Jesse Joseph Peña was born on January 9,1949, the son of Alvino Henry Peña and Jane Marie Peña of Davenport Iowa. He was born in Moline, Illinois. He graduated from Assumption High School in 1967. He participated in high school wrestling and received a varsity letter his sophomore year. He attended Palmer Junior College and Black Hawk College before joining the Navy.
Jesse enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 10, 1968, in Des Moines, Iowa. He arrived in Vietnam on October 4, 1969 where he was assigned to H&S Company and attached to Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division Reinforced Fleet Marine Force. Jesse was attached to the Company as a Hospital Corpsman. His job in the field was to give aid to the wounded or injured Marines.
On February 12, 1970, about five miles from Fire Base Ross, Company B’s 2nd Platoon was moving in a column toward the east along a trail close to the south bank of the LyLy River when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) caught the platoon in an ambush. The Marines came under fire from an enemy light machine gun to their front, then automatic weapons fire from the right. Coming out into a small paddy they met deadly accurate small arms fire which quickly killed two of them and wounded another. Other members of the platoon, including a staff sergeant and two Navy corpsmen, ran into the paddy to aid the first group and were themselves cut down.
The rest of the Marines took cover at the edge of the trail and tried to bring rifle, M60 machine gun, and M79 grenade launcher fire to bear on the attackers. The NVA in their fighting holes fired only when a Marine tried to move out into the paddy or otherwise broke cover, making it difficult for either platoon to find targets. Reinforcements and supporting arms broke the deadlock.
Company C was dispatched as a reaction force to support their fellow comrades. Arriving in the area, the men pressed on the attack crossing the river and maneuvering along the north bank against a tenacious enemy foe employing automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. The fighting continued most of the day when the enemy finally withdrew.
At day’s end the Marines counted their casualties – thirteen men had been killed in the action, and thirteen men had also been wounded requiring medical evacuation.
Pena was one of the casualties, killed in action because of enemy small arms fire and multiple fragmentation wounds from rocket propelled grenades. He risked his own life to save others and was killed while providing aid.
Jesse was posthumously promoted to HM3. Pena was also awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”, which was subsequently upgraded to a Silver Star Medal, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action on February 12, 1970.
Jesse had a brother, cousin, and an uncle who served in the military, who are also buried at Rock Island National Cemetery.
Jesse’s father, Alvino, who had served 18 years in the National Guard at the time of Jesse’s death, had tried to join the Army for a year to prevent Jesse from being sent to Vietnam. Alvino, the father of 10, wanted to take Jesse’s place in Vietnam but was told he was too old.
Find a Grave, Database, and images HM3 Jesse Joseph Pena (1949-1970) – Find a Grave Memorial (Accessed 11 February 2022), memorial page for HM3 Jesse Joseph Pena (9 Jan
1949–12 Feb 1970), Find a Grave Memorial ID 60991545, citing Rock Island National Cemetery, Rock Island, Rock Island County, Illinois, USA; Maintained by Victor Vilionis (contributor 47207612) .
Togetherweserved.com, Database of US Service Men, Wall of Faces, THE WALL OF FACES – Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (vvmf.org) Accessed 2/11/2022)