Vietnam Marine's Veterans Day Recollection
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
In honor of Veterans Day approaching, Seamus sent this recollection by Marine (ret.) Major Philip Seymour. Seymour was a Sergeant in Charlie Co, 1/1, in October, 1967. The action he that writes about happened in Quang Tri, Viet Nam - Operation Medina.
A Veterans Day Recollection
It’s odd how a particular smell or sound has the power to transport one back to events decades past. The “Marine’s Hymn” has such a power for me, largely due to events on a night almost forty years ago in a land a half a world away.
Certainly for any present, former, or retired Marine, the Marine’s Hymn is one melody that evokes thoughts of Marine Corps Birthday Ball celebrations shared with friends in disparate regions of the four corners of the globe. But, the 12th of October 1967 was not a time for celebration or for toasting to The Corps with one’s friends. Instead it was a moment in time – otherwise insignificant – during which a company of Marines fought for its very existence and for which The Hymn played a significant role.
In early October of 1967, I was a sergeant with C Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment of the First Marine Division (C 1/1 for short, or simply “Charlie Company”). Since arriving “in country” (South Vietnam) the previous December, Charlie Company had been conducting “search and destroy” operations in an area about twenty-odd miles south of Da Nang. But, on October 6th, both 1/1 and its sister unit, the Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment (2/1), were ordered north to the area adjacent to the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam. We boarded trucks for the twenty-mile drive up Highway 1 to the Da Nang Air Base. There we boarded KC-130 aircraft for the short hop north to Dong Ha Air Base. After touching down, we trucked to nearby Quang Tri and dug in for an indefinite stay.
We had little time to enjoy our new surroundings. The area adjacent to the DMZ was under the operational control of the Third Marine Division. Also operating in this area were both the 9th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regiment and the 808th Viet Cong Main Force Battalion. They had positioned numerous anti-aircraft guns on the hilltops in this area near their base-camps. These guns were responsible for an alarming number of “shoot downs” of U.S. aircraft, principally helicopters flying over the thick jungle canopy of the Hai Lang rain forest. So it was that elements of the Third Marine Division, with 1/1 and 2/1 attached, would set out on “Operation Medina” to try to locate and neutralize these guns and the NVA force that freely operated in this local.
At 1100 (11:00 AM) on October 11th, Charlie Company boarded fourteen U.S. Army UH-1 “Huey” helicopters for a twenty minute, zigzag treetop flight into a Landing Zone (LZ) on the edge of the jungle. Charlie Company had been designated the “point” company; the remainder of 1/1 and 2/1’s seven companies would land and follow us about a thousand meters to our rear. In theory, Charlie Company would encounter the enemy forces first, thus preventing the greater force to our rear from stumbling into an ambush with potentially dire results. It was not lost on us that we were out in front and largely on our own if the worst was to happen.
Once all of our Marines were on the ground, we moved off the LZ through head high elephant grass toward the jungle’s edge. Entering the enveloping jungle, little daylight filtered through the three separate layers of dense foliage. With the sun’s rays unable to penetrate the thick foliage, virtually everything one touched was covered with slimy, rotting vegetable matter. The ground was crawling with land leeches. These, in particular, made for an interesting night. Whether on watch or trying to catch some much needed sleep, each of us sought to ward off the persistent crawling and sucking of these leeches. Sleep was in short supply that night.
Before first light on the morning of the 12th, those fortunate enough to find sleep were awakened by their less fortunate brethren. Largely by feel in the darkness, each Marine found a score or more black leeches adhering to their bodies. With only minutes to spare before moving out, each of us busied ourselves burning off the attached leeches – thoughts of a C-ration breakfast would have to wait until later.
