I’m just a former lance corporal, now a writer, who had the privilege of serving with some extraordinary Marines in the Fifth Marine Regiment. We were young. We all made some mistakes, some bad decisions. We were not, and are not, perfect, but these Marines were consistently courageous and America should be proud of them. I barely touched on some of their stories. Guns Up! was written from an eighteen-year-old’s point of view.
As a machine gunner, I was formally attached to Weapons Platoon, though I never actually served with Weapons Platoon. As a gunner, I was always with the First, Second, or Third Platoons of Alpha Company. Most of the time I was with the Second Platoon, but when another platoon needed a gunner and they pointed at me, I got shipped to the First or Third platoon. That meant a different lieutenant, different squad leaders, different corpsmen, different radioman, different Marines.
No one had a real name in Nam. We mostly used just nicknames. Over the years, I have discovered some of their real names, and I would like to honor some of those Marines by telling you what happened to them after Nam. I say that and yet I am not sure there will ever be an after-Nam for some of us.
It never, ever leaves you.
Compared to heroes like Cpl. Jesus Quintana and Sgt. Vince Rios and thousands of others who gave their legs and arms and lives for our country in Vietnam, I hesitate to mumble even the slightest complaint. But for the sake of that Nam vet you may be acquainted with, a smell, a sound, a blur, a helicopter flying overhead, rain, bright sunlight, or a dark night, almost anything can turn a distant memory into a flashback as real as your next breath. It is not always a bad memory, but when one of those moments strikes, it is impossible to explain it to others.
The story of how I hooked up with some of these remarkable Marines so many years later is another book. Like the first one, the Lord was in obvious control.
After I left Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan, I spent quite a while in Okinawa. Part of my rehabilitation there was training in martial arts. By February 1969, I was healthy again. While I was in Okinawa, serving as an MP, S.Sgt. James Monroe and L/Cpl. Charlie Goodson came through on their way back to the States. I loosely based the fictional character Goody in my novel Semper Fidelis, on Goodson. He was the kind of man you wanted beside you in a firefight. Typical of all Marines, he would risk his life in some insane act of heroism and then immediately curse the Marine Corps and everyone associated with the Marine Corps. He was an absolute riot, and I loved him. Charlie Goodson had been wounded in the neck, and his tour was over. He began to fill me in on what had happened to most of the guys after I left.
I felt ashamed sitting in Okinawa, fat and healthy, while the guys were going through hell. I tried on more than one occasion to go back to Vietnam, but they would not let me return until I spent a year stateside. At that time in my nineteen-year-old life, a year of stateside duty sounded like prison. The Corps gave me an early out. For the rest of my life I have deeply regretted not going back. I came home with a planeload of wounded guys.
We landed in El Toro, California, and we saw our first war protesters. They mooned us and threw tomatoes and waved Baby Killer signs. After a day or so of classes telling us about the Veterans Administration and job opportunities, the Marine Corps gave those Marines that were able a three-day pass.
It took me just two hours to get arrested for decking a disloyal American in the L.A. Greyhound bus terminal. The cops who arrested me were old Marines. They handcuffed me, drove me down the street, and told me it was against the law to deck cowards in front of cops. They tried to warn me that America was not treating returning veterans very well. It was not the way I wanted to come home.
I continued training in martial arts, learning tae kwon do, a Korean martial art. I eventually taught martial arts at the University of South Florida. It was a good way to release some of the anger. I married a beautiful woman named Nancy. I became a mailman but got injured delivering a crate of books and was down for about a year. That’s when I started writing Guns Up! The book was born in anger; it was my way of fighting back against a steady stream of lies coming out of the media about our guys in Vietnam.
A couple of years ago, I got a package in the mail. It was from the Cincinnati Enquirer. The editors were searching for anyone who may have served with a U.S. Marine named PFC Richard Weaver. I’d never heard of Richard Weaver. The newspapers in the package had articles about Weaver. There was a photo of a handsome young Marine in his dress blues. We never looked like that in Nam, so he didn’t look familiar. I started reading the articles. They were letters written by Weaver to a man named Hank Beucker.
The story was fascinating. Richard had been unofficially adopted by this old Marine named Beucker. Beucker had been wounded at Guadalcanal and served with Admiral Halsey. Hank Beucker taught Richard Weaver to hunt and fish and fight while the rest of us were still watching cartoons. Richard Weaver was a big, tough redhead who had been a bouncer in the toughest bar in town when he was fifteen. As I continued to read, a lump the size of a golf ball formed in my throat. The letters home to the old Marine from the young Marine read like excerpts from Guns Up!They threw me off balance for a few days. It was like opening a grave. Suddenly I was back in the bush and feeling guilty for the times that I failed. There were more memories than I wanted to deal with, and my family knew something was wrong.
