September 20, 2014

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Vietnam veteran recounts time serving during unpopular war

Sam Felton Jr., of Lorain, shares how he saved three men in his platoon during one of his four tours of duty in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

Sam Felton Jr., of Lorain, shares how he saved three men in his platoon during one of his three tours of duty in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — He won the Navy Cross for valor, but Sam Felton Jr. sees himself as more of a survivor than a hero.

Felton said he talks about his combat experiences in the Vietnam War not to promote himself but to give those who haven’t been in war some concept on Veterans Day of what combat veterans have sacrificed.

“Nobody wins in war,” Felton said in a Nov. 4 interview, “except those who supply the ammunition.”

Felton, 64, served three tours in Vietnam between December 1968 and August 1971, during some of the bloodiest fighting in that conflict.

Felton, then a private first class with Company C of the U.S. Marines 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, said he had been in combat about 30 times by June 11, 1969, the day he won the Navy Cross.

When attacked, the Americans were supposed to back off and call in heavy aerial firepower from artillery, helicopter gun ships and jets. “Dangling the bait” is how Marine and future Virginia U.S. Sen. James Webb, who served in Felton’s battalion, described it in his Vietnam War novel, “Fields of Fire.”

“Inviting an enemy attack such as a worm seeks to attract a fish: mindlessly, at someone else’s urging, for someone else’s reasons,” wrote Webb, a winner of the Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.

The Vietnamese often used snipers and booby traps and disappeared by the time aerial firepower was called in. But June 11 was no hit-and-run operation. It was part of an 11-day battle. After being attacked for several nights, the Marines were dug in and expecting an attack, according to Frank Satterfield, Felton’s company commander.

Despite elaborate defenses, North Vietnam soldiers overran the perimeter set up two miles from the An Hoa fire base near Da Nang, in the northern part of then-South Vietnam. Company C was hit with rockets, mortars and small-arms fire, according to “The Navy Cross: Vietnam Citations of Awards to Men of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps 1964-1973.”

Marines Russell Buckner, William Jenkins and James Spencely were in a listening post about 100 yards outside the barbed wire perimeter and were hit by grenade shrapnel at about 1 a.m.

“They’re exposed out there, but their job is to provide early warning and they did that,” Satterfield, 69, said from his home in Houston.

With heavy fire coming in, Satterfield, a lieutenant, rejected two radioed requests from Felton’s platoon commander, Lt. Neal Meier, to try to rescue the wounded Marines.

“That was like suicide,” Satterfield said. “They’d probably get killed just from the fire coming from our position.”

Shortly after, Meier radioed back that Felton — nicknamed “Frags” for the high number of fragmentation grenades he wore — had disobeyed orders.

Felton, then a squad leader, had ordered the three to the post and felt obligated to help them. By the time of the attack, Felton said he was angry over the deaths of comrades in previous firefights — including a former platoon commander shot in the head by a sniper in February 1969 — and confident in his training and fighting ability.

“Not to sound arrogant, but I was utterly fearless because, at that point, I didn’t care,” he said. “I probably couldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do something to try to help them.”

Felton leaped over the 4-foot-high barbed wire and ran to the men who were in a fighting hole. He applied direct pressure with a bandage to the mortally wounded Buckner, whose intestines were spilling from his stomach.

Buckner was unable to walk, so Felton placed him over his right shoulder. Jenkins and Spencely, who was temporarily blinded from shrapnel, followed behind.

Felton was knee-deep in a muddy rice paddy when Spencely fell. Felton laid Buckner down to help Spencely while Jenkins moved past them. About 75 yards from the perimeter, Felton had hoisted Buckner back on his shoulder when he encountered two North Vietnamese soldiers about 15 feet away.

Felton turned to his right to protect Buckner as they fired. Felton was hit in the left shoulder. Holding his M-16 rifle in his right hand, Felton fired about 10 shots in return, killing both North Vietnamese soldiers.

“It was a situation where I had to get through them to get back to the lines or that was it,” he said. “Sometimes when I read the story myself or I’m at a reunion with my guys and we all relive that night, it’s still almost like, ‘This couldn’t possibly have happened.’ ”

Satterfield recalled being “floored” at daybreak when he learned Felton had survived.

Writing on the back of a C-rations box, Satterfield nominated Felton for the Medal of Honor. When Satterfield learned Felton won the Navy Cross, Satterfield said he told Felton “he was probably lucky he didn’t get the Medal of Honor because if he got killed, he’d have probably got it.”

