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Opening Shots, 1966
In 1966 the Marines were landing in ever greater numbers and establishing the giant supply and marshaling yards in Da Nang, Chu Lai, and to the north in Phu Bai, with firebases spread along the Demilitarized Zone at Camp Carrol, Con Thien, the Rockpile, and Gio Linh. South of the DMZ, combat bases had been built out of ARVN camps at An Hoa and Hoi An, southwest and south of Da Nang, respectively. The combat patrols and major offensive operations were fielded against the Viet Cong's guerrilla units and their main forces. The North Vietnamese Army had yet to make any significant presence in the rice basins of the south, but as 1967 approached, the NVA began a major push into South Vietnam across the DMZ from inside Cambodia and Laos through the meandering roads and trails along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Several major infantry battles had been fought with the Communist forces, such as Operation Starlight and Operation Prairie, and they dealt the Viet Cong and NVA forces severe defeats. However, by 1967 the Communists were learning better techniques to fight their American nemesis.
The Viet Cong main force units blended into the surrounding Vietnamese population by day. By night, the Viet Cong became active, setting booby traps and mines and employing set ambushes with hit and run tactics against the stronger and better-armed American forces. The villagers, whether willingly or by coercive intimidation and torture, gave the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese accurate intelligence about U.S. Marine troop movements and patrols. The Viet Cong main forces made detailed plans to ambush and destroy U.S. units that were patrolling hostile regions of I Corpsand had no clue as to VC movements or intentions. Most Marine intelligence from its reconnaissance units was "stale" by the time it was analyzed and interpreted. The Viet Cong units fought the Americans by hitting hard and fast and melting back into the jungle with no sign or trace of their whereabouts.
American command philosophy was never centralized or executed with enough Marine units trying to pacify the Vietnamese people in their village environs through the fielding of Combined Action Platoons. These platoons consisted of ARVN or Vietnamese Army squads teamed with U.S. Marines to guard the sanctity of the hamlets out in the hinterland. The CAP concept was working despite the fact that an insufficient number of Marine units were available to properly blanket the countryside. The rice-growing regions of I Corps, particularly in Quang Tri and Quang Nam Provinces, were inhabited by South Vietnamese villagers in myriad small hamlets, each with its own specific rice fields to cultivate and harvest. These hamlets, with their peaceful villagers, were the targets of assaults by brutal Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops intent upon refurbishing their exhausted rice supplies to continue the Communist push into free South Vietnam.
The American command was sharply divided as to operational strategy in dealing with the Communist invaders. General Westmoreland believed in fighting large conventional battles against strong Viet Cong and NVA forces, while Marine Generals Victor Krulak, Herman Nickerson, and Robert Cushman preferred to attempt to win the hearts and minds of the local populace by denying the Viet Cong and the NVA the hospitality and active support of the villagers. When and if the main forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army showed their heads, the Marines would be all too eager to join them in battle. Pitched battles were hard-fought affairs in which the Marines often had to overcome a well-prepared ambush and overrun the Communist forces to prevail, and often, the cost of victory was very high in friendly casualties, as was the case on Operation Tuscaloosa.
This is really where the story of the 5th Marine Regiment Sniper Platoon begins.
In late 1966, Ron Willoughby and Sergeant Tom Casey were transferred from the giant Marine base on Okinawa to report to the 5th Marines for duty. Both were expert riflemen and were later chosen as NCOIC and assistant NCOIC for the newly organized sniper program.
This regimental sniper platoon became the foundation of the first divisional sniper school officially established in Vietnam. Other sniper activity had been unofficially conducted by Captain Jim Land and a group of former Marine Corps Rifle Team members. One distinguished member of Land's group was Carlos Hathcock, who had helped create genuine interest in the development of combat sniping among the Marine leaders in the United States. In late 1966 the decision was made to bring an accomplished World War II and Korean War veteran out of retirement. At the request of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gunnery Sergeant Vernon D. Mitchell dusted off his herringbone utility uniform and reported to Camp Pendleton in February 1967 for direct transfer to Vietnam to head the newly founded 1st Marine Division Sniper School at the Happy Valley range outside Da Nang.
