Keeping the Heritage Alive: Museum Docent Shares His Experience With New Sergeants

Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) perform one of the most critical functions of the Marine Corps. They serve as the first line of leadership in every small unit and can make or break the officers over them. In combat, the significance of their role expands greatly as they make decisions with immediate impact on the lives of their Marines.

Active-duty personnel and civilians on Marine bases around the world ded­icate their full-time efforts to the pro­fessional military education (PME) of up-and-coming NCOs. In Quantico, Va., the Col­lege of Enlisted Military Edu­cation enjoys the benefits of their prox­imity to the National Museum of the Marine Corps and all the resources it can offer.

One of the most important resources comes from the experience of docents who volunteer their time to help preserve the history on display and educate the public. Ronald Echols has served as a docent since 2008. He left the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1968 after four years of service. At first glance, his lowly rank and time in service may seem unremarkable, but for those who know him, Ron’s time on active duty proved an action-packed whirlwind of combat, leadership challenges and, ultimately, a battlefield commission. As a result, today he helps lead a portion of the PME for new sergeants during their four-week primary course.

“I try to explain to them that caring for the Marines under them is the most important thing they’ve got to do,” Ron said. “It’s like being a parent. All of them are now in charge of somebody and they’ve got to take care of them. I have the students for about 45 minutes, and it always makes me feel good to feel like I’m giving something to these young Marines.”

Baptism by Fire
Ron joined the Marines in 1964 at the age of 18. He received selection for sea duty and spent two years aboard ship before joining the 2nd Marine Division rifle team at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He made sergeant in less than three years, and in June of 1967, deployed to Vietnam. Assigned to “Mike” Company, 3rd Bat­tal­ion, 26th Marines, Ron endured his baptism through fire in short order. The battalion operated in the northern part of South Vietnam along the Demilitarized Zone. Through the summer, several Ma­rine units were bloodied and nearly wiped out by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) near Con Thien. 3/26 arrived in Septem­ber for their turn in the melee.

The battle opened on Sept. 7. Ron’s company witnessed their heaviest action three days later.

“We had four tanks, two Ontos, and a battalion of Marines,” Ron remembered. “Who is gonna mess with a battalion of Marines and all that armor? Well, the 324th NVA Division attacked us. Within 15 minutes, we had one Ontos left, and the tanks were blown all to crap. It was raining artillery on us. For seven and a half hours, it was on, with hand-to-hand and everything.”

At one point during the battle, Ron pushed forward with his Marines. A punch to his face temporarily stunned him before he surged ahead again.

“He’s hit!” screamed one of Ron’s Marines.

“Who’s hit?” Ron yelled.

“You’re hit!”

Ron discovered a splash of blood across his flak jacket increasing in size. He put his hand to his face and lowered it covered in red.

“Well, give me a bandage then!”

Image
This immersive exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps allows visitors a glimpse into the world that SSgt Ron Echols and other 3/26 Marines faced during the siege at Khe Sanh. Kyle Watts.
Image

SSgt Ron Echols, left, and one of the Mike Co Navy corpsmen on Hill 881S during the siege at Khe Sanh. (Photo courtesy of Charles McCarty) He continued fighting until the next day when he could be evacuated to the hospital ship. Doctors discovered a bullet entered his cheek near the mouth and exited the other side of his face in front of his ear. Miraculously, no bones or nerves were hit. A plastic surgeon went to work, and less than a month later, Ron returned to the front lines. He counted as one of 434 Marines from the battalion wounded in the fight around Con Thien where 55 had been killed. Due to the attrition his company suffered, Ron was appointed the platoon sergeant. He would hold the responsibility for his platoon for the rest of his time in Vietnam.

The remainder of 1967 proved merci­fully less eventful for Company M as a whole. October and November held sev­eral significant events for Ron, however. He received a second Purple Heart during one patrol when an ambush caught them with mortar rounds. Shrapnel peppered his leg, but Ron completed the mission without evacuation from the field. Later, on another patrol around a U.S. Navy Seabees gravel operation called “the rock crusher,” Ron further increased his reputation as a bold and decisive leader.

Ron volunteered one morning to take out a recon patrol of eight Marines, in place of a squad leader who typically led the daily tours around the perimeter. As they moved down a dirt road, friendly mortars suddenly exploded nearby over the crest of a distant hill. Ron grabbed the radio as the patrol found cover.

“What the hell is going on?”

“We’ve got a large group of Viet Cong in the open!” Replied a voice on the other end.

“Well, you’re almost on top of us!”

Sprinting figures appeared over the top of the nearby hill, holding AK-47s and heading directly toward Ron’s patrol. More followed behind the lead group. Even more sprinted up and over the crest behind them. Ron moved the radio back to his face.

“I see them! They’re coming over the hill right in front of me!”

“Act as a blocking force!”

Ron laid eyes on the seven other Ma­rines of his patrol. At least five times their number of VC were already over the hill and coming on fast.

“Do you know who you’re talking to?” Ron asked, presuming the voice believed Ron was at the head of a company, or even a full platoon.

“Yes! Now act as a blocking force!”

Ron dropped the radio and ordered the Marines into a ditch alongside the road.

“Stay down! Nobody shoots until I do!”

The first group of enemy stopped alongside the road less than 20 yards away. They waited in the open as more VC poured over the hill. Within minutes, a group nearly 50 strong gathered by the road catching their breath.

“I swear to God, I do not know what made me do this,” Ron remembered re­cently. “I jumped up and shouted, ‘Stop!’ in Vietnamese and every one of them threw their hands straight up in the air. The only thing I can figure is that they had just gotten through being mortared like crazy and they thought they had run into some big unit, so they surrendered.”

The Marines led the group of prisoners to an open spot in the road and surrounded them as they lay on the ground. Ron radioed for immediate help. The closest available unit was a group of Australians.

“I don’t care who they are,” Ron ad­vised. “We need help now!”

Image
As seen in a view from Hill 881S, this ridgeline several hundred meters away from the Marine positions proved a source of continuous enemy fire. Accordingly, it became the target of friendly airstrikes and artillery fire. The initial plume of an explosion can be seen bursting up in the center of the photo.

A dust cloud soon formed in the dis­tance as a convoy of Australian ve­hicles approached. The Aussies tucked prisoners into every nook and cranny of their trucks to transport their haul away. The Marines moved aside as the convoy sped off. As the engines faded into the distance, Ron turned to his stunned men.

“This patrol is OVER!”

They returned to base safely and found the platoon commander and company com­mander waiting for them inside the wire.

“Sergeant Echols,” said the captain, “You come with me.”

The officer immediately filed paper­work for Ron’s meritorious promotion to staff sergeant. Less than three weeks later, with just over three years total in the Marine Corps, Ron received his pro­motion to staff sergeant. After Ron’s elevation to platoon sergeant, several new lieutenants cycled through. Some were wounded, some were fired, but either way, the end result left Ron ultimately re­sponsible. He excelled in his role as act­ing platoon commander to such an extent that existing and incoming officers de­ferred to him, and left Ron in charge of his platoon.

Image
Mike Company veteran Charles Martin carried an 8 mm video camera during his tour in Vietnam, capturing incredible footage from Hill 881S, the Khe Sanh airstrip and various other locations. This screenshot from the video depicts a machine-gunner returning fire at NVA soldiers.

By the end of December 1967, 3/26 re­ceived orders to support the looming conflict at Khe Sanh. Ron and the Ma­rines of Company M occupied a front-and-center role in the siege, positioned west of Khe Sanh Combat Base on Hill 881 South.

Image
In another screenshot from the video taken by Charles Martin, SSgt Ron Echols is shown carrying his favored pump-action shotgun. This portion of the video was shot immediately after Ron saved Martin’s life by cutting down several NVA with his signature firearm. Courtesy of Charles Martin.

