The Bravest Marine …

EGA BlackWhen the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Chew-fen Lee was a high school student who answered to the name Kurt. He had voluntarily associated himself with the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). In 1944, the 18-year old engineering student joined the United States Marine Corps. Standing barely 5’6” tall, weighing only 130 pounds, Lee made sure he measured up to the high standards for U. S. Marines by working harder than everyone else; he transformed himself into a wiry, muscular leatherneck. After graduating from boot camp, the Marine Corps assigned Lee to Japanese Language School. After graduating from the school, the Marine Corps retained him as a language instructor. By the end of the war, Lee had earned promotion to sergeant and was accepted to attend officer training school.

Major Chew-fen Lee USMCFrom October 1945 to April 1946, Lee attended The Basic School for newly commissioned Marine Corps officers. Upon graduation, Second Lieutenant Lee became the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in Marine Corps history. At this time, Lieutenant Lee deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war.

At the beginning of the Korean War, First Lieutenant Lee commanded 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel Homer Litzenberg at Camp Pendleton, California. In late August 1950, the 7th Marines received a warning order to prepare to move out; Lieutenant Lee decided to set an example for other Chinese Americans to follow. He later recounted, “I wanted to dispel the notion about Chinese being meek and obsequious.” He did not expect to survive the Korean War.

The 7th Marines shipped out on 1 September 1950; while aboard ship, Lieutenant Lee drilled his Marines night and day on the main deck —enduring derision from his contemporary lieutenants. After arriving in Japan, Lee’s superiors attempted to assign him as a staff officer handling translation duties, but Lee insisted he was there to fight communists and he retained command of his platoon.

Navy Cross MedalThe 1st Battalion, 7th Marines landed at Inchon, Korea on 21 September 1950. The 7th Marines joined up with the 1st and 5th Marines in their northward movement, forcing the North Korean army into a retreat. Lieutenant Lee and his Marines endured vicious street fighting in Seoul as part of operations Hook, Reno, and Vegas. Subsequently, the Marines were withdrawn from Soul, re-embarked aboard shipping, and made another amphibious landing at Wonsan, along the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula.

By early November, the communist Chinese decided to augment withdrawing Korean forces. On the night of 2-3 November in the Sudong Gorge, Chinese forces attacked Lee’s unit. Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy’s front and attacked their positions one at a time to draw fire and reveal their positions. Lee’s men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted heavy casualties. This action forced the Chinese to retreat. Lee, shouting to the Chinese in Mandarin, confused them and at this time, he attacked the Chinese with hand grenades and gunfire. This action earned Lieutenant Lee the Navy Cross medal for heroism under fire. The lieutenant suffered gunshot wounds to his left knee and right arm.

Five days later, the hospitalized Lieutenant Lee learned that the Army intended to send him to Japan for recuperation; he and another Marine stole an Army jeep and drove back to his unit on the front at the Chosin Reservoir. Upon arrival, Lee’s battalion commander assigned him command of the 2nd Platoon, Company B. Lee commanded his platoon while his arm was in a sling.

Late on 2 December, Lieutenant Lee was ordered to spearhead a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces in an effort to relieve a vastly outnumbered Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at a place called Toktong Pass —a strategic location controlling the main road to the Chosin Reservoir. Lee’s platoon, weighted down with heavy equipment, advanced through -20° temperatures and under limited visibility due to blizzards and darkness. Lee’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, had no special instructions for Lee—other than to stay off the roads and avoid heavily defended roadblocks.

Silver Star MedalLieutenant Lee placed himself at the point of his platoon and used only his compass to guide the battalion in a single file over treacherous terrain. Suddenly, heavy enemy fire pinned Lee down below a rocky hill. Refusing this delay, Lee directed his men to attack the hill with “marching fire,” a stratagem used by George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply suppression fires against the enemy. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and his men attacked the Chinese in their foxholes. Lee, with his arm still in a plaster cast, shot two communists on his way to the apex of the hill. When he reached the top of the hill, he saw that the Chinese foxholes were all constructed facing the other way, where the Chinese expected the Marines to attack. The foxholes were all empty, however. Lieutenant Lee’s attack had driven the Chinese into retreat.

