MASTER GUNNERY SERGEANT LENNIE P. MILLER, USMC
When asked to write about my career as a Reconnaissance Marine, I contemplated what it was that I wanted to tell. There are so many fond memories and equally as many stories that can be told about that time in my life. I hold dear to me, not only the experience of being a Recon Marine, but with those with whom I had the pleasure to observe and to serve side by side with. But with all stories, there must be a beginning and an end. For the purpose of this writing, I will begin where it all started. Camp Pendleton, California!
I was in Infantry Training School and we were all called to the parade deck to listen to a representative from Reconnaissance School. He was there to locate volunteers for this so-called elite Marine Corps Special Force. I say so-called because we had heard very little about Recon back then. We knew there was such a unit but had very little understanding of what their mission was and how they performed it.
SSgt Robert E. Pinkard was the representative who gave us the presentation. Pinkard had a voice of sand and you had to listen carefully to hear him. He stood impeccably dressed in his heavily starched utilities and began with a 15-minute dissertation on what reconnaissance was and how they worked. I could not help thinking that this sounds like a tough bunch of guys with difficult missions. We learned that Reconnaissance Marines worked behind enemy lines in small teams. We also were told that they went to scuba school and even jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Pinkard told us that many of their missions were covert and that they were the eyes and the ears of the infantry. I found all this interesting but had no desire to do anything other than be an Infantry Marine. The more he said, the less interested I became. My desire to be an Infantry Marine was fueled by the death of my childhood friend, Reavis Montrey, who was killed on November 1, 1965.
Reavis was not a school buddy but a friend who I played baseball against all my life. Reavis was destined to be a Hall of Fame pitcher in the Major Leagues. His record for as long as I can recall was remarkable. He pitched more no-hitters than any kid in St. Louis during his high school years. A fierce competitor all of his life, it made sense that he would join the toughest military organization. It didn’t make sense that he gave up a full-ride scholarship at Missouri University to trade a baseball for a rifle.
When the message of Reavis’ death arrived, I was devastated. I kept thinking, what a waste of talent and human life. After his death, I began to research heavily on Vietnam. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could. I wanted to know all I could about how a guy with so much ability could allow himself to get into such a position to cost him his life and career.
The more that I learned about Vietnam, the more I wanted to go. I wanted very badly to walk in the footsteps of Reavis. The decision came easily as my entire family had once served in the Marines. My Great Grandfather, Grandfather, Uncle’s on both sides and cousin all served as Marines. I had no choice. I would have easily been banished to a life of exile had I enlisted into another branch. In June 1966, I walked into the Marine Corps Recruiting Office and enlisted as an Infantry Marine. I left for boot camp in September of that same year. This was my first step to being an Infantry Marine and going to Vietnam. So here I was standing listening to so guy talking about how being something I never wanted to be in the first place.
As Staff Sergeant Pinkard gave us his pitch, my good friend, Harry Governick came unglued with envy of this Recon thing. Every minute or two Harry would nudge me and say, “Hey Lennie, this shit sounds great. Let’s volunteer!” I would simply reply with a look at Harry, with eyes that could kill. I kept telling him to shut up and let’s just be satisfied with being infantry Marines. But no, that was not good enough for Harry. He had to have more. Harry’s taunting kept up and I kept ignoring his silliness. Eventually, Pinkard was finished with his sales pitch and it was time to answer questions from the Battalion standing there listening. It appeared that the enthusiasm was declining with every question that was being asked. This shit seemed dangerous and not many guys were willing to push the envelope. Except for Harry, that is. Harry’s pursuit of this challenge was not to be denied! Harry and I had met at the Processing Station in St. Louis and signed up on the buddy program. I knew that if Harry was going to do this, he was going to drag me along!!
