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John Martinez 1967
by: Dan Clint
(© Copyright, 2002)
This was submitted by Dan Clint who wrote it in a letter to John Martinez’ Brother.
This story is true to the best of my ability to recall. I had written some notes to draw from. (The numbers with Colonel Morris are approximations.)
Alright, I believe it was your brother so I am going to share this with you.
We were with the Tiger Force out in the field awaiting the arrival of the new Tiger Force medic. We were in a bunker. It had rained heavily. Martinez (as I referred to your brother) Diaz, Oakden, Sgt. Fulton, and I were in a bunker on the top of a hill with the artillery platoon, I am thinking near DaNang (?) maybe twenty miles out, a place called Quang Tin. There was scattered grass on the hill and we found that grass comfortable to lay our ponchos on. The night before it had rained heavily but it had stopped raining by morning and I was pulling guard. It was wet and chilly and I welcomed the first light of day through a hazy fog. As the storm retreated large clouds moved through the sky.
The evening before I had been writing a letter to my younger brother and I was wrestling with a problem. Dying was a concern but for some reason in that gray rainstorm I was preoccupied by a different concern, not what if I were to be killed, but instead, what if I was destined to live a long life having been seriously maimed, possibly something like losing a leg?
I have always liked words and ideas and while writing that letter to my younger brother an idea came to me that had a very curious liberating effect. The idea was, that if I were to lose a leg, it wouldn't be the worst thing for a young man, not only not the worst thing, but actually not bad at all. I had concluded that there was possibly a special and "certain amount of distinction" to having only one leg. Somehow that goofy idea suggested that life could go on, still be worthwhile and with that awareness, there was a liberation from the fear of that particular possibility.
I was writing the letter under a poncho by myself, on a little knoll slightly above the bunker where the others in my team were gathered looking down the mountain. With this thought, and it's attendant feeling that it would be ok, that I could deal with this injury and be ok, I got excited and decided to go down the hill and share this idea. I put my pen and pad down and hastened down the hill being pelted by rain to the sandbag bunker occupied by these friends. The sandbag roof of the bunker was like a lean-to on the mountain only exposing the downhill side to the view, so they couldn't see me coming, and the sound of the rain concealed my steps. The front of the bunker was like a ledge, with plastic ponchos on it, and the men were huddled shoulder to shoulder to avoid the rain, talking quietly while peering down the hill.
In my haste as I rounded the corner of the bunker and picking up a tad too much speed, I turned a little too swiftly for the physics involved, and in the slick mud I lost my footing and this sent my legs up into the air and I landed full force in the mud directly in front of them as if I had dropped from the sky. The sound emitted was a very pronounced muddy plop! on the belly. It was a soft landing, however, due to the mud but perhaps I had startled them more than a little. Before they had a chance to fully recover from the shock of my unusual arrival, and me, being completely undeterred, said quietly and in all seriousness, "There is a certain amount of distinction to only having one leg!"
That apparently was a bit too much for them. They erupted in unison with a roar of laughter. Couldn't stop laughing. I saw myself then as they were seeing me, it was true, it was absurd, and lying there in the mud and the rain, I too begin grinning and then broke into that full infectious laughter, we laughed heartily and I actually laughed rolling in the mud and enjoyed it. There is no humor in the world like a good laugh under the tension of war, and I had inadvertently provided a much needed comic relief.
One needs to be careful though, sometimes combat provides curious little clues. It wasn't, however, me that was going to lose the leg, and curiously this entire bunker of fellow soldiers and friends, myself included, would, the very next day, be riding in a huey medivac together in entirely different circumstances.