Following this success, 1/7 established communications with Fox Company and Lieutenant Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack that forced a path to the beleaguered Fox. During this attack, Lee received another wound in the upper part of his right arm, above his cast. Undeterred, Lee regrouped his company and led them in several more firefights against pockets of enemy resistance. On 8 December, a Chinese machine gun wounded Lee seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Lee received the Silver Star medal for his attack against superior numbers of Chinese regulars. For his wounds, he received two Purple Heart medals.

During the Vietnam War, Major Lee served as the 3rd Marine Division combat intelligence officer; he retired from active duty in 1968. In 2000, then retired General Ray Davis described Kurt Lee as, “… the bravest Marine I ever knew.” One would expect that the Marine Corps would promote Lee above the rank of Major, and many attribute this to his “pugnacious” nature when dealing with superior officers, who continually criticized him for his aggressive “chip on the shoulder” demeanor. Major Lee’s response was truculent. “My chip is a teaching tool to dispel ignorance.”

UPDATE

Major Lee passed away at his home on 3 March 2014.  He was 88 years old.  Semper Fidelis, Major Lee —I have admired your courage and your example to all Marines.

Poppa Fox

I have written on several occasions about the Purple Foxes. It is a Marine Corps helicopter squadron formerly known as HMM-364, now redesignated VMM-364 to reflect transition to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. The squadron’s first aircraft was the Sikorsky H-34 helicopter, and its first designation was HML-364, which stands for Light Marine Helicopter. The Purple Foxes were deployed several times to South Vietnam, remaining there until 1966 when the squadron was ordered back to MCAS El Toro to transition from the H-34 to the CH-46 Sea Knight. In October 1967, HMM-364 returned to Vietnam and participated in combat operations at Phu Bai and Marble Mountain. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the Purple Foxes participated in the evacuation of Saigon. During the war, HMM-364 flew 70,000 hours in combat and combat support missions. HMM-364 was decommissioned on March 22, 1971.

The Purple Foxes were reactivated on September 28, 1984. Between then and now, HMM/VMM-364 has participated in numerous non-combat and combat missions, from Desert Shield and Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom.

Poppa Fox is how the Marines of HMM-364 referred to their commanding officer. In 1969, the squadron commander was Eugene Brady who served in the Marine Corps from 1946 to 1980. While commanding HMM-364, Colonel Brady was awarded the Navy Cross:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to

Lieutenant Colonel Eugene R. Brady, United States Marine Corps

for extraordinary heroism and intrepidity in action while serving as Commanding Officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) — 364, Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN (MAG-16), First Marine Aircraft Wing, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 15 May 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Brady launched as Aircraft Commander of a transport helicopter assigned the mission of medically evacuating several seriously wounded Marines from an area northwest of An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. Arriving over the designated location, he was advised by the ground commander that the vastly outnumbered unit was surrounded by the enemy, some as close as thirty meters to the Marines’ positions. Fully aware of the dangers involved, and despite rapidly approaching darkness and deteriorating weather conditions, Lieutenant Colonel Brady elected to complete his mission. As he commenced a high-speed, low-altitude approach to the confined zone, he came under a heavy volume of hostile automatic weapons fire which damaged his aircraft but did not deter him from landing. During the considerable period of time required to embark the casualties, the landing zone was subjected to intense enemy mortar fire, several rounds of which landed perilously close to the transport, rendering additional damage to the helicopter. However, Lieutenant Colonel Brady displayed exceptional composure as he calmly relayed hostile firing positions to fixed-wing aircraft overhead and steadfastly remained in his dangerously exposed position until all the wounded men were safely aboard. Demonstrating superb airmanship, he then executed a series of evasive maneuvers as he lifted from the fire-swept zone, and subsequently delivered the casualties to the nearest medical facility. His heroic and determined actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in saving the lives of eight fellow Marines. By his courage, superior aeronautical ability, and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, Lieutenant Colonel Brady upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

When Colonel Brady passed away in 2011, his squadron mates penned the following poem and dedicated it to him. I am reprinting it here with the greatest respect for its authors and the Marines of VMM-364.

