BATH, Maine — Marine 1st Lt. Harvey “Barney” Barnum jumped to the ground when he came under fire during an ambush in Vietnam that killed his radio operator and commander.
Collecting himself, Barnum realized he was now the highest-ranking officer of a rifle company he’d just joined. He called in artillery and, amid gunfire, dragged the commander to safety, where he died in Barnum’s arms. Then he proceeded to mount a counterattack, oversee evacuation of the wounded and lead the unit’s eventual break out to rejoin the battalion.
The Medal of Honor recipient, now 83, watched Saturday as his wife smashed a bottle of sparkling wine against the bow to christen the future U.S. Navy destroyer that’ll bear the name Harvey C. Barnum Jr.
He said he was speechless when he learned that a warship would bear his name. “As anybody that knows Barney Barnum knows, I’ve never been speechless,” he joked before the event.
The ceremony on Saturday at Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works was a tribute to the Vietnam War hero who during his first firefight was foisted into leadership of Marines who didn’t yet know his name because he’d just joined them a couple of days earlier.
Dignitaries included Maine’s governor and senators, as well as Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, who praised Barnum’s humility and generosity, in addition to being a war hero who inspired fellow Marines.
Gen. Eric Smith, the acting Marine Corps commandant whose nomination to lead the Marine Corps is being blocked by a Republican senator, called Barnum “an icon, a legend, a Marine.”
In an interview, Barnum said the combat was harrowing on that day, Dec. 18, 1965, during Operation Harvest Moon. His unit was outnumbered, caught off guard and separated from the larger battalion outside the village of Ky Phu in Quang Tin Province.
The ship’s namesake said he was scared like everybody else but he tried not to show it. The other Marines were looking to him, an artillery spotter, after their commander died, he said.
To launch a counterattack, he brandished a .45-caliber handgun and told the others to follow him. They did.
“It’s a tough business. But when it gets tough, the tough get going and that’s what Marines do,” he said. “We came together as a team. And, you know, there’s no fury unleashed that’s greater than that of a bunch of Marines that know that their buddies have been shot.”
Barnum later became the first Medal of Honor recipient in the Vietnam conflict to return for another tour. He retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel after nearly three decades of service and served the secretary of defense as principal director of drug enforcement policy, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for reserve affairs, and acting assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs.
Barnum, of Reston, Virginia, was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, and studied at Saint Anslem College, a Benedictine college in Goffstown, New Hampshire. The school’s abbot, Mark Cooper, delivered the invocation on Saturday.
The event was a family affair for Barnum, who now lives in Virginia.
His wife, Martha Hill, served as the ship’s sponsor. At the event Saturday, she was in a wheelchair; Barnum has been her care provider since she had a stroke more than five years ago. Her daughter; two granddaughters, one of whom sang “God Bless America;” and an 11-year-old great-granddaughter were also participants at the event Saturday. Other family and friends were present.
Displacing 9,500 tons, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is built to simultaneously wage war against submarines, aircraft and missiles, and other warships. The newest versions are being equipped for ballistic missile defense.
The 510-foot guided-missile destroyer was in dry dock for the ceremony as work continues to prepare the ship for delivery to the Navy.