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Accuracy was His Middle Name

Gunnery Seargent Carlos Hathcock, pictured here, zeroes in on one of his 93 confirmed kills.

by John Flores

When retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock II died at the age of 57 on Feb. 26, 1999, his legend had long since chiseled its way into the pantheon of Marine Corps history.

He’d served almost 20 years in the Corps, including two tours as a sniper during the Vietnam War. A killer more deadly and silent than Hathcock finally had him in the cross hairs and pulled the trigger, ending his extraordinary life.

The medical term for that stealthy, relentless force is multiple sclerosis, a slow, progressive terminal malady that attacks the central nervous system. MS can cause paralysis, spasms and the loss of coordination and muscle control.

His disease was diagnosed in summer 1975 by doctors at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Va. It took 24 years to finally bring him down. During his time as a sniper, GySgt Hathcock was noted for his precision, absolute coolness, patience and endurance.

For 93 of his kills he had witnesses —a requirement for the kills to be considered“confirmed.” Although he never kept a ledger, Hathcock once guessed that he’d taken out upward of 300 enemy personnel during his time in the Vietnam bush.

Retired Marine Corps Major Jim Land was Hathcock’s boss in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and earlier, the two were on the Marine Corps rifle marksmanship team. They remained friends until Hathcock’s death and burial near his home in Virginia Beach, Va.

A representative of a local Native American tribe was invited to Hathcock’s funeral, and he presented eagle feathers to Hathcock’s wife, Jo; his son, Carlos III; and Hathcock’s shooting buddy, Jim Land. The Indians respected this lone warrior, who was part Indian.

Hathcock’s funeral was an emotional moment for Land, who’d often worried about his friend spending too much time in the jungles on missions. Nevertheless, Land smiled when he recalled the time he restricted Hathcock to his quarters. The year was 1966, and Hathcock was under his command at an outpost near Da Nang.

Carlos Hathcock with his .50 caliber Browning rifle. His longest confirmed kill was 2500 yards.

“The only difficulty I had with Carlos was that he’d stay out there too long. He went on about five [operations] one time before I could get a fix on him. I told a gunny, ‘Bring [him] back here.’ Well, he did, and [Hathcock] looked like a scarecrow,” Land said.

Hathcock was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and normally weighed about 160 pounds. After he came back from an extended time on patrol where he subsisted on little more than peanut butter, crackers and whatever he could gather from nature, Hathcock weighed about 120 pounds, Land recalled.

“I said, ‘What you been eating out there?’ and he said, ‘I’m doing all right. I’m eating enough to keep the buzzards off my back.’ I told him no self-respecting buzzard would want him,” Land said with a chuckle. But the smile faded, like so many of the memories of Vietnam. Hathcock, however, remains clearly, indelibly imprinted on his mind.

“Carlos just really believed in what he was doing out there. He was saving Marines; that’s how he really saw it. He was just doing his job, his duty. Now, Carlos is kind of a folk hero to a tremendous number of people,” he said.

Long after the Vietnam War ended, a reporter asked Hathcock if he had been a “trophy collector,” shooting for sport while on the job. It was an insult, and Hathcock fired back at the reporter quickly and accurately. He did not waste bullets or words.

“He told that reporter, ‘Anybody would have to be crazy to like running around through the woods killing people,’ ” Land said. “He said if he didn’t get [the enemy], then they were going to kill the kids over there.”

Hathcock was born in Little Rock, Ark. His parents divorced when he was just a youngster, so he lived with his grandmother. He began hunting in the thick woods near his grandmother’s house. He was self-taught, like World War I legend Sergeant Alvin York and World War II hero Audie Murphy. All the men were experts with a rifle and were also good-natured, hard-working rural boys.

“As a young’n, I’d go sit in the woods and wait a spell,” Hathcock once told an interviewer. “I’d just wait for the rabbits and the squirrels, ’cause sooner or later a squirrel would be in that very tree, or a rabbit would be coming by that very log. I just knew it. Don’t know why, just did.”

