Before serving 12 months with the 406th Tactical Recon Wing at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam, I spent 18 months at a secret location known as “The Project,” taking part in the interdiction of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia.
The base was Nakhon Phanom, or as we liked to call it “Naked Fanny,” in the extreme northeast of Thailand. Supposedly neutral like war-torn Laos and Cambodia, our base in Thailand was a scant 90 miles from North Vietnam.
Young, single, gung-ho, and full of Mountain Dew and vinegar, upon my arrival at Nakhom Phanom, I received a letter from my folks informing me I’d be featured on the front page of our hometown paper The Raleigh-Bartlett Star. My parents said a copy of the article would be en route with their next letter.
I was ballooning with pride and an ego way out of proportion with my net worth to the world when the paper arrived a week later. There I was on the front page, fairly nice-looking back in those days, clean-shaven and wearing my flight jacket. And right next to my article was a photograph of Sgt. Walter Singleton, USMC, an upper-classmate from my high school in Bartlett, Tenn. Walter graduated two years before me and joined the Marine Corps after winning a coin toss with his brother Bobby Joe to see which one would join the Marines, since only one family member could serve in Vietnam at the same time.
I felt lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon wheel rut to be sharing the same page with this intrepid Marine. My inconsequential story should have been back-page news when compared with Sgt. Singleton’s. His parents would be going to Washington, D.C., to receive our nation’s highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor, which would be given posthumously to their son, killed in action in the Gio Linh District, Quang Tri Province of Vietnam.
Walter was born on Dec. 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He learned marksmanship hunting in the West Tennessee River bottom lands, the same lands where he helped his father plow and then harvest cotton. His father George Singleton, was an Army veteran of World War II and a former POW held in Germany.
Walter joined the Marine Reserves in August 1963 and integrated into the regular Marine Corps in September. He trained as a recruiter at Parris Island, received a promotion to lance corporal at Camp Lejeune, and made corporal in August 1965. Then Cpl. Singleton returned to Parris Island as an instructor in the Weapons Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment. His hunting skills in the Tennessee River bottom lands now came into play.
Sent to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the Tennessee marksman was chosento train the midshipmen. He won a trophy for his skill with a rifle and pistol, and received a letter of appreciation for achieving a 100 percent qualifying rate of the Officers-to-be.
Promoted to sergeant, Singleton joined Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam on Nov. 13, 1966.
On March 24, 1967, the 1st Battalion of the 9th Marines began a sweep called Operation Prairie III, within a stone’s toss of the Demilitarized Zone between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The hotly disputed territory was a favorite stomping ground for North Vietnamese troops streaming across the DMZ.
From north of the DMZ, the NVA also could shell and mortar the Marines with impunity, since counter-battery fire was normally prohibited — helluva way to fight a war.
Southeast of Con Thien (the name christened by local missionaries meaning “Hill of Angels”) the Marines, who considered Con Thien as a living hell, came under intense fire from a North Vietnamese Army Battalion in well-prepared defensive positions with mutually supporting bunkers near the village of Cam Lo.
Several Marines were immediately wounded and in desperate need of medical attention. Sgt. Singleton left his relatively safe position in the rear-guard of the advance and made numerous trips into the NVA’s “killing zone” to rescue wounded Marines.
During these courageous acts of selflessness, Sgt. Singleton spotted where most of the enemy fire originated, in a thick hedgerow. The marksman from Tennessee grabbed a machine gun and assaulted the hedgerow.
Delivering a devastating fire as he charged through a hail of bullets, Sgt. Singleton forced his way through the hedgerow straight into the enemy position. He killed eight of the enemy as the rest scattered, completely disoriented by Sgt. Singleton’s fearless fighting.
Although mortally wounded in the assault, Singleton’s gallant charge saved the lives of countless Marines on that fateful day. His Marine buddies called Walter “Zeke,” and in a letter from his commanding officer his parents read, “Marines don’t come any better than Zeke.”
I was honored to share the same page of a hometown newspaper with this real American hero. Semper Fi, Marine; a job well done.
Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Walter Singleton is buried next to his parents at Memphis Memorial Gardens on Germantown Road in Memphis, Tenn.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.