By: Jerry Barksdale
May 7, 1983. Camp LeJeune, N.C.

His sea bags were packed. Tomorrow morning – Mother’s Day – he would depart home. Captain William E. “Bill” Winter, age 32, loved the Marine Corps, but leaving home and family was never easy. After all, he never knew if he would return. His two children, Michael, age 6, and Amanda, age 2 ½, were in bed. He reached up and pulled Melia, his wife of 7 years, onto his lap and held her. He turned serious. “If anything happens to me, I want you to remarry,” he said. She made light of it. “Nope, once is enough for me.”

“No, I’m serious. The kids need a daddy and you need a husband.”

Mother’s Day morning, Winter backed out of his driveway, paused, took a final look at his home, then drove off into a fine North Carolina spring morning.

This would be his second trip to the Mediterranean, this time with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, part of a multinational peacekeeping force stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. Once known as “Paris of the Middle East” because of its cultural and intellectual life, the once beautiful city jutted out like a thumb into the blue Mediterranean Sea. Now, it was a deadly battleground between warring Christians and Muslims with bombed out buildings, shell-pocked streets and frightened citizens caught up in the violence. Iran and Syria were stirring the turmoil. The Marines would act as peacekeepers. They would go there in peace.

Captain Winter, the only child of Ellis and Virginia (Balch) Winter (retired Montesano scientist and school teacher respectively, of Capshaw, Alabama) was a Marine to his core. Following graduation from Auburn University in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science Degree, he joined the Marine Corps and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. After completing Parachute and Ranger Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, he was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa. Later, he was stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina.

That’s where he met Melia Redding, the pretty, brown-eyed daughter of Major H.L. Redding, a tall, poker straight retired Marine. Major Redding was managing the Navy Federal Credit Union following 23 years in the Corps. A highly decorated Marine, Redding had enlisted following high school in 1950 and sent to Korea where a war was raging. A land mine darn near killed him, sending him to a hospital for 18 months. Afterwards, he served in President Eisenhower’s Honor Guard and made trips to Camp David, the presidential retreat. Later, he served in Vietnam.

The youngest of his two daughters, Melia didn’t wear Marine olive green nor the eagle, globe and anchor on her collar tab, but she was born and bred a Marine. In fact, she was born in 1957, in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from Marine Headquarters where her father worked.
Melia met the handsome, young Lt. Captain Winter on a blind date in January, 1976. A friend who worked for her father at the Credit Union set it up. Melia, half joking said, “I want a single officer that doesn’t smoke, drink or curse…and has lots of money.” She recently told me, “I was just messing around. What are the odds of getting all that?” Prior to asking her out, Winter went to the Credit Union, met her father and asked his permission to take her out. “Who does that?” Melia asked me as we sat in her living room not far off Menefee Road.
“Nobody! He did.”

He picked her up in a fairly new Cutlass Supreme and took her to see Three Days of the Condor. “It turns out,” says Melia, “he had gone to the movies the night before to see it and make sure it was presentable to take me to see it.” She adds, “He was a wonderful Southern gentleman.”

Winter called her, but not regularly because of his job. They dated in January, went out in February, once in March and then began dating steady in April.

“In May, 1976, he asked me to marry him, but he asked my dad first.”

America celebrated its 200th Birthday on July 4, 1976. Six days later, Melia and Captain Winter married at the Base Chapel on Parris Island. “It was a bicentennial wedding,” she calls it. She wore a white Southern belle gown with hoops and held a bouquet of red and white flowers that matched her husband’s dress blues and white cover. They exited the Chapel happy and in love beneath two rows of Marines holding sabers over their head.

One year and a day later, Michael was born at the Naval Hospital in Beaufort. In 1978, they went to Cornwall, England for 2 years where Bill served at a nuclear facility. Amanda was born while there.

