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U.S. Marine Tom Smith's Firsthand Account of the Vietnam War

Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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My tour in Vietnam did not get off to an auspicious start. First of all, even though I was a new guy, I was promoted to corporal soon after I arrived in-country in January 1967. I was given command of a three-man 60mm mortar squad in the 3rd Marine Division's Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The problem was that two of the squad members, both draftees, were two years older than I and had been in-country for months as riflemen. Needless to say, they were almost in open rebellion.

Then my first combat outing began with a near disaster. I had been ordered into a heliborne assault in the Go Cong secret zone, 60 miles south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. My first step off the rear ramp of a CH-46 Sea Knight twin-rotor helicopter was prompted by a crew chief's push as I hesitated 4 feet above a deep delta rice paddy with 90 pounds of mortar rounds and gear strapped onto my 120-pound frame. Jumping into the waist-deep mud, I became stuck, giving real meaning to the phrase 'Vietnam quagmire.' While the rest of the team raced to the edge of the landing zone (LZ), out of the exposed area, my section leader trudged out into the LZ, laughing, to pull me out of the mud.

That afternoon I witnessed the firing of the 60mm mortar for the first time. There had been no live ammo in training, and I had only fired the 81mm in the States. We were firing registration rounds at likely avenues of approach around our perimeter. The first round landed OK, but the second got barely 30 feet out of the tube, then nose-dived into the center of the perimeter. Two riflemen were hit, badly enough to be medevaced, but not seriously wounded. The rounds were dated 1952. I guessed some supply sergeant was using up the older stuff before he issued the newer rounds. Captain Don Festa, my company commander, did not allow any more firing of the 60mm mortars during the rest of the operation.

Later, I slipped while crossing a bamboo bridge that spanned a chest-deep stream. All I remember was how cool the water felt and my decision to hold onto the mortar and let go of my M-14 rifle. Luckily, I wasn't carrying the packboard with 90 pounds of ammo and gear–I probably would have been unable to spring the packboard strap in time and would have drowned. A Vietnamese farmer was spotting for us slightly downstream. He saved my rifle and pulled me out. My section leader pulled me up the bank.

My first duty as a squad leader was to attend a briefing for a convoy escort that would travel from Da Nang to Phu Bai. 'If we're hit here,' the staff sergeant said, '1st Squad will jump off the truck and face outboard, 2nd Squad will face inboard.'

'What about mortars?' I asked.

'You fire from the truckbed,' he said.

'Can't do that, Sarge, the recoil off the truckbed will be too much,' I said.

'We'll put sandbags in the back of the six-by' [M-35 truck], he said. I looked at the sergeant's map and noticed that the contour lines were close together, denoting a cliff. 'Sarge, we could start an avalanche and kill us all if we fire mortars here,' I said.

'You're right,' he replied. 'Your mortar squad should jump out of the truck and face outboard along the road with 1st Squad.' The convoy escort was uneventful.

Soon after we moved up to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), I slept through a mortar barrage, only waking up as my squad members Pete Hunter and Jimmy 'Short Round' Shea ran out under fire and dragged me by each arm across the hillside to our mortar pit. 'Nobody can sleep through a mortar attack,' they both said in unison. I explained that I had always been a good sleeper.

Mortarmen do one thing in the infantry better than everybody else–they hump equipment. They carry heavy loads on their backs and go everywhere the riflemen go. The terrain in Vietnam varied from the sand dunes along the coast to foothills inland, to rice paddies in the lush agricultural areas, to the mountains and jungles near the DMZ. I was determined that I would not only hump as much as my men, but more. I carried the sight box on a packboard, as well as several mortar rounds.

One day in March, our lead platoon was just cresting a hill in broad daylight when a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit passed below in a field to their front. We set up our mortars and fired over the hill, directed by the riflemen. The NVA unit was fresh from North Vietnam with no combat experience. After a one-sided fight, we captured several prisoners and much gear, including rocket-propelled grenades, 82mm mortars, AK-47 rifles and machine guns. Helicopters were brought in to extract the prisoners and gear. We strolled over to examine their brand-new mortars.

Captain Festa, who would be awarded the Silver Star for this operation, called in artillery and airstrikes to chase the NVA unit back up north. Then he headed us back toward trucks waiting six miles away. With the sight box and pack attached to my packboard, I carried one of the heaviest loads in the company. My men had expended all their ammo and were traveling light. Several times, Sergeant Eugene Blocker from the 3.5-inch rocket section (a future Silver Star winner) offered to carry my M-14 rifle. He and I trailed the column when we finally reached the trucks. I unstrapped the packboard, and one of my men hoisted it into the back of our six-by truck. Later that night, he said he could hardly lift it onto the truck, and couldn't believe I had humped it the entire distance. I never had any trouble with either of the 'old-timers' again.

