Service Reflections: Veteran recalls meritorious promotion to corporal in Vietnam
Service Reflections: Veteran recalls meritorious promotion to corporal in Vietnam
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SGT Thomas Thompson
Status: U.S. Marine Corps Retired
Service Years: 1969-1973
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Marine Corps.
I had been unable to join the military when I graduated high school due to a medical issue. In 1969 I was employed by the Kansas City Southern railroad as part of the engineering operations of the KCS. While working on a project in June or July of 1969, a co-worker was notified that his son had been severely wounded in Vietnam.
Having determined that I was not doing enough and resolving the medical issue, I applied to, and the United States Marine Corps agreed to enlist me under the Corps' then Remedial Medical Program. This program allowed the Marine Corps to accept me as a recruit so long as I could perform my duties as a Marine recruit. I saw this as a way in which I could support my country in honoring its SEATO treaty obligations and resist communism's spread into southeast Asia.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
Having served on active duty for nearly four years, of which nearly forty months were spent as a non-commissioned officer, I decided that my best course was to attend college and obtain a degree that was pertinent to my future employment endeavors.
In August 1973, I surrendered all of my accumulated annual leave. I was able to enroll in the pre-law curriculum offered by McNeese State University located in Lake Charles, Louisiana, by the end of August 1973.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
I think I can say that successfully completing recruit training, engaging the enemy in combat, and protecting my country's government from efforts by the anti-war movement and their foreign allies to shut our government down are three of the more telling experiences of my years in the Corps which had a lasting impact.
I often jokingly say that there are two types of people in this world; Marines and all others. But on a more serious note, not all can be Marines. To be broken and then rebuilt in the image of the Corps is not for everyone. Graduating from Marine Corps recruit training provided me with the confidence to achieve my life goals with endurance and perseverance.
In our lives, none will last forever. Combat showed me how randomly and arbitrarily the cold hand of death can be laid upon one's shoulder.
Finally, the May Day Riots of 1971 demonstrated to me how transient loyalty and patriotism could be.
Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Early on in my recruit training, I felt that I might not last out of the period. However, the longer I remained in the training cycle, the more confident I became that I would finish. And I did finish my training as platoon guide for my recruit platoon; platoon honor man; series honor man; winner of the Dress Blues award; expert rifleman; and meritoriously promoted to private first class. I received a meritorious promotion to lance corporal upon completing Advanced Infantry Training.
I went into Vietnam, thinking that I would probably not survive. However, on April 1, 1970, my unit was ambushed. Some of my fellow Marines, two of whom were wounded, were pinned down and cut off from our defensive position by enemy fire. I was at that time an M-60 machine gunner. Along with my A-gunner and another rifleman, I traversed a cleared rice field while exposed to heavy enemy gunfire. I set up in a position from which I was able to provide covering fire while the Marines who were pinned down were able to escape. The three of us would receive meritorious promotions to corporal.
Three of the members of Recruit Platoon 2160 would not return from the war.
Lance Corporal Alan W. Ashenfelter served with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. He was killed on August 12, 1970.
Private First Class William Murphy was assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. PFC Murphy was killed on August 7, 1970
Private First Class Peter J. McCoy served with M Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. PFC McCoy was killed on May 23, 1970.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of, and why? Which was your least favorite?
I must confess that, with the exception of one brief assignment, I had no least favorite duty station. That one exception was a 15-day deployment of my unit, "Delta" Co., 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, to provide base security to the U. S. Naval Station at Cubic Bay, Philippines.
My best memories are of those from my time with "Mike" Co., 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (Rein) in the former Republic of Vietnam. I say best memories not because, obviously, of where we were assigned. I say the fondest because of the Marines with whom I was assigned. Wherever I was assigned, I always served with the best. But, those Marines I served within "Mike," or as we euphemistic said, "Medivac Mike," 3/7 were some of the best and bravest Marines that I ever knew. I do not believe a day goes by that I do not think back on those Marines.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect on to this day.
I am quite sure that my time with "Mike 3/7" has generated the greatest amount of daily memories. How can I write these memories? The older I grow, the more vivid those memories are. From the first firefight at the Culverts to the April 1st ambush to the loss of most of the 2nd platoon at the end of April to the men we lost while providing security on the outer defensive line around Danang to the discovery of one of the largest underground hospitals to the discovery of a prisoner of war facility to the loss of one of my best friends on June 15, 1970, to the loss of more than thirty Marines killed or wounded in August 1970 to go to The Graves Registration for identification to working in the bush for 28 days at a stretch and back at base for 3 and then back out in the field to day time patrols and night time ambushes to friends rotating to the States and new Marines arriving.
