Honor Is Not A Birthright
Thomas Calabrese –Bright flashes and loud explosions burst all around the First Battalion of the Seventh Marines as they struggled up a narrow gravel trail, hardly suitable for even the local ox-carts. They were up 3,000 feet in the frigid North Korean mountains with enemy small arms fire coming from every direction. The men of this unit were so numb from the cold that many secretly wished that an enemy round would put them out their misery. Lt. Colonel James Laughlin suddenly fell to the ground as a sniper bullet struck his helmet and rattled his brain. His thick winter clothing had already been pierced by two rounds, but he was too frozen to bleed from his wounds. Laughlin got back to his feet and grimaced, “Keep moving, you stop, you die.”
A company of Marine riflemen were trapped by a Chinese surprise attack at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Laughlin and his men fought with weapons and their hands as they climbed three ridges, traversed the narrow path for eight miles, and dug through the frozen snow in temperatures as low as -35°F, the coldest Korean winter in 100 years. The tide of the war dramatically turned on September 15th when General Douglas McArthur led his forces through the dramatic landing at Inchon. Victory was swift and decisive in the beginning until the Americans and British forces neared the border with China. Things changed dramatically on November 1950, when 8,000 Marines, were stealthily surrounded by 100,000 experienced Chinese soldiers. After Lt. Colonel Laughlin and First Battalion saved that Marine Corps rifle company, they were ready to return to base, but instead they were ordered to dig in and hold the narrow mountain pass for another dozen days so that two war weary Marine regiments could escape total annihilation from hordes of pursuing enemy soldiers. This withdrawal was the longest in American military history, took 13 days and cost many lives.
Laughlin was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman for that bitter cold, valiant mission in the mountains of Korea. During his distinguished career that included World War II he also received the Navy Cross three times, two Distinguish Service Medals, four Silver Stars, one Legion of Merits, three Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat. Laughlin commanded in every level of combat from Platoon leader to Division Commander in his career and was a true American hero.
Unfortunately James Laughlin Jr. was not the man that his father was, not even close. Jimmy, as he was called by his family was a troubled youth; vindictive, small–minded and jealous of everybody else’s success, especially his father’s accomplishments. He was a deeply conflicted individual who was a classic under-achiever with a sense of entitlement. He joined the Marine Corps because he actually believed that he could become a bigger hero than his father. Jimmy did not have a shred of patriotism or sense of duty to serve his country. If it wasn’t for his father’s undue influence, Jimmy would have never made it through basic training, let alone Officers Candidate School. General Laughlin continued to hope that the Marine Corps would be the positive influence that his son needed to get his troubled life together, but so far that was not the case. Despite all the dangers he had faced in his life and overcome, General Laughlin had not been able to find the courage to face the truth about his son, who was neither a good man or a capable leader.
When 2nd Lieutenant Jim Laughlin arrived in Danang South Vietnam on November 15, 1968, he was bound and determined to hit the ground running. He caught a ride to 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines headquarters where he met the commander Colonel Terence Dorsey, “I served with your father in Korea. He is the finest and toughest Marine that I’ve ever known.”
No matter where he went, Jim Laughlin could not escape the looming shadow of his larger than life father, He gritted his teeth and responded, “Thank you, sir; the next time I talk to the General, I’ll convey your sentiments.”
“You came at the right time, we can use good officers. We’re getting ready for a major operation. You’ll be taking over 1st platoon, Mike Ryan is your Sergeant, he’s on his second tour and a seasoned combat veteran. Rely on him, he won’t let you down.”
When Lt. Laughlin arrived at the hooch of 1st platoon, the Marines were lounging around; playing cards or crashed out on their cots. He shouted “Outside in one minute, Double time!”
One Marine rolled over in his cot and grumbled, “Who the hell was that?” then rolled over and went back to sleep.”
Lt. Laughlin was impatiently pacing back and forth in the dust and after a couple minutes, realized that the Marines were not coming out and this enraged him. He saw a Marine walking by and grabbed him, “Do you know Sergeant Ryan?”
“Find him and tell him that Lieutenant Laughlin wants to see him?”
“Who’s Laughlin?” The Marine asked.
“I’m Lieutenant Laughlin, you idiot!”
“Where should I tell him to go?” The Marine asked.
“I’m going to be standing right here?” Lt. Laughlin snapped, “Go, now!!”
Five minutes later, Sergeant Mike Ryan walked up, “I’m Sergeant Ryan, are you Lt. Laughlin?”
Sergeant Ryan was twenty- two years old, stood about six feet tall with gray/ green eyes that could have belonged to someone much older in years.
“What the hell is going on around here?” Lt. Laughlin demanded.
“Death, suffering, usual kind of war stuff,” Sergeant Ryan shrugged.
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“Did it come across that way?”
“I’m the new platoon commander and I don’t like what I’ve seen so far,” Lt Laughlin said.
“You’re new in country, that’s everybody’s initial reaction to the “Nam.”
“I’m talking about Marines sleeping in the middle of the day, playing cards and basically doing nothing worthwhile!” Lt. Laughlin stated matter of factly.
“Easily explained, we’ve got an operation coming up in a few days. Platoons like to give the men as much rest as possible before we head out. It is standard operating procedure.”
“Not anymore,” Lt. Laughlin responded.
For the next three days, Lt. Laughlin made the lives of the Marines of 1st Platoon a living hell with formations, inspections and speaking to them like they were recruits instead of combat veterans. Some of the more seasoned Marines were so angry that they wanted to ‘frag’ (throw a fragmentation grenade) into the hooch of Lt. Laughlin. Sergeant Ryan used all his persuasive powers to keep his men under control, “I know it’s a bunch of crap, but you don’t want to end up in Leavenworth with a dishonorable. Let me handle this.”
Sergeant Ryan went to see Company Commander, Captain David Hollander, “We’ve got a problem, Captain.”
“I know,” Captain Hollander sighed.
“I’ve got men heading to the bush and they hate Laughlin more than Victor Charlie, that’s not a good thing,” Sergeant Ryan warned.
“I wish I could help you.”
Permission to speak freely,” Sergeant Ryan asked.
“Permission granted,” Captain Hollander said.
“What the hell is going on around here? You would never let one of your officers get away with the B.S. that Laughlin is pulling. What’s different this time?”
“You know as well as I do about picking your battles wisely. Laughlin’s father is a three-star who is in line for either Commandant or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The word came down from Division about Lieutenant Laughlin so everybody is walking on eggshells. Unless he screws up big time, nobody is going get on his case over a few inspections…no matter how much your Marines complain about it.”
“It isn’t what you know…it’s who you know, I got it,” Sergeant Ryan spit in disgust and walked off.
Operation Meade River was a US Marine Corps cordon and search operation that took place south of Danang, lasting from 20 November to 9 December 1968. Dodge City was a 36 square km area located approximately 20 km south of Danang to the west of Highway 1 and given this nickname by the Marines due to frequent ambushes and firefights there; together with Go Noi Island directly to the south it was a Vietcong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) stronghold and base area. The Dodge City area was completely flat and criss-crossed with numerous small waterways. Dodge City was the base for the Vietcong R-20 Battalion and the PAVN 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment.
The operation was planned as part of the South Vietnamese Government’s Le Loi Accelerated Pacification Campaign and called for the 1st Marine Regiment to cordon and search the entire Dodge City area. On the morning of 20 November 2nd Battalion began moving overland and encountered medium to heavy resistance. One Marine was killed and 25 were wounded and 2 helicopters were shot down. At midday 1st Platoon with Lt Laughlin in command swept in from the western side of the cordon towards the railway lines. They encountered a heavily fortified PAVN bunker complex in an area nicknamed the ‘Horseshoe’ and lost three Marines when they came under heavy fire and were forced to retreat.
“We’re going to take that bunker, that will show him,” Lt Laughlin smiled.
“Show who?” Sergeant Ryan asked, “It is suicide to go back there without reinforcements and air support.”
“That’s why we’re going to do it, because it can’t be done and we’re going to do it anyway.”
At that particular time, Sergeant Ryan knew that there was something seriously wrong with Lt. Laughlin and if he didn’t step up, a lot of good men would die today…needlessly.
Lt. Laughlin called out to the platoon, “Lock and Load, Marines. Prepare to attack!”
When the delusional officer turned around to face him, Sergeant Ryan threw a vicious right cross that landed squarely on the jaw of Lt. Laughlin and knocked him out cold. He then assumed command of the platoon and directed air support on the bunker. After several direct hits, the bunker was destroyed. Sergeant Ryan led his Marines into the structure and killed the remaining North Vietnamese soldiers. By the time the rest of the Battalion made it to the location, Lt. Laughlin was screaming, “He assaulted me! He assaulted me! He struck a superior officer!”