 “That wasn’t some training evolution, that was a real firefight,” SSgt Ron Echols said recently. “If I would have known at that time he was taking a video, I’d have grabbed that camera and stuck it where the sun don’t shine!” Courtesy of Charles Martin.

Marine defenses on 881S spread across two distinct hill tops, separated by a low saddle in between. Company I, 3/26, occupied the higher hilltop. Two platoons from Mike took over the lower side. Ron arrived with his Marines and found basic defensive positions carved out of the hill by its previous occupiers. He immediately ordered his Marines to dig deeper. They placed multiple layers of concertina wire outside the trench line, designed to funnel any oncoming enemy into the Marines’ machine guns. Ron directed his platoon to complete their defensive barriers with a tall, barbed wire fence immediately out­side of their trench line, preventing any approaching enemy from jumping into the trenches. The Marines spaced mines and claymores around the entire perimeter. When they ran out of clay­mores, Ron found an abundance of det­onators remaining. He improvised by filling empty ammo cans with spent rifle brass and explosives lining one side, then connected a detonator as a homemade anti-personnel device. Ron directed his men to save their empty C-ration tins and place several small rocks inside. The lid was then bent over a strand of the perimeter wire, creating a noise-making early warning device.

“I don’t even remember who our pla­toon commander was, but I remember Ron” said Charles McCarty, Ron’s radio­man for the duration of the siege at Khe Sanh. “He was doing everything a pla­toon commander would do. There was this old comic book character called, ‘Sgt Rock,’ and that’s what we used to call Ron, because he was hard as a rock.”

As days turned into weeks on the hill, the trench line surrounding Mike Company evolved from a shallow ditch to a six-foot-deep channel, lined with sandbags and bunkers dug underground. Ron insisted on underground shelters, as their position proved a favorite target of NVA artillery and rockets.

Image
Air Force B-52 bombers routinely conducted “Arc Light” strikes around Hill 881S during the siege at Khe Sanh. The power and devastation of these attacks left the Marines on the ground in awe. DOD.

Incoming of some sort hit 881S every day. Snipers kept the hill continually under fire and observation. Another hill less than a mile away, designated 881 North, acted as a NVA stronghold and observation post. Nobody knew exactly what enemy strength 881N housed. Ma­rines patrolling that direction suffered numerous casualties without successfully reconnoitering the hill, included a com­pany-size movement by Company I on Jan. 20, 1968. The Marines on 881S be­came increasingly exhausted under the constant threat of attack.

Image
Bombs from a friendly airstrike throw up dirt in a valley between Hill 881S and a nearby ridgeline. Bomb craters can be seen across the ridge as well, from which NVA soldiers harassed the Marines on a daily basis. Joe Darrell.

U.S. air power afforded the garrison its best chance of survival. The Marines called in air strikes on any suspected enemy position. On one occasion, a sniper harassed Mike Co for several days. Finally, Ron had enough. He grabbed a pair of binoculars and kept watch over the area where the rounds originated until, finally, incoming shots gave away the sniper’s position. He found the sniper perched high in the fork of a tree branch.

“Ron saw him and he says, ‘well, I can take care of that,’ ” remembered Charles Martin, a squad leader in Ron’s platoon. “Ron called in jet. That thing circled the tree one time and came in from the back side. The sniper was climbing down when a bomb hit the base of the tree and blew it in a million pieces.”

A ridgeline several hundred meters away from 881S proved a continual source of incoming NVA artillery and rifle fire. The ridge was close enough that individual enemy soldiers were easily seen moving around. Despite its close proximity, B-52 “Arc Light” strikes rained down con­tinuously across the ridge.

“Have you ever seen video of an arc light?” asked Charles McCarty. “To this day, when I say the word, ‘arc light,’ I get chills.”

Marines who knew what to look for might spot contrails high in the sky, sig­naling the coming devastation. For those unaware, the bombs fell out of nowhere. A line of explosions suddenly plumed up at one end of the ridge and worked their way across. As the explosions continued, the sound of the falling bombs, followed by their explosions, reached the Marines in a deafening roar. Shockwaves tossed the hill beneath the Marines like an earth­quake. Finally, after three B-52s emptied their bomb bays of nearly 30 tons of ordnance per aircraft, nothing but a barren landscape remained.

Image
A CH-46 touches down at Hill 881S, delivering critical supplies and extracting wounded. The “Purple Foxes” of HMM-364 provided much of the support for Ma­rines on the hill. Joe Darrell.

“B-52s hit that ridgeline every day,” remembered Ron. “They told me on the radio to have the men get in the bunkers, put their fingers in the air, and hold their mouths open. They hadn’t dropped one that close to friendly troops before. I cannot begin to describe the noise. The whole hill was shaking like we were on a ride at the fair or something. There were big rocks falling out of the sky and I thought someone would be killed. It was just unreal.”

Image

USMC History Division.

Image
In this screenshot from Charles Martin’s video, a stream of Marines can be seen rush­ing into the back of an aircraft still running on Khe Sanh airstrip. In the video, imme­diately after the plane is loaded and takes off, an artillery round strikes the runway. Courtesy of Charles Martin.

Despite the impressive show of air power, the NVA dominated the hills and jungle surrounding Khe Sanh. Hill 881S was inaccessible by land and could only be resupplied by helicopter. The NVA shot down several choppers attempting to resupply the Marines on 881S. Even so, the brave helicopter pilots, primarily from the “Purple Foxes” of Marine Me­dium Helicopter Squadron 364, continued coming. Eventually, a “super gaggle” of jets and attack helicopters proved neces­sary to strafe and bomb the sur­rounding jungle to cover the resupply choppers. The enemy threat, com­bined with daily fog and inclement weather, often prevented the Marines from obtaining the critical supplies they needed.

Harry W. Jenkins arrived at 881S as the new captain in charge of Company M, in March 1968. Jenkins, who later retired as a major general, was shocked by the conditions on the hill yet im­pressed by the level of morale and preparedness maintained. Dirty and bearded Marines in tattered clothing filled the trenches. He found several Marines with visibly decayed teeth.
Image

Image

Image

“I asked the Marines where their toothbrushes were,” MajGen Jenkins said. “They told me they were using them to clean their rifles. Under the cir­cumstances, I couldn’t argue. That’s just one minor example, but things like that led to emergency resupply orders for any number of things. I just couldn’t believe it. We had astronauts in space going around the moon, but we couldn’t get toothbrushes to 881 South.”

Ron rationed food and water among his platoon as critical supplies ran short. At one point, the Marines ran out of C-rations and went for nine days without food before a resupply finally made it into the hill. They spread tarps out over the ground each night, capturing the morn­ing dew to save as drinking water. A mountain stream north of the hill tantalized the Marines. The flowing sounds carried up the slope, but an un­known number of enemy in a parallel trench line stood between Mike Company and the water.

One day, while walking the perimeter, Ron heard movement outside the line, coming up the south slope. He shouldered his shotgun and prepared to fire. At the last second, three Ma­rines ap­peared through the brush carrying full can­teens. After Ron scolded them for being outside the wire and almost getting themselves killed, the Marines explained that they discovered a spring in a gully down the hill, where they had filled their personal canteens. Ron informed them the fol­low­ing day, they would be going back down to the spring with the rest of the platoon’s canteens to draw water for everyone else.