It seemed only yesterday they exited the wedding chapel, happy and laughing with no worries. Now Bill was 6,000 miles away in Beirut. Melia wouldn’t see him again until Thanksgiving. She missed him terribly. And she worried. But she had two young children to raise and that filled a big void in her soul. She drove down to Beaufort, South Carolina, and visited her parents and that was good. Not only could she assist them, they could help her with the children.

Bill wrote regularly, sometimes daily, always addressing his letter to “Melia Michael, and Mandy” and never failing to ask about the children. It was hot in Beirut, and he didn’t sleep well on his narrow cot with no mattress. He was lonely and counting the days. “I wish time would go faster… I miss you terribly…….142 days to go. I love you with all my heart,” he wrote. When off duty he built model military vehicles and read. He’d just finished Follow the River and was starting another book. Then bad luck came calling on the morning of July 22. Eight, 120mm mortar rounds slammed into the Marine compound. One Marine caught shrapnel. “Glad you’re not here,” he wrote. “But sure wish I was there.”

Bad luck travels in pairs. On the same day in Beaufort, South Carolina, at around 9:30 p.m., lightning struck the Redding residence and it burned to the ground. Melia, the children, her parents and 3 dogs barely escaped with their lives. Everything was destroyed, including Melia’s wedding ring. Aside from his own safety, Bill now had something else to worry about – his family back home.

Her father rented a beach house on nearby Fripp Island and Melia and the children stayed with them. “I did a lot of walking on the beach,” she says. “I would look across the Atlantic Ocean and think, he’s straight across there somewhere.” And Winter was missing her and the children, and counting the days until he could go home. If everything went well, he’d be home for Thanksgiving. He had recently sent roses to Melia.

“If I could afford it,” he wrote her, “I’d send roses everyday of our life because you are the rose of my life. He promised her they would go shopping for a wedding ring when he got home. The nearby Beirut Airport came under attack and Pan Am stopped flying. Mail slowed to a trickle. On July 23, he wrote Melia that he had finished reading Centennial and had started Hawaii… “lot of shooting up in the hills… 137 days left.” To add more misery to his life, Winter got “really sick” with food poisoning. “Beirut Boogie,” he called it, “stomach cramps and diarrhea 12-13 times a day.” “I need you to hold on to,” he wrote. Attending church was helpful. “The mosquitoes eating me up tonight… It won’t be long until we’re together again.”

Winter always asked about his children. “Tell Michael, he’s doing real well with his writing. I’m proud of him and of you teaching him. I know Mandy will do as well when she gets older.”

Islamic terrorists turned up the heat on Sunday, August 31, at 3 p.m. “Things started to fall apart…we took incoming for several hours…Monday it got much worse,” he wrote. “One round hit outside the mess tent and one hit the tent of Lt. Losey and S/Sgt. Ortega, the former killed instantly. Ortega died in route to the ship. We ended with 14 WIA and 2 KIA.”

Winter’s letters told of more attacks, shelling, wounded and dead Marines. His Auburn friends hadn’t forgotten him. Becky Arrington, one of Bill’s former classmates and President of the Houston Area Auburn Club, sent him an American flag. He hoisted it atop the Lebanese University Library where a company of Marines were stationed.

On September 7, Winter wrote, “2 more Marines killed in Company A…round blew them to pieces…we are getting hit every day and night. We keep hearing that the majority of folks in the U.S. want us to pull out. Wrong answer. We can’t quit and go home because of a bunch of terrorists. We have to stand up and be counted sooner or later. Better here than at home 20 years from now.” His prophesy was off by only two years. Terrorists brought down the Twin Towers 18 years later, almost to the day.
To be Continued….

By: Jerry Barksdale
South Vietnam, 1968. No one had to tell Major Clarence R. Little that Vietnam was a dangerous place. He had survived two thunderous mortar attacks and been shot by a Viet Cong sniper. Would his luck hold? Would he live to see his wife Diane and their two young sons again back in Sunnyvale, California? They never missed watching the nightly news, hoping to see him.

