10 October 2005
In February 1967, Luther Hamilton was a PFC in the United States Marine Corps assigned to Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment working out of An Hoa Combat Base in I Corps South Vietnam.
The 5'9” Bartlesville, Oklahoma native didn't look at all like a poster Marine. Boyish looking and clean cut with a shock of red hair and a mischievous face, the slender teenager was exactly what the Corps was looking for during the Vietnam War. Hamilton was fearless and had a wild streak a mile long. He never turned down a challenge, nor let anyone know that he would even consider it. Few people that watched Luther Hamilton grow up were surprised when he enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. It had seemed like the normal course of events.
Hamilton found a home in the Corps. He enjoyed the tough training, finding it the ultimate challenge. In return, the Corps turned young Luther Hamilton in to one of America's new breed of baby faced killers, young warriors who would soon set world class standards for bravery, aggressiveness and a total disregard for their own personal safety on the field of battle.
Hamiton's fire team was set up along the south bank of the Thu Bon river, out in the middle of Arizona Territory, west of An Hoa Combat Base. Hotel Compnay was in a blocking position while Echo and Foxtrot Companies moved out twelve miles to the east on a massive sweep designed to drive VC forces up against the Son Thu Bon. Hamilton's fire teas was Hotel Company's northern most position in a thinly spread two thousand kilometre line that was supposed to keep any VC from crossing the river alive. A two-gun battery of 105mm howitzers had been set up at nearby Phu Loc 6 to fire artillery support and illumination in case the Marines needed it.
The four-man position was manned by PFC Cross, Corporal Lewis, Corporal Ybarra and Hamilton and contained a well camouflaged bunker with several individual fighting positions out in front. After 24.00 hours the fire team went on 50% alert. Cross and Lewis went to sleep in the back of the bunker while Hamilton and Ybarra took security up in the fighting positions across the front. Cross was the team's radio operator and wasn't very happy about being out in Arizona territory. With just over a week left in-country, Cross was too “short” to be sitting out on a blocking force with only three other Marines. Lewis, the ranking man on the team, was also the newest having just transferred in from the1st of the 26th
Marines. Everyone had known some new guy who had gotten zapped in the bush being too careless, but the same went for some very “short” people who caught the “personalized” bullet being too cautious and too uptight. Cross was uptight, and hiding in the bunker was definitely being too cautious. Manuel Ybarra was a short, stocky Marine who was strong as a bull. Because of the difficulty everyone had pronouncing his Spanish surname, all the troops call him “Yogi”.
A few minutes after 02.00 hours, all hell broke loose a klick down river. Hamilton didn't know what was happening but he could tell that the firing was coming from Marine weapons. He wouldn't find out the details until much later, but another Hotel 2/5 position manned by Marines Kirby, Burns, Blocker and Culbertson had just opened up on four shallow draft boasts that dozen VC were using to cross the river. The Marines had waited until the VC were in midstream right in front of their positions, and had killed every one of them.
Unknown to the four Marines in Hamilton's position, at the same time the twelve VC had shoved their boats in to the river downstream, another squad of VC was doing the same thing 500 metres upstream.
When the Marine fire team down stream had opened up on the VC out in the river in front of their positions, the four Marines at Hamilton's position came alert and moved to the front of their bunker immediately. All eyes strained down river in the direction of the heavy firing that was still going on.
Simultaneously, the second group of enemy craft were crossing the river heading directly for Hamilton's fighting hole, out alone and fully exposed on both flanks and to its rear. The VC boatmen where quietly propelling the low profile boats with bamboo sweep oars when they spotted the faces of Hamilton's squad peering over the edge of the embankment. Without a moment's hesitation, the VC squad opened fire with their rifles then hurled three ChiCom grenades over the top of the berm. The burst of VC small arms fire drove the four Marines down in to their holes just as the grenades bounced in to the bunker and exploded.
Inside the dugout the shrapnel that was not absorbed by the red clay and sandbags sought out the four Marines seeking shelter against the front wall of the bunker. Red hot shards of grenade casing tore in to them with a vengeance. PFC Cross, outboard of the four Marines, took the brunt of the grenade shrapnel in his body and helmet. The Kevlar panels of his vest stopped much of the deadly shrapnel, preventing it from penetrating his torso. Likewise the Marine's steel helmet and strong plastic liner kept lethal slivers away from his head and brain. But there was nothing to protect Cross's exposed face, and the ChiComs had made a mess of it.