I called the phone number with the newspapers. It belonged to another Marine, Bill James. Bill was one of the guys who organized information about the 5th Marine Regiment. Bill James had fought with A 1/5 in Hue City in 1968. He served as a radioman for Sgt. James Monroe. I wrote inaccurately about Sergeant Monroe in this book. I called him Staff Sergeant Morey. He was wounded at Thuong Duc in the last chapter. I served with some three-war Marines. I thought he was one of them. Writing the book ten years after the war led to more than one mistaken exaggeration. Sergeant Monroe was a small Marine with a big walrus mustache. He was humble, brave, and absolutely loved by his men. Another hero from the battle of Hue City, he was a father for eighteen-year-old kids like me. Sergeant Monroe went on to become a sergeant major and now lives in Japan. I told Bill James that the newspaper articles had to be by the same Marine I knew as Big Red. Bill told me that some of the guys in the platoon had already figured it had to be Red, but he wanted me to confirm it. He told me that high school buddies of Richard Weaver wanted to honor him. It seemed that about three decades later they were just discovering that Richard Weaver was a hero.
The battle for Truoi Bridge was Richard Weaver’s story, not Johnnie Clark’s. Richard “Big Red” Weaver helped hold off an estimated four hundred NVA regulars and sappers at Truoi Bridge. He was not the only hero at Truoi Bridge. There were many. Fifteen Marines died. Later, L/Cpl. Dennis Sliby was awarded the Navy Cross for saving the lives of fellow Marines. After having part of his leg blown off, he continued to pick up enemy grenades and throw them back at the NVA. The enemy left sixty-four dead, but the number of NVA killed was far higher than that. Taking that bridge was a major objective for the communists during the Tet Offensive. A small group of Marines said no. They held out against overwhelming odds. Maybe our newspapers should have been telling those stories.
Mr. Bill Wiederman and Mr. Lon Deckard asked me to come to Cincinnati and speak at the memorial dedication and the unveiling of a beautiful monument to honor Richard “Big Red” Weaver. Bill and Lon were high school buddies of Richard Weaver’s; Lon is also a Vietnam veteran. They went above and beyond to see that Red’s sacrifice was recognized. The monument was erected in front of Red’s old high school, Indian Hills High. That was one hard journey for me. I had no idea how many wounds it would open. They treated me like I was something special because I wrote a book. It was very humbling, especially when I looked around me. Marines with more time in the bush than I had in the Corps watched as I spoke.
Jesus Quintana was there. I called him Sanchez or Paunchy Villa in the book. I wrote about the day he lost his legs. That one day could have been an entire novel. Words do not describe the awe-inspiring bravery of Marines like Cpl. Jesus Quintana, Gunnery Sergeant McDermott, and Navy corpsman Michael “Doc” Turley. Jesus Quintana was my gun team leader, a handsome, muscular Marine with more courage than most people could even bare watching. Chan and I were setting up our gun position in a break in a hedgerow when we were ordered to put our gun in another place. We picked up our gear and moved, passing Corporal Quintana on his way with his gun team to our spot between the hedges. One of the men in his gun team tripped a 155 mm booby-trapped artillery round. We found Quintana facedown on the ground. With help from the gunny, he sat up in a pile of blood and bones and looked at where his legs used to be. He did not go into shock. He looked around for his buddies, actually more concerned for them than himself. Doc Turley begged Quintana to let him help him, but he wouldn’t let anyone help until the others were saved. Doc Turley, and likely another corpsman I cannot remember, did everything humanly possible. Doc also worked on a young Marine named L/Cpl. John L. Davis until the boy miraculously regained consciousness long enough to say, “I’m going to die.” Then he died. Only after being convinced that the other four Marines were dead would Jesus Quintana allow Doc Turley and Chan to help.
Gunny McDermott was also seriously wounded but gave no thought to his own wounds while Quintana was seemingly dying. In Gunny McDermott’s arms, Quintana pulled his little Gideon Bible out of his helmet, opened it, and read. Jesus Quintana looked up into the gunny’s face and said, “I’m going to make it.” We had to get Quintana out if there was any hope he’d survive. There were so many dead Marines on the chopper that it could not get off the ground, and there was incoming fire. Gunny McDermott refused to be medevaced. He jumped out to lighten the weight, allowing the chopper to lumber off the ground. Gunny stayed in the bush seriously wounded, but Quintana made it. Two days later, the gunny was medevaced, and I never saw him again.
Jesus Quintana kept right on being a hero, and he found an “A-gunner” for his new work. This wonderful, gutsy Christian and his equally brave and lovely wife have taken in more than sixty-five foster children. They also found time to raise two kids of their own. Jesus Quintana is now a gunsmith in Indianapolis. He built a replica M60 and brought it to the memorial for Big Red. Five of us gunners who came home had a gunners’ service at Red’s grave: a helmet with GUNS UP! printed on it, some salty jungle boots at the foot of the grave, and the M60 in front of the marker. Richard Chan, Marty Lynch, Jimmy McGinnis, Jesus “Joe” Quintana, and me. I never knew any 0331s in the Fifth Marines who were not killed or wounded.