The hill muddy from the rains, as we continued to walk over it, had become even muddier and now with the dawn a cadre of helicopters began ferrying in the new supplies, which included things like C rations, ammunition, batteries, cigarettes, clothes, water, all in preparation for the operation we were about to embark upon. We had begun repacking our rucksacks in preparation as well. Around 10 A.M. and with the help of a sun breaking through the clouds some of the mud stopped being slick and became sticky and obnoxious. This was September 20, 1967. This operation was to last about 60 days (we didn't know this at the time, we only knew it was the beginning of a new operation). We had about 70 men in the Tiger Force and were considered to be, "up to strength". We didn't know that at the end of the sixty days our numbers would dwindle to twelve men in one lone squad, and your brother and I, would be two of those 12 remaining. We didn't know that at the end of this operation we would be "pulled" from the field by Colonel Morris who would tell us, "as twelve men" we "were too small of a unit to continue in the field", that we could "no longer be considered an effective fighting force".
Both your brother John and I had been wounded during this operation, and out of the field for about a week recovering. In the end of the speech, the Colonel had given cited the figures and praised us highly. He informed us that something like 231 N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army) had been killed by the Tiger Force during this operation, and in addition we had captured 147 enemy weapons and 87 mortar rounds. He went on to compare the statistics with the other units with the 1st of the 327th for that same operation.
This day though, in preparation to begin this operation, as we moved around the hilltop filling canteens, loading C rations, cleaning weapons, using the dug out holes (with ponchos for concealment) that we called "latrines", the mud was everywhere. . Mud clung to our boots weighing them down, and created suction when we lifted our feet as we walked.
Finally at about 11:00 A.M. a chopper arrived carrying the new Tiger Medic. He was the one we were waiting for. Via the radio we knew he was on the way. That medic was Harold Fischer, also from San Antonio, Texas. He too would be one of the ones left at the end of the operation.
After about 20 minutes of "final checks", of orienting the new medic, helping him pack up his rucksack, the Tiger Force started down the mountain. The way the terrain was, the mountain was connected to a smaller mountain and our planned route was to work our way down the "saddle", keeping high ground, and then proceed farther down and eventually work our way into the valley with the plan to spend the night on a neighboring but prominent, distant hill. From our vantage point on top of this mountain we could almost plot our route as we peered at the jungles and foliage below in the distance.
From the re-supply our rucksacks were fully loaded and weighed somewhere on an average estimating, 80 lbs. We were packing M-16's and ammo, grenades, maps, 1st aid equipment, insect repellent, malaria tablets, heat tablets, plastics explosives, claymore mines, water, sleeping gear (consisting of a poncho and poncho liner) and personal equipment, everything from cameras and toothbrushes to mail from home. I was the RTO, or "radio operator". My handle was "Three Zero Oscar" second platoon's radio operator. I was carrying the radio as Sergeant Diaz's radio operator. In addition to the radio I carried two extra batteries. They weren't like flashlight batteries; each one was about the size of two flashlights strapped together and heavy. A lieutenant was traveling with us; he was known, on the radio, (we called it "the horn") as "Terrible Tiger ". His radio operator was "Terrible Tiger Oscar".
By around 1:00 P.M. we had made it down the hill, and began working our way through sparse trees. The terrain had gone from muddy, to fairly dry, the sun was staying hot, the clouds had dispersed and now we moved through dryer grass and thin trees. It was humid and we were sweating under the load of our freshly packed rucksacks. Normally as we consumed water, food and ammo, the rucksacks would become lighter but also we would become more accustomed to the weight. The first few days of an operation was donkey duty and very fatiguing.
We continued down hill. Martinez, your brother, was walking slack. Oakden was point. (This meant he was second in the column and Oakden was first). By about 2:00 P.M. we had gotten into even thicker foliage and we were closer to the valley floor. The first few squad members had broken into a clearing. From where I was in the column I could see light ahead indicating a clearing of the trees and could see a few of those ahead, crossing a section of rice paddy leaving the cover of the jungles we were in, and working toward the shelter of foliage and trees on the other side.