That morning dawned as had each morning since the end of the monsoon season several months before – hot and very humid. Our progress through the thick jungle was slow, typically measured in yards rather than miles. The “point” man had to hack a narrow path fifteen or twenty yards ahead while those behind quietly waited. Everyone faced outboard, alternating left and right, though none of us could see much beyond ten feet through the foliage. On signal to move out, everyone picked up his gear and moved forty or fifty feet forward, only to halt once again and face outboard. This went on through the morning and into the early afternoon. Finally, around 1400 (2:00 PM), our point man emerged onto a trail – a very well used NVA trail! After consulting by radio with our Battalion Commander, then more than a thousand meters to our rear, our Commanding Officer (CO), Captain Bill Major, decided to risk moving onto this trail. Each of us was concerned about the possibility of an ambush, but the alternative was to remain in the jungle and not reach our objective before nightfall. This would in all likelihood subject us to plunging fire from the NVA unit we knew to be encamped on the mountaintop above.
Movement certainly was both swifter and quieter once on the trail. But as we approached the base of the heavily forested hillock, the jungle ahead erupted in sustained bursts of heavy and light machine gun fire down the long axis of our ranks. Those closest to the ambush site were also subjected to several incoming grenades. The entire lead squad was down; those immediately behind scrambled for whatever cover they could find. Being about midway back and not in immediate danger from the fire ahead, I and those in my platoon began to deploy rapidly off the trail to either side and moved ahead toward the steady fire, now both incoming and outgoing. Moving into position, we laid down a suppressing fire against those in the ambush position. After ten minutes or so of heavy contact, the incoming fire ceased as the NVA manning these guns on the rise to our front pulled back to the safety of their comrades on the hill above. They left behind two 12.7mm heavy machine guns however, as well as several of their more seriously wounded and dead soldiers.
We set up a 360-degree defensive perimeter while our Navy corpsmen attended to the wounded. Those killed in action were beyond help at that point and were moved off the trail; they were hastily covered with green rubberized ponchos. Our CO immediately radioed for an emergency medical evacuation to remove our casualties as quickly as possible. Several Marines began cutting down the smaller diameter trees with their machetes in order to transform our little hillock onto a barely usable landing zone for the incoming helos. C-4 plastic explosive was required for the larger, more stubborn trees.
Not long after, an incoming radio call advised that the helos were in the proximity and that they needed some sort of illumination to define the four corners of our landing zone. With the NVA occupying the high ground above us, we elected to light the “heat tabs” that fuel our C-rations. Barely fifty feet across, our makeshift LZ was smaller than the pilots would have desired, but they came in nevertheless. Unable to actually land due to the many tree stumps in the LZ, the first CH-34 “Chinook” helicopter slowly descended into a close hover just above ground level. The more severely wounded were loaded aboard. Upon its departure, three more helos descended in turn. As the fifth helo began its descent, a torrent of automatic rifle fire erupted to our immediate front. The North Vietnamese launched a company-sized unit into an attack on our lines. Our strength as a reinforced company was more than adequate to repel the hundred or so attackers.
As incoming rounds skipped across our shallow defensive position, a series of whistles blew off to our left flank as a second NVA company joined the assault. The volume of fire, both incoming and outgoing, was intense. Soon after this second assault began, the intensity of the fire waned momentarily while both attackers and defenders paused to jam another magazine into their respective weapons. It was during this pause that a storm of grenades rained in on our small LZ. Almost immediately, yet a third blast of whistles signaled the appearance of two more companies on our previously unmolested rear and right flanks. With more than four hundred fresh, well-armed North Vietnamese soldiers completely encircling us, our CO realized that reinforcements would be needed – soon. He radioed our Battalion Commander who was then establishing a defensive position on a hilltop about a thousand meters to our rear. Also on this hilltop was Delta Company’s CO, Captain John Gallagher, who immediately ordered his men to saddle up and began the long trek through the jungle toward the sound of the battle below.
