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          I don’t recall what my first impressions were of Sergeant Bruce Olson, nor do I recall the exact date when he joined Echo Company, 2/5 in An Hoa, which was the official combat base for the 5th Marine Regiment in Vietnam. It had to have been sometime early in November, 1968 when all of us first laid eyes on him. Either way, no one could ever forget the style and personality this professional Marine showed both in and out of combat. 

          During the period when Olson joined us, the Battalion was out on Operation Henderson Hill. Alternately establishing blocking positions for sweeps by ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), ROKMC (Republic of Korea Marine Corps) and other Marine units, the Battalion attacked to seize and search pockets of enemy resistance in an intensive zone known to us as Go Noi Island. Times were tough for the Marines and Olson was right in the middle of it. To illustrate the severity of fighting that occurred during Henderson Hill, 2nd Battalion Marines were awarded 1 Silver Star and 2 Bronze Star Medals, one Navy Commendation with combat V device, and 57 other U.S. awards for heroism, wounds suffered in combat (Purple Hearts) and meritorious service awards all earned during those 30 days.

          Operation Henderson Hill moved to the northeast part of the 5th Marines’ TAOR in the opening days of November when Intelligence from S-2 reported elements of the 36th NVA Infantry Regiment working from the west end of Go Noi Island. Light to heavy contact was maintained throughout the first two weeks of the month, and then it got heavier as the days dragged on. 

          The 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was the used as a blocking force. Shortly thereafter the monsoon rains began to intensify, and the Go Noi area of operation was soon heavily flooded which reduced the effectiveness of friendly sweeps in the Island. With that, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines swept all the way back to the An Hoa combat base. On the way, we netted fourteen Vietnamese detainees and a huge amount of rice and assorted documents.

          Bruce Olson was from Connecticut, a long way from South Viet Nam like the rest of us, and even further from Australia where he ultimately found his new life after the war. He lives there today with his wife, Liz. 

          Sgt. Olson was on his second tour of Vietnam when he joined our ranks. His first stint in the Nam was with the 3rd Battalion 4th Marine Regiment and, just before joining us in the 5th Regiment Olson was assigned to MAG 36 (a CAG Unit) up in Phu Bai. It wasn’t that he relished combat so much that he just couldn’t get enough of it, because there were very few men who possessed a real need for fighting and killing. I think with Sergeant Olson it was more a case where he felt an urgency to help and protect his fellow Marines, in order to help them make it home alive. 

          I have always felt that Sgt. Olson thought himself to be an above average Marine infantryman who gained an enormous amount of expertise during his first tour. It would only make sense, then, that he should stay in Nam and help protect less battle-tested men and then properly lead them through their ordeal so they could get back home as well.

          Bruce also told me one time that he was there for his second tour to make some extra money, because he really did not have that much going for himself back home. Marines on duty in war zones get a combat bonus that doesn’t really add up to a pinch of shit, but in those days even a puny bonus was a lot of money.

          Sergeant Olson was immediately assigned to the second platoon of Echo Company, which is the same platoon I was in. At the time I was a lance corporal, an E-3 in the Marine Corps, so I did not have reason or opportunity to be that close to the sergeant. Our Company was fresh off a terrible month of heavy fighting, great losses, and weary combat patrols in the highlands west of An Hoa. Because of the loss of Marines to enemy contact (and natural rotation of others back to the states upon completion of their tour of duty), I would move up the ladder from fire team leader to squad leader in the next few weeks after Olson’s arrival. 

          The platoon sergeant of a Marine combat platoon has a huge responsibility. In most circumstances this position is held by a staff sergeant (E-6), and even though Olson was an E-5 it was felt by the commanding officers that he had the talent and skills to be the senior NCO of our platoon and that, most importantly, he deserved it. The fact that our bosses thought that highly of Bruce is quite a tribute to Bruce’s abilities and proficiency. Actually being awarded the job was like icing on the cake. 

          If there was a downside to the appointment it’s that Olson would be expected to know everything, be everywhere, and would certainly end up with more exposure to battle than other men in the platoon. Also, being the platoon sergeant as an E-5 when the job belongs to an E-6 did not mean Bruce Olson’s pay would increase. No, unless you held the rank your pay stayed the same, even if you were filling in for a higher position.

