Thank you Dave Cole for your service and for sharing the reality of war. (I know this is really long, but may give a non military connected person a taste of why we always stand for the flag )
Happy Marine Corps Birthday to my Marine Corps friends that I still remember killed in Vietnam Battle
During 1968 and 1969, I spent time with both the First and Third Marines Divisions in combat in Vietnam. I was fresh out of high school and felt extremely patriotic and wanted to join the Marines. I enlisted in May of 1968 during the Vietnam war, and was headed toward an experience I will never forget. I saw human tragedy from war and went from being a teenager to being a man very quickly.
I met many new friends while in the Marine Corps and in the Vietnam war, but there were two Marines and one day I have never forgotten.
Years later, I traveled to Washington DC to find their names on the Vietnam Memorial, and have had their names on my Sheriff’s Office walls over the years.
With the advent of Internet Web Pages, I began checking for my old Vietnam Unit information periodically. A few years ago I finally located a website dedicated to Alpha Company, 1st Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. One part of the website was dedicated to those who had lost their lives in Vietnam. When I checked the names of the Marines killed, I immediately noticed two of the Marines I served with who died in a battle on January 22, 1969 were not listed. They were the Marines whose names I had gotten from the Vietnam Memorial so many years ago.
I immediately emailed the webmaster and advised him of the omissions. I received an email back several months later acknowledging the omissions and the names William St John and Mark Taylor were added to the list of Marines killed in Vietnam from Alpha 1/3.
In 2003 I located a website dedicated to Mark Taylor. I remember the battle so vividly and remember the circumstances surrounding Mark’s death. There was a place for Guests to sign his page on the website. I signed it “I was there, a friend.”
Another Marine died that day in the same battle. I had served with this Marine in Boot Camp and with Alpha 1/3 in Vietnam. I carried his body after he was killed heroically charging a bunker that had his platoon pinned down. His name was William St John. I was never able to find a website dedicated to him.
Several years have passed since I signed Mark Taylor’s page and I had gone on with my life, but never forgotten. I was never able to find anything more about Bill St. John.
One day in December of 2007 I was checking my email and out of the blue received an email from a person whose name was William St John. When I saw the name, I immediately thought of Bill St John who also died on January 22, 1969. I thought this couldn’t be him as I opened the email.
As I read the email, I discovered it was from a William St John, who stated he had seen my message on Mark Taylor’s Webpage and had obtained my email address from that. He stated he was the nephew of William St John who had served with the United States Marine Corps and died January 22, 1969 in a battle with Mark Taylor. I suddenly felt chills go down my spine. The past was revisiting me from the awful days during Operation Taylor Common in the Mountains of An Hoa so long ago. He wanted to know if I was truly there and if I knew his Uncle. I asked him to send me some verification of his identity.
He emailed me a day later and stated he was 23 years old and was born 15 years after Bill St John’s death in Vietnam. His dad was Bill’s brother and named him after Bill. For years he had searched for information on his Uncle. He was obsessed to find information on what had happened that day. He also told me Bill St John had received a Bronze Star for his actions during the battle on January 22, 1969. I had not known that until now and I was pleased knowing the circumstances.
I told him I knew his Uncle, as we had served together in the States in Infantry training during 1968 before both going to Vietnam. We exchanged several emails, and I felt elated and happy. I felt like I had carried Bill’s message of bravery home 39 years later. I felt I had finally came home myself. I also told him that Bill and Marks’ inscriptions from the Vietnam Memorial have been on my Office walls over the years. I collected them from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington many years ago, and look at them daily.
I’ve been home since 1970, which now seems a million years ago. I had spent many months in Vietnam as a Marine grunt. I Spent most of my stint with the 3rd Marine Division in the northern I Corps, until after Christmas day in 1969. I was then shipped south with my Unit Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. We joined 1st Marine Division in the Mountains near An Hoa for Operation Taylor Common.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was January 22, 1969 and my Company was at Base Area 112 west of Da Nang .
