02/11/11 — A soldier's battle story

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A soldier's battle story

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 11, 2011 1:46 PM

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Col. Walter Joseph Marm, right, listens to Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffin at Wayne Community College during a special event to honor Marm for his heroic action during the Vietnam War -- for which he received the Medal of Honor.

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The Army's 82nd Airborne chorus performs during the tribute to Medal of Honor recipient Joe Marm.

The story was one most in the crowd had heard before -- immortalized in print and on film. In many ways it was a story similar to that which can be told by every Medal of Honor recipient. But this time, the audience got to hear Joe Marm tell it himself.

On stage in Moffatt Auditorium for Wayne Community College's Medal of Honor Gala with retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Tom Griffin, Marm, a retired U.S. Army colonel, discussed the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the action that led to his receiving the Medal of Honor, and his life since.

It was, Griffin said, "just two old soldiers talking."

Afterward Marm was honored by Dr. Kay Albertson, president of Wayne Community College, with the announcement that a new endowment is being established in his name to provide scholarships for military family members.

"It's just perfect. We felt with us being a military town, and Joe being our local hero, that establishing this endowment in his name would be a great way to honor him," she said, speaking after the evening's festivities.

And, she explained, the decision to have the funds go toward scholarships for military family members was actually his family's.

Deborah Marm, Marm's wife of 24 years, explained that because of their experiences through his 40 years of service, they know how hard it can be for military family members to continue their education, and so when this opportunity to help presented itself, they jumped on board.

"This is such an honor and education is so important. We just wanted to give back any way we could," said Mrs. Marm, a native of Fremont.

But establishing the endowment was only a small part of the evening.

The rest of it was spent honoring Marm for his acts of valor and heroism in 1965 in the first major battle of Vietnam for U.S. soldiers.

In a story told at length in the book and movie "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" Marm, part of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, arrived in Vietnam in September 1965 with the rest of the 1st Cavalry Division, ready to introduce a new way of fighting to the battlefield -- air cavalry, where, as he put it, "(the helicopters) were our Jeeps."

And the first time those new battlefield tactics were used was in November of that year during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam when approximately 450 Americans fought nearly four times that many North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

But on the first day -- the day Marm earned his Medal of Honor -- only about 250 Americans were on the ground when they were ambushed.

"They walked into a buzz saw," Griffin said. "This was a desperate situation. More than one man wondered if Little Big Horn was going to be repeated."

But ultimately, he said, it was the actions of men like Marm that carried the day.

"Personal courage is a major thing," Griffin said. "But being able to lead young men in the face of extreme danger is a rare gift. Joe was that kind of leader."

Marm received the medal in 1966 after leading his platoon through enemy fire in an attempt to rescue a unit of Americans surrounded by North Vietnamese. According to his citation, Marm not only killed four enemy soldiers who were threatening his platoon, he then deliberately exposed himself to fire from a concealed machine gun and attempted to destroy it with an antitank weapon.

And while that didn't stop the gun, he said, it did make a lot a noise and kick up a lot of dust.

"It really picked up my morale," Marm said. "And I'm sure it picked up the morale of my soldiers."

But, the citation goes on to read, he then charged position, despite being wounded, hurling grenades and finally killing the last of the eight soldiers manning the gun with his rifle. It was then that he was shot in the jaw and later evacuated shortly before dark that first day.

On Thursday, after his citation was read, a brief video of footage from the battle in Vietnam and a television re-enactment of the event was shown, as well as footage from his Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington, D.C., which Marm had just recently had converted off the 16 mm roll of film onto a DVD.

It was the first time the videos had been shown in an event such as this, and after the ceremony, Marm remembered the day he got a call, asking him to explain to the television actor what he had done.

Marm laughed, and said that the actor, though he didn't shoot the anti-tank weapon before charging the machine gun nest, had gotten it right -- even taking the correct course to the termite mound the gun was behind.

But during and even after the ceremony, Marm was quick to turn the attention away from himself and put it back on the men he served with, especially at Ia Drang.

"It was just a great bunch of soldiers," he said. "I wear the Medal of Honor for all the men who served with me. It's as much their medal as it is mine. I'm just the caretaker of that medal."

All he would say about receiving the medal was that it had put him in a special, tight-knit group of people -- only 85 recipients are living today -- and that he's always been aware of the fact people pay closer attention to his actions because of its presence.

"It's harder to wear the medal than it is to earn it. I've tried to set the example for my family and the soldiers I've worked and lived with," he said.

But while he downplayed the fact that he is a hero, many Thursday paused to speak to him during the reception that followed the ceremony, to shake his hand, ask for his autograph and thank him for his service.

"It really touched me," said Deleterious Sykes, an eight-year Marine Force Recon veteran. "I'm definitely proud to be here. This is wonderful."

Also participating in the ceremony Thursday were Vietnam veteran, author and scholar Dr. Bob Sorley, who gave a history on the Medal of Honor, and the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus, which performed a medley of rock-and-roll and armed forces tunes.