          The platoon sergeant works directly under the supervision of the platoon commander who is usually a first lieutenant, although it was not exactly uncommon to see a platoon being headed up by a second lieutenant or a “gold bar”, instead of a “silver bar”. We also sometimes referred to a second lieutenant as a “butter bar.” But, whoever is in charge of the platoon at any given moment gets to know the platoon sergeant very, very well. Those two, particular Marines are seen together a lot or at least in close proximity; they share in all the knowledge of what is in store for their platoon. Officers’ staff meetings are also attended by the platoon sergeant so that orders from the captains and above do not have to be repeated so often down the line. As orders get washed and scrubbed from man to man, they tend to get more screwed up when bits of information are forgotten, or left out on purpose for that matter. Combat orders and directives need to be simple and understood the first time, because lives are at stake from that point on as the mission progresses. 

          The platoon sergeant partakes in and supervises every aspect of the platoon from training the troops to going to the chow hall, and to leading them into combat. The sergeant might actually be up front of a patrol so that he can immediately direct fire and assign fighting positions, or to see for himself where fire is coming from and then develop a quick plan to suppress it. 

          The platoon sergeant travels with the platoon command group most of the time, which is somewhere in the middle of the column of troops, but that’s by choice if the lieutenant in charge doesn’t have other plans for him. The platoon sergeant is allowed to pick and choose his physical position in a combat ready formation, or whether or not he goes out on an ambush with a squad. The platoon sergeant helps the commander decide who should take an R&R at any given time, and they assist the lieutenant in promoting Marines up through the ranks. Demoting is not a job of the platoon sergeant, but an action against a Marine who is heading for a court martial or other disciplinary action may just be triggered by a report from the platoon sergeant. 

          In my view Sergeant Olson was a great platoon sergeant. As far as platoon sergeants go they had a better chance of survival than the lieutenants who led combat platoons, so I didn’t see as many sergeants come and go during my twelve months in the bush as I did platoon commanders. In the motion picture “Platoon”, Tom Berenger plays the part of Staff Sergeant Barnes, an Army combat platoon sergeant. He was a fierce- some fighter for sure and could kick butts on both sides of the lines, but he lacked an important attribute that all combat platoon sergeants absolutely need for ultimate survival, and that is leadership. If you recall the film, the troopers who Sergeant Barnes was supposed to be leading followed him out of fear. They didn’t trust Barnes and most of them thought he would only lead them to their death at the hands of the enemy. Troops knew they were in for heavy combat and general misery every time they went out in the field with Barnes, and back at the combat base the troops avoided Barnes like the plague. No one liked or respected Sergeant Barnes, because he was not a good leader. 

          They really did not follow Barnes for the right reasons or in the spirit of being a ‘follower’. It is hard to claim to be a true leader when no one is willing to be a true follower. 

          Whether or not you personally knew Sergeant Olson was never the point to willingly lining up behind him and heading into the bush country of South Viet Nam. People respected Olson. Therefore, he was never concerned about looking back over his shoulder to see if we were truly following, because we were. You can tell if you are a good leader just by the attitudes of those who you supposedly lead. 

          Sergeant Olson could still be a stern platoon sergeant, make no mistake about that. Someone has to be the disciplinarian. Not that the platoon sergeant is the only one in charge of that department. Squad leaders, and fire team leaders to some extent, also need to be willing to put someone in their place if they deserve it, and that’s why leadership positions in the military are held by people of higher ranking. A staff sergeant outranks a sergeant, a sergeant outranks a corporal, and down the line it travels. When ranks are equal, say in the case where an E-5 is the designated platoon sergeant when there may be other E-5’s in the same platoon, the one assigned the higher position is in charge of any other E-5’s in the platoon, and anyone else of lower rank.

          There was no screwing around when Sergeant Olson was around and giving orders and it was never hard to figure out if Olson was not in a humorous mood. In that respect Olson was a little bit like the fictitious Sergeant Barnes in the movie “Platoon.” More than once I heard Olson tell a Marine to get his ass back out to their foxhole and keep their eyes open and their mouth shut.  