Like I say, this was the beginning of a new operation and we were familiarizing ourselves with this, our "area of operation" or "AO" as it was called. In a way we were just moving toward the hill that would be our secure position to spend the night. In combat it was best to hold to an elevation, the high ground, so that if the enemy tried an assault they would not only have to fight us but would have to work their way up a hill and we would have the advantage of clear unobstructed vision as well. We always tried get on a hill before nightfall if possible. If we underestimated the distances or the complexity of the terrain it meant that we would have a compromised position, on lower ground, this was only acceptable for what was known as an "ambush", where we were to lay in wait for an unsuspecting enemy, and in an ambush the level of alertness had to be increased, due to the riskier positioning, and therefore our sleep was cut shorter. Instead of three men dividing up sleep, where you could sleep for two hours and pull guard for one, in an ambush it was 50/50 half the men slept while the other half remained ready to attack. In an ambush half of the night was spent on guard, every other hour. Not to mention the sleep lost trying to go back to sleep or being awakened by noises.
The year I spent in Vietnam was characterized by sleep deprivation.
Back to the crossing of the open rice paddy, as members of the squad were working their way across this small section of rice paddy we were vulnerable, we were now in the open, on low ground and just as Sergeant Fulton, was about to break from the tree line, a barrage of rifle fire erupted from the jungles on the opposite side of the rice paddy. Quite quickly Oakden, your brother and those who were exposed in the open flattened out, (to present a smaller target), and in split seconds had wriggled out of their rucksacks took shelter behind these packs and was returning fire They wisely were laying as low as possible but were pinned in the open unable, for now, to escape. They were, however, still capable of giving the enemy fits from where they lay. Those of us lucky enough to have the shelter of trees quickly jettisoned rucksacks, (I as the radio operator, in a firefight, had to keep my rucksack because I had the radio) but we, the remaining and more protected squad members, began hastily moving to the tree line taking positions and adding firepower as protection for those exposed in the open. As more of the Tiger Force moved into position and the volume of bullets increased, now coming from all three teams, those in the open were able to work back into the trees. I was behind a small tree, saw puffs of smoke revealing the N.V.A. positions and returned fire as well. Within minutes the N.V.A. ambushers must have realized they were overpowered and withdrew. The firefight ended and then with renewed caution, rucksacks were retrieved, there was a quick assessment of damage. Remarkably, the ambush had scored zero causalities to us from the enemy, and therefore, somewhat undaunted, but with our greater caution we worked our way across the paddy to the other side where we found evidence of their stand in the matted grass and trees. There were spent shells, platforms to stand on, but the enemy who had occupied the positions were gone, for them it had been hit and run, maybe they were merely sentries alerting others to our presence.
Before we left the jungles however, we took a break in the trees and discussed the enemy's ambush against us, still partially in the recovery of adrenaline. It was during this break that Oakden had held up his camouflaged cloth Tiger hat to show everyone. He had indicated where a bullet had pierced the hat by suspending the hat in the air with his finger protruding through a bullet hole. The bullet had gone through the hat and not even scratched him. Like I say, these hats were cloth, not thick and Oakden laughed while showing everyone saying. "They aren't going to get us, eh Varney!"
Oakden and Varney were good friends and as is often the case in the jungles we are eating and sleeping together and it is easy to get pretty close to the others. It was also during this brief break from humping where we were consuming some of our water, when Varney and Oakden revealed their little shared secret. They had signed up for an "extension". If you sign up for an "extension" of field duty the army would send you on a 30-day leave. The extension was for an additional 6 months of Vietnam, and in our case meant six months extra of combat. It was a temptation, to be able to take a break from the field, but most of us resisted, we teased Oakden and Varney, telling them they were crazy to extend another 6 months but they were confident. It was a nagging question, an extra 6 months in the field, for 30 days back in the states, was it worth it? We had plenty of time to think about it.
In the field, in the pressure cooker of the heat, it was an additional "army reality" that was interesting in a way. It was set up so that one could leave the "boonies" as soon as the orders could be drafted. Once one agreed to the extension, it usually took a week or so to be out of the field and on a plane home. So Varney and Oakden were looking at maybe a couple of weeks of field duty and were making plans for heading back to "the world" together for a "thirty day party!" (Varney and Ingram were to be killed by a sniper about a week later -you can find their name on the Wall- your brother and I were going to be in the hospital at that time and Oakden's fate will follow.)
