Hard Days, Hard Nights

An excerpt: Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam by Marion F. Sturkey [1]

HMM-265 0011966

“When the Marines charged into Helicopter Valley, their world changed forever. For the helicopter crews, days became a nonstop ballet of troop lifts, strikes and assaults, Recon inserts, resupply missions, and medevac flights to recover the dead and wounded. Nights were a time to regroup, rest, service the helicopters, and prepare for the next day of combat flying. For the Marines who battled the NVA, the world ceased to exist beyond the confines of northern One Corps, the northernmost military region of Vietnam …

“Near the DMZ on July 24, the Grunts began a two-day assault on Hill 362. The NVA and the Marine Grunts fought savagely and brutally on the steep promontory on the northeastern slop of Don Ha Mountain about five miles west of Cam Lo. During the struggle, a young Lance Corporal, Richard A. Pittman[2], earned his place in Marine Corps history books. After being driven off the hill, the NVA pulled back to regroup. The larger NVA units melted away toward the DMZ to the north or into wild and inaccessible jungle to the west.

“Now the Marine Command concentrated on locating and eliminating the smaller enemy units left behind. For the helicopter crews the daily routine changed little. Our H-46 was a flying truck, and we used it to keep the Grunts supplied with the necessities of warfare. The days rolled by and the only things that changed were the LZ coordinates. On paper, Operation Hastings officially ended on August 3, 1966. The North Vietnamese 324-B Division had been bloodied and thwarted by the surprise Marine offensive.

“However, ominous intelligence revealed that two more NVA divisions, the 304th and the 341st were massing on the edge of the DMZ. So as Operation Hastings ended, Task Force Delta set into motion a new plan that very day: Operation Prairie. In fact, nothing had changed except the name.

“I started keeping a diary in a hardbound Federal Supply Service ledger-book. This practice was officially forbidden, since any diaries that might fall into NVA hands could provide the enemy with valuable intelligence. Still, the prohibition was unofficially overlooked, so I took pen in hand and made my first rambling diary entry:

“5 August 1966, Friday: Very little activity today; most of our few hops were test hops. I got Huey Walsh to sign for all of the tools in the metal & Hydraulics shops. Captain Dooley took custody of the TBA gear …

“From somewhere in my schoolboy background, I had always remembered the infamous retort of Adolf Hitler: “Who says I am not under the special protection of God?” As for myself, I had never believed that I enjoyed Divine Protection. Still, I naively considered myself to be immune to the perils of warfare. Youth and ignorance usually walk hand-in-hand. However, perhaps I simply placed innocent faith in the spiritual assurance found in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 91, verses 5 through 7:

“(5) Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; (6) Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor the destruction that wasteth at noonday. (7) A thousand shall fall at thy side, and then thousand at they right hand; but it shall not come nigh to thee.

CH-46 001“Not having clairvoyant power, I had no way to know that I would only get to make one more handwritten entry in my new diary. The Odds, every civil or military pilot’s nemesis, were about to catch up with me. My good luck was about to run out. I had no way to know it in advance, but I would draw a frag for an emergency night medevac into Razorback Valley on August 8. It would prove to be the longest night in my life.”

Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam is an exciting chronicle of the Vietnam War, and one I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of America’s engagement in the Vietnam War. You can order this book through a reputable bookseller.

 

Notes:

[1] Marion Sturkey enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1961, receiving his boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina. Three years later, the Marine Corps selected Corporal Sturkey for flight training and subsequently was designated a Naval Aviator in April 1965. His first assignment led him to HMM-265, the first Marine Corps squadron to fly the new Boeing H-46 helicopters. In May 1966, the Bonnie Sue Squadron arrived in Vietnam.

[2] (Then) Lance Corporal Richard A. Pittman received the MEDAL OF HONOR for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Company I, Third Battalion, 5th Marines.

A Clash of Prey

Bengal Tiger 004The Bengal Tiger is a denizen of Southeast Asia. A full sized specimen may grow to ten feet, as measured from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, and weigh anywhere between 400 and 600 pounds. Always a danger to the local population, past Vietnamese have attempted to poison, capture, and kill the animal. Today, the Vietnamese government protects the Bengal Tiger; wildlife experts estimate that about 3,000 of these animals roam the jungles of the Northern Highlands of Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai provinces in what was once the Republic of Vietnam.

