Recruit Corky Foster hiked over 400 miles to demonstrate his conviction that the Vietnam War was worth fighting.
“To defend these people from VC and the NVA is right and just. To give them the opportunity to form a democracy is worthwhile. Though our efforts are often clumsy, Americans are doing those two things. I want to be a part of this effort. I want to join those Americans who are daily sacrificing to achieve those aims.”
—Julius “Corky” Foster, personal notes, Feb. 8, 1968
You may not recognize his face or his name, but after you hear his story you may never forget him. Julius Cartwright Foster was a Marine lance corporal who lived and died defending the principles that all people have the right to freedom of choice and self-determination.
In 1967, at age 28, Julius, called “Corky” by family and friends, felt Americans weren’t concerned enough about the efforts and sacrifices being made by the U.S. military to help the Vietnamese people fight communism. He decided to do something that would make people sit up and take notice.
On Aug. 27, 1967, Corky left his grandfather’s home in the coal-mining region of Welch, West Virginia, and hiked toward the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Corky had already served in the Marines in a multiyear reserve program and received an honorable discharge in February 1967, just three months before graduating from the University of West Virginia. By summer, he was itching to go to Camp Lejeune and reenlist. Before he left home, Corky had already completed the necessary physical and mental tests to put on a Marine uniform again.
Corky walked more than 400 miles on a difficult 31-day trek to Camp Lejeune—an attention-getting maneuver he would use to “emphasize the effort being made by other Americans fighting in Vietnam and to show that the American people and college graduates wanted to bring the war to a successful and honorable close,” reported the Charleston Gazette, a West Virginia newspaper, on Aug. 29, 1967.
Corky kept a daily journal in a little black book he stored in his back pocket. He wrote entries at the end of most days, even though sometimes he struggled in the dark to see and was fatigued from miles of walking with a 38-pound knapsack on his back.
Corky walked an average of 17-20 miles a day in heavy boots, and by the end of the first day, painful blisters surfaced on his feet and between his toes. Problems with blisters plagued Corky during the entire hike and continued to haunt him even after reaching Camp Lejeune and during his eventual deployment to the Khe Sanh Marine combat base in Vietnam.
In his journal, Corky documented his route, people he met and the number of miles he walked. He also commented about well-wishers and travelers he met along the way. He frequently documented what he ate and the company he kept during meals. It is no surprise that Corky also wrote often about the blisters on his toes and feet and his constant need to treat them. Imagine walking a mile with painful blisters on your feet. Then imagine walking 20 miles a day for 30 days with blisters on your feet. Most of us would simply give up. Not Corky. His convictions and willpower were robust, and his spirited desire to make a statement about the Vietnam War kept him moving forward.
Most nights Corky slept in the woods near interstate highways or on the side of roads he happened to be on at the end of the day. Mosquitoes were a constant annoyance. Although people offered him shelter, his goal was to stay outdoors. Occasionally he slept on a hammock provided by a supporter or friend. Many people offered him food and drinks, which he sometimes accepted. Based on journal entries, Corky loved ham sandwiches, candy bars and Tang, the powdered orange drink popular in the 1960s.
Corky stopped at restaurants or ate food from his pack after settling in for the night in the woods. Whenever the opportunity arose, he washed and dried his socks and occasionally accepted offers to wash up or take a shower in someone’s home. He often stopped at gas stations to use bathrooms.
At first Corky didn’t get much attention from onlookers. However, as days turned into weeks, his photo and story appeared more frequently in newspapers and on radio and television. His fame grew, and more people recognized him. Most spectators gave encouragement, waving vigorously as they passed in cars, trucks and on motorcycles.
Some people stopped to take photos, shake his hand or pat him on the back and wish him luck. One truck driver stopped and told him, “We need men like you.” That truck driver had spent five months as a prisoner of war in a POW camp in Korea. Others had no apparent interest, and some even showed disdain.
Corky’s journal is filled with interesting comments and observations.
On Aug. 29, 1967, he was “Up at about 9:20 am, hung sleeping bag on a line, washed socks, got some water. Rinsed socks, ate lunch and wrote in journal. Made an observation: What is the reaction of people passing by? Young boys have a look of curiosity & just a hint of admiration. Sharp girls in their sporty cars look as if they are saying, ‘What kind of goof is that?’ The upper class young marrieds & middle aged with their nice clothes & suntans – late model cars – look startled as if to ask, ‘What in the world is that?’ The lower class in old cars and simple clothes look at me as if they know the way is steep and the load is heavy.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 12, 1967, he observed a young woman riding a motorcycle, all bundled up with luggage and a guitar strapped to her bike. She pointed at Corky with her gloved hand before he realized it was a girl. He surmised she was headed for school and recorded, “A kindred spirit, each seeking education & self understanding but in two ancient institutions, school and war.”
On another occasion Corky wrote that people in Cadillac and Lincoln automobiles never blew their horns or waved and rarely looked at him. He was also “caught off guard” when a man with two or three others in the car saluted. He also comically noted, “The next time a woman riding with a man stares at me with sort of a smirk, I am going to wink at her.”
Journal comments from September 18 provided a little insight into human nature. “Shaved at an old Esso station. Lunch in a little neighborhood restaurant. You don’t get quick service when you walk in with a big orange backpack & smell bad. I don’t guess you get good service when you smell bad. Period.”
As he marched closer to Camp Lejeune, residents came out of their homes to greet him. Some asked for his autograph and several wanted to take his photograph or be photographed with him. One woman said, “Glad to see somebody with some guts.” Interestingly, when he was very close to Camp Lejeune he saw lots of Marines in cars leaving the base for the weekend. Several Marines waved and a few stopped to speak with him. Not surprisingly, their main questions were “Why was I walking, what was I trying to prove.”
