Pace, Fellow Marines Renew Bonds Forged in Combat
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2004 Hue City, 1968. Back then, this South Vietnam city was ground zero for the Tet Offensive.
Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace
stands surrounded by former Marines who served with him in Hue City,
Vietnam, in 1968. Photo by Mamie Mae Burke
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Marine 2nd Lt. Peter Pace walked into this maelstrom of combat. He took command of the 2nd Platoon, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in February 1968 and participated in some of the most deadly fighting of the Vietnam War. The bonds he forged with the men of Golf Company last to this day.
Marines and soldiers battling in the city faced house-to-house fighting. U.S. casualties were devastating. These men fought bravely, and many died.
Hue City was one of those key places in history that tests the courage and tenacity of all involved, and creates bonds and memories that reach far beyond that time and place.
Recently, Golf Company recalled those days of combat, sacrifice and friendship at the home of now-Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
His experiences from Hue City affect him today. "In the jungles of Vietnam, I learned from lance corporals, corporals and sergeants what sacrifice was all about," Pace said in 2001, soon after becoming vice chairman. "It was their blood that gave me a debt that I can never fully repay."
The men at the Golf Company reunion were those lance corporals, corporals and sergeants. Pace is not "the general" to these former Marines; he's "Pete."
The platoon posed for pictures with the general. "Anybody looking at that would see a bunch of middle-aged guys who couldn't put together a very good basketball team," Pace said. "But what I see is a bunch of great Americans who did what they had to do and would do it again in a heartbeat."
Physically, these men certainly have changed, but the camaraderie was the same, and the sense of humor that saw them through those harrowing times is apparent. "My wife says I should get in shape," one man told a friend. "I tell her I am. Round is a shape."
Another man patted his stomach and said, "I'm ahead of the power curve if someone decides beer bellies are sexy."
Mike Ervin was then-Lt. Pace's radio operator in Hue City. A lance corporal at the time, he remembers the first time he met the lieutenant.
"We were on the western outskirts of Hue City still chasing the (North Vietnamese army)," Ervin said. "We were scoping out a hill with a big bunker on it, and taking fire. Here comes this person walking through the bushes with new utilities on."
Ervin soon learned that the new guy listened. "We could tell he valued our knowledge and listened to our advice," he said.
Golf Company had taken many casualties. "We'd lost probably half our force on the first day of Hue City," Ervin said. "And even those still on line were walking wounded."
Pace developed a close relationship with the men. Ervin said the general carries a picture of the first man who died under his command and knows the names of all the rest, Ervin said.
Lester Tully was a lance corporal squad leader in 2nd Platoon. "A platoon is normally about 30 to 35 guys," said Tully. "We were down to 13."
He said that when Pace arrived, he called the squad leaders together. "He told us, 'My name is Pete Pace, and I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm brand new here. If you guys will help me out and talk to me, I promise that I will listen,'" Tully said.
He said that was just the opposite of a lot of officers. "He was our third lieutenant in just a couple of weeks," Tully said. "He was just another officer to start with, and he proved himself by listening and looking out for us, because he knew that we were going to look out for him."
Tully said Pace followed through. "He made us enlisted guys want to be with him and show him things, and we had no problem with him being an officer and we being enlisted," he said.
"It was probably the most difficult time of all our lives," Tully said. "We saw hundreds of people killed, and we expected to be killed any day, any minute. Then he came along and things got better. There were times that we didn't know where our next meal was coming from. We were running out of bullets. But he knew what we needed and helped us out by getting it."
Barney Barnes was another lance corporal squad leader, a job that should have been held by a sergeant. "I never saw another officer do this, but every night before we went on patrol or ambush, the squad leaders and platoon sergeants and him would sit down and have a meal together," Barnes said. "That was kind of unheard of. We would eat supper together and talk about what kind of day we had and what we expected to do that night."
Barnes, from Broken Arrow, Okla., said that Pace is "a product of what we did in Vietnam. The bond that was forged back then remains today." He said the general's ability to listen is one reason he has been successful.
All of the men are proud of their former platoon leader who has risen to four stars and the second highest position in the armed forces.
And he remembers how the men subtly -- and not so subtly -- helped him learn his job. "I remember early on the guys were filling sandbags for a position and I -- trying to find my way as a new leader -- went down and started filling sand bags with them," Pace said. "One of the squad leaders said to me, 'Lieutenant, we've got this. We need you to be thinking about the next patrol or the next thing that we have to do. We can do the sandbags. We need you to do what you're supposed to do.'"
The bond forged in war created trust among the men. Pace said that speaking with his comrades "grounds" him. When old friends call they ask him about how he is doing and what is happening. During the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of his Golf Company Marines called to check on their lieutenant, said Tully. "The trust is absolute," Tully said. "He knows we will tell him the truth as we see it."
The bonds of combat are not unique to the 2nd Platoon. Men have been bonded by shared experience throughout history. William Shakespeare wrote of it in Henry V: "We few. We happy few. We band of brothers. For he that sheds his blood with me today, shall be my brother. Be he ere so vile, this day shall gentle his condition."
Nor are these bonds unique to the military. The New York City Fire Department experienced the same type of bonding in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
And the men and women now fighting against terrorism around the world are experiencing the same thing. "We followed how the 5th Marines did in Iraq," said Tully. "They fought with honor. And I expect they have an idea of how we feel about each other."
Pace said that as a young officer he was humbled by the experience of command. "Anybody who can be working with young men like that, who doesn't feel a sense of awe about how loyal they are and how willing they are to do what the nation asks them to do and to follow a young second lieutenant's orders into combat, if you as the lieutenant don't feel humbled by the whole experience then you really have missed a real opportunity," he said.
The general said he feels indebted to the men of the platoon. "The reason I'm still on active duty is because of the young guys I worked with in combat who followed my orders and died. There is no way I can repay them or repay their parents or their families other than to come to work every day and try to do the best I can," he said.
"It is why I will stay on active duty as long as my country wants me. But it's also why, when I leave, that I'll feel good but not content," he continued. "I'll feel good that I've done the best I can, but I'll never, ever feel like I've done enough."