My Vietnam Story
Allan D Pederson, USMC (Ret)
In February 1970, I went to Vietnam as a US Marine Infantryman (a “grunt”). On the TWA flight over, we joked and were fairly cocky. I thought (and I think most of the others thought) that I would most likely be fine. That it was “the other guy” who would be killed. I also naively believed that small arms fire would be our greatest threat. Anyway, when the jet was dropping down to the runway at Danang, the plane became silent and the reality of the situation somewhat hit home.
We boarded a flatbed tractor trailer for the ride to the 5th Marine Regiment which was about 20 miles southeast of Danang at An Hoa. This truck was part of a large convoy which went to An Hoa every day. The road would be swept manually for mines at the front of this convoy and needless to say, the 20 miles took quite a while. Two Marines with metal detectors walked at the front of the convoy, one in front of each tire.
At An Hoa I was finally issued my rifle and sent out to my Company (H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, or, as called in the jargon: Hotel-2-5 or H 2-5 written as H 2/5). One of the first days I was with my Company I met a Sergeant who had been in-country for nine months. He was shaking like a leaf. I wondered whether I would be that nervous after I had been there nine months? Little did I realize then that the odds of me making it nine months were virtually nil.
I was 19 years old. I had stood on the yellow footprints the evening of August 19, 1969. I had enlisted in the US Marine Corps as I did not want to be a draftee. I had scored in the top four, of 360 recruits in my series. Us four were told that we had scored high enough to apply for Officers Candidate School (OCS), but we had to be 19 ½ to apply, 20 to be accepted. I was not old enough, not that I was sure I even wanted to apply.
I was in the Company Commander’s CP (command post) for a few days after arrival. This area was only about a half mile down the road from an ARVN (Army of Republic of Vietnam) fort. This was a log fort which looked like something out of the American West of a century ago. One night the ARVN started shooting in our direction. Bullets (tracers) were flying all around. I was in a bunker with Bruce Campbell. We were looking out a single hole, with our heads side by side, when a bullet came through and hit the dirt behind us, right between our heads. Dennis Duzinski was tired and decided he did not want to get up to get into the bunker. He laid on the ground throughout the “battle”. After a few minutes, the firing stopped.
Unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of any of my platoon members other than two individuals I was with most of the time: Bruce Campbell from Michigan and Dennis Duzinski from Chicago. Bruce was in my boot camp platoon and Dennis was in the same series, so we went to Vietnam together. I also remember Juan Bez, who was a squad leader for another squad.
During the first several weeks in Vietnam, my Company was “road security” on this previously mentioned road. That meant that the company was spread across several miles. Each Platoon had a CP with razor wire. Each squad would sleep in the CP usually one or two of every three nights. Every third night we would go out on an ambush. One of six nights we would go out on a (very scary) “three man listening post”. During the days we would either be on a squad patrol, or a “looking post”.
We all slept on the ground every night. When it rained we were wet and very cold. Every night we would wrap up in our poncho liner right over our head, because of the terrible mosquitoes. Usually that meant we were sweating when we went to sleep.
Every two to three days someone would set off a land mine, or what we called then, “a booby trap”, now they are called IED’s. These were usually a mortar round or artillery round that was a dud when initially fired. It was then found by the VC and booby trapped. These were set all over and we never walked or went anywhere unless we had to. The least injury was generally a leg blown off.
One day my platoon was sitting on one side of the road from Danang to An Hoa and three Marines from another squad were sitting on the other side in an OP (observation post). All of a sudden there was a huge explosion behind me. I turned around and the dirt was probably 100 feet in the air. Two of the three were unbelievably not injured but the third did not have a piece of skin left on his body. There were pieces of flesh spread all over the area. The largest piece was his chest cavity which probably weighed about 25 pounds. We wrapped him in his poncho and I thought to myself, “In just a split second he went from being a breathing, thinking, living person to this chunk of meat which is no longer identifiable.”
