Ola L. Mize’s commanding officers did not recognize him when he reached them at their post on safe ground in Korea on June 11, 1953. Repeated explosions had left his Army uniform in pieces. His flak jacket, according to one published account, was smoking. His face had been burned.
“Who are you?” asked one of the officers.
“Sergeant Mize,” replied the soldier, then 21.
“You’re not Mize,” the officer responded. “He’s dead.”
The next year, Ola “Lee” Mize received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, for his heroism in the battle in which he defended a strategically important hill and saved the lives of numerous comrades — and in which his superiors thought he had lost his own. He later served three tours of duty in Vietnam and retired as a colonel.
He died March 5 at his home in Gadsden, Ala. He was 82. The cause was cancer, said Rick Vaughan, a family spokesman.
The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Col. Mize left high school and joined the Army to support his family. He was nearing the end of his enlistment when the Korean War began, according to several accounts, and he reupped so that he would not miss the opportunity to serve in combat.
Col. Mize volunteered for duty on the front lines in Korea and was assigned on June 10, 1953, to participate in the defense of a hill dubbed Outpost Harry. It sat 425 yards in front of the U.S. main line of resistance and 320 yards from the Chinese Communist enemy, according to an article in VFW Magazine.
Overlooking United Nations positions, the location was of great strategic significance, and the Americans knew that an assault was imminent. The order, Time magazine reported at the time, was to “hold Harry at all cost.”
The Chinese led with an artillery barrage and then sent in a battalion-size force, according to an account in Peter Collier’s book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.”
Throughout the night and into the next day, Col. Mize repeatedly risked his life. He braved Chinese fire to accompany a medic on the rescue of a wounded man. At another point, according to his medal citation, he organized a defense system that severely weakened the enemy as they moved into nearby trenches.
“During his fearless actions he was blown down by artillery and grenade blasts 3 times,” the citation reads, “but each time he dauntlessly returned to his position, tenaciously fighting and successfully repelling hostile attacks.”
Col. Mize later formulated what was described as a clever maneuver in which he and several comrades fired on the enemy while jumping from one bunker to another — creating the impression of a larger U.S. force than the one that in fact remained.
He killed as many as 65 enemy soldiers, according to a newspaper article printed when his medal was announced. One of those soldiers was positioning himself to fire on an American when Col. Mize killed him with one shot.
“I thought I’d bought the farm,” Col. Mize told VFW Magazine years later. “I just knew I was going to die. I knew it. I accepted it. All I wanted to do was take as many of them with me as I could.”
Col. Mize continued fighting, arming and encouraging troops, and aiding those who were wounded. The citation also credited him with directing an artillery strike on the Chinese and with helping carry out the final successful counterattack.
Ola Lee Mize was born Aug. 28, 1931, in Albertville, Ala. He was a butcher before joining the Army and was initially turned down by military recruiters because he weighed only 120 pounds.
After his tour in Korea, Col. Mize served in the Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, including as a camp commander in Vietnam. He helped train local populations to oppose the Viet Cong, according to a biographical sketch in the book “America’s Heroes,”and later was director of the Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Col. Mize retired in 1981 but remained involved in military affairs for several decades as a motivational speaker, trainer and consultant, his family’s spokesman said.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Betty Jackson Mize of Gadsden; their daughter, Teresa Peterson of Rainbow City, Ala.; a half-brother; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. His daughter Donna Feazell died in 2001.
Besides the Medal of Honor, Col. Mize’s decorations included the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit and five awards of the Bronze Star Medal.
He initially did not wish to receive the Medal of Honor, insisting that recognition should instead go to his platoon.
“That terrible night in 1953 in Korea at Outpost Harry was one I would never want to repeat,” he wrote in a foreword to “Uncommon Valor,” a book about Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Too many good young men . . . gave their lives to take or hold that miserable piece of high ground.”