Tom Creek was born on April 7, 1950, in Joplin, Missouri. He was the second of the three sons of Ross and Bobbie Creek, and with brothers Ross Jr. and Roy grew up in a struggling family that did not rise above poverty during Tom’s lifetime. Bobbie Creek had her three sons by the time she was 19, and the strain of her youth added to the family’s economic turmoil. Nonetheless, the struggles that accompanied Tom’s short life seem to have only magnified the sound qualities in his character. These qualities would come to bear during the Vietnam War, when Tom became one of only 57 Marines to receive the Medal of Honor.
Tom and his family left the Midwest for Amarillo, Texas, to be near Tom’s grandparents and extended family. The friends Tom made in Amarillo have described him as cool and courageous, a “Steve McQueen type guy.” In his youngest years, this courage was exhibited in a youthful brashness that occasionally landed him in trouble. In the military, however, it was transformed into bravery that he revealed in a selfless display of brotherhood for his fellow Marines.
For a time, Ross Creek Sr. traded driving a truck for roofing homes and businesses in the Amarillo area: Tom and Ross Jr. did the roofing, their father did the scheduling. While roofing the barracks at the Amarillo airbase in the mid-1960s, Ross Jr. slipped and began sliding toward what would have been serious injury at the least, and could easily have been death. Just as he reached the edge of the roof, however, Tom reached out and grabbed his brother, pulling him to safety.
With his brother safe, Tom simply continued roofing the building as if nothing had happened. According to Ross Jr.: “It was nothing to him—it was just like he was helping me. He didn’t even appear to have thought about it. He just grabbed me in a split second.”
At various times Tom drove an ice cream truck, pumped gas and did restaurant work. His last job prior to entering the U.S, Marine Corps was at a Denny’s restaurant on Route 66 in Amarillo. It was while he worked there that Tom bought his first and only car, a black and white four-door Ford Fairlane. Because of his hard work, Tom was able to pay for the entire car with just two payments. He was proud of his car and in his spare time Tom would take it to Thompson Park, a public park in Amarillo, and shine it from bumper to bumper. Meanwhile, as Tom grew up in Texas, the war in Vietnam began to rage.
When Tom dropped out of Palo Duro High School as a junior and joined the Marines, he was one of many who quit school in order to join the service. In January 1968, Tom reported to Marine boot camp and, while still there, he began writing letters home trying to discourage his brother Roy from joining him in the service. Roy dreamed of following in Tom’s footsteps, but, being ever protective, Tom did not want Roy to see war up close. In a letter dated January 19, Tom wrote: “Dad, tell Roy to be careful and stay out of the USMC. It’s bad. I don’t like it like I thought I would.” Only a day later Tom wrote: “I wish now I’d stayed home. But I like it as much as the rest of the guys.”
Tom completed his recruit training with the 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in March 1968. He then received Individual Combat Training with Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Training Regiment, at Camp Pendleton in April, and Basic Infantry Training with Rifle Training Company, Basic Infantry Training Battalion, 2nd Infantry Training Regiment in May. He was promoted to private first class on June 1.
Tom arrived in Vietnam on July 4, 1968, as a rifleman with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines, Regimental Landing Team 27, 1st Marine Division. Once he actually began taking part in the war, his pleas to keep Roy out of the Marines were only intensified. In the fall of 1968, Tom wrote: “I can’t hear out of my right ear at all because of this damn place…I have scares [sic] all over my face from bombs and gun powder & I look like I’m 40 years old. I smoke 3 packs of cigerrets [sic] a day because my nerves is so shot I can’t even hold a cup in my hand.” In another letter to Roy, also from the fall of 1968, Tom wrote: “I’m not telling you a bunch of shit. This place is hell. Please for God sacks [sic] please whait [sic] until I get home & see mee [sic] before you make the mistake of your life.”
Tom’s warnings for Roy were interspersed with the many letters of encouragement he wrote to his mother and father. On June 25, he wrote: “Mother, don’t cry anymore. I’ll come back home, okay? Just don’t worry about me. I sure love you and daddy and I don’t want you to cry for me all the time. I think about you all the time.”
In the letters Tom sent to his mother, he also shared everything from the happy news of his scheduled baptism, to his childlike hunger for ice cream. He told her that when he came home he planned to eat “ice cream every day and night.”
In some ways Tom was simultaneously a boy and a man; he longed for ice cream and remained determined to kill his enemies in Vietnam. Thus he earned the nickname “Billy the Kid” from his fellow Marines in Vietnam— because he was so young, yet had killed so many people. In other ways Tom was all man. The boy who had gotten into trouble from time to time while a youth in Amarillo was now the Marine of whom his platoon leader said: “Tom was proud to be a Marine. He always did his job, there was never any problem….He had an unblemished record.”
Tom performed his duties so well in Vietnam that in September 1968, he was assigned as fire team leader with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, and on November 1 he was promoted to lance corporal. He was also considered for the position of squad leader only six months into his tour. That prospect weighed heavily on him: “I may be squad leader before long,” he wrote home. “I sure hope not. That’s a real bad job to take [responsibility] of all those guy’s lives.” As much as Tom wanted to do well in Vietnam, he knew that the better he did the more exposure there would be to danger for both himself and the men he fought beside.
The horrific cost that could befall a squad leader became deeply ingrained in Tom’s mind during the last week of January 1969, when he wrote to his father that he had spent part of a day retrieving the bodies of some fellow Marines who had been killed in an ambush. Just as Tom had spent the previous six months worrying more about his brothers than himself and trying to convince them to stay away from Vietnam, in early 1969 he concerned himself more with the safety of his fellow Marines than his own advancement.
On Friday, February 13, Tom volunteered to be one of six Marines who would ride with and provide protection for a convoy that was to take supplies to Vandegrift Combat Base via the notoriously dangerous Route 9. There was not a Marine in the convoy with whom Tom was familiar; he simply volunteered for the job because he knew that the supplies—food, medicine and ammunition—had to be delivered for U.S. military personnel fighting farther north.
Each of the six Marines who volunteered had his own truck. Tom was in the lead when the convoy was ambushed near the Cam Lo Resettlement Village. Enemy bullets and mortars began raining down as Tom jumped out of his vehicle to take a position from which he could return fire. The other five Marines stayed behind with the trucks.
Tom took a bullet to the neck, turned, and began running back in the direction of the convoy. While he ran, with blood pouring from his wound, an enemy grenade landed near the trucks. What followed was simultaneously a typical reaction as well as the greatest action in Tom’s life.
Just as he had locked eyes with his brother Ross when he was slipping off the roof of the barracks back in Amarillo, so now Tom locked eyes with Marine Sergeant Gene McPherson, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the convoy detail. And just as Tom had saved Ross from falling at the last minute, so too he now saved McPherson and the other four Marines from certain death with no time to spare.
McPherson remembered the second when Tom looked at him eye to eye from a distance and yelled out, “I’ve got it, Mac!” as he dove on top of the enemy grenade. There was a great flash, as Tom’s body rose with the explosion and then fell dead to the ground. McPherson and the rest of the Marines in the convoy drew courage from what Tom had done and, as his Medal of Honor citation stated, “were inspired to such aggressive action that the enemy was defeated and the convoy was able to continue its vital mission.”
Tom was only months away from his 19th birthday when he gallantly gave his life for his country. The concern and affection he had for his brothers at home had once and for all been matched by the commitment and fraternity he had come to share with his fellow Marines. All were Tom’s family, his blood brothers.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.