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From the Archives: Remembering ‘Riverhead’s greatest hero’

This story was originally published in September, 2010. It is being republished today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of U.S. Army Private First Class Garfield M. Langhorn.

When an enemy hand grenade landed in the middle of his platoon, U.S. Army Private First Class Garfield M. Langhorn did not hesitate. The young man threw himself on the explosive device and sacrificed his own life to protect the lives of his fellow infantryman.

That heroic incident occurred more than four decades ago, and yet the quiet young man from Riverhead who gave up his life during the Vietnam War remains a legend among locals.

On Monday, family members, dignitaries, fellow veterans and many others who had never met the young soldier gathered in front of the Riverhead Post Office to remember Pfc. Langhorn — and to rename the building in his honor.

“I couldn’t sleep the past couple of nights,” said Vietnam veteran Bob Elrose of Riverhead. “This is the greatest thing that’s happened to Riverhead, and [Pfc. Langhorn] is the greatest hero to ever come out of Riverhead, so this is very exciting.”

The renaming ceremony saw flocks of well-wishers, including Congressman Timothy Bishop, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

Flanked by members of various Vietnam veteran motorcycle clubs holding large American flags, more than 500 people huddled beneath a large tent for the ceremony as a light drizzle fell outside.

During the event, Mr. Bishop presented Pfc. Langhorn’s mother, Mary Langhorn, 86, of Riverhead, a copy of the legislation bearing the signature of President Obama, as well as the pen President Obama used to sign the legislation.

“I’m just lost for words,” said Ms. Langhorn, holding a dozen fresh roses and wiping the tears from her eyes. “It’s just beautiful and I thank everybody for coming out.”

Pfc. Langhorn, who loved working on his car, playing guitar and being a part of his church, was remembered by many as a good Christian who regularly read the Bible and had a heart of gold. Ms. Langhorn said her son had not wanted to go to Vietnam but dutifully went into battle.

“If he were here, he would say ‘I did what I had to do,’ ” Ms. Langhorn said.

The renaming of the Riverhead Post Office in honor of the lost soldier was the brainchild of Richard Kitson and Al Carvalheira, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 11. Mr. Kitson, president of the local chapter, thanked Mr. Bishop for making the renaming of the post office a reality.

“There’s nothing more significant happening in this town, in this state, in this country than what’s happening in Riverhead with the renaming of this post office,” Mr. Kitson said, noting that he appreciated the fact that Pfc. Langhorn had been raised to be a conscientious Christian by his family. “For those of us who have been in combat, you really don’t know how you’re going to react until that moment happens, and because of where Garfield came from and the loving spirit of his family – that gave him the courage to do what he had to do.”

Erik Eve, son of Rodney Eve, a former Vietnam veteran who was with Pfc. Langhorn the day he died, read his father’s chilling account of that day.

Rodney Eve recently died of cancer, Erik Eve noted, but he had written an account of his fellow soldier’s bravery.

According to the elder Mr. Eve, in the memoir read by his son, Pfc. Langhorn was part of a special infantry unit known as the Blues, which rescued downed helicopters; the athletic private worked the radio, calling in air strikes and noting the platoon’s and the enemy’s position.

On January 15, 1969, a Cobra helicopter with a crew of two was making low passes, shooting missiles and firing guns at enemy combatants in the thick jungles near Plei Djereng in Pleiku Province.

The helicopter was struck by enemy fire, grazed some trees, spun in, and crashed. The Blues were sent in to either rescue the pilots or carry their bodies out. Either way, they were going in to get them.

Two distinct problems facing the rescue team became quickly apparent. The helicopter had gone down on a heavily timbered, steep slope crawling with the enemy, and nightfall was closing in fast.

As Pfc. Langhorn provided radio coordination with supporting U.S. aircraft overhead, the team hacked its way to the helicopter crew, who were both dead.

Carrying the bodies back to the pickup zone, the Blues suddenly found themselves under intense attack from North Vietnamese soldiers in camouflaged bunkers. Within minutes the Blues were entirely surrounded and started taking causalities.

Pfc. Langhorn called for air fire from orbiting gunships, which began firing guns and rockets at the enemy.

The rescue team formed a small perimeter, placing the wounded in the center as they continued to fight. Soon night fell and the gunships could no longer lay down accurate fire, leaving the platoon of Blues to face the enemy alone.

Pfc. Langhorn stood between his platoon leader and the wounded. Suddenly a ripping sound came out of the woods and a hand grenade landed next to the radioman and the wounded soldiers.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Pfc. Langhorn threw his body onto the live explosive. He was killed instantly.

“If Garfield had not acted on his faith and belief, I would not be standing here now,” said Erik Eve, a Lindenhurst teacher who brought his class to the ceremony. “As a husband and a father, it means more to me everyday, and I’d like to thank him for the life I now have.”

Caption: Mary Langhorn of Riverhead at a ceremony on Monday dedicating the Riverhead Post Office in honor of her son, Private First Class Garfield M. Langhorn, a Medal of Honor recipient.