(Editor's Note: What follows are annotated excerpts from Suzanne Moore's interview with Mark Weinberger. Mr. Weinberger's recollections are recorded in quotations.)
Mark Weinberger was born in Philadelphia, PA, in October 1946. He served in the USMC Active and Reserve Duties from February 29, 1964, to October 24, 1990. His service awards and medals include: Purple Heart, Combat Action, Presidential Unit Citation (2), Navy Unit Citation, Good Conduct, Marine Corps Reserve, National Defense (2), Vietnam Service Medal with 3 stars, Vietnam Unit Gallantry Cross, Vietnam Civil Action, and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Mark’s father, Sylvan Weinberger, joined the Army and served in the Aleutian Islands from 1942 through the remainder of Wold War II. A twist of fate kept Mark’s dad out of the initial operation to reclaim the islands from Japan. While in training he developed jaundice and had to be hospitalized for a while. The battle was a pretty bloody affair, but when he finally got there the enemy had already left the scene.
Mark grew up hearing stories from his father and uncles, who also served in the Army. His uncle Murray Weinberger was with Patton’s 3rd Army, and he was involved with hand-to-hand combat at the Rhine River and helped liberate one of the concentration camps. What he witnessed was absolutely horrible. He wouldn’t talk about it. His uncle Bob Taylor was a sniper, and he was captured by the Nazis in Italy. He knew if he was caught with his rifle and identified as a sniper, they would kill him. So he buried his weapon before they saw it. They took him prisoner and he survived, but he came back a skeleton. His other uncle Martin Taylor (Bob’s brother) was initially in the U.S. Marine Reserves. When WWII broke out he was drafted into the U.S. Army (83rd Division) and was wounded in action while deployed to France.
The fact that his father and uncles had served motivated Mark to join the Marine Corps.
Then there were movies . . .
"Can’t forget John Wayne in the 'Sands of Iwo Jima.' I watched it as a kid and thought, 'Damn, I wanna do that!' And I watched 'Sergeant York'—I have that movie to this day—I love that movie with Gary Cooper."
Mark was seventeen when he joined on February 29, 1964, in Philadelphia. He went to Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training and as he describes the experience, it was brutal.
"I remember Parris Island. I’d like to have killed this one drill instructor. I would almost rather go back to Vietnam than Parris Island. Parris Island in '64 was hell on earth! Those drill instructors would beat the tar out of you. And being Jewish, as soon as the DI heard my name, you know, [he called me] 'you f***ing Jew.' I got that all the time."
"There is a purpose behind it—I know it sounds stupid and cruel and inhumane and all that—but there is a purpose behind it. They want to weed out weakness. They wanted to erase any semblance of civilian crap out of you. You are to become a killing machine. That's the whole idea behind boot camp, they want to wipe your brain clean and put Marine Corps in there. So that when the day comes and your sergeant or whoever is in charge of you in a combat zone says to you, 'Fix bayonets and attack that machine gun nest,' you're not going to stand there and question why. You're just going to jump up and do it."
"After I got over pooping my pants in Parris Island and finally settled down, I thought, 'I like this.' It was a challenge. I was a little skinny sh!t who couldn't do one pull-up. They beat me for that. So finally I was able to do at least three, plus the other calisthenics I was pretty good at. I could do a lot of sit-ups. And you ate so well. The chow was excellent, let me tell you. I remember writing home about that. I know breakfast was called ‘sh!t on a shingle.’ It was chipped beef on toast and I loved it. They really fed you well because you were in physical training from zero dark-thirty in the morning until night. You were running, running, and running everywhere. There was no walking. You were marching, but otherwise you were running everywhere. Of course all those calisthenics and all the other stuff you had to do, I started to gain weight pretty fast. I was 110 pounds when I got there, and I was 125 pounds when I left and still pretty skinny. I was worried at first with the brutality of it. Then I thought to myself, 'I'm going to make it, I'm going to make it!' A lot of other guys were a lot bigger and stronger than me. I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to make it.' I was determined. And I did, I never flunked nothing out. I qualified with the rifle like you're supposed to and at the time that was the proudest day of my life. I was graduating Parris Island! To think I had twelve weeks of this terror."
Going to Vietnam
"When you're 18, 19 years old, you don't know the things you find out later on in life. No one talked about where we were going. No one knew where you were going. It's not like today where almost everything is advertised. We were just told one day, 'Pack up all your gear, everything you've got, in your sea bag and grab your rifle and 782 gear, and we are going to mount out in San Diego.' We all were driven down there in trucks and then got on these old WWII troop ships, and off we went. We had no clue where we were going."