I recall that the four of us first met in boot camp. These would Ed Young (my future brother-in-law), Mike Akin, Rex Smith, and myself. I am sure there were others, but I can't seem to recall their names. Anyway, we were all trained as riflemen and completed advanced infantry school together. After annual leave, we all reported back to Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton. Having completed staging and preparatory to going overseas, we were given our division assignments. Three of us were assigned to the Third Marine Division on Okinawa. One of us was assigned to the First Marine Division headquartered in Danang, Republic of Vietnam. I was the one that drew the First Marine Division.
By the time I had cleared Okinawa, landed in Danang, trucked to Landing Zone Baldy to report into the headquarters of the 7th Marine Regiment, make my way to the area for the 3rd Battalion, and find that company called Mike, February had slipped by and it was now the first few days of March.
By March 5th, I was attached to the 1st platoon of Mike Company and on my way the Culverts. I was to learn that as a rifle company, Mike Company operated on a rotation of twenty-eight days in the bush and three days of rehab at Baldy, Fire Support Base Ross, or Fire Support Base Ryder. While in rehab, which I suppose is a not so sophisticated way of saying we got a good night's sleep, how chow, a shower, and some clean jungles, the company was on ready alert to provide relief, if necessary, to any other company within the battalion which came under enemy fire. I would learn years later that the first casualty of Mike Company was Lance Corporal Glen Edwards King, who was killed on September 10, 1965. I turned 16 that day. Approximately three years, five months, and some eighteen days later, I joined Mike Company.
My first combat experiences were at the Culverts. From there, the company moved to serve as a blocking unit for other companies. During that first week or so, the 1st platoon lost an M-60 machine gunner. I seem to remember that the squad I had been assigned was preparing to go out on a night patrol and ambush. Before we departed our lines, I was told to report to the platoon Sargeant. After a cursory conversation, I reported as ordered and was handed an M-60 and asked if I knew how to use it. I responded that I fired 25 rounds in one during Basic Infantry Training and didn't even know how to load the damned thing. Well, my platoon sergeant took the piece, released the cover latch, placed a 100 round belt in the feed way, latched the cover, pulled back and released the cocking handle, put it on safety, and, as he handed the piece back to me, advised me not to run the belt out without attaching a second belt. Off I went with my squad on patrol. And that was how I became an M-60 machine gunner.
Things seemed to settle down over the next two weeks or so. That was to change beginning April 1. On that day, two squads from the 1st platoon were conducting a daytime patrol. I, with Bryant, my A-gunner, was working with the trailing squad. As we proceeded, both squads came under fire. We pushed through and set up a perimeter. The front gun team covered the squads from the direction of the enemy fire. I took my team to the far side of the perimeter to provide backside coverage against any unfriendly endeavor to try to hit us from the rear.
After a few minutes, I began to hear someone yelling for guns up. I didn't understand why guns were being called up, for there was a team on that side of the perimeter. But not hearing the bark of his M-60, I told my A-gunner to come on. When we got to the other side of the perimeter, I discovered that we had Marines pinned down by the enemy fire, and the situation for them did not present a favorable outcome. I told Bryant to come on and made a dash toward the enemy fire. As we began our run, I noticed that another Marine had joined mine and Bryant's mad dash. He was LCpl Frazier from Oklahoma.
As we moved forward, I began to notice that the enemy fire was more and more directed at the three of us. After what seemed like an eternity passing in slow motion, I made it to the spot from where I believed I could provide the most effective cover fire. As we fired, I noticed enemy rounds striking the ground around us. We eventually suppressed the enemy, and the five or so Marines, as I remember, who had been pinned down, were able to rejoin the squads. Two had been wounded and were later evacuated from the field.
I have often thought of that run and of the inability of the enemy to find a target. Don't misunderstand me. I am not complaining. I am just trying to understand why neither of the three of us was hit. Could it be the enemies' poor marksmanship? Or, and I prefer to think we did, did we have a guardian angel looking over us that day? Or perhaps a combination of the two? I may never know the answer. And I will never be dissatisfied with the outcome.
I seem to recall that I was told that I was to be written up for a medal. Later, I was advised that the company commander rejected the recommendation, who felt I was only doing what any Marine should have been doing considering the circumstances. Regardless, on April 15, 1970, with a little more than seven months in the Corps, I received a meritorious combat promotion to corporal and reassigned as a squad leader for the weapons squad of the 1st platoon. Frazier and Bryant also received a combat promotion to corporal.
