Medal of Honor recipient Walter Joseph Marm Jr. recalls the 1965 battle that changed the Vietnam War
Just months after 2nd Lt. Walter Joseph “Joe” Marm became an officer in the U.S. Army, he was disembarking from a helicopter in central Vietnam and leading a platoon into combat against the North Vietnamese Army. The ferocious fight in November 1965 became known as the Battle of Ia Drang. It was the first major engagement of the Vietnam War — and the Army’s first large-scale air assault by helicopter. Marm’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Harold “Hal” Moore, and war correspondent Joseph Galloway told the story of Ia Drang in their 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, calling it “the battle that changed the war in Vietnam.”
Growing up in Washington, Pennsylvania, Marm had gone to Catholic school, served as an altar boy and excelled in Boy Scouts. He competed on the rifle team at Duquesne University, and it was his rifle coach who encouraged him to consider a military career. Days after graduation, he was on a train to basic training. Marm earned his commission in April 1965 and attended Army Ranger School before being deployed to Vietnam with the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).
A member of the Knights of Columbus since 1966, Marm spoke with Columbia earlier this year about the Battle of Ia Drang and the valiant actions that earned him the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. The following account is adapted from that interview.
BUILDUP TO BATTLE
We were in the last phase of Ranger School in Florida when they called out 50 names and said, “Your orders are now changed. You aren’t going to Fort Jackson; you’re going to this unit up at Fort Benning.” Rumor had it that the unit was going to Vietnam. And that’s what happened — we signed into the 7th Cavalry Regiment, whose lineage goes back to Gen. George Custer. And a month later we were heading to Vietnam on a World War II merchant marine ship.
I didn’t know much about Vietnam. I started going to the library and checking out books about Vietnam to see what it was like. There’s always a tension and fear of the unknown, but these troops had been training and working together and testing the helicopters in war games for over a year. It turned out to be a very, very good unit. They were excellent soldiers, and I was blessed to have skilled leaders too. It was a long 30 days on the ship. We were having classes and shooting off the rear of the ship with our new weapon, the M16 rifle.
The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) arrived in South Vietnam in mid-September and established a base camp in the central highlands. At the same time, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers began making attacks on South Vietnamese, American forces and their local allies. In response, U.S. Army leaders launched an air assault, landing the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, by helicopter in the Ia Drang Valley on Nov. 14, 1965.
We were looking for the enemy. Their heavy mortars and aircraft units had not arrived yet, which was good for us. But they were looking for the enemy, too — they were looking for us. We captured a few once we landed, and they said they wanted to kill Americans.
One of the platoons became trapped on the side of Chu Pong Mountain. They were surrounded by the North Vietnamese and needed help; they couldn’t get out on their own. So our mission for the rest of that day was to try to get up there and get them out.
LEADING THE CHARGE
We made two attempts to get up there on Nov. 14. On the first attempt, we were taking too many casualties, so we had to pull back. Our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, said, “We’re gonna go get them out with the entire unit.” So we made a second attempt later in the afternoon. We prepped our positions as we were moving forward with artillery and mortar fire to try to silence the enemy. But the enemy was still there.
Ia Drang Valley isn’t heavy jungle like some areas of Vietnam; it’s trees and shrubs and elephant grass, about neck high. Right in front of my position was a solidified anthill about 7 or 8 feet in height, with trees and shrubs around it. The NVA were using it as a machine gun bunker. I told one of my men to shoot a bazooka into it; it’s a one-shot disposable tank-killing weapon. He opened it up and put it on his shoulder, but it didn’t go off because of all the humidity and moisture. I took the weapon from him, closed and opened it up again, and it went off for me. It made a big boom and cloud of dust, and I thought we had destroyed the position. We started moving forward again, but we were still taking fire.
So I told one of my men to throw a grenade over the top of it. With all the battle noise, I used sign language, and he thought I meant to throw it from where we were at. He did, and it deflected and landed in front. It didn’t do any damage. So rather than waste any more time, I told my men, “Don’t shoot me up,” and I ran across about 30 meters of open terrain to the bunker. I threw a grenade over the top and ran around to the left side. There were still some bad guys who were trying to shoot me, but I was able to silence them. I told my men, “Come on, let’s go; we gotta get to the platoon that’s trapped.”
And that’s when I was wounded. I stood up and got shot in the jaw; it went in my left jaw and deflected downward and underneath my right jaw and out. I had to feel my mouth to see if it was still in place. My sergeant, Sgt. Tolliver — who was a medic in Korea and carried our aid bag — he patched me up, and a couple of my soldiers helped me back to the command post. I was evacuated later that day by helicopter.
NO MAN LEFT BEHIND
Two helicopter pilots — Bruce Crandall and Eddie “Too Tall to Fly” Freeman — were bringing all of our ammunition and resupplies to keep the battle going. Bruce and Ed also received the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions in that battle. It’s one of the few battles in Vietnam where there were three Medal of Honor recipients.
The leader of the stranded platoon was killed, and his whole chain of command were killed or wounded. A young E5, a buck sergeant named Ernie Savage, took over. He called in artillery and mortar all around his position. He put a ring of steel around his position and was able to hold off three attacks from the enemy that night. In the morning on the 15th, two companies went up there, and we were able to get all the soldiers out, wounded and killed. Ernie Savage was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the second-highest award for valor in combat, along with his medic, Doc Lose, who was in charge of keeping all the wounded alive. After three days of intense fighting, we lost 79 soldiers killed in action and 121 wounded in action.
I was evacuated to a medical unit and then all the way back to an Army hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. You know, God works in strange and mysterious ways. Another inch and the bullet would have hit my jugular vein, and I would have bled to death. I spent three months recuperating; my mouth was wired shut while the bone healed, and I was on a baby food diet.
A few months later, a reporter told me I was going to receive the Medal of Honor. And that was the first I heard of it. On a very cold December day — Dec. 19, 1966 — in an outside ceremony, I was presented the medal by the secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor.
Recipients of the Medal of Honor don’t have to go back into combat, but I felt I should pull my share of the hardship. I hated war, but I love being with soldiers. So I volunteered to go back in ’69, to the 1st Cavalry Division again, and I made it through the whole year without getting wounded.
You may have heard the expression “There are no atheists in foxholes.” You’re out there in a very tough area, and you’re sleeping on the ground or in a poncho liner, looking up at the stars. I would say the St. Michael prayer every day, and other prayers too. If I had the time, I would say the rosary. I believe I’ve never been as close to God as I was in combat.
Walter Joseph Marm Jr. joined the Knights of Columbus in December 1966, following the example of his father, Walter Marm Sr., a past grand knight of Washington (Pa.) Council 1083. “It’s a very special organization,” he said. “They do great things to help the Church and to help their fellow man.”
He went on to serve 29 more years in the Army, including three years as an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, and retired as a colonel in 1995. Marm and his wife, Deborah have four children and nine grandchildren. They now live in eastern North Carolina, where he is a member of Msgr. Arthur R. Freeman Council 5487 in Goldsboro.