Third Platoon left early in the morning for a patrol in the valleys below to search and destroy any Viet Cong or NVA that may be passing through. The Platoon had forty some Infantry when they filed out of our perimeter for the routine patrol. PFC Bill St John was 2nd man in the column as they trudged down the mountain. I knew him fairly well, as we had been together in some Infantry training in the United States in 1968. I recall we used to pick on him and ask if he were related to Jill St John, the actress. He also was given the name of “John Wayne” for his fearlessness in simulated fire fights during training. I can still see him with my other friends as we goofed around during training and were full of life.
On that morning in January, Third Platoon left our mountain perimeter at Base Area 112 west of Da Nang. A short time later my squad leader, whose last name was Molino, told us to saddle up. My platoon, 2nd Platoon, was assigned to board helicopters and provide a perimeter for a downed helicopter that had crashed in the jungle below, due to mechanical problems. We loaded into a Chinook and landed quickly at the base of our mountain. We received small arms fire as we formed a perimeter in a grassy area around the downed helicopter. For a few hours we engaged an unseen enemy in a tree line in a small firefight.
As the day progressed toward early evening, our Platoon Commander received word by radio that 3rd Platoon, which was on patrol a few miles from us, had made contact and had taken casualties. Two grunts were killed. The platoon was pinned down about a mile from our position. As darkness settled, a decision was made to send a squad of 20 Marines to assist 3rd Platoon. As 2nd squad left our position, they entered the jungle area where we had received small arms fire during the afternoon. I had an ominous feeling about the outcome, being aware that the enemy was nearby.
Within a short time, we heard AK-47 gunfire in the area 2nd Squad had entered. The squad soon ran back to our perimeter, relaying that one of their members had been shot and killed. It was PFC Matk Taylor, who I had casually known. He had been ambushed by a NVA soldier as he was changing places with the tail-end Charlie position in the squad(last man).
I Taylor reportedly was exchanging positions with the last man in the column who was nervous. I remember we were all upset that the squad had to leave Taylor’s body.
During the night, we setup watches at our perimeter positions. It was extremely difficult to sleep when I wasn’t on watch, as I thought about Taylor and the upcoming day. I was certain the next day would be as dangerous and I was scared.
The next morning around 7 am our Platoon Commander ordered the platoon to move through the same jungle area to join up with 3rd Platoon. It was my fire team’s turn to walk point. No one wanted to, and I could see it in their eyes. I didn’t feel like a hero and was scared myself. However I had the strong urge to walk point man which was the front man in a Marine combat column. I volunteered, but knew I had very little experience in combat at that time to walk point. My squad leader acknowledged my request and gave me an old C-ration chesterfield cigarette. I remember thinking, at the time, that this would be my last smoke. I was certain I would be killed. I remember that I had to clear a large field prior to entering the treeline, which we had received gunfire from during the afternoon and night before. As I cautiously led the Marine Platoon to the treeline, I was certain I would hear enemy gunfire at any time.
Soon we left the field and entered into the wooded jungle toward the area Taylor had died. I am not sure how far we traveled, but soon I saw a man in a camouflage uniform sprawled on the trail ahead. As I moved closer, I could see it was Taylor and that he was dead. My squad leader ordered me to continue past Taylor’s body and stop a short distance ahead on the trail. Two other Marine grunts, Sanchez and Jake Priode, were positioned on either side of me off the trail as we waited while they put Taylor’s body in a poncho to transport with us. I was very upset about Taylor and remember having my head down crying.
Suddenly, as I looked up, I saw six to eight men running down the trail toward me about 50 yards away. They didn’t see me because their heads were down as they ran toward our column. At first, I thought they were with 3rd Platoon, but noticed they did not have any helmets on. I then realized they were enemy soldiers and opened fire on full automatic with my M-16 as I fell to the ground.
They all fled in different directions. I was chastised by my squad leader for not taking more careful aim with better fire control.
I still felt relieved and excited. I had actually survived and found Andy Taylor so he could go home. I felt somewhat embarrassed by the fact I had not killed the enemy running towards us after finding Taylor, but I also felt pumped that I actually had been able to help my squad survive. No one else seemed to relish being point that day, as it really did appear it was going to be a risky day to walk point.
