The First Time I Met Walt Smith
By Roger Cox (Missoula '69)
It was July 5, 1975, and we were in the Twin Otter circling the McKnight Fire on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The fire was small, as most were in the area of the historic McKnight Burn that covered thousands of acres years before. I knew that cat's claw and oak brush awaited us on the ground. It was early morning, and the wind was calm as usual early in the day. It would pick up by midday, but this fire did not seem to be a threat. A single snag smoking near the base with perhaps a little ground fire, a product of last night's lightning show.
It was my sixth season of jumping, my third in R-3. This looked to be as easy as they get. I couldn't ask for a better jump partner. Walt Smith (BOI-71) was new to R-3 but not new to jumping and was as dependable and capable as any jumper I knew. The fire was going to be routine, no surprises here. The spotter called for two, and Walt and I waddled to the door, soon to be under a T-10 looking for a landing spot in the scattered timber near the fire.
Walt did his rookie training in Boise and after a few years had transferred to Missoula. He had gone to school in Hamilton, Montana, started on the football team as a linebacker, and I suspect a good one. When Walt transferred in, I was helping with the training of new jumpers. One of the items that Walt had not trained in was a water landing. Bernie Hilde (MSO-69) and I loaded up a truck and, with several other jumpers, drove to Frenchtown Pond where we demonstrated the process of landing in water and getting yourself, plus your main chute to shore. It was my first contact with Walt that I could remember.
Walt had served in the Marine Corp and had done time in Vietnam as a grunt, as I had. That I knew and it interested me, but we never had discussed our experiences. Maybe it was too recent. Only eight years earlier, we were living the dream in Vietnam and, as usual, we really didn't ever discuss our experiences. No good reason, it was just the way it was. I had noticed that Walt had Check the NSA website some of the habits that combat creates. He didn't like people approaching from behind and would keep track by standing so the sun would cast a shadow if someone walked in behind him. He also put his back to the wall or sat with his back to the wall so that he had total control of the area in front of him. I did the same thing, still do. But it wasn't worth commenting on, and I never brought up the subject.
The fire was routine and we had it controlled very quickly. Digging was easy and a line went in without challenge. Then we broke out the crosscut saw and dropped the snag. It shattered when it hit the ground, so we had some mopping up to do. That took a while and we worked quietly, just doing our job. By evening the fire was cold, and we would be spending the night with a promised helicopter pickup the next morning. Time to break out the hot dogs and enjoy the evening.
I'm not sure who brought up the subject first, but Vietnam became the subject and the story was just starting.
February 27, 1967, I was dug in with my company north of Highway 9 just south of the DMZ in the I Corps sector of Vietnam. My unit was Lima Company of Third Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. I was a rifleman, the basis for the Marine Corps. My time in Vietnam had just started, and I was not yet a combat-hardened Marine. I had done little more than march days and dig in every night with the other 140 men in my company.
The Regiment had been in country for over a year and my company was filled with Marines with combat experience.
The night started out like every other night establish a perimeter and dig a fighting hole, heat a can of c-rations, and try to get some sleep before your first watch. This part of the process I had figured out. But I wasn't expecting to be awakened at o-dark-thirty and march the rest of the night for who knows what.
A recon unit, usually six to eight Marines, had made contact the day before with what turned out to be a regiment of NVA. From the after-action report published by the Marine Corps:
"The morning of the 27th, a Marine reconnaissance team 5000 meters northwest of Cam Lo attempted to ambush what appeared to be only two enemy soldiers. The team actually engaged an enemy company which proved to be the lead element of the 812th Regiment 324, B Division. By 1045 the reconnaissance team reported that it was surrounded by at least 100 NVA. The closest friendly force was Captain Alan Hartney's Company L, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines." **
They were on the run with wounded and needed help. We were the closest unit and were directed to immediately make our way to their assistance. This was an unusual request for we never moved at night except for listening posts and ambushes preplanned and requiring travel only over very short distances. I don't remember much about the march. It was darker than the inside of a cow, and we never used any lumination for the fear of giving our position away. Travel was quiet shuffling for several hours as we made our way south down a road that was little more than two-wheel tracks. I just kept track of the man ahead of me as I felt my way down the trail.
By first light, we had arrived at our destination, now having been joined by tanks. Their firepower is appreciated, but it means that we did not arrive unannounced. Tanks are not quiet. With the rising sun, we left the trail and climbed a small ridgeline, soon to be noted as Hill 124. At that point we were eight miles or so from salt water, so it was not a major climb. As we were spreading out, my platoon was ordered to advance across a small saddle and secure it as a landing zone.
