Thomas Calabrese — Sergeant Mason Walker was a Marine Corps dog handler during the Siege of Khe Sanh from January 21, 1968 to July 9, 1968 with his dog Whiskey. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines during this brutal and deadly time in the Vietnam War. A lot more Americans would have died during this conflict if it wasn’t for courageous efforts of these two warriors. To prevent North Vietnamese gunners from establishing entrenched positions around the firebase, the Marines had to continuously patrol the hills. The duty of leading many of these patrols usually fell upon Mason and his dog. Whiskey’s reputation for detecting the enemy became legendary throughout the firebase and every scared Marine who thought he’d never make it to the next day felt a glimmer of hope if Sergeant Walker was with them. This unusual canine had the ability to pick up the scent of the enemy from long distances who were waiting in ambush and detect explosives and booby traps.
General Westmoreland’s much publicized relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold the firebase in the first place. One hundred fifty five men were killed and 425 were wounded in the Siege of Khe Sanh, and then to add insult to death and injury, they were roundly criticized for not defending their base properly. Nobody really cared how the Marines felt, so on 1 April, 1968, Operation Pegasus proceeded as planned and the relief force began moving toward Khe Sanh.
Lt. Rackley approached a haggard looking Sergeant Walker, “You look like crap.”
“Really, I thought I looked my best. It must be the light in my bunker.”
“We’re pulling out; reinforcements are on the way.”
“Roger that,” Mason replied without emotion.
“They want us to extend our areas of search until they get here,” Lt. Rackley said.
Sergeant Walker laughed, “We’re getting bombarded every day by NVA gunners who have locked in on our positions. We make contact with the NVA every time we go on patrol and the good news is that some knucklehead general wants us to extend our sectors of search. Somebody needs to tell those guys what the definition of a rescue is; they come to get us!”
“Consider this another chapter is the exciting world of Vietnam War military strategy,” Lt. Rackley sighed. “How’s Whiskey holding up?”
“Better than most of the grunts (infantrymen) here at the infamous Khe Sanh Resort.”
When Mason got back to his underground bunker, he collapsed on a broken down canvas cot as Whiskey looked at him. He put his hand on his animal partner’s head and said, “Don’t ask.” Before Mason could close his eyes, enemy gunners began shelling the base. The ground shook and the dirt from above fell on him and Whiskey like a steady brown rain from the bowels of hell. The seasoned combat veteran was so used to the bombardment that he dozed off to the rumbling.
The next morning, Sergeant Walker and Whiskey were ready to lead another patrol into hostile territory. Lt. Rackley walked up and Mason quipped, “More good news?”
“2ND Battalion 1st Marines is two days out.”
“So the patrol has been cancelled?” Mason said.
Lt. Rackley shrugged, “Not that much good news.”
Mason turned to his fellow war weary Marines, “Move out!”
The patrol headed into the hills and had traveled two clicks (one click equal one thousand meters) when Whiskey stopped. Mason bent down and saw a tripwire stretched across the trail then signaled to the Marines behind him to hold their positions. He reached into pocket and pulled out some fishing line that was wrapped around a stick. Mason tied one end around the tripwire and slowly backed away. Mason looked around the area then asked Whiskey, “Where are they?”
Whiskey sniffed at the jungle air then pointed southwest toward a small hill. “That’s what I think too.” Mason said.
The machine gun team set up the M-60 and Mason told the Blooperman (Marine operating the M-79 grenade launcher, “I need you to fire five H.E (high explosive) rounds at that tall tree on the hill when you hear the explosion.”
PFC Hewitt nodded, “Got it.”
Mason gave the customary warning, “Fire in the hole!” and pulled the fishing line. The NVA had planted a 152mm artillery shell as a booby trap and when it detonated it shook the earth and put a five foot crater in the earth. The NVA soldiers heard the explosion and started running to finish off the Marines and ran right into the M-79 rounds. Those that weren’t killed or wounded continued toward the trail and the M-60 fired several long bursts that cut their numbers in half. Mason opened fire with his M-16 as Whiskey stayed right by his side. A NVA soldier sneaked up from behind the Marines and was ready to open fire when out of nowhere; Whiskey came racing though the tall elephant grass and snapped down on his right forearm. Two seconds later, Mason was there to shoot the enemy soldier. “Good Job,” he told Whiskey. The NVA disengaged and ran back into the hills.
