ONE DAY AS A LION
Map of Southeast Asia
COLLIN COUNTY CASUALTY LOCATIONS
ONE DAY AS A LION
By Ronnie D. Foster
"It is better to have lived one day as a
lion, than to live ten thousand years as a sheep."
The era of the sixties was a turbulent time in America. Nowhere was the impact any greater than in my home of Collin County, Texas. During the 1860s, it was a war between the states of the North and the South that divided the country so drastically. Hundreds of local men and boys left their families, ranches and farms to form up in the town squares and march off to battle. Just over 100 years later, in the 1960s, the country was again divided over a war between the North and South. But this time the battles were being fought on the other side of the world in the rice paddies and jungles of a small obscure country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, a place that was practically unknown to the average American at the time. Nonetheless, America was again going to war and again called upon her young men to wage the fight for freedom. And just like 100 years earlier, the young men of America answered the call and proudly wore the uniform into battle after battle.
I was just one of hundreds of those boys pretending to be men who left in search of adventure, the chance to be a living participant in the making of history, and to always have the inner feeling that we fought for our country. When World War II hero and US Navy veteran, President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," many of us took him literally and accepted that challenge. Twenty-one of those boys from Collin County, Texas, who did take that challenge, did not come home.
Those men, the ones who did not come home, paid the ultimate price so that the rest of us could live another hundred years as free thinkers and doers. Freedom does not come free; it comes with a heavy price.
This book is an attempt to tell the stories of those 21 young men. Through the details of available official military records, history books, veterans’ websites on the Internet, photographs, maps, personal and eyewitness accounts, letters to family and friends, and my own experience as a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, I have attempted to tell the stories of their young lives to the best of my ability. As I began to write this book my war had been over for 35 years. For some of the guys I found an abundance of information and for others not much at all. I have tried my best to tell their stories with the honor and dignity they have earned and deserve. Many of them were friends of mine, some I had never met, but we are all brothers in an elite family of warriors, freedom fighters and adventurers.
In January of 1961 President Kennedy explained the presence of American military personnel who were involved in a war in that obscure little country in Southeast Asia: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty … "
A small section of the population of the United States was becoming vocal in their opposition to our intervention into what they saw as another country’s war. On September 2, 1963, the President answered those critics: "These people who say that we ought to withdraw from Vietnam are wholly wrong, because if we withdrew from Vietnam, the communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya would go, and all of Southeast Asia would be under the control of the communists and under the domination of the Chinese."
After President Kennedy was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963, in downtown Dallas, Texas, 15 miles south of the Collin County line, the problem of Vietnam fell into the lap of another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson. The President was the son of a Collin County girl who was born just three blocks south of the square in McKinney, the county seat. On August 3, 1965, his reply to the growing number of war critics on why we had 16,000 military advisors in South Vietnam was: "If this little nation goes down the drain and can’t maintain her independence, ask yourself, what’s going to happen to all the other little nations?"
On the eve of the presidential election in 1964 between Johnson and his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, the Viet Cong (VC) staged a rocket attack on the American air base at Bien Hoa, in the southern part of the country, killing American personnel there. The United States’ Ambassador to Vietnam, General Maxwell Taylor, urged a retaliation bombing on Hanoi, but the President refused.
The VC attacked again and again, becoming bolder each time, and instead of their traditional guerrilla style of hit and run fighting, they began showing the influences of their training advisors from North Vietnam, China, North Korea, and Russia, as they utilized more battalion-sized operations.