Jimmy McGinnis was Red’s A-gunner. Jimmy was with Red when he died. Jimmy is a quiet, humble man from Tennessee, and those people who know him now probably have no idea what he has been through. Cpl. Marty Lynch taught a boot named Johnnie Clark how to fill sandbags and clean a machine gun. He was all-Marine in Nam and all-Marine now. John Carrow was there from Weapons Platoon, and he still looks like a Marine. Sergeant Hall played taps at our personal machine-gun ceremony for Red. I never mentioned Sergeant Hall by name in the book, but he was there.
M.Gy.Sgt. Stacy Watson was also at the service. He was a corporal in Nam with the Third Platoon. At one point I almost lost my foot to jungle rot and had to be medevaced out by riverboat down the Truoi River. It was Cpl. Stacy Watson and Gunny McDermott who took me out on that boat. I also wrote about a wonderful Marine named Jack Ellenwood. Jack Ellenwood’s real name was Cpl. Frank Burris. He graduated from Dixie Hollins High in Saint Petersburg, Florida, the same school my wife and son graduated from. I wrote that he had the photo of his baby boy in his helmet. It was actually a baby girl with bright red hair. Frank Burris was Stacy Watson’s best friend. They were squad leaders in Third Platoon.
At Bridge Two on Highway One going south from Phu Bai, Stacy ran into his buddy Frank showing off a photo of “the most beautiful baby anybody ever saw!” He and Stacy had served in H&I together. Stacy said that Frank wanted to get home to that baby and his wife more than anything. He wanted it so bad, he was going to refuse to go into the bush. He had to see his baby. Stacy talked to Frank, and eventually Frank decided to do his duty. Frank made Stacy promise to look his wife and baby up and tell them how much he loved them if he didn’t make it back. Stacy still shows the pain when he speaks of that loss on August 9 1968, when we could not get a medevac for Frank. Stacy Watson told me that the night Frank Burris got hit, he lay there saying that it was his million-dollar wound. He was going back to the World. Frank talked of looking up our old friends for us when he got home. Mostly, Frank was talking about his baby girl and clutching her photo. I hope that if she ever reads this she will know that her father’s last thoughts on earth were of her. I was there. I want Mrs. Frank Burris to know that Frank wanted terribly to be with her. I want to tell Frank’s daughter: “Your father was a brave Marine, and he clutched your baby photo to him as he died. He loved you and wanted to come home to you more than anything else in the world.”
When the memorial service for Big Red was over, I came back to Florida. In so many ways, I was coming home from Nam again. Though I had trouble sleeping, it still felt like a chapter had finally been closed. I was wrong. The mail brought another surprise newspaper article. A Milton, Florida, man received his Purple Heart twenty-eight years after being wounded. That man was PFC Pat McCrary. Jesus Quintana sent me the article.
I called Quintana, and he told me that I had to know this guy because his story sounded like that of the night that Unerstute was killed in Dodge City. Quintana had been wounded and was not in the big graveyard battle I described in the chapter “Dodge City,” but he had read about it in this book. After reading the article, I agreed with Quintana. The details were uncanny: Dodge City, Arizona Territory, Second Platoon of Alpha 1/5, August 1968. I searched out a Pat McCrary in Milton, Florida, and gave him a call.
Our conversation was astounding. Not only was this guy in the same battle, but he was the Marine named Barnes: Pat McCrary was the one who was screaming for us to come help him with a wounded buddy that night in the Arizona Territory. Pat remembered me. He said that we actually joined the Corps together. I was doubtful because it seemed impossible to me that someone could remember a guy he stood in line with to join the Marine Corps almost thirty years ago. Then Pat told a detailed story that only someone who was there could possibly know. I was being given a 4-F discharge by Navy doctors in Jacksonville. I had a hernia, or so they said. They were not going to let me join the Marine Corps. I don’t think I ever told anyone that story. I did not know anyone else on earth who would remember such a thing even if they witnessed it. Pat did.
“We thought you were the dumbest——on earth!” Pat said with his big country-boy laugh. “You started begging them doctors and doing back flips and push-ups until they finally brought you in some room. Then you came out and joined the Corps! We thought, This guy is nuts!”
I was absolutely blown away. I could not believe that anyone could possibly remember something like that. But it was true. Pat described me perfectly in all respects. It was like finding a lost brother. There was only a voice at the end of a phone, but it felt as warm as a big hug. Though Pat had joined the Corps with me in Jacksonville, we did not really know each other. When we reached Nam, Pat was put on Phu Bai security detail, so that afternoon and night in that graveyard was his first experience in combat. I thought he was a boot. In the chapter titled “Dodge City,” I thought Pat was the Marine who got shot eleven times and was dragged away. In that story, I called the Marine yelling for help, Striker. The man yelling for help was PFC Pat McCrary. The man who was hit at least nine times by three enemy .30-caliber machine guns (I wrote eleven times but have since been corrected by Richard “Medically Accurate” Chan) and dragged up in front of an enemy machine gun was actually a Marine named Sonny. We think Sonny was from New Jersey.
