A 1966 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, John R. Burns, who was known as Bob, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and upon graduation from Officer Candidate School, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve in 1967. He was assigned as a platoon commander to Company M, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, reinforcing the 3rd Marine Division on October 4, 1967. The battalion had been deployed to the Republic of Vietnam for more than a year and he was engaged in combat almost immediately.
As part of Operation Kentucky, on 18 January 1968, Burns’ platoon was in a blocking position supporting another unit that was attacking a well-entrenched NVA force northeast of Con Thien. When his platoon came under fire, Burns unhesitatingly led a counterattack against the enemy emplacements. “Undaunted by the enemy fire impacting around him, he moved about the fire-swept terrain directing his men and personally killed five North Vietnamese soldiers,” the account of his heroism read. Overrunning the enemy positions, Burns quickly consolidated his Marines and although still under fire, moved from position to position and encouraged his men. Burns saw that an adjacent unit that was maneuvering toward the enemy was pinned down by fire from an NVA position on a ridge to his front. The narrative continues, “Reacting instantly, he enveloped the enemy force and launched an assault which took the enemy soldiers by surprise, causing them to abandon their positions and flee in panic and confusion into the deadly fire of the other unit.” For his actions that day, Burns was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the citation concluding, “By his courage, aggressive fighting spirit and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Second Lieutenant Burns upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Less than a week later, on 24 January, the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division ordered the 3rd Battalion to clear an ambush site where the 64th NVA Regiment had struck an American convoy moving from Dong Ha toward Camp Carroll on Route 9. Burns, with Mike Company, was among the first Americans to arrive near the objective and with darkness falling, he organized his platoon into a defensive position. At dawn on 25 January, Mike Company swept through the ambush site and into the valley, meeting the enemy as other elements of the battalion arrived by helicopter. By the end of the day, Burns was among 800 of his brother Marines, and his company’s position atop a hill anchored the battalion’s position. The NVA fired mortars into the position throughout the night, wounding 17 Marines, but did not attack and the clearing operation continued on 26 January with limited contact.
After nightfall, Mike Company moved to another hilltop. At approximately 0300 on 27 January, NVA troops launched an intense attack, simultaneously striking Burns’ position from three sides. A Marine wrote of the ensuing fight, “Mike Company responded with its full death-dealing final protective fires. The violent assault quickly evolved into a desperate free-for-all with warriors grappling in hand-to-hand combat.” Two supporting companies fought their way to Mike Company’s position as the fight continued through the day. By 1700, the enemy battalion was forced off the position, having lost 130 killed in action, but the fight for control of Route 9 cost Third Battalion, 4th Marines 21 men killed and 62 more wounded.
John R. Burns was among the dead, having fallen alongside five men from his company, including a private first class from Buffalo, New York, near the college where Bob had been a popular student. He was awarded posthumously the Silver Star Medal for his actions in the 18 January fight near Con Thien, and his name appears on the monument in front of the Reilly Center that honors the members of the St. Bonaventure family who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. His name is also on Panel 35E, Line 44 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, and the memory of Bob Burns remains with his classmates and friends who knew him at St. Bonaventure University.
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