Archive for Saturday, July 4, 1998


July 4, 1998


— A former Marine from Baldwin recalls a Fourth of July in Vietnam and talks about patriotism.

On the Fourth of July, 1967, John Musgrave was an 18-year-old Marine rifleman at Con Thien, then the most violent place in South Vietnam's most violent zone.

It was the third day of a battle that started when two Marine infantry companies were lured into an ambush sprung upon them by two battalions of North Vietnamese Army regulars.

The Marines were outnumbered and outgunned. It was mostly combat at close quarters. But the North Vietnamese for the first time in the war, according to contemporary press accounts, also used 152-mm howitzers, launching the artillery shells from a distance onto Musgrave's unit, which fought for 13 days before the battered survivors were replaced by fresher troops.

Musgrave's unit, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, suffered so many casualties from the battle later known to military historians as Operation Buffalo, that its nickname was changed from Walking Death to Walking Dead. Time Magazine reported 98 Marines killed, 192 wounded. Dozens more were counted missing in action, either captured or their remains not found.

``It was a very near thing,'' Musgrave said, describing the first day of the battle that survivors still call Second of July. ``The point platoon was cut off from the rest of us. We were in the open. The Vietnamese had dug bunkers in the trees. The volume of fire was great and the surprise was so complete you knew this was bad, real bad. There were hedge rows on either side. It was real bad. The most incredible level of violence you can imagine.''

The July 2 ambush occurred about a mile from the Marine outpost at Con Thien. By July 4, Musgrave's company and another were holed up at that outpost. His company was assigned to the northern, most exposed side of the outpost's perimeter.

``It was a position made of red clay,'' Musgrave said describing the place he said he inevitably remembers each Fourth of July since, ``wire everywhere inside and outside the perimeter. Trash everywhere. Holes. Most of the infantry lived in individual fighting holes or trench lines at Con Thien. We didn't live in bunkers. It was incredibly, unbelievably hot.''

The afternoon of July 6, an artillery round dropped directly on the Con Thien command post of Musgrave's company, killing six men at once, including its commanding officer, Capt. Richard Sasek of Topeka, and First Sgt. Jettie Rivers of Tennessee.

``It seemed like the whole damn war was going on in my squad,'' Musgrave said. ``We were real scared boys. Just children. Con Thien was extraordinarily small. That's one of the things that made it so intense. We called it time in the barrel because we were like fish in a barrel.''

Musgrave didn't leave Vietnam after the battle at Con Thien. That happened a few months later after he was shot twice in the chest while his squad was patrolling near the Laotian border.

``I was trying to kill the guy,'' he said of the North Vietnamese soldier who shot him first. ``It was a horseshoe ambush. He was 15 feet away.''

The bullets removed part of a lung and grazed his heart, Musgrave said.

``I knew I was dying,'' he said. ``But my friends wouldn't leave me. We learned that in boot camp.''

The various wounds he collected on three occasions in Vietnam earned him three Purple Heart ribbons but shattered Musgrave's dream of a career in the Marine Corps. He wanted to be a sergeant major. Nerve deterioration from the war injuries has worsened over time and he hasn't walked without the aid of a crutch since May 1995, he said. He has three children and hasn't been able to work for a few years because he is disabled by his war injuries.

The making of a Marine

Musgrave, now 50, grew up in Independence, Mo. assuming military service was a duty and obligation for all American men.

``We all knew we were going to the military someday,'' he said. ``My father was a veteran. All my uncles, my schoolteachers were veterans. Even the minister of the church was a veteran. The movies on Friday and Saturday night were war movies.''

There was a popular television series called ``Combat.'' Musgrave said he still owns some bubble gum cards featuring the Combat characters.

He couldn't wait to go to the Marine Corps. He enlisted in 1966 at age17.

``It was the ultimate question for my generation,'' he said. ``I never had a moment's doubt. I grew up knowing I wanted to be a Marine. I had to talk like a senator to persuade my father to let me enlist. But he knew I was going at 18 without his permission. I was ready to begin repaying the debt for 17 years of freedom and security. I was never a big athlete in high school or a good student. I was ready for the ultimate challenge, ready for a little adventure. I just knew I wanted to be a Marine.''

Gung ho

He asked to be in the infantry. Then he asked for assignment in the Western Pacific theater, at that time a sure ticket to Vietnam.

He rode there in a troopship.

``We were in the basement of the boat,'' he said. ``So many guys you couldn't hardly walk. We'd stand in line for hours for chow.''

There were rough seas and seasick soldiers.

``I'd never seen that much vomit,'' he said. ``It definitely tested your mental discipline. It toughened you up. I'm real glad it happened. We stormed ashore but instead of the enemy it was kids selling Cokes.''

