Retired Lt. Col. Hal Fritz is a humble man, and tries not to be the center of attention.
When he was honored at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, he tried to emphasize that he wouldn’t be alive today if he tried to go it alone.
That’s when some of the men he served and survived with in Vietnam surprised him, celebrating the Medal of Honor he earned for heroism 50 years ago.
“I got an email that said they wanted to ‘ambush’ him, to surprise him on the anniversary,” said Fritz’s son, Michael. “I knew it was a good opportunity.”
Five of the men of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment shared their story, now on display in the museum.
“He (Fritz) was there and really cared for the men that he was responsible for,” said Bill Lister, one of the men who served under Fritz. “And if it wasn’t for that responsibility that he had, I’m not sure that we would be here today.”
Fritz and his platoon were driving APC’s (Armored Personnel Carriers) in Vietnam on January 11th, 1969 when they were attacked by almost 200 North Vietnamese soldiers.
Of their 28 men, two were killed, and almost all of them were wounded.
That battle is depicted in a mural painted and on display at the Riverfront Museum.
Fritz was in command, but credits his men.
He rallied everyone available – even their medic – to repel the attack.
“He says, ‘you know, Doc, you’re really doing a good job, but you may have to pick up a gun and start shooting or we’ll be overrun,'” recalled retired Specialist ‘Doc’ Fabian with a chuckle.
Fritz himself was shot during the attack.
His lighter, given to him by his wife before deployment, deflected the bullet that would’ve pierced his heart.
“I don’t advocate smoking,” said Fritz in a documentary video, “but had I not been smoking at that particular point in my life, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story.”
Two years later, in 1971, President Nixon awarded Fritz the Medal of Honor for his heroism in saving over two-dozen lives and holding out against the ambush.
He’s one of 73 recipients still living.
“The Medal is a symbol,” said Fritz. “I wear my blue ribbon, Medal of Honor to in fact honor those that have served and died in service.”
“I want them to look at (the display) and see war is a horrific, chaotic and terrible thing. And if we can do anything to prevent it, lets do that.”
The display is free to view, and stationed next to the museum’s front desk.