He died saving fellow Marines in Vietnam. 50 years later, medal given for his bravery

Cpl. Stephen Austin, who grew up in Porterville, after his first tour in Vietnam.
Cpl. Stephen Austin, who grew up in Porterville, after his first tour in Vietnam. Special to The Bee

The Marines were under heavy enemy fire on June 8, 1968 in Vietnam when Cpl. Stephen Austin broke away from his squad and charged toward a machine gunner concealed in a bunker.

The men had been ambushed. A lieutenant wanted to pull them back, but there was concern that many more would die if they retreated and waited for an airstrike.

So Austin, “disregarding his own safety,” stepped into the open and “in full view and under full fire of the enemy in an attempt to get close enough to throw a grenade into the bunker,” recalled a fellow Marine who was there that day, Al Joyner.

Before Joyner died later in life, he wrote about Austin’s heroism.

“He was wounded repeatedly by enemy fire but continued to advance on the bunker,” Joyner said of Austin, who grew up in Porterville, “as he was falling to the ground, he was able to throw his grenade up to the bunker slit to silence the enemy and assure a safe withdrawal of his squad and his platoon. A combination of rifle fire and the explosion of his own grenade resulted in Stephen’s death.”

An account of what he did that day was included in an application requesting that Austin be posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his heroic actions. It was instead upgraded to a Navy Cross, just below the military’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

It will be presented to Austin’s daughter, Neily Esposito, on July 21 by Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller at a 50th anniversary reunion banquet for the 1/27 Marines in Alexandria, Virginia.

Joyner led a first effort to get Austin a military citation. After his application didn’t result in a medal, another Vietnam War veteran who knew Austin, Grady Birdsong, took up the cause and tried again.

To make it happen, it took several years of tracking down fellow Marines and assembling testimonies, including that of Lt. Col. Ronald Gruenberg and Sgt. Don Sell.

Birdsong called it cathartic.

He also wrote about Austin and other veterans in his battalion.

“All of us have survivor’s guilt. … I got to live and I got to come home,” Birdsong said. “It was my duty to tell their story, and I was honored to be able to do that. That was the least I was able to do for these men, especially the ones we lost like Stephen.”

Austin died without knowing he had a daughter, who was born a few months before he was killed. Esposito’s adopted father was also killed in combat during the Vietnam War. She was 2 years old.

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Cpl. Stephen Austin in Vietnam, March 1968, three months before he was killed. Photo courtesy of Allen Austin Special to The Bee

Austin’s last letter, dated June 7, 1968, was pulled from his pocket and mailed to his parents covered in blood stains. They received it two days after learning he had been killed.

“My mother literally fell to the floor,” recalled Austin’s youngest brother, Allen. “My dad, a World War II and Korean War veteran, held it in. We were forever changed. As we now know, freedom isn’t free, and our family paid a high cost.”

Austin wrote home about Operation Allen Brook south of Da Nang, which claimed his life. Part of that letter:

We took 28 wounded and six dead. So our company is hurting for some new men. On my birthday things didn’t go too good. One of my best friends who I met in Hawaii was shot twice in the stomach and he died the following afternoon. His name was Art Sinksen. I am going to write his parents a letter as soon as I go in to Battalion area.

I am so sick of fighting I’ve seen and helped too many boys my age or younger that was wounded or dead. I thank the Lord each morning I get up. Well I should be going on R&R any time. That’s about it over here. So say hi to everyone and take care of yourselves. Bye For Now

All My Love

Your Son Stephen

P.S. Write Soon

Austin enlisted at age 17. The infantryman was killed seven days after his 21st birthday during his second tour in Vietnam. He returned to Vietnam in early 1968 after recovering from a combat injury in November 1965. He is buried in Lindsay.

Allen Austin said the Navy Cross citation verifies the kind of man his brother was. He made a website, stephenaustin.org, to remember and honor his brother and other veterans.

The website enabled Birdsong to reconnect with other veterans. It also led him to Austin’s mother. He visited her several times before she died. Birdsong said she never recovered from the pain of losing her eldest son. His push to get Austin a citation was, in part, for her. He wishes she was still alive to see Austin receive the Navy Cross.

“I know she’s looking down smiling,” Birdsong said.

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Cpl. Stephen Austin, center, with his family, from left, brothers Allen and Dean, and parents Lorene and Albert, in the mid-1960s at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Allen Austin Special to The Bee

Birdsong understands how it took 50 years to get Austin a medal.

“Through no fault of anyone,” he said, “you got to understand that because we were a maneuver battalion, record keeping was by paper and pencil, not pen. We were on the move all the time and to be real honest with you, we weren’t concerned about awards. We were just concerned about staying alive and being able to come home. … A lot of men deserved awards for valor that didn’t receive them.”

Austin is honored in Porterville, where his name is the first one listed on a memorial plaque for local Vietnam War veterans.

It’s also inscribed alongside more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which Allen Austin and Esposito will visit for the first time next week.

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Neily Esposito at the grave of her father, Cpl. Stephen Austin, in Lindsay, CA. Photo courtesy of Allen Austin Special to The Bee

Esposito is looking forward to learning more about her dad from his comrades.

She hopes to get a better understanding of who she is. She thinks her dad has something to do with it, even though he “wasn’t physically here to teach me those qualities.”

Said Birdsong of Austin: “I just want everyone to be proud of him. He’s one of the true warriors … He answered the call, God bless him. I’m humbled to have been with him. He was a true leader.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge