Tributes & Stories


The Last Vietnam Bronze Star?
1960 Army-Navy Game
You Can Take the Boy Off the Farm, But....


The Last Vietnam Bronze Star?

By Commander Richard Kirtley ‘67, SC, USN (Ret.)

I was recommended for the Bronze Star in March 1971. I received the award in January 1976. That five-year saga taught me several lessons in leadership, and, earned my enduring respect for Commander Steve Van Westendorp, USN (Ret.). In 1969/70? volunteered for the Navy’s “Brown Water” forces in Vietnam — Swift Boats, PBRs or Mobile Riverine assault boats. However, by the time I completed training, brown-water craft were being turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy, and previous small craft command billets converted to senior advisor positions.

I arrived in Vietnam in April 1970, to be senior advisor to Vietnamese River Interdiction Division 40, based in Go Dau Ha, 10 miles from the Cambodian border. RID 40 included 250 Vietnamese sailors, their officer staff, and 15 heavy assault boats. With the help of 15 U.S. Navy enlisted men, my task was to convert rice farmers into a self-sustaining force to stop a seasoned Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

I was immediately overwhelmed, establishing relationships, planning the strategies of daytime junk search and nighttime ambush setting, Vietnam versus U.S. chains of command and responsibilities, etc., when I was notified by headquarters Naval Advisory Group in Saigon that I needed to submit an ”end of tour award” for a recently departed enlisted man. I had never written an award recommendation, so I sought the advice of my Senior Chief Petty Officer.

He told me all Navy personnel completing an in-country tour received an award, either the Navy Achievement Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, or Bronze Star. There was an extremely blurry line between the criteria for those awards, especially in a combat zone. However, the criteria for the Achievement Award clearly stated that the performance recognized “shall be of such merit as to warrant more recognition than is possible by a fitness report or performance evaluation, but which is not significant enough to justify a Navy Commendation Medal or higher.”

Since I had never met the subject of the proposed award, I asked the chief for his recommendation. He left no doubt that if it was up to him there would be no award! The subject was apparently disgruntled, never wanted to serve in Vietnam, only grudgingly did his duties,  and couldn’t wait to leave. Naturally, I informed Saigon there would be no award recommendation. Imagine my surprise when they responded that at a minimum, I must recommend an Achievement Medal. My concern was that this practice dramatically and negatively impacted the very foundation of the award system. Awarding the Achievement Medal to non-deserving subpar performers only meant that deserving individuals were elevated to the Navy Commendation Medal, and those truly deserving that award instead received the Bronze Star.

Thus, the esteem associated with the Bronze Star was seriously degraded. I declined submitting any award. So, there I was, not yet a shot fired, neck deep in my first battle, and it was all “friendly fire”! My revolution quickly spread, and soon the phrase and the practice of “end of tour awards” disappeared. The episode was quickly forgotten as we focused on the war in the delta of South Vietnam. Commander Van Westendorp, my immediate commander for 11 of my 12 months in country, was, without a doubt, one of the finest individuals and leaders I ever met in my 20-year career. Upon his departure in March ’71, he informed me he recommended me for a Bronze Star.

That was the last thing on my mind as I sat on a river assault boat in the middle of the U Minh Forest during one of the biggest offensives of the war. In April ’71, unbeknownst to me or Van Westendorp, the Awards Board in Saigon had downgraded my Bronze Star recommendation to a Navy Commendation Medal. What goes around comes around. That same month my tour ended, and I headed for BUPERS, Washington DC, as head of the Enlisted Personnel Vietnam Reassignment Group. It was tough enough granting everybody their promised preferred assignment coming out of Vietnam, but by July ’72, my group and our counterparts in officer reassignment were all ahead flank keeping up with the expedited withdrawal under President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” of the war.

On a short trip to Saigon, I saw firsthand the growing despair in our Vietnamese friends. I had long since received my Navy Commendation Medal in a nice ceremony with the Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel. On one of those busy July days, out of the blue, I got a surprise visit from now Captain Van Westendorp, on assignment to BUPERS in preparation for a choice assignment in London. I was impressed that he had sought me out, and we enjoyed a wonderful reunion.