          Night ambush assignments were another classical example of people bitching to the platoon sergeant about how it wasn’t their turn to do ambush, or that they were a couple guys short and wouldn’t survive a counter attack if their ambush team was compromised during the night. Sergeant Olson would simply, and in a matter of fact voice, tell whoever was complaining that it was, “Just your turn and orders are orders, so shut the hell up and get ready to head out.”

          Situations like these are just part of the job description of the platoon sergeant. Lucky for them! The platoon sergeant also acted as a buffer between the enlisted Marines of the platoon and the commander of the outfit who was always an officer; there really was no need to bother the lieutenant with trivial problems such as reluctance to go out on a night ambush, or conduct a difficult patrol, or standing lines at night in the rear, or anything else that wasn’t extremely detrimental to the overall mission. Naturally, if the platoon sergeant came upon a case that was too much to handle he would get the lieutenant involved, and sometimes the offending Marine would find himself “standing tall” in front of the platoon commander, and if that didn’t work the next appointment was with the company commander in what we called a “Captain’s Mast.” Failing all of these steps the last option was a court martial and then off to the brig.

          We were very fortunate in second platoon in that there really wasn’t a whole lot of complaining. Not in the field, anyway. We were too busy to bitch. When the platoon was back in An Hoa and there was little to do is when Marines complained about any number of things. But, we didn’t spend that much time in the rear, anyway, so our platoon was probably very easy for Sergeant Olson and the platoon commander to run. 

          In fact, Olson liked to lead by example. If he knew that a squad leader was kind of new, for example, and that their squad was a bit under strength, he would simply saddle up with the squad and go out on the ambush with them. The same was true when it came to patrols. Olson didn’t hike along in the middle of the column all the time, even though he could. He would accompany the point squad sometimes. Looking back, I never heard any Marine ever complain that Sergeant Olson, “Had it made” or, “How come the sarge doesn’t have to come out with us?”

          One of Sergeant Olson’s pet peeves was cowardice. It is a very typical trait of a platoon sergeant to hate cowards, so there is no surprise here. In fact, no one likes a coward, sometimes cowards themselves don’t even like people like them. Cowardice can be an instantaneous thing, like all of a sudden running the other way when your fellow Marines are shooting it out with the bad guys. Not everyone is a career coward. Shit happens. But, a coward is still a coward, and by and large no one thinks that highly of a coward. The very word mocks the ideals and philosophy of the warrior spirit. And, Marines are warriors, folks; we weren’t created in 1775 to be a bunch of namby-pambies, and we certainly have never been nor ever will be an organization for cowards. 

          In fact, quite the opposite is true. Marines are taught to fight and to kill. It’s pretty much as simple as that. There is no turning your back to the enemy and running like hell, unless that is the standing order at the moment. You dig in and fight. You stick around with your fellow Marines and you either all get out of there alive or you help take those who cannot do it on their own, out. Indeed, the historical motto of the 5th Marine Regiment is, “Retreat Hell!”           

          Every Marine is a basic rifleman (or woman). One of the mystiques of the Marine Corps that keep our enemies afraid of us is that a Marine and his rifle is the deadliest weapon on earth. Bruce Olson still has a philosophy about this concept: Many times, more often than it should have happened in Vietnam, a Marine would get wounded and sent to a hospital to recover, maybe even out of the country, and when they returned to Nam they would go back out to their outfit in the field and get killed, sometimes the very next day. Olson’s theory is that if every Marine is a rifleman regardless of what their MOS (military occupational specialty) is, when a wounded Marine comes back to duty they should be able to ‘bump’ a Marine who, say, has been a cook back in the rear, out into the field to take their place. After all, that cook is a Marine rifleman, right? Why not give the battered and bandaged Marine a chance to survive the war zone in another capacity, and give those other Marines a chance to fully enjoy the benefits of joining a branch of service that is the most feared among all our enemies?