Within a week, the Marines of Mike Company 3rd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment would be back in the midst of things. During the night of April 22, 1970, a squad of the 2nd Platoon of Mike Co. sprung an ambush on approximately 20 NVA/VC enemy. During the firefight, the squad lost one Marine killed and three wounded. A relief squad arrived and moved the wounded to the command area of the platoon. While retrieving the body of the dead Marine, someone tripped a booby trap. The explosion killed the platoon's corpsman and wounded six Marines. Our platoon, the 1st platoon, was located on a nearby hill and observed the engagement. As I recall, we were refused permission to provide relief to the Mike Company unit. The inability to provide assistance to our brother Marines was rankling. The second platoon was greatly depleted, and in order to beef up the platoon, the company was moved to the outer defensive perimeter of Danang. Each of the three rifle platoons was given separate areas of responsibility.
Following my combat promotion on April 15, 1970, I was tasked with the weapons squad of the 1st platoon. With my gun teams and grenadiers assigned to specific rifle squads of the platoon, I was able to provide an extra rifle when a squad went on patrol, whether day or night. During approximately three weeks in May, while the company was deployed around Danang in the outer defensive ring, the first platoon sustained several casualties from booby traps. One particularly vicious sort was the concealed hole in the ground. A hole about eighteen inches or so deep would be dug along a pathway. A fragmentation grenade would be placed at the bottom of the hole with the tripwire secured across the top of the hole. The hole would then be covered with leaves, grass, or anything else to make it appear as part of the surroundings. The unfortunate Marine who stepped into the hole triggered the grenade would not be able to extract his foot before detonation. During this time period, we would discover one of the largest underground hospitals of the enemy.
Towards the end of May, the company reassembled and headed for the mountains. While on patrol in June, a squad of the second platoon discovered a prisoner of war camp. Since darkness was rapidly approaching, the squad was ordered to hold in place and set in without moving into the camp. One of my friends said that movement could be heard inside the camp. He thought prisoners were being moved about. The next day, as the company moved into the area, the pow camp had been evacuated.
On June 15, 1970, at approximately 1600 hours, I and SSgt. Kenneth Martin, platoon Sargeant of the first platoon, was with a squad of the 1st platoon. We received fire from an enemy soldier and proceeded to pursue it. As we "reconned by fire," my piece sustained a round jam. Ken was walking next to me and continued forward while I cleared my weapon. As I finished, I heard the gunshots and discovered Ken lying at the bottom of a ravine. Another enemy had opened fire from the river bank and badly wounded Ken and another Marine. Under covering fire, I went down into the ravine to recover Ken. With some assistance from Cpl. Wesley Richard, we were able to lift Kenneth up. He was badly injured and did not survive the evacuation flight.
Some 20 or so years later, Wesley, I, and our spouses were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to visit the Moving Wall presentation. As we looked for names, we found that of SSgt. Kenneth W. Martin. I asked Wes how he got to where Ken, me, and the rest of the squad were located because he was not on patrol that day. Wes explained that he was managing the platoon's radio when he heard that Martin was down, and Thompson had gone in after him. He said he dropped the phone and ran to where the squad was located.
I remember the ravine was deep, and it was softly raining. Not a hard rain, just enough to get you wet. I knew I had to get Martin out of the ravine as fast as possible. He was hit pretty bad, and I gave what first aid I could. As I tried to lift him up, Marines at the top were trying to reach down to pull him up. I was becoming frustrated because I couldn't get him high enough. As he bled, his blood ran down my arms. Time was becoming critical, and I was growing angrier. Suddenly, Wes appeared from out of nowhere, and, with the two of us, we're able to lift Ken up and put him aboard a dust off. SSgt. Kenneth W. Martin died on the medivac. I did not save my friend.
On August 1, 1970, Mike Company assumed the mission of providing security for Fire Support Base Ryder. It was about this time that I was designated to serve as a company supply Sargeant. Headquarters for Mike Company was located at Landing Zone Baldy.
FSB Ryder was located in the Que Son Mountains on Hill 579. The firebase covered the Que Son Valley to the east and the Antenna Valley to the west.
August 17, 1970, was a bad day for Mike Company. At 1215 hours on the 17th, the company was being resupplied and came under sniper fire. Aircraft worked over the area from whence the enemy fire came. A patrol from Mike Company found a bunker occupied by a Vietnamese female who was detained.
