Women’s History Month: the Bellrichards

Leslie Bellrichard. Courtesy U.S. Army

Leslie Bellrichard had already endured a life of challenges when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966. Born in 1941 in Janesville, Wisconsin, he lost his father and brother in separate accidents. After his mother descended into depression and alcoholism Leslie and his siblings were placed in foster care. Leslie went through trying times as an adolescent and eventually dropped out of high school. His life changed, however, when he married his wife Shirley Jean France in 1962. Devoutly religious and patriotic, the couple worked hard to build a happy life together. When he was drafted, however, Leslie did not hesitate to serve his country and volunteered for service in Vietnam.

Private First Class Bellrichard was only one month into his service with the 4th Infantry Division in Pleiku Province, Republic of Vietnam, when he experienced combat for the last time on May 20, 1967. Stationed in a foxhole with four other men, Bellrichard faced a heavy mortar barrage, after which North Vietnamese soldiers launched a ground assault. Undaunted, Bellrichard stood firing and throwing grenades at the enemy. Just as he was about to throw another grenade, a mortar shell exploded nearby, throwing him back and knocking the live grenade to the ground. To save the lives of his friends, Bellrichard threw himself on the grenade. Mortally wounded, he nevertheless kept fighting for several minutes before succumbing to his injuries, after quietly saying goodbye to his comrades.

Shirley Jean Bellrichard receives her husband’s Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon in the White House. Courtesy Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.

Shirley Jean Bellrichard received her husband’s posthumous Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon at the White House on July 10, 1969. Almost one year later, in June 1970, she decided that the Medal of Honor wasn’t enough for her husband or her country. Traveling to Oakland, California, she entered a recruiting office and joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). “I hope they send me to Vietnam,” she said. “I want to see some of the things he saw,” and serve as a medical worker for the wounded. Joining up meant that she would forfeit her $300 per month widow’s pension while in the service, but Shirley Bellrichard was unfazed. Her late husband “was anxious to do something for his country,” she said, and “I want to do something for my country.”

As a WAC, Shirley Jean Bellrichard discovered her calling. Like her husband, she took immense pride in the U.S. Army; and she quickly discovered that the other women in her unit looked up to her as a leader. She would serve in the U.S. Army for fourteen years.