He was riding shotgun in a Jeep through “Mine Alley,” a stretch of road heavily mined by Viet Cong. Unknown to Little, they had buried explosives in the road with wires running to a tree line. A VC waited to set it off electrically by touching two wires together when an American vehicle passed over it. Standard policy, when seeing a mine hole, was to go fast and stop short or go slow, then speed up.

The driver spotted a mine hole and slammed on his brakes. The VC touched the wires together, but his timing was off. The blast occurred in front of the Jeep. Little’s luck was holding. “I got hit in the right hand with shrapnel.” No big sweat.

While on patrol, a booby trap with trip wires connected to a hand grenade was discovered. They marked the spot by laying two palm leaves over the trip wire, about a foot off the ground, so that his soldiers could see it. One man didn’t see the leaves and trip wire. A sergeant ran up to Little and yelled, “Mine!” Little turned around and looked at him just as it went off. “His back protected me. He had eleven holes in his back.”

Little, with shrapnel in his left leg, picked up his sergeant and carried him to a chopper. Both were evacuated to a hospital in Saigon.

After his leg was sutured, Little limped over to the officers club and ordered two drinks, drank one and carried the other back to his wounded sergeant. “You’d better down it now,” he said and went outside and sat down.

“I’m mad at you,” a woman’s voice said. He turned and saw his nurse. “Why are you mad at me?”

“You brought one of your men a drink, but didn’t bring one to me.”

The next morning Little awoke in the hospital and saw a medic outside cutting up sand bags and putting them on the grass to make it grow. The combat veteran nearly lost his cool. “I’d been begging for sand bags for months to protect lives and here they were using them to make grass grow in Saigon.” Little had enough of the hospital. He asked his nurse for permission to go purchase a new uniform. “You can’t leave the hospital,” she said. “You have another six days before you heal.” Finally she relented. Little purchased a new uniform, dressed and hightailed it to the airport where a Caribou aircraft was revving up. “Where you guys going?” he asked the Australian crew. “To the Mekong Delta, Yank.”

“Can I hop a ride?”

“Climb aboard Yank.”

Little landed in Vinh Long Province, spent the night in a fancy four story military building and was having chow in the mess hall when his old friend, Col. Rausch walked up. He invited Little up to the fourth floor for a drink. “When I walked in, it was a dance floor with orchestra pit and a bar,” says Little. “Very unwarlike.”

He sat down at the bar and ordered a Coke. “Have you had many of these?” he asked Rausch, referring to the dance. “Oh yeah, this is about the 5th or 6th dance we’ve had, every Friday night about 9 p.m. till midnight!” Little’s alarm bell went off. Pattern! Never, never establish a pattern. He excused himself, went downstairs, grabbed his .45 pistol, shoved it in his back waist band and returned to the bar. Little’s instinct was correct. “Sure as hell at midnight I heard a machine gun.” He ran over to a windowed door that lead to a balcony, looked down and saw the muzzle blast of a machine gun near the front gate. Knowing that a .45 pistol was no match for a machine gun, he ran back inside looking for a rifle; Little went down to the first floor and saw a soldier holding a carbine with a banana clip. “Give it to me!” Then he asked, “Are there any “friendlies” across the street?” The solder was hesitant. “My God man, I’m going to kill them! Do you have any friendlies across the street?”

“No sir! I’m not that drunk,” replied the soldier.

Little hurried back to the fourth floor, jumped over a man lying on the floor, and went to the balcony. He chambered a round and opened fire at the muzzle blast. Machine gun bullets stitched the wall within a foot of where Little stood. He emptied the carbine at the muzzle blast. “I ran back inside and had to jump over this same guy again. He was the colonel in charge of the whole damn thing.” Little ran downstairs looking for ammo. The soldier didn’t have any more, so he returned the carbine, pulled out his .45 pistol and went out the back door and over to the corner of the building. He saw the duty officer standing by the gate pillar. The duty NCO was behind the other one. Little ran over to the duty officer who asked him, “What do we do?” Little asked if a guard was inside the outpost by the gate. “Yessir, I heard him moan.” Little told him to open the gate, that he would draw enemy fire while they rescued the wounded man. “He opened the gate and I ran out and knelt down next to a dead VC and waited for the VC to fire again so I knew where the hell they were.”