The action he ultimately saw at Con Thien and elsewhere ``was more than enough'' to satisfy him, he said.

``A lot of people don't realize that the Marine Corps lost more men in Vietnam than it did in World War II,'' Musgrave said. ``They think we weren't doing anything over there except fighting farmers. By God, we had worthy opponents.

``We're all issued a moment in history when we're born,'' he said. ``The moment that changed my life the most was the time I spent in the Marine Corps. My life was forever affected by the physical wounds and the complications that come from those.

``I have no ax to grind with the Marine Corps,'' he said. ``I loved the Marine Corps. I still do. I'm extremely proud to have been a Marine. I'm one of those guys who got everything he asked for.''

Back in the USA

After his return to civilian life, Musgrave became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a national organization allied with the peace movement then burgeoning on college campuses.

``I didn't do much until 1970,'' he said. ``That's when I saw an ad in Playboy magazine. I ended up in a leadership position (in the organization) very quickly. My first feelings against the war were purely military.''

He was angry that Marines had their tried-and-true M14 rifles replaced by the newer but still unreliable M16. The guns jammed. Marines died. Then there was the nature of the war, which required the constant taking and retaking of the same ground in South Vietnam with rules that barred U.S. ground forces from striking inside North Vietnam.

``They'd tell you to take a hill,'' Musgrave said. ``There's the pure, unexplainable terror of that. Then you have to go back and do it again. Two of the three places where I was wounded were places where I'd already fought.''

Much had changed in the U.S. in the short time Musgrave was in Vietnam.

``When I left it was the Beach Boys,'' he said. ``When I came back it was Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane and people were terrible to us. It was disgraceful.

``I was 19 when I came home and 20 when I retired from the Marine Corps,'' he said. ``I was nothing on the street, a snot-nosed punk. But I wasn't anybody's snot-nosed punk or nobody's baby killer. At least in the Marine Corps I was respected. In the hospital I volunteered to go back.''

But his injuries ruled that out.

It was President Richard Nixon who convinced Musgrave to become an outspoken opponent of the war, touring the country as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

``The real thing was the night that ... Nixon went on TV and said he was ending the war (and would begin a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops),'' Musgrave said. ``What the ... was that all about? If the war's not worth winning, you get out. You don't announce surrender to the world and to your enemy and keep the troops in the field. It was insanity. Those poor, young bastards after me had no reason to be there.''

Leaders of the peace movement, ``were talking about abstractions,'' Musgrave said. ``A lot of us veterans didn't believe half the crap the peace movement was advocating. Veterans needed to be in charge.

``I am as proud of my time in Vietnam Veterans Against the War as I am of my time in Vietnam,'' he said, ``because I was serving my country. In time, Vietnam Veterans Against the War lost their direction. In 1973, it went hard left. That's when I quit and I had stayed longer than most of my buddies.

``I honestly think we helped stop the war,'' he said. ``One of the things that came out from Watergate was how afraid Nixon was of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He couldn't say we were a bunch of cowards without the guts to go. He couldn't say we were a bunch of dumb kids afraid to go. It was a difficult decision for me to be outspoken. I still had buddies in country. If I had stayed in the Marine Corps, I never would have spoken out because I gave my word. But now I was a citizen and that silent majority horsecrap from Nixon made us choose. Because if silence was being called consent, as a citizen I refused to consent. But as a Marine veteran, I pursued it with the same dedication and sense of mission I had as a Marine.''


``Unquestioning obedience is the role of the Marine, soldier, sailor and airman,'' Musgrave said. ``The citizen's role in a participatory democracy is to support those things he believes in fervently. A citizen's responsibility is to speak out. A lot of people don't feel the way I do about that.''

Musgrave said he always votes on election day.

``Children have rights they're born with,'' he said. ``But adults have duties and obligations. One thing that sets us apart from any nation on earth is the duty of American citizens to say no to anything they believe is not in the best interest of the United States, whether that's institutional racism or anything unfair or un-American.

``I have a lot of friends, a lot of combat veterans who refuse to vote and it's pretty disappointing,'' he said. ``I came home from the bush and I wasn't considered old enough or responsible enough to buy a beer or vote for the bastards that sent me. Most of my voting experience is voting against. I don't get to vote for very often.''

He votes all the same. Marines died defending his right to do so.

Democracy in the U.S. ``needs a lot of help,'' he said. ``It could be much better for all of us to remind government it's the employee and not the employer.''

Musgrave said he will spend this Fourth of July with his three children.

``I'll do things with my children,'' he said. ``But the Fourth of July is not a happy time for me and hasn't been,'' since the terrible one at Con Thien. ``I'll try to tell them about the birth of our country and what our responsibilities are as citizens. And I'll tell them there's lots of ways to serve your country. You don't just have to hump a rifle.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is

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