Thursday, September 14, 2006

Swiftboat Victim - A Marine's Story

When the swiftboaters attack a public servant their lies and slander attack other heroes as well. This is the story of of one of those other heroes who was also a swiftboat victim. Many of you probably remember the 2004 anti-Kerry advertisement featuring a veteran throwing his medals over a fence. ( You can see it here, click on the piece entitled "Medals".) The soldier featured in the advertisement is Frank D. Norton, Cpl. U.S.M.C., who was wounded twice, received the Bronze Star for saving his unit from annihilation, and was permanently disabled. He is my brother and this is his story.

The swiftboaters say that Frank "turned his back on his brothers." Nothing could be further from the truth. He is a true American hero who voluntarily shed his blood for his country, grieved at having left his men behind, and finally did the only thing he could to help them - try to bring an end to the war so that all could come home.

Frank enlisted in the Corps right out of High School. It was a three year enlistment in the Summer of 1965, just as the war was getting into high gear. The Corps had become a family tradition. Our Father and Mother both served as Marine Corps officers in WWII. Mom served in Washington during the war and was immensely proud of her service. She was discharged as a Captain, outranking my father much to her glee, and is interred in Arlington. Dad served in the Pacific and China. Like most veterans of his generation he did not talk about the war or his experiences while we were growing up. It wasn't until decades later, near the end of his life, that he opened up about his wartime experiences, especially on Iwo Jima, and I came to realize the profound impact they had on him.

Frank entered the Corps on a delayed enlistment before graduating and was off to Parris Island in early Summer for Boot Camp. He then received training as a mortar man.

After serving stateside a while he was sent on the Med Cruise. For those of you who are not familiar with the cruise, the Corps maintained a presence in the Mediterranean during the Cold War as part of a large U.S. military presence in Europe. The Med Cruise was months of tedious steaming up and down the European and African coasts of the Mediterranean Sea in a hot crowded transport ship, punctuated by periodic training exercises and a few port calls. The only notable event on that trip was that one of their amphibious assault exercises in North Africa was filmed as part of a John Lennon movie, "How I Won The War." Also, he was snookered by a French sailor who traded a butane lighter for Frank's Zippo. Disposable butane lighters had not yet come to the States and it wasn't till a few weeks later that Frank realized he had been had.

Not long after Frank returned from the cruise he was sent to Camp Pendleton to prepare for shipment to Nam. After the training was over and one final leave he shipped out in June, 1967. His unit in Nam was Gulf Co, 2d Bn., 1st Marines, which was initially stationed near Hill 55 about twelve miles South of Danang. Frank was assigned to a line squad and was no longer a mortar man. In August, after barely two months in country, he was wounded for the first time. While on patrol the grunt ahead of him tripped a booby trap and Frank was hit with several pieces of shrapnel in the neck and arms. Compared to what would happen months later the injuries were minor and he returned to duty in a week.

In October the Battalion moved to Quang Tri where they stayed until December, at which time they moved to Con Thien. Many of you may be familiar with the lengthy siege of Khe San but few remember the equally violent struggle for control of the country East of there at Con Thien. The Marines held that ground for month after month while subject to constant bombardment, perimeter attacks and patrol ambushes.

Con Thien was referred to as the "Hill of Angels" by the missionaries and by other names, such as "the meat grinder," by others who were there because of the many who died during the battle. It was at the end of the so-called "McNamara Line" which stretched along the DMZ from the ocean to the Laotian border and was considered vital to preventing unrestricted NVA movement to the South. The base was manned by a battalion of Marines, which was usually rotated with a new unit on a monthly basis because of the horrific conditions to which they were subjected. The base was under constant bombardment, averaging about 200 rounds a day. During one especially violent period between September 19th and 27th they received 3000 rounds. When not on patrol, the Marines lived under ground in a hellish existence of mud, noise, terror and death.

Because of heavy activity that culminated in the Tet offensive of 1968, 2d Battalion was not rotated like its predecessors and was still there in March. The Battalion Commander, having grown tired of his patrols being ambushed by the NVA, decided that it was time to turn the tables on the enemy. He came up with the idea of "Killer Squads." The plan was to send out a full Company which would set up and hold a perimeter for a while. Then, most of the Company would head back to base leaving the concealed Killer Squad to spend the night and hopefully ambush the NVA.

Frank was the squad leader of one killer squad and a second squad was selected from another company. Because each squad was at half of its normal strength, seven instead of 15 members, every man would be trained on every job. All needed to be able to operate the machine gun and LAW, spot artillery, and tend to the wounded in the event any one of them was killed.

Before the plan was made operational two squads were sent out by themselves on a training mission. This was very unusual. Normally the Marines never left the base in less than company strength. But on March 4th, 1968 both squads, operating as a single unit, left the base accompanied by the Company XO, Lt. Cummings, and his radio man.

They arrived at a spot within view of an abandoned village where they set up a 360 degree perimeter. Then, unexpectedly, on Frank’s side of the perimeter NVA troops were spotted behind the next tree line. Thirty yards separated that side of the Marine perimeter and the NVA with an abandoned rice paddy in between. The Marines didn't know there was a Company of NVA in the trees. And the NVA, who were familiar with the Marines’ tactics, could not have had any idea that they were battling only 16 Marines.

Frank yelled “open up and move out” as the NVA began turning a machine gun around to fire in their direction. He ran to a lone tree in the open area, took cover and began firing. There were Marines in a line on both sides of him firing from positions about fifteen yards apart.

