1st Battalion, 4th Marines Does "Whatever it Takes"

The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines are currently on float with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. I have no doubt that this unit will uphold the finest traditions of their history, "Whatever it Takes."
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1st Battalion, 4th Marines insignia

Several months ago, I was sitting at my desk when I received a call from the new commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Norton had assumed command of the battalion on May 19th, 2011, and was interested in making his Marines more aware of their history. Could I help?

Over the course of several months, I spoke often, and at length with LtCol Norton. With the very capable help of my intern Jordyan Clark, we put together a package on the history of the unit. I learned that LtCol Norton and his staff planned a battalion PME, essentially a day of lectures on the history of the unit. They were kind enough to invite me to participate. I couldn't wait!

In late October, I traveled to Camp Pendleton. I was expected to attend a co-ordination meeting at the battalion command post at Camp Horno. As I was driving to this section of Camp Pendleton, on roads largely deserted, I looked to my left and saw the Pacific Ocean gleaming in the sunlight. Overhead there were CH-46s, Cobras and Ospreys flying. I very clearly remember thinking, "I have died and gone to heaven. Please, can't I just stay here forever?"

Upon arrival I was given a warm welcome by Major Estes, the battalion executive officer, and the Marines participating in the PME. My initial thought was that these were excellent young men ... a thought that would be reinforced over the course of my time there. The group was a mix of Marines who had volunteered, (or been "voluntold") to take part, to learn more of the in-depth history of their unit. There were PFCs, lance corporals, lieutenants and a first sergeant. Each was given a period of history upon which to concentrate and to prepare a presentation ... an excellent exercise, not just in a historical sense, but also in giving these Marines experience in speaking before a large audience.

The history of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines is a storied one. This unit distinguished itself in the Dominican Republic, and by March 1927 was on duty in Shanghai, China, where a state of emergency had been declared. Their initial mission was to prevent rioting and mob violence in the American Sector of the International Settlement. It was the beginning of a 14 year-long involvement in China, which became increasingly difficult as Japanese aggression grew.

4th Marines on guard duty, Shanghai, 1938

On November 14th 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced, "The Government of the United States has decided to withdraw the America Marine detachments now remaining ashore in China at Peiping, at Tientsin, and Shanghai..." The clouds of war were gathering, as the United States and Japan moved inexorably toward open hostilities. Fourteen days later, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines departed China, enroute to the Philippines.

4th Marines depart China, bound for the Philippines

At 0257, December 8th, 1941, Asiatic Fleet Headquarters was informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By 0350, the 4th Marines communication center received word of the attack in a message which stated "Japan started hostilities, govern yourselves accordingly."

The 4th Marines fought valiantly in the defense of the Philippines. Some were taken prisoner with the fall of the Bataan Peninsula and subjected to the infamous Bataan Death March. Those who had moved to the island fortress of Corregidor fared no better. American forces on Corregidor were surrendered on May 6th 1942. The Marines who had survived the battle of the Philippines spent the remainder of the war in Japanese captivity. The 4th Marines ceased to exist.

Men of the 4th Marines over ammunition and weapons to Longoshawayan Point during the defense of the Philippines

On February 1st 1944, the four Marine Raider battalions were merged to form a new 4th Marines, bearing the Lineage and honors of the original 4th Marines. They went on to serve with distinction in both the battles for Guam and Okinawa.

I sat in the audience at Camp Pendleton and listened to these exceptional young Marines present this history to more than 800 of their brothers. After a short break, the floor was mine to present a history of the battalion in Vietnam.

I began by asking a simple question: "I am sure that most of you here today were at least aware of some of the history of this battalion before today. The history of this battalion is the stuff of legends ... but how many of you sitting here today know anything about the history of this unit in Vietnam?" I believe the only person to raise his hand was an older gentleman, a guest who had obviously served in Vietnam himself ... and I was not surprised. As I said to the assembled Marines, we tend to embrace the history of World War II, and to a lesser extent Korea ... but not so much Vietnam. Why is that? Probably because it isn't easy ... The war in Vietnam was not marked by set-point battles, or land scale amphibious assaults against enemy held beaches. Instead it was one named operation after another, endless patrols, and search and destroy missions that blended together into "the War."

When I started in this business I wanted to write World War I history ... and then a very large percentage of what crossed my desk dealt with Vietnam. I talked with several people about this, and was, quite frankly, warned about being labeled a "Vietnam historian." And so I went to talk with one of my mentors about this, who drove home the fact that the Marines who served in Vietnam were no different than those who had served in Korea or in World War II. What was different was the way they were treated by the American populace, and he told me in no uncertain terms that I had a responsibility to those Vietnam era-Marines. And so I embraced the history of the war in Vietnam. As I prepared to address the Marines of 1/4, I wanted to drive home that point, and read this letter, written by a young Marine lieutenant named Charles Schneider.