The wounded guard was taken for treatment. Little and the duty officer ran down the street between the buildings and saw two mines the VC had set. They sandbagged both so that no one would activate them, then went down to the canal where the VC had come from. They were gone. When they returned to the entrance gate, Little stopped. He sensed danger. “Wait a minute!” That’s when he got scared. The buildings were full of Americans with weapons. “They don’t know us. They liable to shoot us,” he said. The duty officer yelled, “Hold your fire!”

They walked across the street and saw Col. Rausch and several soldiers. Rausch had two drinks in his hands. “I thought you could use one of these,” he said. “I sure can,” replied Little and downed one. The colonel in charge – the one lying on the floor rushed up. “Now, he was combat ready,” says Little. “He said the airfield was under attack and headed off in that direction. “Stop him!” said Little. “The VC have a machine gun set up to cover the road. They‘ll cut him to pieces. “

The colonel reconsidered and, instead, sent another officer and four men in a jeep. Says Little, “I later heard the VC cut them down.”

Little went to bed. The next morning the colonel in charge and his staff came marching into the mess hall where Little was having breakfast. “Now they are combat ready; got on flak jackets, helmets and have weapons,” says Little. “He asked if I was Major Little from Cang Long. Little stood. “Yes sir.”

“Don’t you ever come back. The VC followed you here.”

“Sir, I’m from the hospital in Saigon,” replied Little.

“Don’t ever come back.”

“I sat back down and away he went,” says Little, who soon departed Saigon and returned to Cang Long.

Two weeks later Col. Rausch flew in and dropped off a case of beer. “The colonel has put the duty officer and NCO in for a Silver Star,” he told Little. “He’s not putting you in because he says the VC followed you up there.”

“I killed a lot of VC that night,” replied Little, who knew the VC lived among them and could exact revenge anytime they wanted to. “I’d just as soon go home alive,” said Little. “Forget the Silver Star. Don’t tell anyone I did all those killings.”

The VC moved among the population and American soldiers were always at risk. “Sometimes you could tell who they were by the way they looked at you – hate in their eyes,” says Little. “They would put Agent Orange in water pistols and spray Americans. Once I was sprayed across the mouth when I passed a bunch of people.”

Shortly before departing Vietnam, Little picked up a piece of cheese on Sgt. Custer’s radio operations desk and ate it on the way to the team house. A rat awoke him gnawing on his finger. “It must have smelled the cheese. I had to go to Saigon and get a rabies shot.” Meanwhile, President Johnson visited Saigon. “I was supposed to get an award from him, but my team didn’t know where I was. I didn’t learn about it until after the President left.” Little never inquired about the proposed award. His mind was on more important things – going home.

January, 1969, Major Little boarded a plane at Tan Son Knut Airbase and flew home. Thank God he wasn’t in a body bag, but neither was he whole. He carried scars and shrapnel to prove it. In California, he picked up Diane and his two sons and they drove across country to New York. “We rode on a 4-lane free as a bird. When we got to a toll booth at the New York State line, they had their hand out – gimme.” Little didn’t like that.

Later, Little volunteered for the Green Beret, an elite Army group of select volunteers. This unique band of soldiers is summed up by a verse from S/Sgt. Barry Sadler’s song, “Ballad of the Green Berets”: “One hundred men will test today but only three will wear the Green Beret.” After a tour of duty with the 1st Special Forces in Indonesia and Okinawa, Little was eventually stationed at Redstone in Huntsville.