"After traveling across the beautiful Pacific Ocean, all of a sudden we were in Hawaii. And I was lucky enough to have a little time to see the Arizona Memorial and took a lot of pictures there. Even when we left Pearl Harbor, we still were not told where we're going. The one thing that put a chill down our spines, the one thing I'll never forget to this day: As we were leaving past the USS Arizona Memorial, which had just been completed, the commanding officer of our ship, the USS Pickaway APA-222, ordered all of us on deck to salute the Arizona as we went by. His voice came across the PA, the public address system, saying, 'For some of you, this may be the last time you see US soil.' And we looked at each other like, 'Eeee, where are we going??' At that point and time we knew we were going to combat. Somewhere."
"Then we get to Okinawa, and we're doing practice landings and troop movements and stuff like that, you know, practice stuff. Still no one said where we were going. And here we are, not too far from Vietnam. We are there for a month or two, playing around. This time they put us on dock landing ships, because they hold amphibious tractors and stuff like that. A lot of us went over in nets just like they did in WWII. At that point and time they told us we were going to make an assault landing in Vietnam."
"I remember seeing the WWII landing crafts when I was growing up. We went over in that, just like the guys did in WWII. It's just amazing how I was thinking about that as we did that. I was thinking, 'Whoa, this is like a repeat. And what are we getting into?' We had no clue. We were not told that this is going to be an opposed landing, or unopposed, they didn't tell us anything. Just do as you are told, get in the boat. The thing's bobbing around, because it takes a while before they off-load all the troops into these landing crafts. They have to circle around until they are all in line to go in. Then as you’re going in, that's when they say, 'Lock and load.' That's when you jack a round into the chamber, put it on safe so we don't accidentally shoot each other, and down goes the ramp. Then we come running across and we all hit the beach. We are all looking around and nobody is shooting at us, which is a good thing. Then low and behold up on the berm of the beach, here's the US Army clapping, 'Yay, the Marines are here!' It was completely unopposed. They just did that for show, I guess."
"My MOS, military occupational specialty, was 1371 combat engineer, skilled in demolition. We did everything. We were support troops. We went every place the infantry went, [in case] we came up to a cave or something that had to be blown up."
"In demolitions training, we learned how to use every kind of demolition the military used. Det-Cord, TNT, C-3, C-4, shape charges, Bangalore Torpedoes, and Claymore Mines (the kind of mine you stick in the ground and set off with a hell-box). Generally, one combat engineer would be designated in every squad during a sweep to carry a 40-pound C-4 satchel with 20 blasting caps in their flack-jacket breast pocket. And when we were over there, that was one of our jobs, one of many jobs. Combat engineer wasn't just demolitions. It was called demolitions and construction training. We built the bunkers, we strong backed the tents, we were occupied in building culverts, building bomb proof shelters, building roads, etc."
"Engineers didn't do many patrols. We did a couple, but we did the big search and destroy missions with the infantry, right along with them. We would carry our mine detectors with us, we'd put the headset on, because anytime they could come up on the road or someplace that was suspicious. We were told never to walk on a rice patty dike. That's where they'd put the booby-traps. The g**ks were famous for saving old ordnance. The old Indo-China when the French were there, they had collected all this old ordnance that was left after they were wiped out in 1954 with the battle of Dien Bien Phu. They would take all this old ordnance or even stuff we would fire, and if it didn't explode like a shell didn't explode, they would take it and make a booby trap out of it. They would hook a grenade to it or some kind of ignition device, even batteries they used for a blasting cap or something. So as we were told, when we did our search and destroy missions across these huge rice patties, 'Do not walk on the dikes that separated the patties.' You had to walk right through and that is how we all got trench foot. Our boots rotted out. Within a couple months your leather boots just don't hold up. Then we finally got the jungle boots in early 1966. The Army always got the good stuff first. We got the hand-me-down junk. All of our 782 gear packs, cartridge belts, all that stuff was WWII issued."
"I was in pretty harsh conditions, the heat was incredible. In monsoons, you're always soaking wet from either the sweat or the rain. When we first got there we would live in a shelter tent. It wasn't like real tents. We would have to make our own little hooch, and live under a shelter-half. We would use ammo crates and things like that to make something to lay on and to write letters on. A lot of times you would write letters by a flashlight. You kept real secluded so you wouldn't be seen by the enemy."
"Altogether, there were six of us that got hit on my last search and destroy mission, Operation Kansas. We were going up to Tam Ky in trucks to be deployed out in the field. Another unit of Marines was going out in helicopters in the other direction. The idea was to squeeze the Viet Cong into a situation where they would be annihilated. Anyhow, when we were up in Tam Ky, we had stopped to stay overnight, for whatever reason, I can’t remember why. Then in the morning, I remember when I got up, I saw some Vietnamese in black pajamas. This is always suspicious, but they weren't carrying guns. They were just walking on the other side of this barbed wire. We were all having our C-rations and just standing around getting ready to move out, when all of a sudden there was an explosion. Apparently one of them threw a grenade or something towards us. We were all too close to each other, and we shouldn't have been, but sometimes you just relax."