          You don’t get to be the platoon sergeant of a combat outfit in Vietnam unless you have gone to hell and back with your troops. Most platoon sergeants have seen more warfare than many Marines only read or hear about in their history lessons in boot camp. Many Marines who went to Vietnam never saw combat, because their MOS put them behind a desk, in a kitchen, at the airfield, on sentry duty, in the classroom as an instructor, or in dozens of other professions necessary to the logistical support of the combat Marines. Platoon sergeants, and those Marines intent on becoming one some day, earn their stripes and leadership positions by way of bloody encounters with the enemy. So, you don’t make a platoon sergeant happy by telling him that you aren’t going to ‘saddle up’ to go out with the rest of your pals who are heading into harm’s way in Vietnam. That kind of talk just doesn’t get it with the platoon sergeant.

          Talk of cowardice and desertion is twice as infectious as words and acts of heroism, so when men started expressing their desire to leave the country on their own and forget about their commitment to country and Corps, it needed to be nipped off at the bud. If not, well, one can imagine how fast the firestorm could spread; next thing you know no one is going to jump on the helicopter or fall into formation for the march into the ‘badlands’. 

          Olson didn’t put up with cowards, or malingerers for that matter. A malingerer is not exactly a coward, but they do maintain some of the same traits. Malingerers   possess the ability to come up with excuses that are almost legitimate, which sets them apart from the pure coward. For instance, a person who doesn’t really want to go out with the platoon might fallaciously complain of an ailment that will hold them back in the rear for a few days. Maybe they will join the platoon later on if they can no longer talk the doctor into issuing them a “chit”, which is like the note you used to get from your mommy when you missed a day at school. Make no mistake about the fact that a malingerer will shirk their duty at every chance they can possibly get, and many of these Marines ended up serving very little time in the field. Either way, Sergeant Olson didn’t like malingerers any more than he did cowards. 

          A coward is simply afraid of everything, which is not a personality trait that the Marine Corps is looking for. How to weed out a coward before they get to boot camp is still a mystery; lots of young folks feel like a hero when they enlist, perhaps, and then change their minds when they figure out that the Marines are trained and conditioned for one purpose only, and that is to take on America’s enemies and kill them.

          So, a coward doesn’t have to be born as such. If they do slip through the cracks, and they get to the war torn country of their era, a coward will find a damned good place to hide in the middle of a fire fight and will let his fellow Marines get the hell kicked out of them without as much as firing a single bullet back. A coward will reappear after the fight, of course, and will usually have a lame excuse for where he’s been just in case anyone else missed them during the fracas. 

          Sergeant Olson had great disdain for a coward, but then, so did the rest of us.

          One day, when Echo Company was working high in the mountains on Operation Taylor Common, a frightened Marine who had turned cowardly snuck aboard a medivac helicopter just as it was taking off with a load of wounded men, and a couple of guys who were heading for An Hoa, our base camp, for R&R. As the chopper began to lift off the ground, our Platoon Commander, First Lieutenant William Kirkpatrick noticed the unauthorized exiting Marine and Kirk scampered up on the tail ramp of the bird to go get the cowardly mans ass back on the ground with the rest of 2nd Platoonus; Kirk grabbed the deserter and basically tossed him out of the helicopter and into the waiting grasp of Platoon Sergeant Bruce Olson. The frightened Marine, now caught and traumatically introduced back to the war, was stripped of his weapons as now he might be a threat to the rest of the men of Echo Company. He was reticent about his intentions, so he was given a couple of options. One was to tag along with the rest of us as we descended the hill and then count on a court martial when we got back to An Hoa. The other choice was to simply stay on the hill and wait for the NVA who would be sure to find him by nightfall and make a good friend out of him! It’s been a long time since that particular event and my memory is hazy, but I don’t believe I ever saw that Marine again.

          Sergeant Olson passed orders on to the rest of us grunts pretty much verbatim as they were issued to him. There was nothing fancy or elaborate about how he did this, he just delivered the ‘word’ down the line and that was that. He was matter-of-fact about most things and there was never any hesitation in his voice. He had what is known in the military as ‘command presence’, which simple means that his orders were directed professionally, with full confidence, with no room for discussion, and he held our attention without asking for it. Olson demanded respect for his rank and position in the platoon and there were very few of us who challenged Olson or attempted to stupidly usurp his powers. 