Though he was shot to pieces and nearly drowning in rising water, Sonny refused to call out when he heard us looking for him because he knew we would be killed. Pat McCrary lay out in that cemetery, yelling and kicking grenades away from himself and Sonny until he ran out of ammo. When he finally went looking for help in the pitch-black monsoon rain, we thought he was the NVA coming toward our lines. In the flash of an enemy mortar going off, I saw the silhouette of an American helmet an instant before we shot at him. I screamed, “Don’t shoot!” and ended up nearly drowning him and myself when I pulled him in on top of me. Pat was not only brave, but he was also wounded that night.
In 1997, Pat McCrary, then a mailman in Milton, wanted a Purple Heart license tag. The State of Florida would not give him one because there was no record of his ever having been wounded in combat. Pat got mad. He raised a fuss and eventually discovered that our records had been destroyed during a 122 mm-rocket attack at the An Hoa combat base. There was a direct hit on the records shack that killed some Marines and blew up our records.
A couple of years ago, I was pursuing my usual impersonation of sleep when the phone rang. It was late. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded remotely familiar.
“It’s Fred Huteson.”
“Fred Huteson. Sorry, it doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Corporal Huteson, Johnnie. Alpha-one-five. Vietnam.”
I was stunned for a few moments. Cpl. Fred Huteson was the real name of one of the squad leaders I wrote about in Guns Up! He was one of those real heros our country ignored. We were wounded together, spent our last night in Nam together, and spent time in Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan together. I hadn’t seen him since then.
“Johnnie. I’ve been trying to find you for twenty-eight years. For all these years I wanted to thank you for what you did that night in the graveyard in Dodge City, outside of An Hoa.”
All I could do was cry. I had made a decision or two when I was eighteen that I’d give my life to correct. I was praying about some of those painful memories when Fred called. It was the most wonderful phone call I ever received in my life, and it was no coincidence that it came when it did. I admired Corporal Huteson a great deal. He was a salt. He had been wounded in the Battle of Hue City, and though only twenty, his cool courage under fire made him seem much older. He was a leader. Pat McCrary, Pvt. Buford Unerstute, and Sonny were part of his squad.
That night in that Vietnamese cemetery was the first time he had lost one of his men. He took care of his men even if it meant risking his own life, which he did more than once. After I almost drowned PFC Pat “Mac” McCrary, McCrary told Gunny McDermott that Sonny was still out there and badly wounded. Corporal Huteson volunteered to crawl back into that killing zone to search for two of his missing Marines. We could not find them: PFC Unerstute and the Marine named Sonny. Sonny had been dragged away by the NVA, and Unerstute was dead.
Buford Unerstute was very much as I described him. The guys called him Cowboy because he was from Oklahoma, not Idaho as I had thought. I won’t give his real name because I do not want to hurt his family. If they already know that the Marine I wrote about was their son, I want them to know this. In my heart, I feel that Cowboy was the bravest Marine I ever had the honor of serving with. I never met a Marine who was that terrified. He never should have made it through boot camp. Cpl. Bob Carroll, who was Sudsy in the book, recently told me a story about Pvt. Buford Unerstute. Bob said they were on a patrol one day in An Hoa Valley when they spotted three NVA troops standing on a hill a long way off. Bob said they were so far away that it would have been a long shot even for the M60. Lieutenant Pruit was thinking about calling in some 105s, artillery, just for the practice. Even at that distance, with an entire platoon of Marines around him, Unerstute began trembling in absolute terror. I relay this story for this reason. Try to imagine being in a jungle war like Nam. Then try to imagine being so torn apart inside with fear that you cannot control your body. Then try to imagine your lieutenant telling you the nightmare is over. You can go home. Then try to imagine what kind of courage it takes to say, “No.” Cowboy may have died of fright, but he did not die for lack of bravery. I feel honored to have known him.
Corporal Huteson’s phone call was from the Lord. It brought up a lot of tears but healed many wounds. Just having such a fine man think well of me for one of those times when I did something right seemed to ease much of the guilt I felt for those times when I dropped the ball.
In the chapter “Dodge City,” I wrote that my A-gunner told me that Gunny was putting me up for the Silver Star. Corporal Huteson told me that he and a couple of the other guys were put up for medals that night and no one got them. Cpl. Fred Huteson’s phone call made me feel better than any medal ever would, but Fred was curious about the records, too. I guess I had always wondered about that night. Wondered if my A-gunner was just exaggerating or if I had dreamed the whole thing up. But for twenty-eight years, I never pursued it. I knew that for each time I did well, I matched it with a moment of eighteen-year-old stupidity. In my foolish rationalization, I always thought a medal might balance those moments of disgrace or failure. I know the VA is full of men living with similar pain for a million different reasons. Sometimes you just can’t forgive yourself. Thank God, He can and does.