Flying West
Dedicated to Colonel Eugene “Papa Fox” Brady

Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)
Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,
Where pilots can go when they have to die –
A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer,
For a friend and a comrade, whose memory is dear;
A place where no doctor or lawyer can treat,
Nor a management type would ere be caught dead;
Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;
The kind of place where a lady could go,
And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And the songs about flying and dying are sung,
Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before …
And they’d call out your name as you came through the door;
Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad.”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy.
You had not seen for years, though he taught you to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,
And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.”
“For this is the place where true flyers come,
When the journey is over, and the war has been won.
They’ve come here to at last be safe and alone
From the government clerk and the management lone,
Politicians and lawyers, the feds and the noise,
Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’ boys
Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest,
This is Heaven my son—you’ve passed your last test.”

Hell in a Helmet

Hell in a Helmet
Hell in a Helmet

This is what the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines call themselves. There is a reason for this; the battalion has participated in some of the most horrific battles in our nation’s history since World War I. Since its initial activation in 1917, 2/9 distinguished itself during the Battle for Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II; in the defense of Khe Sanh in the I Corps region of Vietnam, the ill-fated attempt to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez, and Operation Desert Storm. The battalion also played a role in the evacuation of civilians caught between opposing forces in the Chinese Civil War, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, and various other non-combat operations relating to providing relief to victims of natural disasters.

The second battalion was deactivated on 2 September 1994 to make room for one of three new light armor reconnaissance battalions, reactivated again in 2007 to serve within the 6th Marines as an anti-Terror Battalion, and again deactivated in 2015 as part of President Obama’s post war victory lap.

During the Vietnam War, 2/9 operated under the Third Marine Division. In early July 1965, 2/9 was ordered to Vietnam from its training base on Okinawa and soon after their arrival began rigorous combat operations at Da Nang, Hue, Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo, Con Thien, Than Cam Son, Quang Tri, Cua Viet, and the Vandergrift Combat Base. Its most vicious engagement was the Battle for Khe Sanh, which was actually a series of engagements that today’s historians call “the hill fights.” The convention for naming hills involves labeling them according to their elevation in meters. Throughout these campaigns, the Marines of 2/9 (and other participating battalions) held firm in spite of an overwhelming enemy force of two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infantry divisions.

In the early spring of 1967, 2/9 was operating in an area south of the old imperial city of Hue (pronounced way), when the Marines suddenly became aware of a growing enemy presence around the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Intelligence officers believed there were two NVA regiments operating in the area. No one believed this; it had become a standard conclusion each and every time someone found an NVA element. This time, however, the reports and suspicions were true. Company E (Echo 2/9) was sent to Khe Sanh to reinforce the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The operational areas included Hill 881 North, Hill 881 South, and Hill 861.

Combat Patrol 1967
Combat Patrol 1967

Combat patrol leaders reported considerable radio traffic in Vietnamese; there were NVA all over the place and the 40 Marines on one combat patrol became very nervous. Suddenly, Hill 861 erupted into a bloody crescendo of rifle fire and grenade explosions. The patrol leader called for artillery and close air support. It wasn’t long after that the entire side of Hill 861 was aflame in napalm. Marine medevac helicopters started coming in to evacuate the wounded; the dead would have to wait. Medevac flights were escorted by gunships. One helicopter was bringing in reinforcements from Bravo 1/9, but it was shot out of the air and seen tumbling down the side of the mountain coming to rest 700 meters below. And then just as suddenly, the enemy disappeared —it was as if they all vanished into thin air.

It took the rest of the night to evacuate the wounded; the dead were removed during the next morning. The Marines sent out more patrols, combing the area between 881S and 881N … but there was no sign of NVA. The Marines had lost 19 dead, 59 wounded; NVA contact had rendered Echo Company ineffective.

In early May, Con Thien situated south of the DMZ came under heavy attack; enemy activity in the “Leatherneck Square” area intensified and while clearing Route 561 between Con Thien and Cam Lo, 1/9 made contact with a large NVA force. MACV authorized the Marines to conduct operations within the DMZ; it would be a combined Marine Corps and RVN Army (ARVN) force. The operation was code named Hickory/Lam Son 54.

The hill fights, which ended on 11 May 1967, produced 155 Marine killed in action and 425 wounded. NVA losses were 940 confirmed killed in action.

Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)
Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)

Operation Hickory launched on the morning of May 18, 1967. 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines were supported by tanks as they moved forward into Con Thien. 2/26 made contact with an estimated two battalions of NVA regulars who had positioned themselves in well defended bunkers and trenches. Marines began receiving murderous automatic weapons and mortar fire from the right flank. Casualties were immediate and heavy. 2/9 moved up to reinforce the right flank, immediately engaging the enemy. As night fell, the Marines pulled back to evacuate the dead and wounded. Air strikes were called in during hours of darkness; with daylight came Marine artillery fires. Both Marine battalions went into the attack at 0700. 2/26 was stopped in its tracks within minutes due to withering fire to the front and right. 2/9 moved forward against light resistance and was able to relieve the pressure on 2/26. Within four hours, the Marines had successfully overrun the enemy bunker complex and continued the advance.

Mid-afternoon of the same day, Hotel 2/9 operating on the eastern-most flank of the advance came under heavy enemy fire near the intersection of Route 606 and 561. Several Marines in the point squad were down; one Marine gallantly ran out to carry them to the safety of Marine lives, but he too was hit three times and later succumbed to his wounds. Corporal Robert Gillingham was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

Tanks moved up to join the attack, but the NVA efficiently employed RPGs against them. The gunner and tank commander of the first tank were mortally wounded. A second tank was also destroyed. Hotel 2/9 aggressively moved forward so that all the dead and wounded could be evacuated, and as he withdrew he called in for supporting fires. Seven Marines were killed, 10 more wounded.

The war continued: Operation Kingfisher in July lasting until October. Out of five battalions participating (3/3, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, and 3/9) Marine casualties included 340 killed; 3,000 wounded. NVA losses were 1,117 killed, 2,000 wounded. In the late fall, Operation Kentucky, Operation Scotland, the Second Battle of Khe Sanh, The Rockpile, and Vandergrift.

From January to mid-March 1969, 2/9 participated in Operation Dewey Canyon —a sweep of the A Shau Valley and the last major offensive by the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Second Battalion, Ninth Marines … Hell in a Helmet and a band of extraordinary brothers.

Hastings

In May 1966, a small North Vietnamese reconnaissance force made their way across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into Quang Tri Province. The unit’s mission was to begin preparations for a massive invasion by regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Preparations included organizing local sympathizers to help with a very large logistics support mission.

The Commanding General of he NVA 324B Division was Nguyen Vang. General Vang began his infiltration during the last week of May but soon learned that thanks to the ineptness of Viet Cong locals, much needed supplies were not in place. The division’s advance stalled on the banks of the Ben Hat River; General Vang sent troops back into the North for supplies.

The infiltration was not a well-kept secret. General Westmoreland had been receiving intelligence reports about the presence of the NVA 324B, and he had long suspected that the NVA would make an attempt to seize Quang Tri Province, which was part of the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ and often said as “One Corps”). Photo intelligence suggested the presence of NVA forces in Quang Tri —a captured NVA soldier confirmed it.

General Westmoreland believed that the Americans lacked sufficient intelligence about the enemy’s intent. The natural tendency would be to order up a blocking force and plan for a robust counter-attack. Marine commanders suggested that an NVA presence in Quang Tri could be a ruse, intending to lure the Marines away from Da Nang. Westmoreland directed General Lew Walt to employ reconnaissance units to determine the purpose and scope of the NVA 324B.