          By the way, Bruce was built kind of like a small tank. I wouldn’t say he was bulky, and he certainly didn’t look like the typical Marine on the recruiting posters with the very broad shoulders, the lack of a discernable neck and with perfect, erect posture. Sergeant Olson wasn’t quite like that. But, his general physique was hardened after many months of combat patrol in a hot and humid environment. There were not a whole lot of fat reserves left on his frame but he was physically strong, especially in his arms and legs. His abdominal muscles rippled in the “six-pack” configuration that you read about in the body building magazines. No one tangled with Sergeant Olson for a couple of reasons. One, he’d probably kick your ass all over South Viet Nam and, two, you simply didn’t mess with a guy who was on his second tour of duty in the bush. It just wouldn’t be the right thing to do. You owed the man more respect than that no matter what his rank.   

          The other side of Sergeant Olson which was the not-so-platoon-sergeant-like side, was very different. He could be extremely compassionate, generous, funny, cheery, and warm when appropriate. Those of us who saw the movie, “Platoon” did not see those characteristics in Staff Sergeant Barnes. Of course, we need to remember that “Platoon” was, indeed, a movie, a good one at that I must admit, but the storyline of Barnes being such a horrendous ‘bad-ass’ was slightly overdone and dramatized to the point of disbelief. There was way too much footage and time spent with scenes of soldiers killing each other, having big dope parties in the bunker in the rear area, smarting off to the senior NCO’s and officers, shooting Vietnamese civilians in the head or making them ‘dance’ by firing bullets between their legs, or raping little Vietnamese girls. We didn’t see that stuff happening in the Marines. So, it was either done in the movie for movie ratings and profits, or the Army really had some serious issues with discipline back then and the ought to take a good look at their program to stifle such behaviors. 

          As I mentioned, Sergeant Olson could be very humorous; he and I had many good laughs together. Sometimes during a longer break we would tell each other stories from back home, and we’d chuckle throughout them. Olson had this favorite knife, an expensive and rare “Randall”, that he liked to keep razor sharp at all times. So, when there was a lull in the action he would put countless minutes into honing his Randall while we exchanged stories. In war, one needs a diversion from the agony and suffering. The insanity of our situation was so intense that it made us laugh sometimes. Sort of like surgeons do after hours and hours of a delicate or messy operation. That’s what the movie “MASH” was all about. It was doctors doing ‘meatball surgery’ amidst incredible madness.

          Without occasional laughter we would have all gone seriously nuts, over the deep end with depression and anger. Sometimes, laughter truly was the best medicine. Frivolity in the face of extreme danger could be a lifesaver. Not that we sat around giggling when 82mm mortars or B-40 rockets were coming in from the North Vietnamese Army! But, occasionally even during a mortar barrage we might holler out from our foxholes as we awaited death from above, “You missed us, you sons of bitches!” Outbursts of crazy quips were more likely to happen after long periods of combat.

          I remember getting loony and shouting stupid things into the night when we were in An Hoa getting pissed up, and the enemy was ‘out there’ somewhere lobbing ordnance in on us. In fact, it was Christmas night, 1968. I had just returned from NCO Leadership School in DaNang and was in An Hoa for one last night before choppering out to rejoin Echo Company on operation Taylor Common. A bunch of us were kind of wasted on booze in the supply hut in the company area when the rockets and some small arms fire came our way. But, we took our time getting to the defensive perimeter because we basically didn’t really give a crap. On the way we sang Christmas carol to the dinks.

          Echo Company was once treated to a three-day, in-country R&R, a little vacation from the daily humping in the Arizona Territory, if you will.   The entire company was temporarily stationed at Phu Loc 6 as a security detail for Liberty Bridge. All the line companies in the entire 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment pulled bridge duty for a week or so at a time, as the Liberty Bridge was significant to the re supplying and survival of An Hoa and the combat base we maintained there.

          We had spent a lot of time in the field lately and our butts were dragging something fierce; bridge security was actually considered kind of a ‘skate’ job, for almost anything was easier than living in the muck and mire. We ran daily patrols on both sides of the river for signs of the enemy and a few encounters with the VC and NVA turned out in our favor. We had a great sniper assigned to us who accounted for a couple of long-range kills while we were at Phu Loc 6. We also conducted daily road sweeps back to An Hoa to dig out land mines and booby traps that mysteriously showed up almost every day. Most of these were easy to spot, however, and they would be blown up in place. Sometimes, a truck in the convoy would detonate a mine and each time there would be a Marine or two wounded enough to evacuate to the Battalion aid station. We sustained 0 KIA during this duty at Phu Loc 6.