Lt Chuck Schneider ( Photo Courtesy of Dick Dworsky)

"Dear Mom and Dad,

We had to go out and find two Marines who were missing after a recon unit was hit near our hill. The rest of the unit was heli-lifted out but they couldn't find two of their buddies. We nearly ran the 2,000 meters to the area, charging up and down mountainsides like they weren't there; then we found them. They were dead, terribly mutilated by a rocket round. I didn't feel sick but I couldn't help crying when I picked up one's left hand with a wedding ring on it and threw it in the poncho containing what else we could find of him. He was a 2dLt., brand new in country. Just before he went out he was talking to me, looking up to me as a "veteran" of 5 months. He was so very scared and I managed to calm him down before he left.

When we found him, he was lying on his right side with his genitals and much of his inner thighs completely gone. His right hand was holding a blood soaked battle dressing which he had tried to stuff in the gaping wound in his crotch. His left arm was blown off. All we could find was his hand, 4 feet from the body.

The other was hit in the chest. His rib cage was peeled back exposing his heart, lungs, intestines, etc.

I don't write this to scare you or to disgust you. I just tell it the way it is. If only people back home knew. When you get over here you don't fight for God, country, mother and apple pie. You fight for your friends, your team members, the guy next to you, and for yourself.

I got to thinking last night about "rights". Everyone wants their "rights" and no one claims their duties.... Since when has it not been true that liberty is bought again by each generation. When the next generation refuses to pay the price in blood and tears for their liberties, they will lose those liberties as sure as hell. God, what a terrible price for freedom. That 2dLt. was only a down payment on a horrible installment plan; others have preceded and others will follow.

What is the difference between a soldier and a civilian? A soldier takes direct and personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic; civilians do not. A soldier knows that "freedom is not free" and is willing to suffer so that his brothers, his friends, his sons can enjoy the wonderful life available in the U.S. A soldier knows he has certain rights, but that any of them are "alienable" unless someone like himself stands with a rifle between those at home and those who would alienate their rights and say "NO". This concept of duty is something few women can understand - Those who do understand are the mothers who aren't afraid to see their sons grow into men, who encourage their sons to accept their duties in behalf of our society, who pray silently every time they see something ...on the TV and yet wouldn't have their son live as a coward rather than a man.

Most psychiatrists have a field day with the Marine Corps. They say that the reason a guy joins the Marines is because he's unsure of his manhood. If so, it's a good place to learn. Manhood seems to be a dying concept....I'll tell you where you can find some men. Come over here and watch a 19 year old boy turn into a 19 year old man. Watch him learn what it means to be responsible to have duties on which the lives of others depend. Watch all the little lies he's always told himself about himself disappear in one minute under fire. He learns what a real man is; he learns gentleness - how to cry for a dead comrade; he learns courage - not only under fire, but the courage to face cold and heat, thirst and hunger, days of physical labor and nights without sleep and boredom; and he learns what he is capable of in terms of endurance, understanding, humor in the face of adversity. There motto here is, "To live forever, or die trying." They learn here that it's more important to live as a man than to be an old man."

This letter could have been written by a Marine in World War II, or Korea. It could easily have been written by a Marine serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it was written by a young lieutenant in Vietnam ... and I challenged those Marines before me to learn something of their unit's history in Vietnam.

The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines was one of the first units to deploy to Vietnam. They arrived in country on May 7th, 1965. The 4th Marines were the last regiment to be redeployed as part of the incremental withdrawal of the 3d Marine Division. For 1/4 that date was October 5th, 1969. That means the battalion spent five and a half LONG years in Vietnam.

1 st Battalion, 4th Marines on Ky Ha Peninsula, 1965

After landing at Chu Lai, the battalion patrolled the Ky Ha Pensinsula. The war expanded. To the north, there was a build-up of enemy forces in Phu Bai. To the south and west problems were brewing in the A Shau Valley. Operation Prairie was launched to determine the extent of North Vietnamese Forces operating along the demilitarized Zone. 1st Battalion, 4th Marines operated in the area from Dong Ha to Cam Lo, part of the area commonly known as "Leatherneck Square." By September 1966, fighting was centered in the miserable terrain north of the Rockpile, centered on the Nui Cay Tre Ridgeline (later known as Mutter's Ridge.)