A Recon team of 12 Marines lifted off from Dong Ha on 1 July 1966. They were inserted near two intersecting trails inside the DMZ; they were immediately overwhelmed by enemy fire and quickly withdrew. For two weeks, recon teams landed in several locations observing NVA regulars as they developed fortified positions. With these confirmations, Westmoreland ordered Walt: seven Marine Corps infantry battalions, five Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry and airborne battalions (11,000 men) would be reinforced by artillery, combined aircraft, and long-range naval support from the Seventh Fleet. A special landing force was placed in reserve.

Operation Hastings had begun.

More than half of Quang Tri Province was mountainous jungle. The canopy was so thick that bombs couldn’t penetrate it, and ground damage assessment was next to impossible. To the east of these mountains were foothills, and then rice paddies and sandy beaches along the coastal shore.

Commanding Operation Hastings was Brigadier general Lowell English, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He developed a plan to cut off the NVA 324B by seizing control of two trails just south of the DMZ. One key point in this place was placing a Marine unit on top of the “Rock Pile,” a craggy hill overlooking the Cam Lo River and the flat plain in the north. NVA observed the dust rising out of nearby Dong Ha as US aircraft continuously landed troops and supplies. For three days, B-52 aircraft dropped ordinance on NVA positions.

Combat operations began in earnest on 15 July 1966. A-4 Skyhawks from Marine Aircraft Group —12 (MAG-12) and F-4 Phantoms from MAG-11 began bombing and laying down napalm at two pre-designed landing zones (LZs): LZ Crow, 8 kilometers northeast of the Rock Pile, and LZ Dove at the mouth of the valley five kilometers northeast of LZ Crow. As ground support aircraft withdrew, Marine artillery from the 12th Marines began a twenty-minute bombardment of LZ Crow. CH-46s began inserting Marines at LZ Crow at 0750. The first drops were conducted without incident; a second insertion was answered by sniper fire. The landing zone was too small; two helicopters collided and crashed while a third CH-46 hit a tree while trying to avoid the other two. Two Marines were killed, seven seriously injured. Later that day, another CH-46 was hit by NVA fire; 13 Marines from 2/1 were killed. The Marines promptly renamed the Song Ngan as “Helicopter Valley.”

Marines from 3/4 were soon receiving deadly accurate fire from the NVA 324B. It wasn’t long before 3/4 was cut off behind enemy lines. They took a pounding that lasted for days; it was the bloodiest battle of the operation.

Operation HastingsOn 24 July 1966, India Company 3/5 was ordered to proceed to the top of Hill 362 and establish a radio relay station —necessary for effective communications in mountainous terrain. The company completed their movement and had begun to secure their perimeter when attacked by a large force of NVA. Marines incurred significant casualties but remained in their positions throughout the night, protecting it and their wounded comrades. The carnage of the fight became apparent at dawn. Fighting continued as medevac aircraft removed the dead and wounded.

Operation Hastings lasted throughout the month of July. The NVA abandoned their plan for the invasion of Quang Tri Province. When they withdrew back into North Vietnam, they left behind 882 dead, hundreds of weapons, tons of ammunition, and 17 prisoners of war. Of the Marines, 126 were killed in action with an additional 448 wounded. Among those from India Company:

First Lieutenant Joseph Kopfler, III, USMC
Staff Sergeant Jerry Hailey, USMC
Staff Sergeant William Hawkins, USMC
Corporal Richard Currier, Jr., USMC
Corporal Robert Johnson, USMC
Lance Corporal Robin L. Arnold, USMC
Lance Corporal Ronald Coates, USMC
Lance Corporal George Corey, USMC
Lance Corporal Sidney Malone, Jr., USMC
Private First Class Randy Brosnan, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Daniels, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Denny, USMC
Private First Class Franklin Eucker, USMC
Private First Class R. Fenstermacher, USMC
Private First Class Daniel Harmon, USMC
Private First Class Stephen Kittle, USMC
Private First Class Thomas Presby, USMC
Private Oscar Cruz, USMC

 

Wings of Honor

Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN
Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN

This story begins with a young Hospital Man by the name of Gary Norman Young. Gary was attached for duty with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364 (The Purple Foxes), one of the most decorated units in the Vietnam War. Gary was Navy Corpsman volunteer for medical evacuation missions. He knowingly put himself in harm’s way to help save the lives of seriously wounded combat Marines.