Charlie Company’s Marines moved off the landing zone into the dense foliage surrounding the small knob of a hill that would serve both as a command post for our Company Commander and as a collection point for the rapidly increasing number of casualties. Those whose wounds were not immediately life threatening remained on the line and continued to aid in the company’s defense. With darkness rapidly falling, an Air Force C-47 aircraft arrived above our position and began dropping illumination flares. It, and several more that followed, remained on station throughout the night. Without their continuous illumination, I doubt that we could have held out as long as we did.
Among those who had been wounded in the initial onslaught was machine gunner Corporal Jimmy Leonard. He remained at his position, however, providing covering fire with his M-60 machine gun. As this trail overlooked one of the few “open” fields of fire through the underbrush, the NVA also chose to set up one of their machine guns just down the hill from Leonard’s gun. Leonard fired first and killed both the enemy gunner and his assistant gunner. Two other NVA soldiers moved in to man this machine gun again; Leonard killed these two as well. Before the enemy gun was finally destroyed, Leonard had destroyed 7 two-man gun teams.
The NVA attacks were coming in waves now from all sides. The attackers were part of a freshly deployed unit and, as we learned later, each man was equipped with the venerable AK-47 assault rifle. Each weapon employed a thirty round magazine, which allowed its owner to put out an incredible amount of firepower. We, in turn, were carrying the new M-16 rifles with their twenty round magazines. Although we did not consider these weapons as reliable as either our old M-14 rifles (which we had relinquished back in March) or our opponents’ AK-47s, the M-16’s smaller, lighter 5.56mm cartridge did have one saving grace – it permitted us to carry twice the amount of ammunition as when carrying our old M-14s with their larger, heavier 7.62mm cartridge. In our present predicament, this would prove to be the difference between life and death.
The battle raged around us interminably. One could not distinguish individual rifle shots; the roar of several dozen automatic weapons – both ours and theirs – simultaneously firing on full automatic shut out all other sound. So too did the dozens of grenades exploding both farther down the hill and also amidst our positions. Nobody truly had any idea what was happening anywhere except around his own position. Scores of NVA soldiers repeatedly advanced up the slope toward our positions, firing on full automatic as they came. As their rifles’ magazines emptied, the volume of fire diminished somewhat as they paused to insert another full magazine before continuing their advance. For our part, we poured fire into their ranks, also on full automatic. Before withdrawing, the NVA soldiers armed and tossed their fragmentation grenades into our lines. Our grenades followed their withdrawal.
With the battle in its fourth hour, our ammunition was almost gone. We began scavenging for grenades and fresh magazines from our casualties, and for weapons and grenades from the several NVA soldiers who had been killed within our lines. We had gone to the field with 172 Marines, a number far greater than Charlie Company’s typical strength of less than one hundred men. Now, as the number of our “effectives” dwindled to seventy or less, our resistance became more of an individual effort rather than the concerted effort of before. We had long since fixed our bayonets, as had the North Vietnamese soldiers to our front.
The NVA soldiers were penetrating our thinning lines with regularity now. Before withdrawing back down the hill, many NVA soldiers lobbed grenades into our perimeter. Many of these landed among the wounded men lying within the cleared area at the top of the hill. The sound of grenades falling and exploding had become commonplace. Lance Corporal Bill Perkins, a combat photographer attached to Charlie Company for this operation, saw one of these grenades land among several wounded men. He yelled, “Grenade!” and threw himself on top of the explosive as it detonated thereby giving his life in order to save the several men in his proximity. Perkins’ family later received his posthumous Medal of Honor for his selfless actions that night.
As our strength dwindled further, we were forced to contract our lines back up the hill to the very edge of the clearing. With our ammunition all but exhausted, we had little option but to meet the advancing enemy with just our bayoneted rifles and machetes. Our resistance became less effective as our numbers diminished.
The attackers continued their assaults on our positions, though they appeared as spent as we felt. We attempted to time our forays into their ranks until they – or most – were reloading their weapons. We lost men and they lost men as well. After penetrating their ragged lines, we then had to drag our wounded back up the hill, often once again engaging the same enemy soldiers making their way back down the hill.
