Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
The single-page announcement of the “Award of the Silver Star” to Staff Sgt. Thomas Purdie, Company A, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, is straight and to the point.
“For gallantry in action against a hostile force: On this date, during operation Shenandoah II, Sergeant Purdie was acting as the platoon sergeant on a search and destroy mission in the Viet Cong-infested jungle,” the citation states. “At approximately 1145 hours, his platoon moved into a newly constructed base camp. While preparing to set up security, the left flank squad came under extremely heavy and accurate sniper fire.”
It has been half a century since General Order No. 1126 was issued on Feb. 11, 1968, from Headquarters 1st Infantry Division, Department of the Army, regarding actions on Oct. 24, 1967, in the Republic of Vietnam.
Purdie, 74, a Wilson native, was a weapons squad leader at the time. His unit handled heavy weapons like machine guns and grenade launchers.
In the absence of the regular platoon sergeant, Purdie had to take a position as acting platoon sergeant.
“The platoon sergeant’s position is toward the back. You’ve got radios communicating with the platoon leaders. Most of the time he’s a second or first lieutenant. We had constant contact, so I got word that the lead element had been hit,” Purdie recalled. “I don’t know if it was foolishness or inexperience or what, but I immediately took off toward where the action was.”
As he headed toward the front, Purdie was talking to guys and pepping them up along the way.
“When I got up there I found out that the platoon leader had been hit and his RTO, radio telephone operator. There were a couple more guys who had been hit. I guess I assessed the situation and I got my map, got coordinates and got on my RTO’s phone and called in artillery fire and airstrikes.”
“Sgt. Purdie immediately took control of the platoon,” the citation reads. “He unhesitatingly exposed himself to a hail of automatic weapons fire in order to deploy the men and direct their fire against the insurgents. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Sergeant Purdie exposed himself to the sniper’s line of fire to a forward position, which was dangerously exposed to hostile fire. He then called for mortar and artillery fire on the insurgents and adjusted it with deadly accuracy.”
“Throughout the battle, he moved from position to position to encourage his men, distribute ammunition and supervise the evacuation of casualties,” the citation states. “Sergeant Purdie’s unquestionable valor in close combat against numerically superior hostile forces is in keeping with the finest traditions of military service.”
Purdie said it has been years since he read the citation, but he does occasionally think about that day.
“Over the years I have thought about it,” Purdie said. “When I was growing up, I was afraid as hell of dead people, cemeteries and the whole nine yards, you know, but I guess they say it’s adrenaline or an adrenaline rush or whatever, but according to everyone around, they said I handled myself professionally and accurately.”
Purdie said he misses the camaraderie of being in the Army.
“I spent half of my adult like in the military with the guys, from 17 to 47,” Purdie said. “I retired in 1992.”
GROWING UP IN WILSON
Purdie, born on Oct. 1, 1943, on Green Street at Mercy Hospital, which was right around the corner from his home on Viola Street.
He went to St. Alphonsus Catholic School for the first eight years of school and later graduated from Darden High School in 1962.
“Anywhere we wanted to go, we could walk,” Purdie said of growing up in Wilson.
Purdie, who friends called “Tuck,” said as a youngster, he and other neighborhood children, like U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, would spend time at the Reid Street Community Center.
“It’s been around a long time,” Purdie said. “They used to have a lot of singers and bands that would come through there, Chuck Berry, James Brown, most all of the black singers and the bands. We went over there and played ball. They had a decent swimming pool back there.”
“There was a guy over there — he has passed away now — his name was Gene Cox. He was like the head of the athletic department over there and he was very good with kids. He was like a role model for a lot of us coming up then. He kept us out of trouble. He was a great guy.”
Purdie remembers the Stoplight Grill on Pender Street.
“The lady who ran that just passed away recently,” Purdie said. “She was a big figure in our lives. We would go over to the center and be all sweaty and excited about winning a game, and we would go in there and order a hot dog or a piece of pie, talking loud. We called her ‘Ma ‘Minnie. Her name was Minnie Morrison. She would say, ‘You better go over there and tell those boys to be quiet ’cause I’ve got a headache today.’ I’d say ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I’d go over there and say ‘Ma’ Minnie said we’d better cool it in here or she’s going to put us out.’ She was just like a mother away from home to all of us. I’ve got some good memories about my early years.”
JOINING THE ARMY
Purdie was sure he didn’t want to stay in Wilson and pick cotton for a career, so he talked his mother into signing the paperwork to permit him to join the Army as a 17-year-old.
After basic training and a short stint in Germany, Purdie came back to the states and got orders to go to Vietnam in 1966.
The war in Vietnam was just getting ramped up.
“They had a lot of booby traps and stuff like that that we were not aware of. It was like feel your way through it,” Purdie said. “It was during that time, it was pretty hot. I was in three, maybe four major campaigns.”
It was in the Iron Triangle that he saw the action the led to his Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration, which ranks below only the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross.
The Silver Star medal he was presented, along with other family keepsakes, were destroyed when his childhood home on Viola Street burned.
“I have pretty much gotten over the bad times like Vietnam,” Purdie said. “It’s something that happened and, thank God, I survived it.”
More than 58,220 American servicemen and women lost their lives in the war.
Purdie said it took him 18 years to find the courage to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
“I didn’t think I could handle it at the time,” Purdie said.
One day after Thanksgiving dinner, he made up his my mind to go.
“Man, when I got there and walked down that sidewalk to that wall, oh my God,” Purdie recalled. “It was a nice fall day and I reached out and touched it, and it was warm and it felt like something just went all through my body. After that I was OK with it. I did manage to find my unit. There was some guys on there that I didn’t know, but I found my unit and I touched their names and stuff like that. I was OK.”
Purdie said the wall reminded him of the terrain that he went over in Vietnam.
“I had to just stand there and take it in for a few seconds,” Purdie said. “I used to think I wouldn’t wish Vietnam or any war my worst enemy. War is hell, and it is. If you love war, there is something wrong with you. You can take that to the bank. If you talk to someone and he said ‘Yeah, I was over there and I wasn’t scared,’ he’s lying through his teeth. I don’t care if you have been there two or three times. I was scared, but I had faith and I am sure that’s what got me through it. A lot of guys say I was lucky. I say ‘Oh no, time out. I was blessed.’ I tell anybody that to this day. I was blessed.”