He was killed on February 7, 1969 while performing his hallowed life saving duty.

Years later, his daughter realized that her father had never received his combat aircrew wings and she wanted to correct that. She tracked down and contacted the men who served with The Purple Foxes with her father. In 2000, The Purple Foxes held a reunion in San Diego and Stephanie Hanson was invited to be their keynote speaker. During the reunion, Stephanie met the man who survived her father’s fatal crash. She also met the man who pulled his body from the wreckage.  She reminded these brave aviators that her father was still awaiting his aircrew insignia. What was needed, however, was proof that Gary Norman Young had flown the required five combat missions before his death.

In October 2002, Stephanie Hanson’s efforts on behalf of her father came to fruition; the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (Aviation) personally awarded her her father’s Combat Aircrew Wings. She also met the flight surgeon whose duty it was to pronounce her father’s death. He told her that her father’s death was instantaneous —he never suffered in his final moments of life. There was another positive aspect to Stephanie’s efforts: former Marines were able to connect with one another after 33 years.

There is more to the story.

Captain J. J. Harris, USMC
Captain J. J. Harris, USMC

Stephanie Hanson remembered a young helicopter pilot she met as part of her quest to obtain her father’s aircrew wings. The pilot’s name was Jennifer J. Harris, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1996.

On 7 February 2006, Captain Jennifer J. Harris was a pilot with HMM-364. She was accustomed to flying her Sea Knight (CH-46) helicopter into the battlefield to pick up and evacuate wounded Marines. Many of these missions were performed at night. Her final flight was a daylight mission. She volunteered to transport a much-needed supply of blood to a forward location.

Captain Harris didn’t have to fly that mission. She was at the end of her third combat tour of duty,  and Captain Harris was getting ready to rotate back home. But Captain Harris was a Marine and Marines always accept challenges. Marines always run toward the sound of guns —always. Harris argued, “I want to fly one more mission in Iraq … in the daylight.” Captain Harris’ superiors agreed to let her fly.

Her bird was carrying more than blood supplies, however. It was also flying a United States flag in honor of Hospital man Gary Norman Young, United States Navy.

During her final mission, Captain Harris’ helicopter was shot out of the sky by an enemy rocket. Radio communication reflects that Harris maintained her professional demeanor throughout the emergency, but the aircrew was unable to put out the on-board fire, and Captain Harris was unable to prevent the helicopter from crashing into the ground. All six aircrew were killed upon impact … 38 years to the day that Gary Norman Young lost his life as a member of The Purple Foxes.

Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part VI

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC
LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC

I always tried to think about what we were doing in terms of how the enemy would view it: our defensive positions, our offensive tactics, and in our relationship with the civilians who surrounded us. Politeness and courtesy toward village officials, women, and the elderly was very important.  The medical treatment of villagers by our Navy Corpsman paid dividends.

The quality of my Marines was mostly good, although I did have a few knuckleheads —but dealing with these Marines as an older brother always brought them around. As a Sergeant I didn’t have official disciplinary powers, but I could rail at them and also send them away if they failed to abide my rules.  I was also older than the average sergeant. I had already seen a good bit of the world, and I was (and continue to be) an avid reader of military history. I understood insurgencies and how to best counter them. I hoped that my knowledge about the Special Air Service, the Long Range Desert Patrol Group, Popski’s Private Army (Number One Demolition Squadron), or how the Philippines dealt with the Huks in the post WW II Era —all apples and oranges, mind you— might help us in the fulfillment of our mission.