Finally, Pinkard was at the point where he was having those interested fall in where he outlined an imaginary circle. One, then two, then five and finally he had about 20 Marines willing to take the plunge. This was not enough and so he continued to answer questions. Harry, now in a fever pitch, said he was going with or without me. At that moment, a Marine ask Pinkard what the life expectancy was for a Recon Marine in a “hot landing zone.” Pinkard replied, “The life expectancy for a Recon Marine in a hot landing zone is about 2 minutes and 36 seconds,” he said laughingly. A split second prior to that, I agreed with Harry that we would go together. I made the first step and Harry was behind me to my left. When I heard the question and the answer, I was no more than a few steps from my original spot. I stopped like I had been shot and absolutely froze in stride. I wanted to retreat gracefully and so I turned to find Harry still in place. Staff Sergeant Pinkard had seen my move towards the circle and flagged me to turn back around and go to the circle. I told him that I had changed my mind and he would not allow me the retreat I desperately wanted. Harry was locked in his position and a bulldozer would not have moved him at that moment. So Harry stayed in the grunts and I was forcibly pulled to Recon School at Camp Horno. I didn’t talk to Harry again for 34 years! By the way, Harry spent 3 months in country and was wounded, medically discharged and became an actor in Hollywood.
I finally arrived in DaNang, Vietnam in March of 1967 after enduring the most physical challenge of my life in Recon School. By this time, I was well indoctrinated to the new direction and was ready to take up whatever missions the Marine Corps assigned me. I was assigned to “Bravo Company”, commanded by the infamous Capt King Dixon. Fortunately, for me, I was assigned to the best of the best, “Dunn’s Raiders.” Dunns Raider’s was led by then Capt. John Dunn, a former enlisted Marine who had won a battlefield commission. Under his direction, was Sgt Ray Taylor, who was to be my first patrol leader and I was his new M-60 Machine Gunner. In retrospect, I could not have had any better.
Taylor was from New Jersey and had that Jersey accent. His reputation was renown as a great patrol leader. Ray made me feel at home with my new surroundings and introduced me to the rest of the team, “Bull Rush.” My first impression was that they were a team of rag-tags. One of the first I met was a Marine named Willard Smith. Willard appeared half Chinese and half American. When I met Willard, he was sitting atop a cot crouched like a Vietnamese, smoking a cigarette and holding it in the most awkward manner I had ever seen. He spoke methodical and had extraordinary vocabulary. I could tell he was well educated. The next guy I met was like a big teddy bear. His name, David Gugich. Another man who seemed very well educated and more mature than most. David was always the guy who spoke ethics and talked a lot about the real life issues. The man who made perhaps the greatest impact on me was from New York. Tony Velez was my mentor! In of the first conversations with him he told me in no uncertain term, stick with him, do what he said and I would not only survive, but be as good as they get. Over the next three month, I stuck to Tony like super glue, did what he said and I survived. Whether I lived up to his expectations in the bush, I will never know. I tried to find Tony many years later and couldn’t locate him. In 1996 I found Ray Taylor and discovered that Tony had killed himself after a long on the job injury as a New York policeman. I never got the chance to say, “thanks.”
My time with “Bull Rush” was interrupted after three months when the Battalion was reorganized and many were sent to “Delta” company to fill their ranks. I was one of those to go. I was now considered a Veteran of the bush and so they felt my service would be better served as a machine gunner there. Sgt Taylor and his band of warriors were the best I had ever served with. His leadership and those in the team carried me along way. In many ways, when I became a patrol leader, I fashioned myself after Taylor’s leadership style.
In July 1967, I was assigned to Delta Company, 3rd Platoon (Antifreeze and Melody Time) as their machine gunner. I ended up walking point early on and then back to the gun. I really enjoyed the machine gun. Maybe it was a security issue having a couple thousand rounds of ammo to fight with. I must admit it really got heavy at times!
When I got to “Delta 3”, I was the vet and most of the new blood looked up at me with adoration. Gunnery Sergeant Everett Cannon was the patrol leader. Gunny was a typical country fellow but had tremendous respect for the enemy. He was a careful man and one who enjoyed his men. Our patrols were always well rehearsed to the point we all knew exactly what, when, where and how before we stepped on a chopper. Cannon did not like making contact with Charlie. We were always a team that avoided contact rather than exploit it. Once we were moving up a hill and behind us was a long valley where there was a trail. Our point man observed movement and the Gunny moved us quickly up the slope of the hill, where he stopped us and had us lay flat on our backs while the VC move past us. Originally we thought that it was only about 5-10 VC but as it turned out it was about 75. We laid on the side of the hill with trees between up our crotch so we would not move. It took almost a half hour for them to get by us before we could move. Easily, the Gunny could have engaged the enemy and we probably could have beaten them. But the Gunny decided to let them go and called fixed wing aircraft and artillery in on them. In the end, we killed about 40 of the VC and the others took off to the winds, totally disorganized. The VC never did know where the team was!
