U.S. Army Capt. William “Bill” Albracht joined an “elite group” Saturday as he was bestowed a Silver Star nearly 43 years after his actions helped save the lives of 150 soldiers and allies during the Vietnam War.
In a ceremony held at the First Army headquarters on Arsenal Island, the Rock Island native was presented with his third Silver Star, a rarity in the military. He previously was awarded two Silver Stars from other actions against enemy forces in Vietnam.
Before a standing-room-only crowd, Maj. Gen. Michael Smith detailed Albracht’s actions back in fall of 1969 that led to him earning the third-highest award for gallantry in combat.
Just 21 years old then, Albracht — one of the youngest Army Special Forces captains — arrived at a remote outpost in South Vietnam known as Fire-Base Kate on Oct. 28, 1969. That same day, North Vietnamese forces attacked the base.
“Against great odds and while being greatly outnumbered by the North Vietnamese, Capt. Albracht led
his soldiers through the first wave of attacks,” Smith said, adding that Albracht and his men were outnumbered 40-1. “It was not looking good for the home team.”
While under enemy fire, Albracht carried a wounded soldier to safety and then risked his life again by directing medical evacuation helicopters.
“At one point, he exposed himself to enemy fire to wave off approaching Medevac helicopters — who were vulnerable to B-40 rockets — while attempting to land,” Smith said.
Later wounded himself, Albracht refused treatment and evacuation “so he could lead the fight.”
Days later with supplies running low, he executed orders to evacuate the remaining 150 U.S. soldiers and South Vietnamese soldiers. On Nov. 1, 1969, he led the group through darkness into the dense jungle to link up with another unit five kilometers away.
“For six hours, Albracht and his men persevered, plowing through the jungle with the North Vietnamese in hot pursuit,” Smith said.
Finally near a wide-open clearing, he “sensed a military force was present but was unsure the other side was occupied by the friendly ‘Mike-Force’ or a North Vietnamese ambush. Albracht then walked alone through the clearing to find the friendly ‘Mike-Force’ was on the other side.” He then led his soldiers “stealthily through more enemy lines” to safety.
Smith said a third Silver Star puts Albracht — “one of the Quad-Cities’ own” — in “an elite group which includes some of our nation’s greatest warriors, such as former General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and Col. David Hackworth.”
Albracht, now of Moline, went on to a long career with the U.S. Secret Service, protecting many of the nation’s leaders. He also received three Purple Hearts and five Bronze Star medals during his military career.
Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., who worked with the First Army to have the long-awaited award presented to Albracht, reminded the crowd that it was an “era of national unrest and opposition that Capt. Albracht performed his heroic deeds and that is what makes his heroism especially worthy of our honor today.”
After finally receiving his Silver Star 43 years later, Albracht told the crowd how on some days there will be a sound, a smell or a phrase that takes him right back to the war.
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Albracht was joined at the ceremony by three generations of his family, including his siblings, children, grandchildren and wife, Mary, Albracht.
“I never felt I was needed more and never had I been more scared. I was to lead 150 odd souls to safety. Surrender was never an option,” he said, adding that he would lead his men “out of harm’s way or I would die trying.”
One special guest at the ceremony, Lt. John Kerr, shared the same memories, having been among those 150 soldiers back in 1969.
“He’s a hero, no doubt about it,” he said. “He’s absolutely a hero.”
Kerr, who now lives in Cedar Rapids and received a Bronze Star himself for his actions, recalled how he was the officer in charge of artillery during those long days.
“Everybody was doing the best they could,” he said. “But Bill clearly was the leader.”
Schilling said his office was able to locate 28 of those 150 soldiers and read comments gathered from three of those men. Robert Johnson, an artillery man, wrote, “We placed our lives in Capt. Albracht’s hands and hoped for the best. We were all prepared to die before midnight on Nov. 1.”
According to Schilling, Albracht’s “self-sacrificing nature” made him the only soldier to survive the siege and not receive an award for valor. He said Albracht was to receive it in a ceremony soon after the action, but when a helicopter arrived to pick him up to take him to the ceremony, he had learned of four wounded soldiers who need to be taken to a field hospital. He asked the pilots to take them there first, missing the ceremony.