LIONS OF MEDINA: An Epic Account of Marine Valor During the Vietnam War.
“When you hear Marines singing ‘The Hymn’ in combat, they know they’re in trouble!” Major General Oliver P. Smith reportedly opined as his First Marine Division leathernecks sang “The Marines’ Hymn” one evening in 1950 at Korea’s Chosin Reservoir. They were surrounded by 100,000 Chinese communists.
According to Doyle Glass’ moving book “Lions of Medina,” a couple of Marine generations later, 1stMarDiv riflemen are again singing in combat. Veteran and “newbie” infantrymen alike of “Charlie One-One” find succor in the words of “The Marines’ Hymn” as Mustang First Lieutenant Jack Ruffer, at the fore of his 1st Platoon, charges up a fire-swept triple-canopied jungle trail at dusk.
The scene: Vietnam’s Hai Lang Forest, southwest of Quang Tri. Like their brothers of “Frozen Chosin” fame, the Marines—mostly very young men in 1967—of Company C, 1st Battalion, First Marine Regiment, commanded by a very capable but at the moment harried Captain Bill Major, are being encircled by a well-honed North Vietnamese Army unit. Some NVA soldiers wear flop hats inscribed with “Born North, Die South” on them. In preventing the enemy encirclement, the “Charlie” Co Marines make that very daring motto the last wish for many of the young enemy soldiers.
Meanwhile, daylight becomes an uncanny darkening, and incoming green tracers lace Charlie Co’s tenuous position, which is flagged by a petrified tree. The beleaguered riflemen answer with red tracers and grenades into the surrounding lush forest. I had earlier expended my two fragmentation grenades, tossing them outside our perimeter, had my .45-caliber pistol drawn and cocked, looking for a target to step out from the tree line. I was lying atop a wounded Marine named Corporal Betts, and as I literally thought of General Smith’s words—believe it or not—I tuned in that fierce, bellowing rendition of “The Marines’ Hymn” sung by the quick and the wounded. First Lieutenant Ruffer was directing it while charging. “Let’s go! Let’s go, Charlie!” he railed above the din of AK47s, M16s, M60s and grenades. “Let’s go get some!”
Glass’ “Lions of Medina” intricately fills in the great chasms of my then-limited reportage for Leatherneck magazine nearly 40 years ago. I was a 27-year-old staff sergeant, a one-man photojournalism team for the famed “Magazine of the Marines” when I hooked up with Charlie Co on a sandy landing zone (LZ) for a chopper ride into what became one of the scariest thrills of my life.
In a plain, straightforward style unembellished with jingoism or theatrics, Glass intricately weaves all the horrific action of that week that I spent one night with Charlie Co into a fine and inspiring chronicle to record many individual acts of now-sung heroism in “Lions of Medina.” An All-American Honor Roll prevails throughout “Lions of Medina.” Names like Bazulto, Thompson, Antal, Hammergren, LaVallee, Cooley, Hutchings, Blessing and Boxill abound. Many other individual perspectives are tellingly recounted in a fast-moving epic.
While it’s definitely no wishy-washy schoolboy novel, “Lions of Medina” is a superb account of bravery and untiring sacrifice suitable even for classroom reading by high school juniors and seniors who want to learn about the Corps and about Vietnam. Make no mistake: It consistently holds its own as Glass’ extensive research and personal contacts with the now-graying participants of Operation Medina spin into a wholesome, yet gritty and gutsy account of what it is like to fight for your life and that of your fellow Marines.
Among the standouts is the ultimate lives-saving sacrifice of a young Marine combat photographer, which garners him the Medal of Honor. No sea tales here. Just the way it was scant days before that dawn of Friday, Oct. 13, 1967, and even shorter days after the haze burned off that tiny stamp of an LZ in Vietnam.
As I critically read “Lions of Medina,” I found myself actually gasping for breath, for I kept holding mine as the action unfolded before me all over again, nearly 40 years later. A purposeful and initially successful enemy ambush; a rapidly building and well-organized NVA attack; the U.S. Air Force’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” sending streams of molten lead from its Gatlings just beyond our perimeter while lighting the hazy, bleak night with parachute flares; the Charlie Co Marines launching their first counterattack; and all the heroism of Marines and corpsmen in between these events, right up until 1stLt Ruffer leads a relieving column from Delta Co, 1/1 into our perimeter amidst whistles signaling apparent withdrawal of the Reds. Who better to rescue Marines than Marines, brothers saving brothers?
Heart and soul of “Lions” is simply that complex hillside battle amongst a few petrified trees in an impenetrable forest, but also commendable are other virtues in this living history account: the making of Marines, officer and enlisted; an account of the summer of ’67 leading to the reason for Medina; and, a very, very useful glossary. Authentic battle maps and an informative array of photos add a fine final touch to a most excellent document. Fortunately, Charlie Co and I never have to redo Operation Medina. Doyle Glass has done it for us in his unmitigated, indelible style.