I remember we had three tanks assigned to us for a few days. We were on a platoon patrol one afternoon when we arrived at a small river and had to get across. Two tanks made it but the third one became stuck in the mud. We had to wait several hours while a very large “wrecker” tank came out and pulled this one out of the river. When we finally left the river it was getting dark, and darkness comes very fast this close to the Equator. We were walking in the deep ruts left in the mud as these tanks drove. Someone in my squad thought they saw an explosion on the mountain range to our front left. A few seconds later, a mortar exploded right between the tank tracks within our ranks. We dropped and watched the mountain to try and determine where this mortar had been fired. Another one went off and we all, including the tanks, fired at the mountainside. We continued a steady barrage on the mountainside for probably five minutes. By this time it was totally dark. The word was given to continue moving. I was in the middle of a knee deep pond when suddenly I knew that I needed to get across the pond. I had almost made it when there was an explosion behind me and water flew over my head, knocking me down. I asked Campbell, who was behind me, if he was all right. He said he was, but that he did not know if anyone was between us. There was enough light now from the moon that we could see a little. We walked toward each other and found a man floating face up in the water. His clothing was blown off and we discovered that his body from his waist line down was “gone”. His right hand was gone and the bone was sticking out from his elbow looking eerily like a chicken drumstick. He was not conscious. However, he was still breathing. We wondered if we should try to do something like put on a tourniquet. However, we couldn’t see how we could possibly put on a tourniquet without doing him even more damage. Within probably thirty seconds he was dead. We had nine of our 25 people killed or injured and riding on the tanks as we ran in the tracks between the tanks. Luckily, we hit no booby traps on our three mile run back to the platoon CP. We called in a medevac, and the Chinook’s pilot wouldn’t land at first, dropping the front rotor dangerously close to us standing in front of the chopper. We all hit the deck. Finally he did land and we hauled the dead and injured into the chopper.
One day we were on a patrol when we took small arms fire from a low island in a swamp with foot-deep water. The order was given for my squad to attack the island. We began getting up and running 50 feet or so and then dropping to provide cover for the others to move up. It was exhausting work due to the water and the tall interwoven grass. Duzinski was carrying probably 50 pounds plus, of rounds for his grenade launcher. He was eventually too exhausted to keep going down and getting up, so he just got up and started walking toward the island. Seeing that, the rest of us were exhausted enough that we also just stood up and walked to the island firing all the way. The resistance ceased when we arrived at the edge. We were then ordered back and jets came in to bomb the area. The two jets would fly low over the island, drop their bombs, come back up and perform a roll for us. They then repeated this. On one of the rolls, one of the jets appeared to lose control and while he was upside down he began heading straight for the ground. He recovered rapidly, but neither of the jets did any more rolling that day. Incidentally, I saw that one of the bombs dropped did not detonate. I believe these were 500 pound bombs and I would assume that the VC found this and made a booby trap.
One night my platoon was set up on top of a hill. Dennis, Bruce and I were all together in one area of the hill. During Dennis’ watch, I was awakened by a single shot fired obviously very close by. It turned out that Dennis was pulling the hammer back on his .45 and it fired. Luckily, putting a round between his feet.
I kept track of my platoon’s casualty rate in March 1970. The platoon typically averaged 25 men (which included one Navy Corpsman, “Doc”) We had nine killed and 22 wounded for virtually a 124% turnover rate per month. And remember, these people did not pick up their toys and go home; most of the wounded were amputees.
On April 22, 1970, my Company was a week or two into a sweep across what the Americans called “Arizona Territory”. One night we dug our foxholes on the shallow banks of the river. We were sleeping in water. A very uncomfortable night.
Only my platoon was visible to me. The other platoons of my company were behind us, but I never saw them. Because of the heavily mined area, the 25 Marines of my platoon were spread out over a half mile. I could see that the squad in the lead position was taking a break as they were sitting down. All of a sudden, I saw one of the men going up into the air. He had sat on and set off a mine which killed him and injured another two. After those three were “medevaced” out, we only made it another few hundred feet before another one was set off which injured five people. That basically wiped out that squad. My squad then took over point. At that time I just knew I was going to be the next one. We all, I’m sure, always had fears that we were going to “buy the farm”, but at that time, I KNEW I was going to be the next one and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
God has talked to me three times of which I am aware. One was in high school while hunting with two friends. We were walking out of the woods in single file, I was last. All of a sudden God told me to hit the deck, which I did. The hunter in front of me threw his shotgun over his shoulder, and it went off. If I had stayed standing, I would have had my head blown off.
The second time God talked to me was when he told me to get across that pond.
The third time was now, when he told me that I was going to be the next one. I suppose so that I could somewhat be mentally prepared for it.