By April, Marines on the hill grew exhausted. Lack of sleep, lack of sup­plies, and isolation pushed them to the brink. Continual bombardment by the NVA, without real opportunity to retaliate, created a high level of ag­gression. On April 14, 1968, Easter Sunday, the Ma­rines of 3/26 got their chance to let their aggression out. The order arrived to finally oust the NVA from 881N. Ron’s platoon advanced alongside Marines from Company K, down 881S to the base of 881N. A furious bombardment preceded their attack. Direct fire from 106 mm recoilless rifles on 881S soared overhead as the Marines advanced up the hill. Ron prayed none would fall short into the advancing Marines. The fight ended quickly. Six Marines died in the effort to take the hill. More than 100 NVA bodies littered the abandoned enemy emplacements. An American flag flew over 881N long enough to signal the victory to those observing from 881S, before the Marines backed down the hill once more and choppered out to Khe Sanh Combat Base. This Easter assault marked the end of the siege for Mike Co.

The battalion received a short respite following Khe Sanh. All too quickly, though, they returned to the front lines, attacking into a place ironically called, “Happy Valley,” deep into the mountains Southwest of Da Nang during Operation Mameluke Thrust. The enemy remained determined to send Ron home in a body bag.

Image
Cpl Charles McCarty arrived in Vietnam just days after the battle at Con Thien in September 1967. He became SSgt Ron Echols’ radioman at Khe Sanh and remained by Ron’s side in that capacity for the duration of the siege. Courtesy of Charles McCarty.

During one patrol in their new area of operation, Ron’s platoon walked through chest high elephant grass. They spotted movement in the grass and Ron called the Marines to a halt. As everyone took cover, Charles Martin moved slowly around to a hill on the other side of the suspicious area and began working his way back. Ron gave hand signals directing Martin down the hill toward the area as he crept up from the opposite direction.

Image
Charles Martin displays his flak jacket, punctured by an enemy round, following the incident where SSgt Ron Echols saved him from three NVA soldiers. Courtesy of Charles Martin.

Throughout his time in Vietnam, Ron’s weapon of choice was a pump-action shotgun. He shouldered it now once again as he approached Martin. Three Vietnamese soldiers suddenly popped up out of the elephant grass between Ron and Martin. One took off sprinting away from the Marines. Another opened fire at Martin. Martin unloaded a few rounds before a bullet knocked him off his feet. He fell to the ground gasping for breath.

Ron squeezed hard on the shotgun’s trigger and pumped the forestock as fast as he could, instantly emptying seven shells into the grass. He rotated the gun on his shoulder and loaded more shells into the magazine tube. As he slid in a third shell, an enemy soldier appeared out of the grass with rifle raised. Ron shot him down, then continued up the hill.

“I could hear Ron running up the hill after he shot two or three more times saying, ‘Marty, don’t die on me, damn you! Don’t you die on me!’ ” Martin re­membered today. “He came up there and rolled me over and slapped me and said, ‘Are you OK?’”

A quick evaluation revealed the bullet tore a hole through Martin’s flak jacket but missed his abdomen. One enemy soldier escaped, and one lay badly wounded in the leg. The Marines found the third soldier dead in the grass, ripped apart by Ron’s initial volley of shotgun blasts.

On May 29, Company M choppered into a newly cleared landing zone (LZ) in the mountains. Ron boarded one of the last CH-46s to depart with 11 Marines from his platoon.

“Once we land, ya’ll need to get the hell off here!” the crew chief screamed to Ron over the noise of the engines. “We’ve been taking heavy fire up there all day!”

Image
The mural in the 881S exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps recreates the view from the hill with stunning accuracy. From the India Co positions on the higher side of the hill, visitors can look down to Mike Company’s side of the hill, where Ron can still point out his old bunker’s location. Kyle Watts.

As the helicopter approached the LZ, enemy bullets punched holes through the aluminum skin. Hydraulic cables across the entire roof of the interior caught fire and the bird plummeted to­wards the ground. Tons of small arms and mortar ammo brought in by previous flights remained staged in the LZ. The doomed chopper crashed directly into it and rolled on its side. Ammo began cooking off around the burning wreck. One Marine on the ground near the LZ was killed by flying pieces of the helicopter. Shrapnel stung across Ron’s back, but miraculously, he and all seven of his Marines survived the crash and exited the chopper before it exploded.

Image
Active-duty Marines attend sev­eral professional military education events (PME) throughout the year at the Na­tional Museum of the Marine Corps. The museum tour and PME that Ron and other docents conduct for the Sergeants Course at Quantico has ex­panded to in­clude other groups of active duty or re­serve Marines, and even other branches of service. Rebecca Jackson.

Well-Deserved Commission
Official recognition of Ron’s role as a platoon commander finally came through in the last month of his deployment to Vietnam. In the weeks following Khe Sanh, Capt Jenkins submitted the paper­work for Ron to receive a battlefield com­mission. This distinguished achieve­ment proved exceedingly rare during the Viet­nam War. Numerous outstanding NCOs were plucked from combat and sent home to attend Officer Candidates School and The Basic School as part of the Mer­itorious NCO Program. Others received a temporary commission that reverted at the conclusion of their deploy­ment. An incredibly select few, however, skipped these training steps of the com­missioning process, remained in combat, and re­tained their commission as a per­manent rank. Some famous names, such as the legendary Force Recon Marine Major James Capers Jr., are included in this tally. The rest are Marines such as Ron Echols, whose names, reputations, and combat exploits are known only to the Marines with whom they served.

In June 1968, Ron was called out of the field to receive a physical. Wondering why a physical was so important to call him away from his platoon, Ron was informed a physical was necessary for his promotion. In short order, the officers over Ron removed his staff sergeant chevrons and replaced them with the gold bars of a second lieutenant. The fact that Ron’s date to leave Vietnam drew near mattered little. The promotion formally recognized the position he had held all along, through all the trying times his Marines endured.

Ron arrived back in the States the fol­lowing month. Just four years earlier, he stood on the yellow footprints at Parris Island as a recruit. Now, he faced the end of his enlistment as a battlefield-commis­sioned officer with a combat distinguished Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. A third Purple Heart for injuries received in the helicopter crash never came through. With a lifetime of experience far greater than his age of 22 might let on, Ron elected to leave the Marine Corps. Mentally, he had had enough.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Ron dove into civilian life after leaving the military and it was years before he reconnected with the Marines he fought beside. In the early 1990s, Ron began attending 3/26 reunions, and continues to this day. As he reflected back to his time in Vietnam, Ron realized his biggest regret; through all the combat and harrowing situations he and his Marines faced, he had never found the time to recommend any of his brave men for the awards they deserved for their heroism.

In 2007, the reunion group met at the National Museum of the Marine Corps shortly after it opened the previous Nov­ember. The veterans of Khe Sanh found themselves transported back in time and airlifted to their old positions in the immersive exhibit dedicated to 881S. The mural surrounding the CH-46 ramp recreated the hill with stunning accuracy, and Ron could immediately look down to Mike Company’s side of the hill and point out where his bunker had been, and where some of his comrades had died.

“There is no question that there are Marines alive today thanks the superb leadership and attention to duty displayed by Ron Echols under the most trying conditions,” said MajGen Jenkins today, who also attended the 2007 reunion. “He clearly is one of the best combat leaders I ever served with. Some of that experience is passed on today, as he is often called upon to speak to classes of NCOs and enlisted Marines in various courses at Quantico.”

A Lesson in Leadership
Ron began volunteering at the museum in 2008. He and other docents began their work with the Sergeants Course at Quantico several years ago.

“Going to the museum is not technically a part of our curriculum, but by proximity, we take advantage of the museum and take the students over there,” said Master Sergeant Christian Tetzlaff, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the sergeant’s course in Quantico. “The docents are always energetic to help, and they take the opportunity to tell the students about events from their exper­ience and background. Students are pretty impacted by them. It’s real stories from real people who are from their heritage.”

