Dawn Turner Trice
November 28, 2012
Chinta Strausberg was visiting a relative's South Side business in January 1993 when — out of the blue — an elderly uncle telephoned her at the automotive parts shop.
"First I was surprised that he knew I was there, but he kept saying, 'Promise me you will never let the world forget what my son did,'" said Strausberg, a longtime Chicago journalist. "He was so determined."
She didn't understand the urgency of the call until her uncle died of cancer two months later. Since then, Strausberg has been telling the story of her uncle's son Milton Lee Olive III, a Vietnam War hero who saved the lives of four men — two black and two white — in his platoon.
No one ever pleaded with Jim Stanford, one of the white men saved, to tell Olive's story. But he's been telling it, too, explaining how a young, selfless black man changed his views on race.
Chicago's Olive-Harvey College is named after Olive. So is Milton Olive Park at 500 North Lake Shore Drive, near Navy Pier.
First Strausberg's side: She said she never met "Skipper," as the family called Olive, but she started hearing about him when she was just out of high school.
As the story goes, in 1962, he was 16 years old and bored with school so he decided to leave his home in the Englewood neighborhood and run away to live with his paternal grandparents in Mississippi.
"He joined the freedom movement and was registering blacks to vote," Strausberg said. "Uncle Milton's mom said, 'Your son is down here, but you'd better come get him.' It was 10 years after Emmett Till was killed, and my uncle felt the Ku Klux Klan would make him another Emmett Till."
(Emmett was the 14-year-old Chicago boy killed in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. His death helped spark the civil rights movement.)
Strausberg said Olive's father gave his son three choices: Go to school. Get a job. Or, join the military. Olive returned to Chicago in 1964 and joined the Army.
He was a paratrooper and got injured jumping out of a plane during combat. He earned a Purple Heart. "He came home for a while, but felt he had to go back to finish the job," Strausberg said.
"The soldiers who knew him said he didn't curse. He didn't drink. He used to stay in the foxhole, and he had his Bible, and he was a very religious person who was madly in love with his country."
He had a girlfriend, though, or someone he hoped to have as a girlfriend. One of the soldiers whom Olive saved later told Strausberg that he would help Olive compose love letters.
But this is where Stanford picks up the story: On Oct. 22, 1965, Olive, Stanford and three other men embarked on a search-and-destroy mission in Vietnam. Stanford was the platoon leader and had recently joined the unit from the Green Berets.
"We had been caught in an ambush three times that day," said Stanford, 77, who now lives in Texas and in Mexico. "We were lying on the ground receiving and returning fire. The fire was coming in low, and every time somebody would move, it was a magnet attracting fire."
Olive and Stanford were lying side by side when a grenade dropped in the 18-inch space between them. Stanford said he can still see the manufacturer's yellow markings on the grenade.
"Milton Olive pulled the grenade right into himself, like he was hugging it," said Stanford. "Why he chose to absorb the blast, I don't know. He could have easily tossed it on the other side of me and let me absorb it.
"A lot of times I still wake up at night thinking about the why of it. People say, 'When were you last in Vietnam?' I sometimes say, 'A couple of nights ago.'"
Olive died that day, just 16 days before his 19th birthday.
Stanford said he started re-evaluating his feelings about race.
"I was raised in the Deep South in the late 1930s and '40s, and there was a lot of racial tension," he said. "That's what I grew up with. That's what I knew. I learned that at home, and it was like learning how to put on your clothes. But when a man sacrifices his life for you, you rethink your learning."
Stanford and Strausberg, who's writing a book about Olive, have become good friends. They connect often via Facebook.
"I tell people all the time that the blood that Skipper spilled in Vietnam is still healing today," Strausberg said.
Stanford and another soldier are the only two of the four men Olive saved who still are alive.
Strausberg said that after Olive died, his father went to the White House and President Lyndon Johnson awarded Olive the Medal of Honor and a second Purple Heart posthumously. She said Olive was the first African-American who had served in Vietnam to receive the award. He is buried in Mississippi.
"My uncle used to spend hours talking about Skipper at our family reunions and during the holidays," Strausberg said. "I think he remembered the three choices he gave his son — to either go to school, go to work or into the military. I think he grieved himself to death. The only peace he could find would be in making sure his son's story remains alive."