Although he stood less than 5 feet tall, Marine Salvador Garcia was a giant.
There is a special place in my heart for Salvador Garcia. His curious eyes and humble expression opened onto a soul that was modest and accepting, but he was a tough kid—all steel—he had to be in order to carry a weapon nearly as big as he was. He spoke softly, and if he was ever anxious or nervous, he didn’t show it. Every ounce of Garcia’s being went into making a package that was the epitome of a true Marine.
I first ran into Garcia when he was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division, when we were operating out of Hill 55 near Da Nang in early 1968. Serving as a noncommissioned officer at the time, I was a lean and mean sergeant from Kansas who knew only one direction.
We were out on patrol one day, deep in the jungle, where the heat was just oppressive. Under a canopy of 50 or 60 feet, the men were sweating by the buckets and fighting off every kind of varmint under the sun—snakes, insects of all description, blood-sucking leeches and mosquitoes as big as any in Texas. It was off the charts of any misery index known to mankind.
Our platoon stretched single file over a good quarter-mile, and I went to check on the men to make sure everyone was sharp. Snipers had killed two of our Marines the previous day, so we were a little anxious. We fought an enemy that thrived on our complacency, and the terrible conditions made it easy to forget that death could be just a few steps away.
I spotted Garcia down the column. He carried an M-60 that weighed 23½ pounds, not counting the ammunition that came in heavy 100-round links. Then there were the extra barrels that needed to be switched when the one in use got red hot and began to melt. Our machine gunners had to be resilient, if not fearless. The M-60 was a beast. I stared at this man. How Garcia could, with his small stature, hold on to a gun like that while it was being fired was beyond my comprehension. And his gun was immaculate, so clean you could eat with it. Yet it wasn’t his weapon that caught my attention. Garcia was busy cleaning and buffing his boots! That’s right. He was concerned about the appearance of his footwear in the middle of a God-forsaken trail in the middle of the God-forsaken jungle.
“Hey, Garcia,” I yelled. “You OK?” I just couldn’t make sense of what he was doing. Most of the guys were resting, some were taking swigs of water.
He nodded enthusiastically, but I wasn’t so sure. I needed to see what made him tick. I sat down beside him and watched for a minute as he continued buffing his boots. He actually carried a shoe brush into the bush. He did his best to ignore me.
“You don’t need to be doing that,” I suggested. “We’re in the bush—you don’t need to be worrying about your damn boots. Just keep ’em dry so you can avoid the rot.”
Garcia gazed at me, with a puzzled look on his face. Had I said something wrong?
“These are my Cadillacs,” he quietly asserted. “They carry me wherever I go. I take care of them and they take care of me. Besides, boss, my Cadillacs are the best thing I ever owned.”
I didn’t know what to say. Any time he wanted to, he could go to supply and order a pair of boots. Here was a young man absolutely grateful to be wearing a pair of U.S. combat boots. We were in a war, apt to be killed any minute, and one of our platoon’s machine gunners was concerned with his boots?
A couple of days later we were back at our base on Hill 55. I couldn’t get over my conversation with Garcia, so I pulled his Service Record Book for clues about him. It showed he had an eighth-grade education from a school in a small village in Mexico, probably near El Paso, which is where he entered the service. Garcia’s education was typical for Marines from Mexico, where schooling is mandatory only through the eighth grade. He tested at above average intelligence and at 5 feet, 2 inches, was technically just tall enough to join the Corps. Like many Mexicans in the service, his records contained no known next-of-kin. His emergency contact was a priest in southwest Texas. Effectively orphaned in this life, Garcia was alone in this war.
The next day we mustered the platoon after evening chow to go over personnel changes, past and future operations, and the like. Often, during these sessions the NCOs would call forth a Marine for a bit of hazing. I impulsively called Garcia to the front.
“Garcia, exactly how tall are you?” I asked, as he ambled over toward me.