As we caught up, he glanced at my ribbons and asked, “where is your Bronze Star?”. Taking my explanation aboard, he mentioned as he left that he would right the wrong of an unjust decision. I thanked him, but thought that with a marriage in his near future and his London assignment, he would never revisit the medal award. However, I had greatly underestimated his resolve and perseverance.

Steve, as I now referred to him, immediately sent a letter to the Commander of Naval Forces Vietnam, recommending reconsideration and award of the Bronze Star. Meanwhile, I had reconsidered my career, and transferred to the Navy Supply Corp, completed Supply Corps School, and by 1974 was aboard the USS Tattnall  as Supply Officer. In April ’75 I sadly watched with the rest of the world the evacuation of the American Embassy and the fall of Saigon. The war was over, and as I prayed for my Vietnamese friends left behind, I certainly had no more thoughts about past awards. However, from his post in London, Steve had somehow breathed new life into his reclama, personally shepherding it through the Pacific Fleet to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy directed the Chief of Naval Operations to cancel my 1971 Navy Commendation Medal, and award in its place the Bronze Star.

On 16 December 1975, as I excitedly prepared for my next assignment as Contracting Officer for the Naval Academy and Naval Station Annapolis, I received the following short note from Steve:

“Dear Dick, Well, as you can see from the attached, perseverance pays off, and we have carried the day, as it were! I thought I would send this off as a little Christmas present, and I extend my hearty congratulations both on receiving the well deserved Bronze Star, and for the super performance you gave in RVN which lead to it.”

Finally, in January 1976, as I enjoyed every facet of my Academy assignment, I was called to the Office of the Superintendent, where Rear Admiral Kinnaird McKee ’51. USN (Ret.) presented my Bronze Star Medal. Now that was special!

I sent a note of gratitude to Van Westendorp ,and after that, life and careers took over and we never spoke again.  As I stated at the beginning, this five-year evolution taught me valuable lessons in leadership. First, if something is the right thing to do, then do it, regardless of personal ramifications. I still believe that my stance on “end of tour awards” in Vietnam was correct, though it possibly influenced the initial decision on my own award.

More importantly, I learned from Steve Van Westendorp the value of courage, tenacity, perseverance, and a passion for those under your command. In a strange coincidence, on 1 May 2020, I decided to go through my “life in a box” collection of memorabilia, and came upon the correspondence related to this story. I thought again about Steve and his remarkable quest for my Bronze Star. On a whim, I Googled his name, and was stunned to see that he had passed away on the previous day, 30 April. I read the obituary, and cried as I wrote my memories and condolences on the Legacy site.

I noted that Steve had a surviving son, Christiaan. A subsequent research showed Captain Christiaan Van Westendorp ’99, NOAA is a graduate of the Naval Academy. I have reached out in the hopes that I can relate this story to him personally. Meanwhile, R.I.P. Captain Steve Van Westendorp.


1960 Army-Navy Game

by CAPT Rob Sollenberger '67 (7th Co.), USN (Ret.)

In 1960 my late father, Captain Harold “Gus” Sollenberger, USNA ’43, was the BUAER representative at the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine manufacturing plant in East Hartford, Connecticut.  The Army-Navy football game was fast approaching and my father, for the first time in many years, was within spittin’ distance of Philadelphia, and was determined to take my mother, me, and another Navy pilot to the game.  This would require him to obtain four tickets, the Holy Grail of Army-Navy ticketdom, and a feat next to impossible.  However, somehow this  humble Pennsylvania farm boy pulled it off, and shortly before game day an envelope arrived at our home with not only four tickets, but four consecutively-numbered tickets so we could all sit together!   Life was good!

