Heroes have their day at Coast Guard Academy

New London - Over the course of his command of the Coast Guard cutter Point Orient during the Vietnam War, then-Lt. James Ellis II apprehended more than 300 suspected Viet Cong and conducted 80 naval gunfire support missions, destroying seven bunkers, 86 structures and 159 vessels.

So, when on Friday afternoon the Pentagon, the Defense Department and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave an award to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for its support of the Vietnam War on the 50th anniversary, Ellis naturally felt that it was "a long time coming."

A 1966 academy graduate, Ellis was one of five graduates who were inducted onto the Wall of Gallantry Friday in the school's annual Hall of Heroes ceremony. He retired from the Coast Guard in 1982.

"There's little that I have accomplished in my life that does not tie back to my experience at the academy and in the Coast Guard," Ellis said during his remarks in Leamy Hall Auditorium. Later, addressing the cadets, Ellis said, "You are the future leaders, not only of the Coast Guard, but of the nation, at a time when our nation is desperately in need of more effective leaders."

Ellis spoke about his service during the war, calling it "a tumultuous period both in our nation and on the ground in Vietnam," and explained that "those were years when many serving in Vietnam became disaffected and questioned why we were even there." And the Vietnamese people, with whom Ellis and his colleagues interacted, "had little knowledge of or interest in their government, but rather just wanted to be left alone to fish and farm," he said.

Ellis served on two ships before he left for Vietnam, where he spent two years. As a member of the staff of Coast Guard Division 12, Ellis was instrumental in planning and scheduling for "Vietnamization" efforts, a strategy introduced by then-President Richard Nixon to end United States involvement in the war. On March 16, 1970, when Coast Guard Division 12 was decommissioned, Ellis became an adviser to the Vietnamese Navy.

When he returned from Vietnam, he went to George Washington University, where he earned a law degree, and finished his career in the Coast Guard, retiring with the rank of commander in 1982.

Ellis acknowledged the sacrifice of three men in his division who died during their service in Vietnam, and those, including one of his classmates, "who never fully recovered from their experiences."

"It was a difficult time in our country, and many of those who served came home only to be treated as outcasts, a true tragedy," he said.

Contrasting this story with a recent, "awe-inspiring" trip with his wife to the D-Day beaches in Normandy, France, Ellis said, "The men and women who fought to preserve our freedoms in those dark hours continue to be honored both in our country and by the people of France, and rightly so. My hope is that one day those who served in Vietnam can be remembered in the way in which veterans from other wars are remembered."

Ellis described his classmates at the academy as "the core of my closest friendships."

One of those longtime friends is retired Lt. Merle Smith, a 2007 inductee of the Wall of Gallantry and a 1966 graduate of the academy, who played on the football team with Ellis, who was previously inducted into the Academy's Athletic Hall of Fame.

Standing next to Ellis after the ceremony, Smith said, "He's the same guy. He hasn't changed a bit. I have always respected him and liked him."

Smith also spent time in Vietnam. He served as commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Point Ellis for 10 months before turning it over to the Vietnamese Navy.

"It's particularly challenging for us to have gone to a place like Vietnam where you can't even speak the language of the people that you are trying to save, but you go and do it anyway," Smith said.

Ellis acknowledged after the ceremony that those who served in Vietnam are beginning to get recognized for their service, but "it's 50 years later."

Four others were also honored Friday.

• Lt. John Pritchard, a 1938 graduate, was selected for his heroic efforts onboard Coast Guard cutter Northland. He was the volunteer leader of a rescue party for a downed plane. Pritchard navigated through a treacherous ice field, scaled the Anoretok glacier, and after hiking through a crevasse, found the downed airman and brought him to safety. Pritchard died in 1942 as he attempted a rescue near a downed Army Air Force B-17 on the Greenland Ice Cap.

• Rear Adm. William Stewart, a 1949 graduate, was selected for his time in command of Coast Guard cutter Androscoggin. While on a patrol he became aware of an enemy ship off the coast of South Vietnam, which he tracked for several hours before making contact and disabling it. Onboard was a supply of arms and munitions that would have aided the Viet Cong.

• Capt. John Denninger, a 1962 graduate, was selected for his expert piloting during the rescue of the fishing vessel Nomar, which was grounded during a storm in the Shelikof Strait, Gulf of Alaska. Denninger steered his helicopter through 70-knot winds and near-zero visibility for 180 miles before reaching the vessel. Once there, he battled the elements and managed to hover the helicopter for more than 13 minutes until all survivors had been successfully hoisted.

• Capt. David Andrews, a 1963 graduate, was selected for his piloting prowess during the hoist of two crewmen from the sinking fishing vessel Norden, which was disabled and adrift in 20-foot seas with 40-knots winds. A Navy destroyer, which came on scene to provide assistance, ended up further damaging the vessel. The master of the Norden was knocked overboard and run over by the destroyer. Andrews, maneuvering his helicopter to position his basket directly under the drowning man, successfully scooped him up and delivered him safely to the hospital, saving his life.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

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