Richard Buchanan’s Memorial Day began May 24, 1968, when as an automatic rifleman with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines, First Division, all hell broke loose.
Lance Corporal Buchanan’s company was participating in Operation Allen Brook in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. His unit was moving against well-entrenched North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in the village of Le Bac when it was ambushed by an enemy force, separating two Marine platoons from the remainder of their company.
As Corporal Buchanan’s platoon quickly maneuvered toward the beleaguered Marines, it suddenly came under intense small-arms and automatic weapons fire from an NVA unit that was entrenched in a series of bunkers and spider holes. In the initial burst of fire, several Marines were killed or seriously wounded, including the platoon commander, platoon sergeant, all the squad leaders and the radio operator.
“Observing a well-hidden enemy bunker,” Lance Corporal Buchanan’s Navy Cross citation reads, “fearlessly assaulted the position and directed accurate rifle fire into the emplacement. Then, retrieving the platoon radio and shouting to his comrades to follow, he led the Marines to the relative safety of a nearby pagoda where he established a hasty defense.
“Unable to establish radio communication with his company and upon observing several medical evacuation helicopters in the vicinity, he relayed a request for armed helicopter support. As he directed numerous air strikes on the enemy positions, often within 10 feet of his position, he courageously rushed into the fire-swept area to move the casualties to better protected positions.
“Upon discovering an adjacent bunker occupied by several NVA soldiers, Corporal Buchanan boldly assaulted it single-handedly, silencing the hostile fire.” The award citation described the three-hour battle as intense, though throughout it all he remained in command and with a calm presence of mind that saved numerous Marine lives and inspired all who observed him.
At 11 a.m. today in Placerville, 45-years nearly to the day that he was cited for “outstanding leadership, intrepid fighting spirit and selfless devotion to duty,” Richard Buchanan will join other El Dorado County veterans and citizens at the Veteran’s Monument to honor all who have worn the uniform of our nation and served it in war and peace.
When asked to describe the meaning of Memorial Day, he thought long then said, “It’s there for all of us to remember and honor veterans of all wars and peacetime service who paid the ultimate price to keep America free … that they will long be remembered in our hearts. However, when you’ve been shot in the ass, it means a hell of a lot more than that. It’s not something you take lightly.”
Nothing will be taken lightly in today’s ceremony at the El Dorado County Veteran’s Monument at the Government Center in Placerville. With military precision, the ceremony will begin at 1100 hours. Thereafter, a presentation of colors, the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem sung by the Ponderosa High School Choral Group, a fly-by of four historic WWII T6 Texans by Vulcher’s Row Aviation of Cameron Park, an invocation by chaplain Lt. Col. Tim Thompson, USA and a second fly-by in the missing-man formation will occur.
El Dorado County District I Supervisor Ronald Mikulaco — himself a veteran of the U.S. Army’s Third Division — will serve as master of ceremonies, welcoming the assembled veterans, recognizing recipients of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross, as well as participating flag officers and dignitaries.
California Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Theresa Gunn, a recipient of the state Military Department’s highest civilian honor, will deliver Gov. Jerry Brown’s Memorial Day Proclamation to an audience of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the War on Terror and who served in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world.
Gary Cambell, a member of Friends of the Monument that led the effort to build and maintain the Veteran’s Monument, will then present the keynote address. Campbell comes from a military family. He served in the U.S. Air Force and California Air National Guard; his father was a career Canadian Army officer; and his youngest brother served 37 years in the California Air National Guard. The 35-year El Dorado County resident and defense logistics expert’s talk will be followed by a changing of the guard by Staff Sgt. Pat Smothers, USMC who has been the monument’s sergeant at arms since 2006. Gunnery Sgt. Sean Smothers, USMC — his son — will assume his father’s duties.
Jim Cahill will award the Veterans Monument Scholarship to Ann Donegan of El Dorado High School. Ms. Donegan is the daughter of Navy nurse, Lt. Cmdr. Janet Donegan, USN. The ceremony closes with a wreath laying, including a 21-gun salute, hymn, benediction, playing of bagpipes by Lt. Cmdr. Bill Tubbs, USCGR-Ret, retiring of colors and taps.
Following the ceremony, John Conforti has invited the public and veterans to Smith Flat House in Placerville (2021 Smith Flat Rd.) from 1 to 4 p.m. for a program of music, bagpipes and dining with proceeds ($5 entry) benefitting the “Welcome Home Fund” to build a Veterans of the 21st Century Monument and additional seating at Veterans Monument Plaza.
Whether or not you attend today’s Memorial Day event, visiting Veterans Monument Plaza is a moving memorial on any day. From its carefully tended heights, the crest of the Sierra is seen along the far horizon, symbolic of the places throughout our county from which service men and women — like the Placerville Marine who stood his test of honor 45 years ago — came. It’s not something you take lightly.
John Poimiroo is a Cold War-era sailor who served as a cryptologist from 1965 to 1996.