PORT RICHEY — They had cleared this path the day before, so they expected no trouble. It was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Hail Mary pass for America to try to win the war, and these Marines were boys, most just out of high school. Many were the sons of World War II veterans and enlisted because they believed it was the right thing to do. They knew each other by nicknames and, during lulls, talked of their hometowns and families. They read letters out loud and talked of their dreams. As the voting age was 21 then, most had never voted. They'd never been able to legally buy a drink. Many had never yet been in love. Most of these men never knew each other's last names, but those who survived would later say these were the best friends they ever had.
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It is strange that in war, the best of people shines through. These soldiers, of all races and backgrounds, would give their lives freely to save each other, even if they had never spoken. This was one of their worst fears, to have a comrade die. The other was what their own death would do to their families back home.
The war churned; soldiers in, casualties out, supplies low, the newbies sometimes taken to the morgue for their equipment, flak jackets still sticky with blood. The grunts slept maybe a few hours each night, in the bushes, in the rain, their uniforms threadbare. Sometimes they had just one ration a day. Water was always warm or hot, like the weather. Their adrenaline surged at all times, even when it was quiet, as things could quickly go wrong, as they did this day, April 20, 1968.
Jim Latta and Sandy Murray both belonged to the B company First Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. Latta was 18 and from Pennsylvania. His uniform was so worn that his trousers were shredded, showing his muscular legs — so that's what he was known for, the leg guy. Murray, at 22, was the one of the oldest and a squad leader because he had been there three months and hadn't been wounded or killed yet. As there were no mirrors in the jungle, Murray didn't know the blond mustache he had grown looked pretty silly. So, he was known as the mustache guy.
April 20, 1968
They were outside the city of Hue. There were about 35 soldiers and it was morning. Suddenly, members of the North Vietnamese Army popped up — either the Marines were ambushed or they stumbled into the middle of a new NVA command post. Instantly, the quiet turned into gunfire and explosions. The NVA were in front and behind them. They had a machine gun that picked off each Marine, one by one. Murray's left leg was hit and he went down. The men next to him died, as well as the medic, after tying a tourniquet on Murray's leg.
Latta was farther back down the line and shooting at the enemy. The half dozen Marines who had been sent to protect them on the flank charged the machine gunner, taking the heat off their fellow soldiers and allowing them to regroup. Those on the flank died. One, after being shot, staggered toward the machine gun and threw a grenade, killing himself but destroying the gun. That young man had been in Vietnam for only a week.
Murray and the other wounded were flown out on a helicopter. Latta stayed in Vietnam for nearly a year before an explosion wounded one of his legs and sent him home.
Latta, and the others who survived, thought Murray was dead.
It was nearly 40 years later that he found out Murray was alive.
And it was the spirit of two men who died that day who brought them together again.
After the war
Both Latta and Murray came home after the war and got on with their lives, working, raising families. Latta was in Pennsylvania and Murray was in Massachusetts, before retiring to Port Richey. Neither said much about what they had been through. Both had similar nightmares. Latta kept dreaming that he was chasing an NVA soldier, but the bullets from his gun just dropped from the barrel, like raindrops from a gutter. Murray dreamed he was there, in the war, but lost his gun.
Both men were obsessively neat, something drilled into them by the Marines. Beds had hospital corners and everything had a place. They each had three children. Latta savored every cold drink he had on a hot day, as there was never ice in the jungle. Murray loved crawling into bed when it stormed outside, so he could listen to the rain hit the roof and thank God he was inside and safe and dry. Both hated fireworks and other loud noises.
For years, each man wanted to find the families of those Marines who died, to tell the loved ones what happened and that the soldier was not alone and never will be forgotten. But, Murray and Latta couldn't figure out what to say. They felt guilty for surviving.
But then the urge to connect overcame their guilt and, slowly, each man tracked down families and knocked on doors. And, in doing so, they weren't shunned as they had thought they would be. Instead, they were adopted by the families, who were grateful to know what happened to their brother, their son, their classmate. Latta had contacted the family of Jimmy Pantier and Murray contacted the family of John Hudson. Both Pantier and Hudson died on the flank that day. And the families of both men found each other.
Finally, a reunion
About three years ago, Pantier's family told Latta about Murray. But Latta didn't understand. The Murray he knew was dead. But he got Murray's number and called anyway.
"The only Murray I knew had a funny mustache," Latta said.
"That's me!" said Murray, who had shaved off the mustache as soon as he got home from the war and saw himself in a mirror.
Soon after reuniting on the phone, they met in person. Latta, who still lives in Pennsylvania, comes to visit Murray in Port Richey at least three times a year, and they talk once or twice a month. Latta was in town this weekend on a visit. They fished all day Saturday and watched a baseball game that evening on Murray's back patio.
Murray spent a year in the hospital after the attack and still wears a brace on his leg. Both men attend veterans reunions together. They don't talk much of the death they saw. If they talk of the war, it's usually the darkly funny things.
Both men want the families who lost someone in Vietnam to know that, regardless of who it was, that soldier was loved, even if his best friends there didn't know his last name.
"No one died alone," Latta said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.