Veteran salute: Sam Marty
"God has secrets that we aren't meant to understand."
After Sam Marty learned of two soldiers in his company literally blown into pieces a couple miles away from him, he wondered why it wasn't him. A pastor shared comforting words that he's held onto all of these years.
"I think about that a lot. I went and talked to a minister after that happened. It could have been me. I believe in God and Jesus. Maybe God spared me for a reason."
The Prairie City, S.D., rancher was drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1968. He was 20 years old.
Marty soon found himself in Fort Lewis, Washington, where the cold and damp April weather, along with mad, screaming drill sergeants made for miserable conditions at first.
He remembers that the coal furnace would often go out at night because the private assigned to refill it would sleep through his duties.
Marty said the company was composed of men from South Dakota and California. He recalls some serious teasing by the barbers when the "long haired hippies" were shorn.
There was fighting — he saw a soldier from Rapid City kick a guy's eye out, there was stress — he helped escort a man who experienced a mental breakdown. There was cold mud to crawl through, barbed wire to crawl under and a huge pile of sawdust to be moved, one helmet at time, for punishment when the company would "screw up."
Marty said the South Dakotans were generally quite capable of handling what was thrown at them.
"Back in those days, even the kids that grew up in town knew how to handle a rifle and stuff like that. They took orders well and were mentally able to deal with the stress." Many of the South Dakota recruits and draftees were Native Americans, he said, remembering that his bunkmate hailed from Pine Ridge. "He'd just gotten married and he was sure lonesome. We got along well."
When basic training was wrapping up and the company completed their individual physical assessments, Marty recalls earning around 297 points out of a possible 300. "I think there were only one or two guys that earned 300 points," he said. He remembers being paid around $43 per month for his time in basic training.
From the bone-chilling spring Washington weather, Marty was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he learned to survive extreme heat coupled with humidity.
Marty didn't know a soul when he arrived, but made friends as he had in Fort Lewis.
As a combat engineer, he learned to look for land mines, build bridges and roads, and more. He remembers the tick infestation in the area, but says he never found one on himself.
Although he hadn't been allowed to attend church in basic training, he could do so in advanced individual training, and took advantage of the chance. He also enjoyed another change — no kitchen duty.
After his AIT training in Missouri, Marty was allowed two weeks off. He flew home — being held up after offering an elderly couple his seat, but eventually he arrived home. It felt good.
Marty said he helped with day to day ranch duties and did not feel anxious about his future deployment to Vietnam.
"When you are young, you don't really grasp that, in war, people are trying to kill you. You think you are invincible," he said.
But he remembers the somber faces on his mother and father and sister when he waved goodbye from the bus window after the two weeks had passed.
Marty again found himself surrounded by people he hadn't yet met — this time at a base in Oakland, Calif.
One night he had gone to sleep at about 11 p.m., asking his friend to wake him if any important announcements were made.
"I'd fallen into a deep sleep. They read a group off and called my name. My friend said, He's over there.' They came and found me. I don't know what would happened if he hadn't."
The soldiers flew out at midnight, landing in Anchorage, Alaska, to refuel. Marty recalls the view from the plane after it took flight again. "It was really pretty. Unbelievable. The sun coming up over those mountains."
That was the end of anything pretty in his life for a while.
The plane refueled again in Japan, then finally landed north of Saigon, Vietnam.
"When I stepped out of the airplane that night, it smelled like big petri dish of mold. There were no sewer systems, which meant there were a lot of sanitary issues."
Marty said he and others immediately went to training on a firing range. "Again, you had all kinds of people from throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Ninety percent of them didn't have a clue about guns."
Taking apart and cleaning the rifle was a regular occurrence because of the sand, mud and water that would jam it up.
Soon Marty found himself in the Delta, in a town called Tan An, south of Saigon.
One of his missions was sweeping for mines. "Every morning we'd drive to the infantry camp to build bunkers and then we'd drive back to the base camp at night. We always had to sweep this one area of road. You were always locked and loaded with rifles and machine guns." Mortar and rockets from the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were a regular occurrence, he said.
"When we would find stuff (land mines) we set it off. They may be small, or they may pile mud on the road and you have to clear that off using c4 (a powerful plastic explosive). If we detected something on the road, we'd circle it, put an 'x' in it, and the next guy would put explosives in it and detonate it."
It was easy for the enemy (the Vietcong or North Vietnamese) to booby trap the two to three mile stretch of road nightly, he said.
Marty recalls one heartbreaking day.
"We had stood around, about 15 of us, getting our mine-sweeping equipment on, then made our regular early morning sweep through the road."
Marty said his team then went about five or six miles to an infantry camp where they worked for the day. When they headed back to home base, at around 4 that afternoon, they came upon a jeep that had been blown up, about an hour before, in the very same spot the group had stood that morning.
"The Vietcong had found a 700-pound bomb that had never gone off. They transplanted it and waited for an opportune time to set it off. When we came back the road was gone from shoulder to shoulder. They'd blown up a jeep with two guys in it. There were body parts all over. I saw a rib from one of the guys, and picked it up, then set it back down. From then on, war became real."
About three months later, Marty stepped on a land mine in the same spot. Miraculously, the mine had been planted upside do wn. "I got shrapnel in the base of my skull and gravel in my back and whatnot. I don't know why I wasn't killed." It was afterward that he visited with the pastor.
Marty spent about five days in the hospital and later received a Purple Heart.
The Vietcong would spy on the Americans sometimes, posing as South Vietnamese, and taking jobs within the compound as barbers or other things, he said.
"The Vietcong would apply for army jobs. You didn't know who they were. They would get in there and step off the distance to this or that."
Marty remembers the compound being mortared every night. He slept in a protected barrack because the regular bunker was unsafe. "A lot of guys would sleep in the bunker, I don't know why. One night the door where I would have slept was shattered. I'd have been killed if I'd have been there."
The infantry soldiers and helicopter soldiers had the worst assignments.
"I was lucky. The infantry guys had it awful, just awful. They didn't have facilities like we did. They were wet all the time, never had a warm shower, no hot food."
Marty's company built roads in rural South Veitnam in an attempt to provide safe living conditions where the fighting had decimated the countryside.
He has not forgotten the poverty and squalid living conditions the Vietnamese endured. He remembers mothers prostituting their young daughters, families living in boxes on top of landfills where the flies were so thick "you had to cover your eyes and mouth when you went by."
"Those poor people. That's what communism, socialism, dictatorship gives you." Marty remembers the Vietnamese as a happy people, and the children as very inquisitive and friendly. "We always had stuff for them. They loved us."
There are some fond memories, too. He saw Bob Hope perform, as well as Ann Margret. "There would be Philippine bands, Australian bands. We played a lot of basketball at night."
Still the tough memories remain.
"I can't say enough about how awful it was. War affects everyone differently, but killing isn't natural. To see someone you killed is not natural. It's not right, but sometimes you have to do it."
War weighed heavily on those at home, too.
His sister had shared a story about his parents. "My mother was in the kitchen one evening washing dishes and she saw the sheriff drive up the road. She didn't realize he was coming to bring the ballot box for dad, who was the chairman of the voting committee in our precinct. She nearly collapsed when she saw the sheriff's car coming.
"That was a tense time for the family, those 15 months. That's one part of wars and conflicts that some people don't realize exists," he said.
Marty returned home after 14 months in Vietnam. He ranched his entire life and now serves in the South Dakota House of Representatives for District 28B.