Purple Heart veterans share combat stories at Patriots Point

MT. PLEASANT, SC (WCSC) - Purple heart recipients from WWII and the Vietnam War toured the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum Wednesday afternoon, sharing their stories of combat.

The purple heart is awarded to armed forces members who are wounded during war by the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those killed in action or die from wounds received in action.

"So you got hit here, and your lung collapsed, so how did you swim?" asked U.S. Army Captain Richard Olsen to a fellow Navy veteran. "Very carefully," U.S. Navy Captain John Hancock replied.

The Purple Heart veterans gathered together from all over the east coast and Midwest to share their stories of survival from more than 75 years ago.

"I got it in the neck, like a turkey," Hancock told the other veterans.

From an attack on the USS-Yorktown CV-5, to those in the air, each veteran took the time to learn about one another's injuries and explore the different military transports they worked on.

"It gets the heart pounding," said U.S. Marine Corps Brian West. "It gets the heart pounding in a good way."

West recalls the moment on April 23, 1968 when after 9.5 hours of flying his chopper keeping watch over a march below in Vietnam, his crew encountered danger.

"I was drinking a grape soda, leaning on the controls, thinking about home," he said.

West says in a matter of seconds the situation changed dramatically.

"The shells went off," West said. "One went through the front windscreen, all in a split second, splattered plexiglass in my face. I had a big mustache and with all the grit I thought I got shot in the mouth. Bullets went through the open window, it didn't hit me though. Then there was a bullet that hit my seat, and it felt like a sledgehammer [rocked me forward]. The shrapnel from the seat hit me in the right [butt] cheek."

"Everyone was alert, not scared in a sense..." Olsen said. "Whatever you were came alive at that moment."

West and Olsen were both injured on separate missions, but did deal with casualties among their men.

Captain John Hancock served on the USS Yorktown CV-5 that sank during the Battle of Midway in WWII.

He and other crewmates were forced to abandon ship and float for hours in the Pacific Ocean awaiting rescue.

"I drifted away and found myself [alone]," he said. "We were wearing these life-jackets at the time, and I looked at this thing and it said floatation assured for 12 hours… and it was getting dark. Then this destroyer came around and picked me up."

Hancock also recalled his sailors fighting for survival as the ship when down.

"We'd put the wounded guys [on the biscuits] and kick, and more guys kept coming and grabbing ahold of it," he said. "I got pushed off being 17 years old and weighing about 130 pounds soaking wet."

All the veterans in attendance Wednesday say the experience from combat is something they'll never forget.

"I haven't had a grape soda up until a few years ago," West said. "It's a memory… it's a memory. I don't do grape sodas… bad luck."

Next week Patriots Point will be honor Vietnam veterans on what they dubbed Vietnam Veterans Day at the museum.

A ribbon cutting will officially open a new theater inside the Vietnam Experience Exhibit.

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