"I donít understand the fascination with war video games. Video games are not the real thing. Kids think that once you get shot, all you have to do is hit a button and you go on. In real war, when you get shot, you go down and it hurts... and you may never get up again. War in not fun, war is pure hell... a terrible thing."
My introduction to Phil Mortís military background came almost by accident. I was chatting with Philís big brother, Bob, of Quality Tire fame, while Phil was working on my car. "You know," said Bob, "if youíre looking for some good veteran stories, you should talk to my brother here. Heís been in all four branches of the
Phil looked up and smiled, and added, "Not at the same time, mind you."
Intrigued I asked where he had served.
"Vietnam," Phil said matter-of-factly, as if he really didnít want to pursue the subject.
Having grown up during the Vietnam era, I had followed many of the battles of the war, sure that once I graduated high school I would be drafted and join the Phils of the world in its jungles. "What part of the country were you in?" I asked.
"Up North," replied Phil.
"Quang Tri? Da Nang? Dong Ha?" I asked, ranking my brain for cities and towns that are now a distant memory, but for which thousands of American gave their life for in what some called a fruitless war.
"Them, as well as Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Rockpile and Khe Sanh," Phil said, standing up to look me in the eye. "I was a Marine."
Phil Mort & Pat Topper in Dong Ha, Vietnam, 1967
With those words, all thoughts of trying to impress Phil with my knowledge on Vietnam left my mind. In front of me was a man who survived the bloodiest of battles in one of the one of the most horrific wars our country every fought. There was nothing I was going to say that would impress this battle tested Marine.
Phil Mort was born Oct 28, 1948, the fifth of six boys. Raised in Emmitsburg, he knew he was going to be drafted once he graduated from high school. In April of 1966, at the age of 17, a month before graduation, he and fellow classmate Harold Naugle volunteered for the Marines. "If I was going to be asked to fight, I wanted to
fight with people who knew how to take orders."
Phil reported in May to the Marine base at Paris Island for basic boot camp and initial training in his chosen specialty, transportation and machine gunner. Upon completion of training, he was flow to Camp Pendleton, California where underwent two final weeks of in-depth infantry training to ready him for the jungles of
Vietnam. As he was boarding the bus for the airport and the plane that would carry him "In Country," Phil felt a powerful set of hands on his shoulders. It was his drill instructor. Not you Phil. At the last minute it had come to everyoneís attention that Phil was only 17. Only eighteen-year-olds and above were set to Vietnam. Phil would have to sit
out the remainder of his 17th year at Pendleton. It would not be until April of 1967 that he finally ship over. By that time, the war was full swing and every Friday night Americans would gather around a TV set and listen to Walter Cronkite recount the latest weekly figures of American dead... "312 Americans died this week..."
Phil landed at the Marine base in Da Nang, the primary base of operations for American troops in the Northern part of Vietnam. From Da Nang, he was sent north, to his unit at Dong Ha, the 3rd Marine Division of the 9th Marines. He was less than 20 miles from the DNZ separating North and South Vietnam, and less than 30 miles
from Laos and primary communists supply route south: the Ho Chi Minh. If Phil had wanted to be in the thick of the fight, the Marines couldnít have picked a worse place to put him.
The Marine Base at Khe Sanh was the northeastern most American base in Vietnam. Located just across the border from Laos, its principle purpose was to serve as a base of operations to stop the flow of supplies south. The America military hoped someday to get approval for a major drive into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Needless to say, knocking it and its supporting bases out was a top priority of the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies.
As a transportation specialist, it was Philís responsibility to drive trucks loaded with supplies to the entire surrounding Marine outpost. If he wasnít driving, he was manning a machine gun on the truck. Some days he would be part of a convoy of trucks; other days it would just be him and the lonely road, with an ambush that
awaits around every turn.
The event of one particular run is still very vivid in Philís mind. He was part of a convoy of five trucks that made a run to a remote Marine outpost.
"We were on a narrow road and had just passed an old French bunker, a relic of the French war with the Vietnamese in the 50's, when we were ambushed. We were being shot at in all directions. The led truck got hit and we all had to stop. I jumped out and ran for the tall weeds near the base of the hill the bunker was on. I was
in the weeds for close to an hour before Marines form the base we were heading to managed to fight their way to us. As my truck was the only one not shot out of action, we all jumped in my truck and headed as fast as we could the two remaining miles to the outpost to regroup.
The fighting continued all night long. The next morning we headed back to the trucks we left behind, escorted by three tanks and two quad 50s. I was third in line. We stopped at a small bride, about 15 feet long, which two solders with mine sweepers checked the bridge out. They no sooner walked on the bridge then it blew up.
There was nothing left of those two guys. With the bridge out, we headed back to the outpost once again, hoping for better luck the next day."
To help bring an end to the fighting, the Marines called in F-4 Phantoms to drop Napalm on the well dug in Viet Cong. The following day, Phil and his company finally managed to reach the stricken trucks and retrieve them along with their much needed supplies. The fighting had been so fierce that the Viet Cong never had a
chance to loot the trucks.
Upon returning to outpost, Phil was directed to once again return to the scene of the initial ambush, albeit this time in bull dozer with orders to dig a trench and bury the Viet Cong killed in the battle: over 135 of them. Fifty Americana lost their lives.
"I didnít want to hang around there long, so I dug a shallow trench and bulldozed the bodies of the VC into it, and then covered them with dirt. It wasnít a nice picture. As I drove away, I could see arms and legs sticking out of the ground. It was a shame that they had to die, but at the time they were the enemy and all you
could think about was you won and they lost. You were still alive, at least for one more day.
Unlike the Civil War, World War I, or World War II, there was no mass battle or battle lines," reflected Phil. "Vietnam was a hide and seek war, a nasty war. You had to put your feeling aside and just accept that you were lucky that day. You didnít have time to reflect, all you could think about was ĎLetís get on with this
thing and finish it.í"
For the next few months, Phil made weekly supply runs to Khe Sanh. "If we were not hit on the supply run, we were being shelled at while on the base." One day, while loading his truck, Phil looked over to see friend from home - Bobby Troxell. "We didnít have much time to talk as he was about to head out, but it was nice to see
an old familiar face."
During the battle of Khe Sanh began on Jan 21, 1968 and lasted 77 days. Khe Sanh was under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks. The "siege" of Khe Sanh saw American and South Vietnamese forces suffer 703 killed and 2,642 wounded. Communist losses were estimated at between 10,000-15,000 dead
Following the lifting of the siege, American commanders ordered the base destroyed and abandoned. This decision earned the ire of the American press who questioned why Khe Sanh had to be defended in January but was no longer needed in July. The daily news coverage of trapped and dying Marines at the base brought the horrors of
the war to Americans living rooms, and began to raise questions on the win ability of the war.
Unbeknownst to Phil, the battle of Khe Sanh marked the start of the Tet Offensive of 1968, a battle in which Phil would have a center row seat.
Read Part 2