By the time that Mason and Whiskey got back to Camp Pendleton, they were both in bad shape. Mason was physically and emotionally spent and experiencing flashbacks and nightmares. Whiskey was 15 pounds underweight and needed rest as well. Sergeant Walker mistakenly assumed that he would be allowed to finish his enlistment stateside with his trusty companion. With his combat experience, he thought he would be a valuable asset to the training of young Marines headed off for war and would get assigned as an instructor.
When Sergeant Mason Walker got the word that the Marine Corps was going to euthanize Whiskey, he rushed down to the 17 area of the base where the dogs that returned from the Vietnam War were being kept. Sergeant Mason approached Corporal Kittrick, a Marine that he knew as an M.P/ dog handler. He knew that it wasn’t going to do any good to be indignant so he did his best to act calm even though he was raging on the inside. “Hey Kittrick, I’m here to check on the dogs,” Mason lied.
“It’s a damn shame.” Kittrick replied
“The base veterinarian is going to put them, too dangerous to be adopted they say,” Kittrick answered.
“Any idea when that’s going to happen?” Mason asked.
Mason walked over to where the animals were being held and his heart broke a little more as he made eye contact with the dogs that had served so honorably and were now being discarded like so much trash. When he saw Whiskey, he fell to his knees and cried as his faithful companion licked his face through the bars.
As he drove his Ford pick-up back to 41 area, Mason’s mind was racing. He had to do something to save Whiskey and those other dogs. ‘What the hell’ he thought and changed directions and drove off base to the rural community of Fallbrook. He sat in his vehicle and pondered how he ended up in this position. How many battles did he have to fight before he could find some peace in his life? Mason was driving down Mission Road when he saw a sign, Puppies for Sale, in front of the Fallbrook Grain and Feed Store. He pulled into the parking lot and walked inside.
“How can I help you?” A middle-aged woman called out from behind a counter.
Mason sighed, “I was trying to find a home for some dogs.”
“I don’t know of anybody, but let me ask my son, Patrick, come out here.”
A young man about the same age as Mason limped out. The woman explained, “This young man is trying to find a home for some dogs.”
Mason and Patrick looked at each other and instinctively sensed something, “You a Marine?” Patrick asked.
“Yeah, 2/26th” Mason answered, “You?”
“One nine,” Patrick said.
“The Walking Dead.”
“I got a problem,” Mason started to explain and when he finished, “What do you think?”
“Dogs were always saving our butts in the Nam, I’ll do whatever I can to repay the favor,” Patrick started, “I live with my family on a few acres so we got the room. I think I can talk them into it, but taking care of six dogs could be a little expensive.”
“I saved some money while I was overseas; you’re welcome to all of it.”
Patrick held his emotions in check and swallowed hard, “I was on patrol and stepped on a mine.” He raised his pants just high enough to show that his right leg was a prosthetic. “Charlie was ready to put a bullet in my head when Chato, our scout dog killed him then stayed by my side until I was medevac’d. Hell ya! You want my help saving wardogs, you got it. How are you going to get them off base?”
“I’ll figure it out,” Mason said, “I have no choice.”
“The war never really ends for men like us,” Patrick held his hand out in friendship and loyalty.
Next morning, Mason arrived at the kennels at 0400 hours when he knew the facility would be staffed with only one Marine. He knocked on the door and a baby faced Lance Corporal opened the door, “How can I help you, Sergeant?”
“S-1 wants to see you about some paperwork,” Mason said.
“I thought I would relieve you early so you get some chow. If you got there by 0800 hours, you’ll be fine,”
“Thanks Sergeant,” The young Marine was gone in less than a minute.
Mason unlocked the cages and let the dogs out. Whiskey led the trained canines to the truck and when Mason lowered the tailgate and they jumped in. Mason puts the tailgate up and told the dogs, “Not a sound,” and placed a tarp over them.
