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Rhodes Scholar Leads Marines into Vietnam | Karl Marlantes

Rhodes Scholar Leads Marines into Vietnam | Karl Marlantes

[Helicopter Sound] When you were really afraid was just before you had got into a fight, because you could think about it. [Blast Sound] You could see the choppers coming in, wheeling off, and the next one would come. And it felt like this train going off a cliff, because I knew that the next time I’d step off that chopper, it would be through fire. [Shooting Sound] I was born in Astoria, Ore., which was a fishing town then, and sawmills. The football players, when they graduated, would disappear south someplace called San Diego, Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. When they would come back, they had this swagger. They would walk up the main street of the town three inches taller, and I swear their shoulders were four inches wider. And here I’m 17, I’m going like, “I want some of that. Whatever that is, I want that.” When I was at Yale, I joined a program which the Marines had, and it was called Platoon Leaders Class. The summers I would go to Quantico, Va., where we did boot camp and all of the stuff. When you get your degree, you get your commission. When I got my degree from Yale, I got a Rhodes scholarship, and I thought, “Oh, they’ll never let me go — they’re short of junior officers.” So, I wrote a letter to the Marine Corps, and got an answer back pretty quick: “Yeah, we’re very proud of you – it’s a great scholarship. Go ahead, we’ll catch you later.” Off I went to Oxford in 1967. After about three or four weeks there, I started to feel guilty. My little high school of, you know, a couple hundred boys, we lost five killed in Vietnam. And here I am sort of in the pubs drinking beer with the girls, having a wonderful time. Do you fight in a war that you really don’t agree with? But I had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, so it was a totally perfect conflict of two valid moral choices, and that’s the worst kind. I decided to write a letter to the Marines and just said that I wanted to go on active duty. The Marines did not waste any time. I was an infantry platoon commander in Vietnam. When it’s full strength, 43 Marines, and as a platoon commander, your job is to organize these people to complete missions: Take the hill, do the raid, do the patrol, defend an artillery unit. [Shooting Sound] The radio operator is enormously important to a young officer. You’re always on that radio, so he’s with you day and night, constantly, and it’s a dangerous job because their antenna’s waving and the enemy know that that’s the one you want to shoot, because the officer’s right next to him. Charles Thomas, I think he was 19, had been there months before I got there, so he was much more savvy than I was. And I’d start to make up an order, and Thomas would – “Uh, sir – do you ever think about – da, da, da,” you know. And of course, I thought, “This kid’s right.” You know. In the beginning, he was like an adviser to me. [Helicopter Sound] We’d been together several months, and we were on a very difficult operation. It was monsoon, we were really high in the mountains. And we’d been out wet for days. And it was cold. And I came down with a really bad case of hypothermia. We all knew it kills you. I couldn’t stop shivering violently, and Thomas just took me down to the ground and hugged me and just wrapped himself around me. To this day I get choked up about that. And he saved my life, just hugging me. He was intelligent, a good, solid Marine, so I made him a squad leader. [Helicopter Sound] They choppered us in to Mutter’s Ridge. It was very important for controlling the access into Laos and back to Quang Tri. We were given the order to engage that enemy unit the next morning. I knew that there was only one escape route for the enemy. And I told Thomas to set up an ambush around the left flank of where we were, so that when we pushed the NVA off the hill, I wanted him there with a machine gun to kill the rest of them. [Shooting Sound] My blood was up, and I started shouting at him: “Get in position! You’re guarding their run and they’re going now!” And so he left the cover of the jungle to move faster, and I can remember seeing the three RPGs that hid the squad. Boom, boom. [Blast Sound] And so they were killed. And I went through his pockets. There was a letter from his mother that said, “Don’t you worry – you’re going to be home in just a couple of weeks.” Oh – I mean I carried that guilt for decades, yeah. That’s part of the problem of combat. You do sometimes make horrible mistakes. You’re really young, and you make mistakes, and you live with them. When I think back on war, I have enormous sadness. The absolute loss, the loss of health, the loss of innocence, the loss of friends. You can sort of justify it if you think that all that loss was done for a noble purpose. I think I would like to have people take away from these stories is you have to learn when you’re older to not let it take you over, and talking about it was huge. Right now, I’m alive, so I’m going to try and be more present.

Reader Comments

  1. AARP salutes all veterans who have served our great country, thank you for all you have sacrificed:

  2. My own personal Vietnam'was not catching an STD from a Veitnam Veterans widow Donald drafhdodger Trump on Howard Sterns radio show giving a lesson in patriotism

  3. It really makes you feel for those young grunts – never had a chance to experience life and its joys. And they did it all so that we could enjoy our own lives. We need to remember that – every day of our free lives.

