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Castille, others fight to upgrade a hero's medal

Ron Castille will never forget his 23d birthday. "It changed my life," he said. On that hot March 16 in 1967, Marine Lt. Castille was dodging automatic gunfire in a dried-up rice paddy at Duc Pho, South Vietnam, when he was shot in the thigh and unable to move.

Ron Castille, chief justice of the Pa. Supreme Court, in 2007. He often pays tribute: "Angel Mendez gave me my life . . ."
Ron Castille, chief justice of the Pa. Supreme Court, in 2007. He often pays tribute: "Angel Mendez gave me my life . . ."Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / File Photograph

Ron Castille will never forget his 23d birthday. "It changed my life," he said.

On that hot March 16 in 1967, Marine Lt. Castille was dodging automatic gunfire in a dried-up rice paddy at Duc Pho, South Vietnam, when he was shot in the thigh and unable to move.

Just as his chances of survival seemed most hopeless and bullets kicked up the ground around him, Castille heard a voice: "I'm coming, lieutenant, I'm coming."

Cpl. Angel Mendez, 20, crossed the open paddy, carried Castille - though shot in the shoulder - and was hoisting the officer over an earthen embankment to safety when he was mortally wounded.

In the 43 years since then, Castille's thoughts have often returned to that day.

He went on to become Philadelphia's district attorney, served as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and is now chief justice. But he reminds others - at veterans events and other speaking engagements - why he was able to achieve what he did.

"Angel Mendez gave me my life . . . and sacrificed his," says Castille.

He says he has tried to live for Mendez and has campaigned, along with Marines, members of Congress, and others, to ensure that Angel Mendez's sacrifice is honored with the nation's highest military decoration - the Medal of Honor.

Mendez was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and promoted to sergeant. But his selfless actions, in the face of a deadly hail of gunfire, deserve more, said Castille, adding: "I will always remember him."

"I lost a brother, but I guess I also gained one," said Mendez's brother, Ismael "Iszzy" Mendez, 68, referring to Castille.

"Angel went beyond the call of duty; he disregarded his own safety," added Mendez, an Army veteran who lives in Fort Myers, Fla. "It would be great to acknowledge his act of heroism."

Over the last several years, U.S. Rep. Michael McMahon (D., N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) have joined the effort to upgrade Angel Mendez's medal, sending letters to the military on his behalf.

"You never know what the ripple effect of one selfless act will be," said McMahon. "In this case, the ultimate sacrifice of one individual allowed another to live on to become Pennsylvania's highest judge."

One of the organizations pushing the hardest for Mendez is the Mount Loretto Alumni Association, whose members, like Mendez, were raised at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, an orphanage on Mount Loretto, Staten Island, N.Y. "We feel his actions were of such a caliber that he deserves the Medal of Honor," said Al Richichi, president of the association.

That request, now awaiting action by the Navy, "is probably sitting on a desk somewhere," said Dennis Tobin, commandant of the Marine Corps League, Department of New York, on Staten Island, where Angel Mendez is now buried. "We've been working on this for at least seven years. . . . What more can you give than your own life?"

Mendez's backstory

Castille had known Angel Mendez for only three months when the two of them were ordered to take part in Operation DeSoto, a search-and-destroy mission in Quang Ngai province.

"You get to know each other pretty quickly in a combat situation," Castille said. "I knew he grew up in an orphanage. He always said he found a family in the Marine Corps."

Mendez's parents were unable to care for him and his siblings because of health and financial problems. Two were sent to foster homes and six - including Angel and Ismael - were placed at the Mount Loretto orphanage.

At age 18, many left the orphanage for military service. "You lived in an orphanage where people told you what to do and gave you three meals a day, and you went to another place where people told you what to do and gave you three meals a day," said Richichi.

Mendez was described as "easygoing" and "soft-spoken" by his brother Ismael and Ismael's wife, Aida.

