SAN DIEGO — When the battle was over, Marines who fought in Vietnam labeled Hill 881 South “a deadly killing zone” in the long siege of Khe Sanh.
Twenty-seven Marines were killed and 50 wounded — in all, 75% of the force that had been sent that day in April 1967 to wrest the hill from the dug-in enemy. (Khe Sanh was the scene of protracted sieges in 1967 and 1968.)
Marine losses would have been even greater except for the courage of two Marine privates who were scared of dying but more scared of letting down their buddies.
So many officers were killed in Vietnam that spring that the paperwork needed to officially acknowledge the courage of the two young Marines -- one from San Diego, one from Morro Bay -- was lost in the fog and blood of war.
At a recent reunion of Khe Sanh veterans, a retired major general heard of the oversight and vowed to make things right.
So on Friday morning, in a solemn ceremony at the San Diego boot camp, Joseph Cordileone received a Silver Star and Robert Moffatt received the Bronze Star.
Cordileone repeatedly risked his life to get wounded Marines to safety even as they were being targeted by enemy snipers. Moffatt grabbed a machine gun from a mortally wounded comrade and led a furious counterattack against a numerically superior force.
Both saved the lives of Marines, officials said.
Each was wounded and refused to be evacuated while the fighting continued. Both are still grappling with physical and emotional wounds from Vietnam, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If they can hear me,” said Cordileone, his voice quavering slightly, “I want my 27 brothers who died on Hill 881 to know something: As long as I’m breathing I will remember you and I will remember your sacrifice.”
Cordileone, 66, is San Diego’s chief deputy city attorney. Moffatt, also 66, is a retired pipefitter and cost estimator who lives in Riverside.
In their comments, Cordileone and Moffatt dismissed the notion that they were heroes.
“We were doing what we were trained to do,” Moffatt said. “It was basically my duty to take care of that gun and that was the result.”
Hill 881 South, Moffatt said, was “some of the most obscene and adverse conditions you can imagine.” He and another Marine huddled together in a bomb crater: “We were literally bleeding on each other.”
The audience at the ceremony included former Marines and friends and family members of the two recipients — including Cordileone’s cousin, Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.
“I’m so proud of him,” said the archbishop, his eyes glistening.
Also at the ceremony were several hundred parents who had come to San Diego to watch their sons graduate from boot camp later in the day.
A reporter asked Cordileone what advice he had for those soon-to-be Marines.
“Never leave your brother behind,” he said, adding a moment later, “and do your best to keep him alive.”