Retired Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell, 72, a 1965 graduate of Hoquiam High School and at one point near the time of his retirement, was reportedly the most decorated active member of the Army, died at his home in Eufaula, Alabama, Monday.
Bargewell was a former commander of Delta Force, an elite Army unit tasked with some of the most highly classified and dangerous missions in the military, involving hostage rescue, counter terrorism operations and other high-risk missions.
Barbour County, Alabama Coroner Chip Chapman confirmed Bargewell’s death to WRBL News in Columbus, Georgia, Tuesday. Chapman told the news station Bargewell died suddenly when a riding lawnmower he was operating rolled over an embankment behind his house.
Shortly before his retirement from the service, Bargewell told The Daily World in a March 13, 2006 interview, when he was serving as strategic operations officer for the multi-national force in Iraq, “As a child growing up, I was always interested in the military. I still remember watching newsreels from World War II and the Korean War, and thinking that was something I wanted to be a part of. When I was promoted to brigadier general — one star — my mother told me that when I was 6, we were watching a newsreel of the Korean War, and a general was talking on it, and I pointed and told her that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Bargewell started his military career at the bottom, two years out of Hoquiam High School, and retired as a two-star general.
His father, Arthur, was principal of Washington Elementary School for a number of years. After high school graduation, Bargewell went to Grays Harbor College on a football scholarship.
“When that didn’t work out, due to knee injuries, I enlisted (in the Army) in January 1967, and volunteered for Airborne infantry training,” said Bargewell in the 2006 interview. “I also volunteered for Special Forces/Green Berets. I spent the next couple of years in Vietnam as a Special Forces weapons specialist.”
During his two tours in Special Forces as a Non-Commissioned Officer Team Leader, Bargewell conducted over 25 reconnaissance, direct action and team recovery missions into Laos and North Viet Nam.
During a cross border mission on Sept. 27, 1971, then Staff Sgt. Bargewell was a member of a long range reconnaissance team operating deep in enemy territory when the team was ambushed by an estimated 75- to 100-man enemy force, according to Special Operations Command. Bargewell was seriously wounded by an exploding B-40 rocket in the initial assault but managed to place “a deadly volume of machine gun fire on the enemy line. As the enemy advanced, he succeeded in breaking the assault and forced them to withdraw with numerous casualties.”
The enemy regrouped and resumed their assault, and Bargewell “exposed himself to the enemy fire in order to hold his position and prevent the enemy from overrunning the small team.” After breaking the second assault, Bargewell refused medical treatment in order to defend the perimeter.
His actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military award that can be given to a member of the Army for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.
Long, storied career
Shortly after returning from Vietnam in 1972, Bargewell attended Infantry Officers’ Candidate School. During his remaining 33 years of service, he commanded special operations units from team to Special Operations Command level in Cambodia, Laos, North Viet Nam, the Middle East, El Salvador, Operation Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm in Iraq, Restore Democracy and Allied Force in Bosnia and Kosovo, and served as Director of Operations for operations Restore Hope in Haiti, Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.
In 2006, the Army told The Daily World Bargewell was the most highly decorated soldier still in active duty at the time. Bargewell’s decorations include three Bronze Stars (with the combat “V” for valor under fire), four Purple Hearts, the Army Commendation Medal (with combat “V”) and a Presidential Unit Citation for his Vietnam service with the legendary Special Forces unit known as the Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Studies and Observations Group.
Tim Quigg, who grew up in Hoquiam hearing stories about Bargewell, said he met a four-star general on the golf course a few years ago and asked if he knew Bargewell. “He just looked at me and said, ‘I commanded him. He was a warrior,”’ Quigg recalled.
Many took to Facebook Tuesday to pay tribute to Bargewell.
Former Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney posted, “It is sad to learn the news today that we have lost a true hometown hero in Eldon Bargewell, a 1965 HHS grad who had an exemplary career of bravery and service who started as a private in Vietnam and retired as a Major General in the U.S. Army.”
Durney did not know Bargewell personally but connected with him over the past few years, trying to arrange a trip to bring the decorated soldier back to the Harbor. That trip never materialized.
The Special Operations Association posted Tuesday, “Another heartbreaking loss of a dear friend and special man.” It continued, “This was absolutely one of America’s finest patriots and gentlemen. Those of us blessed to know him have a hole in our hearts that will never be filled.” Dalton Terry Lloyd commented, “I believe the man is a true hero. I had the privilege of serving with him in Vietnam. Salute RIP.”
Amvets Post 389 in Carthage, Tennessee, posted, “Ranger Bargewell had an impact on the Ranger community for four decades. As a young recon Sergeant leading teams across the border into North Vietnam and Laos he was fearless under the most dangerous and complex conditions.”
The U.S. Marine Raider Association said it “joins the US Special Operations community in saluting the passing of the legendary Major General Eldon Bargewell, U.S. Army. Rest in peace, Sir. Your legacy will survive for generations.”
Under a photo of Bargewell as a young soldier, one man commented Tuesday: “Reminds me of Captain America … mighty warrior in the disguise of an all American kid next door.”