Cpl Joseph A. Francis, U.S. Marine Corps (1966-1968)
Cpl Joseph A. Francis
U.S. Marine Corps
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I was born and raised on an Indian Reservation for the first 14 years of my life. I was in an orphanage for the first 4 years of it because my mother had tuberculosis. It was the scourge of a lot of Indians back in the 20’s 30’s and into the 40’s. A lot of our people fell ill and died from that dreaded illness as there was no known cure for it. Anyone who fell ill from it had to be quarantined over a period of several years for it to run it’s course. That’s the way it was.
In the later years of my young life I was shipped off to an Indian Residential School because that is were you were suppose to go to be indoctrinated into what was called an assimilation program that would put you back into a civil society. Severe corporal punishment was the order of the day. It was mandated by the department of Indian Affairs and the Government of Canada that we be sent there. The residential school would go on to be to be one of governments darkest hours in the brutal mistreatment of the Indian children that lasted over a period of 50 + years. Canada would go on to pay out billions in restitution for the pain and suffering it had caused.
My wife of 38 years Martha Francis also spent all of 7 years at the Residential School as well as my mother and my three sisters.
While we had the feeling of being held hostage to the Residential School there was a blessing of a whole litany of reading material that could be accessed. My favorites were history and geography which allowed me to expand out into the open world. It gave me an opportunity to touch bases with some of the places that our elder veterans had been to while they were overseas fighting the wars.
There were many veterans on our reserve who served in WWI, WWII and Korean War. They would talk of their experiences for hours. I also use to read a lot of comic books I found which were quite useful in enhancing your reading skills. The ones about war caught my attention particularly the ones about the Marine Corps because of the documented exploits of the Marines in Island campaigns of WW II. It was there I first heard of the Indian Ira Hayes who was involved in the flag raising on Iwo Jima. It was these kind of exploits dreams are made of and that I too would return from war one day and talk to the children of my tribe of how important it was for them to follow the path of their Elders to realize their dreams. From that point I wanted to be a Marine and I made a solemn promise that I would become one.
The photo to the right is my great-grandfather. A WWI vet and fellow grunt.
WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
My time in the Marine Corps, though only two years, had to be the two most exciting years of my life. Some low points but a lot of high points. I got to see a lot of the world and experience a little bit of everything.
Yes I did get to see combat. It’s somewhat hard to give an accurate analysis of jungle warfare. You’re shooting at the jungle and the jungle is firing back at you with bad intentions. With a lot of automatic fire all over the place it was hard to pick a target when you don’t really see one. Once in a while you would get lucky but for the most part your fighting on Charlie’s terms. After all it was his back yard. Charlie was not in the habit of leaving his war dead behind. He would take them with him so you would not know how many of his people you might have killed. Combat operations therefore lasted anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months.
I was with F-Co, 2nd Bn, 26th Marines. We conducted operations all over the I-Corps area. Mostly up in the DMZ. One operation that stood out was Operation Hickory which, though only lasting ten days, it was ten days of pure hell. Our battalion was ambushed by a regiment of NVA. 1-9 and 2-9 plus 2-4 were also on that one as we transcended into Operation Cimmeron but not before loosing half of our battalion as wounded and KIA’S. A lot of good men were lost. Faces and names stay with you long after the last shot has been fired on any operation.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
Yes, about 27 in all – these were all combat operations. The longest one which was actually three operations in one, lasted 45 days. A whole lot of mountain climbing, drinking a lot of rice paddy water and endless walking in elephant grass that cut your hands all to hell when cutting it with a machete. Also having to cut your meals down to two meals a day, if you could call those thingsmeals. Many times when you drank rice paddy water after adding a couple of iodine pills in your canteen to make it safe to drink, it gave you the runs.
There were times when Marines would have to relieve themselves while walking through the jungle. The only time you got another pair of trousers is when the pair you were wearing rotted off or were ripped off by the jungle growth. Those would be brought in by the supply chopper which brought in your ammo and rations. Everything else got second billing. That was the easy part of being in combat operations out in the field.
Each and every operation was significant because you don’t know what you are really getting into until you were actually on the operation. There was little or no warning as to when or what you’re going to get hit with. It could be from an ambush or tripping a booby trap, getting hit with artillery, or mortar fire, or walking headlong into ambushes which come in all sizes from squad size up to full battalion or regimental size which happened with Hickory.
