Sgt Michael Harris US Marine Corps (1966-1972)
Sgt Michael Harris
US Marine Corps
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WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I had planned to go to college upon graduation from Banning High School in Wilmington, California. However, with the war in Vietnam heating up and many of my friends already in the service, I joined the Marine Corps early enlistment program in April of 1966 after listening to the Marine Recruiter at my high school Career Day.
I was also influenced by the past history of my immediate family. I had relatives who served all the way back to the Civil War. My great-great-great- uncle was killed at Little Round Top during the second day of battle at Gettysburg. He served with the 15th Alabama Infantry under Col William C. Oates, which I believed was from Gen John B. Hood’s Division which attacked Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. He was killed during one of these attacks. My grandfather served with the US Army in World War I. My father served during the Korean War in the US Navy. My step-father served during World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War. During World War II his destroyer had been sunk by a Kamikaze attack. My father-in-law served with the US Army Air Corps during World War II in Okinawa IA Shima and the surrounding islands. Two of my brothers were also US Marines, as was my brother-in-law. I also had a son-in-law in the Navy and two others in the Marine Corps. So both my wife’s and my family had a rich history of serving this nation during it’s hour of need.
I had been persuaded by a sense of duty to serve this great nation as many had done before me. I will say that it was an honor to do so and I make no apologies for my service in the Vietnam War. The history of the Marine Corps captured my attention at age 13 after reading “Guadalcanal Diary.” I loved the Pacific island hopping stories as I read them growing up.
On the way to Vietnam I flew aboard a Continental Airlines Boeing 707. We flew directly over Iwo Jima and it sent chills up my spine as I remember the tough, hard combat on that small island. So many Marines lost their lives. Now I was on my way to Vietnam to continue the glorious history of the Corps. I hope that I did not let my fellow Marines down.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
My intent was not to make the Marine Corps a career. I answered my country’s call in Vietnam and when the war was over and my enlistment was up I was discharged with an Honorable Discharge on 31 October 1972. When I entered the Marine Corps I made it perfectly clear that I wanted to serve as an 0300 (Infantry).
In Vietnam I served as a Forward Observer with Echo Company as well as Fox and Hotel Company’s, 2nd Bn, 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. I did consider at one point just three months before my discharge extending my enlistment for 6 years but changed my mind. I regret not making the Corps my career. I believe that I had so much to offer the Corps and the Marines who would come after me. Below is a photo of me and my radio operator, Cpl Ron Hamlin, the best RO in Vietnam.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
I served in many combat operations. Those that were most memorable were Operation Tuscaloossa in January 1967, Operation Union II in June 1967, Operation Ballistic Charger in September 1967, Operation Essex in November 1967, Operation Auburn in December 1967 and the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968 in Hue City and the Truoi River Bridge. The most memorable to me would be Operation Union II. On June 2nd, 1967 our company was ambushed in a rice paddy near the village of Vunh Huy. In the first 15 minutes of the battle some 46 Marines had been killed in action by an overwhelming enemy force estimated to be around 1200 NVA. The Marines fought with the tenacity and ferociousness Marines had been noted for in the past. The enemy attempted to overrun our position but were fought off by a company that had been badly mauled in that rice paddy. We took up positions for the remainder of the day and night on a wooded knoll to the rear of the ambush site and resisted the enemy attempts to overrun our position. With the assistance of artillery barrages fired by myself, fixed wing air strikes, helicopter gunships and Puff at night, we were able to hold on until the next morning when we were reinforced by other Marine units. Time would not permit me to tell of the individual heroism of every Marine in our company, but our Company Commander, Capt. James A Graham would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. His photo is attached.
I also participated in Operation Hue City during the 1968 TET Offensive. My company was assigned the security of a main bridge spanning the Truoi River South of Phu Bai on Route One. We battled an NVA battalion there for three weeks suffering a large number of casualties. One of those killed was my friend, Richard “Doc” Stanton, who while aiding wounded Marines in a rice paddy during a fire fight was killed by a burst of machine gun fire from an AK47. He was awarded the Silver Star for his gallantry. I ended up in Hue City by accident after being hijacked by my former CO, Capt Sam McKee and sent on a convoy from Phu Bai to Hue City. During the convoy I rode on a 6X loaded with Marine replacements who had just arrived from the states two days earlier. As we reached the An Cuu Bridge, which spanned the Phu Cam Canal we headed towards the MACV compound we were hit by RPG, machine gun and AK47 fire. One of the “new guys” was manning the .30 caliber machine gun atop the truck I was riding on and he was peppering the open windows on our left flank while the rest of us fired at the enemy in the windows on the right flank with our M-16’s. I heard a terrible thud and a groan and was sprayed with brain matter and blood. The Marine who was manning the .30 caliber was hit in the head and killed instantly. The other replacements were laying on the floor of the 6X hiding from the fire. One of them was vomiting all over everyone. Another Marine was standing up and continued firing at the enemy. We arrived at MACV and found out that two other Marines had also been killed by the enemy fire. The dead were unloaded and the rest of us waited for our next assignments. I was angry with Capt McKee for using me in this way. I was a Forward Observer attached to Echo Company that was manning the Truoi Bridge. I was trying to get back to the bridge after having an abscessed tooth pulled when he grabbed me for the convoy. It took me six days to get back to my unit at the Truoi Bridge and my skipper, Capt Pete Duffy was plenty angry. I explained what happened to me and he forgave me, but he would remain angry for a few days. On February 20, 1968, I conducted my last combat patrol before leaving Vietnam two days later after having spent 607 days there. The patrol like most patrols in Vietnam was not routine.