My tenure with Delta was a good one. I met many wonderful men and unquestionably some of the greatest warriors in our history. Many of them decorated for their valorous deeds in combat. Names like, Lt. Andy Finlayson, Lt.Peter Badger, Lt. Lenyar Little, Lt. Bill McClusky, Lt. Paul Young and Capt. J.P. Cahill. Each of these men was some of the finest in the battalion. I also had the privilege of serving with Eli Smith, Donald Pack, Danny Thompson (the best point man ever), Bob Hooks, Joe Clark, Pappy, Dan Landry, Bill Smallwood, Bill Rash, John Tepper, John Willis, “Doc” Stomp (best Corpsman ever), Porter, Joshua Israel Butler, Hugh Leighton Turk III, Bob Silvia (shortround), Heads, Glen Ray Hicks, Melvin Riley, Lizinski, Murdoch, Mike Hvranek, Ervin Lovell, Cobb, Faulkner, Phillips, Mike Leonard, Tony Hutchins, Scott Smith, and Skip Bachman (best radio man ever). I cannot recall one patrol where I felt in any danger with these guys around me. I trusted them unconditionally. I knew in my heart that we would all fight to the bitter end if the situation arose.
One of my most vivid memories was when we were on an area reconnaissance during the monsoon season. It rained miserably day and night for days. We were all soaked to the bone, with leeches doing all they could to find a spot anywhere on our bodies. It rained so hard, we could not use a match to burn them off and we had no lighter fluid to put on them. Miserable may be understating the condition! As we set in at night, it continued to rain and so we picked a partner to be with. I picked Joshua Butler, a burly black guy from New Jersey. Josh was our radio operator and he and I put our two shelter halves together and our wet poncho’s inside of the shelter halves. Then we climbed in together like lovers and literally hugged to keep warm. I kept telling him how bad he stunk and he kept worrying about my sexual orientation! I promise I never even tried to kiss him!! Besides, I was married and had absolutely no interest in an interracial relationship. Josh became one of my closest friends on and off the field of battle. I have not seen Josh in all this time since Vietnam. I hope someday we can get together and share some laughs from yesterday.
Perhaps one of the funniest times involved Skip Bachman another of the radio operators. We were on an area reconnaissance mission to blow a small bridge that was being used for a supply route. On the way to the objective, a VC force, much larger than our own, hit us. Instead of staying in a fight, we made contact briefly and began running to where we had safe cover, concealment and the ability to establish a good fight. The terrain did not provide a lot of what we needed, so we kept hitting and running, calling in fixed wing and gun-ships to help deter the VC from aggressing. All that we did was not working. The VC were relentless and so Gunny Cannon decided to get us the hell out of there. We had already been compromised and so the mission was a dead issue. The Gunny called for 46’s to come and get us out but we had to find a landing zone for the choppers. This was when I kept thinking back to Infantry Training School and why Harry froze on me. I kept thinking, “2minutes and 36 seconds!” Shit, this is not the way I am going to die! I refuse to die this way.
We finally located a suitable landing zone and the fixed wing and gun-ships were doing their best to keeping the VC off of us. All of the patrol was engaged with the VC and still trying to manage to get to the LZ. The choppers had begun making their way in under extraordinary conditions and the Marines in the perimeter began loading one at a time, all the while firing. Skip Bachman had his radio in one hand and his M-16 in the other. Skip was burning it up and jumped into the chopper with me right behind him. Once we got aboard the choppers, we discovered that the windows had not been broken out. Shit, it was a brand new CH46! Who in the hell sent us a new chopper and especially did not have the insight to take out the windows. Especially in a combat zone!