          One afternoon as the daily convoy of resupply trucks arrived at Phu Loc 6 heading back to DaNang from An Hoa, it stopped just before crossing the bridge. We were all ordered at that time to get on board the convoy and ride with the vehicles. Most of us thought that this was just another security mission and that perhaps we would be brought back to Phu Loc 6 either later that day or perhaps in the morning when the trucks would be loaded and heading for An Hoa. So, during the 25-mile haul to DaNang we paid close attention to the gravel and dirt road and the rice paddies off to the sides, and we scanned the surrounding woodlots and hedgerows for any signs of danger or suspicious characters. Sergeant Olson and I rode in the cab of a 6X6 troop carrier, me at the window with my M-16 partially outside of the truck so that I could put it to quick use if I had to, and Olson in the middle with a big, shit-eating grin that made him appear quite like a Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. I guess he was just happy to not be hiking down the road on foot looking for mines. The entire ride was a bit scary, but it was complete without incident and we were all very thankful that the trip had been peaceful.    

          Finally, the word was passed down the line that we were actually on our way to China Beach and that the next three days were going to be spent having some fun and letting it all hang out!  We rode through the City of DaNang, passing several checkpoints and security stations. By this time the excitement was barely contained, because we all knew that there was some serious partying waiting for us at the beach.

          The first thing that happened when we reached the sand and hooches was our weapons had to checked in with the MPs who then placed them all in a large, steel Connex box situated on the periphery of the compound. This, of course, was a good idea, even though some Marines protested that they would be ‘naked’ without their rifle should something go awry with the security of the base. A receipt was issued for any weapons locked up, and when I got mine I was ready to rock and roll! 

          Sergeant Olson and I, and a black Marine from Texas by the name of Hiawatha Jackson, buddied up as we left the Connex boxes and went for the tables that were stacked with new Marine Corps issue “utilities” (pants, shirts), hats (“covers” to a Marine), socks, swim trunks, linens for the cots, brooms for morning cleanup, and then to the tables with miscellaneous stuff like smokes, tooth care and mouthwash, soap, writing supplies and envelopes, etc. The rules were pretty simple: Get as drunk as you want, don’t get caught with a weapon, don’t burn anything down, don’t get fresh with any of the girls in the bands that were scheduled to perform for us, clean any messes you made, and for the love of God don’t leave the compound. 

          So, there we were, Olson, Lisi and Jackson, having the time of our lives. We’d hit the rack around two in the morning after way too many beers and rise for the next day as soon as the sun came up. When you’re young you can do that, no big deal. I can’t imagine doing anything like that today. Age has crept up on me like Rip Van Ninja, and it just isn’t going to happen, anymore. Just the thought of it makes me tired. But, back then it was actually quite easy. Get hammered, eat chow, swim in the ocean, sit around and talk smart, and let the cruel world pass like a demon in the dark.

          There was tons of food to eat, and live bands consisting mainly of all-girl quartets from Taiwan, played twice a day and into the evening until 2200 when the compound was hushed for the night, for safety. The enormous amounts of hot dogs and hamburger patties were cooked on home made grills which were 50-gallon drums cut in half and fitted with grates. The line of BBQ’s was set end-to-end and it stretched for about thirty feet down the sandy beach. The grills were stoked up around noon 1100 daily. Morning chow was actually served in a Navy mess hall a few hundred yards up the beach, and the smell of freshly fried bacon and eggs right away in the morning was about the most intoxicating odor any of us had experienced in a very long time. One would come right out of a drunken stupor just at the smell of all that “gedunk,” which is a Marine Corps term for food that is more likely to get one in trouble than to be of real value to the human body – you know – all that salt and fat that we think we abhor. I was brought up on bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast, so “gedunk” or not it was right up my alley, and I couldn’t get to the chow line quick enough.