“Walking Point” is a very unique experience. It adds new meaning to living on the edge or living on borrowed time. It also takes on another level of what it takes to keeping yourself alive while maintaining the safety of your fellow Marines at all cost. You have to be constantly on a hyper state of alertness and all your senses working at a 100% plus.
For reference: definition of “Take Point” from Wikipedia: In modern military parlance, to take point, walk point, be on point, or be a point man means to assume the first and most exposed position in a combat military formation, that is, the lead soldier/unit advancing through hostile or unsecured territory. The term can be applied to infantry or mechanized columns. The soldier, vehicle, or unit on point is frequently the first to take hostile fire. The inherent risks of taking point create a need for constant and extreme operational alertness. However, ambushes often intend to let the point element past the prime killing zone in order to be maximally effective. Point position is often rotated periodically so as not to overtax the individual soldier/unit.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
There are many memories that stand out. To select a single one is somewhat hard to nail down. There is the rude awakening that you received when you first get off the bus at PI. There is the memory of landing in Da Nang and getting off the plane and enhaling your first breath of the intense heat of around 120 degrees F. There is the experience of being in your first fire fight and feeling like you’re in the twilight zone and hearing the first real sound of rounds cracking while they’re going over your head. There is also the grim reality of what war is really all about. There is the memory of your first operation. Mine was Shanook. I was a Mortarman when I first went over to ‘Nam. I did not like humping those rounds all over hell so I put in for a transfer to the grunts. They were always short on manpower so that was not a problem to get transferred over to the First Platoon, First Squad. Best move I have ever made. The whole process took about two months. It there was one draw back, I was an Indian who was quite familiar with walking in the bush so that always made me a prime candidate for walking point on numerous occasions.
WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?
I did and that was a Bronze Star with the combat V for Valor. The copy of my citation is posted with my pictures.
We were on Operation Rush, west of Phu Bui in the mountains. There was a lot of activity there and a rumor of a major staging areas for Charlie. We made heavy contact there the day before when our first point man Tim Roby and some of his team was taken out by an ambush from bunkered up gooks. After the fire fight the VC broke contact and moved out.
It was getting late so we dug in for the night and my fire team had L P for the night. We could hear a lot of activity in and around our perimeter. That made me have cause for concern if I was going to walk the point in the morning. As sure as the sun was going to rise I was called to take point. I had doubts whether they had really moved out from the day before, so I had to be extra cautious and made my fire team stay behind me a little bit further then usual.
The jungle growth being very thick made it all the more difficult to see and observe what was in front of me. I spotted what looked like an ambush sight. There were too many trees laying down and around the area to just be dead fall. I motioned my fire team to get down and told them to sit tight until I talked to my Squad Leader and Platoon Commander to inform them on what I saw. I told them that I would walk up as far as I could and play it from there.
I got as close as I could until I could see and hear bushes moving and actually saw Charlie. It was then I opened up and and all hell broke loose. I had one hell of a fire fight. It was later learned that a Hospital and a Supply and Staging area was indeed on top of that hill. That was the reason it was so well fortified.
The fire fight seemed to go on forever and was very intense. I was shot up and blown up pretty good. I took a direct hit from a chi-com grenade that landed two feet in front of me. All I saw was the damn thing coming at me through the air then a red flash. I remember at the same time thinking ‘I’m dead’. The next thing I am on my knees with all kinds of dirt kicking up around me from automatic weapons fire all over the place.
I picked up my weapon and put in a full magazine and started to shoot up the place. I hollered back to my Fire Team that was pinned down to get the hell out of here and that I would cover fire for them. I spent just about all of my twenty five magazines of ammo I carried in doing so. My ammo got real low, down to my last magazine. It was time for me to leave when I was shot in back of the upper part of my leg. Judging from the way the tracer rounds were coming at me and the way I got hit, it was a safe assumption that I was inside an L shaped ambush.
The only thing I had in my favor was that the AK 47s are not accurate at all when they’re on full automatic. But they do make a lot of noise. After I got out of there, air strikes and arty took care of the rest. A medivac chopper was called in for me and I was lifted out with a horse collar from the chopper that was hovering over head about 500 meters. Some shots were still being fired as I was being lifted out. The chopper had to move out with me still dangling to avoid being hit.
I was taken to Phu Bai hospital to have some of the shrapnel removed. Then I was taken to Da Nang for a day then to the Philippines and then to Guam Naval Hospital where I remained for the next three months. I was operated on one more time to remove more shrapnel and to wire up the back of my leg which had a big gaping hole half way through it from the gunshot wound.