The PFs did a terrific job, particularly considering how poorly they were paid and supplied. They also had a few slackers, but in the main, they were courageous and further, there was no end of tour for them.  If they were in the American military, all of them would have received medals for valor. I continue to wonder what became of these brave men. [1]

By the time that I left in late November of 1967, I thought we’d done pretty well.  No Marines had been killed and all of our wounded survived permanent injury.  We didn’t have to worry about mines and booby traps as the villagers walked the same paths as we did.  We suffered the loss of Trung Si [2] Ti who was the PF leader.  He was much older than I, maybe ten years or more and had served in the French Union Forces.  He had a stack of medals, but was barred from becoming an officer because he had no formal education.  He was murdered while attending a political rally.  It wasn’t a firefight.  It was an assassination. In the instant of Ti’s death, one of the Hamlet chiefs pulled out his .38 caliber revolver and shot the VC bastard square in the eye.  It was a sad day because all admired Trung Si Ti.  He was a tough and proven combat leader.

We organized a memorial ceremony with the RVN flag over his casket.  The Marines took up a collection and we gave his family several hundred dollars.  Not much by U.S. standards, but a fair amount by Vietnamese standards. The government of Vietnam provided damn little support and not one official attended his funeral —another example of lousy leadership by ARVN officers.  For too many, the war in Vietnam was a business; corruption was part of the deal.  Corrupt officials could not see that they were dooming their own future. Not all ARVN officers were this way, but too many were promoted for their personal loyalty rather than for their combat performance. [3]

Given the totality of the war in Vietnam, I have to conclude that the United States of America failed to acquit itself in line with its reputation in previous wars. Our national leadership was abysmal, our diplomats inept, our generals stuck in the middle of previous wars, the colonels more focused on becoming generals themselves rather than fighting a successful war. There are dozens of things the Americans should have done, but never seemed to get around to doing —and the point of this is that had we done things differently, the outcome might have been a happier one for the Vietnamese people, and ourselves. As an example, the importance and worthiness of CAP demanded more than a few weeks of schooling. We should have become proficient in the Vietnamese language, and the people assigned to the CAP should have been of the highest quality military professional. What actually transpired is that when line company commanders were forced to give up Marines to serve in with CAP, they only gave up those whom they would miss the least. Knowing this, many Marines felt as if they were being “shit canned” to the CAP —and no one with any brains can imagine that this attitude was a program enhancement. While many very good Marines were assigned to the program, the quota filler aspect was not a plus.

Considering the money the United States spent in Vietnam, it should have been an overwhelming victory. Seeking out the enemy by thrashing around the jungles and mountains was near idiocy.  Further, we had far too many troops of various services and job specialties in Vietnam that were more hindrance than help.  Alas, there were so many lessons that might have been learned from our mistakes in Vietnam but I feel that we ignored most of these lessons, and as a result, the human cost of subsequent wars has been unacceptably high.

Notes:

[1] Bing West reported that many of the PFs in his village “disappeared” after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. I agonize over this every day.

[2] Trung Si is Vietnamese for Sergeant

[3] My good friend and the author of this blog recently returned from Vietnam; he reported to me that the corruption is worse now than it ever was —only today the stakes are higher; as China menaces Vietnam, Vietnamese leadership grovels at the feet of China’s leaders. They enrich themselves at the cost of national autonomy.

Blog Owner’s Post Script: Staff Sergeant Curtis relinquished his command on 22 November 1967. His time in Vietnam, both in an infantry platoon and Combined Action Platoon had a dramatic effect on him. Shortly after returning to the United States, Curtis was ordered to Officer’s Candidate School and subsequently received his commissioned to Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Colonel Tad Curtis retired from active duty with eight years in the enlisted grades and twenty-four years as an officer—serving thirty-two years of honorable active duty service. In spite of many personal decorations, Curtis is proudest of his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal —it is only awarded to enlisted Marines.

Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part V

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

Around June or July 1967, our CAP had a new Corpsman report in.  He was a young fresh-faced kid from the Middle West.

Naturally, I welcomed him and let him know how important he was to all of us.

Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967
Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967

I asked him about his history and somewhat shame faced he told me that he had been in college but his grades were not so hot and the Draft was breathing down his neck.

