Former Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on Veterans Day and the Siege of Khe Sanh.
It will soon be Veterans Day once again, a time to reflect and remember. I always get moody about this time of year. The seasons are rapidly changing and a new snow is always a possibility. The leaves are nearly all gone and the last gathering of crops and nuts will soon be finished. Life is about to finish one more cycle of time. It will soon be Thanksgiving but first we must stop and Honor those who have made that celebration possible. On Veterans Day.
I think a lot about people who, for some stellar reason, have been a part of my life experience of the past 63 years. There are many for sure, but none have affected my life more than those Brave and Courageous young men I call “My Marines”. If you have the time I am willing to share them with you. They were all men of good character, men you depended on daily for your very survival. Men who would give their last drop of water, share a small tin of peanut butter; men who would and did give up their very existence here on this earth to protect you from harm. Men you had only known a few weeks, men you had met only for that poignant moment just before their passing. At the end of Michener’s novel, “The Bridges at Toko Ri,” Admiral George Terrant, who has just lost his best pilot over North Korean skies asks this question: “Where do we get such men?” I’ve never been able to adequately answer that question. ?????
We had a Battalion Sergeant Major named James Gaynor. He had nearly 30 years in the Corps. He was taken prisoner on Corregidor at the beginning of WWII and survived the Bataan Death March. When our Battalion Commander asked why he came to our forward position at Khe Sanh when he could have had any job he wanted elsewhere, his response was this: “These young Marines need my leadership skills, not Division Headquarters.” He was killed by an errant artillery round one night while checking on his troops.
There was Corporal Ron Ryan. He ran the M-60 machine gun pit closest to me. He was one of the bravest Marines. He showed me “how” to be a real Marine myself. I watched Ron and over 50 others fall from the sky when their C-123 was shot down on approach to making a landing on return from R&R.
There was Mr. Dillon and Staff Sergeant Alvarado, our platoon leaders who dashed thru the wire without any orders to quickly envelope a downed Phantom Pilot as he parachuted from his disabled strike fighter. They, like myself, returned home safely.
Then the tragedy of 25 February 1968. We lost nearly thirty of our best men in a matter of minutes in a lightning fast horseshoe ambush. They had virtually no chance of survival. Yet the aerial photos of the battle scene would show they kept charging those gun emplacements, bodies staggered where they fell, until the last few breached the enemy trenches. Tennyson should have been there to write about their courage.
In the Marine Corps when bad things happen someone is always held responsible. In this case that responsibility would have fallen to the Company Commander. Of course there was no fault, but someone has to answer to the high command. Our Battalion Commander, known simply as “Gentleman Jim,” was in fact a tall southern gentleman. He was a seasoned Marine having fought in Korea when most of us were mere babies. He put his arm around the young Captain and said “It’s OK, I’ll take it from here.” He then went straightaway to the Colonel and in shortest form said, “The buck stops here.” He was then “promoted” to Executive Officer of the Fourth Marines and the next day we had a new Battalion Commander. I think the old saying goes like this, “That’s jist da way things is, John Henry.”
When we mixed it up on 30 March with Charlie, the chain of events of that day would sear a man’s mind for eternity. There was much carnage that day of course. I still wonder how human beings can continue to do that to each other but seem to continue to find ways. But what has stayed with me always, what makes me so PROUD, is the heart and courage these young new friends of mine displayed that day. I have said many, many times over the course of my life the following. It is one thing to read in our Bibles the verse in John 15:13 which says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” It is an entirely different thing to actually witness young men, on more than one occasion, do precisely that. It will humble you beyond description. It is why so many of us, myself included, will always defend their Honour.
I hope you enjoyed visiting with some of “My Marines.” You have to leave now. We need to go where we always go about this time of day. I spend time with all of them every day you know. Yep! We sit out back of the outbuildings, Jack and Tess, my two Border Collies, myself and “My Marines.” We talk a bit, reminisce, shed some tears and then we “Stand Down.” Another day is done.
My young Granddaughters who are very prayerful little girls always ask me, “Grandpa, why don’t you say your prayers at bedtime?” I tell them I say them in the mornings, thankful having just been able to sleep peacefully through another night because of a few young men I call “My Marines.”
When you carve your turkey in a few short weeks, take the time to set an extra plate for those who cannot attend. As you give “Thanks” ask this question, “Where did we get such men?”
Michael E. O’Hara
B Co 1/26 Marines 1968
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