Tigers are territorial, with some males prowling 200 square miles of jungle, grassland, swamp, or a combination of these. Its mainstay includes deer, wild pigs, buffalo, domesticated cattle, and unfortunate human beings. Hunting its prey, the Bengal Tiger is absolutely quiet, and when within striking distance, it strikes suddenly and powerfully. The goal is to immobilize its prey as quickly as possible. It will do this by pouncing on the hapless animal, pin it down, and using its powerful jaws, rip out the throat. A Bengal Tiger can drag a prey weighing several hundred pounds 1,500 feet to hide the dead animal in bushes or tall grass.

When the violence of war came to South Vietnam in 1965, the animals living in the Northern Highlands began looking around for some place a bit quieter—somewhere less lethal, away from American artillery and Marines, who were also looking for a prey of their own choosing. This left the Bengal Tiger with a reduced menu; now they only had a few deer to eat, and humans. Some of these wore the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

There are several accounts of unhappy contact between the famed Bengal Tiger in Vietnam and Marines operating within in I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (spoken as “One Corps”). I have read that some people discount these anecdotes as “sea stories,” which given the inclination of Marines to tell tall tales, might be easy to accept —were it not for first hand testimony and press reports that validate such attacks. We know tigers made several attacks. We know of two Marines killed and partially consumed by Bengal Tigers: Private First Class Frank Baldino (1968), and Sergeant Robert C. Phleger (1970). Marine Corps legend Colonel John C. Ripley (now deceased) confirmed one account in his story Tiger Tales (1967).

Colonel Ripley wrote:

One of the greater difficulties on an ambush is trying to keep your mind occupied in order to pass the time. Hours drag by almost painfully. The sentry on duty can at least walk his post. In the trenches and bunkers one can move around, talk to the Marines in the next fighting hole, take a five minute relief for a head call or coffee, and best of all; move, turn, stand up, scratch, etc. None of this is possible in an ambush, at least theoretically. The entire ambush must lay very still, quietly anticipating imminent enemy contact.

What the FUCK was that?

The ambush froze. Often when it’s raining, the noise intensifies. It’s easy to suspect movement when in fact there is none. But this time was real —every man new it. A loud guttural growl —could that be possible? — and definite movement.

Corporal Schwirian’s jaws tightened and his nostrils flared. His heart raced so that he could actually feel it against the ground. Slowly, pulling his knees up under him he moved his body into a slow crouch. His right hand grasped his weapon, still on the ground. Shifting his weight to his left leg he prepared to bring his weapon into a firing position.

The source of the growl made a sudden leap!

God in heaven!

No one was fast enough to fire. Whatever it was it had Schwirian screaming. The machine gunner jerked his gun around trying to bring it to bear but this thing and Schwirian were locked together in a desperate blur.

It’s a Tiger!

The big cat had pounced out of the darkness and grasped Schwirian in its jaws. One paw was standing on the Marine’s hand, which held his weapon, pinning both to the ground. The other paw was on Schwirian’s left shoulder, forcing him backwards and more erect, while the beast chewed on his right arm and shoulder literally tearing off great chunks of flesh.

In what had to be the luckiest punch of any fight; certainly in this brutal fight for his life, the terrified young Marine threw a left cross into the muzzle of the tiger with his free hand. The blow hurt enough to cause the animal to release its grip.

Corporal Schwirian fell at that spot while the tiger lurched backward momentarily. It was the instant the squad needed; the Marines simultaneously opened fire.

The beast recoiled then simply disappeared.

The entire drama had taken seconds. The indescribable terror experienced by the squad left them shocked and drained. Their squad leader laid moaning and kicking where he had been dropped.

Doc was first to move. He was at once beside Schwirian trying to calm him and examine him, both nearly impossible tasks under the circumstances. Two Marines helped him while others formed a security perimeter. Their position now obviously compromised. They felt certain the enemy action would soon follow.