Lt. Laughlin had the unmitigated audacity to take credit for the capture of the enemy bunker and filed charges against Sergeant Ryan. The seasoned combat veteran was busted down two ranks to Lance Corporal and given 30 days in the Danang Brig. Upon his release LCpl. Ryan was transferred to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. It haunted him that he had to leave his men especially every time he read the casualty reports of 2nd Battalion and saw that first platoon always lost the most Marines.
Ryan crossed paths with one of his Marines from first platoon at the Freedom Hill PX, Corporal Gilchrist lamented with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking with every sentence, “No matter what the situation, his strategy is always to attack first and think about the consequences later. He hangs back where it’s safe and sends us into the meat grinder. He doesn’t like to call in air or artillery support, thinks it’s a sign of weakness. Laughlin is a bona fide psycho, casualties mean nothing to him.
They won’t let us transfer and everybody knows that the only way we’re getting out is in a bodybag. It’s bad…real bad, but at least you made it out, even if it did cost you a couple stripes. You got lucky, real lucky.””
Ryan would cross paths again with Captain Laughlin (promoted from Lieutenant) in Operation Oklahoma Hills in April 1969 when his unit was airlifted into Happy Valley and told to make their way to Charlie Ridge. The terrain was a major challenge with numerous gullies and ravines with thick undergrowth and dense overhead cover. In fact it was so thick that even during the middle of the day, the sun could not reach the jungle floor. Ryan was now a team leader and he chopped his way through the thick foliage along the Song Vu Gia River to An Dien, northeast of Throng Duc Camp with his razor sharp machete.
They observed North Vietnamese soldiers on the south bank of the river and opened fire with recoiless rifles, 81mm mortars, machine gun and rifle fire. One week later, the area of operations was extended south of Son Vu Gia into the Northern Arizona Territory. Medivac choppers were called in and wounded Marines were loaded on after a vicious battle. Captain Laughlin was sitting off to the side of the landing zone, disinterested in his men or their medical conditions, but when replacements arrived by CH-46 helicopters, Laughlin was right there to read them the riot act and instill even more fear in them than they already had. “You will do exactly as I say, no question asked, is that understood?”
Ryan kept his distance from Laughlin although the officer’s whereabouts and the actions of first platoon were never out of his mind. Several units hunkered down near the village of My Hoa and prepared to assault Go Noi Island when Ryan intercepted the patrol from first platoon as they were headed into an ambush, “This is not the way to go.”
A squad leader from first platoon responded, “Captain Laughlin ordered us to stay on this trail.”
“I’ll take responsibility,” Ryan said, “Follow me.”
Under Ryan’s guidance, the Marines left a trail that was loaded with mines and booby traps and outflanked North Vietnamese fortified positions and overwhelmed the enemy. When Captain Laughlin arrived, he was furious that his men varied from his explicit orders and attacked the enemy without orders. When he saw Ryan, he screamed out, “Are you responsible for this?”
“Yes sir,” Ryan responded.
Captain Laughlin grabbed Ryan by the shirt and proceeded to shake him, “I’ll court martial you this time. I’m in charge around here!”
Ryan slapped the officer’s arms away. This enraged Laughlin who took a swing at Ryan, who blocked it then punched the Marine officer in the gut. Laughlin fell to his knees, gasping for breath and demanded, “Arrest this Marine!”
Suddenly the Marines came under heavy mortar attack and the next thing Ryan knew he was waking up in the China Beach medical facility with Lt. General Laughlin standing next to his bed. “They say you’re going to be alright.”
“Thank you,sir.” Ryan responded through parched lips, “I’ll take your word for it.”
“I owe you an apology.”
“For what?” Ryan asked.
“My son, Captain Laughlin.”
“I was hoping that he would become an honorable man, but that was never going to happen. That blindness on my part costs the lives of some good Marines. That is inexcusable and something that I will never forgive myself for. I’ll be resigning from the Corps immediately.”
“We protect what we care about, but don’t always choose our battles wisely. No matter what we do, the time comes when everyone has to accept responsibility for their own actions,” Ryan replied.
By the time that Mike Ryan was released from the hospital for his shrapnel wounds, he had been meritoriously promoted to Staff Sergeant and awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in combat. He also learned later that Captain James Laughlin was killed during the mortar attack. Ryan served one more combat tour in South Vietnam before returning to the ‘World’. He stayed in the Marine Corps and retired as a Sergeant Major in a career that spanned twenty-seven years. Some of his most vivid memories were those of his three tours in South Vietnam. General James Laughlin Sr. retired in Oceanside, California and over the years the two Marines became close friends with Sergeant Major Ryan becoming the son that the General always wished he had.