A large piece of shrapnel impacted the Marine's jaw, cutting away the lower side of his face and knocking him senseless in to the dirt floor of the bunker. The wounds were terrible.
Some of the shrapnel that missed Cross lightly wounded the other three Marines, but they quickly dismissed their own wounds as inconsequential when they saw how badly Cross had been hit. There were no corsmen in the bunker that night, just a bunch of scared, wounded Marines about to learn that the furnace of battle is the birthing ground of veterans.
“God above, turn him over. I can't see his face!” Hamilton yelled at the other two Marines down on their knees staring in to Cross's mangled countenance. “Jesus, where is the fucking corpsman when you need him? Shit!”
Ybarra applied a couple of battle dressings to the Marine's wounded face, while muttering, “This looks bad, Luther.”
When Corporal Lewis screamed for Hamilton to get on the radio and call for a medevac, they quickly discovered that the radio had been smashed by the same blast that wounded Cross.
Hamilton dropped to one knee and stared in to Cross's glazed eyes. The battle dressing were already soaked through with his blood. The Marine knew immediately that if Cross didn't get to a hospital soon, he was as good as dead.
“I'm going for help,” Hamilton hissed as he started to remove his gear. Ybarra and Lewis tried to talk him in to staying in the bunker, warning him that Charlie was out there waiting in the darkness. Besides, it was seven klicks back to Phu Loc 6 and twelve kicks back to An Hoa across open rice paddies and over jungle covered hills.
Ybarra had once seen a whole team of Force Reconnaissance Marine up on the DMZ near Cam Lo after the North Vietnamese had ambushed them. After the Marines had been cut down, the NVA had tied their arms behind their backs with poles through them. They had cut out their tongues and sliced of their private parts, which they then placed in their gapping mouths. Charlie could be bad if he caught you alive! Neither one of the Marines wanted to see Luther Hamilton throw his life away.
But Hamilton was adamant. Cross was his friend, and he only had a week left in Nam. He wasn't going to let him die without trying to get him some help. Hamilton shucked off his helmet, flak vest and web gear and set his weapon against the front wall of the bunker. Taking only Lewis's .45 automatic and his web belt and holsterso he could travel light, Hamilton told them that he was going to run all the way to Phu Loc 6. An Hoa was too far, and he didn't think Cross would last that long. Warning his two companions to keep Cross's head elevated and the pressure dressings on, he told them he would see them, soon, then Luther Hamilton disappeared over the parapet in to the night.
Hamilton ran down along the river trail, then turned south. After a hundred metres he cut sharply to the west away from the river and picked up a secondary trail that led across the southern edge of a huge rice paddy before turning in to the main street of a sleeping Vietnamese village.
Hamilton avoided entering the hamlet proper, opting to fog along the backside of the huts while keeping a close eye on the building for any sign of movement. There was nothing! Not even a dog barked as the Marine passed in the darkness. Soon, he had left the hamlet far behind.
Getting his second wind, Hamilton reached another matrix of rice paddies. The murky, shallow water glowed iridescent in the night, shimmering in the pale moonlight like light playing across the face of black star sapphire. Luther knew that the quarter moon over his shoulder would not easily project his silhouette to any watching VC, but it was enough illumination to make detectable the movement of someone running through the night. Instinctively, Hamilton sought out treelines and the shadows of paddy dikes to mask his movement. Occasionally, he was forced to break out in the open to cross roads, berms or high spots in the trail.
Now in a ground eating rhythm, Hamilton ran through numerous rice paddies, covering one only to find another in his path. The short ones he covered in a sprint, the long exposed ones he traversed with a combination of crawling, duckwalking and jogging, trying to take advantage of all the cover afforded by drainage ditches, dikes, treelines and an occasional abandoned hut.
While Hamilton was taking his chances out in the darkened Vietnamese countryside, things back at the bunker were going to hell in a hurry. Cross coughed to life, disgorging a torrent of blood and saliva that splattered the faces of his two comrades as they looked on in horror. Lewis ordered Ybarra to get the bloody dressing off Cross's face before he choked to death. When Ybarra did this, he discovered that he could no longer control the flow of blood. After awhile, Cross sputtered and emitted a low, shallow moan then grew suddenly quiet. His two companions were visibly upset. Watching their fellow Marine lie there and die in his own gore with only a week left in-country was more than they could handle. And now, somewhere out there in the darkness, Luther Hamilton was putting his life on the line to save a fellow Marine who was already beyond help.