Mason drove through the Naval Weapons station and off base and met with Patrick at his family’s property in Fallbrook. The dogs jumped out and started roaming around. “I plan on fencing in a large area and building a big doghouse.” Patrick said
Mason handed Patrick an envelope, “Here’s a thousand dollars, I’ll get some more in a few days. Whatever you need, I’ll find a way to get it,” then bent down and hugged Whiskey, “I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but you’re out of harm’s way and that’s the most important thing, Semper Fi.” He got in his truck and watched Whiskey in his rearview mirror until he couldn’t see him anymore. Mason cried all the way back to Camp Pendleton.
It didn’t take long before Camp Pendleton found out was happened and Mason was called to the office of the XO (executive officer) of his unit. Major Barrett yelled, “Just what the hell were you thinking? You stole government property. That’s a court martial offense!”
“Did you serve in combat, Major?” Mason asked.
“No, I haven’t,” Major Barrett replied, “What the hell does that have to do with this?”
“If you had, you would never call a war dog government property.”
“I’m filing charges against you, I might be inclined to be lenient if you tell me where the dogs are,” Major Barrett offered.
“I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my memory since I got back,” Mason answered. “It must be all the explosions that I got caught in.”
Major Barrett called out, “Sergeant Major LaSalle!”
Sergeant Major LaSalle was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War. He was rawhide tough and had a great affection for warriors like Mason, “You called me, Major?”
“Get the paperwork ready to send this Marine to the brig.”
“I’ll talk care of it,” Sergeant Major grumbled.
After Major Barrett left, Sergeant Major LaSalle ordered Mason, “Come into my office.”
Mason followed the senior enlisted officer and stood before the desk as LaSalle sat down, “Relax Sergeant, take a seat.”
Mason complied as Sergeant Major LaSalle looked through his record book, “For the record, Major Barrett is a pencil pusher and a by the book bonehead.”
“It is what it is,” Mason answered.
“You’ve got a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. What the hell were you thinking taking those dogs?”
Mason saw the battle ribbons on LaSalle’s uniform, “Would you leave one of your Marines to die if you could save him?”
“Dogs aren’t Marines,” Sergeant Major LaSalle snapped back.
“You don’t serve in the Corps as long as you and not realize how important those animals are to grunts in the field,” Mason replied, “They deserve to treated with appreciation and respect.”
“It isn’t important what I realize or what even you think, its regulations…dogs are government property. You need to follow orders and leave your sentiments stowed in your foot locker.” Sergeant Major LaSalle said.
“Cemeteries are full of dead Marines who followed stupid orders given by idiots. You want to bust me; then go for it. If you want to put me in Leavenworth, then do it. You follow your code and I’ll follow mine. What the hell, why not save us all a lot of trouble and put me out of my misery. I’m damaged government property so just put your .45 to the base of my skull and squeeze the trigger. My best friend saved my life more times than I can count. He’s safe and that’s all that matters to me. I lost buddies in Nam’, maybe it’s about time that I joined them. You always can say that I attacked you and you had to defend yourself. Hell, maybe they’ll even give you a medal for it.”
“Lighten up Sergeant, I’m not the enemy.” Sergeant Major LaSalle smiled, “Just between you and me, I agree with you.”
Sergeant Major LaSalle used his extensive and considerable influence in the chain of command to get Sergeant Walker another option besides a court martial, “Which is it, Devildog, the frying pan or the fire?”
“What do you think?” Mason smiled.
The Marine Corps was desperately short of qualified dog handlers so if Sergeant Mason Walker signed up for a second tour in Vietnam, the charges against him would be dropped and he would be re-united with Whiskey. As for the other dogs, the official report would state that they were lost.
As much as he hated returning back to Vietnam, Mason felt some weird sense of serenity returning to war. While waiting at the Danang Airport for his ride to his unit, Mason heard the words “WHISKEY DELTA!” echo across the terminal and when he looked to his left, Mason saw his Khe Sanh platoon commander, Lt. Rackley walking toward him wearing Captain’s insignia on his collar.
“You’re the last guy I expected to see back here,” Captain Rackley smiled then bent down to nuzzle Whiskey.
“You’re the last guy I expected to still be here, Captain,” Mason emphasized the word Captain.
