Ola Mize could have stepped right out of a Hollywood movie. Except he was no actor, to put it mildly. He was the real deal.
Mize came from the humblest of backgrounds and went on to become one of his nation’s great heroes.
Despite the adulation showered on him, he remained an anti-hero, so utterly un-Hollywoodlike; so foreign to the celebrity-centric universe of today’s pop culture. Mize was modest, quiet-spoken, selfless and unbelievably brave.
Born the son of a sharecropper in poor northeastern Alabama he left school in grade nine to support his family. Hoping to better himself, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected because of his puny, 120 pounds. So he put on weight. Then he had to cheat on an vision test when Army doctors discovered he was blinded in one eye in a childhood accident. Mize enlisted in the famed 82nd Airborne in 1948, served a term, then re-enlisted for the Korean War.
Only months before the war’s end, his unit was defending a strategic hill called Outpost Harry, near a place called Surang-ni. They were attacked by Chinese and North Koreans. Mize, a Sergeant, went out and rescued a wounded comrade at an isolated listening post.
Then, he noticed a machine gun nest was being over-run and fought his way to his beliegered men, killing ten enemy soldiers in the process.
His Medal of Honor citation describes some of what happened next:
“He was blown down by artillery and grenade blasts 3 times but each time he dauntlessly returned to his position, tenaciously fighting and successfully repelling hostile attacks. When enemy onslaughts ceased he took his few men and moved from bunker to bunker, firing through apertures and throwing grenades at the foe, neutralizing their positions. When an enemy soldier stepped out behind a comrade, prepared to fire, M/Sgt. Mize killed him, saving the life of his fellow soldier. After rejoining the platoon, moving from man to man, distributing ammunition, and shouting words of encouragement he observed a friendly machine gun position overrun. He immediately fought his way to the position, killing 10 of the enemy and dispersing the remainder. Fighting back to the command post, and finding several friendly wounded there, he took a position to protect them … At dawn he helped regroup for a counterattack which successfully drove the enemy from the outpost.”
Mize had killed over 60 enemy soldiers. Out of 58 men in his own unit, only eight survived. When it was over, Mize was covered with dirt, much of his clothing blown off by artillery fire and his skin blackened by powder burns.
He initially refused the Medal of Honor, but finally accepted on behalf of his men.
Mize then volunteered for four tours of duty in Vietnam, including more than three years with the Green Berets, and ended up commanding the Special Forces school and finally retired in 1981 as a Colonel. Aside from his Medal of Honor he’d earned four other decorations, including the Bronze star … four times.
Here’s Mize, in 2011, describing his night on Outpost Harry:
On March 5th, this unassuming man died at 82, in Gadsden, Alabama, near the small town where he was born. Mize, as a Medal of Honor winner, was entitled to be buried in Arlington in Washington DC. But he chose to remain in his home town.
The Gadsden newspaper described the road to his gravesite being lined with admirers paying tribute to their local hero.
Mize was being honoured in death for a war he fought in 60 years ago. Sixty years from now, how many Canadians will even remember our Afghanistan war, let alone honour the Canadan heros who did the fighting and who died there?
Ola Mize had a simple theory of leadership that could be applied to any army … or any corporation for that matter. He didn’t need elaborate courses on motivation on how to lead.
Being a leader, he said, simply meant: “I was the custodian of my men’s welfare.”