The treacherous terrain of the Rockpile and the Razorback ( Photo courtesy of LtCol Dave Althoff)

By March 1967, enemy activity along the DMZ centered on Gio Linh and Cam Lo. On 15 March, 1 /4 landed on the coastline north of Cua Viet. Their mission was to provide security for Charlie Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, tasked with clearing a 200 meter wide strip from Gio Linh to Con Thien. This was part of the construction of a complex barrier system below the DMZ that consisted of wire obstacles, minefield, sensors, watch towers, and a series of defended strongpoints occupying commanding hills and ridgelines. As 1968 dawned, the 4th Marines occupied two of the combat operating bases south of Con Thien that were part of the barrier. These protected Route 561, which was the lifeline for Con Thien, and the Marines of 1 /4 ran both squad and platoon sized patrols for distances of 1500 meters in a effort to "keep the NVA off the road." It was here that a young Marine gave his life in service to this country, actions for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

On 2 February 1968, the Cam Lo District Headquarters came under attack by an estimated two battalions of NVA. This attack was supported by barrages of rocket fire, artillery, mortars and recoilless rifle fire. A box-type perimeter had been set up around the headquarters and the enemy succeeded in breaching all but the final strand of concertina wire. The Popular Forces troops, which had been manning the perimeter, broke. Corporal Larry Maxam realized that the situation was dire. There were some 200 troops massed at the abandoned section of the perimeter. He turned his fire team over to his automatic rifleman, picked up his own rifle and sprinted to the abandoned section of the perimeter. In doing so, he became the target of every enemy soldier. He ran toward a 30 cal. An explosion, probably a Chicom grenade or an RPG raked him with small pieces of shrapnel, but he kept going. He reached the machine gun and the NVA realized that he was the only thing that stood in their way. They turned everything they had against him. An RPG round hit the sandbag wall and he reeled backward. His right eyeball was halfway out of its socket but he climbed back up to his firing position and continued to fire on the advancing force. He was hit again by small arms fire, but continued to fire. He was hit twice more, and too weak to reload the .30, he slid off the machine gun to a prone position, picked up his M16 and continued to fire. Almost three and a half hours after the assault began, Larry Maxam succumbed to his wounds. When his body was recovered, it was found that he had sustained seven wounds to the groin, chest and abdomen, as well as the many shrapnel wounds, and the wound to his eye. No less than 45 enemy bodies were piled in front of his position and other were lying in the wire. One witness said, "he died at 0530, having almost single-handedly broken the hammer of an NVA company, and single-handedly having defended almost half of the entire perimeter. He had insisted on giving his life so that 40 of his fellow Marines might live and triumph. He had freely chosen loyalty above life, he had acted above and beyond the call of duty." Corporal Larry Maxam was a hero in the truest sense of the word.

Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Larry Maxam

Things changed dramatically in May 1968, when General Ray Davis took command of the 3d Marine Division. Davis, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Korea War strongly believed that the 3d Marine Division had become too tied down to fixed positions and too defense minded. Marines are supposed to be offensive in nature. They are supposed to attack, not be dug into to static defenses. 1st Battalion, 4th Marines began operating as a highly mobile force from the Laotian border to the coastal highlands. Said LtCol Galbraith, commanding 1/4:

Much of what stands out in my mind is the totally miserable existence of the squad and fire team grunt, the guy who lived day after day in a hole he had just dug, trying to do his job and at the same time staying halfway dry, opening his can of C-rations, wondering when he was going to get his next hot meal and a new pair of utility trousers to replace the ripped and torn pair he sort of had on, and remembering the hot shower he had a month ago when he was herded through the shower unit at Vandegrift (Combat Base)."

Marines move through the water near Dong Ha, Operation Hastings, 1967

On 5 October, 1969, after more than five long years of war, 1 /4 disengaged from combat operations and displaced to Quang Tri Combat Base to prepare for redeployment to Okinawa. Seventeen days later, on October 22nd, the battalion departed Vietnam.

At a departure ceremony in Da Nang Lieutenant General Lam, Republic of Vietnam said of the 3d Marine Division:

"You have shouldered us at the critical moment we needed you most, and now we are entirely capable of assuming the burden of this war and nothing can deter us from achieving all of our cherished goals; that of defeating the Communists and bringing peace to South Vietnam. You will depart from South Vietnam, but you will leave behind a strong and prosperous nation."

As I stood before the Marines of 1/4, I concluded:

Obviously history did not prove General Lam right ... but there is no doubt that the Marines who fought in Vietnam did so valiantly, and in the finest traditions of the Marine Corps. They were worthy successors to those who had earned the title Marine before them, and worthy successors to those who had fought on the beaches of the Pacific, and in the frozen battlefields of Korea ... Just as you are worthy successors to those who came before you. You are the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. You do not walk in the footsteps of those who served before you, but rather alongside them, brothers in arms. Your history is the stuff of legends, you have done, and will continue to do, "Whatever it Takes."

At the conclusion of my lecture, LtCol Norton presented me with a challenge coin, and told his Marines that I would "always have a home with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines." I have never received a finer compliment, and traveling to Pendleton to speak to this extraordinary group of Marines was one of the best experiences of my career.

The battalion, once again, deployed shortly after I returned to Quantico. They are currently on float with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. I have no doubt that this unit will uphold the finest traditions of their history, "Whatever it Takes."

Sgt Donald Christiansen, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, during a Marine Expeditionary Unit exercise

Beth Crumley is a regular blog contributor for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation. You can find more of her blogs at: www.mca-marines.org/blog.