Bernard Fall, author of Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, stepped on a Bouncing Betty mine while accompanying Alpha Company during research for a new book. He was 40 years old and well liked by the troops. When he died, he had been talking into a tape recorder, which lay mangled next to his body. A transcript of the tape was printed in his last book, Last Reflections on a War. It ended '…first in the afternoon about 4:30–shadows are lengthening and we've reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad–meaning it's a little bit suspicious….Could be an amb….'

When we tried to medevac his body, a firefight broke out. The call went out, 'Sixtys up! Sixtys up!' Our squad raced up the rice-paddy dike along the column to the front. Each rifleman who carried a 60mm mortar round handed it to us as we passed. We set up to fire our mortar next to Fall and the Marine gunny (gunnery sergeant) who had died with him.

The village was a former Viet Minh stronghold on the 'Street Without Joy,' so named by the French because they lost an entire armored column there some 14 years earlier during the First Indochina War. Engineers were flown in the next day with mine detectors to scan the'street,' no more than a wide rice-paddy dike. They found several mines, and we remained in position overnight, waiting for a general to fly in to inspect the site where Fall had been killed. The following day the engineers scanned the area again and found several more mines in the same place, luckily before the general arrived. These events gave some credence to the grunt joke: What's the best mine detector the Marine Corps has? The Model Pfc, one each.

After three days, I became bored and wandered along a nearby tree line, probing with a makeshift machete. I noticed a perfectly straight crack in the ground, and used the machete to pry a camouflaged lid off a spider trap. I was transfixed by its workmanship–the lid fit perfectly into its slanted wooden frame. The corrugated fasteners holding the corners together were exactly like the ones we used in woodworking shop in high school. The lid was like a deep, flat-tray tomato planter, with vegetation growing on top. It was barely more than a foot square. I thought there might be rice stored in the hole, or perhaps weapons. Never did I suspect there was a Viet Cong (VC) soldier less than 6 inches from my nose. I thought it might be booby-trapped. Something told me, don't lift it up!

I ran around the old pagoda to our gun position, yelling, 'Found a hole! Found a hole!' Later, everybody said I was completely unintelligible. We raced back to the other side of the pagoda with our rifles. The lid was off to the side of the hole, and we heard someone scampering through the tree line.

We all opened up with our M-14s. The riflemen cursed us because we were shooting from the inside of the perimeter out at them. The sound stopped. We raced to the spot in the tree line where the sound was last heard. Even with five Marines searching approximately 5 yards of tree line we could not locate the hole or tunnel into which the VC had escaped. In the spider trap were three M-1 carbines, two 30-round banana clips taped end to end, two 15-round straight clips, a poncho, a soft cover and a flashlight. This find revealed to our company commander that the VC were underneath us, which explained how the mines kept reappearing each day. That afternoon we moved out to an unpopulated area in some sand dunes.

In Vietnam, the troops gave our battles such names as 'The Day Sandy Got It,' 'Phu An' and 'Two July.' On 'Two July,' 1967, our four understrength 125-man rifle companies suffered 84 dead and 190 wounded. We used up our mortar ammo quickly, then moved wounded Marines to the back of the perimeter, hoping to get medevac choppers in. Then the NVA walked their mortars right through our wounded. I held a wounded Navy corpsman and took the battle dressing from his web gear. He was sliced so badly by shrapnel from head to foot that I didn't recognize him, and I couldn't figure out where to apply the bandage that would do any good. He began gurgling. I yelled, 'Breathe, you bastard! Breathe!' Then he died.

The gunny warned us to keep our heads above the dried-up paddy dikes surrounding our perimeter. A machine-gun position was overrun when the NVA snuck up on them under cover of mortar fire. The gunny put our mortar team in that machine-gun position. After the battle of Two July, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was known to other Marine battalions as the 'Walking Dead.'

We spent three days inside a huge, two-battalion perimeter on 'the Strip,' the 500-yard-wide swath through the jungle that reporters called McNamara's Wall. The two battalions were recovering our dead. The first day was full of bitter complaints–about how so many NVA got across the river undetected; about the M-16 rifles that were still unreliable; and about the rumor that high command was more concerned about the NVA taking military payment certificates off Marine bodies to spend on the black market than they were about the Marine deaths. (Never again would the Marine Corps pay its troops in the field the first day of every month.) And the NVA would use the tactic they called 'hugging the belt,' staying so close to American troops in a firefight that the Americans couldn't call in airstrikes or artillery.