The museum tour comes during the “heritage” portion of the four-week long course. The curriculum covers battlefield case studies on places like Inchon and the Pusan Perimeter from the Korean War. The trip to the museum provides students with a more tangible under­stand­ing of the events covered in the classroom. Anywhere between 30 to 70 new sergeants reap the benefits offered through museum and the docents’ class. They begin with Ron in the theater, where Ron walks them through his time on 881S, and what it looks like to work “tire­lessly to ensure the safety and well-being of his men,” as is stated in his Bronze Star citation read aloud to the class. The students then proceed to other docents stationed around the museum to learn more from their experiences.

“For sergeants, this course is really about reinvigorating their core values,” said MSgt Tetzlaff. “They are still sponges, trying to figure out what the Marine Corps is really all about and if they’re staying for the long haul. They see representatives like the docents who have no real reason to keep coming to the museum and volunteering their time, other than the fact that they are proud of what they are a part of. Demonstrating that to these young Marines, they’re going to look at these guys and think, ‘they are so passionate, and so thankful for all their experiences,’ knowing that they have experienced tough times,” Tetzlaff said.

Image
Veterans of 3/26 reunited at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in 2007. From left to right: Capt John J. Gilece, CO of Mike Co, 3/26, at Khe Sanh until he was shot by a sniper; 1stLt John T. “Tom” Esslinger, Executive Officer, then-CO of Mike Co following Gilece’s wound­ing; SSgt Ron Echols; MajGen Harry W. Jenkins, USMC (Ret). Courtesy of Ron Echols.

“These interactions at the museum are not little things. They are profound mo­ments that embody our culture of, ‘once a Marine, always a Marine.’ A lot of young Marines might look at that and think it’s just a cliché, but then they see it in action and see these docents volunteering their life to serve the betterment of the Marine Corps and keep our heritage alive. There is a lot of opportunity for reflection.”

90 Days a Grunt: A Short-Term Assignment to the Infantry, the Jungle and the Battle at Mutter’s Ridge

In late September 1968, Bob Skeels stepped off a plane at Quang Tri Combat Base. The aircraft delivered three of Bob’s friends to Vietnam alongside him. The four men shared much in common. All were young, newly minted second lieutenants. All had recently graduated from training as 1802 tank officers. For Bob’s part, a surge of personal patriotism drove him to the Corps after college despite growing disillusion with the war at home. Vietnam was the war of his generation, and he wanted to play a part, just as his parents had in World War II. He pursued a career as a tanker. He preferred the idea of a heavily armored carriage with massive firepower carrying him to battle in relative safety.

The four lieutenants hauled their gear off the plane and entered a building to check in. Their crisp new uniforms and beaming golden bars stood out among the faded, drab background of the base. A gruff and weathered lieutenant colonel summoned them into his office. They lined up and snapped to attention. The officer got straight to the point.

“Sorry to tell you this, gents, but a curveball is coming your way. We are short on infantry platoon commanders, so for your first 90 days in country, you will be assigned to a grunt battalion. Welcome to the infantry.”

Bob swallowed hard stifling a wave of emotion. Scuttlebutt had reached the states that 1968 was the war’s worst year yet to be a new Marine infantry officer. Grunt lieutenants held a low chance of survival. Bob gathered his strength to remain upright and breathed a hardy, “Yes, Sir.”

“We couldn’t make a noise because we could tell the guy was a hard ass and he’d bust you right there on the spot,” Bob recalled today. “I was in fear, but your eyes can’t show anything, your words can’t show anything. What are you supposed to do? You just obey your orders.”

The four tankers left the lieutenant colonel’s office and parted ways. Bob received his orders to “Echo” Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and his spirits faded further when he learned the officer who had informed them of the temporary assignment would later be his battalion commander. The man seemed even less pleased with the situation than the tankers had been.

Bob collected the weapons, clothing, and 782 gear issued to a new grunt bound for the bush. He loaded onto a chopper heading west for Vandegrift Combat Base. The sun disappeared behind distant mountain tops as the helicopter set down. Someone directed Bob to a tent on the perimeter to spend the night. Another chopper would deliver him to his unit at Khe Sanh the following morning. Several NCOs invited Bob to join their card game and dealt him in. In the twilight, ridges and valleys extended for miles, nestled beneath a perfectly painted sky. Could a place like this really be a war zone?

Bob stripped down to his skivvies as they played. The oppressive heat seemed the only blemish on the otherwise beau­tiful country. An artillery round suddenly exploded 150 meters away. Bob scanned the table, gauging the reactions of other Marines. A sec­ond round hit 100 meters away. Everyone ran outside. A third round came 75 meters away. Someone screamed, “Get in the goddamn trench! We’re on the gun target line!”

Six Marines dove headlong into a water-filled hole next to the tent. Wearing nothing but his skivvies and hard-rimmed glasses, Bob plunged in after them. He sank to the bottom and struggled not to drown as the tangled mass of bodies all took cover. Someone knocked Bob’s glasses off and they disappeared into the muck.

When the incoming fire finally stopped, the Marines clawed their way out of the trench. The tent which housed the card game hung in shreds. Naked, soaked, and blind without his glasses, Bob never felt so vulnerable.

“I was so embarrassed. I learned to never go to bed without being fully dressed. From that point on, I always went to bed with my boots on and rifle on my chest. I found out later the incoming rounds were misfires from friendly 105 mm howitzers nearby. That was my first night in country. What a hell of a night.”

In the morning, Bob boarded another helicopter and flew farther west. The chopper descended into thick fog, completely socking in the jungle beneath him. The helicopter crew chief shouted back as Bob peered out the door.

“OK, Lieutenant, you’re here!”

Bob stared, completely befuddled. A white sheet hung in the air, veiling what seemed the entire world outside of the chopper. “What?”

“You’re here, Hill 881 North.”

“Are we on the ground?”

“No, but we’re only about 10 feet off. You’ll be alright, go ahead and jump.”

Bob cursed the Marine, the fog, and the hill somewhere below as he slid into his pack. With over 125 pounds of gear on his body, he jumped. The helicopter noise muffled any cracking sounds from his body as he collided with the ground. He lay on his back catching his breath as the helicopter departed. A driving rain began, pelting his face as he stared toward the sky. Men snickered in the distance. Bob hurt too much to care. A Marine finally approached.

“You Lieutenant Skeels?”

“Yeah,” Bob muttered. “My back hurts like hell.”

“Jesus, sir. We gotta get you out of that dead cockroach position.” He helped Bob roll over and get on his feet. “You’re 3rd Platoon Commander. They’re all waiting for you over there on the east side of the hill.”

Bob located his Marines, collected under several ponchos tied together. The platoon sergeant stood as Bob entered their shelter. “Welcome, Lieutenant.”

“Thanks. It’s good to finally be here. I’ve had a couple rough days.” The Marines smirked and shot glances around the group.

“Well, you’re about to have tougher days. What do you want to do now?”

Bob gathered the platoon sergeant, squad leaders, and anyone who was on their second tour. The Marines arrived as Bob decided what to say. One of the grunts beat him to the punch.

“Lieutenant Skeels, before you get started, can I ask a question?” Bob braced for impact.

“Sure.”

“How the hell did we wind up with a green tanker for a damn infantry officer?”

“You guys gotta give me a break!” Bob replied. “Sure, I am green, but looking at your brand new uniforms, some of you guys are just as new as I am. I’m here to learn from you guys that have been here the longest, and we’re all going to be in this together.”

A silence followed Bob’s retort as the Marines traded looks and considered their new leader. Finally, the Marine who offered the challenge let on a smile.

“OK, Lieutenant. We’ll let you have a chance. But no orders for crazy frontal charges!”

