An NVA machine gun opened up as he walked point across a rice paddy.
Momentarily immobilized, he swore he glimpsed the face of Jesus and speculated on the number of probable bullet holes in his body. His best friend knocked him down and saved his life.
On another day he saved other Marines. Firing his M-16 from the hip on fully automatic, he led an assault that rescued a trapped company of grunts.
Strikes from supporting aircraft were so close the concussions damaged his hearing. High-pitched voices and sirens still hurt his ears. He knew his best friend’s wife and kids; his best friend died cradled in his arms. An LZ (landing zone) was so "hot" the Chinook choppers had to back up to the mountain so Marines could jump out via the rear ramp.
In less than 3 minutes, only 19 of the 130 grunts who jumped were still standing.
Gary Price grew up in Porterdale, play-acting cowboys and Indians and war and idolizing World War II Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy. When his family moved to Covington, 15-year-old Price lost interest in school and aspired to join the Marine Corps.
"I just wanted to go," he said. "I wanted to fight for my country."
He attended basic at Parris Island, S.C., after celebrating his 18th birthday. In less than five months he deplaned at Da Nang, Vietnam. Assigned to "Med Evac Mike,’’ Price wondered if he’d been doled out as a medic.
He said, "I quickly learned Mike Co. was called Med Evac Mike because it had so many casualties."
Sent with 33 other replacements to a base camp called Hill 10 near the city of Qui Nhon, Price was one of three who made it home. Wounded five times (2 Purple Hearts; the other wounds minor), rocket shrapnel ripped his chest and a rifle round pierced his leg. "That sent me rolling," he said.
When he suffered the leg wound, Price waited a day-and-a-half to be airlifted out.
"We ran into an entire NVA regiment. Several choppers had gone down and it was tough for them to get in. But when one did land, it was loaded up with wounded and dead. Blood flowed out the bay, and you could look up and see the holes made by bullets.’’
Hospitalized at Da Nang, Price waited seven days before his leg was sewn up.
"There were beds as far as you could see," he said. "I was thrown on the operating table on the eighth day. Four guys held me down, no painkiller, nothing. I didn’t scream; I didn’t cry, and I don’t remember seeing a Marine cry in Vietnam."
Price survived eight major campaigns and fought dozens of skirmishes and ambushes, forgotten by history. He said of one battle, "Our platoon ran into another NVA regiment. Soon we were out of ammo and so were they. Then we fought hand-to-hand, K-bar knives and bayonets, man against man."
Pausing a moment, Price continued, "I can appreciate the women in our armed forces, but I’m not gung-ho about seeing our women in hand-to-hand combat. It’s a brutal, vicious thing, and women do not need to be there."
Price volunteered for patrols and ambushes when others would not.
"I don’t know why," he admitted. "I was there to do a job and I was well-trained to do it. Only 10 percent of the guys who did what I did came home. ... " Price went 63 days without a bath, never took his boots off during that time, and saw heavy combat almost daily.
"Replacements came in and got killed the same day," he recalled. "We never knew their names.’’
"It took me a long time to tell my parents I was in combat," Price said. "But you can’t fight the 6 o’clock news." His 5-year-old brother and sister (twins) spotted their older brother on TV.
His mother didn’t believe the twins, but another sibling called her.
"I wrote my parents and told them I’d been pulled out of combat, then made a deal with a guy in our mailroom. He mailed pre-written letters to my parents every two days and I went back into combat. I realize I lied to them, but I had a job to do."
In another event, Price took off his flak vest due to the heat and flicked his Zippo lighter to suck down a cigarette.
"My buddy was screaming at me, ‘Put your damn vest on!’ I slipped it over my arms and yelled back, ‘I hope you’re happy now. …"
A projectile blew apart the pack of cigarettes, went through his Zippo lighter and two layers of the flak vest. That vest saved his life.
Grunts called it Dodge City which wasn’t actually a city; it was Go Noi Island, which wasn’t actually an island. During the monsoon season, a chunk of real estate was isolated by floods from the Ky Lam, Thu Bon, Chiem Son and Ba Ren rivers. The isolated territory was called Go Noi Island and totally controlled by the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, and sympathetic Vietnamese villagers.
Price recalled, "We lost 122 grunts in one fight for Dodge City. … Guys died we never knew. The ‘old man’ in our platoon was 21 years old.’’
In other battles, Price set off Claymore mines and rolled hand grenades outside of his fighting hole, then called in air strikes so close the Marines "ripped off their buttons to get closer to the ground."
"I loved flyboys," Price said. "Once an F-4 dropped so close he thought he’d hit us. As he pulled up his voice cracked, ‘Mike 4, Mike 4; are you still there?’ I called back, ‘You ain’t worth a crap; you missed every Marine!’’
Speaking of B-52 strikes, Price said, "I still get chills. In one engagement the B-52s pounded around us for 48 straight days. It was like the world was coming to an end. The whistling … boom, boom, boom … the blood coming out of your nose and ears; the ground bouncing like a basketball. We’d jump up and down like little kids. We loved the B-52s."
Price made it home. Walking out of the airport in California, a hippie-like couple insulted him and the guy tried to spit on Price. He recalled, "They ran and I chased them. I thank God every day I pulled up to end the chase. I don’t know what I would have done had I caught them."
Price is now retired from the construction business and living in peace. As the interview progressed, I realized that heroes, indeed, do walk among us.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.