Many Sundays Michael Yaggy has visited the grave of U.S. Army Maj. Walter Douglas Williams before attending service at St. John’s Church Western Run Parish. It’s there he reflects on his service in Vietnam.
Williams was killed in July 1967, just months after Yaggy returned home. While Yaggy never met Williams, he said he “feels some connection to him.”
“Even though I never knew him, I don’t want him to be forgotten,” said Yaggy, 75.
Yaggy, of Sparks, began attending Franklin & Marshall College in 1961. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, agreeing to do three years of active duty after college. He graduated in 1965 and was sent to Quantico for basic training. In March 1966, he was deployed to Vietnam.
When he arrived, he joined the First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment and guarded an air base which he didn’t consider difficult or complicated work. In April, he was assigned to a territory in southwest Vietnam where he engaged in daily combat. Yaggy said 50 to 60 Marines would patrol an area and try to secure it so the Vietnamese could farm and live in peace when small units of Viet Cong would engage them.
“Your horizon closes in,” Yaggy said. “You don’t really care about anything beyond 2,000 yards. You become very focused on what you’re doing. You’re always on the alert and always conscious that something could happen. You have three priorities: your mission, your Marines and yourself — in that order.”
Danny Mitchell served with Yaggy for 13 months.
“Mike’s a great guy,” Mitchell said. “He’s smart and he had a low-key, unobtrusive kind of courage. There’s not a lot of braggadocio about him. He is, like most Marines, very candid. He was respectful without being intimidated by superior officers and you could always rely on his judgment.”
Sim Pace also served with Yaggy in Vietnam.
“In addition to being a fine platoon leader as a second lieutenant in combat operations against hostile forces in Vietnam, he subsequently became the battalion intelligence officer which is a post normally held by a captain,” Pace said. “He served with great distinction in both capacities. Michael is a man of high ethical standards and I am privileged to have known him."
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Yaggy said he was just doing his duty.
“I was trying to get as many Marines home alive as I could,” Yaggy said. “When you’re in the service, whether you’re in combat or not, you’re serving your country and you’ve got to think in that context. You’re not doing it for you. You’re doing it for your country.”
In the summer of 1966, Yaggy said he lost one of his Marines while taking a village. They turned control of the village over to the Vietnamese, but Yaggy said the villagers ran away and they had to retake it a second time, losing another Marine in the process.
“I asked my battalion commander, ‘How can we win this war if they run away and we have to take it again?’ And he said, ‘We’re not going to win this war.’ That always stuck with me. We were in a war we couldn’t win,” Yaggy said.
Yaggy said 14 of his men were killed and 20 to 25 were wounded.
He received the Bronze Star with a combat V for valor and a Purple Heart for wounds received in action after being nicked by a land mine. He had always planned to go to law school and he said the G.I. Bill paid for part of his tuition at the University of North Carolina.
“One thing I learned in the Marines is to never confuse efforts with results. Another is to stay focused,” Yaggy said. “When new lawyers were assigned to me, I would tell them those things. I would also tell them, ‘Don’t tell me what you’ve done, tell me what you’ve accomplished.’ In combat, you learn that fairly quickly. I’m not the only person who served in the military who learned those lessons.”