Then Cpl. Carlos Hathcock (far left) being awarded the 1965 Wimbledon Cup. This trophy is given to the winner of the 1000 yard shooting match.

He was the original laconic, cool-headed country boy. When put to the big-city test, he broke records. In those days, the Marine Corps wouldn’t take anyone under 17. So, on his 17th birthday in 1959, Hathcock enlisted. During recruit training in San Diego, he immediately qualified as an expert with the M1 rifle, a .30-06 that was used widely by Marines and Army soldiers during WW II. It was a heavy rifle, and he could hit the 18-inch-diameter bull’s-eye from 500 yards at the rifle range time after time. He developed a complete fascination with developing the skill and precision of long-range shooting with high-powered rifles. That fascination stayed with him the rest of his life.

Initially, he went to Vietnam as a military policeman, but wound up volunteering for combat. It didn’t take Hathcock long to realize that he would be killed with some of his fellow Marines who did not have the woodsman skills and instincts he had developed. He wanted to go it alone.

In his first few years in the Corps, Hathcock broke just about every shooting record and received many awards including the 1965 Wimbledon Cup, the U.S. Long-Range High-Power Championship. Maj. Land needed that type of person as an instructor for a sniper school he started in Vietnam for the First Marine Division.

Land’s 17-man instructor team trained more than 600 snipers between September 1966 and April 1967. During one 90-day period the sniper team took out more Viet Cong than entire local battalions. That’s when Land’s group of ice-water marksmen was tagged with the ominous moniker “Murder Incorporated.”

Before he was stricken with MS, Hathcock was unmatched in his ability to endure physical and mental hardships to position himself for a kill. With the slow, deliberate moves of a panther in the night, Hathcock would stalk his targets sometimes for days and inches at a time.

He felt that a good sniper needed seven characteristics to get the job done and get back to base alive. According to the list, a sniper must be an excellent marksman, a good woodsman, emotionally stable so as not to be easily excited, smart and keenly observant, aware of his surroundings, good with a map and compass and patient.

“It takes an awareness of the environment and total concentration at the moment you fire the shot. You have to be aware of the wind, which has a tremendous impact at 1,000 yards; you have to be aware of the sun, whether it goes behind a cloud or not. Then, at the last millisecond, if you will, you have to develop total concentration.

It takes a tremendous amount of discipline,” Land said. He noted that while most other Marine snipers were proficient or above average in their skills, Hathcock’s uncanny abilities took him to another level entirely.

“The thing that made him different in Vietnam, it wasn’t the marksmanship skill, but he just had this ability to totally integrate himself into the environment, and he noticed everything. He had a total awareness of his surroundings,” Land said. “We all developed an edge, but Carlos took it one step further. He was like a mountain man. He noticed every breeze, every insect. He certainly did have Indian blood.”

Master Marine Sniper with his trademark smile.

Often, Land said, a sniper would have to sit for long periods totally still and silent. If the enemy was near, any movement could mean instant death. “A lot of times you would be sitting so long in one place you either urinated or defecated in your trousers,” he said.

The bush could be very unpleasant after several days of no bathing, getting bitten by ants and mosquitoes, going without food and water, the basics. Once, while on a mission, Hathcock came face to face with a deadly snake. But because the Viet Cong were close by, he could not move. He had to stare at the snake and pray. After several tense minutes, the snake flicked its tongue and slithered into the underbrush.

After Hathcock had killed a significant number of enemy personnel, the Viet Cong gave him the name “Long Tr’ang,” which means “white feather.” It was because Hathcock wore a white feather in his hat when he was on patrol as a member of Land’s sniper detachment. He traveled light, normally carrying a bandoleer with 84 cartridges, two canteens, a combat knife, a .45-caliber pistol, compass, map and several cans of basic rations.

And he carried one thought in his head: Take down the enemy. Land said he and Hathcock both had the dubious distinction of an enemy bounty being placed on their heads by the Viet Cong. Anyone who killed either of them would be paid three years salary. It amounted to about $1,000 U.S., and that was a lot of money for Vietnam, he said.