Corky was not shy, and he regularly telephoned the media from pay phones to say where he was or where he would be when he reached their area, in case they wanted an interview. He was determined to have his message heard. However, he was not a glory hound. When he reached Camp Lejeune on day 31, Corky was encouraged by commanding officers to consider enrollment in Officer Candidates School. Nevertheless, Corky refused the offer. He wanted to be on the front lines and in the action and hopefully have the opportunity to converse with citizens of Vietnam. He requested immediate assignment to Vietnam.
Deployment to Vietnam
Corky arrived in Vietnam on Dec. 3, 1967, and was assigned to a Marine combat base across Highway 1 near Phu Bai, south of Hue in central Vietnam. While at Phu Bai, he spent most of his time running patrols and ambushes outside the perimeter of the base. According to Corky, they literally lived in the bush. “We would be out 2 or 3 days, return the morning of the third day by truck or foot, eat one hot meal, get three days C-rations and go back out in the afternoon.”
The weather was always cold and rainy, and a night when it did not rain was considered a good night. He wrote, “Being in an ambush over here is like sitting in a southwest Virginia pasture on a rainy Autumn night. You sit upright staring into the darkness of your fire zone, trying to stay awake, with the sleeping poncho covered forms of other two or three people in your position lying close by. There are usually two or three other such positions, called ‘holes’ behind and beside you making up an ambush site. We rarely dug an actual hole.”
Corky remained at Phu Bai until Jan. 16, 1968, when he was reassigned to the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh, in northwest South Vietnam near the Laotian border. Khe Sanh was just south of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. Skirmishes for “hills” in this region began in April 1967 and gradually escalated into major combat confrontations.
The battle of Khe Sanh, also called the siege of Khe Sanh, began in earnest on Jan. 21, 1968, when the American garrison came under heavy rocket and artillery attacks by the North Vietnamese Army. One of the first enemy shells fired blew up the base ammo dump. Corky recalled that the rocket “exploded most of the ammo, littering the runway with shrapnel.” For the next 77 days, Marines and North Vietnamese fought ferocious battles on and around the hills of Khe Sanh, proving to be one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the war.
It is now known that the attack on Khe Sanh was a precursor to the massive Viet Cong and NVA offensive launched throughout South Vietnam on Jan. 30,1968, during Tet, the annual celebration of the lunar New Year. During the Tet Offensive over 100 towns and cities, including provincial capitals, were attacked by more than 80,000 Communist troops. While this coordinated surprise attack was underway, American commanders decided that Khe Sanh could and would continue to be defended with air support and military supplies even if fighting was fierce and losses high.
Corky wrote home about the Tet Offensive: “Many units were overrun. Saigon and Da Nang were hit and Hue, about 20 miles from Phu Bai was occupied by the NVA.” He and the other Khe Sanh Marines heard news about the Tet Offensive from a press conference held by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, head of the U.S Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which oversaw all U.S. combat forces inside the country. During the press conference Westmoreland said little about Khe Sanh, and Corky rightly presumed, “There is more to come.”
Corky also reported “Some people here say it is an all out effort by the NVA to give them a stronger position at the bargaining table. I think it is a little too early for that. We are hurting them bad, but we have been for some time and they still keep coming.” History would confirm Corky and others at Khe Sanh were also right on
Recognized as a talented leader, Corky was assigned as point man for his platoon as the men moved through dense enemy-infested territory near the base. Corky’s problem with blisters on his feet quickly re-emerged and he required medical assistance for severe blisters due to ill-fitting boots. He hesitantly left his battalion when ordered to Da Nang for medical treatment because a doctor told him that if he didn’t receive immediate treatment his feet might be permanently damaged. Corky was given a pair of properly fitting boots while in Da Nang.
Corky telephoned his parents from a hospital bed in Da Nang on Feb. 18, 1968, just before returning to Khe Sanh. He told his parents he was anxious to “Get back out with my platoon. I feel so idle here in the rear with my platoon seeing action.”
That was the last time Corky would talk with his parents. He was killed at Khe Sanh four days later during shelling of American positions in the early evening hours of Feb. 22, 1968.
A Western Union telegram sent to Corky’s parents in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Feb. 27, 1968, stated: “He sustained fragmentation wounds to the head and body from hostile mortar fire while in a defensive position.” Research by Gregg Jones, author of the book The Last Stand At Khe Sanh, revealed the NVA projectile that killed Corky screeched in from the west at about 5:30 p.m. and landed in a narrow trench line that he and others were defending near the Khe Sanh airstrip.
Six Americans including Corky were killed in the trench, and nine other Marines were wounded when their defensive positions were hit by the mortar round. On the days and months leading up to this ill-fated event artillery bombardment remained a constant ordeal. On some days there were few shells, on other days many. New evidence suggests that the NVA prepared carefully for its mortar fire, setting up four observation posts to spot the impact of shells on the Marines.
Gone but not forgotten
Corky and his courageous ethics and principles have not been forgotten. If you visit Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, you will find four monuments within Monument Circle at the old Camp Geiger section of the base. The inscription on one reads: “Lance Corporal Julius C. Foster (1938-1968). Lance Corporal Foster, a member of Company E, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, 3d Marine Division, was killed on 22 February 1968 by hostile mortar fire during the battle for Khe Sanh, Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam.”
There was also a road in the old section of the base named after him, Foster Boulevard. Both the monument and road were dedicated on May 26, 1969.
In West Virginia, the town of Welch honored its native son by renaming a bridge over the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River on Aug. 16, 2015. The span is now called the USMC Julius C. Foster Memorial Bridge. At nearby French Gratitude Park, a stone monument dedicated on the same day honors Corky’s life and dedication to the Marine Corps, his country and freedom.
Mark Mathosian is a freelance writer in Advance, North Carolina.