Disease finds sniper Viet Cong didn't A soldier's story


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The right hand trembles, so he has to drink his Pepsi with both hands. Controlling his vision has become maddening. And when he stands, his legs quiver as if he were going to fall to the floor.

In another time, Carlos Norman Hathcock II was the ultimate terminator. As a sniper for the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam -- when the hands were rock steady, the eyes keen, the legs durable -- he was officially credited with killing 93 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. No sniper killed more people in the 216-year history of the Marines.

Now, this 49-year-old man called Gunny is ravaged by multiple sclerosis, a debilitating neurological disease. In constant pain, it's not clear how much time he has left.

But the retired gunnery sergeant believes he still has a mission to accomplish -- teaching others to save lives with one well-aimed rifle shot. When he is able to travel, Mr. Hathcock serves as a consultant on sniping to elite military units and police departments around the country, including Baltimore County.

As a Marine sniper, his job -- to kill with cunning and calculation -- had been a chilling one, one that makes many people flinch. Some view snipers as cold and murderous, the antithesis of

the American version of fair fighting. John Wayne and Matt Dillon never drew first.

But to others, trained military snipers are highly disciplined, slow and cautious workers, who never kill indiscriminately. Their usual targets are enemy officers, operators of crew-served weapons and communications specialists. And snipers are part of a long tradition, dating back to the early days of warfare when archers picked off key commanders.

For Mr. Hathcock, there never have been any doubts.

"Whether you take down an enemy soldier in combat or somebody who is threatening to kill a hostage in civilian life, it's still the same thing," he says. "When you do your job, you save lives."

Some military historians say Mr. Hathcock changed the art of combat sniping, from being just a marksman with a well-aimed rock or arrow to an accomplished shooter with a powerful scoped rifle who hunted humans like he hunted animals as a kid.

"Carlos developed an edge that I've never seen in another human being," says E. J. Land, Mr. Hathcock's commanding officer in Southeast Asia and now a security executive in New York City. "It was something that every smell and sound, the wind, trees, insects . . . they all said something to him. All of us were top marksmen but we didn't have that edge. Nobody but

Carlos did."

"I could hit anything"

It wasn't that Mr. Hathcock became intoxicated by the killing in the hills, pits and jungles of Vietnam. The challenge of the stalk was what drove him.

The stalk, after all, was what he learned as a child growing up in poverty in rural Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"Both my parents were alcoholics, died fairly young, and I was farmed out to kin a lot," he says. "So I acquired the skills of an excellent rifle shot and woodsman because the squirrel and rabbit I hunted wound up being our groceries. I got good at that. I always shot them in the head because a body shot wasted meat. Everybody joked that I could hit anything that I wanted with my rifle."

He dropped out of school in eighth grade and worked as a laborer. He spent much of his time in the woods, though, and dreamed of being a Marine.

On his 17th birthday, just as he planned, he walked into the Marine Corps recruiting station in Little Rock and signed up.

Soon, his special talent was recognized.

"In boot camp, I won expert badge on the rifle range," he recalls. But he had trouble adjusting to a regimented life. "I was still very belligerent," Mr. Hathcock says. "Look, here I was away from home the first time, earning my own money."

He was sent to Hawaii where, as a military policeman, he shot on the Marine rifle team. He also drank too much. He was busted to private twice, he says -- once for punching a lieutenant in the face, the other for being absent without leave.

Later, at Cherry Point, N.C., Mr. Hathcock matured. He stayed there four years as an instructor and member of the rifle team. In 1965, he won the coveted Wimbledon Cup in the 1,000-yard high-powered rifle competition, making him arguably the best rifle shot in America.

The next year he was in South Vietnam, assigned to the 1st Marine Division in the northern sector. When Captain Land heard about the new guy in country with the reputation of being a splendid rifle shot, he wanted the 24-year-old sharpshooter.

"Carlos was a country boy who was basic in his philosophy of loving his country and the Marine Corps," said Mr. Land, who was forming the division's new sniper team. "He started out immediately going on missions. He would work with an observer but did a lot of his work alone. He didn't like crowds because they made too much noise."