          The beer coolers were opened up by noon, but most of us drank cold sodas in the morning to rid our mouths and throats of the horrendously dry sensation that comes with drinking too much beer the night before. What really mattered, though, was that it was wet and very, very cold. The cans of brew and soda pop were buried way at the bottom of big chunks of ice, and when you dug down to grab your favorite drink your hand and arm were instantly numbed by the frosty water. The feeling of something wet and frigid was almost as rewarding as retrieving the beverage. The sun was beastly, though, by that time of the day and the trick was to drink the can down before anything inside even started to turn anything but brain numbing cold.

          I guess it was during that little vacation that I got to know the real Sergeant Olson, or at least the other side of him. We had a great time despite the fact that our drunken brains erased many of the memories, good or bad, for all eternity, and in spite of the shortness of the R&R. I distinctly recall that my impression of our platoon sergeant after the beach party was extremely comforting; that is, I knew by the end of those three days that the rest of my time in Echo Company with Sergeant Bruce Olson was going to be no sweat. And it’s a good thing, too, because just 3 days after the China Beach R&R Echo Company would find itself in one of bloodiest battles we had fought in a long time.   

          Declassified documents stored at the US Marine Corps History Division summarizes what was going on with the entire 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, and Echo Company during the middle days of May, 1969 immediately following our return to An Hoa from China Beach.

          The documents point out that our battalion worked mainly in the Arizona Territory at that time, and that from May 9 through the 21st the entire 2nd Battalion was in constant contact with enemy units.

Following are some excerpts from those documents:

          “Intelligence reports indicated that a minimum of one NVA battalion and elements of an undetermined number of other NVA units were using the northeastern portion of the Arizona area as a staging area for attacks on US installations north and east of the Song Vu Gia (River).

          “The enemy, primarily NVA troops, displayed a willingness to stand and fight for prolonged periods of time. Also prevalent were the attacks against company night defensive perimeters. 

          “The enemy employed a larger assortment of weapons than he had used in the previous three months as the list if captured weapons will indicate. The enemy arsenal consisted of AK-47, AKM and SKS rifles, 9mm pistols, .30 caliber light machineguns, M-79 grenade launchers, RPG rocket launchers, 60mm and 82mm mortars, and a 75mm recoilless rifle. It should be noted that enemy 82mm mortar fire was directed by a forward observer during daylight hours and the gun and gun crew were dug in and camouflaged to such a degree that detection was extremely difficult.

          “During daylight hours the enemy chose to fight from heavily fortified positions. A mutually supporting bunker complex with connecting trench lines was the most prevalent. The employment of 3.5 (inch) rockets and 90mm (tank cannon) proved effective against these types of targets.

          “The full and liberal use of the combat fire power contained within and available to the Battalion was a prime contributing factor in the successes enjoyed by this unit. The fighting ability, aggressiveness, spirit, and courage of the infantry troops of the Battalion were of the highest caliber. Despite the extended period of time in the field and under the rigors of an extended combat situation, the enemy was taken under fire at close range, assaulted, and destroyed with a fierce professional finality. The Marine Corps can be most proud of the fighting ability, courage and esprit of these young Marines.”

          On May 15, 1969 Sergeant Olson was temporarily loaned out to the first platoon of Echo Company as they were very shorthanded on officers and senior NCOs. First Platoon’s major objective was to support Golf Company which was under heavy siege. Second Platoon was not far away from First Platoon, acting as their backup. When First Platoon came under an concentrated attack by a large NVA force and pinned many of the Marines to the ground, the Second Platoon reacted by scurrying out of the Hamlet we dubbed “Easter Ville” to assist. But, our platoon’s first squad was immediately taken under horrifying fire and our advance was abruptly halted. 

          First Platoon was initially contacted by an estimated force of 80+ NVA soldiers. It took little time for the situation to become desperate as Marines were being killed and wounded one after another. Olson, recognizing the need for fire support from two, crippled M-48A1 tanks that were with us on the mission, and knowing that First Lieutenant Kirkpatrick of Second Platoon was critically wounded and out of action, made his way to the tanks in an effort to get them to direct fire against the NVA. Olson was able to accomplish this difficult mission without getting himself killed. 

