Marine Corps veteran talks about his “baptism by fire” in Vietnam
Ask any Marine if he remembers the first day he became a Marine and you’ll likely be told it was training camp graduation day. Whether it’s Parris Island or San Diego, it wasn’t until the senior graduation program officer proclaimed the graduates “Marines” that the title applied. For officers, it would be a similar graduation from Officer Candidate School when their second lieutenant butter bars were pinned to their uniforms.
The designation could not come at any time before that, and no matter how successful the recruits or officer candidates were in the various stages of training leading up to graduation day, if they did not get their diplomas weren’t Marines.
But as many Marines will also tell you, there are other defining moments on the journey to becoming a veteran of the Marines that overshadow the training camp experience. These include baptism of fire, when Marines first enter combat and learn how they will react when the enemy shoots directly at them.
For me, that moment came on June 1, 1968, during a first assault as we sent troops to an area south of Khe Sanh where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was building a road under cover of a triple canopy jungle. I responded appropriately and survived, but even though it was a personal step, something was missing. Even though I couldn’t articulate it, I could feel it.
Two more months would pass before I filled this gap, even if those two months included my first medical evacuations, reconnaissance team insertions and emergency extractions, and night flights in hot areas – the range of missions helicopter crews face in wartime.
During the summer of 1968, the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 9th Marine Regiments operated in the northernmost I Corps and along the demilitarized zone between northern and southern Vietnam, and opened new fire bases south of Khe Sanh near the Laotian border, including the Torch, Robin and Loon landing zones. By mid-August, I had completed nearly 100 missions as a door gunner aboard CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters from HMM-161 Squadron (Military Helicopter Transport Squadron), including several in this region.
Although my baptism of fire had taken place two months earlier in this same region, and it is now August, that day was different. While the initial assault in June was the responsibility of the 4th Marine Regiment, later in the summer elements of the 1st and 3rd Regiments also operated in the area. I could only tell which regiment we were carrying if the Marines had written their unit’s identification on their bags, which they often did.
The welcome we received upon entering a hot zone was a failure, as the ANV was underhand and often changed tactics. Sometimes they would open fire on the lead plane – “birds” as we called them – and at other times they would wait for late arrivals which might be made to think the area was free from the enemy. and that they could possibly be caught off guard. guard by a flurry of hostile fire.
That day, they chose to open fire right away. I piloted the starboard gunner (right) in the fourth plane of the flight, and had a brief but still appreciative advance warning of what to come. Crews from previous flights had located enemy positions in a ravine flanked by two ridges on the north side of the area.
As soon as the target section came into view, I opened with my .50 caliber Browning M-2 (Ma Deuce) machine gun. We usually flew with 100 round ammo boxes attached to the side of the machine gun with an elastic cord. At a rate of 500 strokes per minute, I cleared the first box in just over 12 seconds.
I must point out here that in the years after Vietnam, when I encountered grunts at veterans events, they often said that they hated being forced to sit in a helicopter waiting for land, unable to join them, as the enemy, artillerymen and the chief crew fired. It was strange for us too, as we rarely saw those growls again or heard what they encountered on the ground, or if our shot had been effective in giving them enough time to take cover and turn their fire on the enemy. .
No matter which unit we were working with, any assault was nerve-racking for those who wanted to fight but, for safety reasons, had to sit quietly until we landed and lowered the ramp. This probably explains the actions of a growl sitting right next to my machine gun that day in August.
When I ran out of ammo in the box of 100 rounds, instead of loading another box of 100 rounds, I reached a much larger box under the gun holder, grabbing one end of an ammo belt from 500 cartridges.
As I recharged, I noticed the growl stood upright and turned towards me. I cocked the .50 and started firing – all of this happened in just seconds – as it grabbed the ammo belt and started feeding the machine gun with a smoothness that instantly spoke to ‘long experience. Out of the corner of my left eye, I also saw the team leader grab his M-14 rifle, put it into fully automatic mode, and start firing on the hatch on the starboard side of the plane, a few feet in before my station.
The crew chief and I were about the same height – about five feet seven inches, less than 150 pounds – and the M-14’s recoil made it take a few steps back each time it fired. But he loaded up to the hatch and opened again, oblivious to the force of the recoil. Looking back, it was pretty funny, but no one was laughing then. We kept firing and I used about 200 more rounds. I stopped shooting as we settled into the area and the team leader opened the rear ramp using his remote.
I watched the grunts charge to take their assigned positions in what was a rapidly expanding perimeter. But just as he had to turn in the direction of the battle, the growl that fueled my machine gun stopped, looked back for a moment, and gave me a “thumbs up” accompanied by the biggest smile I ever had. could have imagined. Then he was gone.
At that moment, for the first time, I really felt like a member of the Navy air-ground team. I didn’t know the Marine sitting next to my position, but he reacted immediately and we each did our part in the brief but intense firefight. And he was obviously grateful to be part of the action rather than standing still, enduring what we called the “wrinkle factor.” Much later, I realized that a similar scenario could have happened with a myriad of other participants, but that moment was our moment in the limelight.
I’ve heard that the whole course of our life can change in an instant, and the decisions we make at that time can affect everything we do afterwards. The time spent in this exchange of fire was two minutes – the maximum – but it caused a drastic change in my feelings about my role in the war we were waging.
I am not speaking here of philosophical questions or serious concerns about the rationale for America’s involvement in Vietnam. I’m talking about the simplest factor: two Marines, side by side, helping each other stay alive for the foreseeable future, which could take less than a minute. Almost a year and finally more than 300 missions after this exchange of gunfire, I returned home, I went back to school and tried to get back into society. But the America I returned to, and I hope that growl did too, was not welcoming, and I endured my fair share of physical and emotional abuse.
In the first half of a 20 year journalistic career, I was laughed at and denied promotions, advancements and salary increases by people who had never served their country. and despised those of us who had. Not everyone, of course, but enough to make an impact on my life.
But regardless of what I faced in the years after Vietnam, I have never forgotten that moment when two Marines led the fight against the enemy transparently – a team that was created out of up but worked like we’ve always been training – and got the job done that was necessary. I often passed this moment on to acquaintances who needed a boost and needed to remember what it was like at “The Nam”.
During my career as a journalist, I developed a reputation for calm under the pressure of deadlines, and sometimes when asked about it I would just say, “No one is shooting me. “
The success and teamwork of that moment helped me to be successful in my subsequent endeavors, and the payoff was far better than any medal because from that moment on I knew without a doubt that I was I had really joined the Brotherhood of Marines and the broader Brotherhood of Veterans of All Services. And for the first time, I fully understood – not by definition, not superficially, but deep within myself – the meaning of Semper Fidelis: Always Faithful.
Ronald Winter is a veteran and author of Marine Corps Vietnam, whose recent Victory Betrayed: Operation Dewey Canyon. He joined the Marine Corps in January 1966 and served four years in active service, including 13 months in Vietnam, completing over 300 missions as an air gunner. He received 15 air medals, combat crew wings, the Vietnamese Cross of Bravery and many other decorations. Winter went on to earn degrees in electrical engineering and English literature, and spent 20 years as a print journalist, winning numerous awards for investigative reporting, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination.