| "In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch'd
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars ... "
~ Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One, Act II, Scene 3
It’s funny how quickly time passes. One moment you’re a young strapping lad with more energy than can be managed and the next you’re wondering why it hurts so much just to get out of bed in the morning.
I suspect there are events in everyone’s life that seem like they just happened yesterday. Hell, I remember my first day in Marine Corps boot camp way back on September 28, 1964 when my Drill Instructor screamed words at me that I had never heard before. The respect (and fear) that I felt that day for my beloved DI was branded in memory forever.
Then there are the times in Viet Nam that seems to be with you everyday. One such event occurred for me on July 30, 1966 on the Trau River near the small village of Khoung Hung in Quang Tin Province. I remember the day very well ... it was a day of heroics, and a day of death ... the first death I personally witnessed in Viet Nam. Unfortunately, it would not be the last.
I was a 19-year old Lance Corporal back then assigned to an M-60 machine gun crew that was positioned in a sandbag bunker on the north end of an old railroad bridge that spanned the Trau River. The Viet Cong destroyed the adjacent vehicle bridge a few days earlier, so to keep the north and southbound traffic flowing along the infamous Highway 1, Marines from 9th Engineer Battalion were operating a pontoon ferry ... it was one of our battalion's first projects since arriving in-country just three weeks prior.
Along with operating the pontoon ferry the engineers were pulling the steel rails from the old railroad tracks and replacing them with large wooden planks to transform the bridge into a motor vehicle and pedestrian thoroughfare. Once the bridge transformation was completed, the pontoon ferry would be packed up and stowed for the next project and the flow of commerce and traffic would again resume full speed along Highway 1.
As the engineers worked at laying down the planks in the 100+ degree temperatures and humidity, the pontoon operators would load motor vehicles, bicycles, buffalo drawn carts, and pedestrians onto the ferry to transport them across the river. This was a slow and labor intensive process, but the effort kept things steadily moving in spite of the enemy’s persistence at trying to impede the progress of the struggling South Vietnamese nation along with America’s efforts to defeat them at their own game.
As the long hours passed each day I watched this scene repeat itself time and time again. It was during one of these many episodes when the pontoon ferry was moving to the north shore of the river when I witnessed a Vietnamese three-wheeled bus loaded with people suddenly begin to drift backwards to the rear of the ferry. It was obvious to those of us watching that the driver had not set the vehicle’s brakes. As the three-wheeler drifted backwards splashing into the river, pandemonium erupted as people screamed in horror while watching the bus sink below the surface of the water with everyone still inside.
On our first day at the work site we were told the river was between 12-18' deep in its main channel and when I saw some of the people that were previously hanging on to the outside railings of the three-wheeler surface, a glimmer of hope filled my mind. But that hope evaporated when I saw them now struggling in the water apparently not able to swim.
Everything suddenly slowed and the sounds of screaming people seemed to be all that I could hear. Most of the Vietnamese civilians still on the ferry stood frozen in fear as they watched the surface of the water where the three-wheeler had vanished. I can still see the expressions on their faces and hear their incessant screaming.
Then, as if suddenly someone had shifted things into fast-forward, I saw six of the 9th Engineer Marines jump into the river. They swam to where the bus had gone under and systematically began to rescue those trapped beneath and to assist those on the surface that could not swim.
Two of my fellow Marines from my gun crew and I began to shed our flak vests and helmets so we too could join in with the rescue effort. Then we heard our sergeant yell for us to stand-fast. He later told us he didn't want us to leave the M-60 position for obvious reasons.
So the four of us stood there and watched the scene unfold. Time slowed again, and after what seemed to be an eternity, the six engineers recovered everyone that was trapped in the submerged three-wheeled bus, except for one ... an old fellow trapped in the cab. I remember him being underwater for a long time ... so when they finally did recover him I knew that no one was going to save his life, even though Navy Hospital Corpsman Donald Wilson and Marine engineer Sergeant Joe Levar tried desperately to do so.
I later found out that in addition to Wilson and Levar, the other heroes involved this day were Sergeant Robert McLaughlin, Private Ed Mahoney, Private Joseph Maxwell, and Lance Corporal Wayne McGinnis.
After their courageous lifesaving event ended and the Vietnamese people who needed additional medical attention were evacuated, these magnificent Marines simply went back to work at getting that bridge project finished.
In 2007 at a 9th Engineer Battalion reunion we learned only two of the six heroes are still alive today - Ed Mahoney and Wayne McGinnis – several prominent members from the 9th Engineer Battalion Viet Nam Veterans Association decided to submit an award recommendation to Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) requesting formal recognition for the six directly involved with Trau River bridge lifesaving action. Sadly, the HQMC response said the recommendation lacked sufficient evidence to support the facts of the incident, even though a copy of a Stars and Stripes article was submitted along with my eyewitness account. Apparently any such recommendation requires the signature of the officer-in-charge at the time, which establishes it to be credible and accurate. Sadly, the officer in charge of that Trau River work project passed away a decade ago.
I reckon there a lot of veterans that performed selfless acts of heroism during their service that will forever be overlooked by history. And for those of us who served with Navy Hospital Corpsman Donald Wilson and Marine Sergeants Joe Levar and Robert McLaughlin, and Privates Ed Mahoney, Joseph Maxwell, and Lance Corporal Wayne McGinnis, we know they are not looking for anything special because of what they did. So as it is, there will be no medals, no ribbons, and no extra pay – just memories.