A Knife in a Gunfight: The Marine Who Defied All Odds in Vietnam

By: Kyle Watts


 James Stogner received the Navy Cross on April 5, 2019. The ceremony in Polson, Mont., took place on the 52nd anniversary of his heroic actions in Vietnam.

Lance Corporal James Stogner tiptoed across the open rice paddy. Darkness veiled the crop of thatch-roofed huts behind a tree line at the paddy’s edge. The setting sun vanished, fleeing with every perceivable trace of light on its heels. James fumbled with the plastic rifle in his hands, feeling for the selector switch. He clicked it down from safe to semi-auto. One more click brought his weapon into full automatic. Eli stood only yards away but was nowhere in sight. How were they supposed to get their machine gun up quickly? A muffled hush sped up the line of Marines strung out to his left. The whispered order skipped past James and continued down the line.

“Fix bayonets!”

Fix bayonets? James didn’t even have a bayonet for his new rifle. The Ka-Bar knife hanging at his side would not attach. What kind of cluster f— were they getting into?

The paddy appeared less than 100 yards wide in the twilight, but an eternity passed creeping on line through the darkness. Time halted when an artillery round raced through the sky.

“Aww shit.”

James and every other combat vet from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines immediately recognized the telltale sound. It was not the high explosives they hoped would plaster the village in the tree line. Instead, the sound heralded an incoming illumination round. James squatted in the dirt and raised his rifle. The illumination popped overhead, bathing the paddy in 450,000 candle power of eerie yellow light. An officer screamed at the top of his lungs as chaos erupted across the field.

“GUNS UP!!!”

Less than two years earlier, James arrived at Parris Island on the morning of his 17th birthday. He trained as a recoilless rifle gunner following boot camp, then received orders to Vietnam. He arrived on Okinawa with a large batch of fresh troops in October 1966. The battalion recently pulled out of Vietnam, and as he toured the spaces of his new unit, “Charlie” Company, 1/9, he immediately picked out the combat-hardened veterans who had been in country. There were so few of them. James could not have known the battalion was virtually half the size it had been when it arrived in Vietnam the month before he stood on the yellow footprints.

1/9 had lost their first KIA three days after landing in Vietnam. Things only got worse from there. Rumor had it that 1/9 killed Ho Chi Minh’s nephew, and he swore vengeance. Marines heard an entire North Vietnamese Army division was specifically assigned the task of annihilating 1/9. In 16 months of continual combat, the battalion suffered more than 120 KIA, and many times that wounded. Someone christened the Marines, “The Walking Dead.” The haunting nickname stuck. The survivors returned to Okinawa in October 1966 to regroup.

James located a senior enlisted Marine to learn where 1st Platoon was housed. The Marine informed James that he was being reclassified as a machine gunner and assigned him to a gun team. James searched out his squad and introduced himself to his team leader, Lance Corporal Elijah Fobbs.

Eli had joined 1/9 while the battalion was still in country. Despite graduating boot camp several months after James, and holding the same rank, Eli was a machine gunner by trade with experience that earned his spot as the team leader. James bonded easily with Eli when he learned they shared the same home state. Eli spoke with a thick Southern accent. His signature Georgia drawl proved nearly unintelligible to a Yankee. To James, however, Eli sounded like home.

Without formal schooling on the M60 medium machine gun, James assumed the duties of the ammo humper. Stand­ing over 6 feet tall and weighing less than 140 pounds, the extra 800 rounds of belted ammo and tripod draped over James nearly obscured his slight frame. After two months of waiting, he packed his gear and prepared to go into combat.

The Walking Dead returned to Vietnam in January 1967 and hustled north toward the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The battalion’s luck remained unchanged as casualties mounted in the first three months in country. James rapidly evolved into a combat-hardened veteran; he survived more firefights than he could count.


18-year-old James Stogner (above), and 19-year-old
Elijah Fobbs (below), prior to deploying to combat in Vietnam. They were assigned to the same machine-gun team with Charlie Co, 1st Bn, 9th Marines.

Photos courtesy of Linda Brown.



On March 24, Charlie Co swept through the village of Phu An. James’ platoon ran into an ambush and the Marines dropped down to open fire. Eli’s shouts for more ammo rose above the din of rounds zipping over James’ head. He ran toward Eli’s blazing M60. His feet tangled in barbed wire, and he toppled down. As James threw an ammo belt toward Eli, a grenade ex­ploded nearby. Shrapnel peppered the back of his legs and butt. After the Marines finally fought through the ambush, a corpsman patched up James’ wounds and sent him back to the line. A medevac was deemed unnecessary for James’ first Purple Heart.