Echo Company departed Khe Sanh shortly after Bob arrived and headed north toward the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Bob’s platoon separated from the rest of Echo Co and spent the next two months patrolling the jungle. The unit operated autonomously, rarely seeing other Marines in the bush. The shortage of true infantry officers be­came evident. Bob’s company cycled through multiple com­manding officers while he patrolled the Vietnamese mountains.

Bob learned quickly the hardships of a grunt in war. He and his Marines engaged daily in battle with the jungle. Rats three times the size of those stateside moved in from every corner of the country to follow Marines and feast on garbage left behind. Bob cinched his poncho high around his face every night, lest he find a rat perched on his chin in the morning looking for crumbs. Often, this happened anyway. Just like the rats, he constantly scrounged for food. Inclement weather often prohibited resupply and the isolated Marines survived many days on one C-ration.

Heat and humidity left the Marines constantly wet. Everyone developed jungle rot. Even as his knuckles seeped and split open, Bob called in medevacs for Marines with cases far worse than his own. Leeches dominated the environment, ready to suck out any amount of life the Marines had left. Bob developed his morning routine which included a full-body sweep and removal of leeches with a flame or salt, sometimes up to 30 leeches at a time.

“It was like an extended camping trip with occasional periods of sheer fright,” reflected Patrick “Mac” McWilliams, one of the grunts in Bob’s platoon. “I tell people most of my time in Vietnam was spent battling the elements. We just lived out there, digging a hole every night.”

“Everything we did, we did for our brother in the hole with us,” remembered Bruce Brinke, another Marine serving under Bob. “We didn’t have any grand ulterior motives, we just put one foot in front of the other and tried not to think of the whole 13 months. When you’re a lance corporal, a ground pounder, you just do what the squad leader tells you, and he just does what the platoon commander tells him. You don’t have much of a grand view.”

One of Bob’s squad leaders, Cpl Alvin “Twink” Winchell, struggled finding words to describe his time in the jungle as he recounted the memories recently.

“My daughter is a nurse with experience helping veterans,” Winchell said. “She helped me explain how I survived the jungle. She said, ‘Soldiers are trained to go into survival mode mentally and physically. Some did it well, some caved. The jungle was a site like none other could imagine. Those of you that perfected survival mode attempted to come home. Most of you who are still alive are still in constant survival mode.’ This is how I am to this day.”

LCpl Patrick “Mac” McWilliams on patrol in Vietnam. McWilliams served as point man for Bob Skeels’ platoon on Dec. 8, 1968, during the battle on Mutter’s Ridge. Courtesy of Patrick McWilliams.

When his platoon was not patrolling, Bob received orders to help establish new fire bases on remote jungle hill tops. At the future sites of Fire Support Bases (FSB) Alpine and Argonne, the Marines dug holes and set up security as helicopters lifted in heavy equipment to remove the trees. Bob endured the drain of sleep deprivation on these long nights while checking his positions.

One night, as Bob watched through a Starlight scope, he picked up something unknown moving around the perimeter. He investigated in the morning and discovered fresh tiger tracks. From then on, Bob performed his nightly rounds with a pistol in one hand and a 12-gauge shotgun in the other. He had always worried about getting shot in the dark by a probing enemy soldier or even a trigger-happy Marine. Now, the thought of a 400-pound cat ripping him to shreds boosted his anxiety to a whole new level.

In November, the platoon humped all day to the top of another hill where the next FSB would become reality. Soon to be known as FSB Russell, the hilltop proved critical to supporting grunt operations in the surrounding area.

Nights at Russell brought sightings of a species other than tigers. Listening posts (LPs) set 150 meters out from the perimeter radioed in constantly reporting enemy movement. Starlight scopes revealed human forms moving slowly through the jungle, probing the new defenses and mapping out the perimeter. Bob requested permission to engage the targets but was denied so as to not give away the defensive positions. He walked the lines and out to the LPs each night on high alert, shotgun and pistol in hand. With all the enemy sightings, sooner or later, contact felt imminent.

Before dawn on Dec. 7, 1968, word came down of an upcoming operation. For the first time since Bob arrived with 2/4, the entire battalion would take part in an assault. Several other units would also join in the massive cordon and search. The objective was a well-known and well-fought over terrain feature immediately south of the DMZ known as Mutter’s Ridge. Somehow, out of six participating battalions and their subordinate units, Bob’s platoon drew the task of pushing across Mutter’s Ridge on point for the entire operation.

“You’re gonna get your platoon a lot of ribbons on this one,” the battalion sergeant major told him. “That place is a hell hole. This happened in 1966. It happened in 1967. Now, it’s our turn. We gotta go in there and clean them out.”

Bob tried not to dwell on the stupidity of an annual operation where Marines died to simply drive the NVA back across the DMZ. Less than eight hours after receiving the initial frag order, the Marines loaded into choppers and flew to their insertion LZs.

The main objective, designated “Objective Bravo,” occupied the highest hill of Mutter’s Ridge. The rushed timeline planned for Bob’s platoon to secure Objective Bravo the same day the entire operation was conceived. The sun sank lower and lower into the western sky as 3rd platoon moved across Mutter’s Ridge. When Objective Bravo finally came into view, Bob saw not one, but three distinct hill tops rising into the twilight. Storming a single enemy-occupied hill would be difficult. Tackling three such hills seemed nearly impossible—in the dark, surely suicidal. Bob called his platoon sergeant over.

“How the hell are we supposed to take that? It’s got three tops! It would be crazy to try to take that in the dark.”

The staff sergeant stared blankly back. “It’s your call, Lieutenant.”

Bob considered Objective Bravo in silence. Finally, he called up his radioman and raised the company commander. “Echo Six, this is Echo Three. Request permission to set up at our present location for the night and attack the objective in the morning, over.”

An unfamiliar voice replied. “Echo Three, the CO’s not gonna like that. He’s gonna be pissed you’re screwing up his operation.”

Bob struggled to place the voice. Could it really be another new company commander? Whoever it was, Bob didn’t care. “Just ask him.”

An excruciating pause followed. Finally, the voice returned with orders.

“Echo Three, patrol over to the base of Objective Bravo, then return and hold your position for the night. Resume the advance tomorrow morning at 0630. Out.”

Bob set down the radio and breathed a sigh of relief. He passed the word to his squads. They found nothing on their final sweep of the day to the base of Objective Bravo, then returned and dug in. Bob passed the night walking the lines.

Dawn broke over the jungle. 3rd platoon roused early and geared up for the coming assault. Shortly before the appointed hour, Bob’s radio came to life.

“Echo Three, Echo Three, this is Six. Operational change. Foxtrot Company has been tasked with securing Objective Bravo. You will proceed east along the ridge and act as a blocking force for their assault.”

Bob set the radio down. The Marines around him waited for his word. He wrestled with the sudden change in orders. Why now? He knew trying to understand was futile. Their job as point for the operation was now someone else’s job, their fate someone else’s fate. Third platoon’s job now was to simply execute the new orders.

They marched out down a ridge line. The three peaks of Objective Bravo jutted out of the sky to the north with the rest of Mutter’s Ridge extending west out of view. It took most of the day to reach the end of the ridge where it dropped off and opened into a valley leading north to the base of Mutter’s Ridge. In the late afternoon, the point man suddenly called a halt. Bob moved forward. Ten pots of boiling rice sat abandoned on the jungle floor, still simmering. Bamboo tables and chairs surrounded them. Marines crouched on high alert.

“It was a pretty big outpost we encountered,” Bob recalled. “You see something like that, and your sphincter muscle starts to fire. You know you’re going to have contact very soon.”