Later that day, at 1425 hours, the company was preparing to move from its daytime position. The company's mortar section fired about 20 rounds at the location from where sniper fire had been received. Upon completion of the fire mission, the company began receiving incoming mortar fire. Six rounds impacted the company area with the result that two Marines and the female detainee were killed, and thirty Marines were wounded. Medivacs were completed, and the company began its move to another position.
After the move, the 1st Platoon came under fire at approximately 2000 hours. A corpsman was wounded and removed from the field. Later that evening, during a movement, the point man discovered the warning sign for a booby trap. While trying to find the device, the point man detonated the weapon. Four Marines were wounded and soon extracted.
Mike Company returned to Fire Support Base Ross the next morning. The sum of the carnage of August 17 resulted in Mike Company sustaining two Marines killed, thirty-five wounded, and one dead detainee. Two of the wounded Marines would later die.
As a company supply Sargeant, I was responsible for marshaling the personnel effects of the dead and wounded and preparing the items for movement. Once the field equipment of the wounded and dead began arriving, and I returned from my trek to Graves Registration, I began to get busy. However, my efforts were cut short by the company's Executive Officer declaring that he was going to inspect the company area the next day. Furthermore, he expected me to have completed my tasks and have my area ready for inspection.
I assured him that I would have the wounded and dead personal effects prepared for disposition, but he would have to take my area as he found it. A few more words were exchanged, at which time I assumed the Executive Officer made some complaint with the Company Commander. I suppose he could have written me up for the insubordination of a superior officer, but I knew the man. I further suppose that after I had completed my tasks with the personal effects, in order to assuage the feelings of the company Executive Officer, I was relieved as company Supply Sargeant and returned to the field. I rejoined the 1st Platoon and was assigned to take charge of a rifle squad.
We would lose two more Marines on the 25th and 27th of August and one on October 5, 1970, while being transferred from Mike Co. to H & S Co., 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. By October 5th, I had been transferred to Delta Co., 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division stationed on Okinawa.
The memories run together. There are many more. Of them all, I do remember distinctly reminding myself that if I got out alive, each day thereafter would be "lagniappe." Lagniappe is a French word meaning something given as a bonus or extra gift. And each day and year after my departure from Vietnam has been a bonus or extra gift, a lagniappe if you will, from God.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
I think having been selected as the honor man of the training series, platoon honor man, winning the Dress Blues award, and receiving a meritorious promotion to PFC out of recruit training ranks high. Firing expert riflemen for three of four years is a grand achievement. Also, receiving a meritorious promotion to lance corporal upon completion of advanced infantry training ranks high. The highest is receiving a meritorious combat promotion to corporal, effective April 1, 1970, for my actions against enemies of the United States and allies.
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
There are two: First is my Combat Action Ribbon, which evidences my role as a combat Marine. The second is my Good Conduct Medal, which demonstrates my level of military conduct while in the Corps.
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
I would have to say that my senior drill instructor, then Staff Sargent H. T. Jones, had the greatest impact. I was an older recruit, having turned 20 years of age in boot camp. To me, Staff Sargent Jones epitomized a Marine. He had been in combat and had been wounded a number of times. He knew what many of us would face in the coming months and years. He was a hard man, but fair. And he understood, and I believe conveyed that understanding to me at least, that combat was an iffy matter, that orders were to be obeyed immediately and that one's training was the best means through which one would survive the maelstrom. He taught me how to be a good Marine.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
Wesley D. Richard served with me in "Mike 3/7". Richie is from Louisiana and was one of the most steadfast squad leaders of the platoon. He is courageous. Wounded three times, he was returned to the States.
J. G. Smith, known as Bear, is from Alabama. The bear was an M-60 machine gunner assigned to the second platoon of "Mike 3/7". He also played the guitar. When it came time to play, whether it was with the guitar or his M-60, he could make some great music!
John Marshall served with me at Marine Barracks 8th & I. John has a quiet strength about himself and is a person of deep convictions. Our families have remained friends for nearly fifty years.
Gramps McAden, from Denton, Texas, served with me in "Mike 3/7". He was first assigned as a grenadier and later became responsible for the company mail.
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
I can. As I recounted earlier, I went into Vietnam, thinking that I would probably not survive.
However, on April 1, 1970, my unit was ambushed. Some of my fellow Marines, two of whom were wounded, were pinned down and cut off from our defensive position by enemy fire. I was at that time an M-60 machine gunner. Along with my A-gunner and another rifleman, I traversed a cleared rice field while exposed to heavy enemy gunfire. I set up in a position from which I could provide covering fire while the Marines who were pinned down were able to escape.