Marine Sniper by Charles Henderson narrates the spine tingling feats of Carlos Hathcock.

According to the book “Marine Sniper,” written by retired Marine Chief Warrant Officer Charles Henderson, during Hathcock’s service as a sniper, he took down many targets with incredible precision and an unrelenting, cool calculation. Once he put a round through a Viet Cong’s sniper scope while the two men were looking at each other, several hundred yards apart. The bullet went through the enemy’s scope and into the sniper’s head.

Hathcock also killed a female Viet Cong sniper called “Apache Woman.” She delighted in torturing and slowly killing young Marines wounded in ambush or in traps set for them in the jungle, Henderson wrote. Land confirmed those stories.

“Gunny” Hathcock also shot a Chinese army officer out of a small canoe like boat from a range of about 300 yards. The officer drowned in the river. Land said it was a telling point about Hathcock that he didn’t even mention it in his debriefing session after the mission was completed.

Hathcock took no pleasure in killing. He recounted meticulously the details of his mission until getting to the point of seeing the large red star, a Chinese army emblem, and then casually mumbled that he shot the target.

“I said, ‘No joke, Carlos? You shot a Chinese officer?’ He said, ‘I don’t tell no lies,’ ” Land said.

Probably his most daring and important active-duty mission was when Hathcock shot and killed a North Vietnamese Army general from a range of about 700 yards. Hathcock literally spent days crawling, inches at a time, to get within range of the general’s command post.

A magazine article by Green Beret veteran Charles W. Sasser details that event. Hathcock finally took the shot in an open field, vulnerable to the enemy amassed at the compound.

“When the general came outside with his aide to get into the car, Hathcock pulled his bubble around him so that nothing could disturb his concentration. He no longer felt hunger or thirst or weariness. The general came out onto the little porch. He yawned and stretched in the morning sunlight. Hathcock lowered his cross hairs to the officer’s heart. He was squeezing the trigger when the general’s aide stepped in front of him,” Sasser wrote.

“As soon as the aide stepped aside, exposing the general’s broad tunic, the rifle jarred against Hathcock’s shoulder. The Marine brought the scope out of recoil and saw immediately that the general was down and not moving, which meant a heart shot. The other NVA officers and aides were scrambling for cover.”

After hurrying for the cover of the jungle, it took Hathcock about an hour to meet his getaway helicopter that flew him out of harm’s way.

Hathcock was never hit by an enemy bullet. The closest he came to being killed was when he was in an armored personnel carrier that struck a mine in the Quang Tri Province of Vietnam. Hathcock pulled several Marines from the burning APC, although he, too, was terribly burned from the blast of the large mine. Suffering from second- and third-degree burns over more than 40 percent of his body, he spent months recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He had more than a dozen skin grafts. He was injured so badly that his sniper days were at an end.

Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock after receiving the Silver Star during a ceremony at the Weapons Training Battalion. Standing next to him is his son, Staff Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, Jr.

Those who witnessed his brave and selfless actions wanted to see him receive a top medal, but the quiet, unassuming Hathcock didn’t want one. Stricken with MS and wheelchair bound, he was awarded the Silver Star 30 years later on Nov. 12, 1996, by the Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper.

Not long after recovering from his burns, Hathcock received orders to help establish the scout and sniper school at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

“He emphasized that snipers could not be John Wayne, that we should be more reserved,” said William Bartholomew, a former sniper in the Baltimore Police Department. In an article in The Baltimore Sun, Bartholomew described Hathcock’s training methods. “If you didn’t apply what he taught you, if you made an absentminded error, he could stare right through you. He could chew you out without ever raising his voice.”

On April 20, 1979, MS forced Hathcock to retire, just a few months shy of 20 years on active duty. He taught classes right up to the day of his retirement. Land and others worked with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps to make sure Hathcock retired with full benefits.