He knew if he was drafted into the Army that he’d surely be an infantryman and sent right to Vietnam.  So, cleverly (he thought) he enlisted in the Navy.  After finishing recruit training, he received orders to Hospital Corps School.  He asked a Chief Petty Officer what that was.  The Chief replied it was a good deal.  You were trained to assist nurses and would be assigned to a nice big hospital somewhere.  No worries, eh?

After finishing that school, he received orders to report to the Field Medical Service School at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, CA.

He wondered, “What was that?” Then he found out that he’d be serving with the Marines.

THE MARINES!

Arriving in Vietnam, he was assigned to the Combined Action Platoon —a very small unit serving in the middle of Indian Territory and a very long way from rapid reinforcement or extraction. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units had overrun many of the isolated CAPs. It was, on the best day, an iffy assignment.

So, here he was, our “Doc,” the clever lad who wanted to avoid the Army infantry, stuck amongst a small group of Marine infantry in the very unfriendly boondocks.

As the day wore on I received radio instructions to establish an ambush site at specific grid coordinates.  This was very unusual.  I had never had that happen before. Further, a machine gun team from an adjacent infantry battalion arrived to augment our small platoon.

I made repeated inquiries to my superiors by radio to clarify our mission, but no clarification was forthcoming and it remains a mystery to me to this very day. I gathered my Marines and let them know what little I knew and elected to go with a bit larger number of troops for the pending mysterious mission.

I informed the “Doc” that he would accompany us —to see first hand what is was that we did for a living.

We departed our compound around mid-afternoon. We had a long way to go and in order to disguise our true destination we meandered through the countryside. In this way, no observer would be able to figure out the location of our ultimate ambush site. When it got completely dark, we pushed up to the intersection of an old French dam and the Cau Hai Bay.  The damn kept salt water out of the rice paddies on the other side.  The damn was pretty low and there was no water behind it —just dry rice paddies.

I set the Marines into their positions; we were without any cover or concealment —there was only short grass and darkness.

ExplosionWe waited.

And then…

Precisely at 2000 [1], fours rounds of 155mm came crashing in.  Two landed in the dry paddies and two in the bay. Hugging the ground, we heard the shrapnel zinging through the air just overhead.

Then it was quiet.  I got on the radio and informed “Tiger” (our overlords at Phu Bai) what had just occurred; they patched me to “Hershey Bar” (the fire control coordinator at an adjacent artillery regiment).  They claimed they didn’t know anything about it.

This occurred two more times —and exactly on the hour.  By this time I was furious because since Phu Bai was higher in elevation than we were, I could observe the flash of the guns as they let loose their barrage. I was swearing on the radio.

This was obviously a major screw up and after three attempts to kill us the lanyard snappers finally gave up. We remained in position for the rest of the night because I had no intention of taking my Marines back through a series of hamlets in the pitch black of night.

As the dawn broke, we saddled up and began our long trek back.

At some point the Corpsman asked if that sort of thing happened often.  Oh, sure, said I.  His facial expression was no longer one of a carefree lad. I didn’t let him suffer too long.  I told him the truth.  He was somewhat relieved —but he was still looking at thirteen months ahead of him in his Vietnam tour.

Aside:  Someone at Phu Bai learned out about the artillery firing Harassment & Interdiction (H&I) fires right on our position and the result of this was that the Artillery Regiment Executive Officer, along with a Master Gunnery Sergeant came out to investigate what happened. They wanted to do a crater analysis with the goal (I supposed) of putting someone in jail or something. The artillery team had no security and wanted us to escort them back out to the site.

I was able to talk him out of it.  We were mega tired, it was a long way out there, and beyond this, there was plenty of enemy around (which may not have been true given the time of the day). The colonel took our statements and departed back to the safety of Phu Bai. I never heard anymore about it.

The sad truth of warfare is that too many friendly forces are killed or wounded due to errors or blatant stupidity —or failure to coordinate.

A few months later I was able to read “Doc’s” promotion warrant to Hospitalman Third; he turned out to be a solid gent and ended up doing plenty of good work taking care of a large number of villagers with all sorts of maladies.  But, that is another story.

Continued next week—

Notes:

[1] On a 24-hour clock, eight o’clock pm.