During the run across the rice field and then in position, I clearly remember seeing the enemy fire strike the earth around me. I knew I was not moving that fast that so many shots were going astray. Sometimes afterward, I recall thinking that we either had an angel watching over us or the enemy clearly were poor shots or a combination of the two. Regardless of whether it was one or the other or both, I smile to myself to this day that neither of the three of us was hit by enemy fire that day.
What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now?
After I left active duty and went into the reserves, I went to college and then to law school. As an attorney, I served as a judicial law clerk to a senior United States District Judge for nearly four years and then as an Assistant United States Attorney for nearly twenty-eight years. I was authorized to practice in all courts of the State of Louisiana, federal district courts, and federal circuit courts. I am a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. I retired in 2011 and have since become involved with veterans and community affairs.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
I am presently serving as a judge advocate for my local American Legion post. I have been a member of the American Legion for twenty-two years. I have previously served as a judge advocate and post commander.
I am a life member of the Marine Corps League. I have served as a judge advocate and commandant of my local detachment. I have also served as commandant for the state organization.
I am a former member of the board of directors of a veterans advocacy group, which led the effort to have modern VA clinics constructed for the veterans in the Lafayette and Lake Charles areas of southwest Louisiana.
The greatest benefit has been the opportunity to assist veterans with their efforts to obtain those benefits available through the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The regulatory scheme is byzantine, and many veterans are unfamiliar with the procedures utilized by the VA in claims adjudication.
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
I think the time spent in the Marine Corps enabled me to be more precise and concise in my thoughts and actions. I learned that there are really two basic questions that arise each day. The first is "what is the problem:?". The second is "what is the answer?". Once the problem has been identified, a solution can be obtained.
To answer these two questions, one must amass all relevant evidence, determine what the facts are from the evidence, and then apply guiding principles to fashion a resolution of the issue. Whether one is resolving an equipment issue or a legal issue, these two questions must be asked and answered.
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Marine Corps?
Don't be fearful of your decision to join the Corps. You have joined a grand organization. But above all, listen to your instructors, beginning with your drill instructor and continuing on through all your training. It is this training which will increase your chances of surviving combat.
My oldest son, who graduated high school in 1995, was a good high school football player, and a few small colleges were looking at him. We had visited some of the schools, and I thought he would make a decision in due course. One Saturday morning before graduation, we were working in the yard. My son approached me and said he wanted to talk about college. My first thought was that he had decided on which school to attend.
One can imagine my chagrin when I heard him say that he did not see himself in college in the fall. When I asked why, he responded, "It would be a waste of my time and your money!" I then inquired, as my anger rose, what did he intend to do. As calmly as he could, he replied that he, being eighteen at the time, had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. My concerns having been ameliorated, the transformation of Andy Thompson into Staff Sargeant Andrew E. Thompson began then and continues to this day. Once his active duty years were met, he separated out, remained in the active reserves for nearly eleven years, and attended McNeese State University and obtained a degree in criminal justice. He would later attend the University of Houston and obtain his master's degree in security administration.
My brother-in-law, Roy E. Young Jr., separated out of the Corps when his active duty time expired in 1971. His youngest son would enlist in the Marine Corps and would be stationed at the Marine Reserve Center, Lafayette, Louisiana. By then, my son rotated into the active reserves and served as a section leader with the Marine unit in Lafayette. Both were members of the TOW/Scout Platoon, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division.
In 2003, I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball given by the Marines of the unit. There is nothing more impressive than a room full of Marines in their Dress Blues! As I looked out into the faces of those young Marines, I recall thinking of how impressive they looked and, as I imagined, how soon would the Dress Blues uniforms give way to combat attire. And I departed from my text. I expressed to those young men how critical it was to rely upon their training and remember what they were taught for; if they were in combat, that training would be the saving factor.
The unit was subsequently sent into the Iraq theater and, as part of the Regimental Combat Team 1, would engage the enemy in the Second Battle of Fallujah. A portion of the Scout Platoon would also be assigned to the Ramadi area. Both were bloody places. The TOW/Scout Platoon took 100 in and, although some were wounded, 100 returned home. I like to think that perhaps my words of caution and training had some impact on the unit.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
Remembrance has always been in my mind. This has helped me put into words what I see in my mind's eye each day of each month of every year since 1970.
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