The corpsman’s trained hands moved quickly and expertly around the torn clothing and flesh. He could see nothing, but it didn’t matter. He knew this Marine was in serious trouble. It was easy to distinguish blood from rain dampness. The shock effect had to be massive and easily as great a threat to life as the loss of blood.

Ripping open his unit 1, the medical kit which together with its corpsmen made them responsible for the continued lives of thousand of Marines. Doc found what he was looking for – morphine. He decided to sedate the Marine taking the risk that shock could be overcome. Stopping the bleeding with direct pressure, he then applied his largest battle dressing hoping to cover the wound. It would take two.

His next move was one of absolute genius. It had undoubtedly never been taught in field medical school, nor did he learn it from any of the old hands. He had only been with the company a month. Taking still another battle dressing, he carefully wrapped the wounded Marine’s head, pulling it to the side opposite his shattered arm and shoulder. In this manner, Corporal Schwirian would not be able to view the extent of the wound, either deliberately or inadvertently.

In the company CP the radio operator was immediately allotted to trouble. Someone had keyed a radio handset as if they didn’t know what they were doing. Then there came a pause, followed by a scuffing noise, and finally,” Lima, this is Lima Alpha 3, we have to come in.”  He didn’t believe what he had heard.  It couldn’t possibly be the ambush, they would never break silence for such a ridiculous transmission, and even if they were in fact in trouble there was a specific code and procedure to follow.  Not only that, but he didn’t recognize the voice. He called the company commander and quickly described the incident, offering his opinion that whatever was happening it was… serious. The CO immediately tried to raise the ambush.

“Lima Alpha 3 this is Lima 6, if your situation is all secure click your handset twice.”‘

No answer.

The CO repeated his transmission. Suddenly there was this response: ” Lima 6, this is Alpha 3, sir we’re in trouble and have to return; can’t explain; request permission to move; we have a wolf (wounded in action).”

The CO was stunned and silent. He immediately recognized the voice as that of the corpsman.

“Roger Alpha 3, return at once; understand there are no friendlies, repeat, no friendlies, between yourself and us. Any movement is enemy.”

Facing the grim reality of what lay ahead the squad galvanized into action. Doc, having done all that he could, took Corporal Schwirian around the waist and pulled him erect. Another Marine grabbed his free arm. With their casualty in tow, the squad formed a patrol and started the long trip to the outpost. Each man took his position without speaking. The only noise was the shuffling and occasional moaning as the corpsman attempted to keep Corporal Schwirian on his feet moving.

When the battalion received the preliminary report that an ambush was in trouble, they immediately requested more information. The company commander could only report the scant bit he had received in the only transmission from the ambush. He did indicate that the ambush had at least one casualty; probably serious, possibly emergency, which would require evacuation. More information would follow when available.

On the outpost, the senior company corpsman made what preparations he could. He collected all blood volume expander, feeling certain this would be needed. Battle dressings, swabs, etc., were in abundance at the Company CP and laid out in preparation.

Sometime after midnight, the rain slackened, then stopped. It was replaced with thick ground fog, which obscured vision even more than rain. In the second platoon area, Marines were on bunker tops. It was through that part of the perimeter that the road entered the outpost, and the ambush was expected to arrive at that point. In the same area the engineering platoon, located right beside the road, strained to see or hear any movement on the other side of the protective wire.

Nearly three hours after the first report from the ambush, Marines in the line thought they heard movement. The commander 2nd platoon came into the CP to report just as the radio sounded. “Lima this is Alpha 3; we’re outside the wire; request permission to come in.”

Struggling to get the wounded, Marine into the bunker the corpsman winced at what light from the lantern illuminated. For the first time he actually saw the extent of the wounds. He wasn’t prepared. No one was. He gasped with the others at the incredible sight of torn flesh, claw marks, and an amazingly clean bite, which had removed nearly the entire bicep.

A final report now went to the battalion with all the detail and the request for an emergency med-vac. IT was painfully obvious that this Marine would need medical attention immediately.

“What’s the problem Lima?” asked battalion.

Trying to impart the seriousness of the wounds and what had actually happened over a radio was difficult.

