming with them, he told the chief, or Capers was staying behind.
The crew chief jumped out and heaved King’s body onto the chopper. Seconds later, the bird lifted about six feet, then fell back to Earth. “It’s no good,” Capers said, trying to get off the aircraft so it could take off. The crew chief yanked him back in. On the second attempt, the helicopter climbed about eight feet before falling hard again.
The pilots tried one more time to take off, the sound of explosions and incoming fire seeming to signal their doom. This time the helicopter rose slowly before lurching forward and climbing toward an ash-colored sky.
Capers remembers the inside of the field hospital as “a butcher shop.” Blood was everywhere. The doctors had to amputate Nicolaou’s leg below the knee. Capers looked around and was overcome by shame. Broadminded had never been ambushed before.
At Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Dottie Capers made her way to her husband’s room on the 14th floor with their seven-year-old son, Gary, in tow. Capers had met his future wife on a warm spring day in Baltimore when he was just 15, and they’d married a few years after he enlisted. Their son was born blind, but now seemed to be looking at Capers when he put his hand on his father’s bed. In Vietnam, Capers had dreamed of this reunion, but now the bitter sting of shame was all he could feel.
The doctors told Capers he might never walk again. He had several surgeries, including a major skin graft to close the gaping hole above his right ankle. Soon he was in a body cast, then a wheelchair, then crutches. For months, Capers rarely got up from his hospital bed. Consumed with remorse and rage, he struggled to reconcile what had happened to him. One day, Dottie picked him up for a drive. She brought him to a parking lot and told him to get out of the car. He struggled from the passenger seat. Then Dottie snatched his cane and walked away. No more self-pity.
“You can walk,” she said, “and you’re going to walk to me.” And when she said it, Capers believed her. He thought about the man he was before, and he made his agonizing first steps into Dottie’s arms. A few months later, Capers passed his medical review board, allowing him to stay in the Marines. Capers was awarded two Bronze Stars with Valor in Vietnam. Some of his men felt it was inadequate recognition for his battlefield exploits, but if Capers agreed, he kept it to himself. “I had never even thought about it really, because after Phu Loc, I felt like I had failed,” he says.
Decades later, in early 2007, Capers attended a national Naval Officers Association dinner at Camp Lejeune. About half the officers gathered in dress uniforms were minorities. Lieutenant General Ronald S. Coleman delivered a speech and announced that Capers was being recommended for the Medal of Honor. The announcement was met with a wave of applause. Marines lined up to shake Capers’ hand. “They had already anointed me,” Capers says. “To them, I was already the first black Marine Corps officer to receive the Medal of Honor.”
The idea to nominate Jim Capers for the Medal of Honor originated in the mind of Brigadier General James L. Williams. He credits his decision to join the military in 1976 to Capers’ ASK A MARINE poster. By 2007, he was powerful enough to vindicate his personal hero, as well as the other members of Third Force Recon ’66–67—now known as the “lost detachment” because its official records had been lost for years. Major General Walter Gaskin, another black Marine Corps officer and Williams’ boss, threw his full support behind Williams’ efforts. “Given the impact Capers had on the battlefield,” says Williams, “it was important for his nomination to reflect the highest valor award.”
The generals found their gunslinger in Corporal James Monroe Dixon III, 25, who was assigned to the Second Marine Division’s personnel and administration section in 2007. A Georgian, Dixon had been wounded during his third infantry tour in Iraq. He was highly intelligent, with a thick drawl and unruly hair that earned him the nickname “Rooster.”
Amazed by the accounts he heard from Capers’ men, Dixon’s enthusiasm for the Medal of Honor case reached the point of obsession. The submission grew well beyond what is typical of such documents, covering not just one event but Capers’ entire tour in Vietnam.
Dixon was convinced he had discovered a precedent for this. But he was also inspired by the compelling witness statements he gathered from the men Capers had led in battle, a vivid portrait of a selfless, heroic leader. “None of us had his level of courage,” Ron Yerman wrote. “None of us were as ready as he was to give his life for his men at any moment.”
Team Broadminded’s point man, Walter Doroski, agreed. “[I’ve] worked overseas in over 30 undeveloped countries on three continents for 25 years,” he wrote. “I never found an equal to Lieutenant Capers’ leadership, devotion to his mission and men, or courage in battle.”
