Courage of Conviction

A dedicated alumnus is seeking a Medal of Honor to recognize a fellow Ram’s bravery under fire.

For many, Vietnam is a chapter in the history books. Not so for veteran David Zartarian ’67, M.A. ’72.

Zartarian sports a URI hat. He rifles through a stack of papers, evidence of his efforts to get Col. Francis J. Cuddy Jr. ’66 a posthumous Medal of Honor (Cuddy died in 2008 after battling cancer). The medal is the highest award for military valor, given to a person who distinguishes themselves by showing courage and honor in action, at risk of one’s own life, going above and beyond the call of duty.

Since its inception in 1861, a total of 3,536 medals have been awarded, and getting someone the award posthumously is no small feat.

But Zartarian is determined. He’s compiled the copious necessary documents and submitted them through U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office for consideration, a process that could take years. “They told me it could take two to four years,” Zartarian says. “I wrote back and said, ‘I hope it’s closer to two because I just turned 78!’”

His effort to get Cuddy recognized was sparked when Zartarian read an article about a reconnaissance patrol—code-named American Beauty—in which actor Jimmy Stewart’s stepson, Marine 1st Lt. Ron McLean, was killed.

It was June 8, 1969. Zartarian, an Army lieutenant, was posted in the U.S. mortuary in Da Nang, Vietnam, a post he held for just three days. The bodies arrived, each with an escort and a bag of personal belongings—lives summed up in photos and mementos.

Zartarian recalls three notable casualties that day: Lt. Sharon Lane, a nurse and the only American servicewoman killed directly by enemy fire in the Vietnam War; Lt. Col. Don Bartley, a chaplain doing a TV segment, whose transport hit a land mine; and McLean.

“This was big news. Everybody was talking about McLean because he was Jimmy Stewart’s stepson,” Zartarian says. “I was only in the mortuary for three days, but those were three of the most eventful days of my life.”

As Zartarian read the story about McLean’s platoon, a name, buried deep in the article, tugged at his memory: Frank Cuddy. “I remembered him from URI,” Zartarian says.

Cuddy enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after his high school graduation in 1958. He came to URI in 1962 with the rank of sergeant. “URI,” Zartarian notes, “was his ticket to officer candidate and flight school.” Cuddy played football for the Rams from 1962–1966 and went on to become a storied helicopter pilot.

After Cuddy’s death, a fellow pilot said of him, “The greatest of the great has left us. How is it possible for this mountain of a man, whom I called a friend, to have succumbed to cancer when he conquered everything else? How sad that we have lost one of the greatest Marines of the Vietnam War.”

In his 39-year military career, Cuddy earned some 60 awards and medals and flew nearly 1,000 combat missions in Vietnam.

But it was the American Beauty mission that tied Cuddy to McLean—and stitched a thread through time to Zartarian.

The American Beauty mission began on June 6, 1969, when a helicopter dropped McLean’s platoon onto a hilltop in the demilitarized zone. By June 8, the team was pinned down in a trap and McLean was dead.

Cuddy, who had assisted in the rescue of a downed medivac crew under heavy fire just three days earlier (for which he later earned the Silver Star), was flying back from a mission in Laos when he learned that a recon patrol was in real trouble.

He swooped down, along with other Huey helicopters, and provided gun cover while Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knights attempted to rescue the beleaguered soldiers. After repeated attempts and failures, the squadron regrouped. Cuddy defied orders, flying back to aid and provide cover for the embattled platoon amid blinding gunfire. He was wounded and his helicopter took 20 rounds, but the platoon survived, and he made it back to base camp. The platoon was then extracted, along with McLean’s remains, by a land rescue.

In recounting his decision, Cuddy said, “In the Marine Corps, it’s ingrained that you don’t leave dead and wounded. To leave them out there was to let them die.”

For this heroic rescue attempt, Cuddy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest award for heroism in an aerial flight.

But to Zartarian, Cuddy’s bravery in the face of annihilation deserves more. “I believe—and the facts back it up,” says Zartarian, “that without Cuddy’s courage, sense of honor and brotherhood, exceptional skills and knowledge, and perseverance, the young marines and their scout would not have survived.”

Grace Kelly

Read the article by Jeffrey Grosscup that sparked Zartarian’s mission at:

Photos: Nora Lewis

One comment

  1. KUDOS to the URI Magazine and esp. Editor in Chief Barbara Caron for publishing this story .
    Anyone interested in moving this matter forward should contact John Kiernan who is Senator Jack Reed’s military liason. His email is John_Kiernan
    For more information such as a copy of the Col. Cuddy packet as submitted etc. Please email Dave Zartarian ,

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