A loud silence - Vietnam veteran attends reunion of tragic battleFor more than 40 years, Joe Martin didn't talk about it to anyone. He didn’t tell anyone that he watched in horror as a bullet pierced the forehead of a comrade mere feet away.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
For more than 40 years, Joe Martin didn't talk about it to anyone.
He didn’t tell anyone that he watched in horror as a bullet pierced the forehead of a comrade mere feet away. He didn’t talk about how he saw guys get hit by bullets and fall on both sides of him.
He kept quiet about snaking across a dried-up rice paddy, trying to avoid machine gun fire and stumbling across injured or dead soldiers.
No one knew that he walked through a village where babies and children screamed, and mothers and grandmothers wailed tears of grief after a bomb had decimated their village, killing their sons, fathers and husbands. He kept mum about how he managed to escape that village minutes before a napalm bomb burned it to a crisp.
He kept all those memories swathed in bubble-wrap and packed tightly away in his mind for four decades.
Then he got a call from a man named T.
“I only knew him as T,” Martin said. “We all had only a first or last name, or a nickname.”
Because of that call and what followed, Joe Martin now talks. Sitting on the deck of his home near Lake Carlos, his soft-spoken voice barely discernible over the drone of the neighbor’s lawnmower, he tells his story. Humbly and with reservations, he finally talks about Vietnam.
“I got drafted into the Marine Corps in March 1966,” he began. “I was an ammo humper. I carried a machine gun and ammo.”
A Marine in the Fox Company 2nd Battalion First Marines, Martin was then an assistant machine gunner, and eventually a machine gun squad leader.
“We were infantry. We were shot at and shot back, just trying to survive,” he continued. “Search and destroy, that’s what we did. Every time we went out we would kill someone or have someone wounded in our squad.”
Martin and his company lived on top of a mountain for five months, sleeping in holes that were sandbagged in and showering under a waterfall. For 54 days, they survived on meager C-rations.
In the midst of that, dawned April 21, 1967 – a day Martin and his company say should never have happened. It was the day of Operation Union, on Marble Mountain in the Nui Loc Son Valley.
“We were out there to patrol a territory and defend the hill,” Martin explained. “We had 115 guys out there. Estimation was that it was 750 to 1,200 Viet Cong we were up against that day.”
Despite the obvious danger, the company had orders to forge across a dried-up rice paddy. The enemy immediately started gunning them down. Of the 115 men in the first and second platoon, 25 were killed and 65 injured within hours.
“I lost my whole machine gun squad,” he murmured. “They were either killed or wounded. Most of them got killed within 20 yards into the first initial push.”
Martin dropped to his belly and crawled through the grass, stumbling upon two injured comrades. He bandaged the arm of one and dragged both of them to the tenuous safety of a treeline.
The deadly battle dragged on until 3 a.m. on April 22.
“We got out. I don’t know how or why, but I didn’t get shot,” he said, shaking his head in sadness.
With the tragic events of that day carried with him, Martin had to struggle on for several more months in Vietnam. He was not discharged until July 17, 1967. He had served for 11 months and earned a Purple Heart. He was 24 years old.
Martin had witnessed more atrocities in those 11 months, especially on the day of Operation Union, than most people see in a lifetime. The memories were vivid and constant, but he kept them to himself.
Thinking he was lucky he could hold a job, Martin poured his angst into work – first for 12 years in Saudi Arabia working construction. In 1986, he and his wife moved to Alexandria, where they owned and operated the Shor-Wood Resort for 20 years, retiring in 2006.
AN UNEXPECTED CALL
Two years ago, Martin’s phone rang. It was a man named Rick Taylor – the “T” of his Vietnam days. Taylor was searching for “Marty” from his company in Vietnam, and was calling every Martin in the phone book in Minnesota.
Taylor was calling to let Martin know that a reunion of those who had fought in Operation Union was in the works. At first Martin was hesitant to commit, but after thinking about it for a month, he decided to attend the reunion, thinking it might be therapeutic to let the demons of the past be unleashed.
The reunion was planned for April 21, 2011 – exactly 44 years after Operation Union commenced.
Martin and his wife, Linda, traveled to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he spent four days reconnecting with the men who had played such a brief but life-altering role in his life. About 90 people, including 17 from his 2nd Platoon, were there.
“Some of the people there were daughters or sons, brothers, grandchildren [of men who had lost their lives],” Martin said. “Nobody had talked about the thing forever.”
One of the men at the reunion was Bob Berry, now of Genoa City, Wisconsin. Berry was another soldier fortunate enough to survive Operation Union.
He says it’s because of Martin’s bravery.
“I was in the same company, Foxtrot, at the same time,” Berry explained. “Joe was my team leader. I was a machine gunner.
“The captain gave the order. It was basically a mistake. We ran into a whole regiment,” Berry continued. “I knew it was a mistake but when you get the order, you walk and you shoot. We were surrounded by the bad guys.”
Halfway across the field, Berry was shot in the hip and it went through his spine. For an entire day he was “pinned down,” unable to move. It was Martin who stumbled across him and dragged him to safety. Hours later, Martin and a couple other guys went back and transported Berry to an area where he could receive medical attention.
“He came out and carried me back to a little building that was our triage,” Berry said. “If he didn’t come and get me, I wouldn’t have lasted the night.”
Berry insists that if it weren’t for Martin, he wouldn’t be at the reunion – he would never have left that field in Nui Loc Son.
“He’s a hell of a guy. He’s a real Marine from start to finish. He is nothing but a hero from the get-go,” Berry concluded.
“I never forgot about him.”
No one else at the reunion had forgotten either. And it was time to remember, no matter how difficult it was.
“We just wanted to set things straight about what really happened and why it happened,” Martin said. “As a group that night we talked about what happened. We felt [they] all got killed for no reason at all. A John Wayne assault across an open rice paddy.”
At a dinner culminating the reunion, Martin said the hankies were out in full force as the emotional evening progressed. Several men who had taken part in Operation Union got up and spoke about their memories, their experiences – and their nightmares.
“It’s a hard one to forget,” Martin said with tears in his eyes.
But now that he has reunited with those who lived that nightmare with him, it’s a little easier to talk about.
“It was good for us to put the final chapter and the right chapter away about what happened on the 21st,” he said. “It was kind of a tell-all night. I feel a little better about myself.”
He also knows that in speaking about his past, he can revel in the present.
“We all left happy that there were that many of us there,” he concluded. “It was all about today. We’re still alive.”