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Elite and highly trained, the 3d Force Recon's eight-man teams were assigned to obtain vital information about NVA operations. Alone, the men of these small teams were sent behind enemy lines, where they all knew that a single mistake could cost everyone their lives.
United States Navy Hospital Corpsman Bruce Norton was the only navy corpsman to act as a Marine Force Recon Team Leader. In Force Recon Diary, 1969 Doc Norton chronicles his life, mission by mission, with the 3d Force Recon in the DMZ and the A Shau Valley. He describes the tense patrols, the supreme courage, the sacrifices—in ambushes and hot landing zones—that made this courageous company one of only two Marine units during the entire Vietnam War to receive the United States Army's Valorous Unit Citation.
, true-to-life account of survival, heroism and death in the elite Marine 3d Force Recon unit, one of one two Marine units to receive the Valorous Unit Citation during the Vietnam War. Doc Norton, leader of 3d Force Recon, recounts his team's experiences behind enemy lines during the tense patrols, sudden ambushes and acts of supreme sacrifice that occurred as they gathered valuable information about NVA operations right from the source.
Major Bruce H. Norton, USMC (Ret.), has been a combat veteran, a career Marine infantry officer, a military museum director, and an adjunct military history professor, and is an award-winning author of numerous books on and about the United States Marines. Serving as a navy corpsman from 1967 to 1972, he participated in more than thirty long-range reconnaissance patrols from 1968 to 1970. Norton was honorably discharged from the navy in 1972, and three days later was enrolled in the Marine Platoon Leaders Class (PLC) Candidate at the College of Charleston, where he earned a BA in U.S. history in 1974. Commissioned a lieutenant of Marines upon graduation, he performed duties as an infantry platoon leader, deep reconnaissance platoon leader, rifle company commander, operations and training officer, battalion executive officer, and various joint staff positions. Following his retirement in 1992, after twenty-four years of military service, he earned a master's degree in military sciences before becoming the director of the MCRD San Diego Command Museum in California. While there, he also taught military history courses at the University of San Diego. In 1996, he received the Brigadier General Robert L. Denig Memorial Distinguished Service Award, presented to him by the United States Marine Corps' Combat Correspondents Association for his contributions as an author and Marine Corps historian. In 2005, he arrived at Quantico and wrote doctrine for the Marine Corps.
DEEP IN THE THOUGHTS OF NEARLY ALL YOUNG BOYS is the belief that there is something mysterious, fascinating, and powerful about owning a real gun. It makes no difference whether it is a rifle, a pistol, or a shotgun. As a youngster growing up in the 1950s in the small rural town of North Scituate, Rhode Island, I was no exception.
To possess my own rifle meant many things to me. It meant that I could be trusted, and it meant that I was expected to know the difference between what was right and what was wrong. It also meant that I would be held responsible for my actions with that rifle.
I learned that a rifle could take a life, but it could never bring a life back.
My very first rifle was given to me by my father when I was nine years old. It was a Crossman model 140-B, pneumatic, .22 caliber pellet rifle. The rifle had to be pumped up by hand at least a dozen times so that the solid lead pellet would have enough velocity behind it to make it to the target, whether that was a marked piece of paper, a squirrel high up in an oak tree, or some unsuspecting rabbit that had exposed itself in the open.
The Crossman was a single-shot rifle, and that one important characteristic would later prove to be a very useful teaching point some ten years later in Vietnam.
Looking back on those times, it seems as though I spent every idle moment in those quiet pine forests of North Scituate.
The property that surrounded our old family home on three sides was owned by the city of Providence, and all of those thousands of acres were fenced off and “posted,” to keep trespassers from ruining the land or fouling the pristine waters of the reservoir.
The entire area was made up of farmland, pine and hardwood forests, and the great body of water that was the reservoir. All of the property was under the control of the Providence Water Supply Board. It is still an extremely valuable watershed for our small state because the Scituate reservoir provides all of the fresh water to the city of Providence.
To me, at the age of nine, it was a place of dreams and made for adventure. The forest was there to be explored, the reservoir was there to be fished, and the open areas of old farmland were there to be hunted. The only obstacle that separated me from the woods was a three-foot-high stone wall.
The heavily wooded areas were the perfect place for any small boy to learn what nature had to reveal to one who was curious. It was there that I learned how to track small game animals and how to move slowly and silently through the forest. I learned how to tell when the New England weather was about to change quickly, and I learned how to prepare for it. I was taught how to live-trap muskrat and mink, using catfish for bait.
It was one great learning place. It was better than any school classroom imaginable.
No matter the season of the year, I was to be found in the woods with my pellet rifle, and I practiced with it constantly.