Cpl. Bill James sent me a small roster of some of the guys from the old platoon. Up to that point, I never knew the gunny’s name. I only knew him as the gunny with the shotgun. Not exactly a mailing address. Gy.Sgt. Mac McDermott, Yuma, Arizona. He was the most gung ho Marine I ever knew. He was the kind of man those “hero” actors like to imitate, as long as they can put them in a WWII movie. He was happy to hear from me, and I was surprised that he even remembered me.
“Gunny, you remember that night in the graveyard? Dodge City? An Hoa?”
“Yep. And it wasn’t that——Swift Eagle that led the men back into that graveyard, Clark.”
“That was me, Johnnie!”
“Sorry, Gunny. I couldn’t remember every detail.”
He laughed. “It’s okay.”
“What happened to you after we put you on that chopper, Gunny?”
His life sounded like a John Wayne movie. After the gunny was wounded with Corporal Quintana, he was medevaced out. I thought his time in Nam was over. I was eighteen and the gunny was in his thirties. I thought he was in his forties; he seemed like an old man to me—one very tough, very brave, very gung-ho, old Marine. He thought we were wasting Marine Corps money if we were not making contact with the enemy. He was the consummate Marine. He not only went back to Vietnam, in spite of objections, he got hit three more times while serving as an adviser. None of it impresses him. He is still the gunny.
Gunny remembers vividly the day Jesus Quintana was wounded. He speaks with reverence for God about that moment when Quintana took out his Bible as he lay in his own blood, with no legs below the waist. Gunny McDermott remembers clearly when Quintana looked up at him with a spiritual light in his eyes that went beyond reason and said, “I’m going to make it.” That was one of the last times I remembered seeing the gunny.
Gunny McDermott made a lifelong impression upon me. I wrote a couple of other books loosely based on him and another warrior I admire greatly, a Korean War–era gunnery sergeant named Francis Killeen. Gunny McDermott is one of those special warriors the Marine Corps seems to breed when America is in trouble. The gunny went back to the States in September 1968. He immediately drove those around him insane until he was sent back to Vietnam. He got back in May 1969 and stayed until August 1970. He was assigned to the Army as an adviser with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, 4th Battalion, 6th Regiment, 2d ARVN Division in Quang Nai Province. He said the Army called him “Mac the Magnet” because he managed to draw so much fire. I laughed. Those of us in Alpha Company understand. During his second tour, he managed to find the enemy with his usual regularity. He was wounded a total of six times but refused three of those Purple Hearts to keep from being sent home. Three Purple Hearts or two serious wounds, 48s, and you had to go back to the States.
Gunny McDermott was promoted to the rank of sergeant major in March 1977 and was transferred to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. He was the Training NCO while stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina. Somehow, I always pictured the guy wearing a Smokey the Bear hat on Parris Island. Sgt. Maj. McDermott’s personal decorations include the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars with Combat V, three Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, two Army Commendation Medals with Combat V, the Combat Action Ribbon, and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry.
We spoke for a long time, then I decided to ask him a twenty-eight-year-old question. To tell you the truth, I did not know what to expect. It made me nervous to even broach the subject of a medal with a real hero. But after nearly three decades, I wanted to know if it was just my childish imagination or if he did tell my A-gunner he was putting me up for a Silver Star. I also now had a responsibility to the other guys who were put up for medals that night and never got them. One thing I could depend on with the gunny was that he would be blunt.
“Gunny, did you know our records got blown up by a 122?”
“Oh, sure. Killed a master sergeant, I think.”
“Pat McCrary just got a Purple Heart after all these years because his records were blown up in that attack. Corporal Huteson and some of the guys were supposed to get medals for that night.”
“I heard about that.”
“Look, Gunny, I’ve wanted to ask you this question since I was eighteen. My A-gunner came to me that night and told me that the gunny was putting me up for the Silver Star.”
Like I said, blunt. My heart sank a little. At least, and at last, I knew the truth. I felt embarrassed and a little bummed about it. “But why would my A-gunner tell me that?”
“It wasn’t me. It was Gunny Poertner.”
“Who is Gunny Poertner?”
“He was the company gunny. Remember Poertner at An Hoa, big red mustache?”
I did remember the guy. He had a really impressive moustache, looked like a Viking. “I do remember that guy, Gunny! But he wasn’t in the bush with us, was he?”
“Sure! On company-size operations. Remember when Lieutenant Molonolf of Third Platoon got killed in An Hoa?”
“Yeah.” I remembered that Lieutenant Molonolf was an Australian. I called him Lieutenant Hawthorn in the chapter titled “Pay Back.”
“That’s when I took over the third herd. Gunny Poertner became company gunny with Captain Nelson.”
