John Musgrave

(Frank) Today on Around Kansas Deb has a special guest, John Musgrave, a proud marine and one of the speakers at the traveling Vietnam Wall exhibit recently hosted at the Museum of the Kansas National Guard. We hear Never leave a man behind in the movies, but John brings that saying to life in this powerful interview.

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(Deb) Welcome to Around Kansas. We’re here at the Museum of the Kansas National Guard, where we’ve just heard a really incredible talk by John Musgrave. And John, proud Marine and John I’m proud to be sitting here with you. (John) Thank you ma’am. (Deb) Alright, so you are here, the Vietnam Wall is here the traveling wall exhibit is here at the Kansas National Guard Museum. And so what does it mean to you as a Vietnam vet to come to this memorial? (John) It’s like visiting a family plot. There are 22 names on the wall that I know. And countless others that I only knew them by their nick name. But every one of them was a brother and that makes the family and they were all an inspiration to me. (Deb) Now you enlisted in the Marines? (John) Yes ma’am, 17 years old. (Deb) Why did you enlist? (John) I love my country and I had grown up, you know in my generation there was a draft, so being male you had to think about the military from the time you were old enough to know what a duty and obligation meant. So, we thought about it and the only choice we really had was to choose a branch or wait to be drafted into the Army and all I knew was I wanted to be a Marine more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. (Deb) So, what you said earlier about going to the recruiter at 13, is that true? (John) That’s very true, yes. (Deb) So, you went to the recruiter at 13 and thankfully he said no. (John) Yes, but they got to know me real well cause I was up there every other weekend or so, begging for a new copy of Leatherneck Magazine and asking them to tell me stories, and asking if they’d let me lie this week and join. And one day when I was 17 I walked in, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was tired of listening to me just talk about it. And he said, “You’re 17 right?” And I said, “Yes sir.” And he said, “Are you ready to sign up?” And I went, “GULP, and then I thought… you know there was just that half beat and I said, “Yea Gunny I am, I’m ready.” (Deb) Now you grew up in between Missouri and Kansas basically. So, tell us about the little town that you came from. (John) Well in Missouri I lived in Sugar Creek, Missouri, which is outside of Independence. But every summer of my life I was in Paradise, Kansas, which is in Russell County. And it’s a little, teeny town but it was a wonderful place to be a kid. And I had a magnificently, beautiful extended family. Wonderful uncle and aunts and great cousins, just a whole brood of cousins. You know we were the baby boomers. And all my uncles were WWII and Korea vets. (Deb) And then after the military, after you got out you pick another small Kansas town. (John) Yes, ma’am, I ended up in Baldwin City. I went there to go to college at Baker University.

(Deb) I want to ask you again, your speech was so powerful tonight because it was just every word heartfelt and true. Why do you do this? (John) I survived. And I’ve got to do the job that my buddies would have done. I feel like they stand behind me every time I get up in front of a group. And I don’t have the right to stay at home and hide. For one thing I am a citizen in the United States of America. And as a citizen I’ve got a tremendous set of responsibilities. We often call ’em our rights. They’re not rights. They’re duties and responsibilities. And if we don’t participate you know it’s called participatory democracy, if you don’t participate, it’s not a democracy. I’m driving on old Buick out there. I can call that a Corvette all I want, but it’s not, it’s an old Buick. And we can call this a democracy all we want, but if we’re not out there, fulfilling our duties as a citizen in a participatory democracy, then it’s not a democracy. And that’s just the way I feel. (Deb) Had you… you weren’t old enough to vote before you went into the service? (John) I wasn’t old enough to vote when I got out of the service. (Deb) Because it was 21? (John) Yes ma’am. (John) I was a combat veteran and I was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps, but according to my country, I wasn’t worthy to be trusted with a beer or the right to vote.

(Deb) When you were wounded the first time, how serious was that one? (John) It wasn’t. Fortunately, I stayed in the field with my buddies. A hand grenade landed in front of me. It was a concussion grenade. I never even heard it go off, I just woke up and Doc Shade had come out and got me and drug me into a hole and was leaning over me and I was really scared. But Doc Shade had me and I knew if Doc as there, I was OK. (Deb) Now, then what happened the second time. (John) Shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade. And passed out and came back. (Deb) So was that just a field hospital that you went to? (John) What we called BAS, Battalion Aid Station. (Deb) And then the third time, do you remember that? (John) Sure do. We were caught in a horseshoe ambush. I was probably one of the first 10 people to be shot. First round, I assumed was a ricochet, it hit me in the chin. Again, I didn’t feel it. Didn’t know it, I was trying to kill the guy and when I opened my eyes I was lying on my face and my hand was up under my head like this and there was blood pouring down my forearm, my face was gone. And I was scared. And my buddies started yelling to me and the gunner that shot me had been fighting in the Marines for a long time, he knew they don’t leave their wounded and that is when I became his bait. And my first buddy came up to me. The gunner wasn’t any farther away than the edge of that table. And he leaned down over me and slipped his hands up under my shoulders and lifted me up and when he did the gunner fired a burst into the left side of my chest. Which tore me out of my buddy’s arms and then he killed him. When we say the Marines never leave their wounded it’s not propaganda. We never leave our wounded. And twice my future was purchased with the valor of fellow Marines. Doc Shade was a Navy corpsman. He was the best Marine in our platoon as far as I was concerned.