In 1966, shortly before Angel went to Vietnam, the couple went to a movie with him and a girlfriend. "He told me, 'Maybe I won't come back,' " recalled Ismael Mendez. "I told him, 'Don't worry about it. You'll be back.' That was the last time I saw him."

The Duc Pho battle

On the afternoon of March 16, 1967, Angel Mendez was looking for Viet Cong at Duc Pho - and was ready for action, with a M-79 grenade launcher, a mean-looking weapon resembling a sawed-off shotgun.

Four platoons - one at the point with Castille, two on the flanks, and one in the rear - passed through a village and rice paddy there.

"I was the meanest mother in the valley," said Castille. "I had 40 troops, machine guns, rockets, hand grenades, and 81mm mortars."

He could also call in fire from 105mm howitzers, 175mm long guns, a destroyer off shore, and A-4 and F-4 fighter jets.

Despite the heavy firepower, they were vulnerable. Marines on one of the flanks didn't properly clear a village, leaving others in the rear open to ambush by Viet Cong who had apparently been hiding in so-called spider holes.

By the time the enemy opened fire, Castille and his platoon had already made it to the safety of a fortified village, surrounded by a 10-foot wall of earth.

He didn't stay long. The young lieutenant was ordered back to the rice paddy - with three squads of 12 men - to help pinned-down comrades and pick up the casualties. "It's a tradition of the Marines that we don't leave our dead and wounded on the battlefield," Castille said.

The only cover was the covering fire of artillery. The Marines entered a killing field raked by the automatic fire of enemy guns, including a .51-caliber Chinese-made machine gun.

"Bullets were flying, and artillery was coming in while the guys in back of us were firing machine guns and M-14s [rifles]," Castille said. "There were clouds of dust from explosions. You could smell gunpowder, and palm trees and bamboo and thatch huts were burning."

In the chaos, a round from the Viet Cong's .51-caliber machine gun crashed into Castille's right thigh. He tried to stanch the bleeding by pushing mud into the open wound, but he couldn't move.

That's when Mendez made his way toward the lieutenant and the other Marines, firing his grenade launcher at the enemy.

"I told him to stay where he was," Castille said. "I said, 'Stay under cover.' But he defied my orders and came to get me. He had a compress and tied it on. Then, he picked me up" and headed nearly 100 yards to the friendly lines.

Mendez was hit in the shoulder, and two comrades tried to help him, but the corporal wouldn't release his lieutenant, carrying him to the wall where he shielded him from fire.

At that moment, just inches from safety, Mendez was hit again, this time fatally, as he and Castille went over the wall together.

During the desperate fighting that followed, helicopters came in to extract the dead and wounded. Castille helped oversee the transfer and later received a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor for his heroism.

For him, though, the battle was not over. As his helicopter took off, bullets peppered the aircraft, passing through its skin. One fragmented and struck Castille in his wounded leg.

"You lose all that blood and circulation, and they have to amputate," the chief justice said. Medical personnel "wanted me to sign a piece of paper. They said, 'Here, lieutenant, sign this.' I said, 'What's that?' 'We have to take your leg off.'

"I said, 'I'm not signing anything,' " he recalled. "They said, 'Well, you can die,' and I said, 'I don't care.' They took the leg off anyway - against my will."

Before Duc Pho, "I was a combat warrior," he said. "After that, I was a handicapped person."

Yet, always goal-oriented, Castille finished law school and went on to significant achievements.

"He was meant to live," said Aida Mendez. "He should have been killed that day in 1967, and yet he survived. That's fate."

Young Marine's heroism

Forty-one years later, in 2008, Castille was installed as the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and he gave a speech.

As he had done at other important events in his life, he mentioned Duc Pho and the heroism of a young Marine. "Angel saved my life that day," he said.

In his 18th-floor office this month, with the city spread out below him, Castille picked up a framed photo of himself in his dress Marine uniform. It was taken in 1966 shortly before he was deployed.

"I still think about him," he said of Sgt. Angel Mendez.