FSB Russell on Feb. 26, 1969, the morning after it was overrun. Marines from Skeels’ 3rd platoon, including Alvin Winchell, Bruce Brinke and Patrick McWilliams, occupied the site and survived the battle. Patrick McWilliams.

Bob called over Cpl Alvin Winchell’s squad. He gave Winchell five map checkpoints in the vicinity to investigate. The six-man squad set out down a hill towards the first checkpoint on the valley floor. The rest of 3rd platoon started digging in for the night.

Patrick McWilliams took point for Winchell’s squad. The 20-year-old lance corporal volunteered for the spot, even though he had never run point before and had not seen combat. They neared the first checkpoint in a thicket of bamboo and elephant grass. McWilliams crested an embankment running across the valley. The embankment revealed itself to be the edge of a trench line. In the trench directly below McWilliams, a NVA soldier sat eating. Before McWilliams could shoot, the enemy soldier bolted and fired wildly back towards him.

McWilliams considered jumping into the trench after him, then a bullet tore through the hand guard of his rifle, grazing his finger. Machine-gun fire peppered the embankment, creating a dust cloud behind McWilliams as he sprinted back toward the rest of his squad.

He reappeared through the elephant grass as a roar of automatic fire rose above the embankment. Before Winchell could learn what McWilliams had seen, AK-47 fire ripped apart the foliage around him. A sudden sting in his leg dropped Winchell to the ground. He grabbed the radio and found Bob already waiting on the other end.

“What’s going on down there?!”

“We walked into something, it’s a hornet’s nest!”

Winchell switched frequencies to talk with the company’s 60 mm mortars. He directed their fire into the trench and surrounding area. The NVA maintained such a rate of fire that he could not even raise his head to watch the rounds impact. He estimated their range from the sound of the explosions and swept rounds across the valley.

The machine-gunner in Winchell’s squad opened up with his M60. Another Marine shouted, “They’re flanking us!” Meanwhile, the NVA raked the Marines’ position as they advanced. Winchell called the mortars in closer. Grenades suddenly landed between the Marines. Winchell grabbed his own grenades and threw them back. The back-and-forth went on until a grenade finally found its mark. Winchell’s radioman screamed in pain as the explosion blew apart his knee. Winchell moved the radioman farther back, then called the mortars even closer.

“We called it, ‘hugging the belt,’ where they’d try to come in so close that you were afraid to call in mortars on your own men,” Winchell remembered. “Well, I kept bringing them in.”

When the battle opened less than 200 meters down the hill, Bob ordered his remaining two squads to saddle up. The new company commander radioed again demanding updates.

“We’ve made contact with the enemy down in the valley,” Bob told him.

“Well, get someone down there to sweep,” the voice replied.

“Already did. That’s who is getting hit.”

“Hold on, I’m coming up there.”

As the rest of 3rd platoon prepared to move, a second lieutenant appeared. Bob determined this must be his new company commander. Automatic fire raked the ridge line as Bob explained their current situation. Leaves and limbs rained down from the branches above their heads.

“Get your ass down there and get those guys!” The lieutenant ordered.

Bob bit his tongue. No point in getting into it with a senior lieutenant right now.

“On my way.”

The platoon’s remaining two squads advanced off the ridge toward the gun­fight. They discovered three enemy bunk­ers built into a hill on their right flank as they worked their way down toward their fellow Marines. Bob realized they could not risk leaving them occupied by the enemy to chew his platoon apart as they moved toward his trapped squad. He adjusted course for the bunkers. Enemy fire slowed their progress as the platoon strung out through the jungle. The point squad finally reached the bunkers and found them unoccupied. Bob sent a run­ner back through the line to get a count and let everyone know they would resume course back towards Winchell. The runner returned with unexpected news.
“Lieutenant Skeels, we’ve got two missing.”

“What? What do you mean, missing?”

“They went missing some time during on our movement. No one back there saw them.”

Bob fought to keep his bearing as his heart sank to the pit of his stomach. His radioman approached. Fixed wing aircraft held station overhead, ready to pummel the valley floor. Bob still hadn’t located Winchell’s squad. Now, with two Marines missing somewhere in the area, he couldn’t risk jets dropping their bombs. He called the aircraft off and formed up his remaining Marines to move out toward Winchell and search for the missing men.

Bob witnessed at least 20 uniformed enemy soldiers 400 meters away, safely perched on a hilltop near Objective Bravo and firing into the valley. They obviously felt impervious to the battle raging as they added their fire into it.

More Marines fell wounded as the platoon advanced. The man next to Bob was shot in the chest. Bob rolled him over and removed his shirt, revealing a large exit wound. He moved the Marine back uphill toward the abandoned bunkers where a casualty collection point formed.

A small observation plane soared in over at treetop level. The pilot came up on 3rd platoon’s radio and advised he spotted a Marine lying motionless on the jungle floor, shot dead center in the chest. Bob called for volunteers.

“I need two volunteers to come down there with me to look for our MIA.”

One of the remaining squad leaders chimed in. “Lieutenant, you can’t go, you’re the lieutenant!” Without hesitation, two other Marines spoke up. “We’ll go, Lieutenant.”

LCpl John Higgins and PFC Paul Dains stepped forward. Bob didn’t know what to do. Two Marines were missing, at least one probably dead. One squad was trapped in a fight for their lives. Aircraft and artillery waited his word to obliterate the valley. Multiple casualties required evacuation. Darkness threatened to consume Mutter’s Ridge at any minute. The senior company commander demanded answers.

“All right. Look, just get down there. Take a look and get back here. You’ve got five minutes. Just take a look and get back here!”

Back in the valley, Winchell continued calling mortars for what seemed like an eternity as the rest of 3rd platoon tried to reach him. He inched the explosions closer and closer. Mortars rained down merely 20 meters away. Shrapnel cut down trees and vegetation around the Marines. A piece of searing metal tore into Winchell’s knee. When other Marines also suffered friendly shrapnel wounds, Winchell ceased the fire. The NVA retreated from the area. The mortar barrage saved them.

He rolled over and rose to his good knee. Suddenly, through the trees, he saw LCpl Higgins walking alone 30 meters away in the direction where the NVA fire had originated and where they had retreated. Winchell caught his attention and frantically pointed toward the enemy positions. Higgins acknowledged him and proceeded on, disappearing back into the jungle.

Back with the rest of 3rd platoon, Bob checked his watch. Five minutes came and went. Five more minutes passed. As Bob debated what to do, movement down the hill caught his eye. A Marine staggered through the trees. Not Higgins or Dains, but one of the Marines who went missing earlier. He appeared badly wounded, purple in color, and missing his helmet and rifle. The Marine stumbled and fell. Bob rushed down the embankment and picked him up. He struggled back to the perimeter with the Marine over his shoulders. He ordered his radioman to call for a medevac as he lay the Marine with the other casualties.

Dusk settled in and it started to rain. The wounded had to get out now. The only chopper available or willing to come was an Army Chinook. Bob praised and thanked the pilot as he helped load nine Marines on board the helicopter.

More good news arrived shortly after the chopper departed. Winchell’s squad made it safely back up the ridge and linked up with the other elements of Echo Company. All six Marines were wounded, but all six made it back alive. Winchell and his radioman were evacuated due to their wounds. The word helped Bob remain positive. Higgins and Dains had to be out there somewhere, waiting out the darkness, waiting out the NVA.

The sun rose quietly over Mutter’s Ridge on Dec. 9. Bob moved out with his diminished platoon at first light. Echo’s 2nd platoon joined them in searching for their missing Marines. The enemy had completely abandoned the valley, retreating to their stronghold on Objective Bravo. Bob’s platoon located the Marine spotted from the air the day prior. PFC Charles Hall Jr., was no longer missing, but was now the platoon’s first confirmed KIA.

