Hidden in a brush-choked ravine 25 miles south of Da Nang, the squad of nine Marines sprang an ambush on 15 North Vietnamese soldiers. In the muzzle-to-stomach firefight that ensued in the dwindling daylight, the squad took several casualties. A medic was shot through the throat and killed.
Machine gunner Ralph "Heavy" Quaylen, 19, started lugging the dead medic up a hill, holding fast to the outfit's credo: never leave a man behind. Then a North Vietnamese rocket-propelled grenade exploded beside him, ripping Quaylen's left leg off at the knee and covering him in shrapnel wounds.
Thirty-two years after that April evening, Quaylen can still see his 25-year-old lieutenant barreling down into the exposed ravine when reinforcements arrived 45 minutes later.
"Nobody wanted to be where I was then, believe me, but Lt. McBride came right down to me," said Quaylen.
"He grabbed my hand and said, "We're going to get you out of here, Heavy,' and he stayed with me until the medevac (chopper) took me out."
Quaylen hasn't seen Bill McBride since Vietnam, and he said he had no idea McBride was running for governor of Florida until the St. Petersburg Times phoned him recently in Ohio. But now Quaylen plans to head to Florida to do whatever he can to help his old leader.
"I wish he were running for governor of Ohio. I don't know what he's running on, but believe me, if that man commits himself to something, he'll get it done," Quaylen said.
"I liked Vietnam'
Bill McBride is a good 50 pounds heavier than he was in his taut Marine days and leading what still may be the toughest mission of his life: taking on a former U.S. attorney general in the Democratic primary for governor, with the winner to face the incumbent, who is the brother of the president.
His military experience, which includes a Bronze Star with combat V, sets him apart from the other candidates, and McBride is banking on it to win over veterans' votes that often elude Democrats. He often says that when he debates Gov. Jeb Bush _ making the mighty assumption he'll beat Janet Reno in the primary _ he'll be the only candidate with military experience.
America has a long tradition of politicians heralding their battlefield days. In modern politics, there was John F. Kennedy and PT-109; George Bush Sr.'s plane shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire; Bob Dole disabled in combat in Italy.
McBride's Marine background helps deflate efforts to paint him as a liberal, but he may be overly optimistic about its ultimate effect on his campaign. U.S. Sen. John McCain, the ultimate veterans candidate, found the limits of military credentials when he lost the 2000 Republican presidential primary to George W. Bush in South Carolina, another state rich in veterans.
"It's highly overrated," Mike Murphy, a key campaign consultant to McCain now working with Jeb Bush, said of a candidate's military background. "Being a veteran alone doesn't come close to earning veterans' votes."
More than a resume booster, though, McBride's Marine years offer a glimpse into the first-time candidate's leadership style. The 57-year-old lawyer likes to say his Marine years taught him a lifelong lesson about respecting, hearing and taking care of the people he's supposed to lead.
The military years also highlight a side of McBride easy to miss with his unpolished campaign style. On the stump, he's an amiable rookie candidate who sometimes comes off more wide-eyed than confident. His jokes about his excess weight and the snooze-inducing speeches he has given belie a harder side remembered by former Marines who served with him.
"He was definitely the guy in charge," former Lt. Mike Beggs said.
McBride put it more bluntly: "I was a hard _s," he said, using a description shared even by some of his bigger fans among the Marines in Company M, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines.
McBride was gung ho even by Marine standards and a stickler for discipline. He required his men to shave daily. He made them wear their helmets constantly and stay neatly dressed. In a war where drugs were rampant, he booted out of his company Marines caught smoking marijuana.
He wrote families of young men killed to say how much he admired their sons. North Vietnamese "Wanted" posters showed his picture. He developed malaria. One time, two of his men were killed after McBride and several other soldiers tossed their packs down and a hidden booby trap exploded.
"I don't know anybody who went through things like we did who's not affected to this day in some form or another," said Dennis Palmer, who served under McBride. "You're out there doing search-and-destroy and every day dealing with life and death. Most of us were scared to death. You're getting shot at with real bullets, and you're seeing people desecrated in all kinds of ways. Anybody that went through what we did is someone who's seen a lot of hurt."
McBride wasn't eager to talk about whatever emotional toll the war took on him.
"My feelings are deep and strong and very personal to me. . . . It had a profound effect on me, the patriotism and feelings these guys had _ and most of them were just kids _ for their country. And most of them had very little material stake in their country because of where they came from."
This is not a man haunted by Vietnam. To this day, he believes the war a just cause for America.
"I liked Vietnam," McBride said. "I liked going out on night patrols and ambushes. It was very intoxicating. Most people will tell you, if they're honest about it, that some of the most exhilarating situations in their lives were when they were in a bad situation."