The battalion returned to the rear on March 28. Because of attrition, Sergeant Dave Mullins was assigned as the section leader over Eli’s gun team. Mullins was instructed to have his Marines report to the armory and hand in their M14 rifles. When James reached the front of the line, he hesitantly turned over his beloved weapon. In exchange, he received a black, plastic toy.

“What the hell is this?”

“That’s the new M16,” replied the armorer. “They say it’s space-age technology. The bullet is smaller, but hits harder.”

Every third Marine given the rifle also received a cleaning rod. The armorers explained they did not have enough for everyone. Supposedly, the rifles were self-cleaning, and the kits should not be necessary.

Mullins led his section to a nearby trash dump for familiarization firing. Instructors passed each Marine two full magazines. James fiddled with the rifle, then burned through the ammo in seconds. The introduction to his new weapon would have to suffice. No further range time was afforded to test the rifles or train the Marines.

Less than a week later, The Walking Dead moved out again on Operation Big Horn.

James donned his M16, 12 full magazines, three full canteens, 800 rounds of machine-gun ammo, tripod, pack, flak jacket, helmet, first aid kit, and Ka-Bar. He stuffed his cargo pockets full of C-rations, then fell in behind Eli. By now, the burden was second nature to him. Over three months of combat took a toll, whittling nearly 30 pounds off James’ already slender frame.

An M76 Otter resupply vehicle in Vietnam. These tracked vehicles were employed often when weather or other factors prevented helicopters from carrying out the re­supply mission.
     Co C started walking in the afternoon on April 4 and did not stop until nearly dawn the following morning. At first light, the operation officially commenced. The Walking Dead swept through their area of operation seeking contact with an estimated battalion of North Vietnamese Army soldiers.


The day proved uneventful for Charlie Co. After finding and destroying several mines, the Marines dropped their packs and set up a perimeter. The sun dipped low in the sky as two M76 Otters rolled into the position. The Marines welcomed the chow and ammo that the resupply vehicles carried. James sat on his pack and opened a container of C-rations as the Otters cranked to life and sped off.

A commotion in the distance swiveled the head of every Marine as they cooked their rations. Small arms and machine-gun fire erupted somewhere out of sight. The cacophony rose in the direction that the resupply vehicles had taken away from Charlie’s perimeter. Sgt Mullins suddenly appeared.

“Eli, get your gun crew up and ready to move out. The Otters got ambushed and we’re going to help them. Leave your packs, just grab your guns. We need to move now.”

James shoveled another bite of food in his mouth, then gathered his gear. Co C stepped off in the direction of the gun fire. Several clicks away, the resupply convoy was taking a beating from a large NVA force. Marines fought back with M16s and a single .50-caliber machine gun mounted to the top of one vehicle. The NVA disabled one Otter, wounded eight Marines, and killed two. Rather than surrounding and eliminating the resupply vehicles, the NVA mysteriously melted away before reinforcements arrived.

The grunts double-timed to reach the Otters. The gunfight abruptly ceased somewhere still in the distance. The vehicles backed into a tall ditch for cover. When they came into sight, Charlie Co surrounded the ditch with rifles at the ready.

“God, are we glad to see you guys!” shouted one of the resupply Marines to Charlie Co as they ran by. “I’m almost out of ammo!”

“You guys got any cleaning rods?” called another. “These damned M16s are all jammed up!”

“We don’t have cleaning rods either!” a grunt shouted as he hit the deck near the ditch and scanned his field of fire. “What the hell happened?”

“They ambushed us! They took off toward that village over there! There’s a bunch of them!”

The Marine pointed across a large, dried-up rice paddy toward a small village nestled behind a tree line. James knelt over his rifle and took it all in. More than 50 yards of open ground spanned the gap between the ditch and the tree line. Small clumps of brush popped up here and there, but the terrain offered zero cover outside the ditch where the resupply vehicles took shelter.