After several forays into the attacker’s ranks, each with less effectiveness than the previous, our numbers had dwindled to just over thirty men still able to fight. It was apparent to each of us, as well as to the many wounded lying about both in the cleared LZ and still in the jungle below, that our ability to provide an effective defense was at an end. We could not keep the NVA soldiers from completely overrunning our position for much longer. It was then that First Lieutenant Jack Ruffer, a former enlisted man who had since received a commission (commonly referred to as a “Mustang”), began singing the Marine’s Hymn. Other Marines, both wounded and as yet unscathed, picked up the Hymn as well. It was a last ditch effort to “rally the troops” for one last rush down the hill. With the Hymn still echoing through the hills and valleys, those few of us still on our feet moved back into the underbrush toward the advancing shadows. The singing of the Hymn felt somehow reassuring and familiar. It also provided a sense of peace and continuity with those Marines from wars past.
Captain John Gallagher’s Delta Company also heard the singing. They began pushing up the trail we had come down the previous afternoon and almost immediately encountered the North Vietnamese encircling our position. His men blasted a hole in their lines and spread into and over our small LZ. I had not been aware that Delta Company had indicated that they were on the move for our relief. Nor can I recall the emotions that I experienced when I first realized that they had made it through the enemy force surrounding us. On reflection, I believe it was a mixture of pure exhaustion and unadulterated relief! I do recall making it back to the LZ where I dropped my rifle to the ground, followed by my cartridge belt and helmet. I then sank to my knees; I had nothing left.
Delta Company’s timely arrival turned the tide of this engagement just that quickly. Had they arrived ten or fifteen minutes later, I question whether they would have found anyone still alive. As it was, all of our officers and staff NCOs had been wounded or killed. Four of our seven Navy corpsmen had been wounded while tending to fallen Marines. And, of the 172 men that had begun this operation just two days before, only 30 remained. And of the enemy’s losses, we only counted 21 bodies – all within our perimeter. The blood trails surrounding our little hill attested to a considerably higher toll however, as their practice was to drag off their wounded and dead. For our part, we were just glad the worst was over!
Our contact with the North Vietnamese did not end with Delta Company’s arrival, but for us, everything following that night was anticlimactic. We were not aware that our singing of the Hymn had penetrated beyond our own little LZ on that tiny hill. But after rejoining our other two battalions at their hilltop position several days later, I had the opportunity to talk with several friends in another company. They informed me that, on the night of 12/13 October, they and the others on that hilltop had listened to the sound of the engagement below and watched the light green NVA “tracer” rounds mix with our red tracer ammunition flying about in all directions from our position a thousand meters off. They recounted too how they listened as the Hymn’s familiar refrain echoed above the sound of the firing. They said they all had been moved by this event, as had we. To this day – almost forty years later – I am still moved by both the Hymn’s words and by its tune. To me, it brings back recollections of the Marines I served with, both in the Hai Lang Forest those nights, and throughout my thirty-year career as a U.S. Marine.
Our town’s recent 4th of July parade featured the Second Marine Aircraft Wing’s band. I was once again moved to tears as they passed by playing that familiar Hymn. And, I suspect, were I to ask other Marine veterans of the Persian Gulf Conflict, Vietnam, Korea, or World War II, they too would echo my sentiments for their own very personal reasons. I suspect too that our town’s old soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Coast Guard personnel stand a bit taller when their service songs are heard. These simple tunes have deep meaning for these veterans as well.
My story is only one of countless thousands of such stories, some less dramatic, some more so. On this Veterans Day, please pause a moment and remember those men and women who were not so fortunate to survive and be with us today to relate their own personal story. Instead, they reside in cemeteries around the world and their exploits are known but to God. We are here today because they are not. They freely gave their lives so that we could live ours. Please honor them with a thought or a prayer. God bless.
Major, US Marine Corps, Retired