Gunny passes Vietnam's lessons to young warriors
Gunnery Sgt. John Cammack’s running out of room on his National Defense Service Medal.
The yellow-and-red ribbon was reissued recently for service for the war on terror. But as many veterans of the Persian Gulf War added their first star to their ribbons, Cammack fastened on his second — joining a few aging generals and senior noncommissioned officers.
The first time he saw the ribbon, the Marine at Camp Foster, Okinawa, was like many of today’s fresh-faced privates first-class in the Marine Corps.
He joined as there was talk of war in a distant land. Only it was 1967. The war wouldn’t be waged in the desert but the jungles of Vietnam.
Cammack is a 55-year-old Marine reservist, activated for the war on terror. He’s taking his chance at one last tour to finish his 36-year career the way it began: On active duty, helping Marines prepare for combat.
“You know the recruiter, when I talked to him late that summer, said, ‘Well, the Vietnam War is pretty much a police action,’” Cammack said. “‘It’s probably going to be over by January of ’67.’ But as I found out, I was actually in country in January of ’67.”
Cammack recalls that line over and over, for Marines at base communication on Okinawa and in units across the island. His ripsaw voice and fading scars betray the new computer-pixilated Marine camouflage uniform. He’s a slice of the old breed serving in the 21st century Marine Corps, a bridge, an opportunity for today’s Marines to see up-close those who helped forge their fighting force’s legacy.
Cammack arrived in Vietnam in January 1967 with just a sea bag on his back and something today’s Marines never use: a service number.
“2276167,” he rattled off. “Easy to remember.”
That’s because his high school football jersey number was 22. He entered the Marine Corps on Aug. 22, 1966 and “the first place I get assigned to in Vietnam is Hill 22.”
He had no weapon, no gear and only a faint idea of what lay ahead.
The learning curve, though, was steep. His first night in Vietnam was on Hill 41, staying in the corpsmen’s tent. A patrol went out soon after he arrived. Within hours, that patrol would bring him face to face with war’s horror.
“I remember sometime oh — dark — two or three in the morning,” Cammack said. “We were in this sandbag bunker watching this thing. Then everything stopped and you heard all this crap on the radio which we didn’t have an idea what they were talking about.”
He later learned what the coded language was. “Cadillac” meant a Marine killed in action; “whiskey” was for the wounded.
The next morning the patrol returned, carrying the fallen Marine. Cammack still recalls the limp legs dangling from the poncho they used to carry the body.
It was laid in the tent where Cammack just had spent the night; he and another Marine were ordered to go through the Marine’s pockets to collect personal effects. They were afraid to uncover the face; the Marine had been shot in the head. They left him covered until another Marine yanked the poncho back to speed the process.
“It was just weird,” Cammack recalled. “It was a clear bullet hole on the back of his ear and a little blood rolling down like someone punched a hole right in his neck. But his body was like you’d see Halloween: green, really eerie looking.”
The next day proved no better. Cammack arrived at his unit, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines on Hill 22. He finally got the weapon and field gear he would carry into battle.
“We got M-14s at the time,” he said. “The whole top of the fiberglass hand guard was just shredded. I asked, ‘Can I get a different weapon? This one’s pretty bad.’
“‘That’s the weapon you’re getting, buddy,’” Cammack said he was told.
“I asked when can I get something new because it’s all busted up,” Cammack continued.
“‘Most of them will look like that,’” Cammack remembers being told.
“I asked what happened to this one?” he recalled — and said he was told, “‘The guy took three rounds to the chest walking point.’
“I remember thinking about that,” Cammack said. “Damn … I got this weapon, that’s probably going to happen to me.”
But soon, life became routine. Cammack carried mortar rounds for his squad. For the next few months, not much happened. Patrols were long and along the same patch of road.
“A lot of the stuff became really monotonous,” Cammack said. “You tend to lose the days of the week. One day rolls right into another one. I remember someone saying it was Easter and I’m like, ‘Damn … I thought it was Wednesday.’”
Cammack also began to wonder what combat might really be like. His answer came almost as soon as he voiced the question.
His unit, ordered to secure a downed helicopter, had stopped near a river within sight of a pagoda. He and another soldier were sent to refill canteens. When they returned, the unit paused for a bite of C-rations.
As they ate, he asked one of the short-timers, who’d never been hit, what the shooting would be like.
“We’re talking and no sooner than we got done finishing our chow, rounds started popping all over the place,” Cammack said. “I was farther back and I’m trying to come up … you see different movies, but I tell the guys it was like everything was in slow motion. I can relate to the cartoon strip with Elmer Fudd … going from one tree to the next and hoping between tree to tree, you don’t get hit.
“You could see rounds hitting the ground, hitting the trees, bark flying off some of the trees that were close by.”
Not until the next day did he realize how vulnerable he’d been at the riverbank, “but they wanted more than just the two of us,” he said.
Cammack’s vision of combat changed in an instant. No offhand John Wayne shots. Marines hugged the ground, fumbling with the new M-16 that jammed constantly. Then he saw the assistant machine gunner get hit.