After a couple of months at Guam I began to heal up pretty good but the paper work was already in process to have me sent Stateside. I was supposed to have had a million dollar wound. I did not want to go back to Stateside – I wanted to go back to ‘Nam where the rest of my men were. So I went to see the CO to see if I could get those orders changed. He thought I was crazy but got the paper work done anyway.
A couple of weeks later I’m on a flight to Okinawa and on to ‘Nam. I went to 2-26 again for about three weeks up in Khe Sanh. Then I got transferred to the 4th Marines over at Camp Caroll. Like all the hell holes up in the DMZ, this place was no picnic. We got hammered by loads of artillery and rockets on a regular basis. Our lines were being probed so much at times it was a lot safer to be out on an ambush or operation. Little did we know it was a prelude to the Tet Offensive they were building up for on Febuary, 1968.
In the middle of February, a little past my rotation date, I got to leave ‘Nam. I got to walk out of there on my own accord and I got to do it on my own terms.
Looking back on everything, going back to ‘Nam was the best decision I have ever made. It gave me a chance to obtain finality on the 13+ months of my tour of duty in the hell hole called ‘Nam and not look back.
OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
All the medals you receive are very meaningful to you. All the ribbons are the same. The one that I would loved to have gotten and would have been a privilege and an honor is the Good Conduct medal. I do have an honorable discharge but being in for a two year period does not qualify me for one. Maybe in the next life.
I was awarded a Bronze Star with the combat V for Valor and the Purple Heart for actions helping save my unit from an ambush while walking point. But what I am most proud of was the fact that I was able to help save lives on that day. This outweighs any award one could get for bravery. My job while walking point was to provide safe passage for my Marines through enemy territory and to put my life on the line while doing so is the ultimate honor and a privilege.
I really do think there should be something to acknowledge a two year enlistment. After all, there were a lot of us in this situation. Just a thought. With that being said, I will have to hold my honorable discharge right up there along with all the other awards I received,
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
My Senior DI S/ Sgt. Avery which could be just about everyone’s answer who knew him and rightfully so. DI’s were Gods of the Corps.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
I think the ‘gas chamber’ was up there. I was not bothered that much by it. It made my nose run a bit and my eyes water some but everyone else had hell to pay when it was time to sing the Marine Corps Hymn.
Another memory which stands out which was not funny at the time was when we were on the parade deck competing for the Bronze Boots for best marching platoon. SSgt Avery gave us the order for right shoulder arms. I being left handed and thinking like a left hander went to the left shoulder. The DI, seeing what I had done, looked at me with a most ungodly look akin to pumping me full of holes from an automatic weapon. He then gave the order for port arms. It allowed me to be less noticed for the mistake I made. We won the Boots but my error cost me about three hours worth of extra push ups.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I worked on many jobs from Construction Labor to Carpenter, Iron Worker, Compressed Air Tunnel Worker, Tannery Fork Lift Operator, Construction Supervisor, Gym Teacher, Bus Driver and Owner, Deck Hand on a lobster boat to a Deck Hand on a deep sea trawler. After about 17 to 18 years of working various jobs, I went to Tractor Trailer school and bought a truck becoming an Owner Operator. Fuel got too expensive so I got rid if the truck and went to work for a company hauling chemicals all over the country or, as they say in the business, all over the lower 48 for the next twenty years.
All during that time I was active in boxing. Winning the Golden Gloves 4 times in different divisions, the New England title and making the national team. I also won two international titles when I fought against Canada. Before going into the Marines I had boxed in the amateurs for a period of five years winning the 135 lbs and the 126 lbs titles in the Golden Gloves Open Class. I also won the New England Diamond belt titles in the126 lbs and 132 lbs Division. I was going to turn pro in 1966 but decided to enlist instead. In all I had over 160 Amateur fights and lost 11. As a Professional, I had 8 fights, winning 6, drawing 1 and loosing 1. However my wounds started to catch up with me. It was time to quit the game and become a coach which is what I have been doing now on a volunteer basis at the PAL gym since 1992.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
I am a life member of DAV chapter # 1 in Manchester NH. I am also a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Marine Corps League. I am 100 % permanently and totally disabled.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
It provided me some of the greatest memories any man could ever ask for. It also instilled in me a tremendous amount of self discipline.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
Keep your head down, your weapon clean and carry lots of ammo!
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
TogetherWeServed has helped me find a number of my brothers from ‘Nam and allows me the opportunity to stay in touch with them.