At his retirement ceremony, he was given a plaque with a bronzed Marine campaign cover mounted above a brass plate that reads: “There have been many Marines. There have been many marksmen. But there has only been one sniper—Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock. One Shot. One Kill.”

Editor’s note: John Flores, a former search-and-rescue crewman serving four years active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard, is a self-employed journalist in Albuquerque,N.M. Last fall he received the Department of the Navy’s Meritorious Public Service Award from the Marine Corps Commandant, General James T. Conway. Flores is writing a biography for Texas Tech University Press about Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez, a Medal of Honor Marine killed during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

 

This article is re-printed by  courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette and copyright is retained by the Marine Corps Gazette.

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Disband the Marine Corps

By: Col. Arthur J. Corbett USMC (Ret.)

It would be better to disband the Corps than see it dishonored and its virtues and values destroyed.

The Pieta in St. Peter's Basillica --Rome, Italy

A vandal once took a hammer to the Pieta. It was a shocking and unexpected event, but the fact that it happened suggests a perverse streak within our nature to desecrate that which others revere in order to gain attention for ourselves. That the vandal could not himself have created an object so sublime did not mean that he could not, with a stroke of a hammer, indelibly mar its beauty or offend its admirers. Such is human nature, and such is tragedy. As individuals, institutions, and cultures, we are all sometimes vulnerable to tragedy through no fault or volition of our own.

Tragedy is not inevitable, but the confluence of political opportunism, ethical narcosis, and moral malaise that dominate and subvert American culture have ripened the opportunity for our political leadership to do what no enemy has done in 217 years—sully the reputation and honor of our proud Corps. While homosexuality is a tragic reality, and those who indulge in its indignities deserve prayerful compassion, they are not fit to lead men in battle. Culture vandals may debate this issue, but as Marines we know this intellectually, morally and viscerally. For the civilian, this may be but one of the many irreverences that he has endured as a member of the declining culture, but for the Marine it is a violation of a sacred trust. We have always perceived that the threats to our honor were external to our borders and could be countered with courage, zeal and competence. We never suspected that the threat to our ethos would come from within our Nation and be sanctioned, however indirectly by the American people. The sorry fact is that this will not be a gross betrayal by a dark and sinister force –rather it will be a culmination of banal evils from a progression of noxious ideologies. The result will he the same, only the intent is more benign.

Ayn Rand made this trenchant observation on the subversion of virtue within a culture:

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute: when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by the scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.

And so we find ourselves at a crossroads as an institution. Though prayer and reason might yet triumph, it is clearly time to fight and prepare. For such an undeserved indignity to be heaped upon such a noble institution, with but a whimper of protest, would betray the untold thousands who bought with their blood the honor we enjoy. Yet we are constrained in our efforts by the very nature of the political system that they fought to defend, and we recognize that, while this tragedy should not happen, it is ultimately not our decision to make.

America will get both the Government and the Military Establishment that it deserves. God has blessed us richly in the past with remarkable strength in both institutions, but now we choose to go it alone. We have displaced faith in Providence with confidence in technology. We enjoy a wide, but inevitably temporary, advantage over potential adversaries in our technological capability, and so we grow both prideful of our position and forgetful of the very values that ennobled our success. Like all civilizations that have preceded us, we are passing through the culminating point of culture and starting down the precarious slope that lies beyond.

Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak

Soon, we must again answer an important question that has frequently been asked in the past: Do we really need a Marine Corps? As we know, Lt. Gen Victor H. Krulak answered that question in his book First to Fight: America does not need a Marine Corps—the other Services could manage an adequate defense without us but America wants a Marine Corps, because it feels safe knowing that there is a band of warriors always ready to respond rapidly, against unknown odds, to any national emergency. America felt good knowing that men of character, who shared a warrior ethos, stood ready to do its will. But some of America has changed its mind and now seems to regard virile virtues as a vestigial encumbrance upon a society that prefers dissolute equality over honest distinction.