I was flabbergasted. I never knew there were two gunnery sergeants in Alpha Company. Of course, at eighteen, there was a lot I never knew. Retired M.Sgt. Billy Poertner remembered every detail. He said that he did write me up. He would do it again. Our company commander, Capt. Scott Nelson, remembered some of that night and a few of the guys also remembered. Doc Turley remembered. He was everyone’s favorite corpsman. Shortly after Gunny Poertner wrote me up for the Silver Star for the second time, he died. At least four other Marines, whose records were also destroyed, should have received medals for their selfless acts of bravery that night. Cpl. Fred Huteson, PFC Pat McCrary, PFC Richard Chan, and Chan’s A-gunner, name unknown. And there may well be others and probably are. L/Cpl. Bruce Trebil may have been another Marine who risked his life to save others in the graveyard. Gunny McDermott, too. The Marines of Alpha 1/5 risked their lives for one another every day.
Some of these Marines had more time in combat than I had in the chow line. They showed up brave the way civilians show up for work. The Corps doesn’t hand out medals easily, must be part of the budget problem, because it sure wasn’t a lack of guts by 1/5 Marines. I pray and hope that the others will be honored. If it doesn’t happen, it won’t be due to a lack of effort by our officers. Our officers are still dedicated to their men. Total professionals. Lt. Col. Joe Griffis and Capt. Scott Nelson have always gone above and beyond for their men. They still do.
Capt. Scott Nelson left the Corps a highly decorated hero. He went on to become a big shot with the FBI. To all who watched him in Nam, that is no surprise. Leaders always rise to the top. He retired after becoming the head of the FBI in one part of the country and is now the head of security for Warner Brothers Studios.
I watch men like Scott in amazement and wonder how America finds these guys, for America found a lot of them in Vietnam. The media never seemed to notice them, but they were there, by the thousands, winning every major engagement in a decade of war, no matter the odds. It’s like a football team winning every game when only it’s defensive line is allowed to play. The U.S. Army did a great job over there, too. The Navy and Air Force didn’t let anybody down either. The NVA lost three full divisions during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong were basically eliminated. The enemy could not mount another offensive for three years after their beating at Tet. We heard some scuttlebutt that retired general Douglas MacArthur said, “Give me the First Marine Division, and I’ll be in Hanoi in a few weeks and end this war!” I think he was right. When President Nixon decided to force Hanoi to the peace table, it took only twelve days of B-52 strikes to bring them to their knees. Our combat forces left Nam in 1973. North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon almost three years later. If anyone lost militarily, it sure was not my Marine Corps.
Michael “Doc” Turley was one of our Navy corpsmen. I’m not even sure how many corpsmen we had. Remember, as a machine gunner I was in Weapons Platoon. But if the Third Platoon lost a gunner, I might get attached to them for a while. It was the same for corpsmen. One of our corpsmen was sort of arrogant, and I wrote about him quite often. That corpsman was not Doc Turley. By the way, that snob corpsman saved a lot of lives, too. Doc Turley was in the Navy from 1966 to 1970. He went to Nursing School at Wagner College. He was varsity quarterback on the football team from 1970 to 1972. Doc went to U.S. Public Health Hospital in Staten Island, N.Y., and graduated in 1973. He joined the Coast Guard the same year and served in the Reserves until 1999. In the Coast Guard, he became an ER physician assistant, level 1 and level 2 trauma cases. Doc worked in Jacksonville, where this hero continued to save lives. Doc is in a battle with Agent Orange right now, but he isn’t whining, and he’s proud to have served with the Corps in Vietnam.
When the story of the missing records first came out, it brought some sorrow and some joy. One of the joyful moments happened a couple of years ago as the mystery began to unfold. One day my doorbell rang. When you have teenagers, you never figure it is someone to see you, but I answered anyway. When I opened that door, all I could do was stare. A man who resembled a boy I once knew stood before me holding a gray shirt. The shirt had the picture of an M60 machine gun on it with words above and below: WHY WALTZ WHEN YOU CAN ROCK AND ROLL. I stood reading that shirt and remembering a hundred times when this man ran forward under fire to help wounded Marines. It was a wonderful reunion. Doc was one of the most respected and beloved men in Alpha Company. Hugging him was like holding on to all that was good and right about my time in Nam.
Doc Turley had just come back from touring Vietnam with one of our old radio men, J. B. MacCreight. He had gone back to Hill 55 and Truoi Bridge and Hue City and a few other places that still haunted him. He had lost his best friend on Truoi Bridge: Cpl. Walter Roslie. Doc was from Staten Island and Roslie was from Valley Stream, Long Island. Corporal Roslie was another remarkable hero from Hue. He had been awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts in the Battle of Hue City. He was offered a field promotion to second lieutenant but turned it down. Truoi Bridge was his third and final Heart. Another hero, L/Cpl. Jim Tedesco, died trying to rescue Roslie on that bridge. Doc and J.B. wanted to say a prayer and throw some flowers off the bridge. A young Communist lieutenant would not allow them on the bridge. There were machine-gun bunkers at each end as if the war were still going on. The young lieutenant told them he could be shot for allowing Americans on the bridge. While visiting Hill 55, they decided to film a monument that had been built to all the enemy soldiers that the Marines had killed there. Mike looked up from filming to discover that he, J.B., and their driver, a former ARVN who had worked with the U.S. Marines, were surrounded by little pith helmets carrying AK47s. They told the Americans, “We can kill you, and your government can do nothing about it.” They took the Vietnamese driver and grilled him for hours before letting them go. I’ll not be visiting Nam with my tourist dollars unless they let me bring along a few friends—the First Marine Division and an M60.