On 'Six July,' our battalion–which now consisted of half of Alpha Company and half of Charlie Company (Delta was still at Con Thien, and Bravo was no longer an effective fighting unit)–was assigned to escort four four-man recon patrols north to just below the Ben Hai River so they could see what was out there. We set up our own perimeter while the recon patrols moved north. 'Better dig in,' our new company commander, Captain Al Slater, said. 'We'll only be here a couple hours, but you never know.' Slater, who would win the Navy Cross in this action, was more subdued than before Two July, but his advice was the best we ever got. We set up our mortar in a 500-pound bomb crater, and then the three of us–Shea, Lynch and I–dug slit trenches at the top of the crater walls.

One recon patrol soon radioed in: 'What Marine unit do we have in North Vietnam? They're moving toward us from the northeast in columns of twos, wearing flak jackets and helmets.' None, our commanding officer (CO) radioed back. They were NVA, wearing the gear taken off Marine bodies on Two July. Using map coordinates, we fired a single mortar round toward the enemy unit. The recon patrol called in an adjustment, and then we fired for effect. 'Right on,' they radioed back 'but they're coming on now.'

I saved one mortar round, ready to 'take 10' NVA with direct fire if we were overrun. If this NVA unit was going to take on two battalions of dug-in Marines, it could roll right over our makeshift company. But the NVA were caught by surprise. They were excellent fighters if they could rehearse an ambush or an attack, but they couldn't improvise. American Marines, on the other hand, were brash, cocky teenagers who could think on their feet during a firefight.

We had a two-man rifle team directly to our front, and because we were up over the lip of the crater, we could fire over their heads. A machine-gun position was to our right front.

Since our mortar ammo had been used up, we became riflemen. The two to our front were 'busting caps' (firing full automatic), and we scanned the tree line to our front. I thought I spotted movement in the grass between the riflemen and the machine gun. I pulled the pin on a frag (fragmentation) grenade and stood up to throw. Immediately I was hit in the right calf and dropped the live grenade. 'Fire in the hole!' I yelled, as the grenade exploded just outside our crater. I hadn't been hit; my calf muscle had cramped up when I planted my right leg. Lynch and Shea looked over at me as if to say, 'Stick to mortars, Sarge, stick to mortars.' I thanked God the grenade hadn't dropped inside the bomb crater.

As I lay inside the crater, working out the cramp, enemy 61mm mortar rounds began exploding inside our perimeter. When I looked up after an explosion, I could see the next round coming down. Each time I could follow the rounds back farther, until I spotted a green arm in an NVA mortar pit, dropping rounds into a tube less than 100 yards to our left front. The mortar tube was so close to the perimeter that it couldn't be elevated high enough on its bipods to hit our lines. The rounds exploded harmlessly inside the perimeter. This demonstrated the rigidity of NVA training. We would have removed the bipods altogether and fired free-fire.

I called to the two riflemen in front of us and pointed out the NVA mortarman's position. My plan was for three of us to open up on full automatic at the green arm. Although after taking mathematics courses I now know it would have been all but impossible, I figured we could fire above the tube when the next round came out and cause it to explode. At the count of three we opened up. The mortar fire stopped.

Nightfall came. We had no radio in our crater, but one Marine crawled from hole to hole, passing the word. He would be awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the only medal I ever heard of that was voted upon by one's peers. The spooky light generated by parachute flares covered the perimeter all night. We became the emergency room for a'snuffie' (rifleman) who had been hit in the back and side by mortar shrapnel. His moans kept us on edge, but we knew he would make it if we could get him out by morning.

At one point, an NVA mortar opened up with about 40 rounds directly to our front. An NVA soldier tried to sneak up on our machine-gun position to our right front, but the gunner lobbed a frag grenade onto him. He screamed and moaned the rest of the night. 'Throw a grenade on him and shut him up!' somebody would yell occasionally.

Our runner crawled up to tell us the captain was going to call in airbursts from artillery and naval gunfire. For 20 minutes we dug little caves into the side of our crater. Then the artillery poured in. At first the NVA started talking excitedly, then came cries and moans as the incoming smothered them.