  4. (from Brazil) Mr. Marlantes God bless you sir and your braves camerades ! Thank's for your sacrifice and noble service sir !!

  5. What I learned about fear, is the very thing that I wouldn't want my sons to bear, I'm at times a person that would only hide when the memories of the delta of the mekong come up.

  6. Sounds like the most honest man ever. Higher morals than most. It seems like America is missing this right now. Other than Keanu Reeves but he's Canadian.

  7. I really admire the Patriotism of Americans and the love of your country ..I wish there was more people like this in Britain and Europe.You are a noble & honourable man Sir. You answered the calling of your country.

  8. Sacrificed for a worthless war that was not needed. Honorable men gave their lives. Blessings upon those lost souls.

  9. Goodness, this is powerful…he actually reminds me of Charlie Sheen's character in Platoon, since he shares that he walked away from college to join the war. But this guy is the real deal, and a Rhodes scholar, at that…wow.

  10. All my life I wish i could have gone over and fought alongside my brother's with GRATE pride much respect!

  11. Sir I know where you are coming from. You did what Marines do, improvise, adapt, overcome. And keep doing it till the threat is no longer there. Semper Fi

  12. A Rhodes Scholar is not a good thing. It's named after Cecil Rhodes and all about fostering a Global Government run by the top international bankers.

  13. Welcome Home Brothers it’s been a lifetime ago yet feels like last week
    Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat
    Semper Fidelis
    The Gunny

  14. And then there's scumbags like Henry Kissenger who really needs to be dropped in the middle of a minefield someplace.

  15. Great moral character. The Marines and the nation were blessed to have him. He was in a bar surrounded by women and his conscience took over. They don't make men like that anymore.

  16. Thank you thank you for your service God bless you… And those that did not make it back by their souls rest in peace🙏💐

  17. America didn’t want China to get Vietnamese oil , yes the Vietnamese have oil, best kept secret. Ok CIA can shoot me in the back now 💥

    The British condition to enter WW1 was if they got Mosul’s oil , guess who’s there now , SURPRISE 😁

  18. I don't get it, you go 12 000 miles to fight vietcongs in a jungle to defend your country, really?

  19. I honor and salute you sir you kicked fucking ass I'm just realizing my own dad he was a radio operator

  20. Hey brother,I've followed your stories for a while now,the Vietnam experience series,utube,i,d love to meet you and shake your hand,I'm glad you survived to tell us about the men you served with,forever Young,and gone too soon,thank you from a former Marine,79 86

  21. Alpha males at 19,1year out of high school,when I served at 18,I assumed the platoon leaders where 20/21…
    Society shouldn’t waste them.

  22. Regardless of the rights, wrongs and reasons of this war, these American men and women were so brave and defined a generation.

  23. His book "Matterhorn" is the best book about Vietnam War I ever read. I read lots of them and this one is the best. Thanks, Mr. Marlantes!

  24. Charles Thomas (radio operator) and all those who gave their lives in Vietnam, may God have mercy on your souls and bring peace to your loved ones.

  25. Mr Marlantes I wish to convey my sincere condolences for the losses you suffered in combat and would like to say all of those who fought in combat did it for each other and no other reason. That being said your squad leader lost his life fighting for his brothers and was worth more than any of us can imagine YES it was worth it.

  26. Fucking war is the horrible and fucking stupid shit humans do to each other, I have been there deep in combat as a infantry Marine and it changes you, Semper Fi to all Marines…

  27. Trump had 8 deferments so he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam. But yet he is so ready to send young Americans to war. John Bolton has been itching for a war with Iran for 10 years.

  28. That war was designed to sell heaps of chopper arms and bomb for the business friends of LBJ and the 58,000 Americans lives were just collateral damage to them its disgusting

  29. He was interviewed for Ken Burnes' documentary on Vietnam. A thoughtful and erudite individual! Impressive guy!

  30. This man and all who serve in war have way more swagger than any football player will ever have. God bless them all.

  31. Very well done by an obviously intelligent man who didn't have to serve.. but did.
    Quote: The war never ends for those that survive.

  32. Oliver Stone was always upset when media were talking about ww2 veterans as "greatist generation that ever lived",like vietnam serviceman are second class. Shamefull.

  33. Many Vietnam vets had and still have issues because they think to themselves, "What the hell was it for?" Even today we can't give an answer that can be accepted by everyone. It was not like WWI, WWII, or even Korea.

  34. god bless all the fallen and those who have to live with the thoughts of war in their mind. Can anyone shortly explain to me why Vietnam happend?

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