As all hell broke loose the machine gunner was the first to get hit. Then Frank began to see, hear and feel the tree being chewed up around him - and then, he was hit. The impact of the bullet flipped him onto his back. The bullet did cruel work, shattering his femur and mangling his intestines before exiting his butt. The Marine to his left, who was in a small depression, started to move towards Frank’s position to render aid. Frank ordered him to stay where he was and keep firing.

LCpl Vernon Pendergrass was on Frank’s right firing the M-79 Grenade Launcher. It was a weapon that he had recently begun to train on to replace a Marine who was a real short timer. Pendergrass got off a few rounds before he was killed.

By this time the Marine perimeter had collapsed so that all of them could engage the enemy. One of the Marines who had been on the other side ran up to Frank to render aid was ordered to get back. Frank knew his position was exposed and a field dressing wouldn’t do him much good.

A fire started in the empty field and the NVA began to use the smoke for cover to advance on the Marines. Things were looking grim until the wind changed and the NVA were forced to retreat.

Lt. Cummings ran to Frank's position, grabbed his M-16 and began firing. As Frank yelled for him to get down the Lieutenant took a round in the chest that flipped him in a somersault. Frank thought he was dead for sure but then, amazingly, the Lieutenant got up a few minutes later, handed Frank the weapon, and ran back. The bullet had hit his chest but somehow not penetrated anything vital.

Frank and most of the Marines were lucky that day. His Bronze Star Commendation said that if he had not ordered the attack those 16 Marines would probably have been overwhelmed by the vastly superior numerical force of the enemy. The wind blew in their favor. And most importantly, the Company was able to reinforce them in time and repel the enemy. Luck is relative of course. Marines were wounded and killed and Frank lost the only member of his squad to die.

It was three hours before Frank was to Medivaced to Dong Ha for initial surgery. From there he was sent to Phu Bai for more surgery and finally to Danang, where he stayed a week, undergoing even more treatment. When he was stable enough he was flown to Japan, where he stayed in traction till early June. Finally, in a full body cast, he was sent to Chelsea naval Hospital in Boston Massachusetts.

While at Chelsea he was awarded his Bronze Star With "V" Device in a ceremony attended by the press. A picture of the award ceremony was actually printed as a full page cover on the next days edition of one of the Boston papers. The medal was presented by a Navy Captain in full Dress Uniform and Frank was sitting up in his bed in a brand new hospital shirt that had been given to him that morning just for the occasion. The ward was filled with over a dozen marines recovering from their injuries, a few other Marines, hospital staff and some family and friends.

All soldiers who receive awards such as this have mixed emotions. You don't really feel you deserve it because you didn't do anything that any other man in your unit wouldn't have done, and in fact hadn't done countless times. You feel that the true heroes are not those who survive, but rather those left behind. Your sense is that the award is really for your men, your brothers, your unit, not just you. But you also feel a small sense of satisfaction in the recognition of your service that the medal represents. Frank had those same feelings.

That Summer as Frank recuperated we did not talk often of what happened on March 4th. In fact we only talked about it once, late at night, after he had recovered enough to leave the hospital for a visit to town. As we drank, he opened up with the story, but mostly with his tears. He cried for Vernon Pendergrass and how he would never see his daughter. (Decades later Frank made a trip to Alabama to meet and console that daughter and share with her his fond memories of her father.) He cried for his men, feeling guilty that he was in the States and they were still in Nam. He wanted to be there with them to help bring them all home safely. He cried the lament of all soldiers who made bonds in battle that can never be broken.

Late that Summer Frank was medically retired from the Corps. Before I began my enlistment in the Army, he went off to Ohio University to begin the college education he had put off in 1965. He was not the same person he had been in high school. War changes men. Also, now he was a Marine, and would be one for life. He loved the Corps in the way that only one who knows its warts, inanities and idiocies can. It's a love/hate relationship that is a brotherhood for life.

As time passed, Frank began to see the war as futile and damaging to our nation. He resolved to do what he could to bring it to an end and bring his brothers home. That is why in 1971 he joined with over a thousand other Viet Nam veterans, including John Kerry, to protest the war. As part of that protest he, along with many others, threw their medals over a fence at the Capitol to demonstrate the depths of their feeling - medals they had earned with their blood, limbs and sacrifice.

This is the man that the Swifties tried to slime by saying he turned his back on his brothers. Those critics forgot, if they ever knew, that Frank and his brothers had fought on behalf of a Nation with a Constitution they had all sworn an oath to defend. A Constitution which guarantees the right of "the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances." It is a right that the government cannot abridge and that no person should ever be criticized for exercising. The swiftboaters were sworn to defend that same Constitution while in uniform and, as citizens, are obligated to honor, support and preserve it in their daily lives.

These critics, these swiftboaters, are still at it today attacking the patriotism and service of veterans running for office. And they damage others in the process. They are the antithesis of the patriots they attack. The swiftboaters have lost sight of the true meaning of patriotism. It is not love of a leader, policy or Party. It is love of the Constitution and all the rights and privileges it grants to us as Americans. Our Constitution is what makes our Country great, and we all have an obligation to insure that it is not breached by the government or ignored by the people. Supporters of that war or any war have every right to express that support by whatever means they chose. But they do not have the right to defame the patriotism of those who hold a different point of view. And no true soldier would ever demean the sacrifice of another.