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Vietnam, 25 years later: 'In-country' only two months, Joe Marm soon became a hero

Tuesday, April 25, 2000

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although schooled in the art of war, Joe Marm didn't know the slightest thing about true combat when he arrived in Vietnam as a 23-year-old Army lieutenant in 1965.

  Army Secretary Stanley R. Resor awards Lt. Walter J. Marm Jr. the Medal of Honor on Dec. 19, 1966.

By the time the Washington, Pa., native was done with his first pitched battle two months later, he was a veteran in every sense of the word.

A bullet had shattered his jaw, and his battlefield heroics that November had earned him a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor.

Using an anti-tank weapon, a grenade and his M-16 rifle, Marm singlehandedly punched through a death-dealing machine gun nest that had pinned down his platoon on a swath of South Vietnam's central highlands.

Marm didn't turn the tide of battle that day. But he played a pivotal role in relieving the pressure on his company, which was trying to rescue a stranded platoon in what was to become one of the Vietnam War's earliest and bloodiest campaigns.

Most warriors awarded the Medal of Honor receive it posthumously. Only two of the 10 Western Pennsylvanians who earned it in Vietnam lived. Walter Joseph Marm Jr. was one.

Even today, nearly 35 years away from his life on the edge and a burst of gallantry that now seems more like a dream than reality, Marm downplays his actions.

  Related article:

Profiles in courage: The district's Medal of Honor winners

PG series:

Vietnam, 25 years later


"I'm just an average, run-of-the-mill guy," the retired career officer said in an interview yesterday from his home in Fremont, N.C., where he works in his wife's hog farming business.

That's not what anyone else thought, not the government and not his fellow soldiers.

Marm grew up the son of a noted state trooper. He was a Boy Scout who disliked hunting but enjoyed target practice with a rifle.

He studied finance at Duquesne University and intended to become a banker. When it became clear, though, that the United States was teetering toward war somewhere in Southeast Asia, Marm's life took a different turn. He decided to enlist in the Army and become an officer instead of getting drafted and serving as a grunt.

Five days after graduating in 1964, Marm headed off for four months of basic and advanced training at Fort Gordon, Ga., and six months in Officer Candidate School. Marm's last stop was to train as a Ranger, the elite commandos who specialize in small unit combat patrols and reconnaissance.

Marm was a few weeks shy of graduation when his orders came through: He was shipping out to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the first major military units to head for the war there.

The division was something special. Known as an airmobile unit, it was part of a nascent battlefield strategy the Army had been testing. Instead of helicopters being used exclusively to evacuate wounded soldiers and transport supplies, they were going to be used to deploy troops.

Not only was Marm an unknown quantity, so was the whole operation.

Flying deep into Vietnam to their base camp, U.S. troops watched a placid landscape spread out before them. Marm marveled at the beauty of the infinite shades of green in the jungle and the rice paddies.

During the first two months, Marm saw little combat. He participated in an ambush. He learned what burning flesh smelled like when he helped secure a crash site where a U.S. helicopter had gone down.

Nothing, though, could prepare him for Nov. 14, 1965. Marm was a platoon leader in a campaign to eradicate the North Vietnamese Army from the Ia Drang Valley. The enemy was dug in around the Chu Pong massif, a mountain range that marched straight into Cambodia. The battle that unfolded marked the first time U.S. troops had been pitted against North Vietnamese regulars.

Despite the butterflies in his stomach, Marm felt good. He was young, tough and in control. Like any 20-something, he thought he was invincible.

Sitting in the Huey helicopter during the 30-minute flight to the landing zone, weighted down by 75 pounds of gear, he said little to the half-dozen or so members of his company alongside him.

It didn't take long for the operation to unravel. A platoon from another company had found itself stranded and under heavy fire. In short order, the unit's command structure was wiped out, leaving a buck sergeant in charge.

Marm's company joined the remnant of the other company in a rescue mission, making its way through the grass. They could see the North Vietnamese running around in their pith helmets and tan uniforms. Bullets whizzed. It was Marm's first time under heavy fire.

As afternoon waned into evening, the soldiers could go no further. They had run smack into an obstacle, a van-sized mound of solidified earth surrounded by trees. Hiding behind it were North Vietnamese soldiers. They shot and shot, racking up American casualties.

Marm ordered someone to shoot an anti-tank missile at the mound. A soldier obeyed, but the weapon misfired. Marm grabbed the miniature bazooka himself. Exposing himself to the enemy so he could draw a bead on the machine gunners, Marm fired. It wasn't enough.

He barked an order for someone to attack the bunker with a grenade, but his men misunderstood and lobbed the grenade from where they were hunkered down. It landed short.

That's when Marm stepped in.

"I was looking for speed, so I told my men to hold their fire and I was going to do it myself, so that's what I did. I charged that bunker."

He sprinted nearly 100 feet across open ground.

"When I got to it, I took my grenade and threw it over the top. When it went off, I went around to the side. I shot a few that were still there, still alive," Marm said.

In all, Marm is said to have killed 12 to 18 North Vietnamese soldiers.

Another lieutenant, Dennis Deal, was on the battlefield and witnessed Marm's heroism. He recounted it to Joseph Galloway, who was a 24-year-old reporter with United Press International. Galloway, who was overhead in a command helicopter during Marm's charge, included Deal's recollection in a book on the Ia Drang campaign called "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."

"On the right flank of the Bravo line, Lt. Deal was now rolling around on the ground desperately trying to dodge a valley of machine-gun slugs cutting through the grass all around him. Suddenly, 25 yards away, Deal saw an American get up and charge forward while everyone around him was flat on his belly," wrote Galloway, now with U.S. News and World Report.

Marm paid for his onslaught. After emptying his chattering rifle into the enemy bunker, he was shot in the face.

"I had to feel my jaw to make sure it was still there," he said. "I didn't know if I had the bottom part of my mouth."

Marm was evacuated. Within days, he was recovering in Valley Forge Hospital, Chester County. His jaw was wired shut and he was on a diet of baby food. A year later, Marm received the Medal of Honor. In 1969, he returned to combat in Vietnam.

"I felt like I should pull my share of the hardship tours," he explained.

Today, Marm, 58, usually keeps his medal in a safe deposit box. A dimple on his jaw marks the spot where the bullet struck him. Vietnam didn't crush his spirit or his body. He became a career soldier, retiring in 1995 with the rank of colonel.

Marm sees himself as a caretaker for the Medal of Honor, someone who received it for all the valiant soldiers who laid down their lives.

"I was really there just to lead them and set the example and do the best I could," Marm said. "I always say I wear the medal for all those brave men who were in that battle whose actions go unsung. My actions happened to be observed."

Tomorrow: The Vietnam War hurt generations of people, sometimes all at once. We look at an East Butler man who died, leaving behind a 7-month-old daughter, his wife and his mother.

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