Besides pain, Felton remembered feeling grief as he was flown out on a helicopter knowing a dead Buckner was flying with him. Years later, Felton said Buckner’s brother wrote him a letter thanking him for his efforts.

‘There are things worse than death’

Felton, who returned to duty about two months later and was promoted to sergeant, estimated being in combat between 80 and 100 times in his three tours.

Shortly after returning to duty, Felton rescued Marine Bill Miller, who had been wounded by shrapnel from a booby-trapped grenade while walking point near a village. Under fire, Felton ran to Miller and pulled him about 50 yards to a corpsman.

Miller, 65, said Felton was a great squad leader and role model. In an atmosphere where enlisted men are never supposed to question officers, Miller said the upbeat Felton spoke out if he felt troops were being put in danger and didn’t care whose toes he stepped on.

“There are things worse than death,” Miller said in an interview from his home in Omaha. “And that is if you screw up and somebody dies from it. You’ll never forgive yourself. You’re actually fighting for the guys who are around you, because you know they’d do the same for you.”

Felton speaks highly of his fellow Marines, but recalled two ugly incidents where he said he was forced to shoot two of them. It was at Nui Dat Son, known as Hill 55, south of Da Nang in October 1970.

The military was relying more on draftees then volunteers like Felton, and antiwar sentiment was high in the U.S. and among some troops.

Racial tension also was running high in America and among the troops. Some white soldiers flew Confederate flags outside their tents, while some black soldiers adhered to the rising Black Power movement in the U.S. identifying with the revolutionary Black Panthers.

Growing up on West 15th Street in Lorain with people of all races, Felton said he hadn’t experienced much racism in the Marines.

“It didn’t matter to me what color you were. All I expected you to do was to do your job,” Felton said. “Black guys and white guys put their lives on the line for me.”

Convinced that he had given a half-hearted Black Power salute in a chow hall, Felton said a group of about 10 black soldiers called him an Uncle Tom, and that led to a fistfight.

While playing cards in another tent, Felton’s tent was blown up by some of the black soldiers in a “fragging” incident. Fragging referred to soldiers killing their commanders with fragmentation grenades. Dozens of American officers and non-commissioned officers like Felton were killed or wounded between 1968 and 1973, according to author and veteran George Lepre’s “Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam.”

Felton said when he found out who blew up his tent, he went to the tent of two of the perpetrators and shot one with a shotgun in the stomach. Felton said the man survived.

“They were trying to kill me, so I didn’t care,” he said.

About a week later, Felton said one of the Marines involved in the attempt to kill him tried to hijack a helicopter to North Vietnam by holding the pilot at gunpoint on a landing zone. Felton said the Marine fired at him but missed, and Felton shot him in the shoulder and knee in an incident he compared to something out of the Wild West.

Felton said the two men he shot were court martialed. Felton said he signed a statement with his company commander, Richard Crawford, verifying that the shootings were in self-defense and was never charged.

In 1975 or 1976, Felton, who mustered out of the Marine Corps in August 1972, said he was in line at the Federal building in Cleveland collecting $1,500 in bonus pay for his three tours. After giving his name to a clerk, he heard a voice behind him say, “Sgt. Felton? That’s the son-of-a b—— that put me in this wheelchair.” Felton said he turned around and saw it was the Marine he shot on the landing zone who was from Cleveland.

Felton said the shootings were one of the lowest points of his three tours.

He had joined the Marines because his father served in World War II and Felton was bored with his job at U.S. Steel. He wanted a challenge. Felton said part of the reason he served three tours was to keep his younger brother Carnell Felton, who joined the Marines a year after Felton, out of Vietnam.

Felton had escorted the body of Lorain resident Calvin Blanton home from Vietnam and saw what the death did to Blanton’s mother. He couldn’t bear the thought of his mother losing two sons. Felton said his brother was less likely to be sent to Vietnam if he was there.

Felton said he served a third tour because he was good at being a Marine and thought his experience could help incoming Marines. He knew they were scared like he had been.

Felton said he considered staying in the Marines after Vietnam, but a sign he saw while riding a bus in Jacksonville, N.C., outside Camp LeJeune, changed his mind. It said, “We don’t like n—-ers here.” After risking his life and being wounded for his country, Felton said the sign “put a bad taste in my mouth.”

‘My life was in utter turmoil.’

