One-time Denair resident Stephen Austin was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross on July 21, 50 years after the young man lost his life in a field in Vietnam while protecting the lives of his fellow soldiers.
The Navy Cross is the second highest medal presented by the U.S. military for valor shown in combat and is primarily awarded to service members in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. The presentation of the award for Austin’s heroism was given to his daughter Neily Esposito and his brother Allen Austin in Alexandria, Virginia at the 50th reunion of his company in the 1st Battalion 27th Marines.
“We were honored to have the Commandant of the Marines, General Robert Neller, present the award to Stephen’s daughter, Neily,” said Allen Austin. “It was very emotional for us. I met several of the guys who knew Steve and the Commanding Officer of his company, Col. Ron Gruenberg. When Steve was killed he wrote us a letter which we treasured, especially my father.”
Austin, a corporal in the Marines, was part of Operation Allen Brook in the Quang Nam Province in 1968. The operation was to “search and clear” the area of the North Vietnamese soldiers who had holed up in the area in trench lines and bunkers. The operation had already resulted in heavy losses when on June 5, two companies came under heavy fire from enemy snipers and mortars. The effort to help one company had put Austin’s “Charlie” company in a dangerous area and on June 8, 1968 the men found themselves pinned down by the enemy.
One Marine in Austin’s company wrote later on the actions Austin took that day: “Corporal Austin, disregarding his own safety, then stepped into the open from the house and advanced to the bunker in full view and under full fire of the enemy in an attempt to get close enough to throw a grenade into the bunker. He was wounded repeatedly by enemy fire but continued to advance on the bunker, as he was falling to the ground. He was able to throw his grenade up to the bunker slit to silence the enemy and assure a safe withdrawal of his squad and his platoon. A combination of rifle fire and the explosion of his own grenade resulted in Stephen’s death."
Austin died just six days after his 21st birthday. His death also came on the same day his younger brother Allen was graduating from Denair High School.
The presentation of the Navy Cross was the end of a longtime campaign started by Austin’s fellow soldiers who made it their new mission to make sure he was recognized for his heroism.