Once on the choppers, we busted out the windows and began returning fire to the hostile forces that were all over us. The chopper lifted off as the gun-ships powdered the enemy and we were all firing through the portholes of the chopper. As we flew out of range, Bachman turned towards me and looked at me with amazement. In one move he reached up to his war-belt and pulled out his K-Bar and started cutting away my tiger striped utility pants. I reached down to move his hand and screamed at him to stop cutting my pant leg. He just pushed me away and said I had been shot because I was bleeding through my trousers. I kept screaming at him not to worry about it and stop cutting my trousers. Everything I did, he fought until he had my tiger striped trousers totally cut from my leg. Once the pant was cut away, Bachman finally saw that I had not been shot but fell getting on the chopper and had a bad cut from the threshold of the chopper door! I was pissed off that he had just cut away and ruined a brand new pair of light nylon tiger striped utilities. Skip promised to buy me another pair. He never did! Skip and I got together in 1989 on his birthday for the first time since Vietnam. We got drunk and laughed all night long! We are still friends and talk quite often.
The guys I met in Delta were truly all team players. Everyone wanted to participate in our combat missions. The administrative clerks in the office and supply guys as well. One of the guys who worked in the supply shack was Glen Ray Hicks. Glen was from Oklahoma. Glen was married and wanted to get out on patrol just once. He bugged me all the time about doing something besides being a supply chief. I kept telling him that he needed to do what he was doing and not worry about what anyone would think of his once he got back to the states. This wasn’t good enough for Glen though. He worked his way onto a patrol and was later killed. I was called to identify his body along with John Rizzo!
In the late fall of 1967, I was once again transferred to another company. This time to the new and reorganized “Echo” Company. The necessity for recon’s services, seem to escalate and so we had to form another company. A goodly number of us were sent back to Okinawa to under-go jump school as the Corps was planning to execute some night jumps for it missions. This time I was there to help form the company and worked in the rear for a time and in the communication shack. I was no longer going out on area reconnaissance patrols and my duties were isolated to stationary observation posts. On these patrols we would take 12-15 Marines to a stationary point on a hill and do surveillance for current or future infantry operations. I enjoyed the stationary OP but did not like being a sitting target for 7 days and 6 nights. We were generally well equipped with beans and bullets in the event of a major uprising where we had to fight to defend the hill. It was like being in the Alamo without walls!
Echo Company was led by, Capt. Pete Badger. The Sergeant Major was Maurice Jacques. Jacques was a tough Marines Marine. Tattoos up and down his upper extremity and looked like the kind of guy you would not want to meet in a bar. Hard to the core but he loved his Marines with every ounce of his Marine Corps blood. As it turned out, there was not a Recon Marine in his company that would give his life for Jacques. Anytime we had casualties, you may have well placed a dagger into his heart. He took it bad when we lost a Marine.
The reorganization of Echo Company again robbed the other companies of their talent. But when they did that, arguably they put together one of the finest companies in recon. Echo truly had the best of the best, in not only the Platoon Commanders and Patrol leaders, the most seasoned radio operators, machine gunners and point men as well. Echo Company was prepared to for any mission that was assigned to them.
Staff Sergeant Bill Rash was one of the patrol leaders who lost his life fighting for his country. I knew Bill very well and thought of him as a leader and overall good person. He was not the kind of guy who made notice of his talent. He was the “quiet man” of the Company. In retrospect he reminded me of the Gary Cooper type.
Bill had been scheduled to take a team out to “flip flop” with my team. The mission was southwest of the An Hoa valley. Bill and I spoke about the patrol and felt that it was a good mission and one that had the ability to present some excitement. The mission was to provide intelligence on enemy movement on both sides of our position. There were two long and wide valleys that seemed to fork together. Heavy cover and mountainous terrain outlined the valleys. The hill we were to occupy was where the valley’s separated like a fork so the view was very open. The hill also presented a problem we spoke about and that was the fact that we were very much exposed. Except to the rear of our position where the terrain climbed more than 100 feet in elevation and was all dense forest/jungle. This we felt was an easy route for the VC to take in getting to the hill. Both of us however, felt that we could defend the hill should that occur.
That same evening we both went to the outdoor theatre for a re-run of a movie. I told Bill that I had received my mission order and was leaving the day after tomorrow. We had small talk for a few minutes, settled into the movie and met up later at the club for a hot Ballantines Beer. In between the time the movie was over and I went to the club, a young PFC approached me from H&S Company named Scott Gary Smith. PFC Smith was a supply clerk with H&S Battalion. He walked up to me and asked if I was Sgt Miller from St. Louis? I told him that I was from St. Louis and he asked me what school I graduated from? I replied, “Berkeley High School.” He looked at with amazement and said that he too graduated from Berkeley in 1966. Needless to say, I was taken aback that 15,000 miles from home, I run into a guy who graduated from the same high school.