“After what we went through at Khe Sanh, they must have felt sorry for me so they promoted and transferred me to a skating (easy) job Supply at China Beach,” Captain Rackey beamed, “Now there’s the place to spend the war; clean sheets, hot chow, booze. It was like being on non-stop R&R. It was so fine that I almost signed up for another tour, but I haven’t been home in two years and my family was on my case to return to the ‘world’. What’s your excuse for being back?”
“Thinking and wishing about going back to the ‘World’ was a whole lot better than actually being there,” Mason answered.
The two Marines reminisced for a few minutes about the few good times while expertly avoiding the numerous bad ones. They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, knowing that they would probably never see each other again. Mason had requested to return to his old unit, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion 26th Marines before he left California, but ended up being assigned to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines because they were short a dog handler. He only had two days to acclimate to being back in ‘country’ before catching a chopper out to the bush on 3 March 1969.
Operations Oklahoma Hills was a clear and search operation during the Vietnam War and conducted by the 1st Marine Division and the Army of the Republic (ARVN) 51st Regiment. It began on March 1st and officially ended on 29 May 1969. The mission was to clear out the People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA) and Viet Cong from their base camps and infiltration routes in the hills and valleys of Quang Nam Province. The area was southwest of Danang and designated by allied commanders as Happy Valley and Charlie Ridge. The Marines had previously scoured the area in Operations Mameluke Thrust, Maui Peak and Taylor Common, but the American forces received intelligence from a defector that NVA forces were rebuilding and strengthening their forces. The main infiltration route was Ai Yeng along Route 614 and into Happy Valley, while another branch followed the Song Con River south to An Dien. The terrain was a major challenge because Charlie Ridge was a steep and narrow mountain range with numerous gullies and ravines with thick undergrowth and dense overhead canopy. This greatly diminished the effectiveness of air support including low flying helicopters.
Mason and Whiskey had been in the jungle for eleven weeks and were currently on patrol near the western edge of Charlie Ridge. Somebody casually mentioned that it was May 30th and Memorial Day, but like any other holiday in combat; it was brought to everybody’s attention then quickly forgotten. Whiskey stopped and pointed in several different directions which was his signal that the Marines were surrounded. The Americans quickly found as much cover as they could and got ready. They didn’t have long to wait, the NVA soldiers came at them from every direction. It was a relentless onslaught and at times the Marines were fighting hand to hand with the enemy. Mason and Whiskey fought valiantly while encouraging the men in the patrol to hold their positions. When the Marines of the machine gun squad were seriously injured by a chicom, (Chinese communist grenade). Mason grabbed the M-60 and attacked the entrenched positions of the North Vietnamese fighters and was wounded, once in the lower left thigh when he caught an AK-47 round. He tied a tourniquet above the wound and even though he was bleeding badly, it barely slowed him down. The second time was when a bullet went through his right forearm, luckily without hitting the bone.
Mason was so lightheaded from loss of blood than he didn’t even remember holding off the last two attacks. By the time reinforcements arrived, Mason was lying on the ground and barely conscious with Whiskey lying across his body to protect him.
For his bravery, gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life that went above and beyond the call of duty, Sergeant Mason Walker received the Congressional Medal of Honor. When President Nixon asked him during the award ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, “Is there anything that your country can do for you?”
“There is one thing, sir. It’s about my dog.”
After returning to Camp Pendleton, Sergeant Mason Walker was told that Sergeant Major LaSalle had retired and was now living in Fallbrook. He was even more surprised when he learned that the tough leatherneck and Patrick the disabled veteran were jointly operating an animal sanctuary.
When Mason arrived at the tree-lined tranquil property, Whiskey jumped out of the truck and rushed to join his fellow war dogs. His combat days were behind him now and he had the earned the right to act like a playful puppy. It took three long years of lobbying and meeting with politicians, but due to the persistent efforts of the three Marines who refused to accept defeat, Congress passed what is commonly called ‘Mason Law’ Sec 2582. The legislation stated that the Secretary of Defense had the authority to make a military working canine available for adoption at the end of the dog’s useful working life.
Let us never forget the sacrifices of Sergeant Mason Walker, Whiskey and all the other courageous War Dogs.