About 3:30 PM we started the long and arduous climb that was taking us from the mountaintop of the night before, up the hill to the mountain we would spend this night.
-Another break here - I read an account of a Tiger, Doc Teeters. He took that 30-day leave and on the leave was in a very bad car accident. He ended up never going back. He survived Vietnam, but the car accident in his words "was a baddie". Luck is weird here, are you lucky to be in an accident?-
As we started up the hill, there was some confusion about the map. It appeared the squad leaders had become disoriented by the jungles we had just emerged from and since it was a new area of operation we didn't have the full familiarity yet. On the way up the hill we had to wait long moments while hot discussions about our location were debated. It was hot and dry now. Very hot. The trails were switchbacks, which meant going back and forth, winding our way up the hill. Instead of muddy the ground here was dry and dusty. We still had our full rucksacks and were now exposed to the direct sun and sweating under the heavy loads.
Your brother was a good worker, a good soldier and took the hill without complaint, he remained quiet, alert and thoughtful, he treated combat like a man doing a job, he was very steady and that is remarkable considering his age at the time, 19! At that time, I was 20, a year older than him. Three guys, including your brother switched between point man and slack. When I say your brother was steady, that is not easy. In the valley when we were exposed to enemy fire the adrenaline kicks in. Your brother was a paratrooper, as you know, and that also demonstrated his ability to overcome his own fear and act in spite of, or against his natural instincts for survival.
After a long and arduous climb we neared the top of a hill. We were told this was to be our night position. It was nearing 5:00 P.M. The sun was still pretty high, it didn't usually get dark until between 8:00 to 9:00 PM.
Once on top of the hill, as the first soldiers trickled onto the mountain, we began setting up a defensive perimeter. We were surprised to discover trenches and foxholes. I sat my rucksack down on the far end, rummaged through it found a c-ration can of "pound cake", turned up the volume on my receiver (so I could monitor the radio now that quietude was not as much a necessity), and began opening the can of pound cake. Once opened, I sat it on my rucksack and took off my shirt to cool down in a sweat while a light breeze flowed over the hill. I stood back up, and while eating the cake with a plastic spoon, began visually surveying the valley far below.
I have good eyes, and pretty quickly I was able to see the movement of a squad of N.V.A. working their way through that distant valley. A remarkable thing, they were using elephants to carry their equipment. It was a long distance away but the elephants were large enough to be clearly visible. I sat the cake down again and almost casually picked up the headpiece of the radio and called the Lieutenant.
"Terrible Tiger Oscar, this is Three Zero Oscar (third squad), could you put Terrible Tiger on".
After a short wait, and as I watched I saw the RTO for the Lieutenant hand the radio to the Lt.
"This is Terrible Tiger", the lieutenant said.
"Terrible Tiger, this is Three Zero Oscar, can you see me, I am on the hill to your left". I saw him look around; he looked at me and I waved, and continued, "I am looking at a squad of N.V.A. in the valley...over".
The lieutenant was only about 200 feet away. We could see each other, and via the radio and hand signals he moved over to the edge of the hill.
I pointed he looked and nodded. "Roger Three Zero, I see them."
I went back to eating my pound cake and heard the Lt. Call for artillery on the horn.
Martinez was down the hill from me setting up a position with Sgt. Fulton. Oakden and Diaz were behind me to the west. I looked around at the men still coming onto the mountaintop, and then looked back, the squad of N.V.A. were still moving across the valley floor, like ants.