I stood silently and waited for my squad leader to order me to move out. After Taylor’s body was secured, we came upon a large NVA bunker complex that appeared empty. We didn’t want to take any chances and attacked each bunker, throwing in hand grenades to clear them. We then continued about a mile down the trail until we reached 3rd Platoon’s position. They had secured their position and the enemy had fled prior to our arrival.
My next assignment was to help carry one of their dead who was covered completely with a poncho. I remember carrying the left front corner of the poncho with 3 other grunts. I also remember asking who I was carrying and someone said St John. They told me St John had rushed an enemy bunker after the point man had been killed and the platoon was pinned down. St John was a hero from all the stories I had heard on that day.
I was completely stunned. I thought to myself that I had known him for a long time. I felt very sad, but the war did not allow time for sadness or emotions. It had always been that way among the Marines. No friendships or getting too close to anyone seemed to be the rule in combat. I think everyone feared that if they got to know someone too well they would soon be dead or worse, going home. Going home leaving the unit, and you would still be there.
It was very clear that we needed to move out and set up a more secure position as we were definitely going to have more contact.
Days later, we returned to the area near where St John and Taylor had been killed. I remember clearly a daytime ambush our Platoon had setup on a trail a distance from a second ambush setup by another Platoon. It was late morning as we crouched in the jungle adjacent to a well-traveled trail. As we laid in wait, I could hear gunfire from the other Platoon’s ambush about a mile down the same trail. Suddenly, it was quiet and we were told that NVA that had not been killed in the first ambush were headed our way. I was the second man in the ambush toward the enemy and there was a string placed in front of us that the first man pulled if the enemy were in sight. As we waited, a large horsefly landed on my left elbow and started to bite my arm. It was at that second that I saw the string being pulled as the Marine next to me saw NVA coming down the trail toward our ambush. I didn’t dare swat the horsefly away, fearing the NVA would hear my movement. I remember I could not believe what I heard. The NVA were speaking in Vietnamese and laughing. I could not understand why they were laughing, as they had just survived the first ambush. Many of their comrades did not. Suddenly, our Lieutenant opened fire as the NVA entered into the center of our ambush. I immediately swatted the horsefly off my arm and started firing my M-16 rifle. I was firing into the trail with my face down in the mud. I had little combat experience at the time and was quite scared. There were approximately 40 Marines in our ambush and about 8-10 NVA on the trail in front of our ambush. They all immediately jumped into a large bomb crater next to the trail for cover. At one point I remember I was firing full automatic and thought that they would think I had a machine gun and try and take me out. I heard the Platoon Sergeant scream for someone to throw a grenade into the bomb crater where the NVA were shooting from. I heard two explosions from grenades and we were ordered to cease fire. We approached the bomb crater to find several NVA had been killed. None had been able to flee.
I have always thought that we may have killed Taylor and St John’s assassins in the several ambushes we did during the days after they were killed. There were many firefights throughout the following weeks in that area. It was a hard time for me, but I matured into a seasoned squad leader after Taylor Common, when we returned back to the Mountains in the Northern I Corps.
Months later, April 1969, my Company fought in the Ashau Valley during Hamburger Hill. My experiences in Operation Taylor Common helped me survive that awful time.
I have always mourned St John’s death silently for years, because of our contacts with the Marine Corps. Being able to finally carry this story to his namesake has given me some peace. It’s like I was meant to do this for Bill. I know I have given his family some closure as well as knowing I was there for Bill’s last day.
I later received a letter from the nephew’s mother thanking me for providing her son with the information he sought for so many years. She also told me Bill’s parents suffered anguish for years over Bill’s death until his nephew was born and bore his name. They felt he had Bill’s deep blue eyes, and they began looking at pictures of Bill when he was younger playing baseball.
I will never forget January 22, 1969. I will never forget Mark Taylor or Bill St John. I walked point man to find Mark and survived and I later carried Bill so he could go home. I remember them everyday when I look at their inscriptions on my Office wall and remember the many years ago when we were friends and Marines. God Bless our Veterans.
BILL and Mark I have not forgotten you or the many Marines who died fighting for this country. I still need to visit your graves.