In July 1998, my old executive officer, Fifth Marine Regiment, Lt. Col. Joe Griffis, called me on the phone. Aided by the tireless help of another retired Marine named Bill Harley, the red tape involved in presenting a medal thirty years late was worked out. It would happen at the First Marine Division Reunion in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 8, 1998.
I drove up with my son, Shawn, and daughter, Bonnie Kay. My wife met us there along with Richard Chan. Chan is now the leading cardiovascular perfusion expert in the world. We are still buddies and still argue. Chan had a rough time when he came home. He had thirteen surgical operations and battled like the rest of the guys to fit in again. He finally met and married a great lady named Doreen. She’s a middle-school teacher. He travels the world, teaching and lecturing on the subject of cardiovascular perfusion. He says that invariably at the end of a seminar, some person will approach him with a reluctant expression. He knows what’s coming. “I know this will sound silly,” the person will say, “but I read this war book called Guns Up! and it had a character named Richard Chan. Is it possible that you are the same Richard Chan?”
Chan was medevaced out only after two choppers were disabled. He still remembers the body bags on the medevac chopper. At 1st Med. Battalion doctors performed the first of thirteen operations on him. It took over a month for them to get Chan home. He had to be stabilized at each stop: Okinawa, Yokohama, Anchorage, California, Washington, D.C., and finally St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, N.Y. His weight went down to 130 pounds when he arrived at St. Albans. At 1st Med, they considered removing one of his arms because he’d spiked a fever. He begged one doctor, a family friend and commander of 1st Med, not to cut off the arm unless they were able to confirm a positive culture. The doctor said there was a terrible risk of gangrene spreading. He told the doctor that he was fully aware of the medical risks. Why does this sound so typical of Richard Chan?
Chan went into a coma for three weeks. He woke temporarily and has never forgotten the touching sight of a huge wounded Marine who had climbed out of the next bed. He was on his knees praying for Chan. “I was too dehydrated to shed many tears, but all that was left came out at that defining moment. It was then I was sure that God had spared me for better days. I wasn’t sure if I would have normal neurological functions or even two arms, but I knew I would live and will live for His purpose.”
Chan went through a postgraduate course that was two years long at Long Island Jewish Medical Center–Stony Brook University, one of the few universities in the country at that time to offer this advanced degree. Today, there are twenty-three, but only five that offer an advanced degree. One of them is NSUH-LIUCWP. Chan is the director of this school. He has helped to develop many devices used in cardioperfusion. He has also developed physiologic calculators with his name on them. (I would explain that, but I don’t have a clue what it is.)
Chan and Doreen love my kids and spoil them rotten with their generosity. My son, Shawn McClellan Clark, is nineteen, a student at Saint Petersburg Junior College and heading for Florida State University, God willing. After that his father sees him as a second lieutenant in the First Marine Division, God willing. My daughter, Bonnie Kay Clark, is a sophomore at Keswick Christian School in Saint Petersburg, sixteen, beautiful, spiritual, and already more mature than her father, which is a little scary. They adore Chan and Doreen.
The day of the First Marine Division Reunion, there was a parade in downtown Cincinnati. The parade was to honor a Marine machine gunner killed in action thirty years earlier in Phu Loc, Thua Thien Province, Vietnam. He had been posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, thirty years late for helping a platoon of Marines hold off four hundred NVA at a place called Truoi Bridge. Of course, Red deserved more, as do many of the men who fought in Vietnam, but it still gave me goose bumps to watch his hometown finally say thanks.
Later that day, a smile walked through a group of Marines at the reunion. That smile made my heart stop. It was the same smile and same face I watched throughout my war: Sudsy. The real name of the radioman I wrote about is Cpl. Bob Carroll. Even as I write these words I feel ridiculous. I gave my limited view of a few incidents. I did not even touch on the depth of the men of Alpha 1/5. Bob “Sudsy” Carroll did not show up in Nam as a radio man. He was handed a radio during the Battle of Hue City, at the wall of the Citadel. He was one of the 3 percent of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, 1/5, Marines who made it through Hue City. Bob, like so many of the Marines of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines, was wounded in Hue but never received a Purple Heart. The wounded were patched up and thrown back into the battle. The History Channel is currently doing a story about Hue City. When they asked the men for a good Marine to interview, a 1/5 Marine who saw it all, the answer was Bob Carroll. Bob “Sudsy” Carroll was involved in what could only be described as a suicide assault near the Citadel. That assault is considered to have been the turning point in the battle.
