THE HACKLEY REPORT
Editor’s note: On Sept. 2, well-known playwright, poet, activist and Vietnam veteran Charles Augusta Jones passed away at the Marion VA Hospital. Correspondent and television news producer Eric Hackley conducted the following interview some time ago and recently transcribed it for publication to honor Mr. Jones. Click here to read Mr. Jones’ obituary.
Eric Hackley: Why did you originally join the Marine Corps?
Charles Jones: I volunteered on March 3, 1965. I ran track at Central High School and during my senior year, I became ineligible. So I joined the Marines.
EH: How soon afterwards were you assigned to Vietnam?
Charles Jones: I first arrived in Vietnam on Sept. 5, 1965.
EH: When you were going through basic training, how hard was it for you? Were you treated fairly? Was it a good experience for you?
Charles Jones: It was a great experience. It taught me survival techniques and gave me a military mindset. And it taught self-discipline and respect for authority. All in all, it was a good experience. Once you get your expert training as a Marine, you have a lot of military confidence. You can think for yourself. You can lead if the situation arises where your platoon sergeant or squad leader gets killed. You can take his place and perform his function. It was a good leadership experience.
EH: What was your motivation for joining the Marines?
Charles Jones: Initially, I wanted to further my sports career through special services where I could play football, basketball and run track. That was my initial idea. But after being in the Marine Corps, you find out that everyone is a rifleman. A cook is a rifleman. It’s a very militaristic organization. One of the mottoes is, “first to fight” and it’s strictly about combat and you fighting the wars of our country.
EH: Were you tuned in to the political side as to why we were there? Or were you more tuned in to what you had to do to protect yourself in a war zone?
Charles Jones: I was more concerned with what I had to do in a war zone. Initially all your instincts take over and it’s all about survival. I had no political consensus. You have a military outlook on everything. You think about saving your partner or buddy as they say. You become tight with individuals in a unique way. That’s all you think about. Making sure he doesn’t get killed. Making sure you do your job. Making sure he does his job and you become a tight group of Marines.
EH: Tell me about your first experience after hearing a bullet whizzing by your head.
Charles Jones: It was a sudden shock of reality because you’re never really totally prepared for war until you’re in an actual firefight or combat situation. When I heard the bullets going around my head, my mind said “this is it.” This is what you’ve been trained for. That’s what kept going through my mind. Then automatically your training takes over. When you hear bullets, you hit the ground. Then you put a bullet in your chamber, try to find the enemy and return fire. Your training takes over.
EH: How soon did you get into your first life or death battle?
Charles Jones: It was on Oct. 14 or 15 of 1965 on Hill 22. We were on an outpost when 243 Marines were killed on that day. It was the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines Alpha Company. We got hit in broad daylight, which was rare. Whenever you get hit in broad daylight in Vietnam, you’re usually out numbered three or four to one. They would never take on when the numbers were even. They ran us off the hill until we got reinforcements from Charley Company. We fought them hand to hand and drove them back into the jungle and took the hill back. It was about a six-hour battle.
EH: How did the battle begin?
Charles Jones: This was a regular day, even during a war. We were getting chow, loading our magazines, getting ready for a night ambush or patrols around Hill 22. Then they attacked us with 60mm mortars and heavy machine gunfire. The gunfire pinned everyone down and that’s when they overran the Hill with AK47s. We killed a lot of them but they jumped in the hole with one of the sergeants and blew him up with a satchel charge of C4. There was a lot of hand to hand fighting.
EH: Did you engage in hand to hand fighting yourself?
Charles Jones: Well yes. When they overtook the hill, the enemy actually took and occupied the fighting holes we had. They occupied our position. Me and Sgt. Keys, a 6th Degree Black Belt who was my ITR instructor at camp Geiger in California, we went into the fighting holes that the enemy now occupied and took them on in hand to hand combat. We took the positions back from them.
EH: In hand to hand combat with the enemy, when your training come out of you, do your street fighting instincts play a part?
Charles Jones: We had instructors for boot camp hand to hand combat training, karate classes and bayonet training. The training takes over. There’s a lot said about Marines, but we have the best training in the world.
