Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Vaughan Dill, Navy Public Affairs Support Element, Det. Northwest
DUPONT, Wash. – Former aviation ordnanceman Paul Buerger loaded armed aircraft with ordnance, taught small arms, conducted small boat patrols of Cam Ranh Bay, was fully involved in heavy firefights, had his boat blown up by NVA swimmer sappers, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions in the Vietnam War. Or was he?
Buerger was presented the Bronze Star with “V” device for Valor by Rear Adm. Gary Mayes, commander, Navy Region Northwest, during a ceremony at Patriot’s Landing in DuPont, Washington, Jan. 25.
“It is my honor and privilege to be here today to present this distinguished award and to celebrate this long overdue presentation,” Mayes said. “Thank you for taking the time to be here today to celebrate this special event and to make this presentation meaningful and memorable for all.”
After graduating from Oak Lawn Community High School in 1967, Buerger, who was born in Chicago and grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side, knew that college was not in his future when the conflict in Vietnam was heating up. Aspiring for a career in law enforcement, he knew right away he would have to put aside his dreams to join the cause.
“It was the height of the Vietnam War, joining the military was just the natural thing to do,” said Buerger. “I picked the Navy because nobody in my family had ever been in the Navy.”
Buerger went to a Navy recruiter wishing to become a Seabee, but the Navy wasn’t looking for Seabees at that time. Willing to do whatever it took to serve his country during the war, Buerger shipped off to boot camp to become an aviation ordnanceman.
“When I went in, I wanted to be a Seabee but that wasn’t the billet they were looking for,” Buerger said. “They needed aviation ordnance, and so they sent me to ‘A’ school in Jacksonville, Florida.”
Upon graduating his advanced training, Buerger was assigned as ship’s company to the USS Coral Sea (CV 43), stationed out of Hunter Point, California, as the forward bomb assembly crew leader.
At the end of his first deployment, Coral Sea pulled into Bremerton, Washington, for repairs, and as fate would have it, Buerger was invited to attend a friend’s wedding, where he met his future wife, who he’s now been married to for 45 years.
“A good friend of mine in ‘G’ division was getting married so he invited me to the wedding. He married my wife’s sister, and that’s when I first met my wife,” said Buerger.
Being on an aircraft carrier well off the coast of Vietnam wasn’t enough for Buerger, so at the conclusion of his first tour, he requested jobs that would bring him closer to the action.
“I spent two years on the USS Coral Sea as ship’s company and I really wanted to get off the ship and do something different,” Buerger said. “I volunteered for a bunch of different jobs that I thought would take me over to Vietnam and I got orders to go to Cam Ranh Bay Naval Air Station.”
Buerger’s first job on the ground in Vietnam was teaching small arms training and maintaining weapons, but even that wasn’t enough, so Buerger volunteered for the small, fast skimmer boats with only three man crews.
While serving in Vietnam, Buerger prevented sabotage missions by capturing more than 30 sampan vessels and 60 Viet Cong soldiers.
It was Buerger and his crew’s work on the skimmer boats, patrolling Cam Ranh Bay and the surrounding waters, exposed to enemy fire and ambush, and ultimately having his boat blown up by North Vietnamese swimmer sappers, that led to him being awarded a Bronze Star.
After his service ended in Dec. 1971, Brueger continued his service to his community, fulfilling his dream of working in law enforcement. Buerger went on to work for the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, Tumwater Police Department, and spent 32 years with Washington State Fish and Wildlife as a police detective before semi-retiring in 2011. He continues serving his community today, working part-time as a court security officer in Thurston County.
Buerger was awarded a Bronze Star with “V” device for Valor, which he received through the mail in approximately March of 1972 for his heroic actions during the Vietnam War. He proudly displayed it on a shelf and didn’t think much more of it.
It was only by chance when Buerger went to Veterans Affairs to sign up for a registry that he discovered, nearly 45 years after receiving it, that his Bronze Star never found its way into his service record.
“I started looking at my DD214, noticing that all my other medals were there, but it didn’t have the Bronze Star,” said Buerger. “I thought, well it’s kind of odd that they didn’t include that, so maybe before I die I should probably check with somebody.”
Buerger, unsure where to turn, called the Department of Veterans Affairs only to find out they don’t handle service record discrepancies, but they did send him in the right direction, directing him to contact the American Legion, where he met Syl Wiles, the American Legion training officer.
“Mr. Buerger called me telling me his story that he had served our country in Vietnam, I asked him to bring me proof, he brought me the citation and my mouth dropped open,” said Wiles. “I assisted him with the documents he needed, but I felt strongly that something else must be done.”
It was Wiles who not only was able to get the service record discrepancy corrected, but decided to take it a step further and see to it that Buerger got the recognition he deserved. She reached out to the Navy.
“There were several moving parts, somewhat like a chess game,” said Wiles. “Patriot’s Landing has been phenomenal. They opened their doors for us, and the American Legion Post 53 has been instrumental in promoting it.”
Wiles coordinated the ceremony at Patriot’s Landing, where Mayes formally presented Buerger with his Bronze Star in front of Washington state representatives, city mayors, the chief of police, and military representatives from Navy Region Northwest and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in attendance.
“The Navy is changing the heartbeat of a Vietnam veteran. I am so very humbled and overwhelmed with the Navy and what they’ve done,” Wiles said. “From an Army wife, I would personally like to thank the Navy. What you all have done is very similar to when a pebble is dropped into a pond, the ripples will go on and on and on.”
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