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Remembering Thanksgiving in Vietnam, 1969

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Most Americans recall their most memorable Thanksgiving as a day spent at home, surrounded by family and pursuing long-standing traditions. Not so for William A. “Bill” Martin, a resident of The Plains and a veteran of the Vietnam War who spent Thanksgiving, 1969 in a lethal and far-away war zone.

For the past 20 years, Martin, 68, has rented the property at Belvoir Farm near The Plains, where he operates Martin Farms, an extensive agriculture enterprise that includes cattle, sheep and a variety of crops.

A native of the small farming town of Erie, Illinois, Martin finished high school and was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 19. Selected for the infantry, he took his basic and advanced individual training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

His leadership potential was noticed, and he was sent to the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) School at Fort Benning, Georgia. His final stateside assignment was at Fort Ord, California, where he and other new NCOs were assigned to a platoon of trainees from February to March 1969 “to make sure we could give orders, I guess,” Martin said.

On April 15, 1969, Sgt. Martin shipped out to Vietnam, where he was the platoon sergeant for the 1st Platoon of Company D in the 502nd Infantry Battalion, part of the 101st Airborne Division also known as the “Screaming Eagles.” Their mission was to conduct helicopter operations and assaults. Martin was at Camp Eagle, the division headquarters near Phu Bai Airbase, for only five or six days before he and his men moved “in country.”

From April to November 1969, Martin’s platoon, numbering 25 men, was almost continually in the jungle, conducting reconnaissance and search-and-destroy missions. He recalled carrying all their personal belongings in a single ammunition can.

“You had no foot locker, no bed, no tent,” he explained. “We came back to Camp Eagle only three times during the year to ‘stand down’ for a day or two, and we had to sleep on the ground.”

He soon was promoted to staff sergeant (E-6), and fighting in the jungle was difficult and dangerous.

“They would helicopter us out to a spot and drop us off,” Martin said. “You would have a map, and they would say, ‘okay, we want you to be over on this mountain in three days. It was called search-and-destroy. You would move through the jungle until you ran into somebody, or somebody ran into you.”

Resupply by helicopter required cutting out or blasting landing zones in the thick jungle. “If the weather permitted and things worked out, we were re-supplied every four or five days,” Martin said. “You would blow a hole in the jungle with C-4 (plastic explosive) so a Huey could come in and land. They would throw the stuff out, and they would be gone.”

The extended periods in the jungle were obviously hard on the men. Under a continuous canopy of trees, they once spent 53 days without seeing clear sunlight, and were continually wet and dirty. This caused a condition known as “jungle rot.”

Ambush and aftermath

On Nov. 9, 1969, Martin’s platoon was moving through dense jungle when it was ambushed. There was a ferocious firefight, and after the shooting stopped, Martin quickly assessed the situation. Of the 25 men, two were killed—including the platoon leader, a young lieutenant—with 15 wounded and in need of evacuation.

Martin radioed his company commander, who was with another platoon.

“I told him, we’re hurt bad, we’ve got to have help here… you’ve got to come to us,” Martin said, adding that he had a map could give him their precise location. “I asked for three dust-offs (evacuation helicopters), and he asked me “Why the hell do you need three?’ I had to tell him we had a lot of men down…. I didn’t know how many were dead.”

The eight uninjured men had to hack out a landing zone. The first helicopter landed, and the most severely wounded were put on board. Ten minutes later, the second came and went bearing more wounded.

The pilot of the last dust-off aircraft refused to land, due to a problem on the edge of the landing zone. He was convinced to finish the mission by Sgt. Randy Osier, Martin’s M-60 machine gunner, who threatened to shoot him out of the sky if he didn’t come down.

With the dead and wounded evacuated, Martin reported to the company commander, asking him to send help to clear the site of the ambush, including the gear of the 17 killed and wounded.

“He radioed back to me that there had been too much commotion and that we’d been compromised, and if he sent any help they could be ambushed,” Martin recalled. “He told us we had to throw all the food away, cut up the canteens and everything else, and bring out everybody’s’ rucksacks, weapons and ammo. ‘We’re not coming to you, you’re coming to us,’ he told me.”

Martin had to carry three rucksacks, his M-16 rifle, an M-79 grenade launcher and other equipment; so did the seven other survivors. “We finally came stumbling down and broke into a clearing, and when the rest of the company saw us, they came to us at a dead run, and started pulling the stuff off of us,” he said.

About that time, Martin heard someone call his name. He looked up toward a small knoll, and saw the company commander and three other men.

“I was really upset,” Martin said. “I walked right up to him and really lit into (him). Along with several choice expletives, “I told him he wasn’t fit to be an Airborne company commander.”

Witnessing the confrontation, Sgt. Osier intervened.

“Randy grabbed me by the arm, and told me I was going to get into trouble,” said Martin, who was still angry.

“What are they going to do? Send me to Vietnam? I was already there!” Martin responded.

“We must have looked really bad, because nobody said anything. We just walked away.”

A helicopter took off with three of the officers. Martin didn’t know it at the time, but one of the men he had cursed was the division commander, Maj. Gen. John M. Wright Jr. (1916-2014).

The Thanksgiving visit

Martin’s platoon had been decimated in the attack, and over the next two weeks, men were reassigned and replacements brought in. Combat operations continued, and on Thanksgiving Day, 1969, Martin and his men were dug in on a high ridge, enveloped by fog.

They had cut a small landing zone.

“It was our resupply day and we were short on food, but with the thick fog, we weren’t expecting anybody,” Martin said. “Then we got a radio call from ‘Silver Eagle,’ inbound to our position.”

They could hear the helicopter above them, but couldn’t see it. “Pretty soon we could see the skids, and we talked the pilots down.”

After several tense moments, the aircraft landed, and the pilot shut down the engine.

“I thought he was crazy,” Martin said. “I went up to him and yelled, ‘you dumb SOB, get this thing out of here!’” The pilot took his flight helmet off and put on his “steel pot,” which bore two stars. It was General Wright.

Martin immediately jumped back and saluted. The general then stepped out of the helicopter and said, “men, I’ve brought you Thanksgiving dinner.”

Packed in brown marmite cans was a complete dinner for 25, including turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and all the trimmings.

“I believe that was the only hot meal we got while we were in the field,” Martin said.

The surprised soldiers helped themselves to the Thanksgiving feast. When all the food was gone, they wiped the canisters clean with rolls, and ate them, just as they might have done at home.

Their “dining room table” was one of the knocked-down trees. Gen. Wright came over, put his foot on the log, and said, “I know you men have some concerns, and I want to hear them.” The general stayed for about 20 minutes before departing.

With about four months left in his tour, Martin said things had gotten better, but the conduct of the war continued much as before. Heading home in late March, 1970, he finished his Army duty at Fort Lewis, Washington, on Easter Sunday.

Over the years, Martin has managed to stay in touch with some of his Army buddies, something that has become easier with the internet.

An admirer of Gen. Wright to this day, Martin said he served in three wars—as a survivor of the Bataan Death March and 40 months as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II, in combat in the Korean War, and Vietnam. The general retired in 1972 as Comptroller of the U.S. Army.

Gen. Wright also was the helicopter pilot who delivered Thanksgiving dinner to a platoon of hungry soldiers 47 years ago, a brave gesture Bill Martin will never forget.

Contact John Toler at jtoler@fauquier.com

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