Scott had told me that he had arrived a short time before and was the supply clerk for H&S. He was not happy that he was in supply and wanted to go out on a patrol with me so he could feel like he had done something besides dish out bean and bullets. He really had a burning desire to serve in the field. By this time, I had run 30 plus patrols and had a fairly good reputation and so coming from the same neighborhood, Smith felt that I would see his point of view and let him go along. I thought for a minute or two and then told him that I would not entertain his request. I explained that if I was to take him with me and we got into a serious firefight and he were to get killed; I would have to go home with that on my conscience. I felt strongly that it was not in his or my best interest no matter how much he wanted to serve. I did offer him an alternative in that I was on my way to the club to meet SSgt Bill Rash who was going on a stationary observation post and was flip flopping with my team. PFC Smith came with me to the club and we got together with Bill Rash. Always the nice guy, Bill offered him a spot on his team. PC Smith was like a kid with a new toy. He was as happy as they get to have the chance to go on a patrol and thanked me every time he saw me for the next day and a half!
Our call sign was “Scandinavia.” The team was 12 men strong and we headed for the objective where we were to remain for 7 days to provide intelligence for the grunts that were soon going to be running an operation.
Our time on the hill was not without incident. On the outer edge of the valley was about an 80-acre clump of jungle mass with heavy cover. In the late evening we sighted what we believed was a tank that had come from out of the tree line and made a couple turns (for no apparent reason) and returned to inside the cover. We had a BC scope and kept monitoring the area where the tank emerged to the edge of the tree line and then back again. I called in to our base “Grim Reaper” and gave them the information we had had on the possibility of the tank. Grim Reaper’s reply was not what we had expected. They said we were “nuts” and no intelligence supported the claim of the VC having tanks in the area. I got the feeling they thought we were smoking dope! None of us were! Grim Reaper kept telling us that we were seeing a Water Buffalo but I know what we were seeing. Even into the night the tank moved in and out as though it knew we knew it was there and were taunting us.
The next morning we called Grim Reaper to again report the sighting and wanted fixed wing to come in and do their thing. Grim Reaper finally conceded that something may be there and so they sent out fixed wing, which we directed and then we followed that up with artillery that virtually leveled everything in it’s path. Needless to say, from our vantage point, we could not see anything that resembled a tank or even a water buffalo. It just didn’t make sense!
The sighting was on the second day of the mission. We were to be there for 7 days but the monsoon season was preventing us from getting off the hill. Each time the choppers would come out, the heavy fog would preclude them from getting in to the Landing Zone. Even if we would get a small hole in the clouds and fog, it would close up as fast as it came. Our food and water supply was limited and so getting off the hill started to be a concern on the 9th day. We ended up being there for 12 days! It got to the point that we were eating anything we could find: old c-rations that were molded and some bugs was all we had. We were out of smokes and so that really mad us cranky.
By the time we were taken off the hill we had been probed by the VC two or three times. It seemed like half hearted attempts to just keep us on our toes. We figured that either they did not have enough troops to mount a serious assault or they were just trying to get us to move off the hill and begin running. Neither was going to happen! If there was to be a fight, we were ready, willing and able. When the choppers came in to pick us up and drop off Staff Sergeant Rash and his crew, there was not enough time to discuss anything. The intelligence reports were enough to alert Bill that we had a sighting and that we were probed. I was hopeful that he would be on his toes. As the crews changed I met Bill and simply shook his hand and gave him the thumbs up. I saw Scott Smith, the young PFC who I hooked up on the patrol. He was grinning from ear to ear. The two crews exchanged position and we went on back to the dry warm area in the rear where we ate everything we could find. It was good to be back!
