By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader
It was 52 years ago when Ed Johnson, commander of the 575 Purple Heart Association, served with U.S. Army Pfc. Milton Lee Olive, III, 18. During a search and destroy mission in Vietnam, the teenager spotted a live grenade. He put it on his stomach allowing it to explode. His action saved the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Olive was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor for his valor.
Johnson, then a member of Company B of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, remembers Olive, whose family called him Skipper. “I was there with Skipper when he made the ultimate sacrifice. He was young and industrious,” the 73-year-old Johnson recalled. ”We found out a half-hour later about his death.”
There were four squads assigned to that search and destroy mission, according to Johnson. On October 22, 1965, Johnson said he was about 100-yards from Skipper when the teenager spotted the live grenade.
Young Olive saved the lives of four comrades, John “Hop” Foster, Lionell Hubbard, Jimmy B. Stanford and Vince Yrineo—two Blacks, two whites. And today, because of an 18-year-old scrawny kid from Englewood, all of them have grandchildren.
Olive was this writer’s cousin. His father, Milton B. Olive, II, was a supervisor with the city of Chicago and professional photographer. In January of 1993 he asked this writer to never let the nation forget what his son, his only child, did for this nation. It was a deathbed wish; he died two-months later of cancer. No one knows why his son chose to absorb the blast of the grenade.
And that question still haunts retired Captain Stanford every day of his life. He placed Skipper’s picture on his wall, and Stanford said every day he asks, “Why me? Why did God spare my life?”
Grateful to Skipper for saving his life, Skipper’s heroic act has been the reason why Stanford is now teaching his grandchildren racial harmony. He even married a Latino—an ethnic group he admits he also once hated. Stanford has left hatred behind.
Young Olive died a long way from home. Born on November 7, 1946 to Olive II and his wife Clara, Milton was born a breech baby, feet first. His mother died hours later. His father asked this writer’s paternal grandparents, Zelphia Wareagle and Jacob A. Spencer, to raise him. Ten years later, Olive married Chicago Public School teacher Antoinette Mainer. He moved his son in with his new wife. It was a decision that changed both of their lives.
Skipper always felt Mrs. Spencer was his mother. He ran away from home to his paternal grandfather’s home in Lexington, MS. He joined a Southern Voter Registration campaign, but when his father found out what he was doing, he gave him three options: go back to school, get a job or join the military. Olive II feared the KKK would kill his son.
During the Memorial Day ceremony at Milton Lee Olive Park at 500 N. Lake Shore Drive, Johnson posed for pictures by the Olive plaque. The 10 acre public park, located west of the city’s Jardine water purification plant is a “natural” memorial featuring grassy areas for recreation, and paths for walking, jogging and biking. Striking views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline can also be seen.
This writer thanked the late Mayor Richard J. Daley for naming the park after Skipper in 1966 during a time when critics warned him about the political dangers of naming a lakefront park after a “Negro.” This writer also thanked the mayor for naming Olive/Harvey College after Skipper, where the same opposition surfaced. Critics did not want the college named after someone Black.
According to Elder Kevin A. Ford, the late Bishop Louis Ford’s grandfather, Bishop Ford intervened and was able to get a compromise. The college shares the name Olive with that of a white man named Carmel B. Harvey, an infantryman who also was awarded the Medal of Honor.
“Today is a day I look forward to,” said Johnson. “I have been to the park every year. I’m always here come rain or shine. Skipper and I served together, and I’ll be here until I am not able to come.
This writer quoted Skipper’s dad who wrote, “It is our dream and prayer that some day Asians, Europeans, Israelites, Africans, Australians, Latinos and Americans can live in one world. The blood Skipper spilled in Vietnam continues to heal today, especially with the family of Captain Stanford.”