On 15 March 1967 a hero died. He was a friend, a Marine, a warrior, and someone who loved life and made everyone around him smile. His name was Corporal Gary Wayne Olson, USMC. Gary was born in Milwaukee, WI on 4 August 1944. I considered Gary a brother, one for whom I would lay down my life.
As I have done for the past forty-eight years, I will go off by myself this evening with a few fingers of expensive single malt, a less than expensive cigar, and have my annual conversation with Gary. It has become a ritual with me, as I am certain it does with Gary as well. We talk of times gone by, of the hilarious things he used to do to bring laughter to the platoon when we needed it most. I could go on for pages telling Gary stories, but instead I will give you a short dose of one of his antics from his chapter in the book. Enjoy.
Corporal Gary Wayne Olson, USMC
The second rocket squad of Weapons Platoon was always attached to our platoon on patrols and operations. The leader of one of the two rocket teams was LCpl Gary Wayne Olson, a great Marine—everyone in our platoon liked him. His nickname was “Crazy.” I don’t know how he acquired this moniker, but I suspect it resulted from his happy-go-lucky, jovial attitude. He was always “up” and invariably would say something hilarious at just the right time. He had a knack for humor.
While on an extended patrol in the southwestern part of the battalion’s area, we were moving from one hamlet of Thanh Quit village to another, which meant crossing open rice paddies—“danger areas.” Our system for crossing danger areas was to anchor two squads, one on either side of the crossing point, while the third squad crossed the area on-line. Should that squad draw enemy fire they would hit the deck while the other two squads opened up to gain fire superiority. At a signal from the open squad, usually by radio or smoke grenade, the base squads would shift their fire to left and right so the squad could fire and maneuver across the danger area. When feasible, the two base squads would cross one at a time. As the last squad started across our attention shifted rearward to the hamlet we just left in the event any enemy had been following us. The bottom line was, on these patrols through the villages, the enemy could be all around you at all times, so every move had to provide 360-degree protection.
On this particular patrol, the two base squads, with machine guns and mortars attached were set with Sgt Al in charge. I took the third squad with the rockets attached, and started across the rice paddy. About half way across the approximately three-hundred-meter paddy, we encountered a sizable enemy force from our direct front and became involved in an intense firefight. As planned, the base squads gained fire superiority, then on signal from me, the base squads’ shifted their fire, and using fire team rushes we made it to the edge of the tree line surrounding the hamlet.
We found ourselves pinned down behind a large berm at the edge of the hamlet by automatic weapons fire coming from a pagoda approximately three hundred meters to our direct front. I crawled up to the squad leader to get a closer look. We could not flank the pagoda because the heavy growth on either side contained enemy covering the gun position inside. Furthermore, we were too close for artillery and much too close for an air strike.
I called out, “Rockets, up!”
LCpl Olson crawled to my location. He was the acting rocket squad leader since the actual was on R&R. In his typical calm, fun-loving manner, he asked, “What can rockets do for you today, SSgt B?”
I pointed to the pagoda and told him I wanted a “Willie Peter” round fired into it. The white phosphorus would burn rather than exploding like a high explosive (HE) round.
Olson asked, “The door or the window?”
This was a long shot for the M-20 3.5” rocket—actually, it was beyond its maximum effective range.
“Okay, smart ass, the window,” was my reply.
Olson asked, “Is it worth carrying my sea bag to the truck?”
Tiring of this banter, I retorted, “Yes! Now fire the damn rocket, Olson!” Only Olson could find humor in negotiating in the heat of a firefight.
He yelled, “First Rocket Team, up!” The gunner and team leader crawled to our position. Olson took the rocket launcher from the gunner, and instructed the team leader to load a “Willie Pete” round. Rather than allowing the gunner to take the shot, Olson intended to do it himself. The 3.5” rocket launcher is best known by its nickname “bazooka,” or as non-rocket Marines referred to it, a “piss tube” since that is exactly what a piss tube looked like sticking out of the ground.
The standard procedure for firing this weapon requires the gunner to place the launcher on his shoulder in the firing position while the assistant gunner loads the rocket into the rear of it. Once loaded and armed, the assistant gunner looks to the rear to ensure the back blast area is clear, smacks the gunner on the helmet, and yells, “Rocket, Firing!” to warn everyone to stand by for a loud blast as well as to ensure no one moved to the rear of the weapon due to the substantial back blast effect.
Olson took careful aim and squeezed off the round. That damn rocket went precisely through the window opening and exploded inside the pagoda instantly terminating the automatic weapons fire emanating from within; a huge cloud of white smoke billowed from the door and window as the burning phosphorus made toasty fritters of the enemy.
Olson had once again trumped me with his uncanny wit! I was now indebted to carry his sea bag to the truck on the day he rotated back to the United States as his tour ended. The word spread throughout the company. It even got to Capt Pratt who insisted on hearing the “rest of the story.”
I liked Olson long before this incident for what he added to our unit. He continually made us smile even under the direst circumstances. Although he was the proverbial joker, he had a sober side as well.
In Vietnam, as it is during any overseas assignment, casual conversations always involved leaving—going home. Therefore, one’s standing among his peers was enhanced by his rotation date. Those due to rotate first held an envious position—especially in Vietnam where you knew almost to the day when that would be.
Ours was a thirteen-month tour, which meant you would be back in the United States thirteen months from the day you left. Olson arrived in Vietnam with 2nd Bn, 5th Marines, but he was reassigned to 2nd Bn, 1st Marines and to our company. Because 2/5 departed the United States in January 1966, Olson was due to rotate in February ’67, one month before me.
Who was to carry your sea bag to the truck provided a source for constant banter and lots of trivial bets where the loser was destined to be the winner’s valet on his day.
As to Olson’s serious side, sometime after Operation Mississippi, while in the battalion area, I was walking through the troops’ billeting locale when Olson summoned me into his tent where he read me a poem he had written. I was emotionally moved by it and asked if I could make a copy. The fact that he wrote it proved, once again, he really did have a serious side though he seldom showed it.
He handed me his copy, saying, “Keep it, it’s yours.” I still have his handwritten copy, which reads:
Joined the service during bad times of war,
branch of service, United States Marine Corps.
Now I am out in the world on my own,
away from my family, away from my home.
I wish I could be back with the loved ones I left,
I keep thanking God I have only two months left.
Across the ocean in a war-torn land,
serving my country in South Vietnam.
Some people say, pull out of this country,
but how do you leave people so sick and hungry?
How can you watch people live in terrorist fright,
when deep down inside you know freedom’s worth any fight.
Though you are sick for home deep in your heart,
you still want to stay and finish your part.
Next thing you know they say your part is done,
you’re going home to your parents for they want their son.
You are so happy yet your eyes fill with tears,
cause you’re leaving your buddies you’ve known for a year.
You pack up your sea bag and say your goodbyes,
then you leave on a truck with tears in your eyes.
You go to an airstrip and get on a plane,
now you are wondering will it still be the same.
Soon you are landing in the United States,
a country so bold, a country so great.
Your fight for this country has come to an end,
yet you still say, I’d do it all again.
You have a deep feeling of honor and pride,
you think for a while and are satisfied.
So now you make that phone call home,
and say, “Mom, it’s your son, I’m coming home.”
Now I do not know if he actually wrote the poem or not, but I have never seen another copy. I want to believe that he authored it; therefore, I have never attempted, nor will I ever attempt, to find out otherwise.
The story continues . .