“It appears that Alpha 3 was attacked by a tiger,” ‘ the CO responded. A pause indicated certain disbelief at battalion.

“We need an emergency medevac” the CO continued.

After some deliberation battalion indicated that a medevac would not be possible before first light. Bad weather, distance, and other factors argued against it.

“This man must get out tonight” the CO insisted.

Finally, the battalion consented to an attempt to move the casualty back to the Rockpile by road, from whence he could be further evacuated to Dong Ha by either road or air.

The only vehicles available at the outpost were engineer equipment and two Ontos. With a dump truck for an ambulance and the Ontos as security, along with a rifle squad, the small convoy made a reckless dash for the Rockpile. They moved along the same road Corporal Schwirian had rumbled down the previous day expecting a rest from enemy action.

The story could end here, but it doesn’t. Corporal Schwirian made it out, first to Delta Med at Dong Ha, then to USS Repose and finally to Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Lima Company would hear from him again. A Readers Digest article mentioned his ordeal. Then a few months later more casualties from his company ended up in his same ward at Philadelphia. They wrote back the welcome news that he was much improved and regaining the use of his arm.

As already noted, Corporal Schwirian wasn’t the only Tiger Tale. An article in Stars & Stripes dated 22 December 1968 records another attack.

Quang Tri —A man-eating tiger was killed by members of a small Marine patrol when the 400 pound cat attacked a 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Marine in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam.

The Marine who was attacked is listed in satisfactory condition at a military hospital at Quang Tri. Identification is being withheld pending notification of his next of kin.

The six man recon team was on an observation mission near Fire Support Base Alpine, six miles east of the Laotian border in Quang Tri Province when it encountered the tiger. The team had completed its mission and was waiting to be heli-lifted from the area when the incident occurred. Bad weather conditions had prevented immediate pick up and the team had posted a two-man radio watch while the others settled down to sleep.

The tiger struck silently and swiftly.

“Suddenly, I heard somebody scream,” said PFC Thomas E. Shainline (Gilbertsville, PA) “and then somebody was yelling, ‘It’s a tiger, it’s a tiger.”

PFC Roy Regan (Nacogdoches, Texas), who had been sleeping next to the attacked Marine recalled, “I jumped up and saw the tiger on my partner. All I could think about was to get the tiger away from him. I jumped at the tiger and the cat jerked his head and jumped into a bomb crater 10 yards away, still holding his prey.”

The Marines quickly followed the tiger to the bomb crater and opened fire on the attacking beast. They could not be sure which one of them actually killed the tiger, since they all fired at it.

Once hit, the tiger released his prey and the attacked Marine staggered out of the crater.

“He looked dazed and asked what had happened,” recalled PFC Maurice M. Howell (Richmond, KY).

The injured Marine was given first aid treatment and a medical evacuation helicopter was called.

Bengal Tiger Nov 1968In minutes, a Marine CH46 helicopter arrived to pick-up the injured Marine, the rest of the team and the now dead tiger.

The injured Marine was rushed to the 3rd Medical Battalion hospital at Quant Tri suffering from lacerations and bites on the neck.

The tiger, measuring nine feet from head to tail was transported to the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion headquarters.

The incident took place about 10 miles south of the demilitarized zone near the spot where a young Marine was slain by a man-eating tiger on November 12.

Military authorities had sent out a Marine contingent and two professional South Vietnamese tiger hunters three weeks ago to find the killer tiger and three others believed are in the area, but the hunt failed.

For the Americans fighting in Vietnam, there were bigger things than VC in the bush.

The Village

A book by Bing West

Cover The VillageTo some, the Vietnam War was a chance for medals, promotions, and even perhaps, one day someone would pin a star on their shoulder. To most, serving in Vietnam was their duty —a patriotic chore to serve their country. Along the way, a student of the Vietnam War will find countless demonstrations of raw courage and heroism: servicemen of all of our Armed Forces, giving of themselves for a greater purpose. Of course, nearly sixty thousand of our young men gave the ultimate sacrifice. Many more gave up their limbs, or suffered debilitating wounds —and from a psychological perspective, everyone left a part of themselves in Vietnam, including a squad of Marines assigned to protect the Vietnamese people living in a small coastal village, then named Binh Nghia, two kilometers south of Chu Lai.