My squad was advancing across this area when the first mortar rounds were fired by the NVA. Those sounds of dropping in the tube are a sure sign of a bad day off to a bad start. This started the artillery barrage that would continue non-stop for the next three days. The 82-millimeter mortars were not just random, and the first round landed in the proposed LZ. One of my squad members was killed with the first round and another Marine was badly wounded. As our platoon commander directed, we quickly set up a perimeter and prepared to dig in as the mortar barrage picked up in intensity. Chaos prevailed for minutes until we got lined out, and the company prepared to defend itself. So far, we were only taking mortar rounds, rifle fire was yet to come but come it did.
I was paired up with an experienced Marine, and I followed his lead. His courage and calmness were infectious. Our first action was to defend ourselves while hoping to get a foxhole dug for protection. Off to my left was a tank reinforcing our perimeter and bringing tremendous firepower to our line. As the battle built in intensity, I was occupied with firing into my assigned sector as targets appeared, and digging like hell to get us below the incoming fire. I kept my rifle hot.
Although I had experienced some action in my brief time in Vietnam, I had not endured a major battle as this one had just become. The noise was overwhelming with our return fire and the tank's guns. We were realizing we were in contact with a superior force and were fighting for our lives. Rifle, machine gun and mortar fire were now joined by RPG's. Their first objective was the tank.
In short order, the tank received multiple hits and was burning. A Marine crawled out of the hatch and leaned up against the turret. He was obviously still alive but with all the rounds hitting the tank was in mortal danger. My foxhole mate, Fred Lopez, says, "I can't watch this," and jumps up running to the tank. He made it through the rain of bullets and mortars and was trying to pull the Marine off the tank. I jumped up to assist, but Fred was able to move him to behind the tank before I arrived (Fred was recommended for the Silver Star for this action). In my absence, our foxhole took a direct hit from a mortar round, the fortunes of war. We returned to our position and took up the fight again.
The remaining afternoon, we were in constant contact. They did pull back, but the shelling never stopped. As the day wore on, we were resupplied with ammunition from our wounded and dead and prepared for a long night, not knowing what to expect, but expecting the worst. The M-14 is a reliable rifle, and I continued to monitor my sector occasionally firing with or without targets just to keep them honest. Staff Sargent Boyer, our platoon Sargent, made the rounds checking our position, water, and ammo. He mentioned that we might pull back and consolidate our perimeter to adjust for our losses.
Now we were being supported from every direction. The surrounding firebases were making the night miserable for the NVA. So was lumination. The "star shell" or flares would give us several minutes of light, then another star shell was on its way. This support was probably keeping us alive.
The company had some badly wounded Marines, men that wouldn't make it until daylight. Sometime during the night, a "dust off" (helicopter) came in to our perimeter. And again, "If we called, they came." They referring to those pilots who did the impossible daily.
Our LZ was designated as "hot," referring to the fact that any incoming helicopters would be under intense fire. A flashlight was placed in the bottom of a hole on the LZ. Only the helicopter could see it. They hovered over it and dropped straight down. The only visible sign was the glow of the exhaust pipe. The NVA could hear the operation and, by sound alone, the night was filled with green tracers. That, in turn, gave us targets on the perimeter. The extraction was a success thanks to the courage of those pilots to do the impossible.
At dawn they came. At first the shelling increased, and then the probing of our lines started. For several hours, the "situation was in doubt."
"At 06:30 a vicious mortar and infantry attack stunned company L. More than 150 82-mm mortar rounds hit the company's position and NVA forces struck from three sides with heavy automatic weapons, small arms, and antitank fire. By 0900 the Marines had repulsed three enemy attacks. Captain Hartney and his artillery observer called in artillery fire to within 30 meters of the company position." **
Incoming was continuous. So was the support fire from nearby Camp Carroll and Dong Ha. The NVA reaction to this was to get as close as possible to our lines. "Danger close" is the term for fire support request for shelling so close to our positions. The situation was still in doubt.
Back on the Gila
I enquired about the nature and circumstances of Walt's purple heart. That can be a forbidden question, but among Marine veterans, it is acceptable. His story revealed the "First time I Met Walt Smith."
Walt said his Battalion was stationed at Camp Carroll, soon to be in route for a new operation area in a place called Khe Sanh. His company was reassigned to an urgent request for reinforcements. There was little information as to the nature of this assignment, but that was not unusual. Walt had been in country for some time and had combat experience. His company was dropped off on Highway 9 directly south of Hill 124, only a few klicks off the road.