At dawn a bugle sounded. Then a rooster crowed. I argued with Shea about the rooster call. 'I lived next to a chicken farm most of my life, Short Round,' I told him. 'That's no rooster.' Then suddenly we were told to saddle up and move out. The aerial observer reported the NVA were pulling back across the Ben Hai River. He called in artillery on them. The moaning NVA was dead. He was the only dead NVA I saw during the entire battle, although they gave us credit for 200 confirmed NVA dead. I picked up an NVA 61mm mortar round and strapped it into my empty grenade pouch. It's on my mantel today.

As a mortarman, I was amazed at how the NVA could hit us with their mortars by firing for effect with no adjustment round. On a combined operation with Charlie Company, the CO told us to set up at the center edge of an LZ in a dried-up rice paddy near the DMZ. I thought we would be better off in the LZ's corner and told the Charlie Company gunners, but he stayed put. As the squad leader I had final say on where to set up my gun, and we moved to the corner.

When the chopper landed, we received incoming rounds. The second round hit Charlie Company's tube on its yoke. The gunner and assistant gunner flipped slowly up in the air like rag dolls; both men were dead by the time they hit the ground. To set up near where a helicopter would land was clearly asking for trouble.

Later, a snuffie killed an NVA forward observer. In his pack was a hand-drawn map of dry rice paddy squares, labeled A1, A2, B1, B2, etc. All he had to do was wait for the Marines to pass through B3, then call in Bingo Three and fire for effect. From then on, we moved along the edge of the paddies.

While we were dug in on a hilltop near the DMZ, we got a single mortar adjustment round inside our perimeter, which wounded one Marine. Sometime after he was medevaced out, Brig. Gen. Louis Metzger, the assistant division commander of the 3rd Marine Division, landed by chopper to talk with yet another new company commander, Captain John Ryan. His chopper let him and his aide out, then proceeded to circle the hill. As the general and the captain talked, the thump-thump-thump of a mortar tube sounded from the jungle valley below. 'Tubes, sir, tubes!' I screamed, racing up to the captain. In response I got two blank stares, then the captain's look saying, 'Evans, get lost. I'm making points with the general.'

General Metzger dove into our mortar pit. His aide lay outside the hole, taking his flak jacket off and putting it over the general. I remember thinking he was very brave or very stupid. He was the one who needed a flak jacket, since he was outside the hole. The general was cool under fire, not shaking like we always did during mortar, artillery and rocket fire. He mentioned that he had just returned from R&R in Hawaii, and this was a hell of a welcome back.

'Why don't you fire back?' the aide asked. We knew the direction, but in the vast jungle valley the distance was anybody's guess. We fired a round, dropped half a turn, fired a round, dropped half a turn, walking the rounds through the jungle. The NVA mortar stopped! The enemy must have thought we had spotted them, that we would only fire if we had a target. The NVA carried their rounds down the Ho Chi Minh Trail on their backs and would not want to waste any.

Two of my men died while I was a section leader, both at Con Thien. One new guy was killed so soon after he arrived that nobody knew his name. We were sitting along a trench line, cleaning weapons. At first, all three new guys dove into the trench at the sound of artillery, incoming or outgoing. To a veteran, the sound of incoming is as distinct as a drill instructor's marching cadence. To a new guy, there is no distinction. Eventually, one of the new guys steeled himself not to dive into the trench when outgoing was fired. He would flinch, but not move. Suddenly, there was a bang-bang–recoilless rifle fire–and the rest of us dove into the trench. That fire was the worst incoming of all, since it was a direct-fire weapon and the NVA sometimes snuck up to the wire about 100 yards away. The round had hit just above our trench line, slamming into the hillside. The new guy's head was completely gone. The other two new guys vomited into the trench. After a few minutes, I lectured them: 'Follow your instincts. If he had, he might be alive.'

The second Marine killed was a black man from Alabama who we called 'Lightning.' He kept buttoned up at all times, helmet and boots on, flak jacket zipped up to the neck, even at night in the bunker. One day at dusk he got a small shrapnel bruise in his Adam's apple. He wanted to register his wound with the company corpsman, but I told him dusk was an especially bad time to be moving around the hill because the NVA fired their big guns out of North Vietnam from the west, knowing we couldn't spot them in the set-ting sun. We told him that we would verify his wound the next day. (After receiving three Purple Hearts, a Marine rotated home.) Lightning was afraid that the bruise would soon disappear, so he headed out anyway.