Bruce Campbell decided he was walking point, Dennis Duzinski walked second, I was third. We only went another few hundred feet when I realized I was horizontal in the air watching dirt fly past me. I never knowingly heard the explosion. When I landed on my back my first thought was whether or not my genitals were still intact. (I later found that this was virtually everyone’s first thought. I also did not know anyone who lost all their genitals and survived). I was very happy to see them completely intact. Before the explosion I was wearing two boots, trousers, a belt, a t-shirt, a field shirt, a flack jacket, helmet, a claymore mine on my left hip, my rifle in my right hand, and several hundred rounds of M16 ammo. Almost all that was blown off. After the explosion I was wearing a t-shirt and my right boot. My trousers including belt and everything else was gone. The hair around my genitals was there but the hair on my arms and head was partially burnt off. My left leg was gone at the knee. The blood was squirting out about 6 feet with each heartbeat. The only place that I hurt was from my left knee down to the tips of my absent toes. I could not understand how something “gone” could hurt so much. My right foot, still in its boot, did not hurt at all so I thought it was fine. I had a gash and a hole in my left upper thigh but that did not hurt. Blood was running into my eyes, but I could not feel that I had been cut anyplace on my head. The only thing hurting (like hell) was my missing left leg. When my fellow Marines reached me, they decided to cut my right boot off. Our bayonets were not very sharp so they finally gave up on that when I told them I could not feel my foot anyway, to “just pull off my boot”.
Addition: I suppose we were all shook up very badly, but for 44 years, I did not know that it was Bruce Campbell who walked point that day. I suppose I was really off, and Bruce probably was also, because I did not recognize him that moment! Bruce was truly a hero in this!
I was extremely thirsty. They put a tourniquet on my left upper thigh and said this would hurt a little. I said, “No, I can’t even feel it, the only thing hurting is my missing leg.” I was trying to be cheerful for my fellow Marines, and encouraged them to continue the fight.
It took about 15 minutes for the helicopter to pick me up. By that time the morphine was making me a little sleepy so I thought if I could go to sleep I could obtain some relief. I asked the flight Corpsman if I could go to sleep? It was so noisy in the helicopter but I believe he said it would be better if I stayed awake, so I stayed awake. When we landed at the Danang Naval Hospital, we ran through one building with sawhorses scattered about and blood over everything. No one was in there and I was very thankful for that as I could then go straight into surgery. One Corpsman shaved me from my waist down with a straight edge in about 60 seconds. I jokingly told him I did not want him cutting anything off. He never cut me anywhere. I was amazed.
Within probably five minutes I was going into surgery. I asked the
surgeon if I would keep my right foot. He said he thought I would, but he did not know for sure. That was the last thing I remember before surgery.
When I woke up, my right foot was missing and I had a cast the shape of a light bulb halfway between my knee and where my foot should have been. Now my right foot hurt as much as my left one did. I laid in the Danang Naval Hospital for three days in an extreme case of self pity. I mostly wondered if any woman would have me now? What was I going to do now that I was a double amputee? I refused all pain medication.
Three days later I was transferred to Yokosuka Japan where I went into surgery to have my dressings changed. They had not been changed since the surgery. I was there for one week and was able to call my parents with the help of the Red Cross. They had already been informed of the situation. I had thought I was going to have to tell them.
We left Japan on a huge plane (a C-5) where the back end lifted open. I was not in the Air Wing, so I have no idea what it was, but I was told by an Air Force Vet that it would have been a C-5. There were stretchers six high. I wonder if the top three stretchers throughout the plane were dead Marines? I was on the floor. We stopped to refuel in Alaska. A large group of student nurses came aboard. This was in the mini-skirt days and here I am laying on the floor. I thought I was just about in heaven. They left the plane too soon and we took off.
I arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital on May 2, 1970. The first month or so until all the infections cleared up, all amputations (at that time) were just left open.
After the first week or so at Philadelphia, I was transferred to a wing full of amputees. There were probably 60 – 80 of us. The support level was high although I did not realize it at the time.
The stumps were very interesting to look at while the Medical staff were changing dressings, basically they looked like a raw steak (with a round bone in the middle – no, not a t-bone; I guess it would have been a rib eye?). On May 19th I went into surgery again where both legs were shortened a few inches so that skin could be wrapped around the open ends. After the second surgery I did not make the same mistake I had made at Danang, which was to refuse pain medication. This time I knew how much it hurt, and accepted the pain medication (morphine) with open arms.