At the time, the only large American military installations housing American troops were air bases, and they, as well as the aircraft on the ground, were becoming more and more vulnerable. The protection of the bases had been left up to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN), and it was becoming increasingly apparent that they could not be counted on to do that job. On March 8, 1965, President Johnson ordered 3,500 US Marines to land and deploy in a position to protect the air base at Da Nang. Three weeks later the VC attacked the American Embassy in Saigon, as regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began pouring into the South by way of what would become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
President Johnson, in a speech to the nation on January 12, 1966: "How many men who listen to me tonight have served their nation in other wars? How many are not here to listen? The war in Vietnam is not like these other wars. Yet, finally, war is always the same. It is young men dying in the fullness of their promise. It is trying to kill a man that you do not even know well enough to hate. Therefore, to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world. For we have children to teach, and we have sick to be cured, and we have men to be freed. There are poor to be lifted up, and there are cities to be built, and there is a world to be helped. Yet, we do what we must. I am hopeful, and I will try with the best I can, with everything I’ve got, to end this battle and to return our sons to their desires. Yet as long as others will challenge America’s security, and test the dearness of our beliefs with fire and steel, then we must stand, or see the promise of two centuries tremble."
And just like that, the politicians of the world had gotten us into another war. And just like that, boys from all over Collin County answered the call the same way that our fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers had. Some volunteered seeking an adventurous opportunity to see the world and to be a part of history; some dutifully went when their names were called. Some went kicking and screaming all the way, but once they got there they did their jobs with honor and dignity. Those called served with just as much duty and honor as the volunteers. According to the most decorated soldier of that war, the late Colonel David Hackworth, US Army (Ret), he could tell no difference between the regulars and the draftees in the soldiers who served under him. They were equally good soldiers.
A good friend of mine, Frank Seals, joined the Marines after he had graduated from McKinney High School in 1965. At the completion of boot camp and just before he shipped out for Vietnam, he came home wearing his summer tropical uniform and was a changed man, not a boy anymore. Frank was slim and trim with an attitude and a look in his eye that I didn’t quite understand at the time. He was a Marine, by God. Just like those legendary guys I had read about on Guadalcanal. Although he was only 18, having earned that famous Eagle, Globe and Anchor on his hat, Frank would never have to prove his manhood again.
He told me stories about what it had been like so far. Yes, boot camp had been hell on earth. I was totally fascinated. In fact, I wanted to hear all about infantry and jungle warfare training with live ammunition in the hills and on the beaches of Camp Pendleton, California, the same place I had read about in the novel "Battle Cry," written by Marine Corps veteran Leon Uris. Frank told me that Pendleton was where they had filmed the movie that was made from the book. I could easily picture myself wearing that uniform, but I didn’t know if I had what it took. Not just anybody could wear those clothes. But he told me if he could make it, I could make it. Honestly, I wanted to go, and it scared the hell out of me.
My dad, his brothers, my mom’s brother, and my two older brothers, had been soldiers during WWII, Korea, and the Cold War against communism. I decided there was no way I was going to miss this one, a real genuine shooting war. What an adventure, and what stories I would have to write about when some far-off day I did get ready to settle down and remember it all for my kids and their kids to read about. And I was not the only kid who felt that way. The Marine Corps was full of them, 17- and 18-year-old guys like me, most of us from the poor side of town, never having been anywhere, ready to see the wonders of the world, and be just like Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, who was from my hometown of Farmersville, Texas.
We soon learned, however, there was no glory in war. That fallacy comes from those Hollywood movies where men die without pain, without spilling blood and guts or missing limbs or heads, terrible sucking chest wounds, or crying and screaming. And the movie soldiers always seemed to have time to say a few last meaningful words.
In Vietnam not everyone was involved in direct combat, although no one place in the country was ever totally safe from death and destruction. Our war was basically one in which there were no front lines like there had been in all the ones before. It was a new kind of war in which the score was kept not by the amount of ground gained and conquered, but by body counts, a daily tally of the number of soldiers killed by each side.
Everyone who went there has a story to tell. Twenty-one young men from Collin County went and never returned. Someone has to tell their stories. Out of those 21 heroes, there were 13 soldiers of the US Army, one sailor, and seven Marines.
On March 5, 1966, the Vietnam War hit home for the first time. One of the Marine Corps’ mottoes is 'First to Fight.' That usually also means first to die. Our first casualty was an 18-year-old Marine, PFC (Private First Class) Royce Glen Scoggins of McKinney.
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