Marine Corps history is replete with examples of uncommon valor and common virtues. The extraordinary successes that Marines have achieved in battle have earned for our Corps a reputation that is the envy of every other Service and that is unequaled in modern history. Our customs are steeped in tradition, and our traditions have been respected and honored by successive generations of Marines. We are esteemed by our countrymen and feared by our enemies. Our dead are remembered, and those who once wore our uniform, are forever entitled to claim the title “Marine.” We are indeed a unique and proud brotherhood of warriors.

Perhaps now is the time to recognize that although America might, for the first time need a Marine Corps, it no longer wants one. It is true that the future portends many littoral conflicts to which a Marine Corps should respond, but the other Services will adapt. They will certainly adapt better to amphibious warfare than the Marine Corps will adapt to recruiting sexual deviates. Marines are an incredulous lot by nature, and brutally honest in their observations and decisions. The young officers who attempt to explain how homosexuality is an “alternate” instead of a deviate life style will quickly lose the respect of their Marines and a bit of their own honor in the process. Sanitized terms like “sexual orientation” may serve to obfuscate the gross realities of a perverse lifestyle to a jaded public, but Marines living in a barracks will rightfully question leadership that discredits by association the sacrifices they are willing to make. The party line will be that homosexuals are Marines, just like you. The cognitive dissidence that this simple, yet official, lie must engender will tug at the credibility and ultimately rend the integrity of our Corps.

Critics claim that homosexuals already lurk in our ranks. The salient difference between the current reality and the proposed policy is that now the homosexuals lie to the Marine Corps. Soon we will find that to accommodate homosexuals, the Marine Corps must lie to Marines, and they in turn to one another. Institutions like the Marine Corps are not built upon deceit.

Official emblem of the United States Marine Corps - the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.

We dare not tarnish the reputation of our Corps. Too many valiant men have fallen in honor for us to allow the term “Marine” to be degraded in a futile attempt to lend dignity to practitioners of unnatural acts. It is time to case the battle colors and ask Congress to disband our Marine Corps. The Army has long sought the Marine Corps as its own, and in many of the world’s navies there are naval troops. We can preserve our reputation, and that of those who have preceded us, by not compromising our values as a Corps. We should transfer our personnel to another Service and don their uniform. It is better to wear proudly the uniform of another Service than to see the Globe and Anchor progressively defamed. As we know, the Marine Corps is not essential for national defense; it is an expression of pride and competence by a strong people. America is our home and the home of our families. There is still much here that is worth defending. By disbanding now we preserve more than a tradition of honor and service—we preserve a remnant of hope for a future generation.

There will be time in the future, as there has always been in the past, when America will be threatened. Survival may become a dim prospect, and ancient virtues and values will be recalled. From such a crucible may emerge a neophyte warrior who remembers that his grandfather, or perhaps his great-grandfather, had been a sergeant major of Marines. If he is confident in his fellow warriors, loyal to his country, resolved on victory,

Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C.

uncompromising in integrity, and dedicated to both innovation and tradition, then he may have the audacity to claim the title “Marine.” Once again, America will want an elite corps of honorable men to do the difficult today and the near impossible tomorrow. Old battle colors, dusty but unstained, will be unfurled, and proud men will commit their lives to God, Corps, and Country. They will inherit an unblemished tradition, and what will provide the continuity between our Corps and theirs will be a common motto: Semper Fidelis! It will be the intervening years, when there wasn’t a Marine Corps, which will validate for all time the motto itself.

*                                     *                                          *

Arthur Corbett was a student at the Naval War College at the time this article first appeared in the January 1993 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. He went on to retire from the Corps after 21 years of service with the rank of Colonel.

This article by Col. Corbett expresses the same elevation of spirit one can see in the testimony given by Col. John Ripley before the HASC in 1993.  For information regarding the first cradle to grave biography of Col. John Ripley, click here: An American Knight.

 

This article is re-printed courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette and copyright is retained by the Marine Corps Gazette.

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