Documentary looks to tell the remarkable story of Marine special operator James Capers Jr.
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 2, 2018
WASHINGTON — No matter what hell was enveloping James Capers Jr. and his Force Reconnaissance Marines, when it was time to escape a melee he was the last man on the ground — sometimes holding off enemy attackers alone before boarding a helicopter to safety.
“If I was going to die there in Vietnam, I was going to die fighting,” said Capers, a retired major whose 22 years in the Corps would earn him fame as a revered and innovative fighter and one of the Marines’ first black special operators. “That was just the way we fought. You go out fighting. You kill as many enemy as you could — and that would mean that they could not further fight your guys or other American troops.”
It was April 1967, after three days of patrolling behind enemy lines in search of a reported North Vietnamese encampment near the village of Phu Loc just north of Hue city, when Capers’ nine-man Third Force Recon Team — known as Team Broadminded — found itself in the crosshairs of an entire NVA regiment.
The fighting was as intense as any he had seen in nearly a year in Vietnam spent conducting dozens of commando raids in northern South Vietnam, Capers recalled.
With two broken legs and peppered with shrapnel from the blast of a Claymore mine, Capers battled a mental haze brought on by massive blood loss and a shot of morphine as he fought to free his men from the assault.
With his entire team wounded and their loyal service dog, King, killed in action, Capers ordered his Marines to evacuate on a small H-34 chopper. He continued the fight — calling in strikes on “danger close” enemy positions as he fended off the attackers with his M-16. But the extraction helicopter was overloaded, and his men needed critical medical attention. Capers made the impossible decision — let the chopper take his men and King’s body away from danger while he stayed behind to face certain death.
“I figured it’s better to lose one man than to lose the whole team,” Capers, 80, told Stars and Stripes in a recent telephone interview from his home near Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. “Any commander worth his salt would care for his men before his self.”
But the men would not leave their leader behind.
Capers — who would become the first black Marine officer nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but would instead receive the Silver Star — was pulled aboard the chopper. After two failed attempts at liftoff, the pilots finally got the H-34 airborne, carrying the men to safety and beginning Capers’ journey toward recovery. He would later become the face of the Corps’ first recruiting campaign targeting young black men.
A documentary about Capers’ life is set to be released this year, a decade-long effort spearheaded by the retired Marine in an attempt to find a sense of “self-healing,” following the deaths of his son, Gary, in 2003, and his wife of 50 years, Dottie, in 2009. Filmmakers Ashley Cusato and Erich Recker share the once-top-secret details about him and his commando team during that brutal tour in Vietnam.
‘A badass with heart’
“Major Capers: The Legend of Team Broadminded,” documents the exploits that would earn Capers status in Marine Corps lore and a spot in the inaugural class of the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor.
Capers was “one of history’s most outstanding special operations team leaders,” former Marine Special Operations Command chief, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, said as Capers was inducted into the hall alongside 13 revered special operators in 2010.
Built on never-before-seen footage of Capers and Team Broadminded in action in Vietnam, and interviews with the men he served alongside, the documentary tells the story of overcoming longshot odds through personal strength and perseverance, said Cusato, the film’s director.
“How does someone like Maj. Capers, who broke through barriers, become successful in his career against all odds?” Cusato asked. “He possessed this level of perseverance, tenacity, there was a stick-to-itiveness and a faith that was a common thread every time he was up against a challenge. And he always possessed the ability to see in a positive light and a positive tone.”
It’s a message that Cusato and Recker, the executive producer, aim to share with a wide audience, explaining they believe the film is more than a military or Vietnam story.
Recker, a Marine veteran who has worked in film and TV for about two decades, said the filmmakers focused on more than Capers’ battlefield experience, attempting to highlight the man behind the commando legend. Capers’ heart — and his motivations — are unveiled in the documentary through the use of personal audio recordings he made in the field and sent home to his wife, Recker said.
The recordings are revealing, Recker said, describing Capers as “a badass with heart.”
“These are personal, very personal audio recordings from the battlefield to his wife, depicting a firsthand, humanistic account of what he’s going through,” he said. “It’s truly fascinating … and I’ll say it’s one of the better stories I’ve ever heard or been a part of in my career.”
Under fire in Vietnam
The stern but soft-spoken son of a sharecropper born in Jim Crow-era South Carolina, Capers would enlist in the Marines at 18 without an inkling he would spend the next two decades wearing the service’s storied uniform.
One of only a few black men, Capers entered boot camp at Parris Island in 1953 – only 11 years after the service opened its ranks to blacks and seven years before it would achieve full racial desegregation – aiming to stand out among his peers. Early in his career he’d make another choice uncommon among black men of his generation, electing to go into special operations. As a Marine it meant joining Force Reconnaissance, small unit teams tasked with long-range surveillance and intelligence gathering, often taking the commandos deep behind enemy lines with little support from the larger U.S. military.
By the time he arrived in Vietnam, Capers had attained the rank of staff sergeant, assigned with leading his commando team. During the tour, the Corps determined he should be an officer — giving him a rare battlefield commission to second lieutenant and placing him in command of his Third Force Recon platoon. He believes he was the Marines’ first black special operator to receive a battlefield commission.