As Luther rounded a brush-covered hillock, another row of huts came in to view. He held his breath. Just ahead, a quarter of a mile away, lay the vague outlines of the sandbagged bunkers on the Marine perimeter at Phu Loc 6.
He made no sound as he reached the back of the huts and crept out in to the open field behind the village. In his haste to reach Phu Loc 6, Luther made several wrong turns before lurching on to the dike that led away from the village. As he passed the last of the huts, angry shouts broke the silence behind him. He heard the high-pitched, clipped voices screaming in Vietnamese. “DONGLAI…DONGLAI,” came the shouted command to halt. With sudden burst of adrenalin, Luther picked up speed as he ran along the trail across the paddy dike.
“MARINE, MARINE YOU DIE TONIGHT,” came the next high-pitched nasal threat from a small group of VC who had picked up Hamilton's trail and were now pursuing him through the darkness.
The path was hard and dry as Hamilton sped along. His muscles were screaming in pain, but he could not stop now – not this close to the end. The perimeter wire around Phu Loc 6 was only 400 metres away. Luther Hamilton's hear was pounding in his chest and his lungs were on fire, and a squad of bloodthirsty VC were hard on his hells, but he had to reach Phu Loc 6 to get help for Cross.
Suddenly, a line of green tracers passed over Hamilton's head and ricocheted off the hard ground at his feet. The VC realizing they couldn't catch him before he reached the safety of the Marine positions, had decided to bring him down now. They stopped their pursuit and opened fire in earnest.
Hamilton jinked to the side and leaped off the trail on to the main road running up to the entrance to Phu Loc 6. Only a hundred and fifty metres to go! Another angry volley of full automatic fire passed just over Hamilton's head. He looked aback over his shoulder and say that the VC were walking their tracers in on him. It was then that scarlet tracers tore through the night from the direction of the Marne perimeter. Hamilton knew that he would never survive the deadly crossfire that he now found himself in. But then he noticed that the Marines on the wire at Phu Loc 6 were not shooting at him. They had spotted Hamilton's pursuers and had figured what was going on in time for to direct their M-60s to lay down a base of fire on the VC trying to bring down the running Marine.
Hamilton never stopped once, but as he approached the wire he yelled back an obscenity at the fleeing VC. Then he was through the wire and in to the arms of a Marine sentry posted there.
“Where in the hell did you come from, man?” You almost got your butt blown, away but some dude yelled you were a Marine!”
Hamilton, stood there bent at the waist with his hands on his knees. He was trying to suck air in to his burning lungs while his hear tried to decelerate enough for him to tell someone about Cross lying wounded out by the river. By the time he could talk, the Golf Company Sergeant on the radio had just apprised him of hwat had happened up on the perimeter wire. The Gunny told the sentry to put Hamilton on the radio.
Hamilton quickly told him what had happened at his position out along the Song Thu Bon, and that he had left a badly wounded Marine back there who needed help immediately. It was then that the Gunnery Sergeant reported to Hamilton that they had already picked up a transmission from another Hotel Company position in order to radio Battalion that they had been hit. He had also reported that Cross had died five minutes after Hamilton had left to go for help.
Devastated by the news that Cross was gone, Hamilton allowed himself to be led away where a Navy corpsman check him out. Luther Hamilton had lacerations to his knees and elbows from crawling over two miles along paddy dikes, but he would heal. The next morning he caught the early supply chopper back to An Hoa. Luther reported directly to the Battalion Headquarters of Lieutenant Colonel W. C. Airheart, Commanding Officer, 2nd
Marine Regiment, 1st
Marine Division. With Colonel Airheart was Hamilton's CO, Captain J.J. Doherty.
Hamilton stood at attention while the Colonel commended him on his bravery and told him that he was being put in for a Bronze Star with 'V' for his actions.
When Hotel Company returned to An Hoa the next day, everyone wanted a word with the unit's newest hero. Luther Hamilton, rumour had it, had run sever miles at night through enemy country, was chased and fired upon by a platoon of VC, and had survived without a scratch. Bronze Star! Bullshit, PFC Luther Hamilton deserved a Navy Cross – he had balls made of steel.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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