A young Marine lieutenant killed 51 years ago while holding off an enemy ambush was awarded a long overdue Silver Star for battlefield heroics at a ceremony held Tuesday.

First Lt. Philip H. Sauer, a native of Coronado, California, was posthumously awarded the third highest U.S. valor award after sacrificing his life while holding off an enemy ambush with his .45-caliber pistol, allowing his five-man squad to withdraw to safety.

The award was presented to his brothers and sister by Maj. Gen. Eric Smith, commanding general of 1st Marine Division, aboard Camp Pendleton, California.

On April 24, 1967, Sauer, a lieutenant patrolling with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines led a five-man squad on a recon patrol of Hill 861 in the Republic of Vietnam. His patrol “was suddenly ambushed” from “well-placed enemy bunkers and trenches,” according to a reading of his award citation. The point man was killed almost immediately.

A picture of Hill 861 south Landing Zone in Vietnam July 28, 1967. (Marine Corps)
A picture of Hill 861 south Landing Zone in Vietnam July 28, 1967. (Marine Corps)

Sauer ordered his men to withdraw while he laid down cover fire “with only his personal sidearm,” according to the citation. “He was last seen holding his position in the face of overwhelming enemy fire.”

Smith, the officer presiding over the ceremony, described the day as a historic one for the Corps.

“Fifty-one years ago today a lieutenant named Phil Sauer gave his life so that other Marines might keep theirs,” Smith said during the ceremony.

“Armed with a .45 caliber pistol [Sauer] stood his ground against somewhere north of 30 enemy armed with automatic weapons,” Smith told a crowd gathered.

Smith said it was Sauer’s job as the senior Marine that day to take care of his men, and that “he did it with unbelievable courage.”

Armed only with a pistol against an overwhelming force Sauer gave his life to save his men.

“Who does that?” Smith asked. “Phil Sauer did that.”

Recognition of Sauer’s heroic actions that day was delayed for nearly half a century until Ret. Marine Lt. Col. David Little befriended Sauer’s brother and began to dig into the storied lieutenant’s last stand on Hill 861.

Little researched short published histories by the Marine Corps about the conflict commonly called “Green Books” named for the color of their cover. These books covered each year of the Vietnam War. Little came across a short paragraph that “described a five-man patrol, dispatched to establish an artillery observation post, that was ambushed by far greater North Vietnamese Army forces, dug-in and well-concealed with automatic weapons and grenades,” according to a story Little wrote about Sauer’s delayed recognition.

After months of pouring through documents, the internet, the National Archives and news articles, Little was able to track down a survivor from the ambush and Sauer’s company commander.

But because of time constraints, an awards package had to be submitted by a member of Congress with an accompanying waiver.

U.S. Marines are silhouetted as they stand on Hill 881 North after a fierce nine-day battle near Khe Sanh, Vietnam on May 3, 1967, during the Vietnam War. (Associated Press)
U.S. Marines are silhouetted as they stand on Hill 881 North after a fierce nine-day battle near Khe Sanh, Vietnam on May 3, 1967, during the Vietnam War. (Associated Press)

It took nearly nine months total from the day Little heard of Sauer’s heroism, but the award was finally submitted in January 2016, according to Little.

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer approved the award in March, more than two years after the package was submitted, Little said.

In attendance at Tuesday’s award ceremony was a sole eyewitness then-Lance Cpl. William Marks who provided a statement for Sauer’s Silver Star.

Marks, an artillery forward observer at the time of the fateful patrol, said in his witness statement, “I didn’t meet Lt. Sauer until that day. I never met him before,” Smith told the crowd. He “met him a couple hours before the patrol.

Sauer’s siblings were in attendance to accept the award.

“You create bonds of comradery, esprit de corps and standards of conduct that are so strong that you will let nothing stand in your way of accomplishing your mission. That was Phil,” said Phil’s sister, who accepted the award on her brother’s behalf.

“He loved his Marine Corps family and took care of his men,” she added. “He died honoring your Corps values of honor, courage and commitment.

The Silver Star is the nation’s third highest award for combat bravery.

The San Diego Union Tribune was first to break the story that Sauer would receive the Silver Star nearly a half century after his death.