‘True American hero’ throws first pitch at teener tournamentMOUNT VERNON — An explosion from the ammo dump lit up the pitch-black Vietnam sky like a Fourth of July celebration back in the States. The always-steamy air smelled of gun powder and stuck to Mike Fitzmaurice and Phil Gaither like rain.
By: EMILY WALKENHORST, The Daily Republic
MOUNT VERNON — An explosion from the ammo dump lit up the pitch-black Vietnam sky like a Fourth of July celebration back in the States.
The always-steamy air smelled of gun powder and stuck to Mike Fitzmaurice and Phil Gaither like rain.
The two young U.S. Army soldiers stood in a trench outside their bunker at 2:30 a.m. on March 23, 1971, in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, fighting for their lives.
North Vietnamese sappers tossed three grenades in their trench. One after the other.
Fitzmaurice didn’t think he’d make it out alive. He says today that if he could have escaped the fighting, he would have.
Instead, he picked up two of the grenades and threw them out of the trench. And then he saw the last, right next to him. Either he and Gaither could both die, Fitzmaurice thought, or only one of them.
He threw his flak jacket, and then his body, on top of the final grenade. The explosion blew him out of the hole, but it didn’t kill him.
He could hardly see, his eardrums were ruptured, and his face and body suffered shrapnel wounds.
But Fitzmaurice and Gaither, who also had shrapnel wounds, kept fighting until helicopters picked them up at dawn.
Fitzmaurice knows he continued fighting after suffering his injuries, but he does not remember it.
“I think you just go on automatic,” he said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. “You were trained and that just kind of takes over.”
The 21-year-old Fitzmaurice, a Cavour native, had served 10 months of his year-long tour. He was sent to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado for the next 13 months.
A year after that, Fitzmaurice visited the White House, where President Richard Nixon placed a Medal of Honor — the military’s highest decoration — around his neck.
Fitzmaurice headed back to small-town South Dakota with his wife, Patty. They lived in Yale for about 15 years and then moved to Hartford when they both got jobs at the Veterans Affairs office in Sioux Falls.
In 2003, Fitzmaurice and Gaither were reunited for the first time since that night in 1971.
“We’re still just like brothers,” Gaither said.
Friday night, Fitzmaurice was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the 15- and 16-year-old state teener baseball tournament, organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I’ve thrown out some before, but I’m not very good at, it so it won’t look that great,” Fitzmaurice said.
According to the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Fitzmaurice is one of 10 South Dakotans to receive a Medal of Honor. Years of recognition haven’t made him believe he’s a hero.
“If there had been a place to get out of there, I would have been gone,” he said of that night in 1971.
To Dave Renken, however, Fitzmaurice’s actions that night make him the truest definition of a hero.
“There’s no greater love that you can have for your fellow man than to do that,” he said.
Renken, a committee member for the Mount Vernon Baseball Association, asked Fitzmaurice to throw out the first pitch. He’d never met Fitzmaurice until Friday night, but has known his story since he was a high school student in the mid-1980s.
“I thought everyone knew who he was,” he said. “It saddens me that not everyone does.”
Renken is the son of a veteran and majored in history at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. He decided to invite Fitzmaurice to throw out the first pitch after seeing his picture hanging at the VFW in Sioux Falls.
“In our lives, we meet so few true American heroes,” Renken said.
Fitzmaurice considers himself a survivor.
“It was nothing special I did. It was just luck,” he said. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Gaither doesn’t talk about it. He said it’s a memory he’ll take to his grave.
“All I can tell you is that I’m proud to have been in the same bunker as that guy that night,” he said.