Felton returned to Lorain and his job at U.S. Steel in Lorain and later at Invacare in Elyria, but memories of the savagery of the war made the next decade difficult.

“My life was in utter turmoil,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was so deeply affected from the war.”

Sam Felton reads the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a ceremony on May 25.  CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Sam Felton reads the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a ceremony on May 25. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

In addition to the 58,000 Americans killed, 3.8 million Vietnamese were killed, according to a study by the Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the University of Washington. About 415,000 civilians were among the dead in South Vietnam, according to a 1975 Senate Judiciary Committee report.

Felton said “Kill Anything That Moves,” the title of Nick Turse’s exhaustive account of Vietnamese deaths, is an apt description of the U.S. military’s mentality in Vietnam. Turse’s book, which relies on U.S. military records and interviews with dozens of veterans and Vietnamese survivors, said the Pentagon’s emphasis on body counts put Vietnamese civilians in the crosshairs.

The higher the body count, the less time soldiers had to spend on patrol carrying 50-pound rucksacks in temperatures as high as 120 degrees while risking being shot or blown up. Felton said there was a disconnection between the brass in Saigon and the Pentagon and troops in the field.

“They’re not even near it,” he said. “So how they can they really relate to the rigors and the horrors that you’re being subject to all the time?”

From basic training on, Felton said Marines were trained to dehumanize the Vietnamese. They were referred to as “dinks” “gooks” and “slopes.”

Nonetheless, Felton remembers being horrified on the second or third patrol of his first tour when he came across six Vietnamese killed in a bombing. Three were Viet Cong, but three were children, the oldest no more than 14. Their brains had been blown out and they were missing limbs.

“It’s like when you take a porcelain doll and you just crack it,” he said. “I stood there and looked at that for a long time.”

However, Felton said combat and seeing platoon commander Lt. Fred Hartman killed eventually hardened his attitude toward all Vietnamese.

“Now I felt a sense of a personal loss and I didn’t look at them as human beings anymore, sadly, and I’m ashamed to say that,” he said. “I just looked at them as, you’re my enemy and my sole purpose is to kill you.”

The anger Felton experienced took a long time to fade. He said he “self-medicated” with alcohol and drugs and ended up spending 11 months in a transitional program in a Department of Veterans Affairs home in Brecksville in 1984. Felton said the fatal overdose of a veteran at the home made him snap out of his downward spiral.

Sensing Felton was hurting around that time, Don Attie, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran from Lorain, asked him to get involved in the annual vigil honoring the 98 Lorain Countians killed in Vietnam.

“He ended up speaking at one of our vigils, and it just kind of grew from there,” said Attie, Disabled American Veterans Post 20 vice commander and fundraiser chairman for Valor Home, a transitional home for homeless veterans scheduled to open soon.

Felton said he also was helped by a seminar on the war he attended in 1991 or 1992 at Cuyahoga Community College. Sitting next to him was a North Vietnamese colonel who spoke at the seminar.

The colonel said he respected the Marines but saw them as invaders. He said he was fighting for his country’s independence.

Felton said the speech helped defuse the anger he felt.

“I realized, if the coin were flipped around, I’m him and he’s me,” Felton said.

Attie and Felton, now Post 20 commander, have spent nearly 30 years working on veterans issues and are outspoken.

“Sam and I always like to say, ‘A closed mouth never gets fed,’” said Attie, 63. “We’ve got to do some more outreach.”

With the 40th anniversary of the end of the war approaching, Felton expressed ambivalence about it. He said he believes the U.S. remains a force for good in the world and is proud of his service. Nonetheless, he said he understands why the war was so unpopular.

The revelations of the Pentagon Papers, the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident on Aug. 4, 1964, that escalated the war — declassified documents in 2005 revealed that U.S. Navy destroyers were never fired on that day — and CIA documents that showed Gen. William Westmoreland, the top commander in Vietnam, exaggerated the success of the war, were disappointing for Felton to learn about.

“So many men were in harm’s way, predicated on something that wasn’t the truth,” he said. “I guess that’s what’s left such a bitter taste in so many people’s mouths.”

Some veterans have returned to Vietnam in recent years, and Felton said he’s been offered the chance several times but doesn’t think he can deal with it even though the country has greatly changed.

“Even though it’s been so long ago, sometimes it’s just like a few minutes ago,” he said. “Even though I gave so much there, I left a lot there.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.