"Well, I got hit by some sort of grenade or a fragmentation device. There were six of us that got hit by that. What saved me was the door of a personnel carrier, a three-quarter ton personnel carrier. The door took the brunt of the explosion that would have taken out my guts. Instead, because my legs were showing, I got hit in both arms, both hands and my legs were shredded."
"They saved my life. I would have bled out. The corpsmen were right there, thank God. And I'm screaming like an idiot, 'Save my boots!' I'll never forget it. I didn’t feel it. In an explosion, you don't know what's happening. It is so instantaneous, and it's so violent. I didn't feel any pain. But my legs were shredded and my right leg was split in half, from the center of my shin all the way up to the middle of my thigh. It blew out half of my calf muscle instantaneously."
"But what I was angry about was that I had just stolen those boots from the supply tent! My [first] boots were the old leather type and had worn out very quickly. We didn't get the new jungle boots for a while, and I always wanted that pair of boots. So I snuck over to the supply tent one day, crawled over there, snuck underneath it, found my size and stole 'em. Requisitioned them."
"Well, I was wearing those brand new boots when I got hit, and one corpsman said, 'Don't worry about it, there ain't nothing left of your boots.' It's really funny. They were torn off my feet actually, cause a good part of my left ankle was torn apart too. It was just amazing, but I thought I was going to die. First I'm looking for my rifle, like an idiot, and I'm crawling and they told me, 'Weinberger, stop crawling!' When they turned me over, they saw all the damage. I was laying there and part of the shrapnel had gone into my right hand. I lifted my hand sort of like a reaction, and blood was just pouring out of my thumb onto my chest. I looked down and I thought, 'Oh well, I've been hit in the chest, I’m done.' They gave me morphine, and before the pain hit me I soon passed out. The last thing I remember, the medivac chopper came in and they put all of us in the chopper. There was blood slouching around inside the chopper, and some of the guys were crying for their mom and other stuff. You know, I understand that, but there was nothing to cry about. You’re going to die, so what are you going to do about it? I'd seen so many deaths, and it's just something you never get over."
Reflections on living and dying
"I am so thankful each day I wake up and open my eyes, especially up here in Ashe County’s beautiful mountains. Vietnam was a different world wherever you went, the smell of death was all around. It was the rice patties that went on for thousands and thousands of yards, or it was mountainous terrain. We went up in Happy Valley, way up in the mountains and we were so high we'd see the helicopters flying below us. I turned 19 in Vietnam, and on my birthday I was involved in a search and destroy mission. I was out in the middle of a rice patty with my M-14 and all the other guys. It was October 1965, my birthday. Anyway, it was a lot of fun, Southeast Asia war games we called it. What’s amazing is when you’re that young, first of all you don't think you're going to die. The other guys might die, or the enemy might die, but you don't think of yourself being killed. You just don't. You almost think you are young and invincible, when you're really young and dumb."
"I didn't experience the bad reception that a lot of Vietnam veterans had, because I was flown home on a C-130 medivac transport. First they had to sew me back together, which was done at a battalion aid station in Chu Lai. That was where the emergency medivac surgeries were done, and I was put out for at least three days before I woke up. After that, they flew me to Clark Air Force base for another operation in the Philippines. I was there for a little while, then they flew me to Yokosuka, Japan, for more operations. I forget for how long I stayed there now. And then from there they flew me all the way to California for another operation. Then they sent me to Philadelphia Naval Hospital for my final skin grafts. I am forever grateful to the corpsman who stopped my bleeding, the Huey helicopter pilot who transported me and others, and the surgeons and nurses of the Battalion Aid Station who saved my legs. Also those involved in follow-up operations in Okinawa, the Philippines, Japan, and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital during my six-month recovery."
"I went into federal law enforcement in December 1976. In 1977, they wanted me to work for the Department of Defense Police, so they sent me to the federal police academy in Georgia. A prerequisite for the job was to graduate from the police academy. After I had transferred to the Federal Protective Service I only worked for two years, then I went back to the Dept. of Defense police and stayed there until 2002."
"Looking back, I think the biggest thing that the military gave me was a sense of discipline. Not that I didn't have it as a kid, because my father was very strict. Mom was pretty strict too, but dad was more so. He was a hard working guy, who never took a vacation his whole life. He lived to the age of 91 and he worked almost up to that day. He was that type of person, a very hard working man. My mom wasn't as hard as dad, which was normal. Mothers are more nurturing and that sort of thing. Mom saved every single letter that I sent home, from boot camp and while in Vietnam. One thing I really feel bad about was the trauma of not knowing if a telegram was going to come. Of course my mom got a telegram; but it was about my injury, it wasn't a fatality."