Skeptical, I grabbed a tape measure. I measured him and he was right at 4-foot-11. “You are three inches too short to be in the Marine Corps,” I barked, tongue in cheek, not sure what I was trying to achieve. “I’m afraid you are going to have to pack your sea bag and go home son.” Some in the platoon cheered and others just chuckled.
Garcia didn’t get the joke. A look of terror came over his face. “Please let me stay!” he pleaded. “I’m a good Marine. I do my duty. All I ever wanted was to be a Marine.”
“Marine, we would be crazy as hell to send you home,” I quickly responded. “I am pretty dumb, but not that stupid.You keep going the way you are and you’ll be wearing a Bronze Star before long.” I knew at that moment that I was in the company of a real Marine’s Marine.
A few weeks later we got into a big firefight during a probe not far from Hill 55. The enemy attack broke near Garcia’s position and he stood and fought. I heard from his squad leaders that he mowed down at least six North Vietnamese. He saved the day for his brother Marines, but in so doing gave up his life. He was shot five or six times at close range. He probably died before he hit the ground.
That afternoon I went to the graves registration, our makeshift morgue, and said a prayer for my friend, one that the press of time never allowed me to get to know. His dog tag, secured in his right boot, had been cut from his shoelaces. I promptly replaced it—the least I could do. I thanked God for this selfless man and prayed that his parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, would come to know about his heroism.
There is something very noble about young men who will cross national borders to fight for the United States. There is something very special about those who came to be Marines during the Vietnam War when they had no obligation whatsoever to be part of our military. Did Garcia come because he wanted to be a Marine, or an American, or both? There is no question that pervasive poverty induces some like him to flee their homeland, but that hardly explains the majority who come. In Vietnam, I met many who wore Marine colors while carrying a foreign passport, including Canadians, Panamanians, Mexicans, Germans and Englishmen. Never once did I hear one of these guys say that they had made a mistake about joining the Corps, or complain about the pay or living conditions. We seldom hear about these individuals and what they contributed in Vietnam, perhaps because they want to be known simply as American Marines. I don’t know. I just know that many came and you can find their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Salvador B. Garcia, panel 43E, line 4, is one of them.
Do you know how many times the name Garcia is repeated on the memorial’s black granite surface? How about Rodriguez? Gonzalez? Peres? Alvarez? These and other similar surnames are engraved hundreds of times on The Wall.
Twenty-two Marines received the Medal of Honor for incredible valor in Vietnam. Six of those heroes are Hispanic. I don’t know how many of these men crossed over borders to bear arms for this nation, but I can say that Hispanics served with valor and honor and were more likely to be killed in combat than any other ethnic group.
Long before the full-scale escalation of the Vietnam War, the firebase of Special Forces adviser Sgt.1st Class Isaac Camacho was overrun by Viet Cong in November 1963. After an intense firefight, Camacho was taken prisoner and became the first American POW of the war. Remarkably, Camacho escaped his captors after 20 months and made his way to freedom. He was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star Medal in September 1965 and later he was promoted to captain.
Lieutenant j.g. Everett Alvarez Jr. was the first American pilot to be taken as a prisoner of war. Alvarez remained a prisoner longer than anyone else, more than eight years.
On April 30, 1975, Master Sgt. Juan J. Valdez climbed aboard the last U.S. helicopter to pull away from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Valdez was among the last handful of Americans to get out of the war zone.
I will never forget looking at Garcia’s body riddled with gunshots on that March day in 1968. Fate had been unfair, as it often is. Here was a man who stood up and was counted in the finest way possible for this great nation. Words meant little to Garcia, but with him, there was no doubt where he stood.
For him, combat boots were a blessing—they were his Cadillacs. Those boots should be bronzed in memory of this man’s greatness. It is a privilege beyond measure to have served with such a giant.
After he was wounded, Joseph A. Kinney left Vietnam in 1969. He is now working on his memoir, The Heart of a Marine.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.