That evening, we all settled in to read and to write letters back home. About 10:30 p.m. a runner from the communication shack ran into the hooch to tell us that Rash’s crew had just been hit by a large number of VC. Five hours earlier we had left the same battleground and we all looked at each other with enormous concern. I ran to the com shack to hear what was going on and met there the Battalion Commander, Company Commander and Sergeant Major Jacques. Bill Smallwood and I were standing there listening to the fight as it was going on. The Battalion Commander looked at me and asked me what the terrain looked like and I drew him a diagram of the hill and where I thought the attack was coming from. I tried hard in my mind to visualize what was going on there. In the back of my mind was the thought of PFC Smith, who I had sent out with Bill Rash. We monitored the communications for nearly two hours glued to the radio communications. The ensuing battle seemed to be getting worse and not better. Obviously the VC had a sizable force and had done well in their own battle planning well in advance before launching the attack. Sandbag bunkers were the only cover on the hill and so I knew that a fight like this one did not sound good. Especially when you are outnumbered 4-1.
By the time 0100 rolled around, the team was taking a beating. Several were wounded and things looked liked they were going to be overrun. The message traffic was slow to come in and the radio operator tried hard to keep us informed as to who was wounded and who was dead. Finally the message had come in that PFC Smith was a fatality. I was so busy talking on the radio that I could not display any emotion. I think my heart sunk to my feet when his name was decoded. Then as if Smith death wasn’t enough, it came in that Bill Rash had been killed. My disappointment turned to anger then to rage. Sergeant Major Jacques, face burnt red, picked up a chair a flung it across the room and broke it in pieces. “We have to get out there now. We have to get a reactionary force ready to go,” the Sergeant Major said. The Battalion CO concurred and Jacques left to assemble the reactionary force for Echo Company.
At 0430, we were all on the launching pad waiting to go. Everyone wanted to get on the reactionary force. People from every company wanted terribly to be included. We all wanted to get some ass! The choppers arrived and we were off to the hill. We all knew what to anticipate. The hill had been overrun and just how many dead or wounded, we had no idea. The communications had been cut off for the most part!
The Gun ships and the 46’s with the reactionary force arrived to the hill as the daylight hours approached. As we touched down, we made our exit and laid down a perimeter of security while Corpsman attended to the wounded and we began a survey of the damage. The VC had left the hill as though they simply rolled over the Marines position, killing and wounding everything in their path. Sgt John Tepper was the patrol leader with Rash dead. Like everything else on the hill, he was a mess. You could see the anguish in his face and just how exhausted he was. In one of the bunkers was PFC Smith, his body burned with C-4. PFC Henry was shot up badly and later had part of his leg removed. Sgt. Kiester was missing from the hill and was found hiding of the hillside in some bushes and Rash laid dead from a piece of metal from an exploding grenade that was the size of a pin hole in his heart. Bill Rash was trying to put the American Flag up when he was hit. They had position the flag and evidently fell during the fight.
This fight was tough for all of us. It was tough on my team because just hours before we had left that same hill. It was tough because we lost some close friends and fellow Marines. It was tough for me because I had sent a young man who had no reason to go to the field other than for the honor of going!
Echo Company was also a proving ground for young Lieutenants. My team “Scandinavia” was scheduled for another observation post on Hill 425. The mission was to do like all other OP’s and observe any enemy movement. The hill we were atop was accessible from 3 sides only. One side was a sheer cliff for nearly 300 feet to a valley. To the west, opposite of the cliff, was a long finger that went to the high ground. The north and the south were gradual slopes that led to the valley below. On this patrol, I had to break in a new Lt. Named Lenyar Little. He was southern fellow who looked studious, worn the dark birth control glasses and had the appearance of a professor more than that of a Marine.
Our mission on 425 was Lt. Little’s birthday. I could tell he was frightened to be heading on his first patrol. I was the patrol leader and he was my shadow. That is how we broke in the new guys, letting them go out with another seasoned Officer or enlisted patrol leader. On the hill, we had 10 Marines and all combat worthy vets except for Lt. Little. While there, we ended up observing the VC running arms and ammunition from the south to the north on a major travel route. They were smart because they had women and children among them for cover. This presented problems for us, as we could not call artillery in on them or fixed wing. There was absolutely nothing we could do except let them move their goods without interruption. Then we got the idea to go ahead and call in artillery and walk it in on them, hoping that when the rounds began to fall, that the VC would head one way and the civilians would run into a separate direction to get away from the hostile fire. It was a decision made purely on speculation!