Captain Reed, the Charlie Co commander, called his command group and unit leaders together. Sgt Mullins joined the meeting to hear the captain’s plan. In order to secure the area and medevac the wounded resupply crew, 1st and 2nd platoons would sweep on line across the rice paddy toward the village. Third platoon would remain in reserve in the ditch. The command group’s artillery forward observer (FO) recommended the village be pummeled with high-explosive rounds before they swept through. Reed refused the request. Further argument by the FO failed to change the captain’s mind. Reed organized his command group in line with the advancing platoons.

James set off less than 20 yards away from Eli. Pitch black darkness enveloped the rice paddy as they advanced. No moon or stars pierced the overcast sky. No ambient light reflected.

“It was truly the darkest dark I have ever seen in my life,” remembered Mullins. “I haven’t seen anything like it before or since.”

The hushed order to fix bayonets jacked up James’s heart rate, rushing blood through his veins and ringing in his ears. The artillery illumination round shrieked in overhead. Twenty yards away from James, another of his friends, LCpl Ted Van Meeteren, recognized the sound and dropped to a knee. The flare popped and yellow light flooded the rice paddy. Before his eyes adjusted, Van Meeteren heard a terrible rushing sound, getting louder and louder. He felt the heat as a rocket propelled grenade whizzed past his head and detonated in the paddy behind him. Light revealed the village, now less than 20 yards away. Captain Reed and the command group were bunched up in front of Van Meeteren. The captain yelled, “Guns up!” and sprinted towards the tree line as muzzle flashes appeared across their entire front.

An NVA soldier sprung out of a spider hole directly in front of the command group. He unloaded an entire magazine as he worked his way down the line, dropping one Marine after another. Van Meeteren watched in horror as his entire company command was wiped out in seconds. Steel pot helmets shot from heads and flew through the air. Shreds of flesh and flak jacket showered down around him. The newest member of Van Meeteren’s fire team, with only five days in country, stood nearby like a deer the headlights. Bullets passing through the command group struck him in the head, killing him instantly.


Elijah Fobbs (above) at his home, later in life. Eli survived his tour in Vietnam as a machine gunner with the “Walking Dead,” leading a gun team like the one pictured below, with their M60 against an unseen enemy in early 1967. From his time in combat, Eli earned three Purple Hearts, and eventually, the Prisoner of War Medal. (Above photo by Linda Brown) (Photo below by USMC)


Van Meeteren shouldered his M16 and fired at the muzzle flashes coming from the village. His second round failed to eject, and the following round crammed the spent casing back into the chamber. He jabbed his fingers through the ejection port, struggling in vain to claw out the stuck brass. If only he had a damn cleaning rod to punch it out. He inched his body lower. Around the rice paddy, Van Meeteren witnessed several Marines with cleaning rods attempting to use them. They lay on the ground jamming the rods down the barrels of their M16s. It looked like a scene from the Revolutionary War; them fighting with muzzle-loaded single shots, while the NVA chewed them to pieces with machine guns. Some of the Marines’ M60s fired up in response. Green and red tracers crisscrossed all around Van Meeteren and over his head.
“It was just a madhouse,” Van Meeteren reflected. “The only way I can describe it is like a shootout in your bedroom with a couple hundred guys.”

When the flare popped overhead, James raised his M16, ready for whatever the light might reveal. One moment, absolute darkness surrounded him. An instant later, three NVA soldiers appeared, standing right in front of him. Were they lost? Were they coming out of the tree line to meet the Marines in the open? James squeezed the trigger. All three fell dead before his magazine ran empty. His brain caught up with his instinct and processed the utter chaos surrounding him. Eli opened up with the M60 a few yards away. Barely seconds after the lights came on, an overwhelming volume of fire swelled across the field. Dead and dying Marines lay everywhere, intermingled with dead and dying NVA.

James located a fresh magazine and ejected the spent one. AK-47 bullets snapped past his head. Suddenly, his rifle bucked from his hands and smashed into his face, knocking James onto his back. When the daze wore off, James brought his hands to his face. Blood rushed from his disfigured nose. He found his rifle on the ground and tried again to insert the new magazine. Two enemy bullets had stuck the rifle and destroyed the magazine well. It was completely useless.

The flare burned out and darkness ruled the night once more. Eli maintained an insane rate of fire. His barrel glowed red hot, the brightest light in the darkness. James scoured the ground for a weapon to replace his destroyed M16. He had no luck. He unsheathed his Ka-Bar and held it ready. Shadows rose and passed all around. Were they Marines? More NVA? No way to tell. Any time shots rang out, a shower of NVA grenades followed. In the pauses between Eli’s fire, screams filled the void. Wounded men lay across the field, crying for a corpsman and screaming in pain. At some point, James realized Eli’s gun had gone silent.

