Service Reflections: Marine veteran recalls deadly Vietnam battles
Service Reflections: Marine veteran recalls deadly Vietnam battles
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Cpl William Mulcrevy
Status: U.S. Marine Corps Retired
Service Years: 1965-1968
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Marine Corps.
I was a young kid of 18 living in Walnut Creek, CA. My father was a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, we grew up in a home that was pretty strict. When I graduated from high school, his words to me were "Get a job or go to college". I didn't like school, so I went to the recruiting station. Back in those days, all service branch recruiting offices were in one place. The Marine Corps office was the only office with someone in it.
I went in and the Recruiter told me "You know if you join the Air Force, Navy or Army you have to sign for 4 years. Today I'm signing up young men who want to be Marines for 3 years to the Caribbean".
That night at dinner as I was passing the mashed potatoes and I said, "Hey Dad, I got a job." He said, "Well who hired you?" My reply, "The United States Marine Corps!" He wasn't too happy being a veteran himself. He asked me, "Don't you know there is a War going on?" I replied, "I know, but they are sending me to the Caribbean!" It was September of 1965 and I was soon on my way to Boot Camp at San Diego, CA.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
My reason for leaving the Marine Corps is that I got shot up pretty badly in my left leg. The Marine Corps discharged me on 100% disability. Otherwise, I would have made a career in the Marine Corps and retired. To me, it was a family and home.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
Operation Hastings - July 18th
Mike Co, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was assigned to the USS Princeton and was designated as a QRF (Quick Reaction Force). At the beginning of July 1966, Mike and India companies were informed they would be participating in Operations Deckhouse and Operations Hastings, along with several other Marine units, to try and force the PAVN 90th Regiment back across the DMZ and prevent them from taking over Quang Tri Province.
On July 18th, 1966, Mike Co was dropped by Sikorsky UH-34 helicopters into LZ Crow in a small valley 1.9 miles south of the Song Ngan, a suspected PAVN marshaling area. Our 24 Marines, including Gregory (Williams), Jim (Johnson) and myself were in the first wave. As we were establishing a perimeter around the landing zone, the second wave of UH-34’s approached the LZ. Suddenly all four of those helicopters took heavy machine-gun fire and were shot out of the sky. Two of the helicopters caught fire as they crashed into the ground.
Our platoon officer, Lt John Keker, got a radio call that said the situation was now too dangerous and the LZ was now closed to further landings. “We're not going to be able to bring you any more reinforcements until you can take out those 12.7mm machine guns because they're shooting all our helicopters out of the sky” was the message.
Unfortunately, we had landed on top of a reinforced company of PVAN troops with heavy machine guns. Gregory, Jim and I were together as a small group. We were able to take out one of the machine guns which was on a tripod. The 51 caliber is a loud weapon making it easy to spot. We shot that gunner and had to physically knock the machine gun over on its side because we didn't have any thermite grenades with us.
So, when we proceeded through this brushy area outside of the landing zone, we were suddenly ambushed by dozens more PVAN troops. There were bullets flying all around as we hit the deck. During that ambush, Jim Johnson was shot in the throat twice. Gregory was there on his knees performing an emergency tracheotomy on Jim and while he was doing this our right flank was being attacked by multiple machine-gun fire. Bullets were flying over HM3 Williams's head, over Jim's head and hitting the dirt all around us. Gregory was calmly and methodically going about saving Jim's life while all of this chaos was going on.
The main reason we were able to get out of this mess was through the actions of Lt John Keker. Lt Keker was able to call in an airstrike and we could hear him asking what type of ordnance the plane had. The F-4 pilot replied he had a couple of 500 pounders. However, those PVAN machine guns were only 50 feet away from us and there was Lt Keker standing in full view of the enemy guiding in the airstrike!
We knew we were in a high-risk situation and sought cover in a deep creek bed containing dead Vietnamese soldiers. HM3 Gregory Williams dragged Jim into the creek and we dug down. The 500lb bombs took out the machine guns that were chewing us up and we took stock. Out of our 24 Marines, 14 were seriously wounded. Once Gregory had stabilized Jim, he just ran from one wounded Marine to the next. I can’t imagine the decision he had to make moving onto another Marine when he knew he couldn’t save the one he was kneeling by. He would just try to make them comfortable and move on. Now can you imagine this? Gregory's only 22 years old and he's having to triage all his buddies.
