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By Pat Lisi/Southern Utah Vets Aid

Hiawatha Jackson was a black Marine who I met in Vietnam in 1968.  He was from somewhere in Texas (Houston as I recall), and “Hi” always claimed to be a backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner.  Of course, I didn’t actually believe this to be true, but I didn’t argue with Hi about this as I knew it gave him pleasure to make this boastful statement once in awhile.  In combat, I still believe that a soldier has a right to say just about anything that will in some way help their personal predicament.

The more important issue about Hiawatha Jackson was that he was black, and I was his friend.  The black vs white issue from the Vietnam War is legendary, and scores of books have been written about the problem.  Many Nam movies  also make no bones about the way blacks and whites viewed each other.  It was obvious, and when a black/white friendship was formed it was worth hanging on to.  For that reason, Jackson and I never paid a whole lot of attention to what others perpetuated as the racial issue.  We weren’t impervious to it, we just didn’t care to get embroiled in it.

Why?  Simple — Hiawatha and I were good Marines — and we worked our butts off to make sure our mission was accomplished with as few casualties as possible.  We were in the same squad and both of us were fire team leaders for much of our time in Nam together.  We both could count on each other and our teams to back us up if we needed it, and often at the end of a patrol Jackson and I would sit down and talk about what we did right and what we could have done differently during that action.

We also bullshitted a lot!  It’s been too many years to remember every story, but I do know that we did a lot of laughing.  It was good to find something funny in the terrible atmosphere of South Vietnam’s combat zones.

One day early in November, 1969 Echo Company 2/5 (Hiawatha’s and my unit) came under attack by American jets.  We were in the process of sweeping through a small hamlet when one of the engineers from the company lit the straw roof of a hut on fire.  It had rained quite hard earlier and the smoke that rose from the burning structure produced a huge, white billow.  White smoke grenades were sometimes used to mark targets for the fighter jets above.

In just a few minutes Jackson and I looked out on the horizon as we spotted 2, F-4 Phantoms speeding in our direction.  We looked in horror as it became obvious that the hamlet we were in was about to be bombed.  Our fire teams were together in line and Hi and I both shouted for our men to take cover.  There were a dozen Marines among us; most of us hurled ourselves into a filthy drainage ditch just a few feet off the trail.  Others just stood there not knowing what to do.

Just about the time Jackson and I were coming up out of the ditch to grab men who had frozen in their tracks the first two bombs hit the village.  The explosions were absolutely astounding!  Huge fireballs burst into the air and several huts in the hamlet were smashed to pieces.  Dirt, mud, debris from the huts, trees, bushes, fences, anything in the way was now flying through the air in all directions.  Then the second Phantom arrived on station.  This one dumped two tanks of napalm.

The site of napalm cannisters going off is something you never forget.  The site of them when they’re being used against you and you are just a few dozen feet away is almost inexplanable.  Just the heat coming from the firy gel is horrific.  To know that napalm will hopelessly cling to your burning body if it reaches you is unthinkable.  Tucking and rolling isn’t going to help.  Leaping into a lake might do the trick, but you will be suffering third degree burns for a long time, if you survive.

The jets climbed high into the sky disappeared as fast as they had shown up to hit us.  Later, it was learned that they pilots had, indeed, thought the white smoke was marking a desired enemy target.

Hiawatha and I crawled out of the ditch in search of 3 Marines missing from our combined teams.  One man, a brown-skinned Latino, was simply standing on the trail.  Flaps of skin hung down his arms, the next, pink layer exposed in a contrasting mosaic pattern.  His clothes were, by and large, burned off his body which exposed his legs and his back.  These, too, were burned in strips that smoldered in the sunlight.  The expression on his face was that of terror, and it was obvious he had no idea what had happened or where he was.

We got a navy corpman over to this Marine right away.  The man right next to the Latino Marine didn’t need a corpsman, for he was on the ground, dead.  He, too, had taken a whole lote of napalm to his body and probably suffocated when the molten gel enveloped him.

The 3rd Marine, named Tom Welch who had 2 more days to do in the field and would be heading home with a completed tour, was found just off to the side of the trail.  He was cut in two by the 500-pound bombs the first Phantom dropped on us.  From the torso up Walsh was up the path, from the torso down he was 30 feet away.  I had never seen anything like it before.  When the helicopters came in to remove injured and dead Marines I picked Walsh up by the shirt where his upper body was, and put in on the bird.  Jackson grabbed Walsh’s lower half and did the same.  We looked at each other in amazement and then went back to regroup with our fire teams.

I never did hear what happened to Hiawatha Jackson after his tour of duty was up and he returned to the US.  I’ve tried to find him over the years but to no avail.  I’m not even sure if Hiawatha was his real first name.  I never found any evidence through research that he was ever a member of the Ike and Tina Turner group.  It’s been a long time and I’ve more or less given up on locating Hiawatha.  But, I’ll never forget him.  A black man and a white man, just doing our job in a forsaken land of death of terror.  It was simple, yet very complicated in the details.



4 Responses to “Hiawatha Jackson”

  • Hiawatha Jackson:

    Hello Bruce, trying to remember your face! Man it has been a very long time, would like to see you one day. Where aren you? Send me your email and let us try and hook up. Yes, I did play with Tina and others too.

  • Melvin Jackson:

    Wondering if this is my cousin whose dad (Hiawatha Jackson) was from Palestine, TX and whose brothers are Cameal (Punk) and (deceased) Edward, Edmond (Buddy), Theodore, Lee Andrew, and Alton (Moot) and Versie Lee.

    If so, contact me @ 512.775.8125 and/or

    Melvin Jackson

  • Bob Deal:

    I am, regrettably, not a vet but I know this man Hiawatha Jackson and I am proud to know him. I met him at the church of Christ in Denton, Texas where we both met. I’ve just known him a short time but I know him to be a fine man and a real hoot to be around. Talk about attitude — he’s got a fantastic attitude! If you’ve had Hi in your life, you’ve been blessed.

    Bob Deal
    Denton, Tx

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