This true story will be composed of vignettes of each sniper's training and actual combat experiences. Since these Marines worked with different partners as both shooter and spotter, and with the many different rifle companies of the three battalions of the 5th Marine Regiment on operations all over I Corps, the experiences reported may at times overlap. It is a valid combat reality, however, that the events experienced by two men in the same combat action never completely dovetail. Given the understanding that much time has passed since we faced the enemy bullets, our brotherhood has continued mostly unchanged. We are still the patriots and Marines of times gone by and offer these tales of heroism, death, fear, and loyalty from the most decorated Sniper Unit in the Vietnam War. The 5th Marine Snipers set the records for the most kills, most combat operations, and lastly became the most feared adversaries that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would face during the height of the bloody Vietnam War.
The period from December 1966 through the final battle for Hue City in February 1968, comprised the most ferocious combat of the Vietnam War. The men that I have cameoed in this true story are real and will forever remain my friends and brothers. There are no finer Marines and certainly no finer snipers that ever tasted battle than these men. Each has his story to tell and hopefully the truth will finally come out about whom the real heroes behind the bolt rifles really were.
1st Division Sniper School Gunnery Sergeant Vernon D. Mitchell
Since the Korean War, the Marine Corps has changed in organization, tactics, and weaponry. The one thing that will never change about the Marines, however, is marksmanship. There are legendary names in the Corps, like Captain Jim Land and Carlos Hathcock, but few people have been privileged to shoot with and be instructed by riflemen as distinguished as Gunny Mitchell.
Vernon Mitchell of Vista, California, was born in 1925 and served in World War II, as a teenager. As a rifleman and sniper, he was such an outstanding shot that he later became a sniper in Korea during the Chosin Reservoir breakout, when the Allied Forces were outnumbered and outgunned.
A famous story about then Sergeant Mitchell involved the young Marine and his shooting partner, who were sent to rescue a pinned-down U.S. Army outfit that was trying to advance past the MLR. The young Sergeant Mitchell and his partner arrived in a Willys jeep covered with snow, only to find the Army lieutenant hunkered down behind a stone wall under intense fire from a North Korean machine-gun emplacement. It seemed to Sergeant Mitchell that there were sufficient Army troops on hand to take out the machine-gun team, but as the gun ripped the flinty top of the stone wall into chips, the fearful troopers only curled lower into their holes and bunkers.
Sergeant Mitchell and his partner took their rifles out of the jeep and unzipped padded leather cases holding their match grade M1-D sniper rifles. Mitchell yelled to the Army platoon leader that he would just take a minute to get on target and this cluster fuck would be over.
Sergeant Mitchell strapped into his sling in a tight-legged sitting position that has become the Gunny's trademark. The Army lieutenant jumped to his feet and yelled that the Korean machine gun was positioned at least six hundred yards away, up the hill overlooking the Army bunkers.
The officer blurted, "Hey, you can't hit them from here." The rifle slammed into Sergeant Mitchell's shoulder. Sergeant Mitchell's partner watched a North Korean soldier get to his feet and point in their direction.
Mitchell squeezed the hair trigger on his Garand and the cold, icy air split with a resounding "Kapoow!"
The shot had broken, and the 173 grain match bullet sliced up the hill and through the chest of the standing Korean, who fell into the blood and gore spewing from his giant chest wound. The remaining Koreans looked at each other in awe and let logic run its course. All three machine gunners abandoned their weapon and ran straight up the hill, framed in the vast blanket of snow and ice. Sergeant Mitchell sighted in on the lead Korean and held a yard over his head, figuring for the bullet drop at seven hundred yards. As he squeezed the trigger again, Mitchell burned the crosshairs into the back of the running, terrified soldier. The Garand discharged, and the Korean pitched forward as if poleaxed, then lay motionless in the crimson-splattered snow bank.
The Marines got to their feet, and Sergeant Mitchell watched as the two remaining Koreans topped the hill at a dead run. He looked at the Army officer and commented, "I guess we'll be on our way, Lieutenant. Those boys won't bother you for a while yet! Call us if they do."