After the F-4 airstrike, three helicopter gunships showed up and the remaining NVA decided it was time to get out of there. We then proceeded to clean up the battlefield, taking all the weapons from the dead PVAN soldiers and load all our wounded on to the medevac choppers. Gregory got Jim on to a helicopter which medevacked him to the USS Repose Hospital ship. Miraculously, he returned to duty 2 months later.
Operation Hastings - July 22nd
That day July 18th was the first day of an operation which was to be the beginning of a nightmare that would go on for about three weeks. On July 22nd we were on patrol in the DMZ walking up a shallow creek bed. We suddenly encountered two platoons of NVA soldiers on each side of the creek and the shooting became intense. We took a lot of casualties in that attack and it soon got very ugly including hand to hand combat. As soon as we got the upper hand, they jumped back into their fighting holes. We tried to rat them out with hand grenades. During this skirmish, you could see Gregory running from one wounded Marine to another. I don't think Gregory ever fired a shot in anger because he was way too busy. He was doing a hell of a job.
Unfortunately, we couldn't locate a nearby landing zone to medevac out our guys. We found an area that looked like it might work and started blowing a landing zone with C4. You know knocking the trees down so a helicopter could land and we could evacuate our dead and wounded.
The sun went down and we still didn't have the landing zone ready. We were in a small narrow valley, so it was decided to send two squads on one side of the valley and two squads on the other side of the valley, to prevent the enemy from shooting down on our wounded. Gregory and the other Corpsman stayed at the landing zone to tend to the wounded. Some of them were just horribly wounded. I can remember one kid whose last name was Hockrack. He had been shot in the forehead. I don't know how he didn't realize he was hit and it was almost as if some surgeon had lifted his forehead away from his skull exposing his brain, yet he kept fighting the whole time. I don’t know how he survived! I remember him putting a damp compress over his swelled-up brain to try to keep it from getting infected.
Later I ran into Hockrack in a hospital in Japan after I got shot. We had all thought he had died. We didn’t think someone could live through something like that. So, he came up to me in a wheelchair and said “Hey Bill”. I said “Hi, how are you? He said, “The doctors want to give me a new face”. But the sad thing was they had to scrape his frontal lobes because of infection and it changed his whole personality. He behaved like he was about 10 years old after that happened to him. I remember him in the hospital ward in Japan jumping up and down on the beds like a little kid. I heard later he lived to be about thirty-five years old before he passed.
That night I teamed up with a Marine fresh out of boot camp. It was his first day in Vietnam. A nice kid but obviously scared to death. He and I were laying down on the other side of this log in the middle of the night. Our plan was that one of us would sleep for two hours with the other on the watch. It was my turn to be awake when I heard some twigs snap behind me.
I looked over the top of the log to see a North Vietnamese soldier with an AK 47. He hadn’t seen me. I thought to myself oh my God you know I'm going to shoot this guy and then we're going to be in a 360-degree ugly situation where we're going to end up with our squads shooting at each other. So, I end up shooting this guy and he goes down and all hell breaks loose in the perimeter as we started taking fire. Sadly I think a bunch of us probably shot each other that night because of the way we were situated.
With Gregory and the other Corpsman at the LZ, we had no Corpsman with us. We were just a bunch of Marines up on a hill. So, we ended up remembering whatever Gregory taught us to take care of each other that night. We got attacked a further three times that night by squad sized probes taking casualties including our Lieutenant who got wounded and lost the use of his left arm. There were further attacks the next day and there were dead Marines and NVA all over the place. After everything had subsided, we gathered up all our wounded and dead Marines and carried them down the side of this steep mountain to the landing zone from where we were later extracted.
Operation Hastings - July 24th, Battle of Hill 362
The worst nightmare, however, was yet to come. On July 24th, we were participating in a battalion operation with four companies Kilo, Lima, India, and Mike. India Company was ordered to set up a radio relay station on Hill 362 because we were having problems with communications. India Co suddenly got ambushed by an entire battalion of NVA. We were several ridgelines away from them when the firefight first broke out. You could tell the difference between AK-47 fire and that of an FA-14 they had totally different sounds - and you could tell from the volume of the AK fire that India Co. was vastly outnumbered.
It took us almost two full days to get to India company. When we got there, there were literally hundreds of dead Marines and NVA troops on that battlefield. I had never seen anything like that in my life. It was sickening to see. The Marines who were still alive had dug fighting holes to take cover in. Some couldn’t get out of their fighting holes they were literally shell shocked. By then all our Corpsmen had run out of battle dressings and morphine - they had just run out of everything.