“When I came to Alabama, they put out their hands, but unlike New York, it was to welcome us.” He retired as a Lt. Col. in January, 1981, and he and Diane have lived in Limestone County on the Tennessee River since then. Both sons are Auburn ROTC graduates and served in the military. Douglas spent 10 years in the Army Corps of Engineers and lives in South Carolina. Jeffery, a rocket scientist who lives in Madison, Alabama, spent 20 years in the Air Force. Colonel and Mrs. Little have 5 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. Col. Little, age 85, still has a clear mind, but his body doesn’t respond as quickly as it did when he was an Army skydiver with 150 jumps that earned him a broken leg.

A shadow box on Little’s wall filled with medals and ribbons tells the story of a brave American who did his duty and did it well. He holds 3 Purple Hearts, Bronze Star for valor, Parachutist Badge, Combat Infantry Badge, National Defense Services Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and Palm awarded for valor and heroic conduct while fighting the enemy. He is a Mason and a Shriner.

Having been challenged by bullets, booby traps, land mines, and mortar attacks in the past, this old warrior has taken up a new challenge – learning to play the organ. “That’s my passion now,” Little said and nodded toward an organ across the room. “Would you like to hear Guy Lombardo?” he asked me, and struck up “Auld Lang Syne.” Good job. “Here is my favorite,” he said, and played “Your Cheating Heart.”
By: Jerry Barksdale

By: Jerry R. Barksdale
February, 1968. Somewhere over the South China Sea, Major Clarence R. Little, age 36, closed his eyes, listened to the drone of the engines and thought about what lay ahead of him. He was headed to harm’s way, that much he knew. Politicians in Washington called it “Vietnam Conflict.” The 58,318 whose names would eventually be chiseled in black granite would have told them it was a war – and a hellish one at that! It was in its 9th year. Little would soon experience it firsthand.

The flight was long and tiring, giving Major Little much time to think – maybe too much. And his head was full of thoughts. A soldier returned from Nam one of three ways: happy and whole after a year of service, wounded, or inside a body bag. Over 16,000 Americans had been killed to date. By year’s end 30,000 would be dead. In January, the TET Offensive had been launched and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon attacked. And, yes, he thought about his sweet wife, Diane, and their two boys, Douglas, age 10, and Jeffery, age 8, back in Sunnyvale, California. He had met pretty blue-eyed, Diane Elizabeth Kilsey the first day of school in the 8th grade at Corfu, a small village in upstate New York. “Someday, I’m going to marry you,” he told her. She wasn’t so sure. Both graduated from Pembroke during the Korean War. Little couldn’t get a job so he joined the Army. His father, a tool and die maker, was asleep on the couch when he walked in and proudly announced his enlistment. His father jumped up. “Good God Almighty! They are using live bullets over there!”

After serving two years, Little went to work for Chevrolet, earned an engineering degree, and re-enlisted in the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. In 1954, he fulfilled his promise – he married Diane. He had recently spent 6 months at Ft. Bliss, Texas, learning to speak Vietnamese. His orders were specific. He would be a military advisor to South Vietnam forces fighting Viet Cong – called VC for short. The blue South China Sea eventually gave way to land, rice paddies, and deep green – Vietnam. His plane bumped down the runway at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon. Little had arrived.

Little reported for duty and was ordered to the Mekong Delta, a vast wetland no more than 10 feet above sea level, and longtime base for Viet Cong. A buddy had previously told him not to take Cang Long district.

“Why not?”
His buddy explained, “It’s well known that no advisor has ever lived to rotate off that team.”

Little reported at Cang Long and asked the Colonel, “Is this the place I heard that no Americans ever rotated alive?” It was. “It seems to me you need an infantry man instead of an engineer,” said Little.

“No, your background is mines and booby traps. That’s why I want you here.”

Little’s team consisted of 8 Americans, living in a rural village, also named Cang Long, working alongside South Vietnamese soldiers. One mile south of Cang Long, the team was constructing a school for children. Winning the hearts and minds of locals was America’s best weapon against the Communist. The South Vietnamese captain didn’t want to send out combat patrols and engage the VC.

