May 24, 2009
Reflections and Recollections:
AKA: “The Purple Heart.”
On October 11, 1967, two battalions of the 1st Marine Regiment embarked on a search and destroy mission in the Hai Lang Forest Region of Quang Tri Province, in Vietnam the Republic of. Hotel Company 2/1 entered the Hai Lang Forest with a compliment of 160 combat ready Marines along with an indispensable cadre of United States Navy Corpsmen. The monsoon season had already begun and the rains steadily came down. The Marines humped up one side of a hill and the back down the other. And, we waded across several swollen streams that proved extremely difficult to ford.
The mission was twofold; find the enemy and then destroy him. Yet, after seven days of humping through the forest, Hotel Company 2/1 had failed to make contact with the NVA. On the morning of October 18, 1967, however, contact was eminent. Signs of recent enemy activity were all around us. Well worn trails in the area and several pieces of discarded equipment were clear indications that North Vietnamese Army units were close by. The Marines were in a heightened state of readiness and confidence was high.
Suddenly, our column stopped and soon the word was passed to fix bayonets. Our point man had spotted several enemy soldiers just ahead. Shortly after that sighting, we began to move up and the first shots rang out. Third platoon had engaged the enemy in their jungle base camp. We soon found ourselves fighting with a rear guard enemy unit. The main NVA force had already slipped away. The Marines quickly uncovered several large bunkers filled with ammunition, food stuffs and medical supplies. Combat Engineers were called up to rig the bunkers with explosives and detonate them.
Hotel Company 2/1 provided the security detail for the combat engineers and became the tail end Charlie (aka: rear guard) for the battalion. When we finally pulled out of the NVA encampment, we began to move, once again, in a single file column. The undergrowth was dense and the terrain was difficult to navigate. We plodded along at a slow pace and did our best to stay alert. Yet, a week of humping through the rain forest in foul weather had taken its toll on the Marines of the Second Battalion. We were all suffering from sleep deprivation and utter physical exhaustion. In truth, our sorry asses were dragging.
The trees were so tall and the undergrowth so dense that the enemy could have easily hidden an infantry regiment in that forest without anyone ever locating them. When the ambush began, the Marines were nearly “ A-hole to belly button” in a single file line of march. NVA sappers were heaving satchel charges while verbally taunting us. “ Ma - rine, you die! – You die Ma – rine” as enemy automatic weapons fire erupted all around us. The Marines returned fire and answered the North Vietnamese sappers with a few choice incantations of their own. In truth, the shit was hitting the fan bros’.
The world around the Marines of Hotel Company had suddenly become a shit-storm of death and destruction. Having been caught up in the detonation of one those NVA explosive devices, I found myself bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth when I came too. Each Marine understood the fact that, if reinforcement did not arrive and soon, we would be overrun. So, with my brain-housing group rattled beyond belief, I picked up my rifle and got back into the fray.
US Navy Corpsman to Marines, “ Doc Danny Moyer” who had so, gallantly, given his all for the dead and dying fell beside me. Doc had been shot and peppered with shrapnel. Just seconds before, Doc had been hovering over me like a mother hen. Although seriously wounded, the man got back up and continued to minister to his beleaguered Marines. Our platoon was awash with casualties and Doc Decker was already numbered amongst the dead. The situation was critical and the outcome was in doubt.
About this time, the fighting became something of an up close and personal experience for me. I was scared shitless. Fallen Marines were lying all around me; it was just God awful. Pop Ingles, one of my very first friends in Vietnam, had been shot in the head. Marines Bulter and Chase had both been seriously wounded and languished in semi-comatose states. Doc Moyer’s arm was damn near hanging off. And, Marines were screaming to the top of their lungs, "Corpsman up,” from every point on the compass.
Marine Denny Porter, from West by God Virginia, took control of the situation and pulled everything together for us. We pulled the wounded into a natural divot and set about collecting the weapons and ammunition scattered about. Without additional help, there was no way that the Marines could hold off the next NVA advance. I said my final act of contrition and prepared to meet the final call to duty. I just could not believe what had happened to us. We were United States Marines damn it. And, United States Marines were supposed to attack the enemy (aka: Kick ass and take names) not hold the communist bastards off. The “Hotel” was in a serious world of shit!
Surrender was never an option for the Marines of Hotel Company. And, there was nothing epic or heroic about that reality. Uncle Ho, (aka: term used by Marines when referring to Ho chi Minh) the North Vietnamese leader and his army had no reason to take enlisted Marines hostage. If an enlisted Marine fell into enemy hands, he would be tortured and then summarily executed by hostile North Vietnamese soldiers. In truth, we were dead men walking bros’. So,“ Death before dishonor” was a no-brainer for us. “Semper Fi, do or die, Marine – Kill, Kill, Kill.” And, kill the Marines did bros.
Sudden bursts of automatic weapons fire (M-16 type) could be heard sweeping in at 9 o’clock. Staff Sgt. Sau Sau, Corporal Nolan, Corporal DF Miller and L/Cpl. Hank Decker, USMC, led the relief effort. This advancing Marine assault line was music to our ears. The NVA chose to break off contact and make their dee-dee. (aka: depart of the quick) It seemed our mortal enemy had no stomach for sticking around and hooking it out with US Marine Corps reinforcements. Our people quickly took control of the ambush site and then called for help: “Corpsmen up!” – many, many of them, on the quick!
The NVA ambush had decimated the rear of our column. The responding US Navy Corpsmen to Marines had their work cut out for them. Hotel Company 2/1 had suffered some twenty KIA in the fray. And, in truth, more than a score of our people had been seriously wounded in the desperate battle for self-preservation. Our medics were literally overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of critically injured Marines on the ground. Marine combat engineers blew a huge hole in the jungle canopy to create a makeshift Landing Zone. (aka: LZ) Mede-vac choppers (aka: evacuation helicopters) were already in the air.
Many of our people were in dire need of intense medical care. If these Marines were to have any chance at all of staying alive, they needed an immediate medevac. Doc Danny Moyer had given 110% of himself for his people. And, in truth, it had cost Danny big time. “Doc” Danny Moyer remains partially paralyzed to this day. For many Marines, the Hai Lang Forest Campaign marked the end of the trail. I lost many close comrades and dear friends in that foreboding rain forest. For so many more of my brother Marines, October 18, 1967 marked the beginning of a life filled with pain and sorrow.
These once healthy young men would have to endure years of medical treatment on their mournful road to recovery. Truth be known, not a single Marine caught in the ambush or Marine who led the combat assault back into the kill zone was recognized for their selfless actions. For whatever reason, the “ US Marine Corps Brass” (aka: High ranking Officers) chose to ignore their exploits. Yet, in my heart, those gallant Medina Marines will forever remain the unsung heroes of the Hai Lang Forest Campaign. After Operation Medina wound down, few, if any of us, would ever be the same.
In truth, not a single day goes by that I do not think about the “Medina men.” and my tour of duty in the Nam. To this day, I still struggle with the PTSD thing. And, also, the lingering effects of the traumatic brain injury (aka: TBI) I sustained during the Hai Lang Forest Campaign. War is Hell bros. Every Sunday morning following Mass, my wife, Jane and I light a votive candle. We carry out this sacred candle lighting ritual of ours in fond remembrance of all the fallen Marines of I-Corps. And, we will continue to do so for as long as the Good Lord will allow. All the days, peace be with you and may God bless! There it is bros.
L/Cpl. Thomas A. Holloran
Hotel Company 2/1,USMC.
RVN: Class of 1967-68.