La Junta veteran receives 'Quilt of Valor' for heroic actions during Vietnam War

James Bartolo
LA Junta Tribune

After taking a vow of secrecy at the Pentagon, John Daniel headed west and bought civilian clothes at a California Sears.

“No servicemen were allowed in Laos,” said Tila Dunn, president of the Baca County Quilts of Valor Foundation. “That’s why he had to resign from the Air Force. When he went to Laos, he was in civilian clothes.”

Daniel was on a secret mission at Lima Site 85. Atop a 55,080 foot mountain, he operated a secret radar station with fellow U.S. Airmen, members of the CIA, and members of the Hmong Secret Army. Men on mission were called to assist U.S. forces in delivering accurate bombs regardless of condition.

Sports:Fowler, Swink top two girls golf teams at Rye Invitational

Daniel, a long-time resident of La Junta, was gifted with a Quilt of Valor Saturday afternoon by the Quilts of Valor Foundation for his heroic actions in the Battle of Lima Site 85 and service in the U.S. Air Force. Daniel was 20-years-old when he enlisted in 1959 and served until 1979. In his first mission, he tracked aircraft for an evaluation group at the La Junta Bomb plot.

Tila Dunn, president of the Baca County Quilts of Valor Foundation, with local Vietnam veteran John Daniel.

“They simulated dropping bombs and told us how far they missed the object,” Dunn said. “They were also involved with electronic warfare bombers to jam radars. It was a two-fold mission: score and let them know how accurate they were with their bombs and also jamming R-radars. They gave a code to let them know the score.”

In just his first tour of duty, Daniel was called to the secret mission at Lima Site 85.

“The men called to this secret mission were the best of the best, and John was one of the best of the best,” Dunn said.

On March 10, 1968, a CIA agent notified Daniel and others stationed at Lima Site 85 that North Vietnamese forces would soon attack the site. While receiving the news of the attack, Vietnamese rockets began to rain down on the site. Five men, including Daniel, left the bunker to defend radar equipment.

“American intelligence prior to March has stated that there was a slim to zero chance that the North Vietnamese could ever figure out how to climb that mountain because of the steep and straight, up-incline nature of it,” Dunn said.

“About 2 a.m., they weren’t supposed to hear it but they did. They heard voices, not American, and they were shocked.”

More:National parks honor families of fallen with free admission Memorial Day weekend, beyond

The five men defending the radar equipment were Daniel, Richard “Dick” Etchberger, Henry Gish, Stan Sliz, and Donald Springsteadah. Gish, Sliz, and Springsteadah were shot soon after North Vietnamese forces arrived on the mountain, with Springsteadah’s wound being fatal. Daniel was also shot, having wounds in both legs.

“Gish was hit again and this one was fatal,” Daniel said. “During this time, only Dick and I were able to defend ourselves and the others, which at this time, only Stan being alive.

"Dick never got hit during this time and was directing me on what was taking place and what to do.”

Despite being wounded, Daniel was still able to fend off enemy forces, shooting a North Vietnamese soldier. A rescue chopper eventually reached the site. Etchberger, the only one of the crew who was not wounded, put his life on the line by helping lift Daniel, Slitz, and another wounded soldier onto the helicopter. 

“As we were lifting off, there was a short burst of small arms fired that hit the bottom of the chopper,” Daniel said. “I was told later that one round hit Dick and he bled to death before the chopper got to the next spot.”

Etchberger was rewarded for his bravery and sacrifice with a Congressional Medal of Honor in 2010. 

“John spent a lot of time in recovery from injuries,” Dunn said. “Much of that time was alone because he was still under orders of the secret mission.”

After he retired in 1979, Daniel bought the Duck Inn Bar in La Junta. He later attended Otero Junior College and bought an accounting company.

He has done accounting, bookkeeping, and income tax preparation. Daniel is a member of American Legion Post 9, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veteran’s, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“Valor is great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle and that certainly depicts John Daniel,” Dunn said

Education:16 new members inducted into La Junta National Junior Honor Society

La Junta Tribune-Democrat reporter James Bartolo can be reached via email at JBartolo@gannett.com.