They were pals in grade school. Even then, John Gary Gertsch “was looking for something,” said his friend Nick Petchel of Enola, Pa. Gertsch “didn’t really find himself until he found a home in the Army,” said Petchel. Gertsch was a bright, eager youngster who advanced quickly to the rank of staff sergeant.
Everything he did was always 150 percent.
Although viewed by others as a little unfocused while growing up, Gertsch was an achiever. That must have influenced his snap decision on a Vietnam battlefield when his fellow soldiers were in peril.
Gertsch “grew up in a children’s orphanage in Sheffield, Pa., with his sister Pati,” Petchel said in a telephone interview. “He had no family but his sister. For me, he was a schoolmate, a fellow Boy Scout, and the only person I knew who was killed in Vietnam.”
Another schoolmate, Tom Curtin of Clarendon, Pa., remembers “John was kind of quiet, but everything he did was always 150 percent, the way he played football, the way he played basketball, the way he served his country.”
Gertsch worked in an auto shop after graduation from Sheffield High School in June 1963. After that, he traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to enlist in the Army. At that time, the United States had fewer than 10,000 troops in Vietnam, but the American role was growing. Gertsch viewed entering the service as a symbolic way of leaving behind Sheffield and Jersey City, N.J., where he’d been born in 1944.
Every inch a soldier, “from his craggy angular face to his jungle-hardened combat boots.”
Gertsch rose in the ranks. After jump school, he had an assignment in Germany, and then went to South Vietnam. As a specialist fourth class (equivalent to today’s rank of specialist), he was interviewed for a feel-good Army news release. The story described him as every inch a soldier, “from his craggy angular face to his jungle-hardened combat boots.”
He became a staff sergeant. His unit, Company E, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, evolved on the scene into an elite jungle-fighting outfit that, according to one member, could “out-Indian the Indians.” Gertsch, with a stern and serious manner, fit perfectly into what amounted to a locally created special operations unit.
The outfit was known as the “Tiger Force.” Members wore boonie hats, berets, and distinctive, tiger-striped fatigues, which were actually standard-issue French army attire. They wore no nametags and no insignia of rank – only a shoulder flash with the words “Tiger Force.” Led by 1st Lt. Fred Raymond, the unit specialized in waging guerrilla-style warfare at close quarters with minimal modern weaponry. They were in effect seeking to out-Viet Cong the Viet Cong.
The outfit and Gertsch became caught up in a furious battle in the A Shau Valley July 15-19, 1969. As platoon sergeant, Gertsch found himself suddenly in charge when his platoon leader was seriously injured and lay exposed to intense enemy fire.
Action at A Shau
An Army citation describes what happened in the firefight:
“Forsaking his own safety, without hesitation … Gertsch rushed to aid his fallen leader and dragged him to a sheltered position. He then assumed command of the heavily engaged platoon and led his men in a fierce counterattack that forced the enemy to withdraw.
“ Later, a small element of … Gertsch’s unit was reconnoitering when attacked again by the enemy. Gertsch moved forward to his besieged element and immediately charged, firing as he advanced. His determined assault forced the enemy troops to withdraw in confusion and made possible the recovery of two wounded men who had been exposed to heavy enemy fire.”
Without … Gertsch’s courage, ability to inspire others, and profound concern for the welfare of his men, the loss of life among his fellow soldiers would have been significantly greater.”
The citation continues its narrative of the action: “Sometime later his platoon came under attack by an enemy force employing automatic weapons, grenade, and rocket fire … Gertsch was severely wounded during the onslaught but continued to command his platoon despite his painful wound.
“While moving under fire and encouraging his men, he sighted an aidman treating a wounded officer from an adjacent unit. Realizing that both men were in imminent danger of being killed, he rushed forward and positioned himself between them and the enemy nearby.
“While the wounded officer was being moved to safety S/Sgt. Gertsch was mortally wounded by enemy fire. Without … Gertsch’s courage, ability to inspire others, and profound concern for the welfare of his men, the loss of life among his fellow soldiers would have been significantly greater.”
On July 17, 1974, Vice President Gerald R. Ford awarded Gertsch’s Medal of Honor posthumously to the soldier’s sister, Pati Gertsch Leggate, who resides today with her husband Richard in Pittsburgh, Pa. The citation for the award praises Gertsch’s “extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty.”
In 1994, seven veterans of the Tiger Force attended a dedication ceremony for Gertsch at Sheffield High School, where his photo is prominently displayed, along with information about his service. Today, the orphanage where Gertsch grew up has become an assisted-living home for senior citizens.
The citation for the award praises Gertsch’s “extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty.”
Gertsch may have wanted to leave behind the community where he grew up – not an unremarkable reason for becoming a soldier – but his hometown has not forgotten him. Last year, students at his alma mater, now called Sheffield Area Middle High School, honored Gertsch at a Veterans Day event.