WHICH, OF THE DUTY STATIONS OR LOCATIONS YOU WERE ASSIGNED OR DEPLOYED TO, DO YOU HAVE THE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY?
Believe it or not my fondest memories were those made while serving in Vietnam from 1966 – 1968. There is a kinship, a brotherhood and a camaraderie between men who serve together in combat. It is a kind of “You watch my back, I’ll watch your back.” I will never forget the good times in Vietnam. Yes, the good times. My radio operator and myself blowing up the shitter at Phu Bai with a frag then yelling incoming. No one knew different because we got mortared and rocketed all the time anyway. Our goof little Vietnamese friend, Kinh, who showed up every morning wearing his helmet saying, “Me go on patrol with you today, Marine, me kill many VC.” Then we would tell him, no, not until you get a little older. Then one morning he showed up and said the same thing and our platoon sergeant said “Okay, Kinh, you can go with us today.” With a big smile on his face he looked at us and said, “Where we go today.” Sergeant Foster said “To the Que So Valley.” Kinh’s eyes opened up as big as silver dollars and he said, No! No! Me cannot go. Momma San say me got to go to school!” No one wanted to go onto the Que Son.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
Without a doubt it would be the many friendships that I made and nurtured in the combat environment in Vietnam. It has been said that when you make a friend in combat that the individual remains a friend for life. Today I still have the friendship of many of those Marines I served with. Sgt Gordon Wilson, Cpl Tom McLaughlin, Hospitalman Roger “Doc” Lansbury, Major Joe Kinder, Cpl Bob Hoover, radioman and three time Purple Heart recipient, GySgt Jack Koon, LtGen Ron Christmas (CO with H Company), Capt Pete Duffy Co of Echo Company, Capt Joe Kinder, CO of Echo Company and of course, Capt Pat Blessing, CO of Echo Company and many others. My best friend in Vietnam, Sgt Ron DeFore passed away in November 2007. I spoke at his funeral and was a pallbearer. His death was devastating to me.. We were each others PTSD support. We talked regularly and I still miss hearing his voice. In Vietnam I was nicknamed “Thumper,” and “MO.” He gave me the name MO. I loved him like he was my brother. Then there are those men I have met who I did not serve with but meet with at the Vet Center. LtCol Joe Griffis, my PTSD Counselor who saved my life. He is gone now, but I think of him everyday. Jim Tremblay, Doc Hopkins, Ron Qualls, John Truske, Bob Cosgrove and so many others at the Vet Center. The photos attached are of my best friend Sgt Ron DeFore. Ron passed away in November 2007. I miss him so much. He was a Silver Star hero.
WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?
I was awarded two Bronze Star Medals with “V” Device for heroic action during Operations Ballistic Charger and Operation Auburn. I was also awarded the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (Individual Award) for my actions in serving with an ARVN Company in October 1967 in Ninh Binh Valley. In addition I was recommended for the Silver Star Medal by my former CO, Capt Joe Kinder in 1998. Attached is photograph of my Bronze Star Award Ceremony in 1999.
OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
The most meaningful of my decorations would be the two Purple Heart Medals. Though I was wounded a third time during Operation Ballistic Charger by shrapnel from an enemy mortar round, I did not receive a Purple Heart Medal for that wound even though I applied for it with the Commandant of the Marine Corps. This medal is the oldest of all military decorations and was presented for the first time by George Washington for Merit. It was later given to those who were wounded in battle with a hostile enemy. This medal designates sacrifice more than any other. For it signifies that the individual shed his blood in the defense of his friends and his country. “Greater love has no man then that he lay down his life for his friends.” My Purple Heart Awards Ceremony in 1997. The award was given for wounds suffered during an enemy RPG attack on our outpost at My Loc (2), on 27 February 1967.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
That would be Sgt Gordon Wilson. He was an exemplary Marine who was involved in fighting from Con Thien all the way south to the Chu Lai area of operations. He was responsible for my Forward Observer field training. Our first operation together was Operation Union I, in May 1967. He forced me to call in a fire mission in Antenna Valley when I didn’t know if I was ready or not. The mission was a success and accomplished two things. First, it proved my ability and knowledge as an FO and second, I gained the respect of the CO, Capt Pat Blessing and the other Marines of Echo 2/5, which I never lost. The following month I would be permanently assigned as the FO of Echo Company. This would never have happened were it not for Sgt Wilson’s personal hands on training. At the time I was barely 18 years old. This was a big responsibility for a Marine so young, but I would prove myself again and again in combat. The photo attached is of Sgt Gordon Wilson and myself at my home during a reunion in 1996.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
I actually remember two incidences that bring laughter when I think of them. The first was when our battalion arrived at Phu Bai in the middle of January 1966. My radio operator, Ron Hamlin and I decided that since Phu Bai was getting hit by rockets and mortars almost hourly at the time that we would give some excitement to the Marines and Seabees around us. We took an M-26 Frag grenade and after making sure no one was in the portable shitters we pulled the pin and dropped it into the diesel fueled container underneath and ran like hell. The grenade blew the shitter to kingdom come. We yelled incoming and all the Marines and Seabees ran out of their hootches, which were tents and flung themselves into the trenches around the tents. We laughed about it for days.
