Silver Star recipient recalls those lost in Vietnam War, life after combat
by Joshua Sharpe
November 09, 2013 10:08 PM | 4254 views | 4 4 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vietnam War veteran and Silver Medal recipient John Blair looks at an album of photographs of himself and his fellow Marines in Vietnam. <br> Staff/Todd Hull
Vietnam War veteran and Silver Medal recipient John Blair looks at an album of photographs of himself and his fellow Marines in Vietnam.
Staff/Todd Hull
slideshow
Photographs of Blair with his fellow Marines and the group, left, that meets for a reunion each year.
Photographs of Blair with his fellow Marines and the group, left, that meets for a reunion each year.
slideshow
CANTON — John Blair is a man with many stories to tell — stories of pain, death and loss as a Marine in the Vietnam War — but for 40 years, the 68-year-old Canton resident says he never told those stories.

He never talked about the days of heat and unrelenting gunfire, the cold nights huddled in a sleeping bag against the ground or the numerous lives he saw cut short. And he never talked about the daylong battle against the North Vietnamese Army that earned him a Silver Star Medal and ended with prayers and tears after the dead were counted.

The reasons for his silence were many, Blair said, but most of all, he just wanted to move on.

“Nobody talked about the war. Nobody even asked you what you did,” Blair said. “You said ‘Man, I can’t wait to get back to work.’ Nobody even gave Vietnam a second thought.”

Then, six years ago, when annual reunions with the surviving Marines he served with started, Blair began to talk.

It’s been good and bad.

“Sometimes, I wish I’d never gotten back into this,” Blair said. “I’ve never been so Marine-driven and so Vietnam-driven. It’s made me a lot more sentimental. It bothers me sometimes, because I get so emotional.”

About two years ago, he also joined Marine Corps League Detachment 1311 in Woodstock, and the past commandant there, John Newport, encouraged him to talk more.

Newport, who also served in the Vietnam War, said the more he heard Blair talk about his 13-month tour in Vietnam, the more he thought his story was important.

“(Blair) was what we affectionately call a ‘grunt,’ and his entire tour in Vietnam was in the bush, except for very few days,” Newport said. “I did two tours in Vietnam and got in little gun fights.”

But Blair is “a Marine hero,” Newport said.

Heading for battle

Born to a U.S. Army officer and a hula dancer in Hawaii, Blair moved with his parents to Columbus at an early age and spent most of his childhood there before joining the Marines in April 1966.

His first year in service was spent at Cecil Field Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., where he went through boot camp.

In October 1967, he was called to go fight in the war in Vietnam, which had begun in 1964 for the Americans and was shaping up to be a long, bloody ordeal.

Blair spent 13 months in Vietnam near the Khe Sanh military base with his battalion, the “Thundering Third” Battalion.

They ate cold food from cardboard boxes and conducted church services on the side of a mountain in the sun. They wrote letters to their mothers when they had time, and they joked and cursed as much as they could, making friendships that stand today.

Those moments, though, were when they weren’t in battle — and the Thundering Third often was in battle, with fights including Alpha-3, Cam Lo Hill, Hill 689, Foxtrot Ridge, Con Thien, Firebase Shepherd and more than a handful others, Blair said.

But the battle most present on Blair’s mind today — and the one some call the longest in the entire nine-year-long war — is the Battle of Mike’s Hill in January 1968.

That was the battle that earned him the Silver Star, and the battle left him and the men of his battalion counting bodies and praying into the night.

It happened on a foggy morning near Khe Sanh on Jan. 27, 1968.

Blair said he could hear gunfire in the distance and had a feeling it would be a bad day.

A corporal at the time, Blair said he told his squad to pack as much ammunition as they could carry, and he joked that breakfast might be their last meal ever. Today, he regrets that joke, because for some of the men who heard it, it turned out to be true.

That morning, Blair and his company were set up on one of three hills that sat along the side of what the Americans called Highway 9.

Highway 9 was a supply route leading to the Khe Sanh base near the Cam Lo River. Because the troops at the base relied heavily on the highway, the North Vietnamese Army actively tried to cut it off, regularly setting up ambushes and attacking there, Blair said.

Jan. 27, 1968, was no different.



Earning honors

The North Vietnamese started an assault on one of the other hills, Mike’s Hill, early in the morning, Blair said.

“You could hear the screaming, you could hear the gunfire. You could hear the rounds just going off,” Blair said. “They were getting overrun.”

About two hours into the assault, the colonel on Mike’s Hill called Blair’s company, India Company, and asked for help.

They responded and pushed toward the North Vietnamese, with Blair’s captain and several troops walking down Highway 9 and Blair and other Marines lined up, providing a blanketed support along the side of the road.

“We got halfway down there, saw the NVA and they would jump up and run,” Blair said. “And we thought ‘We’ve got them on the run.’”

But the Marines only had some of the enemy on the run, and others suddenly appeared from hiding and shot the captain and the others walking in the road.

“They killed all four guys coming out of spider traps,” Blair said. “Then, they opened up with .50 caliber, and there was bodies all over the place, Marine bodies. There were rounds coming by me left and right.”

In moments like that, when Marines were suddenly dropping all around, Blair said priorities could change quickly, and his did.

“You don’t think of ‘I’m going to be a hero and make sure everybody else is OK,’” Blair said. “You fend for yourself. That’s where your Marine Corps training comes in and you respond, you react. It’s like driving a car.”

Later, during the hourslong battle, Blair found himself alone and lost.

He ran into his best friend and fellow Marine, Bob Espinola.

They saw the field they had crossed while moving toward Mike’s Hill earlier, littered with Marine bodies. About 40 yards away on the other side, they also saw the North Vietnamese had a machine gun, firing constant rounds and leaving more Marines dead or injured.