James Stogner and Elijah Fobbs at a 1/9 reunion in Wilmington, N.C., in 2014. The reunion group also attended the deactivation ceremony of their battalion on Camp Lejeune. (Photo courtesy of James Stogner.)

Van Meeteren hunkered down be­neath the tracer rounds, explosions, and screams filling the air. A muffled sound stirred the dirt in front of him.

“They’re dead! They’re all dead!”

The company radioman dragged himself through the rice paddy, dazed and severely wounded. Van Meeteren was shocked to see him alive, believing he had been killed with Captain Reed and the remainder of the command group. He intercepted the radioman and assisted him to the ditch where a casualty collection point formed. Van Meeteren turned around and ran back through the darkness. Out of nowhere, he collided head on with another person running in the opposite direction. Van Meeteren stumbled and fell. The other person toppled hard to the ground behind him. Should he say something? What if it was an enemy soldier? Without exchanging a single word or shot, both combatants rose and sprinted in opposite directions.

Van Meeteren ran until he came across a large bush. He crawled inside and silently waited out his adrenaline high. Suddenly, more footsteps approached. Two people entered the bush with him. Van Meeteren’s heart raced. He had come a long way, close to where the remainder of his squad should be. These must be more Marines. He inhaled to whisper to his squad mates. His drawing breath picked up the scent of rotten fish. Van Meeteren had smelled it plenty of times before, always on dead NVA. It was the damn sauce they put on their rice. A quick flash of light illuminated the bush. The unmistakable front sight post of an AK-47 hung in the air 6 inches in front of Van Meeteren’s face, angled away and down toward the ground. The image seared in his vision as the darkness returned. Before he could decide what to do, the two NVA soldiers whispered something back and forth, then shot out of the bush in another direction. Van Meeteren silently cursed the night and moved to locate the rest of his squad.

James remained in place, Ka-Bar in hand. Shadows passed around in the darkness. The intense firing ceased. Several yards away, a wounded Marine moaned and struggled in pain.

“No, no, no!!”

A single shot rang out. The Marine went silent. Muffled Vietnamese chatter accompanied the rustle of gear and weapons.

“Jesus, they’re executing the wounded.”

Heavy, gear-laden footsteps departed toward the village. Another NVA soldier remained in the paddy, moving closer. Another single shot pierced the dark. James flinched so hard he feared the enemy soldier would hear. Sweat trickled down his brow as rage swelled inside. He squeezed the Ka-Bar hard. Steps came near. The madness had to end.

James coiled like a snake preparing to strike. He latched onto the passing enemy soldier. His left hand felt around in the darkness. An arm. A chest. The softer stomach. His right hand followed with the blade, slashing and stabbing wherever it landed. It ended in seconds. James lay on the ground next to the body. He could not see the results of his action, but the rich smell of blood filled his nose. Another shot rang out. James crawled toward it. More unintelligible chatter and footsteps approached. One soldier came close. James dragged the enemy to the ground and plunged the Ka-Bar into him. When the scuffle ended, James heard rapid footsteps carrying away the other enemy soldier.

Periodic shots continued in the dark. Any time an American weapon went off, the NVA followed with grenades. More footsteps suddenly approached. More chatter. The smell of rotten fish. James prepared to launch. He grabbed the NVA soldier’s leg as he passed, wrestled him to the ground, and stabbed him to death. When he was sure the soldier was dead, James crawled away. Tracers passed overhead. An M16 went off several yards away. As soon as it stopped, grenades exploded. James crawled further. Moans and screams from the wounded filled his ears.

Dave Mullins and Eli Fobbs sit in the front row at James Stogner’s award ceremony on April 5, 2019, listening to an account of the events they experienced in Vietnam 52 years earlier. Photo courtesy of Sgt Warren Smith, USMC

“Stogner! Stogner!”

James froze in the dirt. Were his ears tricking him? Was someone yelling his name?



The shouts came from the rear toward the ditch. Through all the chaos, why would someone be calling for him? Somebody must have cracked.

“Where are you?? Stogner! Stogner!!”

“WHAT??” James screamed.

“What’s goin’ on out there?”