EH: What experience happened in Vietnam that has been the hardest for you to get out of your mind?
Charles Jones: That’s a difficult question. The night before the battle I discussed, I talked with my lieutenant before he was killed in battle the next day. He came over to my fox hole the night before the battle and he said he had a premonition. He said “Jonesy, I think I’m going to get it.” I said, “Sir, that’s a bad thing to tell your point man because I might lose my life trying to save your life. I wish you hadn’t told me that.” He was killed after we took back Hill 22 and we went down to sweep the area. The enemy ambushed us again at the river. The lieutenant led the charge after the enemy and he chased them into a minefield. He was killed instantly when he stepped on a landmine and shot four times in the chest by an AK47. I saw him when he was hit. He was no more than five meters in away from me. He took the leadership and they killed him. That was really hard for me take.
We called in for reinforcements and a helicopter to take him back to the rear echelon hospital. It was really traumatic. Squad leader Sgt. Braderhurst and I walked into the minefield, took our rifles and made a sling and placed the lieutenant’s body on it and waited for the helicopter to arrive. That was really an intense and prolonged combat experience.
EH: You mentioned you were a point man. That’s the most dangerous position to be in, isn’t it?
Charles Jones: Yes, I was a point man all the time I was there for 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. On my first tour of duty, I spent 13 months in Vietnam. It was dangerous, but once you know what you’re doing and you feel like you know what you’re doing and you engage the enemy and you understand that if you see him before he sees you, if you can get your squad or platoon in position and you’ve got the fastest trigger finger, you’ll win the battle for that day. You’ve got to be sharp. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and after a while it becomes a job and you get good at what you do. And, it all goes back to our training.
EH: Were most of the black guys point men?
Charles Jones: There was a disproportionate number of African Americans in Vietnam—a disproportionate number in the different platoons. It depended on how good of a Marine you were, how well trained you were and If you went to guerilla warfare school. Being in the Marine Corps was similar to being in college. You go to classes every day, you learn how to read a compass and a map. You learn about the enemy and his equipment. You learn the specs of the AK47 that has a clip capacity of 30 rounds. We had 20-clip capacity in the M14. You know if you are engaged in a firefight with the enemy, you know he has more ammo. He has 10 more rounds per clip. So, you’ve got to make your rounds count. If you were trained well, usually things worked out in your favor.
EH: Did you experience any anti-American propaganda from the enemy?
Charles Jones: At times Hanoi Hana would speak over the radio and say, “Why don’t you lay down your weapons black Marines? The imperialist country of America has you over here killing Third World people.” The propaganda was horrific. The effort was also impacted by the protesters in the United States of America. Protesters were going around the country talking about the Marines, the Army Airborne. It was the first war the American people were not behind and for. Everyone was for WWI and WWII. Korea was more of a forbidden war and not too much was said about it. But, the Vietnam propaganda was horrific by the Chinese communists and Russians.
They did a great job on the American public. If you got into a fight and you know me, but I cheer for the other person that you’re fighting, you’re going to say, “What’s wrong with Charles? I thought he was my friend.” It had a demoralizing aspect psychologically. The same kind of analogy can be applied to the propaganda machines of American protesters and the communists.
Once you returned to the United States, did you have any violent or inappropriate post battle disorders?
Not anything violent. But after that much time spent in a jungle where it’s kill or be killed, you have night sweats, night mares and reflections on a host of traumatic experiences that you relive. I had these issues, but I adjusted. I had a lot of help from WWII and Korean War Veterans. This 10-year battle was the longest “war” in US history.
What can be done today to help Vietnam and all veterans?
The veteran’s representatives of city, county, state and federal governments need to be compassionate people who understand the homelessness, psychiatric displacement and nervous conditions. They need to more aggressively go into the field. If veterans are homeless and sleeping under bridges, go under the bridges or where ever they are. There needs to be a continual outreach of outgoing compassion. Let the veterans know they are loved and want to be cared for by the American people. In this way, they can be cared for and be reintegrated back into the system for help, instead of a veteran being all alone, to struggle with their personal issues on the street, the best way they can.
EH: USMC Corporal Charles Jones, thank you very much.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 25 print edition.