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Vietnam War veterans reunite in Chicago to honor Milton Olive

It’s been 50 years since U.S. Army soldier Milton Lee Olive III, a young Chicagoan, selflessly threw himself onto a grenade in a Vietnamese jungle to save his fellow squad members.

The memories of Oct. 22, 1965, are vivid — the gruesome snapshots etched into the minds of the men in the weapons squad of the 2nd 503rd Infantry of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade.

For Samuel Grimes, it’s the image of a rifle shot out of his hand seconds before seeing Olive blasted by a grenade.

For Robert Toporek, it’s staring at Olive’s body, in shock, unable to move until someone yelled at him to cover his comrade’s body.

Fifty years later, the men have moved on from their war days, but the memories remain.

On Thursday, both men — along with fellow soldiers Wayne Short, Mark Mitchell and William Yates — will come together in Olive’s hometown of Chicago to reunite on the 50th anniversary of the Medal of Honor recipient’s death.

‘We had some bad days’

There were plenty of noncombat days in Vietnam, the men recall. And Grimes remembers them well.

Grimes was just 19 when he befriended Olive, 18. Olive was popular. He liked talking to everyone, and he loved taking photographs.

<small><strong>Milton Olive III | Provided photo</strong></small>
Milton Olive III | Provided photo

“He was my friend. He was a super guy. He just got along with everybody and he shared cigarette rations, things like that. He liked sharing things with people around him. And he loved his photos. He really enjoyed that. It was his release from the stress,” said Grimes, now 69, of Florida. “We weren’t always in combat. We’d come back in, into base camp, and that’s when he would take a lot of his pictures.”

Grimes kept several of Olive’s photos. Many were taken in their downtime, just after a mission. One features two smiling soldiers in full uniform, Grimes in the background shirtless, with his rifle pointing down.

But things didn’t start well for Olive and Toporek — 18 at the time — as race issues in America remained tense.

“It was 1965, and I grew up in the South. He grew up in Chicago,” said Toporek, 68, of Pennsylvania. “We provoked each other, and so we ended up going behind our tents and beating each other up. . . . After that, we were brothers. We were fighting the same Viet Cong. We didn’t care what color your skin was, what race you were, how much money you had. War was a pretty indiscernible thing. You learn that pretty fast.”

Olive died during a search-and-destroy mission. After finding a base camp, the men ran through the jungle with their rifles in hand. But Olive’s gun had jammed. He went to find a command post to get his gun fixed when the men were ambushed, this time with grenades.

“They were throwing grenades and opening machine-gun fire, and everybody hit to the ground,” Grimes said. “I was running with my 16-inch rifle and it was shot out of my hand. I couldn’t use it. I didn’t know what happened to Olive, so I went over to find him. He had jumped on a grenade and was killed.”

Olive was with four other solders at the time, moving through the jungle together when the grenade was thrown.

“Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body,” according to Olive’s Medal of Honor citation.

Grimes, Toporek and several other men helped cover Olive’s body with a poncho and carried him away.

Toporek said he was frozen when he saw Olive’s body.

“I happened to be standing there looking at him and somebody said, ‘Don’t look at him. Put his body back and get him out of there.’ ”

His body had been blown to pieces, and his shocked fellow soldiers moved fast to get out of the area.

“We had several bad days. That was a bad day. That was the worst day for me,” Grimes said.

Vietnam veterans ‘glossed over’

<small><strong> President Lyndon Johnson talks to Milton Oliver III’s parents, Milton and Antoinette, before awarding the Medal of Honor in 1966. | Sun-Times file photo</strong></small>
President Lyndon Johnson talks to Milton Oliver III’s parents, Milton and Antoinette, before awarding the Medal of Honor in 1966. | Sun-Times file photo

When Olive’s father and stepmother accepted his Medal of Honor in front of the White House in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson read remarks about their son.

“. . . In dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live,” Johnson said.

Those words stuck with Toporek. After Olive’s death and a near-death experience in 1966 in which half of his squad was killed or wounded, he promised himself he would live a life of making a difference if he made it out.

In his final Army days, Toporek helped build schools, a playground and a health center. He later founded his own nonprofit called Team Children, which has helped to distribute more than 10,000 computers and laptops to low-income families.

He didn’t think much of his days in Vietnam. He tried to push it out of his mind as best he could. Grimes did the same. But in the ’90s, Toporek said he felt the urge to call Olive’s father.

“I wanted to share with him what his son was like for me, and us. He was grateful,” Toporek said.

The men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade didn’t speak for years. Then, slowly they started to reach out to one another. Facebook helped connect Grimes with Toporek.

The Chicago reunion was Toporek’s idea, and he said he’s determined to give Vietnam veterans the respect they deserve.

“Olive’s story is an important one, and it doesn’t get told. We are going to tell the stories of what it was like in our squad,” Toporek said. “Vietnam veterans are glossed over. I thought this would be a great opportunity to begin a movement to honor Vietnam veterans.”

The men will first reunite on Wednesday at the downtown Loews Hotel. They’ll participate in a public program at 10 a.m. Thursday at the park named to honor their friend: Olive Park, just north of Navy Pier.

Antoinette Olive and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley display of Milton Olive III’s dog tags and medals at the Bronzeville Academy Military Museum in 2004. | Sun-Times file photo
Antoinette Olive and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley display of Milton Olive III’s dog tags and medals at the Bronzeville Academy Military Museum in 2004. | Sun-Times file photo