The outburst exploded from James’s mouth before he could suppress it. Had he cracked? It was the most screwed up night in a screwed up war that he’d ever seen. How would any of them survive? A dull thud hit the ground in front of him. James rolled away as the grenade exploded. Everything turned silent and black.

When he came to, James had no idea how long he’d been unconscious. A splitting headache raged from the grenade’s concussion. His hand still clutched the Ka-Bar. Periodic screams and gunfire still filled the air. As the daze wore off, something different rose above the din.

“F— you, ya’ son of a bitch! I’ll kill you, bastard!”

A long, intense scream followed the curses. More profanities followed, and more screams after that. James immediately recognized the southern drawl. It was Eli. His screams emerged from the village. James crawled closer. He came across Eli’s assistant machine gunner, lying wounded where their gun went down.

“They took Eli and the gun!”

Eli’s screams echoed louder. James witnessed the NVA executing Marines in the rice paddy. Why did they carry Eli away and keep him alive? This night contained enough horrors. James refused to accept his friend being tortured.

“I’m going after Eli. If I don’t come back, I love ya’.”

James crawled through the tree line into the village. In a dim light, he saw Eli on the ground. Four NVA stood over him. Two soldiers yelled at Eli. He yelled back as loud as he could until one of the soldiers kicked him. Another grabbed a stick and jabbed it into a large, bloody hole in Eli’s leg. Eli screamed louder. The soldier left the stick protruding from the wound, grabbed another, and stabbed into more open wounds.

“They were screaming at me and the only thing I could do was curse and holler, curse and holler,” Eli later recalled of that night. “All the sudden, Stogner come in like a wild man and went to cuttin’. I don’t know how he did it. All I know? Out of four of ’em, four of ’em dead,” he said.

One of the soldiers walked away from the group, directly toward the bush where James hid from sight. When he approached, James snatched the NVA into the bush and cut open his throat. A second enemy soldier inexplicably followed in the same direction. James silently dispatched him alongside the first. The final two enemy remained over Eli, toying with him. James erupted. No training could prepare someone for this. He charged from the bush, covered in blood.


From left to right, Ted Van Meeteren, Elijah Fobbs, and James Stogner, in 2021 at a ceremony presenting Eli with the Prisoner of War Medal. Linda Brown, (not pictured) who was also in attendance at the ceremony, helped Stogner receive his belated Navy Cross and fought long and hard on behalf of Eli to obtain the POW medal for his period of captivity on April 5, 1967. Photo courtesy of Linda Brown.
     His war cry drowned out all the gunfire, grenades, and screams. Before the NVA knew what was happening, James pounced. The nearest soldier turned. James plunged the Ka-Bar into his chest. He yanked on the knife as the soldier fell, but the blade remained lodged in the soldier’s sternum. James let go and rushed the final enemy. He overpowered the soldier, wrapping his bare hands around the man’s neck. When the soldier stopped moving, James released his grip. He returned to the other dead NVA and retrieved his Ka-Bar, using his foot against the man’s chest to provide leverage. He scooped Eli up onto his shoulder, grabbed the stolen M60, and took off.

Tracers flew all around as a swell of fire from the village poured on. Grenades flung up the earth behind the two Marines as James outran their explosions. Miraculously, James pointed himself in the right direction before darting out of the village. Adrenaline carried him across the rice paddy. Another miracle spared him from getting shot by either the NVA or the Marines. James finally stumbled into the ditch.

“They took my gun! They took my gun!”

Eli repeated the words over and over as if he had not yet realized James rescued him and his machine gun. James handed off Eli, who received immediate medical treatment.

At some point, the night went quiet. Was everyone in the paddy dead? The NVA did not try to overrun the ditch. They must have pulled out. The first hint of dawn finally appeared. A thick ground fog, taller than a man, replaced the receding darkness.

“Alpha Company’s coming through, don’t shoot!”

James turned toward rustling footsteps. Marines appeared through the mist. They seemed an apparition, materializing from the fog. As they passed the ditch, they handed out ammo. Some Marines asked for cleaning rods, some for new rifles altogether.

Medevac choppers landed. James helped Eli aboard a chopper that whisked him away to a hospital ship. With a broken nose, concussion, and shrapnel wounds, James eventually boarded a medevac bound for a hospital in the rear. Chopper after chopper landed to evacuate the night’s casualties. Virtually all of James’s 1st Platoon lay dead or wounded. In total, 21 Marines died that night, and more than 30 were wounded.

