Giving Back

Giving back to the nation is a story repeated often in our history. Immigrants arriving on our nation’s shores have always answered the call for military service during periods of national emergency. Frank P. Witek was one of these fine young Americans.

WITEK FP
Frank P. Witek, US Marine

Born in Derby, Connecticut on 10 December 1921, Witek was an American of Polish ancestry. His family relocated to Chicago, Illinois when Frank was nine-years-old and he eventually graduated from Crane Technical School with training as an electrician. Within thirty days of Japan’s attack upon the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Witek enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Following recruit training, Witek was ordered to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for additional training with the Third Marine Division. Now serving as a Browning Automatic Rifleman (BAR man), Witek accompanied the division to New Zealand and underwent pre-deployment training. During the Battle of Bougainville, Frank Witek participated in three separate engagements. Subsequently, the division was withdrawn and ordered to Guadalcanal for rest, recuperation, and refitting.

In July 1944, the 3rd Marine Division invaded Guam.

Medal of Honor

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS FRANK P. WITEK

UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE

for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division, during the Battle of Finegayan at Guam, Marianas, on 3 August 1944. When his rifle platoon was halted by heavy surprise fire from well-camouflaged enemy positions, Private First Class Witek daringly remained standing to fire a full magazine from his automatic weapon at point-blank range into a depression housing Japanese troops, killing eight of the enemy and enabling the greater part of his platoon to take cover. During his platoon’s withdrawal for consolidation of lines, he remained to safeguard a severely wounded comrade, courageously returning the enemy’s fire until the arrival of stretcher bearers and then covering the evacuation by sustained fire as he moved backward toward his own lines. With his platoon again pinned down by a hostile machine-gun, Private First Class Witek, on his own initiative, moved forward boldly ahead of the reinforcing tanks and infantry, alternately throwing hand grenades and firing his weapon as he advanced to within five to ten yards of the enemy position, destroying a hostile machine-gun emplacement and an additional eight Japanese before he, himself, was struck down by an enemy rifleman. His valiant and inspiring action effectively reduced the enemy’s firepower, thereby enabling his platoon to attain its objective, and reflects the highest credit upon Private First Class Witek and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

President of the United States

At the time of his death, Frank Witek was 23 years old.  He gave back to America all that he had to give.

Initially buried at the Army, Navy, Marine Corps cemetery on Guam, PFC Witek’s remains were transferred to the Rock Island National Cemetery in Illinois in 1949.

Wings of Honor

Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN
Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN

This story begins with a young Hospital Man by the name of Gary Norman Young. Gary was attached for duty with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364 (The Purple Foxes), one of the most decorated units in the Vietnam War. Gary was Navy Corpsman volunteer for medical evacuation missions. He knowingly put himself in harm’s way to help save the lives of seriously wounded combat Marines.

He was killed on February 7, 1969 while performing his hallowed life saving duty.

Years later, his daughter realized that her father had never received his combat aircrew wings and she wanted to correct that. She tracked down and contacted the men who served with The Purple Foxes with her father. In 2000, The Purple Foxes held a reunion in San Diego and Stephanie Hanson was invited to be their keynote speaker. During the reunion, Stephanie met the man who survived her father’s fatal crash. She also met the man who pulled his body from the wreckage.  She reminded these brave aviators that her father was still awaiting his aircrew insignia. What was needed, however, was proof that Gary Norman Young had flown the required five combat missions before his death.

In October 2002, Stephanie Hanson’s efforts on behalf of her father came to fruition; the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (Aviation) personally awarded her her father’s Combat Aircrew Wings. She also met the flight surgeon whose duty it was to pronounce her father’s death. He told her that her father’s death was instantaneous —he never suffered in his final moments of life. There was another positive aspect to Stephanie’s efforts: former Marines were able to connect with one another after 33 years.

There is more to the story.

Captain J. J. Harris, USMC
Captain J. J. Harris, USMC

Stephanie Hanson remembered a young helicopter pilot she met as part of her quest to obtain her father’s aircrew wings. The pilot’s name was Jennifer J. Harris, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1996.

On 7 February 2006, Captain Jennifer J. Harris was a pilot with HMM-364. She was accustomed to flying her Sea Knight (CH-46) helicopter into the battlefield to pick up and evacuate wounded Marines. Many of these missions were performed at night. Her final flight was a daylight mission. She volunteered to transport a much-needed supply of blood to a forward location.

Captain Harris didn’t have to fly that mission. She was at the end of her third combat tour of duty,  and Captain Harris was getting ready to rotate back home. But Captain Harris was a Marine and Marines always accept challenges. Marines always run toward the sound of guns —always. Harris argued, “I want to fly one more mission in Iraq … in the daylight.” Captain Harris’ superiors agreed to let her fly.

Her bird was carrying more than blood supplies, however. It was also flying a United States flag in honor of Hospital man Gary Norman Young, United States Navy.