Sudsy was the Second Platoon radioman for most of my time in Nam. He eventually became a squad leader. At one point I thought Bob Carroll had been killed. He was seriously ill with malaria. When we were crossing the Thu Bon River on amtracks, he passed out from the fever and fell off. He was medevaced out for quite a while. He thinks that may be why I thought he got killed. I am thankful to be wrong. Everyone who served with Bob Carroll loved him. Bob’s best friend was one of the Marines killed when Jesus Quintana lost his legs. His name was Ronald L. Powers. I believe this is the Marine that I called Private Simmons. He had a safe job in the rear but volunteered to change his MOS to join the grunts in the bush. Bob tried to talk him out of it, but he was a Marine. He lasted a month.
Cpl. Bob Carroll came home with combat fatigue as most of the guys did. It made his life and relationships tough. He escaped by becoming a park ranger and basically living in the woods for many years. He was a ranger at the Grand Canyon when he showed up in Cincinnati at the reunion. Bob worked with a friend who was constantly asking him why he chose to live the way he did. He got tired of ignoring this woman, so he finally gave her a copy of Guns Up! She read it over and over. When Bob mentioned that Johnnie and Chan would be at the reunion, this woman talked him into coming. Here is another one of those incidents where the guy who wrote a book seems special, but the truth is that Johnnie Clark was and is “boot” to Marines like Bob Carroll, Corporal Huteson, Bruce Trebil, Big Red, Jesus Quintana, Gunny McDermott, Lieutenant Pruit, Lance Corporal Hensley, Cpl. Marty Lynch, John Carrow, James MacCreight, Frenchie, Charlie Goodson, Lieutenant Montgomery, Sgt. Stacy Watson, Sergeant Monroe, Sgt. Vince Rios, Leonard Ramirez, First Lieutenant Lowder, Capt. Scott Nelson, Lieutenant Colonel Griffis, and a thousand others.
Sgt. Vince Rios, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, is a Marine whose story is not in Guns Up! He was at the reunion. PFC Pat McCrary and Cpl. Steve Britt idolize the man. In the chapter “Happy Birthday, Baby-San,” Steve was with me at Thuong Duc when the tanks were blown up as we charged a hill beside the Vu Gia River—the day Swift Eagle was wounded for the last time. They told me that when Sergeant Rios was on his second tour, he was the guardian that saved their lives a dozen times. When he lost his legs and right arm, and his left hand was mangled, they thought he was finished. He went home and got two master’s degrees and raised a new first lieutenant for the Marine Corps, his son. Where does America find these Marines? There were a lot of them in Vietnam.
First Lieutenant Montgomery is another. Steve Britt’s squad was pinned down and in a hopeless position. Lieutenant Montgomery heard the mess on the radio. He ran to the action and charged an enemy machine-gun position to save his men. He was wounded by .30-caliber machine-gun fire. Another Marine hero with him was killed. Montgomery was awarded the Navy Cross. He became an FBI agent, and years later, he was on national television for again being a hero for his country. Just another Nam vet.
Bill James and others have tried to find Cpl. Swift Eagle. He seems to have dropped off the earth. The guys think he went back to some Indian reservation and is still there. One of my buddies, a Nam vet, recently visited an Indian reservation. He told me that quite a few of the men there were former Marines. He said that it was a revered custom for the veterans on the reservation to wear their medals on their shirts to show they had served. These warriors are respected by their people. I hope Swift Eagle is honored by his tribe.
I wrote about a character named “Sam the Blooper Man.” Sam was actually based on two different men. The combat was as accurate as I could remember it, but part of his personality was based on a soldier who served in 1969. My blooper man risked his life for mine. If I ever had the choice, I wanted that Marine beside me in a fight.
There is more I’d like to say about the Marines of 1/5. There is more I’d like to tell you about this book. Like how a sixteen-year-old kid from Ireland came to America to join the Corps because he read a little book titled Guns Up! Stories of sergeant majors making every young Marine in their outfit read the book. Squad leaders in the Gulf War tearing the book into sections for every man in their squad to study. Nurses who hand it out in VA hospitals. Kids who have read it sixteen times. High schools and colleges making it required reading. Middle school and elementary teachers reading the book aloud to their students at the end of class each day.
This book has flaws, but God has used this book in ways I never dreamed. After four years of having Guns Up! rejected, I got nailed by a memory verse in a Bible study group: 1 Samuel 2:30, “but now the Lord declares … for those who honor me I will honor.” I made a simple decision to remove all the curse words from the book, against the advice of professional writers. Within a month, nine publishers wanted Guns Up! I asked the editor who bought the book for Ballantine why she wanted it now, since she had rejected the exact same book six months earlier. Was it because I took the curse words out? She said not one reader or editor at Ballantine had noticed. She read and rejected the book six months earlier and could not explain it. I can.
My prayer is that this flawed effort will honor Jesus Christ first, His Marine Corps second, and everyone who served in Vietnam. To all of the valiant leathernecks I was privileged to serve with, be healed by forgiving.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.