A soldier's memory
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 14, 2013 1:50 AM
Editor's note: April 19 at 6 p.m., local Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Col. Joe Marm will share his story in front of the Wall That Heals during a ceremony at which the names of the 145 area men who died in Vietnam will be read aloud.
Brazen is a man wielding an M-16 and clinging to a grenade as he advances, in a sprint, toward a heavily guarded enemy stronghold at the top of a hill along the Ia Drang Valley.
Grit is ordering those under his command to hold their fire through it all -- making the decision that he, and he alone, would take out the dozens of North Vietnamese soldiers standing between a group of Americans and their accomplishment of a no-fail mission.
But hero, hero is a word Joe Marm has shied from for nearly 50 years -- since the day he single-handedly "eliminated" those firing down on his men from treetops and behind a mounted machine gun; since the moment a sniper's bullet knocked him out of the war that has, in many ways, defined his life ever since.
He was, in his own words, doing what any soldier would do.
The Army -- and those who witnessed his actions on that muggy day in South Vietnam's Central Highlands -- just happened to see it differently.
So when a Wayne County farm boy was awarded the Medal of Honor for ensuring better odds for those under his command at the risk of near-certain death, he didn't accept it for himself.
"Most recipients would tell you the same thing," Marm said. "We are the caretaker of the medal for (all of those who have served)."
A little boy plays Army in tent that he and his friends swear is peppered with bullet holes.
He listens to tales passed on by local World War II veterans about heroic moments experienced and victories shared on battlefields across Europe.
He fires a rifle with his father.
But still, Marm never has dreams of a life of service.
In fact, his enlistment might never have happened were it not for the looming draft.
So he never would have foreseen that five days after his college graduation, he would board a train bound for Fort Jackson, S.C., to begin basic training.
And when he arrived, the notion that he would one day be called upon to fight never crossed his mind.
It was 1964, and Vietnam was "hardly on the radar."
So the idea of real combat, of having to use the training he was receiving, seemed a distance away from reality for the 23-year-old.
"At that point, Vietnam wasn't really on the news much," he said. "We use to hear instructors say, 'You had better pay attention. You might be going to Vietnam.' So I went to the post library and started doing a little reading about guerrilla warfare, whatever I could. But there wasn't a whole lot in there, and honestly, I never imagined I would actually be there one day."
So his focus turned to completing each round of training at the top of his class -- first basic, then advanced individual training and leadership classes.
And when he graduated the Army's officer program as a lieutenant, he was assigned to its Ranger school.
"It was the toughest stuff I have ever done," he said.
But then it got tougher.
Marm was only a few weeks away from Ranger status and had gotten orders to return to Fort Jackson to help guide a new crop of recruits through basic, but just before he was scheduled to make that trip, he and his 100-man class were told to line up.
"They called 30 names. They said, 'Your orders have changed. You are going to be joining the 2nd Infantry Division,'" he said. "Rumor had it they were forming up and heading to Vietnam."
Walter "Joe" Marm was among the names called.
A young lieutenant and his men board a vessel off the coast of South Carolina.
They know that 31 days later -- after crossing the Panama Canal and Pacific Ocean -- they would be at war.
"We tried to make the best of it," Marm said. "We did some training -- you know, shooting off the rear of the ship at targets we had mounted there."
But when, at last, he saw land on the horizon, he had no idea that within two months, he would leave Vietnam among "the walking wounded" -- that when he returned home, the legend of what had unfolded in Ia Drang would have already been told hundreds of times over within military circles across the nation.
Historians remember Nov. 14, 1965, as the day the first "real" battle between U.S. forces and full-time North Vietnamese soldiers commenced.
But for Marm, the experience of being there was far different than the tales depicted decades later in movies and memoirs.
Before Ia Drang, he had hardly seen and signs of the enemy.
He felt "invincible."
"I knew Vietnam was dangerous, that I had to be very careful, but I hadn't even had any of my men wounded yet," he said. "When you're young and carefree, there wasn't a bullet meant for you. That's kind of how I felt."
But that all changed on that hot November day.
Lt. Col. Harold Moore was in command of Marm's unit, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division -- a group that traced its lineage back to Lt. Col. George Custer.
Marm still finds the connection ironic.
"For a while there, we thought we were at Little Bighorn. We were outnumbered -- surrounded," he said. "They had probably 3,000 against our 457."
Moore had his sights on the top of Chu Pong Mountain, which housed a large enemy base camp.
With the right strategy, he thought, a few hundred Americans could deal a blow to thousands of their foes.
But something went wrong.
"We were split up into companies. B Company went in first. They started maneuvering right away," Marm said. "But then, one of their platoons saw some enemy and started chasing them. They got separated from the rest of the company."
Marm knew Lt. Henry Herrick, B Company's commander, so he welcomed orders to go help him recover his men.
"One of my first missions, I was detached from my company and my commander said, 'Go up and report to Herrick. You're going to help him get his (unit)," he said. "They called it 'The lost platoon.'"
And it might have remained that way had it not been for the efforts of Marm and his men.
It was nearly 5 p.m., an hour before night would fall on Ia Drang.
"We wanted to get them out of there, and we were trying to get up there before dark," Marm said.
But there was plenty standing in their way.
"You know, everyone had their own little fight. Ours was in a section called, 'Ant Hill' -- real hard, solidified rock, very hard dirt, trees all around it," he said. "There were bad guys up in the trees, right to my front maybe 50 meters."
And in a bunker on the ground, a mounted machine gun was adding to the barrage of bullets coming down the slope.
Marm told his men to "silence" that bunker -- first with a rocket, then a grenade.
Their attempts failed.
"The bad guys regrouped. As we were trying to move forward, they were still firing at us," Marm said. "So rather than waste any more time, I decided to do it myself. I told my men to hold their fire because I was afraid they might accidentally shoot me in the back, but still, there was this feeling of infallibility. I kept thinking, 'There isn't a bullet meant for me.'"
So with his men on their bellies, Marm took off up the hill -- an M-16 in one hand, a grenade in the other.
Moments later, he was standing at that bunker over the bodies of the dozen-plus enemy soldiers he had disposed of.
He turned back to his men and shouted, "Let's go."
But as they started toward their lieutenant, he fell to his knees.
"I got shot through the jaw," Marm said. "I had to feel it to make sure it was still there."
Panel 3 of the Vietnam Wall is all too familiar to the man who earned the nation's highest medal for valor for all he accomplished during the few minute-long assault he waged on an enemy stronghold.
Immortalized on it are the names of the 79 comrades he served with before they were cut down in their prime.
So when Marm was asked to represent them before the roll call ceremony set to be held in front of the Wall That Heals Friday, he jumped at the chance to, again, memorialize them.
They are, after all, the reason he still wears a decoration so few have earned.
"I guess I'm the caretaker of the medal for all the men in that battle," he said. "So I feel honored every time I put it on."