This is a remarkable story told to us by former Marine Captain Francis J. “Bing” West, who later served as an assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and in the Reagan Administration as an Under-secretary of Defense. When Bing West returned to Binh Nghia 37 years later, he found an extraordinary thing: many of the villagers from 1966-1967 had died —particularly those who served alongside the Marines; some married and moved away from the village —and yet in spite of this, everyone living in the village in 2003 could recount stories about “their American Marines,” or, Thủy quân lục chiến Mỹ

You see, over the years, the villagers passed down the stories of what happened in Binh Nghia to their children, then they told the stories to their children. Everyone knew what happened, and as Mr. West walked through the village in 2003, one old farmer came to him and asked, “Tell me Dai U’y where is Sergeant Mac? Do you know Bill … Marines number one, what happened to Monty? What happened to Frill (Phil)?” Not far away Mr. Bing found a marker resting between two palm trees, and on it a small inscription to the Marines who had built their well and shrine in 1967.

Herein lies the true pain of the Vietnam War. Young Americans went to Vietnam to fight a vicious and resourceful enemy. A few of these people ended up protecting a few thousand residents of a small village along the coast in Quang Ngai province. Most of the Marines cherished these simple people so much that they ended up dying for them. In return, the villagers ended up adopting these Marines; they remember their sacrifices even today. If only the American people had loved these Marines as much.

The Village is a worthwhile book, on many different levels.

 

The Code Talkers, Part II

The landing on Okinawa may have been a cakewalk, but Japanese resistance stiffened as the Marines located and then assaulted the Japanese main force. The strategy here would be the same as it was on the islands of Saipan, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima —kill as many Americans as possible; weaken their resolve to invade the home islands. The American advance came to a halt and one Marine, thinking back to the Navajo ceremony on Pavuvu, asked a Navajo what he thought about his prayers now. The Navajo replied, “This is completely different. We only prayed for help during the landings.”

Navajo Code TalkersOver time, Navajo Code Talkers served with all six Marine Corps divisions in the Pacific. They also served with Raider and Parachute Battalions. Praise for their work became lavish and endless as they participated in every major assault … from the Solomon Islands campaigns to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Major Howard Conner, who served as the 5th Marine Division Signals Officer, reported that Navajo code directed the entire landing at Iwo Jima. “During the two days that followed the initial landing, I had six Navajo radio nets working around the clock. They sent and received over 800 messages without a single error. Were it not for the Navajo Code Talkers, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

The Navajo Code Talkers were among the first to receive the news in August 1945 that Emperor Hirohito had urged the Japanese people to “endure the unendurable.” The war was over. Atomic weapons employed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had perhaps saved as many as one million additional American lives.

In all, 421 Navajos had completed wartime training at Camp Pendleton’s code talker school; most of these served in combat. Following Japan’s official surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945, several code talkers volunteered for duty with U.S. occupation forces in Japan. Others served with the Marines in China. Wilson Henry Price remained in the Marine Corps for thirty years, finally retiring in 1972.

As the Navajo Marines returned to their homes, tribal rites were performed. These were combinations of purification ceremonies, thanksgiving, mother’s tearful prayers, and askance for protection of the son’s return from harmful or toxic influences. Surprisingly, the Navajo exhibited little evidence of serious psychological problems or combat fatigue. In spite of this, life proved difficult after years away from home. Many of the Navajo missed the excitement of Marine Corps combat service, but most realized that they must go forward. Many returned to school to finish high school, others enrolled in colleges and universities under the GI Bill. Ted Draper remained on occupational duty in Japan. During off-duty hours, he studied Japanese and learned it so well that he eventually served as an interpreter. Draper eventually returned home to become a language teacher. He said, “When I was going to boarding school before the war, the government old us not to speak Navajo. But during the war, they wanted us to speak it. One day, if I return to the reservation safely, I want to become a Navajo language teacher and educate young Navajos.”