We used to go to the corner of the hospital grounds, where there was a KFC across the street. We had a six-foot chain link fence in front of us, but after sitting there a short while, a KFC person would come over and take our order. They would come back with the bucket of chicken and collect our money. Then they’d pass the bucket over the fence. This was a lot easier if one of us had at least one leg so he could stand and reach the bucket. Then we’d go back to the washroom, which had lights all night, and play cards and eat chicken. At this time I could eat anything I wanted and did not gain any weight.
A favorite pastime was to make trains with wheelchairs and fly down the quarter-mile ramp to the main hospital. We could really fly, but sometimes the lead wheelchair would hit the wall, and then we’d have a pileup. Luckily no one was ever seriously hurt. One time the Commander of the hospital came walking along and we almost hit him. He was quite upset, and we all had to sit at attention in his office for quite awhile.
We had opportunities to leave the hospital at least every week. We went to the Philadelphia Open Golf Tournament. We sat at the 18th hole and were visited by many celebrities, including Jack Nicholas and Miss Hurst. In the ’60s and 70s Hurst shifters were a big item for cars. One of the pro golfers was also a single below knee amputee, and he pulled up his pants leg to prove it. Quite inspiring.
One week we went deep sea fishing. A charter company donated their entire fishing fleet to us. We had five people in each boat (only four could fish at one time) and the first mate would bait our hooks and take off the fish. We caught quite a few five-pound bluefish.
Another time we went bowling. This was a new bowling alley and the Corpsman with us didn’t know that it was on the second floor, and there was no elevator. He said he’d pull all 20 of us up the stairs. After pulling up one person, we could see he was already exhausted. We told him that if he could pull up all the wheelchairs, we would just hop up the steps ourselves. We all started hopping up the steps on our butts, backwards. We had probably five amputees on the stairs when a couple came walking through the bowling alley door. It was so funny to watch their mouths drop. We must have been a shocking sight. The Corpsman brought up all the wheelchairs and we had a great time bowling.
One family would come and take several of us to their home for a keg party on weekends. We had a lot of fun there, and I really thank them for donating all they did for our welfare.
An attractive middle-aged woman, named Bunny, would come on Saturday night and take five of us to a good local restaurant for an excellent meal. She was very nice, and expected nothing from us in return. I also want to thank her for the very sizeable contribution she gave to our welfare also.
By August I wanted to go home. I realized I would be probably another six to nine months in that hospital and I wanted out. I requested to be transferred to a VA Hospital in Minneapolis. My request was denied as there were only five VA Hospitals accepting double amp’s from the military at the time. My orders came to be transferred to Cleveland. My first thoughts were that I did not want to go to Cleveland. Change my orders! The Base Commander said, “No, you are going to Cleveland”. So, I went to Cleveland. It was an interesting flight. On a 727, there were two passengers: myself in a stretcher, and another veteran named Jerry Sweet sitting in one of the chairs up front. At Cleveland, two ambulances came to pick us up. That was interesting – we only needed one, as Jerry could sit up front and my stretcher was put in the back. Neither one of us was an emergency case, but we still went 90 mph down the highway with the lights and sirens on.
The Cleveland VA Hospital was a nice facility and the staff treated me very well. I was there for only a few days when I was fitted for artificial legs. I was then allowed to go home for the month until my artificial legs were ready for the next fitting. I went back to Cleveland and started learning to walk again. 11 days later I left Cleveland pushing my wheelchair which contained my TV. I was going home!
In January of 1971, I began attending St. Cloud State University. The first quarter went well. The second quarter I was in the last group of freshman students to register. There were so many draft-dodgers in school that I could only register for one class. The VA wouldn’t give me any GI Bill benefits for only one class, and I just quit. I was basically going into a deep depression, but I didn’t know it at the time. Years later I realized that Philadelphia had kept patients there that long to keep the spirits high.
My first set of legs lasted approximately two years each before the fit became so bad I could not wear them any longer. That was the only time I have had to go for an extended period without wearing my limbs. I had to go four weeks before I could even be fitted for my next set because I had a terrible case of edema in my right stump. Then I had to wait a few more weeks until they were done.
I did not talk about my experiences to anyone other than other combat veterans. I was embarrassed by some people shortly after I came home and basically just shut my mouth after that. The USA had some real problems with divisions of loyalty after Vietnam. I feel that the 1991 Gulf War veterans really helped pull the country back together. Before the Gulf War I felt ashamed and would not talk about my experiences, afterward there was just more of an interest in and pride of the military. Thank you to any of you Gulf War Veterans who might read this.