Blair said he and Espinola looked at each other and knew they had to take the machine gunner out.

They also knew they would likely die doing it.

“It was a death mission. We knew we weren’t coming back, with all the rounds coming across there,” Blair said. “We turned and said goodbye to each other, that we loved each other and hugged.”

They began to crawl along the ground toward the machine gunner, as bullets sailed by.

“You could hear them laughing and just yelling,” Blair said.

At one point, an American helicopter hovered overhead, and Blair said the North Vietnamese took out two of the pilots before the third on board steered away.

Blair and his friend, as they laid there on their bellies in the dirt, threw grenades toward the machine gun, but it kept firing.

Enemy soldiers ran along Highway 9 in the early evening light and tried to kill Blair and Espinola.

The shells kept coming from the machine gun and Marines kept getting hit.

Then, the last grenade was thrown and the gun just stopped. The gunner and other North Vietnamese soldiers near it were dead when they found them, Blair said.

The battle would end later — like most of the battles Blair fought in — by fizzling out when the night got too dark and when both sides were too drained to continue.

But before it was over, Blair said he believes about 300 North Vietnamese were killed along with more than 100 Marines. In his company of about 90 men alone, only 25 survived, Blair said.

The soldiers lined up the dead, cared for the wounded and went back to camp.

“We all gathered around that night, and we all said prayers for the guys that were killed and the ones that were wounded,” Blair said.

But Blair said even with so many men in need of prayer that night, they barely talked about what happened when it was all over.

“You cry, but you don’t do it in front of the guys,” he said. “I had my moments. But it’s really personal.”

After the prayers and crying were done, Blair said he and the others carried on like they had before and would after other battles later: not dwelling on the loss or horror.

“You go on,” he said. “You go on.”

Life after war

Blair and his friend Espinola were each given the Silver Star Medal for their efforts in the battle.

In the citation for the medal, V.H. Krulak, lieutenant general of the U.S. Marine Corps, wrote that he had shown “conspicuous gallantry” in the fight.

“His heroic actions and aggressive fighting spirit inspired all who observed with him and were instrumental in the accomplishment of his unit’s mission,” the lieutenant wrote in a copy of the citation provided by Blair. “By his courage, bold initiative and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Corporal Blair upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps.”

Later, Blair was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for other battles.

Blair returned home from Vietnam in November 1968 and left the Marine Corps in January 1972 as an E-6 staff sergeant, after being moved up in rank four times in his 13 months in Vietnam.

He moved to the Atlanta area and worked for a furniture rental company and other businesses before finally settling into the job he has now as a sales manager at a financial services company.

He spent years living his civilian life as if he had never been anything but a civilian and never told the stories because he didn’t think anyone cared to hear them.

When Blair came home from Vietnam in 1968, he, like other veterans of that war, heard the message loud and clear that many Americans didn’t appreciate his service and bought into the idea that the soldiers were criminals and abusers to the very people they were sent to help.

Blair said he got that message when a man walked up into him in a bar, poured a beer on his leg and asked “How many more babies did you guys kill?”

“You didn’t want to tell anybody that you were in the Marines or you served in Vietnam,” Blair said, “because you didn’t want them to know.”

His friend from the Marine Corps League, Newport, said that experience wasn’t uncommon.

“You’ve got to understand that Vietnam was a tough part of United States history, and the American servicemen were (disrespected),” Newport said. “Literally, troops got spit on when they came home.”

During Blair’s years of silence, the Silver Star sat in a box. But today, after he has started to relive some of his past, it hangs prominently on a wall in his house, framed along with the Navy Achievement Medal and the citations that go along with them.

He also has many pictures from his days in Vietnam and the men he served with hung on his wall, framed on tables and stored neatly in a three-ring binder.

In a trunk, he has newspaper clippings from the Marine Corps Gazette, which detailed a few of his battles, and a box full of letters he sent to his mother in Columbus. But none of those letters were written in the days after the Battle of Mike’s Hill.

“I didn’t want to explain what I’d just went through and what I saw,” he said. “They had to tell me to write her (after the battle).”

And Blair might not tell many people about the battle if it weren’t for people like Newport encouraging him and assuring him he’s a hero.

For Blair, though, his “gallantry” was nothing special but “something you just did.”

“When you get the Silver Star, even though it’s one of the highest rated medals you can get,” Blair said, “it’s something that (Newport) could’ve got, anybody else could’ve got.”

Newport said it’s not that simple.

“I call him ‘John Wayne,’” he said.

Comments
(4)
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Marty Galbraith
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November 11, 2013
I have known John since 1994, he is not only a genuine Hero,but a model citizen and man. I'm proud to know him and I salute the veterans who fought for the freedoms we enjoy.
Kathy Ellerman
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November 11, 2013
I cannot possibly imagine what you endured, the sights all around you, or the feeling you must have had in such a hostile environment. You were a strong, determined man who I am so proud and greatful to, for fighting without question, representing our great nation. I thank the lord you were brought safely home and given the opportunity to live a happy life. We are all free because of men like you. I salute you sir!!
Justin Sanderson
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November 11, 2013
I salute John Blair for being who he is and enduring everything that he went through. He is a great man with a great family. Happy Veteran's day to all and thank you for what y'all do!
Eric Schrader
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November 09, 2013
Although I was a little too young for Vietnam having graduated high school in 1972, I could have easily gone had the war dragged on. To this day, I hate Henry Kissinger for the constant delays in his "negotiations" with the NVA, while our boys kept dying. He will have blood on his hands to the day he dies. I salute Mr. Blair for having the courage to endure that senseless war and I hope that he can live out his life with his head held high that people like myself will never forget his service and the sacrifice that over 58,000 men and women gave their lives and their names are on The Wall.
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