At a time when the U.S. military was concentrating on large search and destroy infantry operations involving thousands of men and massive amounts of equipment, Mr. Hathcock was spooking an elusive guerrilla-style enemy with his own brand of unconventional warfare.

"Carlos could strike from anywhere," Mr. Land recalled. "The NVA and VC eventually became terrified to move. And when that happened, Carlos and the other scout/snipers were saving the lives of Marines in the area."

The Vietnamese Communists had snipers too. Harry Summers, a highly decorated combat officer in Korea and Vietnam, recalled a 1966 incident in which he was standing next to his battalion commander, Maj. Dick Clark. An enemy sniper in a tree felled Major Clark. "Dick died instantly," said Mr. Summers, editor of Vietnam Magazine and an on-air consultant to NBC during the Persian Gulf war. "It was very unnerving."

Mr. Hathcock doesn't remember the first time he killed someone. "Every day just passed into each other, and I went out doing my job," he says.

On each mission, the sniper's routine was the same. Preparing for any surprise contact with the enemy, he wrapped a bandoleer of 84 rounds of high-powered rifle ammunition around his waist, inside his shirt. He carried two knives, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol with three magazines, some small tins of cheese, peanut butter and crackers and two canteens of water.

And he carried his instrument of death: a Winchester Model 70 with a powerful scope. If he was accompanied by an observer, the second man carried even more powerful binoculars and usually an automatic weapon.

Mr. Hathcock was as comfortable in the draining tropical heat of Vietnam as he was in the woods back home. Whether he was perched in a sandbagged position on top of a hill or camouflaged along a tree line, "I was at ease because I was where I wanted to be," he says.

"Oozed like a worm"

In a special behind-the-lines assignment, Mr. Hathcock was given a section of a map and told to eliminate a top area commander, a general, with the North Vietnamese Army.

He prepared for his operation like all the others: He double-checked his weapons, ammunition and other items. He used no soap to shower and no deodorant, fearing that enemy soldiers could smell them on the wind.

"I got on the helicopter and don't know where I went because it was hush-hush, but the ride sure was a long one," he says.

Charles Henderson, who wrote a biography of Mr. Hathcock called "Marine Sniper" in 1987, said his research on the assassination mission showed that Mr. Hathcock was probably inserted into Laos.

Mr. Hathcock said that he found the location after hours of a fast-paced march through a rain forest. Then he started to crawl, several feet each hour, attempting to conceal his position. With each movement, he stopped and carefully propped up with his foot the 3-foot-high grass he had just flattened.

"I oozed like a worm on my side," he says. "You had to be patient." There were enemy patrols, the ubiquitous insects and a snake that stared him in the face before slithering off.

After he got within view of the general's headquarters, a former French plantation, Mr. Hathcock waited. He rarely drank and didn't eat until the third morning. He slept in short episodes. Limiting his movements, he intentionally wet his pants.

On that third morning, Mr. Hathcock finally saw the general near a Citreon, about 800 yards away. The sergeant crawled behind a large dirt mound and took aim.

One shot, one kill. While the North Vietnamese took off in the wrong direction in search of him, Mr. Hathcock selected one of three escape routes he had chosen and crawled away to the jungle. The confused shouts of the North Vietnamese soldiers faded.

There was another fast-paced walk for miles, and then he was picked up by a helicopter at prearranged location and taken back home, to Hill 55.

He explained his ability to perform his job this way: "I had a job to kill the enemy and help save Marines. I turned off all of my emotions and became the most patient human being on the planet. I was a computer and I programmed myself."

On another mission, though, the killing became more personal.

On Hill 55 near Duc Pho, Marines had been dying at the hands of a female Viet Cong sniper and interrogator nicknamed Apache. One day she had captured a young Marine during an ambush. Within hearing range of the hilltop camp defenders, she tortured him through the night.

In the morning, the Marine staggered to the camp's perimeter. He had been skinned, castrated and his eyelids were sliced off. He later died.

