James Sprayberry was born in Georgia and grew up on a family farm in Alabama. He was attending college in 1966 when he decided that he needed more excitement in his life and enlisted in the Army. After basic training he went to Officer Candidate School, graduating early in 1967 as a second lieutenant. Assigned to an armor battalion at Fort Benning, Sprayberry wanted to be in action and volunteered for Vietnam.
In the spring of 1968, Lieutenant Sprayberry was in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam, serving as an executive officer with a company of the 7th Cavalry. Late in the afternoon of April 25, the day after his twenty-first birthday, his company was ambushed by a large North Vietnamese force. Within minutes, Sprayberry knew that this enemy force was more disciplined than any he had yet seen—fully controlling the forbidding terrain of mountains and heavy undergrowth, and carefully targeting the Americans with interlocking fields of fire from well-protected bunkers.
Sprayberry's company commander had taken a platoon and tried to flank the enemy, but the unit was hit hard, suffering eleven wounded and four dead in the first few minutes of fighting. The commanding officer went down and so did the medic accompanying him; the platoon's lieutenant was killed instantly. Sprayberry realized that the enemy was using the pinned-down Americans as bait to draw others into the kill zone, yet he asked for volunteers and set off to rescue his comrades.
At nightfall, under cover of darkness, his twelve-man patrol moved toward the isolated platoon. Receiving fire from an enemy machine gun, Sprayberry crawled toward the bunker from which the fire was coming and took the gun out with a grenade. He killed several more enemy soldiers with grenades, then charged three other North Vietnamese bunkers, eliminating each of them. It was like fighting in Braille: He could gauge the enemy positions only by muzzle flashes. Making his way back, Sprayberry killed an enemy soldier who popped up from concealment. Soon he made radio contact with the other Americans and began directing their withdrawal.
After eight hours, the long rescue was finally completed. Although Sprayberry had single-handedly killed twelve of the enemy, eliminated two machine guns, and destroyed several bunkers, he felt that his mission was not yet complete. He had been unable to bring out the bodies of three Americans killed in the action. The next day the company tried again, but enemy fire was too heavy. When the weather cleared, a helicopter crew volunteered to try to locate the bodies, but the helicopter was immediately shot down, and the three-man crew was killed. Now he would have to leave the bodies of six Americans behind.
Sprayberry was back home in 1969 with orders to leave the military when he walked into an antiwar demonstration at Fort Lewis. He was so angered by what he saw that he decided to make the Army a career. He was awarded the Medal by President Richard Nixon at the White House on October 9, 1969, and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1988.