“None of us had his level of courage,” Ron Yerman wrote. “None of us were as ready as he was to give his life for men in his team.”
As Dixon built his case, only one voice was missing: that of Ken Jordan, Capers’ old commanding officer. Jordan was the only member of Third Force to initially reject Dixon’s request to support the effort. According to Dixon, Jordan said, “Not only no, but hell, no!” The gesture was interpreted by Capers’ supporters as an affront, one that ripped open old wounds.
Official notes from a phone interview between Dixon’s superior and Jordan suggest that Jordan’s reservations stemmed from a belief that Capers’ Vietnam service had already been lauded enough. “Jim Capers, as good as he was, was just one of 40 great men,” he said. Ultimately, Jordan offered a late, and tepid, endorsement in 2008—which included a few notes pointing out errors in Dixon’s summary.
Jordan insists that he just wanted to get the facts straight. “I’d give Jim 16 Medal of Honors if he had the documentation for it,” he says. “Jim will tell you how close we were. To lose his friendship because of this was and still is very deteriorating for me.”
The Medal of Honor is the only military medal that must be approved by the president on behalf of Congress. First, however, the nomination must go through numerous layers of military bureaucracy. The man overseeing this process was Retired Colonel Lee Freund, head of the Marine Corps Awards Branch.
Freund and his staff reviewed the Capers package and kicked it back, citing a laundry list of administrative and procedural errors. Freund’s advice was that Dixon’s ambitious, cumulative approach to meeting the award criteria was not going to fly. The generals regrouped and recast the argument. This time the summary of action focused only on Phu Loc, Team Broadminded’s doomed last patrol in Vietnam.
A year and a half later, in 2010, Jim Capers received a letter from the Secretary of the Navy. He had been awarded the Silver Star, two levels below the Medal of Honor. No explanation was given.
Freund stands firmly behind the Marine Corps’ painstakingly detailed award system. “We charge the commanders endorsing these awards with maintaining our historical ethos,” he tells Maxim. “Our standards are where they need to be. We don’t cheapen awards.” Others, like Gaskin, believe institutional racism was a factor and that Capers’ honor is long overdue. “Our system isn’t geared to look back and compare what impact racial prejudice would’ve had on the process,” he says.
Doug Sterner, an archivist for the Military Times, has seen similar disputes before. “It’s a very subjective award that depends very much on how well we tell the story,” he explains. Still, he insists that race relations in the military were already starting to improve. “Vietnam was our first truly integrated war. Black Americans received 20 Medals of Honor—compared with only two black Americans in Korea and none in World War I and World War II, until the late upgrades.”
Dixon ultimately convinced Capers to continue pushing for recognition. By then, Capers was alone. His son, Gary, had died in 2003 from a misdiagnosed ruptured appendix (Capers was awarded a settlement). Dottie passed away from cancer in 2009. He needed a mission, and Dixon provided one. The men spent months together, living in the same apartment in California, drafting petitions and working on Capers’ memoir. Meanwhile, Dixon’s own post-traumatic stress wasn’t subsiding. In many ways, they were two battle-scarred Marines on the last patrol of their lives.
In February 2012, Dixon went to visit his family in Georgia. Neighbors called the sheriff’s department around 3:50 a.m. on February 19 to say someone had fired shots on their property. Roughly five hours later, Dixon phoned Capers. “They have me surrounded!” he cried. “You’re going to get the Medal of Honor, sir…I love you.” Shortly thereafter, he stepped outside, and the Georgia State Patrol SWAT team ordered him to put down his gun. After failing to comply, he was shot and killed. Dixon was 30.
Capers spoke at Dixon’s funeral. With a shaky voice, he explained to the crowd how Dixon “got it”—how he understood the importance of fighting for what is right. Capers’ Silver Star was placed in the casket.
When Capers returned to California, he found himself alone once again—an old, arthritic warrior with shrapnel in his bones and a headful of hard memories. “I’d lost everything important to me,” Capers says. “I guess I bought into the idea that the award was bigger than me because I needed to.” He now feels that the recognition is secondary to giving due to his “lost detachment.” For his supporters, that’s reason enough to battle on. “I’m not going to get over it,” says General Williams, now retired. “There’s a failure to recognize a piece of history here. The fight isn’t over.” ■