More than one Leatherneck would agree, it’s befitting that a young man from Montezuma chose to join the United States Marine Corps. The month was November, the year 1965, the man: Eli Fobbs.
“I remember basic at Camp Lejeune,” Fobbs said. “Back then the Corps didn’t play around. They’d insult your momma, sister your wife; shoot, those guys would bust your nose and scare you to death. It didn’t take me long to believe I’d joined the wrong organization.”
Fobbs had what it took to become a Marine. After advanced training at Camp Pendleton, Fobbs arrived at Da Nang, South Vietnam in June, ’66 with arguably the most dangerous job in ‘Injun’ Country’: that of an M-60 machine gunner.
Assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, dubbed “The Walking Dead”, Fobbs went into combat almost immediately. A hard-hitting breed of Marines, “The Walking Dead” even carried Tabasco Sauce in their packs to kill the taste of WWII era C-rations.
In early April, ’67, Charlie Company approached the village of Phu An, a well-established haven for North Vietnam’s 234 Division. Fobbs stated, “It was near dusk and we were told to dig in, but the sandy soil was so saturated we hit water at 3-to-4 inches. So we kept low to the ground in a prone position.”
At nightfall Charlie Company moved out toward a tree line then all hell broke loose. “The enemy came out of nowhere,” Fobbs said. “We got hit hard and took a lot of casualties.”
A deadly hindrance was the recently introduced M-16 assault rifle. Never properly field tested and hurried into combat, the new M-16 jammed consistently which rendered U.S. soldiers defenseless.
“We had called for reinforcements and were told to ‘cease fire’ on our right flank because Delta Company was coming in to help us,” Fobbs said. “It wasn’t Delta Company, it was the enemy. They swarmed all over us, dropping hand grenades and executing our wounded. I got hit in the arms and legs and was overwhelmed by 4 Viet Cong. They took my K-bar knife, the machine gun, and then drug me into the tree line. I was screaming in pain. The VC jabbed my wounds with sticks trying to make me talk. Shoot, I didn’t even understand Vietnamese.”
Charlie Company had been decimated. Almost every platoon member was either dead or wounded. The company commander was dead; the FO was dead – there was no leadership.
Another Marine, Lance Corporal James Stogner, had been ‘in country’ for months. Before the firefight erupted, illumination, for some weird reason, had been called in to ‘light up the area.’ Stogner was a battle-hardened Marine and recognized the sounds of diverse artillery rounds. Perceiving that the ‘lights would soon be on’; Stogner knelt and waited for the night to turn into day.
As the obscured sky became sunlit, Stogner spotted three enemy soldiers in front of his position. He took out all three with an automatic burst from his M-16. Then his M-16 jammed and the receiver slammed back into his face, breaking his nose and lacerating his skin. The illumination burned out; night returned. With a K-bar knife as his only protection, Stogner, vulnerable and with few options, lay in the dark trying to figure out his next move
Stogner heard the moans of wounded and dying Marines, many yelling for help. Then he heard Vietnamese voices, a lot of them, slipping into the perimeter to shoot wounded Marines in the head and strip them of weapons and gear.
Instead of slipping away, instead of saving his own skin, Stogner joined the enemy, so to speak, in the darkness, armed with his K-bar knife. In short order he killed numerous NVA soldiers, thus saving many Marines from a certain death. Still Stogner moved, like a nocturnal hunter, until he found and silenced more NVA soldiers, saving even more Marines.
The NVA in the tree line knew something was amiss. Their men were being silenced which meant one, if not more, member of the Marines were still alive. Chi Com grenades blanketed the Marine position. Stogner survived the barrage, but was now alone in the dark. He decided to crawl away from the killing zone until he heard a Marine shriek in pain from the tree line. The Marine in trouble was Eli Fobbs.
Fobbs recalled, “The VC or NVA, whoever those guys were, kept jabbing my wounds and beating me. One of them heard something and left the torture area. He never came back.” James Stogner had slipped into the area, grabbed the lone NVA in the darkness, and silenced him with the K-bar knife. One of the other NVA soldiers came to investigate. He, too, soon visited his ancestors.
“The other two guys were still going at me when suddenly this skinny white dude came screaming out of the darkness like a wild man,” Fobbs said. He stabbed one in the chest and quickly grabbed the last guy, wrestled him to the ground, and, well, he was a goner, too.”
Stogner threw Fobbs over his shoulder, grabbed the M-60 machine gun, and struggled back to friendly lines. Amid grenade explosions and small arms fire, Stogner eventually delivered his human cargo to safety until both were airlifted out for medical treatment the next morning.
James Stogner and Eli Fobbs recovered from their wounds and returned to combat. Fobbs earned 3 Purple Hearts in Vietnam while Stogner was awarded at least two Purple Hearts during his tour of duty.
The inexcusable irony is the total lack of acknowledgment for Stogner’s heroics in the best tradition of the United States Marine Corps. Many of the eyewitnesses, especially the officers, were killed in action and any paperwork that may have been processed was lost in never-ending paper-shuffling.
While loading additional casualties onto choppers the next morning, a Corporal named Carl Van Meeteren overheard Gunnery Sergeant Bush comment on Stogner’s courage.
“I saw men in the Korean War get the Medal of Honor for doing things like this,” he said.
The Medal of Honor requires at least two reliable witnesses. Eli Fobbs is one. Fobbs assistant gunner, Bob Carpenter, was the other. In December of ’93, while sitting at the breakfast table with his wife and two sons, for reasons known but to God, Carpenter pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and ended his own life.
“You know, I’ve seen and talked with James, but it took us 41 years to get together,” Eli Fobbs said. “We are dear friends. But I have black friends that don’t believe this story, a story of a skinny white kid saving a black man in combat. I got news for them, the only color in war is red, and we all bled it.”
In war, the few too often pay the price for the many. Perhaps it’s time for the many, especially our congressmen, to pay more investigative attention to the few.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.