Navajo Medal 001Jobs back home were scarce. Many banks refused to make GI loans, even to honorably discharged veterans because many of the Navajo held land parcels on the reservation in trust, with no proof of title. Many Navajo felt this was a shameful way to treat men who had served their country in combat —and they were right.

Almost 25 years passed before the 4th Marine Division honored Navajo Code Talkers at its 1969 annual reunion. Each Code Talker received an especially minted medallion. Why did it take so long to recognize these men? It was because the government did not declassify the Code Talker Operation until 1968. The Navajo Code Talkers hardly ever spoke of it until then.

These fine men were true American heroes, without exception. Sadly, we have come to the end of this especially glorious history: the last of the original code talkers was Chester Nez, who passed away in June 2014, aged 93.

As previously mentioned, there were more than 400 Navajo Code Talkers in the Marine Corps … I would like to mention a couple here with my deepest respect and admiration:

Paul Begay
Johnson Housewood
Peter Johnson
Jimmy Kelly King, Sr.
Paul Kinlahcheeny
Leo Kirk
Ralph Morgan
Sam Morgan
Willie Notah
Tom Singer
Alfred Tsosie
Harry Tsosie
Howard Tsosie

Each of these Marines gave all they had to give for the United States of America. After the end of World War II, a Japanese general admitted that not even the most highly skilled Japanese cryptographers were able to decipher the Marine messages. After he was told that it was a code based on an Native American language, he said, “Thank you; that is a puzzle I thought would never be solved.”

You may also wish to view two excellent videos here and here.

I have this one additional note. I want to offer my deepest respects also to another fine American (now 95 years old), the father of Koji Kanemoto who served in the US Army as an interpreter with the Military Intelligence Service.

The Code Talkers, Part I

EGA 1940-001Young Philip Johnston loved the Navajo culture; it was the environment within which he grew up as a child of missionary parents. By age five, Philip knew the Navajo language well enough to serve as a translator, and by age nine, when most boys that age were riding their bicycles and trading baseball cards, he had served as the official translator of a Navajo delegation sent to the nation’s capital to negotiate expanded rights for the Navajo Indians.

In time, however, Philip Johnston would grow into manhood and when his country entered World War I, he would leave the Southwest to enlist and serve in the war to end all wars. After the war, Philip earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Southern California and when war came once more to America’s shores on 7 December 1941, Johnston was hard at work as an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.

Communications within the Armed Forces has always been a complex issue, but after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, as American forces began to gather themselves for a major push into the Pacific Ocean area, commanders were suddenly confronted with an even more complex issue. Japanese cryptographers were proving themselves amazingly adept at breaking top-secret military codes almost as rapidly as communications specialists devised newer, more complicated procedures. Many of the Japanese code breakers had been educated in the United States where they had learned to speak English and had become familiar with American colloquialisms, including slang terms and profanity. In effect, the Japanese became aware of American battle plans almost as soon as senior commanders issued warning orders to subordinate commands. There appeared no workable solution to a problem that was costing American lives.

On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Philip Johnston was 49 years old —well beyond the age of military service. His experience in World War I, however, prompted him to approach the Marines with a plan to help his country win its war against the Japanese. Philip Johnston knew that the Navajo language had no alphabet or written record, and he knew it was nearly impossible to learn this language if you were not immersed in it from a young age. This knowledge prompted Johnston to approach Marine Corps authorities in San Diego. He was sure that in adopting the Navajo language for communications, the American forces could deny valuable information to the Japanese.

At first, the Marine hierarchy had serious doubts about Johnston’s ideas. The use of American Indians in communicating over radio and telegraph had been a successful strategy during World War I, but senior Marine officers also knew that following the war, Germans had visited the United States with a keen interest in the Choctaw and Comanche languages. Most military planners assumed that the Germans would share these insights with the Third Reich. Philip Johnston persisted, however. He knew the Navajo language; he knew it was unique among the Native American nations.

Johnston’s persistence paid off when the Marine Corps finally agreed to a series of demonstrations at Camp Elliott, just outside San Diego, California. At the conclusion of the trial run, everyone agreed that the results had been quite impressive. The Navajo clearly demonstrated that a Navajo Indian could take messages from a variety of sources in English, translate them and transmit them in Navajo, and then convert them back into English on the receiving end. Marines were so impressed with these demonstrations that they lobbied for the recruitment and training of 200 Navajo Indians for service as Marine Corps Code Talkers. Initially, the Marine Corps approved up to 30 men for training; by the end of the war, more than 400 Navajo would work in the program.

As with any recruit, the Navajo would first have to demonstrate that he had what it takes to serve successfully as a United States Marine. He would learn to be a combat Marine. He would learn to deal with harsh environments, and in this particular aspect, the Navajo were “naturals.” According to one Navajo Code Talker, their greatest fear was the amphibious landing —but once ashore, Navajo quickly assimilated the natural setting.

The Marine Corps did impose certain restrictions on Navajo recruitment, however: a code talker had to have completed a tenth-grade education; they had to speak passable English; and they had to agree to keep their occupations secret, even from their families. The reason for this was that the Navajo Marine was in constant danger from a myriad of sources —including other Marines. In order to keep Caucasian Marines from shooting them, because they looked “Asian,” it was necessary to assign Caucasian Marines to guard them. Senior Marine Corps Signals Intelligence officers warned the Code Talkers, “We will not allow you to become prisoners of the Japanese.”

SSGT Philip Johnston USMCCode Talkers proved highly successful during the campaign for Guadalcanal. Commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal was Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and subsequently appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps. With first hand knowledge of the worth of the Code Talkers, Vandegrift ordered the expansion of the program. By August 1943, 191 Navajo were serving as Marine Corps Code Talkers [1]. Helping to train these code talkers in California was Staff Sergeant Philip Johnston —who may have been the oldest staff sergeant in the entire Armed Forces.

With increased numbers of Code Talkers, the Marines began to include Navajo radiomen in every operation at the battalion and regimental levels, but their usefulness came at a price: two died during the New Britain campaign, three on Bougainville. Eventually, more than 400 Navajo served as Code Talkers; thirteen of these killed in action.

The ingenuity, strength, scouting ability, and tracking capability stood the Navajo Marines in good stead in the South Pacific. They were used to Spartan living conditions and the hardships of island warfare seemed almost inconsequential to them. Although initially used at the company and battalion level, Navajo Marines became indispensable as their reputations expanded to regiments and divisions, but the Marines learned to guard these assets well, especially when fighting alongside Army units. To many soldiers, the Navajo looked “Japanese.” More than a few code talkers “almost” became casualties due to friendly fire. Several Navajo were “captured” and taken in for interrogation, only to be released back to their units and, I suppose, their minders handed a case of red ass for allowing the Navajo to get away from them.

On the eve of the First Marine Division’s departure for the island of Okinawa, which planners expected would be the bloodiest landing of the Pacific War up to this point, the Navajos performed a sacred ceremonial dance that invoked their deities’ blessings and protection for themselves and their fellow Americans; they prayed that their enemies’ resistance might prove weak and ineffectual. We are talking about Marines here, so some of the white Marine observers of this ceremony scoffed at the whole idea. When war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported the story afterward, he noted that the landings on Okinawa beach had proved much easier than expected and he even noted that several of the Navajos were quick to point this out to the skeptics in their units —in typical Marine fashion, I suppose.

Continued next week

Crisp salute to: Koji Kanemoto

 

Notes:

[1] Subsequently, the U. S. Army also employed Native Americans as code talkers, primarily from the Choctaw and Comanche nations. These assets were employed in the European Theater, but never employed in the Pacific War.

A Marine Platoon at War

A book by Bing West

Francis J. “Bing” West served in the U. S. Marine Corps as an infantry officer during the Vietnam War. He served with a Combined Action Platoon, spending 485 days in a remote village, and he served as a member of the Marine Force Reconnaissance Team that helped to develop and implement Stingray operations —small unit attacks behind enemy lines. He subsequently served as an under-Secretary of Defense in the administration of Ronald Regan (international Security) with expertise in matters involving El Salvador, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, South Korea, and Japan.

