Grateful Every Day

November 20, 2023

Grateful Every Day title graphic

Joe Dillon and other MarinesOur story begins in 1964. In a 1956 VW, I set out to see our country. I drove over 13,000 miles and visited 43 states.  One of my goals was the  Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington D.C.. My father, a Marine, had fought in the Battle of Okinawa in the Second World War.

In 1965, I joined the United States Marine Corps and went through 13 weeks of bootcamp at the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego.  I then went through extensive infantry training at Camp Pendleton, the biggest Marine base on the west coast.  After I completed training, I was shipped to South Vietnam where I joined Mike company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division.  I would spend the next 13 months fighting in the jungles of the I Corp area – the northern most Corp area in Vietnam – near the DMZ.  Our opponent was the North Vietnamese or NVA – very tough and well-trained soldiers from North Vietnam.  Like the Marines, the NVA could really shoot.

Planes dropping bombs collage

Our battles were fought all over the Leatherneck Square – the area from Cam Lo River to the DMZ.  During my tour, the battles grew bigger and bigger and more intense.  We held the high ground called Con Thien.  The NVA were determined to drive us off Con Thien and out of the I Corp.  Con Thien turned out to be one of the biggest and most ferocious battles of the Vietnam War.  We were approximately 2,000 Marines.  The combined NVA units totaled nearly 20,000 soldiers.  They had heavy 152 mm artillery and 122mm rockets.  We had air power in the form of F4 Phantom jets and napalm plus B-52 bombers.  We were heavy weights punching it out.  To give an idea just how intense the fighting was, here is a photo of the DMZ – the most bombed place on earth.

DMZ and map of Viet Nam

Con Thien looks like one big bullseye.  We were taking hundreds of rounds of incoming NVA artillery fire every day.  At night, NVA sappers tried to blow holes in the concertina barbed wired surrounding our perimeter and over run Con Thien.

The NVA artillery and rocket attacks became so intense, Con Thien became known as the cone of fire.   Marines were being killed and wounded every day.  The only resupply we had were helicopters.  But every time a helicopter tried to land inside the Con Thien perimeter, the NVA would intensely shell the landing zone.

Con Thien and Magazine covers

I had been fighting for over a year.  In fact, I only had 2 weeks to go on my 13 month tour when I got shot in my right thigh by an AK-47 – a Russian Assault rifle – a standard weapon for an NVA soldier.  The AK-47 bullet entered inside my right thigh just above the knee.  And it lodged just beneath my skin on the outside of my right thigh just below my right hip.  The bullet traveled almost the entire length of my right thigh but it did not hit my femur and it did not sever my femoral artery.  If it had, I would have bled out in a matter of minutes.

Medevac helicopter on battle fieldI could not walk so 4 of my buddies carried me on a stretcher to the edge of the landing zone. Each time a medevac chopper tried to land, in came a heavy barrage of NVA artillery shells with massive explosions.  So my buddies had to dump me in a trench at the edge of the landing zone. This routine went on for a couple of hours. There were more and more wounded Marines who desperately needed the medical and surgical help that could only be provided by the aircraft carriers and the hospital ships waiting in the South China Sea just off the coast of Vietnam.

Finally there was a lull in the incoming artillery fire. The medevac chopper swooped in, landing and kept its engine roaring.  The Marines grabbed me and threw me and a bunch of other wounded Marines on the medevac helicopter which instantly took off.  As the helicopter radically rose, the wind roaring in the open door was quickly and blessedly cooler.  We began to climb above the lush green jungle and the rich red earth.  I was still hyper-tense, fearing we would be shot down any minute.

Once we were a couple of thousand feet in the air, we swung toward the coast.  It was when we crossed over the white sand beaches and were out over the beautiful waters of the South China Sea that I exhaled for the first time in over a year.  I am getting out of Vietnam alive.  With that realization came the most powerful feeling of gratitude I have ever experienced in my life.

Wall Memorial

I have plenty of friends on The Wall but I was not destined to be one of them.

I have so much to be thankful for. I say thank you on Thanksgiving and on every day of my life. Many times a day.

Thank you for listening. As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.