I called the artillery battery, “Lung Point Kilo” to do the shooting. We started the artillery rounds away from the VC and civilians at some 200 meters and started walking them in one at a time. We did not want to fire for effect until we knew for certain that the VC and civilians would separate. As the rounds grew closer, the hunch paid off and the civilians did all they could to separate themselves from the VC. We fired for effect and made an idea turn into a successful shoot. Over the next several days we played the same game day in and day out. They never seem to get the hint that we were not going after the civilians. In the seven days, we killed more than 125 VC. However, what we did was piss them off and when they discovered where we were, they came after us with all they could muster.
Just at dark, the VC began penetrating our perimeter with grenades and then small arms fire. We had no idea that they were this close. We did observe a small patrol coming in from the southwest but felt they were a reconnaissance team sent to see how many men we had and the hill and what firepower we had. We were all on alert because of the situation and so the VC made no surprise on our position. As time went on into the evening, the confrontation escalated into a full-blown assault by the VC. We estimated some 15 VC making their best effort to get on top of us. Our position was well fortified though with sandbag bunkers and well made fighting holes so we felt that it would take an assault of far more than 15 VC to pull us from our fighting positions.
The assault on our hill carried on for several hours in what I felt was more probing than an all out push to pull us from our fighting holes. The VC seemed to be disorganized at time, not knowing what kind of firepower to throw at us. I had called for gun-ships and had “Puff the Magic Dragon” to help deter any heavy onslaught from the VC. It seemed to keep them off of us for a time but then they gave us all they had. I had Puff dropping it’s guns to within 15 meters of our position. The gun-ships were giving it their best effort but the attack was beginning to become much more intensified. Then as though somebody called a cease fire, the VC halted their attack on us.
Our thoughts were that the VC had been whipped to submission but we knew better. There seem to be total calm. Our Corpsman Doc Peters, scurried about the hill. Many times in total disregard for his safety, patching up, to the best of his ability, those who were wounded. I felt the need to be extracted as soon as possible, given that we had been compromised, so I called into Grim Reaper for choppers to come and take us from the hill. Lt. Little seemed delighted that we were going to get off the hill and back to our safe little houches.
I made my way around the hill taking a survey of the damages and what resources we had left. Everything except the machine gun position was in place. The gunner and three others were wounded including myself. The spray of shrapnel had hit me in the lower leg and foot. Of coarse when it happened I thought my leg had been blown off! I didn’t even realize that I had been hit for a minute or two and then I felt the pain. I could see the blood but it was not as bad as I was thinking it was. In other words, I was being a big whiner. The blow was enough to knock me down but no enough to keep me there. Shortly thereafter, we heard a moaning coming from about 20 meters outside the bunker where the machine gun had been set up. It sounded like a wounded VC and it sounded as though he was in bad condition. I sat behind the bunker and listened to his groans for about ten minutes hoping they would end but they didn’t. I decided to take L/Cpl Cobb and we would go out and retrieve the wounded VC. Cobb took the M-49 grenade launcher and I had a shotgun. We cautiously worked our way to the VC. We could hear him very clearly but we did not want him to hear us. We also considered this may be a trap and so we were especially careful. Cobb and I finally got to a point where we could see the wounded VC. He was laying face down and we thought for sure he was hiding a grenade or weapon beneath his body. It was dark so we could not see a lot. All we could see is the VC and no weapons. We stopped for a minute and watched him for perhaps 2 minutes and through hand signals decided that he was not worth risking our safety and more than he already had. We began to track backwards and all of a sudden we heard a “thud” on the ground next to our feet. It was a chi-com grenade. Cobb and I could not move. Our feet were frozen! The grenade did not go off. It was a dud!! Needless to say, we praised the Lord for days after that. I bet it took a week for our eyes to get back to their normal size!
Suddenly the VC started another attack. This time they were to the opposite side of the hill and there was no way to defend with artillery because I would have to shoot directly over our heads. Puff and the gun-ships had left because the grunts were taking a beating elsewhere and they had to support them. Fixed wing was sent in for us and so we were limited to artillery and fixed wing. The problem with fixed wing is that they can’t get as close as Puff or gun-ships so I elected to use artillery. As it turned out, we had to shoot in a line from the south to the north, directly over our position. The problem was that if a short round were to hit, it could have taken all of us out.