Then we heard a helicopter over the hill which brought in water and food. They also brought four Corpsmen, each carrying two or three large aid bags. These guys had volunteered to help our Corpsman on the ground to deal with India Co casualties. After that battle, India Co was no longer a combat effective unit. Those Marines were really torn up.
During the next 3 weeks, we were to engage in 4 other large battles including one when our platoon was overrun.
Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Operation Colorado - August 12th, 1966
We were patrolling near the city of Tam Quang walking through a series of villages. We had begun walking through one village when we started receiving sniper fire. Then the NVA suddenly opened up with machine guns and we discovered they are in an L shape and we were in an ambush. I immediately took four bullets to my left leg which was compounded by the fact that I was wearing a grenade pouch and the round that hit me in my upper thigh shot the bottom third of the grenade off blowing grenade shrapnel into my leg. I fell to the ground.
As I was shooting back at the enemy I yelled to a Marine “I’m hit, I’m hit. I think I’ve got an arterial bleed”. I remembered Gregory saying during our first aid classes if you've got an arterial bleed you’re going you have to address it right away because if you lose more than half the blood you can't come back from that and you’ll go into shock.
So, before I could figure out how the heck I was going to deal with this, Gregory showed up in a cloud of dust and was kneeling next to me treating the wounds on my leg without any concern of the bullets that were flying past. He was a big man and he was strong too. He applied a tourniquet to my leg and a pressure dressing. Using all his strength to put pressure on my damaged artery, he managed to stop the bleeding. I remember asking him “Well Gregory what do you think?” And he said, “ Bill, I think the Olympics are out”. In the middle of this situation with rounds spitting up all around us, we began laughing.
Gregory carried around an expensive 35-millimeter camera taking pictures as we all did in Vietnam. When I got shot, he took the camera off his neck and put it around my neck. I always felt that he did that to reassure me that I was going to be OK. He said, “Just listen, eventually you're going to get to a hospital, then you send the camera back to me when you get to get there”. So, I said, “Yeah sure I'll do that”.
When the first Medevac chopper arrived, they loaded about six of us shot up Jarheads on that thing and before we got 50 feet off the ground, the NVA shot down our helicopter. The old UH-34 had a big cargo door on the starboard side, and I can remember looking out that cargo door as the helicopter started falling seeing the rotor blades spinning real close to the ground. I thought “Oh my God you're going to get cut to pieces if those helicopter blades hit”. Luckily, they didn’t.
So, a bunch of Marines came and helped us out of our damaged helicopter and into another helicopter. These helicopter pilots were brave men. The second helicopter we were on came under fire as we left. You could hear the rounds going through the steel floor and I thought to myself “This is not my day.”
The Marine Corps set up triage hospitals close to battle zones. After I was shot, I was taken to one of these field hospitals and I asked one of the Corpsmen what had happened to me, He told me I got shot four times in the left leg and one artery had been severed. They wanted to remove my field dressings and examine my leg, but I told them, “No, I don’t want my artery bleeding again”. While I was lying in that field hospital, the hospital came under mortar fire with the mortars landing close enough to the tent to spray it with mud. I thought again to myself, “This is not my day.”
I was then transferred to a hospital in Danang where I stayed for about five days. There's a funny story about that too. The hospital wards there were crude plywood barracks with mosquito screens. Nobody told us that the hospital was right next to a rock quarry which was still in operation. So, here's a bunch of newly shot up Marines lying on cots in this ward and there was this blasting sound. We all think that it's incoming mortar fire and started bailing out of our cots and getting prone to the ground. I had a couple of IV’s in both my arms and they all got ripped out. It was sheer chaos. Then a corpsman came into the ward and says, “What is wrong with you guys?”. I yelled at him to get down or get mortared. He said, “There’s a rock quarry next door and they are just blasting some rock out of there.” Yeah, it was nice to be finally told that.
When they first started to operate on me on arrival in Danang, the doctor started yelling something about live ordnance. I wasn't sure what they were talking about but they all evacuated the emergency room. I looked down and I could see that my grenade pouch had been shot through and one of my grenades had been damaged exposing the blasting cap. It was fortunate that grenade hadn’t gone off! So, I unscrewed the blasting cap from the grenade and when the medical people came back in, I handed it to one of the corpsmen, saying, “Is this what you guys are worried about.” I spent four or five days in the Danang hospital before being transferred to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines where I stayed for about a week before being shipped to a Naval Hospital in Japan.