Walt's fire team, four Marines, was assigned the point position. Walt said they could hear the battle, so there was no illusion of what lay ahead. They traveled a well-used trail that appeared to give access to the battle scene. The NVA were expecting them. Walt noticed the trail had been prepped with mortars, meaning it had been zeroed in in anticipation of Marine reinforcements. Walt was the 4th in line.
As the point element slowly approached the area, Walt detected movement off the trail. Before he could react, gunfire swept the point killing the other three Marines and wounding Walt. He crawled/scrambled his way back to the column in a hail of fire. The officer in charge told him to hold his position and they would fight their way up to them. Walt said he was the only survivor and had been shot multiple times.
As the firefight developed, more Marines were wounded and Walt was placed in a bamboo grove with the other wounded. Before long, the NVA had surrounded Golf Company and Walt asked for his rifle back—the NVA were trying to break thru the bamboo. When they climbed up on the Bamboo to gain access, they were easy targets. Walt was firing with his right hand only. He had multiple bullet wounds in his left arm and shoulder.
Golf Company continued to advance and fought their way to the Lima perimeter where they created a corridor that the dead and wounded could be carried through.
"At 1035 on the 28th, as Company G began moving up the hill, it came under fire from wellconcealed positions on both flanks. The fighting was heavy, casualties mounted on both sides. Among the Marine dead was Company G's commander, Capitan Bockewitz." (Received the Medal of Honor posthumously.) **
The tank was now a burned-out hulk. The Marine who Corporal Lopez had assisted died of his burns. The tank served no purpose in defense but could be used for protection from incoming mortar rounds. By digging out under the tank and closing the forward opening with dirt, we created a mortar proof bunker.
As the wounded Golf Marines entered into our perimeter, some were directed to our "bunker." Walt said he had lost too much blood and wasn't stable. The Lima Marines formed a line and passed the wounded into the space under the tank. I did not know which one was Walt. The war was still ongoing and the mood was tense. Very little was said; no Marine complained. We finished placing the wounded under the tank and hurried back to our positions.
Lima Company had more than 100 casualties by this time. The enemy closed within 20 meters and attacked with small arms and grenades. The Marines returned fire and forced the enemy to withdraw. At this time the helicopters arrived to pick up wounded, but were unable to land because of heavy fire in the landing zone.
Other Marine Units had joined the fight for a total of five other companies in contact with this NVA regiment. That still gave the NVA a three to one advantage in manpower. We were on the defensive and the objective was to break contact. That was not to happen very easily.
"... all radios had been hit and casualties continued to mount. Moving the dead and wounded out of the killing zone required feats of bravery beyond comprehension. The NVA were everywhere. Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesion, Battalion Commander, was carrying the last of the wounded Marines toward the perimeter when an explosion mortally wounded him." (Received the Medal of Honor posthumously.) **
The battle drew more and more resources until the NVA, in their normal practice, had began to withdraw. They knew at some point the power that could be brought to bear would overwhelm them. As they broke contact and retreated north, the Marines picked up their dead and wounded and withdrew to the south. The battle for Hill 124 had ended.
Walt was sent to the Repose, a hospital ship that was stationed offshore. While there, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Lew Walt, decorated him. My Battalion was sent to Okinawa to rest, recover, and receive reinforcements. There were only 40 of us left. I had eight more months and many more battles to endure before my third wound would send me home.
We were both amazed that Walt and I had made contact in Vietnam. Of course, we had no idea that smokejumping was in our future and we would meet again. But the mere facts of our meeting had to be unique or we would have never realized our meeting. We both had made passing contact with many Marines that we would never recognize if we met later in life. The fact that the burned-out tank was used as a bunker was very unusual. I never saw it happen again. Nor would Walt be wounded and placed under a burned out tank ever again. When he mentioned the tank, I knew instantly that he was one of the Marines I helped out.
The discussion triggered memories we usually do not want to recall. The conversation slows and then drifts to silence. We slept on the ground again that night just as we had eight years earlier—only no green tracers to fill the night skies to entertain us. We got to take off our boots and not worry about taking the 0130 to 0300 watch. We were back to "the world." Welcome home.
** U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967 by Maj. Gary L. Telfer, USMC, Lt. Col. Lane Rogers, USMC, and Dr. V. Keith Fleming Jr., History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C.
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The First Time I Met Walt Smith