Nearby Hall lay the lifeless body of PFC Dains, similarly cut down by a sniper’s bullet. They proceeded on toward the trench where Winchell’s squad made first contact. A later count revealed 52 enemy bunkers constructed beyond the trench line. Lying next to one of these bunkers, the Marines found the body of LCpl Higgins.

Echo Company spent the rest of the operation blocking the eastern flank of Mutter’s Ridge as Foxtrot Company assaulted Objective Bravo. On Dec. 11, 1stLt Steven Broderick led the assault across the three-topped hill, his platoon in the position Bob’s was intended for before the operational change. Broderick died in the battle, moving among his squads and directing them under fire. He posthumously received the Silver Star.

Twelve other Marines were killed and 31 wounded while taking the objective, later renamed “Foxtrot Ridge.” Over 170 enemy bunkers were counted there, stuffed with ammo, weapons, and supplies. In all, less than 60 dead NVA were left on Mutter’s Ridge to be counted. Commanders deemed the operation a sweeping success and a prime fighting example of the Corps’ mighty air/ground team.

Bob remained with 3rd platoon through the end of December. He wrote up LCpl Higgins for a posthumous Silver Star. The citation recognized Higgins’ bravery under fire throughout the day of Dec. 8, his initiative in volunteering to seek out the missing Marines, and courage for continuing on alone toward Winchell’s squad, where he died trying to help them.

Bob’s 90 days as a grunt ended as the new year rolled around. He left 2/4 for Bravo Co, 3rd Tank Battalion on Jan. 3, 1969.

Having adopted the mold of an infantry platoon commander, Bob struggled at first remembering how to lead a platoon of five tanks. Near the end of February, Bob and his tanks stood guard over a bridge along Route 1 near the DMZ. One evening, radio traffic trickled in about a fire base near Mutter’s Ridge that had been overrun. Bob’s ears perked up when he heard the name FSB Russell. Having spent several weeks carving Russell out of the jungle, Bob could never forget the place. His platoon occupied Russell, alongside numerous others, when Bob left them. On the night of Feb. 25, over 200 NVA sappers broke through the perimeter and overran the outpost. In the ensuing terror, 26 Marines were killed and 77 wounded.

Bob begged his new CO to let him go to Russell and check on his old platoon but was refused. Winchell, McWilliams, Brinke and all the others would have been there. Bob did not know if any of them survived.

Bob supported infantry operations along the DMZ for the remainder of his tour. He worked with numerous grunt battalions moving in and out of the bush. Every time he went out, Bob loaded his tank with extra C-rations and passed them out to the grunts. He knew they were always hungry. When grunts were wounded in battle, Bob sometimes evacuated them, riding on the fenders of his tank. He knew helicopter evacuation was not always possible. Every time he went out for two or three days, he thought of the infantry enduring weeks at a time in the jungle.

Bob, like so many other Vietnam veterans, spent the next 40 years trying to forget the war. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bob found a patriotic spirit that inspired him to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He formed new bonds with veterans who shared experiences similar to his own. They inspired strength to dig deeper into his past. Bob visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He found John Higgins, Paul Dains, and Charles Hall on panel 37W of the wall. He searched each line for other names he’d recognize. He bowed his head in thankfulness, discovering that no more of the Marines he had ordered evacuated on Dec. 8 had died of their wounds.

Bob located a website published by the LZ Russell Associa­tion. Here, he finally connected once again with Winchell, McWilliams, Brinke, and other Marines from 2/4 who survived Mutter’s Ridge and the nightmare at LZ Russell. Winchell received the Bronze Star with “V” for heroism on the night Russell was overrun. Brinke was wounded and received the Purple Heart. Bob learned that 2ndLt William Hunt, the lieutenant who replaced him in 3rd platoon, was killed there.

The Marines asked Bob to fill them in on the operation at Mutter’s Ridge and what had happened leading up to their making first contact of the operation. This proved yet another plight of the grunts, to obey orders without question, while not always understanding what they were doing, where they were going, and why they were there. Bob did his best to explain the broader picture and took the opportunity to tell them what they had meant to him all his life. “I came away from those 90 days with the belief that the grunts deserve everything,” Bob reflected today. “They deserve all the support that anyone else can give them. Dec. 8, ’68 was a terrible day in my tour. My worst day. I only spent 90 days as a grunt. I don’t know how they endured that jungle for 13 months. It was truly the honor of my lifetime to serve alongside those Marines.

“Christmas Truce”

By F. Gerald Downey

It was late afternoon Dec. 24, 1970, and I stood on the low ground that was to be our night defensive position. I looked up at the mountains and ridges which were fast disappearing into the heavy fog that had unexpectedly descended upon us. The change in weather had canceled out our normal resupply choppers but I wasn’t too concerned about it. The previous night we had discovered a rice cache and one of our mechanical ambushes had bagged a large, wild pig. If necessary, I knew we could feed the whole company for two more days. The worst of it was that the failure to resupply meant no delivery of the item we valued above all others—the mail. Infantrymen will always grumble. It comes with the first issue of boot and brass polish, but on this particular Christmas Eve, the grumbling was louder and a little more bitter as we dug in for the night.

We were “Charlie” Company, 2nd Battalion of the 1st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade, U.S. Army, and I was the company commander. Naturally, when the word was sent out, I was the first to get it. “Christmas truce tonight,” the battalion S-3 informed me over the radio. “You know the rules of engagement.”

“Roger,” I replied in a voice that must have betrayed my cynicism. “No offensive actions, all patrols are to be defensive in nature and avoid contact whenever possible.”

“You got it. Have a good Christmas Eve.”

“Roger. Enjoy your mail.” I couldn’t resist that last little dig. What line officer could?

It was only 4 p.m. and already the fog was nearly at ground level. We were in the Antenna Valley, west of Da Nang, in what used to be the tactical area of operations of the United States Marines. Oh, the Marines were still around, but they were gradually standing down, and during those times, except for some advisory teams to the South Vietnamese, they were generally much closer to Da Nang. Years of Marine Corps campaigning in the valley were much evidenced by the scores of well-chosen and well-policed old defensive positions in the area. A Marine officer had given me my pre-operational briefing on the valley a few days before. It wasn’t my first tour, and I was pretty salty myself, but I was impressed at how well he knew his business.

Night came fast in I Corps and by 5 p.m. it was dark. The truce went into effect at 6 p.m. At 6:20 p.m. I received a call from the 1st Platoon. “A platoon of NVA just marched across our front, about 200 meters out.” The 1st Platoon was sitting on a small knoll 10 grid squares closer to the valley’s mouth. “How’d you see ’em in this weather?” I asked skeptically.

“We spotted them when the fog broke for a minute,” the platoon leader answered. “They walked right between us and our ambushes. But that’s not all.”

“What else?”

“The last guy in line actually turned around and waved at us! Some of the guys swear he wished them a Merry Christmas!”

“He probably wished them some­thing,” I said as I went off the air, “but I doubt if it was a Merry Christmas.” I was worried that our mechanical ambushes had been spotted, that maybe our guys were in too much of a hurry to get back before the fog and night set in and had been a little careless.

Image

Since the claymore mines were detonated by the tripping of a strand of nearly invisible fishing line (which caused the completion of the electrical circuit of a 9-volt transistor radio battery and thus set off the fuse), once the mechanical ambushes were in place, they were too dangerous to move until morning light. Then again, maybe that platoon of NVA had just been lucky.

At 7:30 p.m. one of the claymore ambushes in front of our position exploded. As required by regulations, I reported it to the battalion headquarters and went on about my business, expecting to check it out in the morning as was the established routine. I was shocked when the S-3 came back with, “Check it out. We may need proof that it was a defensive action in case we get charged with violating the truce.”