Attitudes have really changed since 9/11/2001. There is again pride in Military Service!
I have been meaning to write my story for many years now and just never did. The amputee support newsgroup helped me just by pushing me to do this. If, by writing this, I help anyone else, that will just be frosting on the cake. I will try to add more now that I have this much done.
It is so easy for me just to remember what I don’t have and forget what I do have. I should be very thankful. I really do have a very good life.
Before Vietnam, preparing to go, I always envisioned perhaps being shot with a rifle. While we were often shot at, I never saw anyone hit with small arms fire. All our dead and wounded were as a result of mortars and land mines. Therefore, most of the wounded became amputees just like me. An interesting point I found was that being mortared is significantly more terrifying than being shot at with small arms fire. I cannot imagine the sheer terror of having 2000 pound bombs dropped on you. I have enough experience to know that we cannot accurately think what something might be like, until, we actually EXPERIENCE it for ourselves. Hence the old saying, “You cannot judge me until you have walked a mile in my shoes”.
I now walk with artificial legs. I do not use a cane or crutches. Most people, seeing me on the street would guess that I somehow hurt my foot, in fact several have asked me just that. Very few people realize that I am a double leg amputee. (Usually other amputees will notice.) I used to think that it was good that no one knew. Now I’m not so sure. There are times when I am very clumsy and could use some help, most notably being on stairs, especially with no rail.
Addition: For the last several years, I have worn shorts in the summer, it is amazing how much better I am treated!
If you have any questions or would like to discuss this further, do not hesitate to contact me. (If you happen to recognize yourself, PLEASE let me know!) To anyone who might be worried about bringing up old memories, you needn’t bother. I am NEVER very far from this…..
I, of course, was awarded a Purple Heart. I was especially pleased to be awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V”. There are three levels of Bronze Stars: “Achievement“, “Merit“, and “Combat Valor“. For years I thought everyone in my situation would have won one, but I have since discovered that that is not the case at all.
I have also discovered that the reason I haven’t written more is that a lot of the day-to-day things are gone. Only the traumatic events have been frozen in my mind like it all happened yesterday!
My email address is: ADP.USMC@gmail.com I would be happy to talk about this with anyone who cares.
Written 1997; modified 2015
The following page contains the wording of the Citation of my Bronze Star medal with Combat “V”.
After that is a story by James Webb.
The President of the Unites States takes pleasure in presenting the BRONZE STAR MEDAL to
LANCE CORPORAL ALLAN D. PEDERSON
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following
“For meritorious service in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam while serving as a Rifleman with Company H, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division from 24 February to 22 April 1970. Throughout this period, Lance Corporal Pederson performed his duties in an exemplary and highly professional manner. Displaying exceptional leadership potential and ability, he worked tirelessly to accomplish all assigned tasks and consistently provided his command with outstanding support. Participating in numerous patrols and ambushes, he repeately distinguished himself by his courage and composure under fire while constantly moving to dangerously exposed vantage points from which to deliver effective fire at the enemy. Particularly inspiring were his actions on 22 April when he was seriously wounded and unable to continue his combat efforts while participating in a squad-sized patrol. Despite his extremely painful wounds and his physical immobility, he verbally encouraged the Marines fighting near him and exhorted them to continue their mission while he awaited medical evacuation. Lance Corporal Pederson’s professionalism, aggressive fighting spirit, and steadfast devotion to duty earned the respect and admiration of all who served with him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”
The Combat Distinguishing Device is authorized.
FOR THE PRESIDENT,
- W. BUSE, JR
LIEUTENANT GENERAL, U. S. MARINE CORPS
COMMANDING GENERAL, FLEET MARINE FORCE, PACIFIC
Heroes of the Vietnam Generation, by James Webb
The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from the leading lights of the so-called 60s generation. Tom Brokaw has published two oral histories of “The Greatest Generation” that feature ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct was historically unique.
Chris Matthews of “Hardball” is fond of writing columns praising the Navy service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for its alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a startling condescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago comparing the heroism of the “D-Day Generation” to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the “Woodstock Generation.” And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film “Saving Private Ryan,” was careful to justify his portrayals of soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.
An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today’s most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The “best and brightest” of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse to remember.
Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the “generation gap.” Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through the magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders, who had survived the Depression and fought the largest war in history, were looked down upon as shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.