One-Million-StepsIn my opinion, Mr. West has presented his readers with an exceptional book; it is one I would recommend to every single American who still loves their country (noting that many no longer do). What leaps out at you from almost every page is the cost of making poor choices in national leadership from inside the voting booth.

It is hard to imagine a president nonchalant about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine a clueless Secretary of Defense about an appropriate strategy inside a war zone. It numbs the mind to learn that while our troops are dying and losing their limbs, three, and four-star generals endeavor to implement a progressive theory designed to save the Taliban from himself.

Throughout this period of political malfeasance, the Marines of the 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3K/3/5) distinguished themselves in lethal combat, both as individuals, and as members of this nation’s finest fighting force. Most of the Third platoon survived; they excelled in defeating a determined enemy —not because of Defense Department leadership, but in spite of it.

I believe that this book is mandatory reading among those of us who still love America; it teaches us that there are consequences to the decisions we make at the voting booth. It teaches us that elections can have dire consequences. I rate this book FIVE stars.

Some gave all …

USCG Seal 002The Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands during World War II was not a single battle or engagement. It is better referred to as the Guadalcanal Campaign because military operations there lasted a grueling six months, from the initial landings on 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943. The initial landings took place in the southern Solomon Islands, involving Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands of Gavutu and Tanambogo. The mission was to drive the Japanese out of the Solomon Islands, thereby protecting the US Naval Fleet in the Pacific and Eastern Australia. The campaign involved the following battles:

  • Savo Island
  • Teneru
  • Eastern Solomons
  • Tokyo Express
  • Edson’s Ridge
  • Matanikau
  • Cape Esperance
  • Henderson Field
  • Santa Cruz
  • Tassafaronga
  • Mount Austen, and
  • On-going air and naval battles

Title 10 United States Code includes the United States Coast Guard as one of the nation’s armed forces. Title 14 USC provides, “The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915 shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times The Coast Guard shall be a service in the Department of Homeland Security, except when operating as a service in the United States Navy.”

Munro USCG 001It was under these circumstances that Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro, USCG found himself as part of the invasion of Guadalcanal in August and September 1942. Petty Officer Munro is the only member of the United States Coast Guard to have received the Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded in recognition of his courage under fire on 27 September 1942.

The Battle of Matanikau involved two separate actions; one in September-October 1942, and a second engagement between 6-9 October 1942. The Matanikau River area on Guadalcanal included a peninsula called Point Cruz where the village of Kokumbona was located and a series of ridgesand revines stretching inland from the coast. Japanese forces used this area to regroup from attacks against US forces and as a jumping point to launch further attacks against US defensive positions at Henderson Field. In the first engagements, elements of three Marine battalions attacked Japanese troop concentrations at several points around the Matanikau River. These assaults were intended to “mop up” Japanese stragglers retreating toward Matanikau from the recently concluded Battle of Edson’s Ridge. At one stage in the operation, three infantry companies of Marines found themselves surrounded by a superior number of Japanese forces and, having sustained heavy loses, were forced to withdraw.

During this battle, Petty Officer Munro commanded five landing craft, called Higgins Boats. After landing the Marines, the landing craft withdrew from the beach and waited off shore for further instructions. During this time, Munro became aware of the fact that the situation on the beach was critical for the Marines and it would be necessary to evacuate the Marines immediately. Munro brought his boats to shore under heavy enemy fire, and the proceded to evacuate the Marines from the beach. When most of the Marines were in the boats, coplications arose in evacuating the last of the men, whom Munro realized could be in the greatest danger. He placed himself and his landing craft so that they would serve as “cover” for the last men to leave the beach. One of these last Marines evacuated was Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC.

It was thus that Petty Officer First Class Munro was fatally wounded.

Medal of Honor“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins Boats engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

Petty Officer Munro was awarded the Navy version of the Medal of Honor because at the time, he was serving as part of the Department of the Navy. A Coast Guard version of the Medal of Honor was authorized in 1963, but an actual medal has never been designed or minted. Petty Officer Munro is the only member of the Coast Guard to have been awarded this, our nation’s highest award.

He gave up his own life to save the lives of Marines —72 years ago tomorrow.