Team Broadminded would face a heavy load of combat operations. Early in its tour, in the summer of 1966, the unit would conduct amphibious assaults targeting Viet Cong units along the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Later the team would be moved to Khe Sanh, a strategic base just south of the DMZ near the Laos border, where it would patrol nearby hills and valleys daily in search of North Vietnamese high value targets to kill.
By the time Capers was medically evacuated from Vietnam after the April 1967 mission in Phu Loc, he had led his team on 67 long-range reconnaissance missions, ranging from diving operations to recover fallen Marines to covert tasks personally approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson, including attempts to recover prisoners of war.
Capers would leave Vietnam having earned two Bronze Star Medals with “V” device for valor, three Purple Hearts, and with more than 20 wounds. The Silver Star for his actions at Phu Loc would come 43 years later, but only after his nomination for the Medal of Honor was reviewed, declined and downgraded by the Marine Corps.
Despite his injuries, which put him in a military hospital for a year and left doctors questioning whether he would walk again, Capers said it was the lifelong bonds with his teammates that left the greatest lasting impact on his life.
“It’s the camaraderie,” he said when asked about his most important memories of serving. “No matter the circumstances, what happened out there – it’s your friends. You don’t want to let your buddies down, you don’t want to let your country down, you certainly don’t want to let your Marine Corps down.”
The face of Marines
A chiseled-jawed Capers, by then a first lieutenant, stands at attention staring straight forward in his dress blue officer’s uniform in the photograph that graced national billboards and magazine pages in the 1970s.
The Marines selected Capers to become the face of their service for a recruiting campaign dubbed “Ask a Marine.” The service had launched a worldwide search of its officers to find the perfect example of the “excellence of the U.S. Marine Corps,” according to Marine documents.
Capers, still recovering from the wounds he suffered at Phu Loc, recalled struggling to stand upright as the photographer snapped hundreds of images. But he knew how important the recruiting campaign could be to minorities interested in serving in the Corps.
“It was time for the Marine Corps and the world to see the sacrifices that African-Americans had made in different places in the world,” Capers says in the documentary.
His photo would inspire a generation of minority Marines, according to the service. The number of black Marines has grown from about 4 percent during the Vietnam War to more than 10 percent in 2016, officials said.
Capers would often be recognized from the campaign until his retirement in 1978. After his career in the Marines, Capers spent years working in the telecommunications industry and today helps run the nonprofit Gary Capers Foundation, aimed at helping disabled youth, named for his son, who was born blind and died of undiagnosed appendicitis at 49.
Elusive Medal of Honor
In October 2010 during a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Capers was presented the Silver Star for his actions at Phu Loc. A team of Marines headed by now-retired Maj. Gen. James Williams had sought the Medal of Honor for Capers in 2007, backed by Capers’ congressman, Walter Jones, R-N.C.
The Marine Corps determined that Capers was deserving of the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest honor for military valor. Capers never received an explanation for the lesser award.
Barring a renewed effort to upgrade his medal, Capers said he must simply live with the Silver Star – an award he said he is proud to have received.
“There were some that said I should not accept it,” he said. “When your country gives you something you should accept it. I was proud. When they announced my name, everybody applauded. I was so proud that day in Florida. A Marine who grew up on a sharecroppers’ farm, who had no resources, who didn’t get the benefit of a first-rate education. As an African-American I was proud at that time to rise to the top, and I felt pretty good about the whole thing.”
But the Medal of Honor would mean more – it would mean recognition, not just for him, he said, but for the men who escaped, severely injured on that day in Phu Loc. And it would alleviate any concerns Capers had about whether he was given a fair shake because of the color of his skin.
Capers would not be the first black or minority servicemember whose Medal of Honor considerations were overlooked based on race. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama awarded 24 past servicemembers the Medal of Honor, capping a 14-year review of potential racism in downgrading medals for service during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, primarily among black, Hispanic and Jewish troops. It is not clear whether Capers’ Silver Star was considered during the review.
“I just ask that the system is fair,” Capers said, pointing out that no black Marine Corps officer has ever received the award. “Maybe I just didn’t do enough. Maybe it’s just one of those things. I just don’t know.”
When he thinks about what the Medal of Honor would mean, Capers said he recalls the days-long patrols he and his men conducted around Khe Sanh, humping for miles with little or no food or water. He thinks about an operation to recover prisoners of war he never found, and the massive firefight that ensued when his commando team discovered the POW camp empty, except for an enemy ambush team.
Mostly, he said, he thinks about the men he lost in Vietnam and those who returned home, like him, with permanent physical and mental scars. He said he believes receiving the nation’s top military honor would keep their memories alive and highlight the work they did.
“Right now I’m back at Phu Loc,” Capers said, just before asking to end the interview. “I am on that helicopter. I am hearing my men crying. I hear them crying for their mothers. … I can still hear the rotors of the helicopters. Right, now I am hearing this Marine cry, and I am holding on to him. He’s lost a friend. He’s 19 years old, it’s my job to save him.”
“Major Capers: The Legend of Team Broadminded” traces retired Marine Maj. Jim Capers’ 22-year military career mostly as an officer in the revered Force Recon. The film is expected to be released this year. For information, go to www.capersthedoc.com.