The second incident is a bit more serious. I would fire H&I’s into the nearby countryside attempting to harass and interdict enemy movements at night. During the rainy season these rounds would sometimes not explode. The enemy would then take the rounds and turn them into booby traps. One night as I was firing the H&I fires, I was watching out of a starlite scope when I noticed a figure run out and grab the round after it had not exploded. I fired another round and it also did not explode. Again, a figure ran out and picked up this round as well. Then I had the Marines of the 81 mortar section set an MT or delayed fuse on the next round and it was again fired, but this time with a delay in the explosion. It again hit and out came the dark figure and picked it up. As he was running back towards the village he came out of it exploded and killed him instantly. The problem was solved. Never again did any enemy soldiers run out and get any more dud rounds that night. Thus, Marines lives would be saved in the future. Charlie never knew if or when the round would explode.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I worked as a welder/mechanic for 12 years until I decided it was time for a change. I went to Ocean Import and Export School and received my diploma and went to work for one of the largest Ocean and Air Import/Export companies in the world. I retired from that company as the Gateway Manager in 2001. My wife and I now reside in Russellville, Tennessee.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
I belong to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Order of the Purple Heart. I received a great deal of assistance from the DAV in helping me with my claim for PTSD. It would be my advice that any Marine seeking to obtain disability benefits for service connected injuries utilize the Service Officers of the DAV. As a member of the OPH I was able to link up with a few Marines I served with in Vietnam and I had the opportunity to learn about the experiences of other wounded veterans. I attempted to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars after my discharge from the Marine Corps in 1969, but for some reason was denied membership. I later found out that the VFW had done this to many Vietnam Veterans resulting in the Vietnam Veterans of America being formed.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
Just about every single thing I do in life has been shaped and molded by my experiences in the US Marine Corps. It was in the Marines that I learned about teamwork and discipline. Both are absolutely necessary for success in the real world. I still practice many of the disciplines I learned and developed in boot camp and combat. In every single occupation I worked in I had leadership positions of some kind. I developed my “Team” as if they were a well oiled “fire team.” I never did anything without a clear strategy for victory and accomplishment, always challenging those who worked for me to give their absolute best for the team. As a result my teams were always successful and a grade higher then any other team. Reminded me of boot camp where our drill instructors did the exact same thing. That is why we were the honor platoon at graduation in 1966. I placed the emphasis on winning, ALWAYS. In combat there is no substitute. I led by example. I was always out front of my team and not afraid to take the heat and catch the flack. Subsequently, many of those who served on my teams were elevated to management and supervisory positions. Just like in the Marine Corps. My children were raised with standards, disciplines and character. Today they are all successful and passing those same things on to their children. I think that without my military service I would have produced mediocrity in most areas of my life. The Marine Corps was the most fulfilling job of my life. I am thankful for what the Marine Corps gave to me. Grateful for the opportunity to have served a country that I owe much more to then I have given. Semper Fidelis to all you “Jarheads,” regardless of what your 782 gear look likes.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
Give your all. Seek to be a better Marine today then you were yesterday and better tomorrow then you were today. Let your priorities always be, “God, Family, Country and Corps and in that order. Seek to learn something knew about yourself and those you serve with everyday. Never stopsearching for knowledge in and out of the Corps. If you are a leader of Marines, then lead! If you are a rifleman seek to learn the job of the fire team leader. If you are a fire team leader, know the job of the squad leader. If a squad leader, know the responsibilities of the platoon sergeant. Platoon Sergeant’s know what would be required of you if your platoon commander goes down. You will be a better Marine if you are prepared to meet these challenges. I know from experience! These will also work very well in the civilian world. Lastly, take responsibility for your actions, the good as well as the mistakes. Don’t look for someone else to blame even if you are in a position to do so. To do otherwise is to lose the respect of your Marines and degrade your character and integrity.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
It seems like everyday I receive a message from out of nowhere from a Marine I don’t know who just wants to say, Semper Fidelis. I have been re-united with Marines I served with in Vietnam and gained many many new friends and brothers. We in the CORPS are truly a “Band of Brothers.” Whether you served in Guadalcanal or Kandahar, An Hoa to Fallujah or the Frozen Chosin, San Diego or Lejuene. When we see each other out on the street, in the market, at a movie, or the gym, we always greet each other with a Semper Fi or just a really big hug. That is what “Espirit De Corps” is all about. I am grateful for TWS. It brings Marines of all ages, eras and geographical differences together. One last “SEMPER FIDELIS.”