I discussed briefly the situation with the Lt. In fact, I think I told him what we were going to do and he was not a happy man. He ordered me to withhold doing that and wanted us to use small arms fire to repel the VC’s attack! The Lt. recanted his displeasure when we saw that things were escalating to a point where we could easily be over-run. I was not willing to sacrifice our position and was more willing to kill my own guys than to have the VC kill us. I did not want to give them the satisfaction! I called Lunga Point Kilo, our artillery battery for a fire mission. They could not shoot for us because they were already overwhelmed working with the grunts. I kept thinking that this is bull-shit. We are up here on this hill, getting our asses handed to us and they can’t send us gun-ships, Puff and now artillery! Lunga Point Kilo did give me a frequency for another battery that was operated by the Army. Oh well, you do what you have to do, I thought. I called the battery and the were pleased to help us. I gave them the fire mission and ask them to fire one round of WP for range. The round came in and was about 200 meters out from us. I then began to walk the artillery in on top of the attacking VC. I dropped 50 meters at a time until they rounds were within 50 meters of our position. Each time a round came in over our heads, it felt like you could reach up and snag it with a catchers mit! The Lt. was livid hunkering down in his fighting hole. He kept saying he was going to get killed on his birthday and by his own people! At times, even in combat, people have to have a sense of humor. The Army battery was doing a great job and the VC were being held but now I wanted to get off this hill while we could all still climb on a chopper.
I called for our extraction and was informed once again, they had no choppers available or gun-ships. Now we were really screwed. I called the artillery battery and told them of our situation and that I may need fire for several more hours. They were willing to help us but told me they may be able to get me an Army extraction unit out to get us off the hill. Within a minute or two they gave me a frequency to call and without hesitation, the Army asked my coordinates. They were sending out enough choppers to get us off the hill!
Perhaps a half hour went by and I got the call from the Army pilots. They had 5 Huey’s on the way and two gun-ships as their escort service. As they neared the hill, they asked for the situation and I briefed them. I halted the artillery fire and the next thing I knew, we were watching the gun-ships work the VC over. The lead chopper requested smoke and we popped the designated color. The VC were really giving us all they could give us and the Army gun-ships and Marines on the ground were all fighting giving the VC every bit in return. Under heavy fire, the choppers came in one at a time until we were all off the hill. The gun-ships worked like I had never seen any work in the past. These guys put on a display that was absolutely incredible. The pilots were no more than 23-25 years old.
In November 1968, my time had come to go home. Twenty-one months of Vietnam was enough. I look back in retrospect and I don’t feel that anything I did was any different than that of any the men with whom I served with. There were many who gave their lives for a common cause and many who gave their lives for their fellow man. There are so many stories of valor and so many more stories of absolutely common men who challenged their limits. Reconnaissance Marines, are a special breed of men that few know about. They need not boast of their deeds, nor do they expect recognition and decorations. Recon Marines, as I know them, are as modest about their exploits as they were covert in that time. Recon was a place where the tough were made tougher and a place where the camaraderie is life-long. I miss the closeness of that day. I have not experienced anything like it since and regrettably, will never again. For those of us who returned home, we will all remember those who did not, forever. Their names and their faces are frozen and etched in our memories. Their service and their last devotion of duty should always be that ember that burns forever in our hearts.
Over the past 34 years, my service to the Marine Corps has been a special time. I have loved every minute I have had the privilege to wear this uniform. If I am to be judged for my service, I would like to be judged for my life as a Reconnaissance Marine and no more. It was that time in my life that has left its greatest mark. I hope in some way, I have been a sound advocate of the Vietnam Veteran in these years since Vietnam. I carry the belief that for each of us who served in Vietnam, history will judge us fairly. I also believe that when we close our eyes for the final time, it is the highest authority that will judge our service to our country. To that end, I will end my story with a quote from a speech I did in Vincennes, Indiana in July, 1967 before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall.
“While our fallen comrades have risen to the greater Glory. We who are the survivors of Vietnam, must march in lock step. We must show the world, that our greatest Glory still lies ahead.” MGySgt Lennie Miller, USMC 6/97
Master Gunnery Sergeant
United States Marine Corps
Vietnam March 1967-November 1968
1st Recon Bn, Bravo, Delta and Echo Companies
Master Gunnery Sergeant Lennie Miller's Retirement Articles