Then KAWHOOMP! The massive explosion! I heard perhaps a roar and had only turned my head only enough to catch a wall of dirt moving toward me, with my peripheral vision. Maybe I didn't hear it so much as feel it, it had come from behind with amazing speed. Instantly the wall of dirt was in front of me very close. I looked at it confused. I felt my arms at my sides and raised them to push against this wall of dirt. It turned out to be the ground. I pushed myself up. There was dust and smoke everywhere. The intense hot evening sun was completely blotted out and I felt a harsh burning sting like a charley horse in my back. It felt like someone had taken a baseball bat full of nails and struck me in the back. I was wounded. My can of pound cake was lying where it had been blown from my hand, covered in dirt, and a little ways farther down was Sgt. Fulton, wounded, with your brother holding him Sgt. Fulton had a large piece of shrapnel that had entered the back of his leg and exited the front. There was a large bulge in his thigh, about size of half a football. Your brother was helping him yelling for a medic. Sgt. Fulton's femur (thigh leg bone) was shattered. Your brother also had been wounded, but he said he was ok.
Up on the hill behind us in a very smoky dusty cloud people were screaming for medics as well and I heard the call for a "medivac" go out on the horn. . I immediately sensed the damage was worse up there, close to the explosion. I looked straining, but not wanting to interfere and saw men's silhouettes as they held two bottles of albumin in the air with tubes leading to men on the ground. The bottles reflected the sunlight through the dissipating cloud of dust.
Things happen quite quickly in these situations. For us it was an assessment of who was and who was not injured.
Sergeant Diaz had his leg completely shattered (he would later have it amputated above the knee. Oakden's head had suffered major trauma there was no saving him. I heard the distant voices conferring, "he gone".
My first thought was that artillery platoon had miscalculated on the coordinates, but upon our unit's hasty investigation it turned out that someone had either sat their rucksack on a mine or stepped on it. It also turned out that a miscalculation had taken place; we were on the wrong hill. It was a hill that had formerly been occupied by ROK Marines (as we called them), our allies, Republic of Korea, soldiers. They had mined the hill before their departure. It was a "friendly" mine. Certainly not for us. In the Tigers at that time we took to calling the missteps, the destruction by our own armament, "humbugs". This was a humbug.
The medivac helicopter seemed to arrive pretty quickly. There was still daylight left. Your brother, me, Sgt. Fulton, Diaz, and Oakden's bodies were all loaded on that chopper and it lifted off and began the long trip to the field hospital. (Remember, these are exactly the same men that had occupied that bunker the evening before). The chopper pilots were excellent, they were on a mission and they were really moving out, flying fast and low. So low that that occasionally they even clipped leaves on the trees. The idea was we'd pass over Charlie before he had a chance to arm and aim.
I remember thinking, just before we had left the mountain, when the prop blast from the chopper was intensely kicking up dust and dirt, as the squad loaded the slick. I knew I now needed to get medical attention. I felt doubly vulnerable being wounded and needing medical attention out here in the field where there was no immediate medical attention available and I remember being on the chopper looking at the grass violently whipping with the prop blast. Would this be enough to set off other mines? The echoes of that thought, the idea of other mines replayed in my mind as the helicopter raced to the field hospital.
Inside the helicopter the litters containing Oakden, Diaz and Fulton were secured in a stack like bunk beds on the back wall. Oakden's body had a poncho over it with the poncho torn to accommodate the handles of the litter. The poncho seemed mostly there as an attempt to conceal the body and it's trauma from our vision. In a way though, Oakden was gone, he had left Vietnam and all of it's consternation and he was out of the war.
Above Oakden Sergeant Diaz lay quietly. It was clear he was traumatized. In addition to losing his leg he had flecks of shrapnel that had peppered his face. His lips were bloody. He was heavily sedated with morphine and was asking for a cigarette.
There were no doors on the Huey and as we were in flight, the prop blast pulled the poncho loose revealing Oakden's body and the extent of those injuries, as I was lighting a cigarette for Diaz. (The door gunner/medic was concerned about smoking but the man's desires at the time took precedence). Oakden's skull had been shattered like a thickened eggshell and tuffs of his familiar brown hair clung to parts of his skull. I was filled with a huge emotion to see a friend so quickly vanquished, but this body was Oakden no more. His death must have been similar to my experience without the consciousness afterwards, very fast. The litter Oakden's body occupied had completely filled with a pool of blood and blood began to trickle off in a stream where it was picked up by the prop blast and swirled in a mist around interior of the helicopter, spraying us all. I pointed at the poncho, and yelled to the door gunner above the roar of the wind and the engines. The door gunner tried with futility to pull the poncho back, as I tried to battle the same intense wind to get the cigarette lit for Sergeant Diaz. For some curious reason that cigarette had become all-important. I got it lit and Sergeant Diaz thanked me with a look.
