More than 50 years after they were wounded in desperate fighting at the battle of Hue City in Vietnam, 18 Marine veterans were finally formally presented Purple Hearts, according to the Marine Corps.

The 18 Marines had all received their awards administratively shortly after they were wounded, but because they were medically evacuated never had a ceremony formally presenting the Purple Hearts, a Marine spokesman told Marine Corps Times.

The Purple Hearts were presented to the Marines by retired Maj. Gen. Ray ‘E-tool’ Smith, who as a young officer during the Vietnam War led a Marine platoon then later was a company commander with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. His nickname stems from a legend that in Vietnam he killed a man with an entrenching tool.

“No one ever gave them the medal and recognized them in a formation,” Smith said. "It’s in their record, they wore them if they stayed on active duty, they have them on their wall at home, etc., they bought them at the PX and put them on their uniform, but no one has ever awarded them the Purple Heart.”

The battle for Hue City started Jan. 31, 1968, with the launch of the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese Army. Most of the city was initially overrun by the North Vietnamese forces, forcing Marines into a 26 day street-by-street, house-by-house fight to retake the city.

Ultimately 142 Marines were killed in the fighting with another 857 wounded.

The Nov. 21 ceremony was held in an auditorium at Camp Pendleton, California, and the Marines received their Purple Hearts in front of friends, families and active-duty Marine from 1st Battalion, 1st Marines standing in formation.

In addition to Smith, the ceremony had two Medal of Honor recipients in attendance, retired Sgt. Maj. John Canley, awarded for his actions at Hue including repeated exposure to machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire as he led his Marines through the battle, and retired Cpl. Kyle Carpenter who threw himself on a grenade thrown onto his post by a Taliban fighter, saving the life of his friend and fellow Marine, while standing post in Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2010.

Marine Vietnam veterans shoot the M4 carbine at at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, after their Nov. 21 Purple Heart ceremony. (Cpl. Ana S. Madrigal/Marine Corps)
Marine Vietnam veterans shoot the M4 carbine at at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, after their Nov. 21 Purple Heart ceremony. (Cpl. Ana S. Madrigal/Marine Corps)

The Marines presented with the Purple Heart were also given a chance to fire the Marine Corps M4 service rifle and were honored at the battalion’s birthday ball as special guests, a Marine Corps spokesman said.

“This award ceremony served as an opportunity to properly honor the veterans, who received their Purple Hearts after returning from Vietnam, but who were never publically recognized among their fellow Marines,” 1st Lt. Cameron Edinburgh, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division, told Marine Corps Times in an email.