The world lost another hero when retired Col. Robert B. Nett died in Columbus, Georgia after a short illness at age 86 on Sunday, October 19.
“Colonel Robert Burton Nett will long be remembered for his heroism, his willingness to step forward when America needed him, and his distinguished military service,” his family said in a release.
But what was it that made Nett a hero? Was it the fact that he was a veteran of three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam? Was it because his name is included on the Ranger Memorial at Fort Benning in Georgia? Or because he was a member of Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame?
I think it’s a combination of all three, plus an additional — but enormous — fourth qualification: What a 22-year-old lieutenant from New Haven, Connecticut did in a hot, steamy jungle in the Philippines on December 14, 1944.
• Watch Oliver North's interview with Col. Nett when FOX News Channel airs the "War Stories" classic: "Retaking the Philippines" Monday, October 27 at 3 a.m. ET
Then the commander of E Company, 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, Nett was leading his company through the jungle when they encountered a heavily fortified Japanese bunker. He and his men soon found themselves engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese. Despite a gunshot wound to his neck, Nett was able to shoot five Japanese soldiers dead. When he ran out of bullets, he bayoneted two more.
Nett was shot two more times as he continued to battle the Japanese and, when he could fight no more, calmly turned over his command to another officer and then walked unaided to the rear for medical treatment.
For that, Robert Burton Nett was awarded the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
I first met Robert Nett in the spring of 2005 at the Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Nett was a frequent lecturer there and I had traveled to Fort Benning from New York to produce an interview shoot for an episode of “War Stories with Oliver North” entitled “Retaking the Philippines.” Oliver North was going to sit down with Nett to recount his experiences fighting in the campaign to pry the Philippines from Japanese control.
As I entered the room and was introduced to Mr. Nett, I was struck by his friendly smile and resemblance to a typical, happy grandfather. But there’s one thing I’ve learned after meeting hundreds of veterans over my more than seven years working on “War Stories.” It’s that all old men were young once and some of them did incredibly brave things.
Robert Nett was one of them.
As he moved about the room, the respect accorded Nett by his colleagues and students was palpable. “It was like standing in a room of baseball players from today and having Ted Williams walk into the room,” remembers my colleague, producer Martin Hinton, who was also there. “The man was a legend. But he wasn’t there to bask in the glory. He was there to help them become better soldiers.”
When the cameras started to roll, Oliver North listened intently as Nett calmly described what happened that day 64 years ago. It never ceases to amaze me how even the smallest of details of these harrowing experiences are rarely blurred by time. “I turned and had part of my rib blown out of my back and, by this time, my feet were getting real heavy,” remembered Nett. “So I realized that I was losing a lot of blood. So I took one of the lieutenants and put 'em in charge.” Although he spoke very calmly, I had seen that look in his eyes from other veterans. They weren’t remembering something, they were reliving it. It seemed as if the whole thing had happened only yesterday.
The only time Nett became emotional was when he told Ollie about the Medal of Honor ceremony held in an armory in Connecticut. His voice cracked as he remembered the words he spoke to the 5000 people assembled to honor him. “All I could say was, I wanted to thank the president of the United States and all the people from Connecticut that turned out for this welcome home ceremony... and I said, I want to assure you of one thing... I share this honor with all the great soldiers of the company, because... they trained hard... and they reacted in combat exactly the way they trained.”
So did Robert Nett. And for that, he will never be forgotten.
Steve Tierney is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North."