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Ceremony to honor Vietnam War’s first black Medal of Honor recipient

Milton Lee Olive III was just shy of his 19th birthday when he jumped on a grenade in Vietnam, sacrificing his life to save others in a heroic act that made him the first black Medal of Honor recipient of the war.

His bravery, credited with saving the lives of four comrades at the expense of his own, was remembered Saturday when a historical marker in Holmes County was dedicated to his memory.

“A lot of youth and other people around Holmes County do not know who he was,” said Caroline Gray-Primer, who lobbied the Board of Trustees of the Department of Archives and History to approve the marker. “It’s so important to remember his bravery, his patriotism and his love of the country. And just to let people know that we had a hero in our own backyard.”

Olive was born in Chicago but spent much of his youth in Mississippi, living with relatives in Ebenezer and attending Saints Academy in Lexington.

According to Olive’s Medal of Honor citation, he and four others were in a ferocious battle Oct. 22, 1965, when a “grenade was thrown into their midst.”

“Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body,” the citation says. “Pfc. Olive’s extraordinary heroism, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.”

Olive’s cousin, Wilbur Redmond, 87, said Olive was just an ordinary teenager who loved spending time with his family before enlisting in the Army. Redmond said Olive’s mother died during childbirth and his father doted on their only child, never quite recovering from the loss.

Redmond said it’s difficult to know the true character of man until he finds himself in an extraordinary situation, but he is not surprised that Olive would give his life for others.

“We all looked after each other. That’s how we were raised,” Redmond said. “Nothing just stood out that would make you think he could do something like that. None of us really know unless we are at that moment. I guess just at the spur of the moment, he reacted.”

Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross, Mississippi’s adjutant general, spoke at the ceremony to honor Olive.

“Courage exists in all soldiers and this requires a split-second decision for a soldier who clearly knows the danger of hurling himself on a grenade,” Cross said. “It’s valor and an extreme exhibition of it, and for that he was posted with the nation’s highest honor.”

Former state Rep. Robert G. Clark of Ebenezer was a teacher who often gave Olive a ride to school.

“He was an individual that always was courageous and he did not believe in settling for ordinary things. He exemplified the highest character and courage and he had confidence in himself,” said Clark, who served in the Mississippi House from 1968-2002.

“It’s very important that rather than just remembering he threw himself on that hand grenade to save his comrades, you think about the kind of individual he was, and young men should strive to emulate the kind of characteristics he exemplified,” Clark said.

Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson summed it up the best when he presented Olive’s family with his Medal or Honor in 1965: “In dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.”

The city of Chicago in 1999 named a park on Lake Michigan for Olive. Gray-Primer said members of the community in Holmes County hope to revive the “The Milton Lee Olive Foundation” to work on community development projects and mentoring programs.

The ceremony was at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Milton Lee Olive III Memorial Building at the intersection of Mississippi 17 and Ebenezer Road near Lexington, not far from where the soldier was laid to rest in the West Grove Missionary Baptist Church cemetery.

Money for the memorial was raised by the Holmes County Freedom Democratic Party and the Holmes County NAACP. The rest of the money came from community donations, and Willie L. Lindsey Jr. presented a $1,000 check raised by the Brooks W. Stewart Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.