“It can wait until morning,” I answered with customary defiance.
The battalion commander came on then. “I want it checked out.”
So much for defiance. The squad that placed the claymore was sent to survey their results. Even in the fog I felt their glares as they trudged by in the darkness. The last man out, Private First Class Robinson, paused long enough to lay a hand on my shoulder and whisper, “Don’t sweat it, Captain. Ain’t no biggie.”

Twenty minutes went by with no report from the patrol. I grew more anxious by the moment, worrying that they had gotten lost in the muggy darkness and might well be unknowingly wandering into the kill area of another squad’s mechanical ambush. I reached for the radio to call them back when suddenly the night was pierced by bursts of M16 fire, a short return blast by an AK-47, more American shots and the explosion of a fragmentation grenade. Filled with angry thoughts at those men who forced me to order young men out unnecessarily on Christmas Eve, I sat holding the microphone, calm on the outside while fuming within.

The call came quickly from an excited PFC Robinson. “The squad leader’s been hit! We need a Dust Off [helicopter] right away!”

“Hold on, I’ll send a medic out to you right now. Can you move your wounded man?”

Robinson was calmer when he replied, “No, I don’t think so. He’s bleeding pretty bad.”

My radio operator scurried off to chase down the platoon medic, Doc Ybarra, who was already coming on the run. He hunkered down beside me as I talked to Robinson. “Are you still in contact?”

“Negative.”

“Okay, tell me your situation.”

Robinson’s voice was well-composed now, He was clearly becoming more comfortable with being the man in charge. “Roger. First, I just sent Hale and Fergy back to the perimeter to guide the Doc.”

“Good thinking. Now, what happened?”

“We walked right up on three NVA. They were dragging a body away from the ambush site. Harder than hell to see out here and we were on them before we saw ’em. Luckily, they didn’t see us either. Sergeant Gray fired first and got one of ‘em. The others fired back and took off. Gray went to throw a grenade and it went off just as it left his hand. He’s really hurting, Captain. You better get the Doc out here fast.”

Ybarra was gone, following the panting guides, Hale and Ferguson, who had made the sprint back to the perimeter in less than two minutes. “Doc’s on his way,” I told Robinson. “I’m going to order up a medical evacuation. Have Doc call me and give me a situation report.”

Behind me I heard my radio operator curse.

I turned quickly to him, “What’s the matter?”

I couldn’t see him very well, but I knew from the sound of his voice that he was positively livid. “I went ahead and started the Dust Off procedure on the battalion radio, sir. They won’t come out!”

He was right. The S-3, whom I knew to be a good officer, despite the fact that we didn’t much like one another, told me, “Sorry. The CO of the Dust Offs has grounded his birds due to the bad weather.”

I put the S-3 on hold and went back to the other radio. Doc Ybarra was calling in. “Minor frag wounds in the arm and neck,” he reported. “Most of the blast hit him just behind the right wrist. It’s pretty badly mangled but I think we could save the hand if we get him out of here quickly.”

Back to the other radio. “I need that medevac, weather or no weather.”

The S-3 was doing his best. “Stand by. I’ll try them again.” It took him an hour. I looked at my watch. Actually, the whole affair was less than 20 minutes. The S-3 returned. “Still no dice.”

“Did you talk to the CO?” I asked plaintively.

“No, just the duty officer. Everyone else was gone to the company Christmas party. What’s the status of your man?”

I put him on hold again and went back to Doc Ybarra. “He’s gonna live, Sir. But unless we get him out of here, he’s gonna be without one hand for the rest of his life. That ain’t too good when you’re a carpenter like Sgt Gray.”

By this time the S-3 had come on the platoon frequency. “I’ll try again.”

I was about to agree when a new voice joined in. “Hello, Army, this is the United States Marine Corps,” the voice said in a pleasant but twangy Texas drawl. “Call sign, Delta Two-Seven.”

I was in no mood for any interservice fraternization at the moment. “What can I do for you, Delta Two-Seven?”

“I think maybe it’s what I can do for you. Are you the ground commander?”

“Roger.”

“Well, we’ve been listening in for a while, and since I’m in your area, I thought I might drop in and give your man a hand—so to speak.”

“Negative, negative!” The S-3 chimed in. “No aircraft allowed in this area due to weather.”

Delta Two-Seven talked right over him. “I think maybe the bad guys are trying to jam you, Army. You hear somebody else on the line?”

“Nothing but a lot of fuzz, garble and static.”

“Me too. Listen, I should be over you pretty soon. When you hear my engines, give a light to guide on, okay?”

“Will do.” I paused to go back to my own people. “Doc, you got a good LZ out there?”

“Roger. And I’ve got my signal light with me, too. But it’s gonna be tricky because we’re awful close to those ridges.”

I was about to reply when the sound of twin helicopter engines came right over us. Damn, he’s really low, I thought to myself. “Delta Two-Seven, you just passed right over us!”

The reply was a little higher pitched but still cool. “Okay, comin’ back around again. Your guy wasn’t kidding about you being close to those ridges!”

“Ah, Roger, Two-Seven. Sounds like you’re directly south of us now.”

“Good. That’s what I figure too. Hold on, be right back.”

“Doc, when you hear the engines get loud again, give ‘em the light.”

A few seconds passed and then he was on us again. “Oh my God,” I thought aloud. “He’s coming too fast—he’ll never get over the ridges!” Somehow, he made it. I don’t know how. There was no way he could have seen them in that fog, but he made it.

“Hey, Army, what happened to the light? I think I saw one flash and that was all.”

“Doc?”

“Batteries went dead. Got off one flash is all. What are we gonna do now?”

Delta Seven’s next message made it clear that we had to come up with an answer and be quick about it. “I’ve got just enough fuel for one more pass. No light, no land! Sorry.”

My radio operator banged me excitedly on the shoulder. “Sir, when the patrol left, I saw a trip flare on Robinson’s shoulder harness!”
I had time only to grip that 18-year-old’s hand hard as I grinned into the microphone. “Robby, you still have that trip flare on your harness?”

Ybarra yelled his reply loud enough that I swore I heard him without the assistance of the radio speaker. “Yeah, he’s got it. Oh man, that’s great!”

Delta Two-Seven was with us again. I looked out toward the direction of the patrol and was rewarded by the sudden pop and fog diffused light of an ignited trip flare. Delta Two-Seven laughed, “I got it, Army, I got it! Heads down, fellas, here we come!”

The guy was good, no doubt about it. The helicopter couldn’t have been on the ground more than five or six seconds when I heard the engines rev and the faster whooshing of the rotor blades. “Got your boy, Army. I’ll have him in Da Nang in about 10 minutes courtesy of the United States Marines.”

The men around me cheered. I was privately thankful that the wetness of the night had dampened my face. “Thanks. I’ll stop by the officers’ club and buy you a drink in about 10 days when this mission’s over.”

“Uh-uh, too late. This is my last flight. I’m homeward bound day after tomorrow. Appreciate the offer.” Just before the sound of the engines faded from Antenna Valley I heard him say, “Merry Christmas, Army.”

We all answered together—me, Ybarra, the S-3 and even the battalion commander who must have been listening in for a long time without saying anything—”Yes, and Merry Christmas to you too, Marine.”

The next time I was in Da Nang I walked into the Marine officers’ club and bought the house a round, paid the bill and left. I didn’t explain, and they didn’t ask.

Image

This painting by John DeGrasse illustrates the scene when a Christmas truce was called on Dec. 24, 1970, in the Antenna Valley, Vietnam. John DeGrasse.