Clara Lee Olive died four hours after giving birth to her son on November 7, 1946. The staff at the Chicago hospital didn’t expect her delicate, underweight baby to survive, either, but his heartbroken father named the boy, anyway.
Milton Olive, Jr. named the child Milton Lee Olive III. He chose the middle name to honor his son’s late mother, which technically made the numbering invalid, but it seemed unlikely to matter much.
Except that the skinny little baby beat the odds and survived. His health remained fragile for the first few years, but by first grade he had grown into a healthy — though still scrawny — little boy. His father adored his only child, but he needed help from relatives in Chicago and the Mississippi Delta to raise him for the first several years. When Milton III turned ten, his father married a schoolteacher, and the boy came home to live with his dad full time.
Nicknamed Skipper, the serious young man studied the Bible and stayed out of trouble on Chicago’s tough South Side. He learned photography from his father and helped his dad earn extra cash shooting weddings and church picnics. Noting his natural singing talent, his stepmother arranged voice lessons for him.
Skipper spent summers on the farm with his paternal grandparents in Lexington, Mississippi. Instead of enrolling in high school in Chicago, he decided to stay in Lexington to attend All Saints, an academy run by a black Pentecostal church.
In 1964, civil rights activists brought Freedom Summer to Mississippi. They registered voters and set up schools for children and adults. Seventeen-year-old Skipper eagerly joined the movement.
His grandparents promptly banished him back north. Citing the lynching of Emmett Till, the recent shooting of three civil rights of activists and countless arsons and bombings of black churches and houses, they explained, “He’s going to get himself killed, and he’s going to get us killed.”
Skipper’s dad agreed. He gave his son three choices: Go back to school, get a job, or join the military. (It is sobering to note that Vietnam seemed a safer place for a black youth than Mississippi in 1964.)
The boy tried enrolling in school, but discovered to his horror that Chicago public schools refused to recognize the credits he earned as a freshman and sophomore at All Saints, an unaccredited private school.
Unwilling to start over as a 17-year-old freshman, Skipper looked for work, but quickly became discouraged at the meager opportunities on offer.
Impulsively, he borrowed money from a cousin and hopped a train back to Mississippi to stay with friends and rejoin the civil rights movement. However, within a few weeks, his grandparents tracked him down and sent him home to Chicago again.
Determined to do something useful, Skipper enlisted in the U.S. Army, applied for jump school and became a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne. In his first month in Vietnam, he got grazed in a firefight and won a Purple Heart, but did not inform his family because he did not want them to worry. Private First Class Olive wrote home, “We all do a man’s job and wear a man’s clothes and call ourselves men… but some of us are still little boys.” His comrades called him Preacher because he never cursed and spent a lot of time reading the Bible.
Today in 1965, his unit — six men led by Lieutenant Jimmy Stanford — dropped into the jungle on a seek and destroy mission. As they crept through a clearing, a shot rang out. Specialist George Luis took a bullet to the head and died instantly.
The five survivors took cover amid long grass and tree stumps as heavy gunfire erupted from the jungle ahead.
Skipper heard a bullet puncture an adjacent comrade’s helmet. “How bad?” asked John Foster, a brother from Pittsburgh with blood running down his face.
Pfc. Olive saw that the shot had only grazed Foster’s eyebrow.
“You’ll live,” he grinned laconically.
Skipper turned to look at the lieutenant lying on the other side of him, their faces just eighteen inches apart.
Suddenly, a live hand grenade plopped onto the turf between their heads.
Lieutenant Stanford was a seasoned soldier, a former Green Beret who had worked eleven years to rise through the ranks from enlisted man to officer.
However, it was Skipper —Pfc. Olive, the fresh recruit, the 18-year-old kid who had been in Vietnam less than four months — who acted faster. “Look out. Grenade. I got it.” His hand shot out and scooped the grenade into his stomach. He curled his slender body around the charge and rolled away from his comrades to absorb the brunt of the blast. The explosive force shredded his torso and tossed him up in the air, but he saved the lives of his four remaining comrades, who caught only minor shrapnel.
As the Americans returned fire, the Viet Cong melted away into the jungle.
The four men Olive saved — two black, two white — revered his memory. They thought about him every day, knowing that they owed their lives, jobs, homes, children and grandchildren to his selflessness.
Skipper’s sacrifice made a particularly powerful impact on his commanding officer. Lieutenant Stanford grew up in segregated east Texas. When he encountered blacks as a youth, “I’d give them hell… just normal racial harassment, nothing serious, practical jokes, name-calling, kid stuff.”
“Milton Olive changed me,” he said. “I made a vow never to forget him…. His act definitely changed me…. But it didn’t happen overnight. I was a real redneck. I didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to quit feeling negative about blacks.’ It took several years.”
And it changed the course of his military career. In 1970, Stanford helped the Army develop and deliver a racial sensitivity program. “I lost some friends when I got into that field of work,” he remembers.
On April 21, 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson presented Skipper’s posthumous Medal of Honor to his father and stepmother.
The president’s words on that day represent a fitting tribute to Pfc. Olive and an apt reminder of the cause for which he died.
“In dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live….
“Let us never exult over war. Let us not for one moment disguise in the grandest justifications of policy the inescapable fact that war feeds on the lives of young men, good young men like Milton Olive. I can never forget it. I am reminded of it every moment of every day….
“There are times when Vietnam must seem to many a thousand contradictions, and the pursuit of freedom there an almost unrealizable dream.
“But there are also times — and for me this is one of them — when the mist of confusion lifts and the basic principles emerge:
“— that South Vietnam, however young and frail, has the right to develop as a nation, free from the interference of any other power, no matter how mighty or strong;
“— that the normal processes of political action, if given time and patience and freedom to work, will some day, some way create in South Vietnam a society that is responsive to the people and consistent with their traditions;
“— that aggression by invading armies or ruthless insurgency must be denied the precedent of success in Vietnam, if the many other little nations in the world, and if, as a matter of fact, all Southeast Asia is to ever know genuine order and unexploited change;
“— that the United States of America is in South Vietnam to resist that aggression and to permit that peaceful change to work its way, because we desire only to be a good and honorable ally, a dependable, trustworthy friend, and always a sincere and genuine servant of peace….
“On the sacrifices of men who died for their country and their comrades, our freedom has been built. Whatever it is that we call civilization rests upon the merciless and seemingly irrational fact of history that some have died for others to live, and every one of us who enjoys freedom at this moment should be a witness to that fact.
“So Milton Olive died in the service of a country that he loved, and he died that the men who fought at his side might continue to live. For that sacrifice his Nation honors him today with its highest possible award.”
LBJ concluded his speech by reading from a letter sent to him by Skipper’s dad:
“It is our dream and prayer that some day the Asiatics, the Europeans, the Israelites, the Africans, the Australians, the Latins, and the Americans can all live in One-World. It is our hope that in our own country the Klansmen, the Negroes, the Hebrews, and the Catholics will sit down together in the common purpose of good will and dedication; that the moral and creative intelligence of our united people will pick up the chalice of wisdom and place it upon the mountain top of human integrity; that all mankind, from all the earth, shall resolve, ‘to study war no more.’ That, Mr. President, is how I feel and that is my eternal hope for our Great American Society.”
Pfc. Milton Lee Olive III’s grave can be found at West Grove Cemetery in Lexington, Mississippi.