During her final mission, Captain Harris’ helicopter was shot out of the sky by an enemy rocket. Radio communication reflects that Harris maintained her professional demeanor throughout the emergency, but the aircrew was unable to put out the on-board fire, and Captain Harris was unable to prevent the helicopter from crashing into the ground. All six aircrew were killed upon impact … 38 years to the day that Gary Norman Young lost his life as a member of The Purple Foxes.

Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part VI

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC
LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC

I always tried to think about what we were doing in terms of how the enemy would view it: our defensive positions, our offensive tactics, and in our relationship with the civilians who surrounded us. Politeness and courtesy toward village officials, women, and the elderly was very important.  The medical treatment of villagers by our Navy Corpsman paid dividends.

The quality of my Marines was mostly good, although I did have a few knuckleheads —but dealing with these Marines as an older brother always brought them around. As a Sergeant I didn’t have official disciplinary powers, but I could rail at them and also send them away if they failed to abide my rules.  I was also older than the average sergeant. I had already seen a good bit of the world, and I was (and continue to be) an avid reader of military history. I understood insurgencies and how to best counter them. I hoped that my knowledge about the Special Air Service, the Long Range Desert Patrol Group, Popski’s Private Army (Number One Demolition Squadron), or how the Philippines dealt with the Huks in the post WW II Era —all apples and oranges, mind you— might help us in the fulfillment of our mission.

The PFs did a terrific job, particularly considering how poorly they were paid and supplied. They also had a few slackers, but in the main, they were courageous and further, there was no end of tour for them.  If they were in the American military, all of them would have received medals for valor. I continue to wonder what became of these brave men. [1]

By the time that I left in late November of 1967, I thought we’d done pretty well.  No Marines had been killed and all of our wounded survived permanent injury.  We didn’t have to worry about mines and booby traps as the villagers walked the same paths as we did.  We suffered the loss of Trung Si [2] Ti who was the PF leader.  He was much older than I, maybe ten years or more and had served in the French Union Forces.  He had a stack of medals, but was barred from becoming an officer because he had no formal education.  He was murdered while attending a political rally.  It wasn’t a firefight.  It was an assassination. In the instant of Ti’s death, one of the Hamlet chiefs pulled out his .38 caliber revolver and shot the VC bastard square in the eye.  It was a sad day because all admired Trung Si Ti.  He was a tough and proven combat leader.

We organized a memorial ceremony with the RVN flag over his casket.  The Marines took up a collection and we gave his family several hundred dollars.  Not much by U.S. standards, but a fair amount by Vietnamese standards. The government of Vietnam provided damn little support and not one official attended his funeral —another example of lousy leadership by ARVN officers.  For too many, the war in Vietnam was a business; corruption was part of the deal.  Corrupt officials could not see that they were dooming their own future. Not all ARVN officers were this way, but too many were promoted for their personal loyalty rather than for their combat performance. [3]

Given the totality of the war in Vietnam, I have to conclude that the United States of America failed to acquit itself in line with its reputation in previous wars. Our national leadership was abysmal, our diplomats inept, our generals stuck in the middle of previous wars, the colonels more focused on becoming generals themselves rather than fighting a successful war. There are dozens of things the Americans should have done, but never seemed to get around to doing —and the point of this is that had we done things differently, the outcome might have been a happier one for the Vietnamese people, and ourselves. As an example, the importance and worthiness of CAP demanded more than a few weeks of schooling. We should have become proficient in the Vietnamese language, and the people assigned to the CAP should have been of the highest quality military professional. What actually transpired is that when line company commanders were forced to give up Marines to serve in with CAP, they only gave up those whom they would miss the least. Knowing this, many Marines felt as if they were being “shit canned” to the CAP —and no one with any brains can imagine that this attitude was a program enhancement. While many very good Marines were assigned to the program, the quota filler aspect was not a plus.

Considering the money the United States spent in Vietnam, it should have been an overwhelming victory. Seeking out the enemy by thrashing around the jungles and mountains was near idiocy.  Further, we had far too many troops of various services and job specialties in Vietnam that were more hindrance than help.  Alas, there were so many lessons that might have been learned from our mistakes in Vietnam but I feel that we ignored most of these lessons, and as a result, the human cost of subsequent wars has been unacceptably high.

Notes:

[1] Bing West reported that many of the PFs in his village “disappeared” after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. I agonize over this every day.

[2] Trung Si is Vietnamese for Sergeant

[3] My good friend and the author of this blog recently returned from Vietnam; he reported to me that the corruption is worse now than it ever was —only today the stakes are higher; as China menaces Vietnam, Vietnamese leadership grovels at the feet of China’s leaders. They enrich themselves at the cost of national autonomy.

Blog Owner’s Post Script: Staff Sergeant Curtis relinquished his command on 22 November 1967. His time in Vietnam, both in an infantry platoon and Combined Action Platoon had a dramatic effect on him. Shortly after returning to the United States, Curtis was ordered to Officer’s Candidate School and subsequently received his commissioned to Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Colonel Tad Curtis retired from active duty with eight years in the enlisted grades and twenty-four years as an officer—serving thirty-two years of honorable active duty service. In spite of many personal decorations, Curtis is proudest of his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal —it is only awarded to enlisted Marines.