Sergeant Mitchell and his spotter placed their rifles carefully back into the snow-covered jeep and, with a final wave to the astonished Army lieutenant, drove bouncing along the trail's ruts, headed back to 1st Division Headquarters.
That story has been told to every Marine sniper candidate at the Happy Valley school, and it's not the most fantastic story told about Gunny Mitchell's shooting skills either.
After Korea, Mitchell was chosen to shoot on the Marine Corps Rifle Team at San Diego in 1952. He exhibited his outstanding shooting skills and in 1955 won the National Service Rifle Championship at Camp Perry, Ohio. In 1958, Sergeant Mitchell won the championship again, shooting a rapid-fire record with fifteen of his twenty bull's-eyes in the smaller V ring. These two National Rifle Championships, coupled with his combat experience and teaching ability, made Mitchell a natural for selection as NCOIC and head of the new sniper school at the SeaBees rock quarry at Happy Valley, on the periphery of the Marine Base at Da Nang.
In February 1967, Mitchell opened the new sniper school to shooters from the 1st Marine Division. He chose as his second in command Sergeant Douglas M. DeHaas, a gifted instructor as well as a class A marksman who had shot competitively on East Coast Marine Corps teams. Gunny Mitchell and DeHaas tailored a three week course, later condensed into two weeks, that covered all phases of marksmanship, map and compass reading, terrain analysis, and the effects of wind and weather on live firing. There was also a course in camouflage, silent tactical movement, and sniper employment that utilized former Viet Cong soldiers who had shown the good sense to "Choi Hoi" and join the American forces. These former enemy instructors knew a hell of a lot about American naivete in the bush, and they painstakingly tried to demonstrate the boo-boos not to make when fighting the Communists if we wanted to stay alive. (My previous book, A Sniper in the Arizona, gives a thorough account of the 1st Division Sniper School.)
Sergeant DeHaas took us from the classroom to the Happy Valley rifle range before the first week of classes was entirely completed. The range was built on a hillside overlooking a deep cut in the terrain. The firing lines were at the top of the hill and the butts were in the cut or valley. Targets were set at 300, 600, and 1000 meters, and firing was generally from the prone position, although some Marines, like Gunny Mitchell, often shot from the sitting position.
I once watched Mitchell in late March 1967 when I attended 1st Marine Division Sniper School shoot a clip of eight rounds of 30.06 from an M1-D he kept at the school. From a tight-legged sitting position, he put all eight rounds into four inches at six hundred meters in a rapid-fire string that didn't take twenty seconds to fire. I think the Gunny was a great shot mostly because he could adapt himself to any terrain and shoot accurately from practically any distance. He would fire a round and watch the bullet strike, then hold off putting the second shot on target with no sight adjustment. He said that no one ever adjusted their sights during a firefight, and if we couldn't use Kentucky windage, then we might learn to shoot paper, but not actual people. The M-1 Garand rifle will kill an enemy soldier at over five hundred meters if the battle dope, or sights, are set at three hundred. A head shot at five hundred will hit the enemy in the guts, and a chest hold at three hundred meters will tear the man's nuts off! In combat you must set your battle sights at two or three hundred meters and adjust accordingly to the bullet strike for a second shot by holding off high, low, left, or right.
Even though I had qualified as an expert with the M-1 Garand and as high expert with the M-14, I was nowhere near the class of most Marine Team Shooters. However, I could make some very salty snap shots and clean kills on running enemy soldiers by applying tracking and the hold-off techniques taught by Gunny Mitchell. Most snipers have also made themselves aware of good instinctive shot placement by avid hunting. I had tried to kill everything that lived in the wheat fields of Oklahoma as a youngster. My father was a skeet champion, and I loved shotguns, rifles, or damn near anything that got me out of the house and away from Mother.
Gunny Mitchell and Sergeant DeHaas had a world of shooting experience under their belts, and they tried to give us pointers that would make us more effective marksmen and snipers. Small tips like working closer to the enemy before taking a shot made good sense to me. I had heard stories about snipers shooting enemy troops a mile away. At a mile, no one can possibly tell whether the target is a man or woman or a child, and I'll stake my life on that. And I could easily walk a half mile closer and then crawl another quarter mile closer before taking the shot.
From the Paperback edition.