(Deb) Was this day or night, this third, this third time? (John) It was in the morning. Seventh of November. I don’t know what day of the week it was. Just south of the DMZ, north west of a place called Con Thien. (Deb) And what were you guys doing? (John) We were in a company size sweep, it was the first combat action outside of the wire during the Siege of Con Thien, that lasted through September and October. And they finally decided that we had to go out and be aggressive. We’d been surrounded by 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. And we had a new lieutenant and a new captain and the North Vietnamese baited the trap with three of their men showing themselves. And those of us who’d been in country for quite a while begged our lieutenant, don’t do this, don’t follow ’em, this is as old as Custer. But our new captain wanted the bodies because victory wasn’t real estate. War is a real estate business, but in Vietnam they twisted it all up and it was all about body count. We called it stacking meat. And he said, “Go get me their bodies and the lieutenant was a wonderful guy, I liked him a lot, but he was just in, he just got there. And we pursued the North Vietnamese and myself and some of the other guys in the platoon that had been in country a long time, we fixed our bayonets. We knew it was going to be bad. And they maneuvered us. We were a flank platoon and they maneuvered us off the flank to where we couldn’t be supported by the other two platoons, popped the ambush and tore us up. (Deb) What did this look like? Are you in grass? Are you in jungle? (John) Jungle. We went from going through hedge rows and in a cleared area where we could see them and that’s when they started showing themselves, but by the time we popped the ambush, we were in the jungle. (Deb) So, how many guys are with you at that point? (John) Might have had 30 people by then, that was probably the biggest platoon we’ve ever had. And that’s not a full infantry platoon, but we had a lot of casualties. And it was not a good day for Third Platoon. (Deb) So, what was the result of that fight, that day? (John) Third Platoon was destroyed. I don’t know how high the casualties were, I only know of the two men that were dragging me out and the two men that were dragging my grenadier Leonard Blair, from Oklahoma City. Outstanding Marine. He was the first one shot to pop the ambush. So, I only know about six of us. I’m sure that there were other guys that got out, but I don’t know.