Combined Action Platoon (CAP), Vietnam —Part V

By Lieutenant Colonel William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired)

Around June or July 1967, our CAP had a new Corpsman report in.  He was a young fresh-faced kid from the Middle West.

Naturally, I welcomed him and let him know how important he was to all of us.

Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967
Cover of Life Magazine August 25, 1967

I asked him about his history and somewhat shame faced he told me that he had been in college but his grades were not so hot and the Draft was breathing down his neck.

He knew if he was drafted into the Army that he’d surely be an infantryman and sent right to Vietnam.  So, cleverly (he thought) he enlisted in the Navy.  After finishing recruit training, he received orders to Hospital Corps School.  He asked a Chief Petty Officer what that was.  The Chief replied it was a good deal.  You were trained to assist nurses and would be assigned to a nice big hospital somewhere.  No worries, eh?

After finishing that school, he received orders to report to the Field Medical Service School at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, CA.

He wondered, “What was that?” Then he found out that he’d be serving with the Marines.

THE MARINES!

Arriving in Vietnam, he was assigned to the Combined Action Platoon —a very small unit serving in the middle of Indian Territory and a very long way from rapid reinforcement or extraction. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units had overrun many of the isolated CAPs. It was, on the best day, an iffy assignment.

So, here he was, our “Doc,” the clever lad who wanted to avoid the Army infantry, stuck amongst a small group of Marine infantry in the very unfriendly boondocks.

As the day wore on I received radio instructions to establish an ambush site at specific grid coordinates.  This was very unusual.  I had never had that happen before. Further, a machine gun team from an adjacent infantry battalion arrived to augment our small platoon.

I made repeated inquiries to my superiors by radio to clarify our mission, but no clarification was forthcoming and it remains a mystery to me to this very day. I gathered my Marines and let them know what little I knew and elected to go with a bit larger number of troops for the pending mysterious mission.

I informed the “Doc” that he would accompany us —to see first hand what is was that we did for a living.

We departed our compound around mid-afternoon. We had a long way to go and in order to disguise our true destination we meandered through the countryside. In this way, no observer would be able to figure out the location of our ultimate ambush site. When it got completely dark, we pushed up to the intersection of an old French dam and the Cau Hai Bay.  The damn kept salt water out of the rice paddies on the other side.  The damn was pretty low and there was no water behind it —just dry rice paddies.

I set the Marines into their positions; we were without any cover or concealment —there was only short grass and darkness.

ExplosionWe waited.

And then…

Precisely at 2000 [1], fours rounds of 155mm came crashing in.  Two landed in the dry paddies and two in the bay. Hugging the ground, we heard the shrapnel zinging through the air just overhead.

Then it was quiet.  I got on the radio and informed “Tiger” (our overlords at Phu Bai) what had just occurred; they patched me to “Hershey Bar” (the fire control coordinator at an adjacent artillery regiment).  They claimed they didn’t know anything about it.

This occurred two more times —and exactly on the hour.  By this time I was furious because since Phu Bai was higher in elevation than we were, I could observe the flash of the guns as they let loose their barrage. I was swearing on the radio.

This was obviously a major screw up and after three attempts to kill us the lanyard snappers finally gave up. We remained in position for the rest of the night because I had no intention of taking my Marines back through a series of hamlets in the pitch black of night.

As the dawn broke, we saddled up and began our long trek back.

At some point the Corpsman asked if that sort of thing happened often.  Oh, sure, said I.  His facial expression was no longer one of a carefree lad. I didn’t let him suffer too long.  I told him the truth.  He was somewhat relieved —but he was still looking at thirteen months ahead of him in his Vietnam tour.

Aside:  Someone at Phu Bai learned out about the artillery firing Harassment & Interdiction (H&I) fires right on our position and the result of this was that the Artillery Regiment Executive Officer, along with a Master Gunnery Sergeant came out to investigate what happened. They wanted to do a crater analysis with the goal (I supposed) of putting someone in jail or something. The artillery team had no security and wanted us to escort them back out to the site.

I was able to talk him out of it.  We were mega tired, it was a long way out there, and beyond this, there was plenty of enemy around (which may not have been true given the time of the day). The colonel took our statements and departed back to the safety of Phu Bai. I never heard anymore about it.

The sad truth of warfare is that too many friendly forces are killed or wounded due to errors or blatant stupidity —or failure to coordinate.

A few months later I was able to read “Doc’s” promotion warrant to Hospitalman Third; he turned out to be a solid gent and ended up doing plenty of good work taking care of a large number of villagers with all sorts of maladies.  But, that is another story.

Continued next week—

Notes:

[1] On a 24-hour clock, eight o’clock pm.