Van Meeteren returned to the ditch when Alpha came through. The company gunny approached.

“Did you hear what Stogner did?”

“What do you mean?”

“He went out there and killed them with his knife.”

“Aw bullshit, Gunny, no way.”

“It’s true. Go out there and see for yourself. Start gathering up any gear left out there while you’re at it.”

He climbed the ditch and made his way back into the paddy. Bodies of Marines and NVA littered the ground. He came across an abandoned M16. A round was stuck in the chamber. Several yards away, another M16 lay partially disassembled with a cleaning rod stuffed down the barrel. He found the spot where he had been when the flare lit up the night. The rifle belonging to the new member of his fire team lay on the ground, still loaded. The Marine’s body was gone. His rifle was the only working M16 Van Meeteren found across the field. He never even had a chance to fire it.

LtGen Frank Libutti, USMC (Ret), presented James Stogner with the Navy Cross on April 5, 2019, 52 years after his heroic actions. (Photo by Sgt Warren Smith, USMC)
     He came across the body of a dead NVA soldier. Quickly looking over the corpse, Van Meeteren discovered no wounds. Coming closer, he noticed a single stab wound through an eye socket. He kept walking. He found another enemy soldier, stabbed to death. When he entered the village, Alpha Co Marines were stacking bodies of the dead NVA.

“Hey, you guys find any that looked like they were killed with a knife?”

“Yeah, a couple over there looked like they were cut up pretty bad.”

Van Meeteren walked in the direction they pointed. He spotted two booted feet sticking out from under a bush. He grabbed each ankle and pulled. No wounds revealed themselves as he dragged the body into the open. When the head appeared, Van Meeteren saw two long gashes across the soldier’s throat. He paused.

“My God. Stogner really did this.”

Sgt Mullins walked the area checking on the survivors. Multiple Marines recounted pieces of James and Eli’s nightmare ordeal. Mullins was determined to get the story straight. He eventually gathered seven Marines, all painting the same picture; Stogner stopped the NVA who were executing the wounded and rescued Eli. Mullins decided James deserved some kind of award for his heroism. He drafted a citation on the side of a C-ration box and signed it alongside the seven Marines who corroborated the story. He gave the scrap of cardboard to an officer, who promptly dismissed the award as insignificant compared to the stacks of dead bodies he was trying to get off the field.

Unknown to Mullins, several days later, the officer stepped on a landmine, taking with him any hope for James’ award.

Following his recovery, James re­turned to the front lines. He did not return to The Walking Dead, however. Instead, the powers that be sent him to Lima Co, 3/26. He saw more combat with his new unit and finally left Viet­nam in October 1967. His family back in Georgia struggled to understand why the 19-year-old looked like a skeleton, weighing only 98 pounds. James kept quiet about the things he’d experienced. He decided there were things that “normal” people couldn’t handle and would not believe anyway. He reenlisted, serving three and a half years at Marine Barracks London. He spent his last year at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and left active duty in June 1973.

As with many Walking Dead veterans returning from Vietnam, James’s life-long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder began as soon as he came home.

“We came back from Vietnam, and we drank a lot. I guess we were trying to replace that adrenaline high,” James reflected. “There ain’t a drug in the world that compares to coming into a hot LZ on a CH-46. You never really get over PTSD. Certain sights, certain smells, just set it off.”

James struggled to maintain stability. He earned the rank of sergeant three times before he left active duty but lost his extra stripe each time for getting into some kind of fight. As a civilian, he cycled through as many as 10 jobs per year as symptoms of PTSD surfaced and drove him away or got him fired. He sought help from the VA while enduring his first divorce. He tried explaining to a doctor the things he’d seen and done. The white-coated man sat opposite James, listening, and taking notes.

“I understand exactly what you’re going through,” the doctor replied.

“You’ve been in combat?”

“Well, no.”

“Then you’ve been in the military, at least.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well then how the f— can you understand exactly what I’m going through?!”

Nearly 40 years passed until James finally reconnected with someone who could understand the events that changed his life. In 2006, James attended a Walking Dead reunion in Branson, Mo. Ted Van Meeteren also attended the reunion.

“Did you ever get your medal?” asked Van Meeteren.

“What medal?”

“For April 5th.”

“I got a Purple Heart, but that’s it.”