“I pulled him up off the bank and he was still breathing when I was with him,” Cammack said. “You start thinking about what you’re taught about stop the bleeding and it was in an area the more I pushed my hand, the more blood was coming out. I had never seen anybody bleed that much.”
The blood coated Cammack’s hands and uniform. It wasn’t like the movies, running like water, but sticky, like jam.
“I was screaming because I can’t do anything for him,” he said. “The lieutenant told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing as much as you can. Just stay with him.’
“He stopped breathing while I was holding him. Then he passed.”
The time felt like an eternity, Cammack said. But it was only about 15 minutes. He said he hardly thinks about the moment anymore. Still, decades later, he fought tears as he recounted the firefight that earned him a Navy Commendation Medal with a Combat “V” for valor.
The encounter steeled him, though. He paid little attention to the jungle rot that still plagues his feet or the exploding land mine that later peppered his arm and shoulder with shrapnel. It took a snake bite to get him evacuated.
He recovered to return to his unit. But the wounds to his shoulder still ached. He was carrying a radio by then and had to do it half-bent over to cope with the pain. He was shipped to the Naval Hospital at Yokosuka, Japan, after tests at local military hospitals couldn’t find the problem. There, doctors found a deep bacterial infection and ordered Cammack evacuated to recover in the States.
He served out his enlistment at HMX-1, the squadron of Marines guarding the president. In 1971, for the sake of his marriage, he left the Corps. The parting, he said, was half-hearted.
“I got a medical discharge in 1971, I got a 20 percent disability for my shoulder and my arm,” he said. “I asked them, ‘What do I do about my feet?’ They gave me four cans of foot powder. It was kind of funny.”
After the marriage ended in divorce in 1980, Cammack considered returning to the Corps — but gave up the idea after being told he couldn’t keep his former rank.
Then a girlfriend convinced him to go to a Vietnam veteran’s parade in Chicago in 1986. Cammack said he found Marines he knew there, who couldn’t believe he was out of uniform. They told him about joining the reserves. It had been 18 years since he’d worn the uniform but soon he again was standing tall in his hometown reserve center.
“People are looking at me like who the hell is this sergeant with all these ribbons,” Cammack said. “One sergeant came up and looked at my shirt and asked if I’d been busted a few times. I said no, I just came back in.”
Cammack’s unit was called up for the Gulf War. Soon Marines started asking him the same question he’d once asked: What will it be like?
“If you’re with me and I tell you to get your e-tool and dig, you’re going to dig and dig it deep and get in it,” he said. “You’ve got to work together as a team and look out for each other. There are going to be times when you’re going to wonder when you’re going to be able to sleep.”
Cammack also made them a promise: He would ensure everyone was brought home — dead or alive. His unit returned in May of 1991; to his relief, Cammack saw no repeat of Vietnam.
The Sept. 11 attacks rekindled the question in yet another generation of Marines. Cammack retold his stories, recounted his fears and reassured the Marines that they were ready to serve.
But his own tenure was coming into question. With 18 years of service under his belt, Cammack was dropped into the Individual Ready Reserve. Drill time would be on his own; retirement as a Marine wasn’t a sure thing.
Last February, though, the aging warrior got a reprieve. He was recalled to service here on Okinawa. He left behind a small service business. His wife, Nancy, has been running it — and dealing with her cancer surgery — on her own.
“She’s a real trooper,” Cammack said. “I’m the gunny, but she’s the general.”
He also credits her support with pushing himself long after many are enjoying their grandchildren. He’s trying to stay on for one last year until he can retire his uniform. It’s a burden physically, financially and emotionally, he said, but one he’s determined to bear.
“I thought about that a lot this last 10 months,” Cammack said. “It makes a big difference for me. I’m not as young as the other Marines. I’m not running first, but I’m not on the bus. At least I’m giving some back to the Marine Corps.”
Giving back for Cammack means passing on his combat lessons, even the simple ones. One other Marine in his section also was in the Gulf War. He reminds his Marines to keep plastic bags on hand for waterproofing gear. He keeps their wills updated and reminds them to explain deployments to families.
Passing along the knowledge is a burden he feels strongly.
He mentions the Vietnam Memorial, names of “a little over 58,000 men and women on a granite wall in Washington, D.C. If I touch one or two of these Marines during my time on active duty, if I remind them about what it was like and hopefully … maybe we will not ever have to build another memorial for our sons and daughters.”
It’s also a personal mission. Cammack said he wants to repay the debt of honor he feels for Marines with whom he served.
“To give it back, the way I’ve been able to, that only comes maybe once in a lifetime,” Cammack said. “Every day I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to waste it.’” He wants to finish his last tour knowing that “I gave it everything I had.”
Reports from the Vietnam war
From the archives: Links to some stories and photos filed by Stars and Stripes reporters and photographers during the Vietnam war.An assignment near the Cambodian border in July, 1966 became a matter of survival for a Stripes reporter when the 12-man squad he was with came under attack.Story and photosFrom August, 1969, two S&S staff reports on fighting in the rugged Hiep Duc valley.Stories and photosFrom March, 1966, Operation Utah — a joint U.S.-Vietnamese Marine effort near Quang Ngai.Story and photos
Veterans Day 2002: Marking the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.Story and photos