India Company and a hill called 362
"I love the Marine Corps for those intangible possessions that cannot be issued: Pride, honor, integrity and being able to carry on the traditions for generations of warriors past."— Cpl. Jeff Somij, USMC Navy Times, November 1994
This is a column about time and memories.
The time was 1966 and the memories are of the Vietnam War and the Battle for Hill 362 which took place during Operation Hastings in July and August 1966.
But they are not my time, nor my memories.
Both belong to the men of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
Operation Hastings was launched in the summer of 1966 to clear North Vietnamese Army units from the western portion of the Demilitarized Zone separating what was then North and South Vietnam.
Hill 362 is a remembered fight --- the type of Homeric struggle which in past generations poets would be writing songs about for children to sing.
That hill was a bloodbath for the men of India Company who were sent up its slopes on July 24, 1966 and walked into a superbly prepared ambush where they confronted a far superior --- at least numerically --- enemy force. Swept repeatedly by massive volumes of automatic weapons and mortar fire, 18 India Marines died that day (eight more had been killed in a firefight on July 22), scores more were wounded -- a total of 116 Purple Hearts awarded -- and when finally pulled out of combat days later, only 68 remained of the some 180 young men who had filled India's ranks at the beginning of Operation Hastings. One of those India Marines was Richard Pittman, of Stockton, who won the Medal of Honor on Hill 362.
Edward Conti, of Orefield, Penn., executive officer of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines during the battle, wrote about Hill 362 and India Company more than three decades later:
"One of my most horrible memories of that day came after the battle ended. With my troops in position, I walked along the trail to India Company's position. It was a sickening sight. In the make-shift landing zone of sawed-off tree stumps lie a pile of dead Marines. Rifles and gear were flung all over the place. Wounded Marines sat scattered throughout the clearing, some lying down. I had never experienced such devastation. But the worst part was the looks on the faces of the survivors of India Company. Their expressions were trance-like. They'd been to hell and back, and it showed."
Last weekend, a few score of those India Company survivors gathered in a reunion in Las Vegas. Many had not seen each other since Vietnam. They also had generously invited the families and friends of those who were lost in Operation Hastings. I grew up with one of the Marines killed on Hill 362 -- Pfc. Tom Presby, of Sunland, and had worked with two former India Marines, Jerry Richardson and Joe Holt --- known to everyone as Pvt. Holt --- in finding out where Tom is buried. As a result, I received an invitation I could not refuse, so I went with Tim Day, another of Tom's friends from Pater Noster High School in Los Angeles.
On tables and taped up on walls and mirrors in the hotel's hospitality suite were pictures of young men --- some hardly more than boys --- who in the confidence and patriotism of youth had volunteered to fight in a war which most of their fellow countrymen knew little about and until recently seemingly to have cared even less about the sacrifices made by those who fought it.
All around me stood and sat small, tightly drawn-in clusters of former warriors engaged in animated conversations about what they did, what they saw and what they had suffered in a battle more than half-a-lifetime away.
Gone were the muscled youths in the fading pictures, their replacements were older, grayer with faces that revealed lives fully lived. Glasses prevailed and some walked with canes. Many bore the scars of long gone battles -- both of the flesh and of the soul.
But their eyes glowed and their hearts were full of fire as they talked with forceful words and gestures not so much of a battle fought but of friends -- those killed and those who survived.
It's nearly 37 years since Hill 362, but they still grieve for the "might-have-beens" of each life unlived.
Big boys don't cry, but real men do.
And real women cry too. Just ask the wives of the men of India Company. Some married young and waited and wondered; for most, marriage came after their loved one's tour of duty, but all are veterans of the Vietnam War in their own way.
Yes, these are the men of India Company, Third Battalion, 5th Marines who never asked for anything save the understanding that at one time they fought to stay alive in a jungle so green which towered over earth so red and that all in India gave some and some gave all.
One of those who understands all too well what Hill 362 cost India Company is David Arnold, whose brother Robin Lee Arnold -- known as "Tink" to his family -- died very near where Tom Presby fell. "Tink" was 18, Tom was 19. David Arnold, who also was at India's reunion, wrote about what the loss of his brother has meant to him:
"You left far too soon, big brother. I was much too young to understand where you went off to and the horrors that you faced. When you didn't return, I was left with a void. ... I think about what life would have been like with you, Tink, and all I can draw is a blank. ... But what about you, Tink? What have all of us missed out on having to live without you?"
And like David Arnold, grief is still deep for the friend of my youth and I have a heart filled with the "might-have-beens" of this world.
I wish with all I have that Tom did not have to die. But I'm very grateful that the last months of his life and the day of his death were shared with the men of India Company.
So, let the old men tell the stories of the fierce battle for a hill called 362 and how a small band of Marines fought just to stay alive. Let their struggle be remembered so that the nation never forgets that freedom is purchased at a mighty high price.
And to the men of India Company, I add but five words: Semper fi and welcome home!
Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinel’s city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail or firstname.lastname@example.org
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