Following the reunion, Van Meeteren resolved to see James recognized for his heroism. He wrote up the paperwork for a Medal of Honor and submitted everything through his congressman.

James Stogner spends time with his cousins at home shortly after returning from his tour in Vietnam in the 1960s.(Photo courtesy of James Stogner)

At the same time, James’ new-found reconnection inspired him. A year after the reunion, James finally located Eli. He still lived in Georgia. James called Eli and resumed their friendship as abruptly as it had ended in April 1967. Living in Texas at the time, James planned to visit Eli while en route to the next 1/9 reunion in Washington, D.C. Nearly three years later, in 2010, James and Eli embraced in Eli’s driveway. It was the first time James had seen Eli since he helped load him on the helicopter the morning after their night of hell.

While they reestablished their friendship, Van Meeteren was bogged down in the bureaucracy of military awards. He enlisted the help of Linda Brown, a former taxpayer advocate for the IRS, who singlehandedly cut through mountains of red tape. Together with Captain Wallace Dixon, Charlie Co’s executive officer in April 1967, and Lieutenant General Frank Libutti, a legendary Marine from Walking Dead lore, they continued fighting. The Marine Corps finally reached a decision on James’s award after a decade of delays. His recommended Medal of Honor was downgraded to the second highest medal for valor a Marine can achieve, the Navy Cross. On April 5, 2019, 52 years after his heroic actions, James finally received the formal recognition for his heroism. The ceremony took place in James’ home state of Montana.

“The award that Cpl Stogner will receive today is long overdue,” said U.S. Senator Steven Daines in his opening comments. “Anyone who knew Jim or heard about his story would agree that his actions deserved this high honor. Some might say that it should be made into a movie.”

Survivors from Charlie Co, includ­ing Eli, filled the front row to witness General Libutti present James with the Navy Cross. The ceremony ended with a final roll call, reading out the names of each Marine killed in action on April 5, 1967.

LtGen Frank Libutti, left, pins the Navy Cross on James Stogner on April 5, 2019. (Photo by Sgt Warren Smith, USMC)
     In the years since James and Eli re­connected, they remained good friends. They spoke on the phone sev­eral times a week and met up at 1/9 reunions across the country.

“There ain’t a damn thing I won’t do for him, and I’ll kill anybody that messes with him, just like that,” Eli told the author in 2019. “You can be black, brown, blue, white, or whatever. Don’t mess with James Stogner! If it wasn’t for Stogner, I wouldn’t be here today.”

On May 26, 2022, Eli passed away in hospice care at the age of 75. James spoke with him a final time two days before Eli’s death. After his passing, James immediately made arrangements to attend the funeral. He couldn’t allow his brother to pass on without fellow leathernecks there to pay tribute. James packed his car and drove 2,500 miles one way from Montana back to Georgia. Several hundred people crowded the venue, including four other Walking Dead survivors. Eli’s family greeted them like guests of honor and asked James to provide the eulogy.

“I knew two Elis,” he began, looking at a photo of Eli in dress blues on the front of the funeral program. “He was the fiercest soul I ever met. He was a warrior, and the best machine gunner in Charlie Company.”

James flipped the program over, bringing into view a photograph of Eli later in life.

“The other Eli was the gentlest soul I ever met. He lived a good life. We were friends for over 50 years.”

The scars James and his brothers wear from Vietnam, visible and invisible, can only be truly shared with each other. April 5, 1967, proved just one night of hell among many for the Walking Dead. In nearly four years of con­tinual combat, the battalion suffered the highest killed-in-action rate of any battalion in Marine Corps history.

“Every year when those an­niver­sary dates come up, I know something is wrong,” reflected Dave Mullins. “It’s just something that doesn’t go away, something that’s hard to talk about. Most of these things are buried in my mind. I have to go back in and search all the doors to open them and let it out.”

Today, James stays close to the remaining survivors from the 1/9, attending reunions and keeping in touch over the phone regularly.

“The guys always joke with me now. They say I’m the only person they ever knew who took a knife to a gun fight and won. When my M16 got hit, all I had left was my Ka-Bar. I just did the best I could with what I had.”

Editor’s note: To read the history of the M16 and learn more about the problems that plagued the rifle in Vietnam, see “This is My Rifle: From the Hill Fights in Vietnam to Today: The History of the M16,” in the October 2021 issue of Leatherneck.