          Once tank fire was properly directed on NVA targets Sergeant Olson then worked to get the wounded Marines out of harms way. Olson would win the Silver Star Medal for his actions that day, and the citation summarizes what he did to deserve it:


          “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with Company E, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 15 May 1969, the First Platoon of Company E was moving to reinforce Company G, which was surrounded by a battalion-sized North Vietnamese force, when the Marines came under intense fire from a large, hostile force entrenched in a tree line. As a result of the enemy fire, the Marines were pinned down in an open area and sustained several casualties. As the Second Platoon arrived and began to maneuver against the hostile force, the platoon commander was seriously wounded. Unhesitatingly taking charge of the platoon, Sergeant Olson rapidly analyzed the tactical situation and quickly deployed his men to return fire upon the enemy positions.   With complete disregard for his own safety, he repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he moved from one position to another , directing the fire of his men. Upon the arrival of supporting tanks, Sergeant Olson fearlessly led his platoon across the fire-swept terrain in an effort to evacuate the casualties form the hazardous area and, despite the heavy volume of enemy fire, boldly boarded a tank and directed its fire at the enemy emplacements until the vehicle’s ammunition was depleted. Instructing his men to provide covering fire, he then supervised the evacuation of the wounded Marines. His heroic and timely actions inspired all who observed him and contributed significantly to the accomplishment of his unit’s mission. By his courage, bold initiative and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Sergeant Olson upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

          Sergeant Olson was a true hero that day. He would dispute that, because that’s the way he is. But, what Bruce Olson is what a real platoon sergeant does in combat. There isn’t any hesitation; no time to draw an elaborate plan; a quick assessment of the situation is all the time there is; you fight or you die, and Olson chose to get us into the fight and stay strong, because the NVA were very well organized that day and the outcome may have been quite different had it not been for Sergeant Olson (and a couple of other Marines who actions were noted that day – several Bronze Stars, and a second Silver Star, were awarded to Marines of Echo Company for their bravery that day).

          Under strength and weary, 2nd Platoon formed a tight defensive perimeter as the dead and wounded were lifted out of the field. Just as night fell across the Arizona Territory we called for an air strike of napalm to hit suspected targets and avenues of enemy movement. After that, all was relatively quiet except for an ambush that opened up on some NVA coming back to retrieve their dead and wounded. We stayed on 100% alert all night. No one could sleep, anyway. Heavy fighting is crazily exhilarating. It pumps you up with an emotion that is very hard to climb down from. Compared to long periods of boredom, combat is, strange as it may sound, almost more welcome.

          The next morning, as Sergeant Olson was leading a group of First Platoon Marines out of the immediate vicinity in search of a place for the tanks to cross the river more easily, a huge explosion ripped the heavy stillness of mid-morning. One of the tanks had rumbled over a 100-pound box mine dug into the mud. When the clay and debris settled, 6 more wounded Marines were tended to and evacuated out of the field. Sergeant Olson was among them, and he would be awarded his second Purple Heart Medal, later.

          Bruce Olson was eventually sent to the hospital ship “USS Repose” for surgery and recovery. He remembers seeing a bunch of soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division aboard the ship’s hospital ward that had been wounded during their battle for the infamous Hamburger Hill. Weeks later Olson returned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines and was assigned to the 60mm mortar platoon as their new boss. A couple months later Olson left South Viet Nam for the last time as a Marine. But, he wasn’t gone forever. Some 25 years later he returned to walk the trails and see the Hamlets as a ‘tourist’. 

          An Hoa is still there, but with great changes. Bruce described it as almost a “development” with houses, shops, farms, and a general sense of well-being among the Vietnamese people. He harbors no hard feelings about the war despite fighting so valiantly and being wounded twice.

          “It just doesn’t matter, anymore,” is the way Bruce told it to me when we met in San Diego, California for an Echo 2/5 reunion in November, 2010. Lieutenant Kirkpatrick was there, too. So was Lynn Dixon who was my first squad leader in Vietnam. The war truly is over for all of us. Now all we have are the memories and each other – it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. And on it goes. But, I thank you, Bruce, for helping me get through Viet Nam.

          Sgt. Bruce Olson, foreground, sharpening his knife.  Lt. Kirkpatrick, background, looks on as we prepare for another patrol in the Arizona Territory of South Viet Nam.

By Pat Lisi/Southern Utah Vets Aid

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