Those of us who grew up, on the other side of the picket line from that era’s counter-culture can’t help but feel a little leery of this sudden gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old counter-culture. Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from the dubious assumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a unified generation in the same sense as their parents were, and thus are capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.
In truth, the “Vietnam generation” is a misnomer. Those who came of age during that war are permanently divided by different reactions to a whole range of counter-cultural agendas, and nothing divides them more deeply than the personal ramifications of the war itself. The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protesters were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance, or protest marches but
a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.
Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. The men who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. They honored their father’s service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their father’s wisdom in attempting to stop Communism’s reach in Southeast Asia.
The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91 percent were glad they’d served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.” And most importantly, the castigation they received upon returning home was not from the World War II generation, but from the very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.
Nine million men served in the military during Vietnam War, three million of whom went to the Vietnam Theater. Contrary to popular mythology, two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were volunteers. While some attention has been paid recently to the plight of our prisoners of war, most of whom were pilots; there has been little recognition of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the ground.
Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America’s citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompletely on a tactical level should consider Hanoi’s recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to 58,000 total U.S. dead.
Those who believe that it was a “dirty little war” where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it is was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought, five times as many dead as World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all of World War II.
Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam. The baby-boom generation had cracked apart along class lines as America’s young men were making difficult, life-or-death choices about serving. The better academic institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest against the war, with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princeton lost six, at MIT two. The media turned ever more hostile. And frequently the reward for a young man’s having gone through the trauma of combat was to be greeted by his peers with studied indifference; of outright hostility.
What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war and possible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and professional lives at their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, “Not for fame or reward, not for place or for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it.” Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with an often-contagious elan. And who deserve a far better place in history than that now offered them by the so-called spokesman of our so-called generation.
Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines. 1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill, as well as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showing pictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home, it was the year of Woodstock, and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was seized upon the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the war. Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation.
Richard Nixon entered the scene, destined for an even worse fate. In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment was in its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is an unpredictable and inexact environment, but we were well led. As a rifle platoon and company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The company commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam, or young first lieutenants like myself who were given companies after many months of “bush time” as platoon commanders in the Basin’s tough and unforgiving environs.
The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn, cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the mountains just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In the valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions, whose ranks were 80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars, moved against the Americans every day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridgelines and paddy dikes were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from a hand grenade to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in the rice paddies and tree lines like individual fortresses, crisscrossed with the trenches and spider holes, their homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from large-caliber artillery shells. The Viet
Cong infrastructure was intricate and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, villagers who did not side with the Communists had either been killed or driven out to the government controlled enclaves near Danang.
In the rifle companies, we spent the endless months patrolling ridgelines and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire, hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside one’s pack, which after a few “humps” usually boiled down to letter-writing material, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio.
We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear, causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hooches, and when it rained we usually took our hooches down because wet ponchos shined under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful, never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we mixed daytime patrolling with night-time ambushes, listening posts, foxhole duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were common, as was trench foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five days, where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned defensive bunkers at night. Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock, or camping at the Vineyard during summer break.
We had been told while training that Marine officers in the rifle companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the experience of “Dying Delta,” as our company was known, bore that out. Of the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded, the weapons platoon commander wounded, the first platoon commander was killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding the third platoons, fared no better. Two of my original three-squad leaders were killed, and the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely wounded, as was my right guide. By the time I left, my platoon I had gone through six radio operators, five of them casualties.
These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical… Many other units; for instance, those who fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or were with the famed Walking Dead of the Ninth Marine Regiment, or were in the battle of Hue City or at Dai Do, had it far worse.
When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in hell and then return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of war but of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities, and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green 19-year-olds the intricate lessons of the hostile battlefield. The unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed help. Their willingness to risk their lives to save other Marines in peril. To this day it
stuns me that their own countrymen have so completely missed the story of their service, lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.
Like every military unit throughout history, we had occasional laggards, cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate, these Marines were the finest people I have ever been around. It has been my privilege to keep up with many of them over the years since we all came home. One finds in them very little bitterness about the war in which they fought. The most common regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able to do more for each other and for the people they came to help.
It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men. Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valor epitomizes the conduct of Americans at war from the first days of our existence. That the boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in our fathers’ generation while ignoring it in our own is more than simple oversight. It is a conscious, continuing travesty.