Fulton was on the top litter lying on his back staring at the ceiling. After a while, smelling the smoke, he asked for a cigarette as well. After using Diaz's cigarette to get one going for Fulton, I sat down next to your brother and we faced the tier of wounded and leaning into each other against the noise we talked a little about our injuries.
Your brother at that time had several small pieces of shrapnel in his back. We were both able to walk. I had a chunk of shrapnel in the back of my leg, about the same spot as Fulton, and even though he was farther from the blast, the shrapnel in his leg went through the leg where mine had merely lodged in the muscle. I had about 15 small pieces scattered around my back as well. I was concerned they may have gone deep enough to penetrate my stomach, and since they were in my back it was difficult to tell, but in the field they had assured me, that it looked like most of it was shallow.
Even though it was confusing and difficult to process the damage to our friends it was a relief to be moving toward aid, a relief to leave the field. The helicopter had moved beyond the jungles and we were flying low over water, and then finally, the helicopter came to an airstrip where awaiting medics rushed to assist us. They weren't expecting so many wounded, and your brother and I became valuable extra hands helping to carry the more seriously wounded off the landing zone.
After passing the litters to others, your brother and I followed them, walking toward the aid station together. There was still a little daylight left. I looked at your brother and he was red in the sunset with the spray from Oakden's blood. I looked at my M-16, and my arm and realized I was as well.
The reason it is worth reliving this experience is that it demonstrates the kind of things your brother's psychology was able to endure, how strong he was and what a good soldier he was. My own opinion of Martinez, he is one fine man. To go into combat with someone, to trust them, to work with them and to be able to have days and days in close proximity under the stresses of combat provides an opportunity to know that person very well. It demonstrates how spiritual someone is as well as how they hold up.
Your brother as I knew him was as solid a man as the army could hope to find. I am sure you knew this, but it also is nice to have someone who was there confirm it for you.
I don't know what he was like before, and growing up, but in that proving ground, it all came together in a test and he passed that test with full honors, and it is perhaps one of the most difficult tests a man could face.
It has now been over thirty-five years. You have had your own long road to look back upon. I appreciate your contacting me. If John had been able to survive it may be that we would be the ones talking to each other instead.
The thing though, the story that is told from the time he was wounded in September until the time he died in May. When one is wounded, it demonstrates that it can happen to "me". With this comes an understanding that we are not entirely as lucky nor as invincible as our hope and imaginations led us to believe.
What this also says is that for a soldier to go out to the field and perform his duty after being wounded in combat, that soldier demonstrates a greater bravery. Your brother and I saw Oakden's fate first hand. We saw clearly what was at stake, in very graphic terms. To return to combat was only a matter of having a greater concern for the men in the field than for ourselves. That was what made us part of the Tiger Force, made us soldiers, paratroopers, part of the Army and Americans.
Your brother demonstrated that he could measure up to the task, and as you know, before he was felled, he went on, not just one, but any more operations. His bravery and stamina would be difficult for you to fully appreciate but it is my hope that this memory will assist your understanding.
It is said, the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. It is said the opposite of talking is not listening, but is waiting to talk. Sometimes it takes a stronger person to cry than to keep the feelings bottled in.
For you as John's brother, I would hope and perhaps even wager that you have been cut out of similar material. You must have an excellent mother and a good family. You have my shared sympathy for the loss of your brother, John.
You lost a brother to the war and humanity lost John and the contributions he would have made had he been able to make it home. Knowing him for the brief time I did, gave me the wonderful opportunity to appreciate him and honor the life he lived.
Bless you Vince, and bless your Mother and your entire family as well.