We were in high spirits as we made our rendezvous in Philadelphia, and only then did we look to see where our seats were.  While we fully understood that not everyone could be seated on the 50-yd line, our seats were at the complete opposite end of the desirability spectrum, in the highest row of the nosebleed section, and which were bore-sighted thru BOTH sets of goalposts with a precision that would have made any shipyard dry-docking officer turn green with envy.  Well, we rationalized that "We were at THE Army-Navy Game, AND we were all seated together so a little altitude sickness wasn't going ruin our day.”   After an agonizingly-long climb to our seats we arrived only to discover that "four consecutively-numbered seats” does NOT necessarily mean “seated together.”  Our four seats were divided into two sets of two each, with one pair located on each side of an exhaust chimney serving the restrooms and food vendors in the lower bowels of the stadium.  In the best tradition of the Stoics, we sighed and once again rationalized that “We were at THE Army-Navy Game, AND we were going to see the LEGENDARY Joe Bellino in his final Navy game.  Who cares that in order to talk to the other half of our party we had to lean over and around the folks in the next row down, praying all the time that we would not lose our balance?”

Through all of this my mother was the epitome of the good Navy Wife as she fought to maintain her dignified composure, while my dad, our guest and I thought that no price was too high to pay to be part of the adventure that is THE Army-Navy Game.  That is, until only two feet above our heads ominous noises presaged what was about to happen when, without further ado …


To Mom’s credit she almost, but not quite, “lost it!”

I’m still not sure if I ever saw Joe Bellino on the field.  A pair of shipboard “Big Eyes” might have done the trick, but even had they been available, no one wanted to lug them up to nosebleed row.

Epilogue … After hearing of our ordeal, the maître d’hôtel at the Old Original Bookbinder's seafood restaurant took pity on us, and despite the odors which permeated our clothing, he invited us in for their trademark lobster and special seafood soup dinner which he refused to allow us to pay for.  My theory is that, in addition to being a nice guy, he thought he had a winner for the next “can you top this?”story contest at the local bar.


You Can Take the Boy off the Farm, But....

By Captain Richard (Nick) Holman, '67, USNR (Ret.)

I’m not sure if the academy mess hall still has raisins for breakfast in the small, one ounce food service boxes, but they did when I was going through school.  It was during 1C year that it occurred to me that raisins are dried grapes.  As a farm boy from Iowa, I’d had plenty of experience gathering wild grapes from our woods and turning them into a concoction euphemistically called “country wine”.  I think you can see where this is going.  Raisins were not particularly popular at my table so I had no trouble accumulating about 50 boxes (about three pounds) of raisins.  I won’t bother giving the details of turning table raisins into wine but, at one point, sugar and the harvested juice are combined, and then it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting nature do its’ part.  And that’s when the trouble started.

My “still” was a couple of glass bottles that had the screw-type tops.  They had to be kept screwed very tight so that:  (a) my room wouldn’t smell like a still, and (b) the bottles would safely fit into my confidential safe laying on their sides.  (Where else would you keep a top secret item like this without fear of it being discovered during a room inspection by the company officer?)  However, it was extremely important that the pressure building up in the bottles – they were fermenting, you know – was released every day, without fail.  I made it a point of routinely doing this right before noon meal formation.  One day I was running a tad late, so I decided I’d wait until after the noon meal to open the safe and relieve the pressure in the bottles.  In those days only Firsties were allowed to leave the mess hall early – which I did as soon as they gonged the bell.  As I was coming down the corridor on my deck I picked up a distinct and aromatic smell.  Knowing instantly what it was, I rushed into my room and there, dripping onto the floor, were the remains of my prized concoction.  Both bottles had blown.  I immediately went into overdrive, racing to the Moke Shack to get a mop, pail and lots of Pinesol.  I was able to get the mess – broken bottles and all – cleaned up before the rest of the company returned from noon meal.  My one, last concern was turning in the confidential pubs at the end of the year with wine stains all over them.  I was, fortunately, able to put the really badly stained pubs at the bottom of the stack and get them turned in without incident.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d gotten caught.  At a minimum I suspect I would have “earned” a Black N.  And, if the Administration wasn’t particularly taken by my creative and daring initiative, it probably would have been much worse!