I had five surgeries on my leg and several skin grafts for my wounds. They couldn’t clear up the infection in my leg and the skin grafts didn’t take. That's why my leg now looks like it does - it's real ugly. Recovery wasn’t easy. I remember in the middle of one night, one of the nurses who came in to check on me, noticed my temperature had spiked to 107 and I had gone into toxic shock. They threw me on a gurney and raced me over to a bathtub where they threw me in and covered me with ice to bring down my temperature.
There were so many of us in that hospital in Japan, that the beds the hospital beds were literally six inches from each other.
Somehow during all my treatments, Gregory’s camera got misplaced. When I got to Japan, I told the corpsman on the ward that my buddy had put his camera around my neck when I got shot. The corpsman somehow found that camera for me and it was returned to me. I asked him if he could ship it back to my unit in Vietnam where I hoped it made it back to Gregory.
I was later flown to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield then bussed to Oakland Naval Hospital, where I spent the following year having additional surgeries and undergoing physical therapy. At that time, my mom and dad lived in Walnut Creek, only about an hour's drive from Oakland hospital, which allowed them to visit me often.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
The battalion trained at Camp Pendleton, we played a lot of baseball and flag football. It was a great team-building experience for all of us.
I had never been out of CA, or on a ship. I was traveling to places I never dreamt I would see and do things that all young boys dream of. We got to shoot everything in the arsenal and jump out of helicopters.
In Hawaii, we did beachhead landing training where we would jump over the ship down cargo nets, into a landing craft and then hit the beach. It was interesting to think we were doing the same thing our WWII Marines did.
We traveled on a WWII ship USS Renville from San Diego, CA to Hawaii, to the Philippines and then boarded the USS Princeton to Okinawa. On the USS Princeton, we thought we had boarded a luxury liner and gone to Heaven.
My least favorite was going to Manila with Gregory Williams and hiking the Bataan Death March. It was actually quite sobering to think our Sailors and Marines in WWII walked this very trail and how so many had died.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect back on to this day.
What impacted me the most was watching my buddies getting shot up. It was gut-wrenching hearing them screaming and yelling out for a Corpsman.
On the first day of Operation Hastings, 4 to 5 Marines were killed that day. Our Squad Leader Sgt. Butler had been shot losing half of his face. He was lying between me and Jim Johnson during that firefight. A kid Peter Martinez, Peter was shot in the abdomen. While Peter was dying you could hear him screaming for his mother and screaming he was sorry.
Another time when I was shot, was realizing that it hurt more than I thought it would. I told Gregory Wiliams as much, he told me, "It won't for long" and he shot me full of morphine. I can tell you I could have flown out of there on my own accord with the way I was feeling after that.
It made you appreciate things like hamburgers and french fries and milkshakes.
You know we thought we were immortal, it was a shock to find out you weren't. It surprised us the RVN went toe to toe with us. We were so sure they would run because we were THE UNITED STATES MARINES!
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
I have to tell you what I am most proud of, was how brave the Marines I served with were. I mean we were landing in a hot LZ, with helicopters being shot out of the sky.
To see my brothers pulling together, setting up a perimeter and then, without fear, repel wave after wave of attacks from the RVN, you have to feel proud.
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
All of them in truth. I received all the standard awards all Marines received who served in Vietnam. I can't say one means any more than the others.
What means the most to me is the self-sacrifice that it took to fulfill our tour of duty. I mean in Vietnam it was 50% alert at all times, 2 hours on and 2 hours off. Every time you had to move out, you made sure you had all your guys because they would literally fall asleep where they stood. At the end of Operation Hastings, we were exhausted.
The level of training to enable me to maintain that intense sense of duty, is something I am very proud of.
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
Most definitely HM3 Gregory Williams. He was my buddy, he was our Doc and he saved my life.
Cpl Jim Johnson who was part of my platoon and all looked up to him. We still have a deep friendship.
Lt. John Keker, our Platoon Lt. Lt Keker was steady as a rock. It was inspiring to view his courage in a firefight.
I could go on and name many more but the memories are hard to express in words as many of them died in Vietnam.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
The friend who stands out the most is HM3 Gregory Williams. He was with us from the day we started training at San Diego, CA and was still with us after I medevacked out of Vietnam because of my injuries.
