Vietnam takes from Marine a limb, comrades, keepsake


November 18, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

THIRTY YEARS ago, just before midnight, Cpl. John Wielebski, known to his comrades in the United States Marine Corps as "Ski," handed his cigarette lighter to a guy named Lacy, a supply sergeant who'd kept the boys in beans, bandages and bullets while they were encamped, first in the bloody hills of Khe Sanh, then at Da Nang. Lacy had stocks of almost everything but lighter fluid. He wanted a smoke. "Here, take mine," Wielebski said, handing off his stainless-steel Zippo on the way out of camp that night. "I'll get it back from you in the morning."

4 But, of course, things didn't turn out that way.

Ski was a squad leader, 21 years old. He'd enlisted in the Marines back in Milwaukee, where he'd grown up among men who had served in the big 20th century conflicts -- a grandfather in World War I, his father in World War II, uncles in Korea. Ski wasn't interested in college. He was too wild at the time, not ready for it. He wanted to see the world. So he signed up for the Corps with three of his buddies; three other friends joined the Army. They all came out of high school in 1966.

The war in Vietnam was a reality by then, but it had not hit home. None of the boys from Milwaukee could know where their career choices would take them; they didn't seem overly concerned about ending up in Vietnam.

Certainly Ski wasn't. After boot camp in San Diego, his first duty station was the Marine barracks at Yokosuka, Japan. He was assigned to military police duty. He thought he'd be there for at least two years.

He was there only one.

In the summer of 1967, he got a new assignment -- 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Vietnam. He made corporal. He was going to war.

In 1967, the fighting had turned viciously hot in the hills around a place called Khe Sanh; some American units had been decimated, and more Marines were needed to replace those who had been wounded or killed during the long spring. The 26th got the call.

Ski smoked cigarettes in those days. Just before he shipped out of Japan, he went into a little shop in Yokosuka and bought the stainless-steel Zippo. He had it engraved with the first initial of his first name; the engraver made a large "J" in ersatz Gothic. Ski had the cigarette lighter when he arrived in Vietnam in July 1967.

He used it through the awful days at Khe Sanh, through a 77-day siege by the North Vietnamese, through a long, frightening rain of rockets and artillery fire, sometimes 1,000 rounds a day, on the base camp of hill 881. He'd light up a Camel while hunkered down; the scariest moments were not on patrol but in camp, when Ski heard a distant pop, followed by the roar of a rocket fired by the North Vietnamese, and he could not know where it would land.

Patrols were scary and surreal. When Ski's squad hiked into a countryside they had first known as beautiful, lush and green, rich with bananas and grapefruit, they saw a landscape scorched brown and red and dead. His unit stayed at Khe Sanh through the fall of 1967, through the Tet offensive, through the winter, until the spring of 1968.

Then Ski's platoon went to a place known as Hill 55, near Da Nang. Terry Lacy, a native of Ohio, was still their supply sergeant. Ski would see Lacy from time to time. He saw him on the evening of May 22, 1968, before midnight and the start of Ski's next mission. Lacy needed a light. Ski handed him the engraved Zippo, told him to keep it until morning. Then he went off with nine other Marines to set an ambush for the Viet Cong.

They moved into an area near a village, a place where three trails met. The plan was to hide, wait and ambush. Ski was the squad leader, so the radio operator moved where he moved. They picked a spot under a raised platform that held a large stack of hay. They could see the intersection of the trails. They could see an overgrown fence line.

A little after midnight, when Ski and his men were comfortable in their positions, grenades exploded all around them. All was fire, smoke and screams. The Viet Cong had set an ambush for their would-be ambushers.

"Ski's hit!" someone shouted.

The squad leader had been the enemy's first target; the grenade blast threw him 10 feet from the hay stack. He was still alive, still conscious. The radio operator was nearby. Ski knew the codes )) and commands for his mission. He reached for the radio, called base camp, called for help.

The gunfire and explosions continued. Ski knew he was wounded but not how badly; he had been taught not to look at his wounds. A corpsman named Edward Pershing, also wounded by shrapnel, worked on Ski, applied a tourniquet to his left leg and gave him a shot of morphine. Ski stayed on the radio, screaming for help.

At some point -- it's unclear when -- he learned that seven of the 10 men in his patrol had been wounded. He stayed on the radio, pleading with reticent officers in the base camp to come out and help his squad. His men managed to return small-arms fire and to keep firing flares into the sky.

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