Concern for his men
Most of McBride's classmates at the University of Florida law school stayed home. McBride, with strong grades and a knee injury that had ended his college football career, could have stayed home, too. He says he never took that option seriously.
"I felt I had a duty to fulfill before getting my law degree," he wrote in a 1971 letter to his Marine superiors. "I felt guilty that while I was in school other men were dying in Vietnam."
He entered basic training in Virginia in 1969. After graduating in the top 1 percent of his class, he decided he wanted to spend his life in the military. He went on to Army Ranger School for two months of hand-to-hand combat training, long marches, mountaineering, obstacle courses, and sleep and food deprivation.
Ranger School is famous for pushing soldiers mentally and physically to the brink _ sometimes over it. McBride lost 30 pounds in Ranger School and graduated first in his class of 163, a feat rare for a Marine.
He spent five months as a platoon commander aboard ships in the South China Sea before he volunteered to go in-country. He was trained to fight, he said, and wanted to see combat.
He joined Mike 3/7, a company some soldiers dubbed "Mighty Mini Medevac Mike" because, they said, it took so many casualties, it usually was short on bodies.
Enlisted men typically didn't think much of new lieutenants. They seemed to come and go, and they often came in overconfident and with little fighting experience. Mostly, the soldiers just wanted someone who wouldn't needlessly get them killed.
McBride rubbed some people the wrong way.
"A lot of guys didn't care for his style," said Harry Rees, a corporal from Kansas. "He came in with these ideas that were probably textbook classroom stuff that don't work, and it kind of started him off on a sour foot with a lot of the guys. When you try to say, "Sir, that won't work out here,' and he won't listen, how would you feel about the guy?"
Gary McNary, from Clearwater, remembered once making a joke about McBride's little hometown, Leesburg. The lieutenant lit into him.
"He wasn't one of my favorites. McBride went out in the bush (on patrols) with us, I'll give him that. But a lot of us thought he was way too gung ho, and in our position, when someone is too gung ho, usually one of us was going to die."
But those were minority views among more than a dozen members of Mike 3/7 interviewed by the Times. Most recalled a largely by-the-book lieutenant who was willing to toss the book aside when it didn't fit jungle fighting. He joined them on dangerous night patrols more often than most lieutenants, they said, and watched out for his men.
"I had three or four lieutenants, and McBride was probably the best we had as far as leadership ability, in terms of getting the respect of his men and guys not questioning his decisions and things," Gary Smith of Alabama said.
"If I went to Lt. McBride and said, "I kind of feel like we're in a bad situation; maybe we need to put the guns out here,' he was someone who would listen. Not every lieutenant would."
Robert "Top" Alley was first sergeant of Mike 3/7, the most experienced soldier over there. Alley, a Fort Myers resident, is actively helping the McBride campaign and is expected to appear in a campaign ad.
"He was just a little bit above the rest of the lieutenants," Alley said. "All the stuff he asked other people to do, he was willing to do himself. The troops really seemed to like him."
Quaylen, who lost his leg and received a Bronze Star, said McBride managed to be strict but approachable: "He was the kind of guy that wanted to be close to his people. He was respected because most of the time (with lieutenants) it's just the opposite. Some of them don't even talk to the men, because they think it's beneath them. McBride was probably the best officer I served with, showed a lot of concern for his men."
The Bronze Star
McBride spent six months in Vietnam, including several months leading American and South Vietnamese troops. His supervisors gave glowing evaluations that cited courage, intelligence and concern for his men. He was promoted to company commander and received a Bronze Star for his six months in combat operations:
"Initially assigned as a platoon commander, he participated in numerous combat operations . . . and repeatedly distinguished himself by his courage and composure under fire as he skillfully directed the combat efforts of his men during confrontations with the enemy," the citation read in part.
McBride returned to the United States in the fall of 1970, as the Marines were pulling out of Vietnam. He taught English to Marines in officer candidate school but found the assignment far less interesting than fighting. He received permission to be released from active duty in November 1971.
He left the Marines as a captain and completed his law degree. He went on to become head of Holland & Knight, a firm that became Florida's biggest.
McBride says he hardly mentioned Vietnam for two decades after the war. Most of his friends never served, so it rarely came up. Asked about Jeb Bush's lack of military experience, McBride shrugged off the question.
"I've never really criticized people who made the other decision (about serving), because most of my best friends took whatever steps they could to not be eligible."
But now the war record is a major part of McBride For Governor Inc. Some of his old troops are joining the battle for governor.
"I switched parties so I could vote for him in the primary," former 1st Sgt. Alley said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.
Trim, young Bill McBride receives the Bronze Star in 1970 for his service with the Marines in Vietnam.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate McBride greets veterans at the Florida American Legion State Convention after a speech July 12.