(Deb) So, after you were wounded there, where were you taken? (John) I was first I was flown to Delta Med at Dong Hoi. And they triaged me. They looked at me, I’m conscious but I’ve got a hole through my chest big enough you could stick your fist through me and out my back. And the surgeon came up to me and he said, he looked at the corpsman and he says, “I can’t do anything for this man.” And then he looked at me and saw I was conscious and said, “What’s your religion?” And I told him and he said, “Get a chaplain over here,” and he took off. And then I knew I was gonna die from the moment I was shot. But each time I’d get a little boost you know when they got me back to the company, I got a little “Oh, maybe I’ll make it.”
But then the senior corpsman for the company said, “I can’t do anything for this guy.” And then the medavac bird came in, they shot the hell out of that bird, but those were Marines and they came in to get us. They threw me on the bird, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll make it.” And the medavac corpsman stood over me, straddle legged, looked down at me, and he looked at the hole in my chest and he looked up at the crew chief and went (hand actions), like that and they shoved me under the port side gunners feet and then I knew, well OK I I’d lasted a long time praying for my folks, so I felt good about that. Then we got to Dong Ha and I thought maybe I’m gonna make. And then he said that. Now, oh OK. You know I’d seen guys wounded like I was. They didn’t….they didn’t… But I got the chaplain bending over me, praying for me and I’m seeing my buddies come in. I’m lucky, I’ve got my stretchers on a saw horse. And there were guys laying on the deck, they were just bringing in chopper full of wounded Marines, chopper after chopper after chopper. I remember the corpsman slipping on the deck there was so much blood. Looking around and seeing of my buddies that were being brought in from other platoons. And a red headed guy walked in my line of vision and I was always raised to be a gentleman and you always acknowledged someone. And as he came by, I was at perfect peace, I smiled at him and nodded. And he stopped. I didn’t know he was a doctor, but he stopped and he said, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” And I went, “Yeah, why isn’t somebody helping this man?” And then I didn’t think I had any screams left in me, but he had to do something to me to keep me alive a little longer. And I found out I had one more scream stored up way down in the bottom of my feet cause it came up. See when you’re chest shot, you can’t have any pain medication at all because it restricts your breathing. So, what they did for me and Leonard Blair my grenadier, he’d been shot in the right side of the chest. A C-130 aircraft is a four engine airplane. It’s a big airplane. That doctor got a C-130 for just Leonard Blair and me. And they put us on that airplane with corpsman, who all their job was to keep changing out our blood bags cause as quick as they’d pump it in to us, it was pumping right back out. They flew us from Dong Hoi to Phu Bai, which is where an Alpha Med Battalion was. But they had, I can’t remember what they’re called, they’re surgeons that specialize in working on chests. They had two specialists there waiting for Leonard for myself. And I was lucky one of the guys that came up… of all these thousands of Marines that were there, one of the guys that came in and grabbed my stretcher had been with me since boot camp and was one of the my oldest friends, Pat Van Buren. (Deb) Wow. (John) And when they put me under I told him good bye and to write my folks and let them know that I was OK with it. I was OK with dying because I knew I was going to die. And then I came to in intensive care and I don’t think anybody was any more surprised than I was. I felt really good about it. (Deb) So, were you 18 or 19? (John) I was 19 by then. I’d been in country 11 months and 17 days. And our unit, we said, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but First Battalion Ninth Marines in Vietnam suffered the highest causalities of any Marine Infantry Battalion in the history of the Marine Crops. More than WWI, WWII, more than Korea. They bled us white. And our slogan was, You’re Never Short You’re Always Next. And that was usually the case. (Deb) I just don’t know what to say. (John) I’m the luckiest man I ever knew. And I’m lucky because of my buddies. Because they never, they never let anything stop them from getting to me. As they drug me away and the North Vietnamese were pursuing us, they would drop me and cover my body with theirs, fire back at the NVA and then get up and grab me and drag me a little farther. And I was telling them to leave me cause I didn’t want anybody else to get killed because of me. And they wouldn’t do it. That’s why my two sons are named after those two guys.

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4 Comments

  1. John Musgrave. You are certainly one of my heroes a thought you did a great job on the PBS documentary on the Viet Nam war. I live in Kilgore Tx and have been wanting to visit Kansas for quite some time. I would love to have the honor of meeting you. My phone # is 903-353-4666. Talking to one of my heroes would mean a lot to me.

  2. Deb (if I may),

    I’m trying to contact John Musgrave via email, but can find no address. I am a former Marine, a helicopter Crew Chief, who was in Vietnam the same time that John was in Vietnam. In fact, there is a chance he flew in my plane.

    You would be hard pressed to find another Marine with a life after Vietnam as eventful as mine. Since Vietnam, I have been shot, stabbed, run over with my own motorcycle, had my ass kicked by a group of Hell’s Angels chicks. Once upon a time, I was fluent in Mandarin, could get by in Japanese. I worked for more than three years undercover as a Sheriff’s Deputy, was a tenured professor at a Japanese university. Most of my combat experience, despite the tour-and-a-half in Vietnam, took place in Laos and Cambodia. At the time, I was going to university in Taiwan, and at the same time, working for a Taiwanese import/export company. Why I am still alive is beyond my ken. All my friends from those long-ago days are long gone.

    I’d like to talk to John about writing–especially about war and the aftermath.

    In addition to the above, and totally by accident, and even though I had never before attempted to write anything other than reports and research papers, people who are supposed to know such things reckoned that I had the talent to be a writer. They rustled up a spare TA, and gave me a full ride scholarship to do an MFA in Creative Writing. You could have knocked me over with an empty brass cartridge. To date, I’ve published everything I’ve written since then, including (though I am loath to admit it) a small number of poems. Simon and Schuster wanted to make me a property, but . . . I had other fish to fry. It is only within the last four years that I’ve had time to write anything longer than a newspaper column. The rub is that I never, ever, write my own stories. I’m too close to them

    Here’s hoping that I’ve said enuff to entice John into a dialogue. References, if necessary. Boo-coo thanks, Gary J. Cook

  3. John – I was the only surviving officer of Bravo Company 1/9 from the Ambush at the Market Place on July 2, 1967. I saw in the Ken Burns production that you helped retrieve the remains of those dead Marines a couple of days later. A very grim duty. Would like to hear from you sometime. Bill D.

  4. Hello John, would love to hear from you -meet,talk,email; whatever. I am a fellow vet, South Vietnam 1969-70. It seemed you were speaking to me personally on the PBS documentary. God Bless You, Tom in Overland Park, KS

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