Through trial and error, I came to realize that because I had a single-shot rifle I would always have to make the very first shot count; given the length of time it took to reload and repump the damned thing, a second shot was usually impossible. The pumping up of the rifle made it very noisy and always gave away my presence. Any living thing that I shot at, and missed, usually did not wait around for me to reload and try again.
I practiced with that rifle constantly. Within a month I was able to take careful aim, squeeze the trigger, and nine out of ten times, shatter an aspirin tablet held in the bark of a pine tree, at a distance of about thirty paces.
I could hardly realize then that the skills of marksmanship, patience, and practice would prove so useful in the preparation for a much more serious type of shooting game that I would be playing in the years to come. The target would change from the aspirin tablets, paper, and small game, to man-size targets in the form of North Vietnamese soldiers. Paper targets and small game do not return fire. The NVA did.
My pellet rifle later gave way to a real rifle. I was thirteen years old when I received a Winchester .22 caliber, bolt-action rifle. It had a five-shot magazine and accommodated .22 short, long, and long-rifle cartridges. The only changes that I made to it were in adding a leather sling and a Bushnell 4X scope.
It was perfect: not as difficult to use as the pellet rifle and the increased range, four additional shots, and the advantage provided by the scope made up for the shortcomings of the Crossman pellet rifle.
A boy named Gerry Curran lived about a mile from me, and he, too, had a .22 caliber rifle. We were the same age and we always palled around together because we shared similar interests: hunting and fishing. What that really means is that we always got into trouble together.
The only time that we could spend in the woods was during the weekends or in the summertime between school sessions. Gerry attended a parochial school in the city, and I attended the local elementary school.
Gerry had two brothers, John and Bill, and they, too, knew the secrets of how to hunt successfully and fish in the large area of the Scituate woods. We learned skills from one another, and we shared what we had learned after each outing. When I became old enough to join the local chapter of the Boy Scouts I thought that I was pretty well schooled in the art of camping and in knowing all there was to know about survival in the out-of-doors. I had never gotten myself lost in the woods, or at least I would never admit to anyone of having done so.
The key to my better than average success in hunting or fishing on the reservoir property was stealth. The reason was simple: the city of Providence had the reservoir property constantly patrolled by state officers whose sole purpose in life was to catch us hunting, fishing, or swimming within the boundaries of the posted city property.
To get caught by one of these officers meant not only the possibility of a stiff fine for trespassing, but also the far greater penalty of loss of face before all of the other kids in our small town who had successfully eluded capture by the “city guys,” year after year.
It was a great game. It was taken quite seriously by both sides, and we were all good at it. We learned the traveling patterns and the routes and patrol times of the officers. We were better at hiding from them than they ever were at catching us.
During the ten years that I spent roaming the woods of North Scituate, I was only caught by the city officers twice. The first time, there were too many of us in a group; we made too much noise while swimming, which masked the sound of the approaching officer until he was upon us. We were all caught when we tried to get dressed. He had gathered up our clothes and waited for us to come out of the water.
The second time, I was caught when I unknowingly silhouetted myself against the setting sun on an autumn skyline while bass fishing. I stood out against the tree line. That’s all it took. That time the officer was clever enough to ambush me on the path that led out of the cove where I thought I would be undetected. There was no escape.
I gave a phony name to the officer. That was the standard practice. He let me go with only a stern lecture and a warning as to what would happen to me if I was ever caught again. He also kept the fish.
I was lucky to have been let go, and even though I lost the fish, I realized that I would have to get better at not being seen if I were to chance going into the woods again.
Here was another lesson that would repeat itself time and again in Vietnam.
On one particular late September afternoon, my buddy Gerry and I were headed home through the woods with our rifles. We had been squirrel hunting, but without success. We happened to cross the land that was used as the dump site for Scituate’s garbage and trash, which was brought there by the townspeople. The dump was a breeding place for rats, and we could see and hear them as they moved around the trash piles looking for food.
On that particular occasion, it was our good fortune to have each had an extra box of .22 shorts. There were just too many targets of opportunity for us to pass up, and we emptied our guns on the rats.
The number of rats went far beyond the infrequent rabbits or the squirrels that we might have encountered during a full day of hunting in the woods. There were literally hundreds of rats waiting to be shot. It wasn’t long before we were both out of ammunition, but certainly not out of rats.
The many return trips that we made to the town dump after closing hours developed into periods of competition among the few boys who were allowed to go there to shoot. The truth is that none of us ever had permission from our parents to be there, but it was the best game in town; it was exciting and not to be missed.
For night shooting, we learned to tape flashlights to the front stocks of our rifles. The rats usually “froze” when the bright light hit their eyes, making them an easier target, so we centered the point of bullet impact with the center of the flashlight beam. Then it was possible to shoot the rats without taking particularly good aim. We just placed the center of the light beam on the body of the rat and pulled the trigger.