Class History

Spanning a Century of Change 1917 – 2017

If there had been a program called “Another Link in the Chain” in 1963, our Reef Points would have contained the history of the Great Class of 1917. Those young men were to witness World War I and the transition beyond ships powered by wind or coal fired steam into combat using submarines and aircraft. The Class of 1917 would never have imagined nuclear powered ships, space travel, computers and advanced satellite communications. They entered a Naval Academy built on the 1896 master plan of world renowned architect Ernest Flagg which situated the buildings as a reflection of the Naval Academy’s mission develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically. Bancroft Hall and its companions Macdonough Hall and Dahlgren Hall were to care for and develop the physical needs. Mahan Hall and wings of Sampson Hall and Maury Hall were to develop the academic and mental capacities. The Naval Academy Chapel, commanding attention on the highest point, was there to develop the moral character of Midshipmen. All three components faced upon Dewey Basin and the Severn River from which Midshipmen would launch their training and careers.

The Class of 1917 saw an early graduation in March of that year as the United States declared war on Germany. During 1917, Bancroft Hall would see the addition of two wings to double the size of enrollment as World War I progressed.

Fast forward 50 years and the Brigade would increase to 4,400, Bancroft Hall would have eight wings and the Yard would have many new facilities. On a hot, humid, and sunny June 26th in 1963, the Great Class of 1967 took the oath of office on Tecumseh Court. A diverse group of 1,291 young men whose parents’ lives spanned the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War were challenged to face the familiar constant – change. That year, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was still new; President Kennedy had issued the challenge to reach the moon and safely return; and personal computers were called slide rules.

Many changes impacted our 4 years together by the Bay. By 1963, many new facilities had been added to Flagg’s design to strengthen naval, physical and academic training. Michelson and Chauvenet Halls were built during our four year tenure. The brigade was no longer required to march to classes as the academic curriculum became more diverse with elective courses and majors. On Sundays, we continued to march to mandatory Chapel or to church services in town. We observed the constitutional passing of power when the nation was shocked by the assassination of a President. We were privileged to be led by three very dynamic and different Superintendents. The Brigade expanded from 24 to 36 companies. Most significantly, we watched with anticipation as the conflict in Vietnam was changed by an incident at sea from a military advisory role to an air and ground war updated on the nightly television news. While change would continue to be a constant factor, our mutual sense of virtue remained anchored in the Naval Academy values of Honor, Courage and Commitment embodied in Ernest Flagg's vision.

At graduation, classmates headed out to careers of service. Most selected unrestricted Navy line billets, a few selected restricted duty, 86 chose the Marines, and 6 went on to become SEALs in the early days of Special Operations. During the ensuing conflicts, 6 Silver Stars for valor were awarded as well as numerous Air Medals, Distinguished Service Medals and Purple Hearts. The Vietnam War claimed 9 classmates and 1 POW held in the Hanoi Hilton. Their memory is kept alive in Memorial Hall.

The mid-1970s were times of cutbacks and oil crises which impacted many of our career decisions. Some classmates opted for continuing to serve with the reserve forces. Many more moved into civilian careers or roles in government. All were to find value in their leadership and character development received at USNA.

As the years passed, like all classes before and after the Great Class of 1967, there were individuals who would rise to high levels of leadership in the Navy and Marine Corps, our nation and our culture. These included a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps; a Commander of Strategic Command; a Commander of the Atlantic Fleet; the 30th Superintendent of the US Naval Academy; and 14 other flag officers. Two Naval Aviators, one Navy and one a Marine, became NASA astronauts. In federal government, classmates served as a Deputy Secretary of State, and a Secretary of Veteran Affairs. Many went on to careers of service as doctors, lawyers, clergy, corporate CEOs, FBI agents, authors, appointed and elected officials. The Naval Academy recognized three classmates for its Distinguished Graduate Award.

Perennially, the Class of 1967 has been proud to support the institution which gave us such great opportunities with generous gifts to both the Alumni Association and Foundation and the Naval Academy Athletic Association through funding of strategic needs in facilities, programs and athletics. We have participated in several large fundraising campaigns building Navy – Marine Corps Memorial Stadium facilities, the Visitors Center, Alumni Hall, and the Stockdale Center for Ethics.

Fifty years from now the Class of 2017 will forge a link across half a century of change. The more the change, the greater the need will be for well prepared leadership.