b. 05/06/1950 Toronto, Canada.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 01/04/1970 Fire Support Base Illingworth, Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam.
Lemon was a Canadian-American who immigrated to the U.S. at age 2 and joined the U.S. Army as soon as he could, as the war in Vietnam was reaching the height of its unpopularity. He probably could have avoided serving altogether if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He believed the war was necessary to stem the spread of Communism, and when so many people were fleeing to Canada to evade the draft, Lemon — the erstwhile Canadian — enlisted, ready to go to Vietnam in 1969. He learned to shoot at a young age and took the challenge of Army life so well, they made him a squad leader.
When he arrived in Vietnam in July 1969, his world turned upside down. The beliefs that drove him to enlist and fight the good fight quickly fell away as he saw fraggings, the disdain locals had for Americans and allied soldiers killing enemy soldiers who surrendered. It was all very sobering — so he and his fellow soldiers stopped staying sober all the time. On April 1, 1970, Lemon was a specialist at Fire Base Illingworth, a 20-year-old sergeant in a support unit at the base in Tay Ninh Province, near South Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. Its mission was to provide artillery support to units operating in that area. It was also bait, a lone firebase in the middle of the jungle, just begging the North Vietnamese to attack it.
When an attack came, the Americans were not as vulnerable as they appeared. They used air superiority to fend off any attack on the base. It was an ongoing trap meant to draw troops away from other areas inside South Vietnam while inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. But the Communists in Vietnam didn’t kick out the French and fight the Americans to a draw by falling for traps wholesale.
On March 31, 1970, Lemon and his squad went out on a patrol in the local area before coming back to Illingworth that night to get some sleep.
Lemon didn’t sleep for long. The base’s ground surveillance radar picked up a large enemy force headed its way around midnight that night. American troops opened up on the force in the dark, just to tell the North Vietnamese Army it was being watched. Lemon and his men manned their positions, but they didn’t have to do much. That soon changed. Everyone knew the enemy was out there waiting to strike, but no one knew whether Communists actually would strike. Still, they needed to sleep, so Lemon smoked a joint before bed.
Lemon didn’t fall asleep. It was just after 2 a.m. when he started to feel the effects of the drug. That’s also when 400 veteran North Vietnamese soldiers struck the base. The Americans were outnumbered nearly two to one, and their airpower advantage was negated by the dark night. They would have to fight and win or be overrun, no matter how high they were. Unfortunately for the Communists, Lemon worked better while totally stoned. “It was the only time I ever went into combat stoned,” he later said. “You get really alert when you are stoned because you have to be.”
As NVA troops poured into the firebase, Lemon hopped onto a .50-cal and poured rounds into the oncoming wave. With mortars and rockets going off around him, he stood tall on his gun. When that stopped working, he used his rifle until it stopped working, too. He picked up hand grenades and started killing Communists until he ran out of grenades.
Lemon ran out of grenades before he ran out of enemy soldiers. There was just one left, so he got to work on the last North Vietnamese troop with his bare hands. That’s when the base exploded. It seems the base had received tons of artillery shells that couldn’t work with the guns they had. Since they had no use for the ammo, the Americans just stacked it in the center of the firebase. As Lemon was killing an NVA soldier, a communist shell hit the pile and blew a huge hole in Fire Base Illingworth.
When he finally was able to stand, Lemon was wounded, dazed and still stoned but managed to get his battle buddy to an aid station. He didn’t stop fighting, though. He grabbed a bag of grenades and put them to good use. As he moved, he realized the section of the base was about to be overrun. So he started tossing more grenades. When he ran out of grenades once more, he began to knock out enemy soldiers, one after another, with his fists. Despite being unarmed and wounded three times, he single-handedly kept the base from being overrun by the swarms of NVA. By the time Lemon finally found another machine gun, the NVA was still on the attack so Lemon took down as many as he could until he passed out from blood loss and awesomeness. There’s only so much of either that any person could handle. When he woke up in an aid station, he started to refuse treatment or evacuation, believing other men needed assistance more than he did.
On June 15, 1971 Peter Lemon was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Richard M. Nixon at The White House. After his army service, he entered Colorado State University, graduating in 1979 with a degree in Speech. He received his Master’s of Arts in Business Administration from the University of Northern Colorado two years later, and in 1998 he was proclaimed the university’s “Humanitarian Alumni of the Year.”
Lemon is a motivational speaker, the author of the book Beyond the Medal, and executive producer of the PBS special Beyond the Medal of Honor. His book and documentary have been donated to every high school in the United States to inspire American children “to be worthy citizens.” Lemon has also run several corporations, including American Hospitality Association, Inc.; Darnell-Lemon, Inc.; and Probus, Inc.; as well as working as a semi-professional sculptor.
On May 1, 2009, Lemon was presented with the “Outstanding American by Choice” award by President Barack Obama at the White House, recognizing his life of professional achievement and civic contribution. This is the first time the award was presented by the President of the United States. Lemon is an inductee in the elite Ranger Hall of Fame. A marble tribute honoring Lemon is present in Veteran’s Park in Tawas City, Michigan.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Lemon (then Sp4c.), Company E, distinguished himself while serving as an assistant machine gunner during the defense of Fire Support Base Illingworth. When the base came under heavy enemy attack, Sgt. Lemon engaged a numerically superior enemy with machine-gun and rifle fire from his defensive position until both weapons malfunctioned. He then used hand grenades to fend off the intensified enemy attack launched in his direction. After eliminating all but one of the enemy soldiers in the immediate vicinity, he pursued and disposed of the remaining soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Despite fragment wounds from an exploding grenade, Sgt. Lemon regained his position, carried a more seriously wounded comrade to an aid station, and, as he returned, was wounded a second time by enemy fire. Disregarding his personal injuries, he moved to his position through a hail of small-arms and grenade fire. Sgt. Lemon immediately realized that the defensive sector was in danger of being overrun by the enemy and unhesitatingly assaulted the enemy soldiers by throwing hand grenades and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. He was wounded yet a third time, but his determined efforts successfully drove the enemy from the position. Securing an operable machine gun, Sgt. Lemon stood atop an embankment fully exposed to enemy fire, and placed effective fire upon the enemy until he collapsed from his multiple wounds and exhaustion. After regaining consciousness at the aid station, he refused medical evacuation until his more seriously wounded comrades had been evacuated. Sgt. Lemon’s gallantry and extraordinary heroism are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: WITH RECIPIENT.