A minute later there was a tremendous explosion, an airburst right over the company command post (CP). We ran up there. Captain Ryan (the CO), the executive officer, the company radioman and the company corpsman were all killed. The company runner lay talking calmly. I held him. He asked for a cigarette and asked if he would be OK. Sure, I said. The back of his head was completely gone. Shortly afterward, he died.

We found Lightning in the CP bunker. The others had been outside, filling sandbags. He was sitting on a cot, apparently knocked out. We shook him and checked his pulse. No pulse, yet no sign of any wound. I took off his helmet and held it up to the setting sun. A tiny sunbeam poked through. We searched his scalp and found a needle-sized shrapnel hole. He got his Purple Heart.

After they flew his body out, somebody asked if we had recovered any money off his body. No, we hadn't. We wanted to send the money home to Lightning's mother before the rear support troops discovered it, but we couldn't locate it. For infantrymen, the indignities of combat didn't end with death.

Another Marine we lost was Sergeant Walter Singleton, who won the Medal of Honor posthumously. He was company supply sergeant and had been a machine-gun section leader. He raced by our mortar position in the tough battle for the hedgerow-lined village of Phu An. When Andy Anderson was carried back wounded from his machine gun, Sergeant Singleton raced to the gun and 'took 10.' They found his body surrounded by the bodies of several NVA soldiers. I didn't know him well, but it was a privilege to have met him.

As for Captain Ryan, the CO who was killed by the airburst at Con Thien, I had known him for some time. When I had attended Mass at Camp Carroll one Sunday, another Marine and I tried to warn Captain Ryan about his pew. The church was a tent with the side flaps rolled up, the altar at one end, and benches for pews. The two of us sat at the outside of two pews, close to the trench outside in case incoming artillery interrupted the Mass. Captain Ryan sat right in the center in front of the altar. We explained to him that there was about a two-second difference between his position and ours, which could easily mean his life. He just laughed.

Once an airstrike north of Con Thien landed short and exploded all the mines in the minefield outside the wire. The concussion collapsed several bunkers on that side. One Marine was crushed to death as he slept on a cot and thousands of pounds of sandbags fell onto his chest. Captain Ryan muttered that the Army would have flown in prefab bunkers, then put sandbags on top of them.

When I talked to him about extending my tour six months to get 30 days in Australia, then an early out from the Marines with less than three months to do after I got home, he dissuaded me. You've done your part, he said. Go to college, come back in as an officer. What I couldn't explain even to him was that I felt closer to my men than I did to my own brothers.

After Captain Ryan's death at Con Thien, an event occurred that changed my mind about extending my tour. Two weeks before the end of my tour, one of my men accidentally killed one Marine and wounded another. He raised the gun's elevation but did not add an increment. Our new guys were an engineer, a cook and an embassy guard. We dry-fired every chance we got because they weren't experienced mortarmen.

The gunner and I had to stand in front of the battalion legal officer and give statements about what happened, as well as ideas on how it could be prevented in the future. The major recommended we carry land-line phones and use communications wire to hook up to each gun. I tried to explain to him that a mortar squad might be one Marine carrying the tube (without bipods) with six mortar rounds. The snuffies might carry one mortar round each. But he insisted. I realized that the major had no idea what the war was about in the bush. I decided to go home.

A few nights later we got hit again at Con Thien. We walked our mortars in front of our lines using the adjustment card that came with each ammo box. It was good to get our men firing the mortar again after the accident. Sometimes I had to interpolate distances. 'Touchdown,' now a squad leader, complimented us on how we did our job. I remembered how Touchdown got his name as a snuffie new guy. He ran back into the lines from a listening post one night shouting the password, 'Touchdown! Touchdown!' Now he was in charge.

I wrote to one of the men at Christmastime from the USO at Camp Lejeune and never got a reply. Years later I read that the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, went to Khe Sanh on January 22, and that on February 8, 1st Platoon from Alpha Company was partially overrun at Hill 64 near a rock quarry. Captain Henry J.M. 'Mack' Radcliffe, my fourth and final CO, led a charge across open terrain to rescue the 25 survivors. He received the Silver Star for his bravery.



This article was written by Tom Evans and originally published in the April 1997 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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2 Responses to “U.S. Marine Tom Smith's Firsthand Account of the Vietnam War”


  1. 1
    Lance Schilling says:

    A living Hero! All gave some, some gave ALL. We thank you Tom Smith for serving our great country and allowing people like me and my family to live free because of the brave like you.

  2. 2
    juan says:

    Amazing story. Thank you for your service. You and the other service men and woman



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