Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

March 8, 2014

Russell resident to attend ceremony

Hayes will attend Medal of Honor event at White House with family of fallen platoon leader

RUSSELL — Les Hayes was 20 years old and serving as a light-weapons infantryman when he watched his platoon sergeant, Felix Modesto Conde-Falcon, die during combat operations in Ap Tan Hoa, South Vietnam.

“It was Good Friday, 1969 — April 4,” said Hayes, a Russell resident who continues to work as a refinery consultant after retiring from a career that included 14 years as owner of a Western Auto store.

He jokes that Lyndon Johnson gave him his first full-time job with a draft notice, adding he would have been called up at the age of 18 if his older brother hadn’t already been called upon. Inducted to the Army’s 82nd Airborne, he says the fighting in Vietnam relied primarily upon helicopters. “I’m airborne, but I never jumped out of an airplane — I’m not that stupid,” he says with a grin.

Hayes spent a year in Vietnam, most often following the lead of Sgt. Conde-Falcon, a man he says he and his fellow soldiers came to regard as both a father figure and “a true hero” after he saved their lives during several incidents.

“He was Puerto Rican, and quite a big jokester,” Hayes recalled, describing his platoon sergeant as a man who was proud of his family, and loved his wife as well as his three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. While the young soldiers he served with often complained about conditions including leeches, bugs and jungle rot, Hayes said Conde-Falcon always reminded them they were fortunate to be in a position to serve their country.

“Sgt. Conde was what every soldier should be. Sgt. Conde was the hero,” he said, concluding Conde certainly met the qualifications to be considered for a Medal of Honor.

“He paid the ultimate price. Whether he intended to or not, I don’t know,” said Hayes. “He always said the greatest honor you could have would be to die for your country. Apparently, he meant it.”

As people learn about the upcoming Medal of Honor presentation for Conde, Hayes said his hope is that people understand the soldier’s commitment to serving his country.

“This was a man that just willingly gave his life for his country. He always told us it was wonderful just to have that opportunity,” Haye said, noting the young soldiers who served with Conde did not always agree with that philosophy.

Uniformed humor

Practical jokes were a favorite pursuit for Sgt. Conde, Hayes said, explaining Conde liked to add bugs, slugs or whatever other unpleasant thing he could find when the men combined their rations to make a stew — providing entertainment and leaving more to eat for those who had a strong stomach. Hayes and a few others had a chance for payback when they caught Conde “laid back and snoring” inside the remnants of an old church. Local Vietnamese people had drained a small pond to capture any and all fish and reptiles at the bottom, he said, resulting in the death of a six-foot snake. The soldiers “borrowed” the snake, he said, and attached a string before placing it, coiled, upon the belly of their sleeping sargent.

When they tugged the string to make the serpent move, Conde awakened to find the cold reptile staring him in the eyes.

“His eyes popped open. His mouth was open but no sound was coming out. He started losing all his color ... we all took off running,” Hayes said, lifting his arms and legs into a rigid position to emulate the sargent’s partial paralysis at sight of the snake. “He got rid of it and about 10 minutes later he was walking around with his M-16 ... and he had the safety off. He never asked, ‘Who did that?’ but, I was the one with the string in his hand.”

Valorous action

The fallen soldier’s official citation includes a description of his final act of valor: “Conde-Falcon distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions, April 4, 1969, while serving as platoon leader during a sweep operation in the vicinity of Ap Tan Hoa, Vietnam. Entering a heavily wooded section on the route of advance, the company encountered an extensive enemy bunker complex, later identified as a battalion command post. Following tactical artillery and air strikes on the heavily secured communist position, the platoon of Conde-Falcon was selected to assault and clear the bunker fortifications. Moving out ahead of his platoon, he charged the first bunker, heaving grenades as he went. As the hostile fire increased, he crawled to the blind side of an entrenchment position, jumped to the roof and tossed a lethal grenade into the bunker aperture. Without hesitating, he proceeded to two additional bunkers, both of which he destroyed in the same manner as the first. Rejoined with his platoon, he advanced about 100 meters through the trees, only to come under intense hostile fire. Selecting three men to accompany him, he maneuvered toward the enemy’s flank position. Carrying a machine-gun, he single-handedly assaulted the nearest fortification, killing the enemy inside before running out of ammunition. After returning to the three men with his empty weapon and taking up an M-16 rifle, he concentrated on the next bunker. Within 10 meters of his goal, he was shot by an unseen assailant and soon died of his wounds.”

Hayes said he remembers the moment, although the combat circumstances made it difficult to know exactly what had occurred.

“They had decided to flank right and come in from behind to get rid of the enemy. At that point, I don’t know what all took place,” he said. “All I remembered was somebody yelled ‘Conde’s hit!’ He had two holes in his belly — one shot had apparently gone on up and hit him in the heart. He said, “God, don’t let me die’ or something like that. That was his last words. He was dead before the medics got there.”

A long search

Diane Hayes said her husband never wavered in his effort to find Sgt. Conde’s family. He had somehow returned to the U.S. with Conde’s shoulder holster, she said, noting her husband always searched telephone books looking for anyone named Conde when they visited other cities.

“I knew he had cleaned out his wallet when he died, and he felt a need to talk to his family,” she said, explaining she once wrote to “every Conde in Chicago,” on his behalf. While searching the Internet, she came across a reference to Sgt. Conde being buried in Troy, Texas, and made a call to a funeral director there. The mortician soon called back with a list of contacts including an address for Conde’s son, she said, and on Christmas Eve she encouraged her husband to write him a short note. By New Year’s Eve, they had made contact by telephone and connected on a most-personal level, she said.

Hayes told the Texan stories about his father, and about naming his houseboat “The Conde” in his memory. When Conde’s first daughter was born two weeks later, the bond between himself and Hayes had grown so strong, he and his wife named their little girl Payten Grace Leslie Conde to honor the spirit of their long overdue meeting.

Before making contact with Hayes, Richard Conde said he only knew what his family had told him about his father. Hearing Hayes talk about his dad as a father figure to the young men he served with, and the times he saved the lives of those in their unit, brought his father’s legacy to life, Conde said.

“He really gave me my dad. At the age of 39 was when I really started to know my dad,” he said, pledging his love and gratitude to Hayes and his wife. And, while Hayes and others who served with his father tell him they considered Sgt. Conde to be a true hero, he is quick to add, “Les is my hero.”

Conde said the upcoming Medal of Honor presentation ceremony will make up for the times he missed with his father.

“It’s my moment with my dad. All of the baseball games, playing catch in the back yard, weddings, the birth of a child and everything else in the last few years — this is a culmination of all those things into one,” he said, adding he is being flooded with a mixture of emotions as the White House ceremony draws near.

Les and Diane Hayes will be traveling to Washington with the Conde family and Pete Watkins, another soldier who served with Conde-Falcon, to receive Sgt. Conde-Falcon’s posthumous Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in a March 18 ceremony at the White House.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.

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