Little thought otherwise. “We need to go on operations and chase the VC, so they won’t have time to attack us,” he advised. And he laid down a firm rule: Never-never establish a pattern. Do something three times, then change. The deputy commander was former VC. After the VC had entered his village, killed his wife and children and was about to kill him, he joined them. Later, he switched allegiance to the South Vietnamese. “He was a good man,” says Little. “And wanted to go on combat operations. We caught two VC in the tree line and got a lot of information from them.” Thereafter, the captain took the patrol out. “Shotgun” was an Air Force pilot assigned to Little’s higher headquarters and coordinated when they needed support on the ground. “I’d ask for a flyover and he would always tell me, ‘I can’t do that.’ About 10 minutes later, a jet would come over at rooftop level, turn, and go straight up and blow the roof off a couple of buildings. It put the scare on the VC.”

It was a midnight when Little heard “thunk-thunk-thunk.” Incoming mortar rounds! Little guessed the VC was hitting nearby headquarters. He radioed. “You getting hit?” he asked. Negative. It was the hamlet between them, Little concluded. He hurried over to the aid station and told the men to put on helmets and flak jackets. “I think we’re going to get hit,” he told them. Little scouted near the head of a nearby canal, walking between a Jeep and statue of Mary and baby Jesus. A mortar round hit, demolishing the statue and Jeep. He ran to the team house and got his flak jacket. A medic ran in and exclaimed, “I just saw the major get blown up!” Sgt. Custer, the radio operator replied, “He couldn’t, he just dove in the bunker.” Little was lucky. “God was with me,” he says. “I didn’t get a scratch.”

Little radioed headquarters and requested an L-19 spotter plane to locate the mortar fire. Negative. The General wanted to keep the plane for himself in case they got hit. Five minutes later, the radio crackled. “Three-five-six, this is Spooky.” Spooky was a C-130 aircraft armed with multiple guns on the side that looked like a hose of fire when it fired.

“This is three-five-six. Come in,” replied Little. “We’re in your area,” said Spooky. “Understand you need a little help down there.”

“Roger that,” said Little.

“Got a friend of yours on board. Can’t tell you his name,” said Spooky. “But he owes you a case of beer.”

“Yep, I know who he is,” said Little. “The VC are on the other side of the canal. Hose’em down.” And Spooky did, belching out a stream of deadly fire.

Little knew the man that owed him a case of beer. It was Col. Rausch. Earlier, Raush’s personnel carrier team came through Cang Long Village. “They had been out in the boonies three weeks and were tired, dirty, and thirsty,” says Little. We gave them all the beer we had, fed them, gave them showers. We took care of them.”

The attack ended – everything was calm for a while.

Little lay down on his bunk. “Thunk-thunk-thunk. Mortar fire! The team jumped into the bunker. The first three rounds hit the team house and shredded the room where the NCOs slept. “This was the VC’s way of telling us we didn’t get them,” says Little. They often left their calling card. “Once a sniper shot a hole in our roof. Sgt. Custer spent 3 days repairing it with new tile – did a beautiful job. As soon as he climbed down the ladder and was admiring it, the sniper took it out.” Little is convinced it was the same sniper that shot him in the side while he was inspecting a mortar emplacement. “It was during the TET Offensive, and the VC said they were going to kill an American,” says Little. “I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the sniper to know he got me.” Headquarters was buzzing about it. Little decided he should file a report. His boss concluded it was a violation of regulation for not reporting and asked the general what to do. “Give him a medal,” the General replied.

The school in the nearby village was finally completed. The Vietnamese captain told Little to take a couple of his team members to the opening. Little headed down the road in a Jeep. An old man ran out of his hooch and into the middle of the road waving his arms. “No go! You no go.” Four women appeared with hoes and dug up a 40 pound land mine and set it aside. “Now, you go,” said the old man. “That’s why we needed the support of the people,” says Little. Building the school probably saved Little’s life.

…to be continued

By: Jerry Barksdale