2010 Vietnam Tour
“Trip of a Lifetime”
In 2008, ten (10) former Marines, now known as the “Ten Good Men” are as follows: Mike Carey, Gary Crowell, Gary Campbell, John Olsen, Tom Gainer, Stan Guillaume, Don Eberle, Manuel Caro, “Private” Joe Holt and last but certainly not least Doug “Doc” Howell. These men set out on a journey returning to the country where they were battle tested some 42 years earlier. Their destination is Hill 362 in the jungles of the DMZ, Vietnam.
If you drive west on Hwy 9 from Dong HA, at Cam Lo head northwest, about 4 miles this side of the Rockpile and Razorback, lies hill 362 and a few clicks below to the southeast is a particular Streambed. Not of much interest these days, but in July of ’66, these were sites of well-planned NVA ambushes, and some of the most intense fighting the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines had ever seen. Each one of these “Ten Good Men” played their role in what history books call “Operation Hastings”. This was the largest scale operation of the Vietnam War, up to this point, running from July 15th to August 3rd, 1966.
NOTE: 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment was aboard the USS Princeton, dedicated as the Battalion Landing Team (BLT), also know as Special Landing Force (SLF) for “Operation Hastings”. “I” Company (I 3/5) started with approximately 180 men, and only 68 men were able to return to the ship under their own power in the end. During the operation, the company was tasked with setting up a radio relay station atop Hill 362, establishing a communication link with battalion Headquarters. From 22 to 24 July, the unit took over 116 casualties, being ambushed in the Streambed and continuous NVA infiltration and mortar attacks on Hill 362. However, after all the smoke had cleared, “I” Company emerged victorious. They held Hill 362!
For these three days of intense combat, I 3/5 was awarded1 Medal of Honor, 1 Navy Cross, 3 Silver Stars and 116 Purple Hearts.
NOTE: There were Three (3) Medal of Honor recipients during Operation Hastings.
Now they’ve returned to Vietnam, to ascend this hill 362 one more time, to honor each other and their fallen buddies. Perhaps for some, closing a chapter of their life, that was written some 42 years previous, yet was never finished. For others, possibly to look back to where they had cheated death. Each of these men have their own personal reasons for returning. Some share their thoughts along with fascinating and interesting stories, and some hold them tightly locked away. Whatever the reasons, they have come together as a unit, for a second time for a common goal, an agenda, a mission! “The MISSION”: To place a memorial for the fallen, and honor those who survived with I CO, 3/5 on two fields of battle, The Streambed and Hill 362.
Several months after their return from Vietnam, I met these gentlemen for the first time in September 2008, at a 3/5 Battalion reunion. My dad had served with these men in 1966, and was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his actions. My Dad elects not to share his feelings, and seldom does he elaborate on his experiences about that time. Attending this reunion, I had a personal agenda to meet the men he served with, and to obtain a better understanding of his awards. I know my dad is a great man, my John Wayne, but I wanted to converse, face to face with someone who served with him. This would prove to be one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. These men, to whom I’ve grown close, have allowed me to be part of their 1966 “I” 3/5 world, which only consist of a “few distinct members” who are getting fewer every year as, one by one, they receive orders to guard the gates of heaven. These battle hardened Marines have shared sad, bad, and fun stories with me, and have taken me back into Vietnam 1966, allowing me to better understand my dad, what he went through, and what he still lives with today.
After talking with the guys and reading Doc Howells journal, it is obvious they were disappointed that their full mission did not get accomplished. There were proper logistics, planning and plenty of supplies, but the heat, rugged terrain and age were underestimated. These former Marine warriors have the hearts of Lions, but many didn’t have the legs or the physical attributes it would take for this excursion. In 1966, most were 17 to 20 year old lean, mean, green fighting machines, highly dedicated and truly motivated. Unfortunately, as the many years slipped by, most are now just truly dedicated.
Now in 2008, Retired Major Mike Carey leads these men for a 2nd time through the jungles, these Marines are excited and intuitive. However, after several hours of humping through the mountains, the 90 plus degrees of heat and high humidity starts to inflict serious causalities. The Major makes a command decision to abort the mission, stating, “We will not lose another Marine to this hill.” This causes mixed emotions within the unit. Some want to move on. Notwithstanding, no one puts their agenda in front of the unit, as Captain Crowell says to Doc, “Unit Loyalty, you can’t buy it.” Just like in ’66, they are a unit to this day.
Barely making it back to their base camp, the decision is to break camp and drive back to Dong Ha, where everyone will recover. A temporary place, at the base of the Rockpile, is selected for the memorial and as the marines head for Dong Ha, not many words are spoken. Once again, 42 years later, they are left with the same feelings of being sick, tired and empty. Their feelings are kept in check, and their thoughts are held within as they travel back. Doc Howell later writes, “This is not how I wanted it to be. Not on July 24, 1966 and not on May 4, 2008.”
NOTE: It is this writer’s opinion that this was a hard but wise decision made by the Major.
A year later, Doc Howell and Mike Carey go back, and with the help of Phong and Ngoc Nguyen and Pham Thi Cam Thach, they are able to locate the previous buried memorials, and locate the elusive battlefields. They make the 2nd assault on Hill 362 and The Streambed on March 24, 2009.
On the 25th the plan is to find a resting place for the memorials. However, due an injury the 24th, while positively identifying the ambush site in the streambed, Mike is not able to continue. Knowing Mike Carey, I’m sure he was not happy with his current situation. Doc Howell goes it alone.
In 1966, Doc Howell was determined to complete his mission of keeping his Marines alive, and he accomplished this to the best of his ability as he fought alongside these men. To my understanding from talking to his peers he did a damn good job. This day, some 43 years later he has the same determination of completing his mission. With Phong and Thach, Doc humps thru the jungles one more time to the areas plotted as Hill 362 and The Streambed. Doc Howell picks the sites and buries the memorials. To me it’s clear in his writing that he was honored to represent “I” Company 3/5 and proud to lay the memorials in their resting places. He writes, “There is a very deep satisfaction with this accomplishment.” However, it’s this writer’s belief that he felt incomplete not having Mike, John and the rest of the Ten Good Marines to share in this triumphal moment.
NOTE: Until April 10, 2010 Doug “Doc” Howell and Mike Carey were the only members of 3rd Battalion 5th Marines to return to the Hill 362 and The Streambed, since July 1966. After 43 years, they have cleared the path for others to follow.
NOTE: Doc and Mike have more than once said, “This significant milestone would not have been accomplished, if not for Phong, Ngoc and Thach.” They put in hours of research, along with several trips, these young Vietnamese tour guides have become close to Mike and Doc. After meeting and spending time with Phong, Ngoc and their daughter Kim, I, too, consider them friends and will try to stay in touch as much as possible.
NOTE: Coincidental as it is, it’s fascinating for me that Doc and Mike climbed the hill and went down into the streambed on March 24th, for I share this date. It is my birthday.