We knew we were in a high-risk situation and sought cover in a deep creek bed containing dead Vietnamese soldiers. Gregory dragged Jim into the creek and we dug down. The 500lb bombs took out the machine guns that were chewing us up and we took stock. Out of our 24 Marines, 14 were seriously wounded. Once Gregory had stabilized Jim, he just ran from one wounded Marine to the next. I can’t imagine the decision he had to make moving onto another Marine when he knew he couldn’t save the one he was kneeling by. He would just try to make them comfortable and move on. Now can you imagine this? Gregory's only 22 years old and he's having to triage all his buddies.
From what I was told Gregory volunteered after the 3/5 got back to San Diego to go with the 7th Marine Regiment back to Vietnam.
Lt John Keker, our Platoon Lt. The main reason we were able to get out of the mess we were pinned down by heavy machine guns in Operation Hastings is because of his actions. Lt Keker was able to call in an airstrike however, those PVAN machine guns were only 50 feet away from us and there was Lt Keker standing in plain view of the enemy guiding in the airstrike!
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
The day I got shot and Gregory coming in in a cloud of dust like we were playing baseball and he was sliding into home plate. He was on his knees attending the wounds on my leg, as bullets were flying all around. I remember telling him on the ship on the way to Vietnam of how I was going to try and qualify for the '68 Olympics for the mile representing the Marine Corps.
I remember looking down at my leg and asking Gregory, "So what do you think Doc?". He replied, "Well Bill, I think the Olympics are out". We both started to laugh. Today, it brings back more laughter to remember that moment with him.
Another funny story. I made my sister my beneficiary and before the night I shipped out I told her that if she saw a green car with a Marine Officer exit from it, that she would know that she was 10 thousand dollars richer.
However, I did not know at the time that they sent a green car with a Marine officer to the house of a family when you are wounded. Well a green car pulls up in front of the house and mother started to cry, my sister answered the door just waiting to hear her brother was killed. Instead, they told her I was wounded and recovering. I'm sure at the moment my sister wanted to kill me.
We laughed about that for a long time.
What profession did you follow after your military service and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?
After the Marine Corps, I went to college and got my degree. Then I joined the California Highway Patrol for 20 years.
I then joined the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics and retired from there after 10 years.
While with the CHP, I realized I treated my fellow officers in a similar manner to the Marines I served with. If I found any of my officers coming up short, I tended to be verbal in letting them know! I know it was harsh of me but I could not help it. Once a Marine, always a Marine!
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
I'm a member of the American Legion, Chapter 5 (Fresno, California).
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
I miss my Marine buddies. I miss the comradeship we had and I miss the Corps. After my service, I became a firm believer in living my life with discipline and self-sacrifice. You have to be grateful for each and every day you are on this earth.
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Marine Corps?
I had friends I grew up with, joining the Marine Corps after I returned home. They would ask me, "Bill, tell me what I need to know about the Corps". My advice to them was to always listen to the man training you. They know what they are talking about. They will try to break you down in basic training, but only to do this to build you up as a team.
Pay attention and do what you are told because you will fight as you were trained. Marines will always have your back. Remember you are not just fighting a war, but you are fighting to protect each other.
You will most likely bring memories of combat home with you. I wish I could tell you that you won't. However, always remember you are not alone. Reach out for help when you need to. Trust your family, lean on them.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
How the Admins of TWS came together to grant an old Marine's wish before he left this earth. I wanted to thank the man (HM3 Gregory Williams) for saving my life, which allowed me to have a full life. He was my buddy, my brother. It's amazing how they have gone above and beyond to make this happen. I want to thank these folks for making this happen for me. To say my last goodbye, to thank him and to find closure.
In the image is the following persons, left to right:
TWS Chief Admin - Kim Craft, Medal of Honor Recipient - Doc Donald Ballard (TWS member), myself and my son, Sean behind me, Gregorys widow - Dorothy, his niece - Bernie, and Charlie Craft (TWS member)
I tried to find my old corpsman friend, HM3 Gregory Williams, and a friend of mine a Vietnam Vet, Bob Farmer, reached out to several people and was unable to find any information. TWS came into the picture and I can't wrap my head around everything they accomplished.
Through TWS I've been able to connect with my Marine brothers again. You know that's a bond that can never be broken. All I can say if you need to find someone, trust in TWS. They have a great thing going here for all us Veterans.
Semper Fi my Brothers and Sisters!
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