Weeks later, Mr. Hathcock spotted a small enemy patrol through his binoculars. A woman carrying a rifle with a scope was with them. Mr. Hathcock put the woman in his cross hairs, squeezed the trigger and she dropped. "I had tears in my eyes afterward," he says. "I enjoyed that kill. It was the only one where I felt like that."

Within days, the NVA placed a $30,000 reward on Mr. Hathcock's head, confirming the kill of Apache. The reward, an extraordinary amount of money for the Vietnamese, was also testimony to Mr. Hathcock's effectiveness.

He invented a unique weapon to assist in his deadly craft. He fitted a scope onto a .50-caliber heavy machine gun, normally used to spray rapid fire.

It was like being slammed by a freight train.

"I hit 10 or 12 with that one," Mr. Hathcock says. "One second an enemy soldier would be standing there and the next second he was knocked flat doin' the flippity-flop. We were so far away, people wouldn't even hear the report of the weapon or know where the shot came from."

Not long into his first year in Vietnam, Mr. Hathcock had a nickname: "White Feather" or, in the ranks of the North Vietnamese, "Long Trang."

On a sniper mission one day, Mr. Hathcock watched some white birds circling over a village he was watching. Their lazy circles reminded him how serene and stunningly beautiful the countryside of Vietnam could be.

Later, after he had shot and killed an NVA soldier outside a hut, Mr. Hathcock was moving along a path when he saw some white feathers lying on the ground.

"I picked one up and stuck it in my lid [hat]," he says. "I kept it there because it reminded me of how peaceful that morning was,

how pretty the village and rice paddies were."

That was my job"

Sergeant Hathcock's commitment to the cause cost him dearly. During his two Vietnam tours, he was wounded once in the leg and badly burned over 90 percent of his body when his armored vehicle hit a mine and he rescued six Marines. He later underwent 13 skin graft operations.

Mr. Hathcock never was decorated by the Marine Corps, either for his missions or for saving the injured Marines on the armored vehicle. He feels that because he was a sniper, the Marines were uneasy about honoring him.

Mr. Hathcock's last active-duty station was at the Quantico Marine base in Virginia where he helped create the Marines' sniper school. About two months before he reached his 20-year career goal, he became seriously ill with multiple sclerosis. The Marines retired him on medical disability in 1979; it was a great disappointment to him.

"Nineteen years, 10 months, 5 days," Mr. Hathcock says, recounting the time he served in the military. "I had a tough time of it, became very depressed." He started drinking, a habit he dropped very early in his Marine career.

Josephine, his wife of 29 years, said that before his retirement, Mr. Hathcock was so ill that he was paralyzed.

"Some people said that if the Marines didn't medically retire him, he would have killed himself" from working too hard.

Today, Mr. Hathcock's health is fragile. Some days he can barely move, while on others he is able to be more active. He has worked through the bitterness of his forced retirement, he said. "I have more important things to do now, like fishing and teaching."

He and his wife live off monthly disability checks. Outside their modest bungalow, U.S. and Marine Corps flags flap in the winter breeze on a flagpole. Their son, Carlos III, is in the Marines, a helicopter door gunner who served in the Persian Gulf war.

More than a decade has passed since he left the military, but Mr. Hathcock's reputation as a legend was carried into combat during the Persian Gulf war. Marine snipers said that they took two books into their battles -- the Bible and Mr. Hathcock's biography.

"I still get calls from young Marines who have read the book, letters from others," Mr. Hathcock said. "I'm still mentioned in Marine boot camps when the drill instructors talk about marksmanship. When I go teach around the country, they even recognize me in airports."

On his consulting missions, Mr. Hathcock trains police officers, SWAT teams, Navy SEALS and FBI counterterrorist units in how to perform their dangerous work under extreme pressure.

Mr. Hathcock said that after all the killing, he has no remorse or guilt over his actions. "No, there's nothing like that," he said softly. "That was my job. The only problem I had at one time was this nightmare. It was back on Hill 55 and that Marine who had been tortured by the VC interrogator was running toward our wire. "Over and over again, it was replayed in my dreams. He'd be running, full of blood and screams, and you know, sometimes that Marine was me."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad