When you think of The Walking Dead, what comes to mind—zombies, Rick Grimes, Negan and his beloved, barbwire-laced bat, “Lucille”?
Forget what you think you know about The Walking Dead—the real Walking Dead, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9), endured more hell on Earth in the jungles of Vietnam in the late 1960s than any fiction writer could ever recount. “The Walking Dead” Marines of One-Nine earned their nickname after suffering the highest casualty rate of any unit during the war.
In fact, the horrors of the fictional The Walking Dead television series pale in comparison to the real horrors of Vietnam suffered by the Marines of the 1/9. Operation Buffalo, Operation Big Horn II, Khe Sanh, Dewey Canyon and a long list of other hard-fought battles by the 1/9 resulted in two Walking Dead Marines earning the Medal of Honor, 18 more receiving the Navy Cross and 60 earning Silver Stars.
In his book, Blood, Sweat and Honor: Memoirs of a “Walking Dead Marine” in Vietnam, author and Walking Dead Marine Corporal Derl Horn tells of battlefield atrocities endured by 1/9 Marines during Operation Buffalo, also dubbed the Battle of July Two. Moving north along Route 561 near Con Thien, Horn and his fellow Bravo Company Marines received orders to conduct a search-and-destroy mission in an area near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Prior to stepping off, Bravo was warned by company commander Captain Sterling Coates that five North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions, totaling more than 5,000 men, were camped out somewhere along the DMZ. In an attempt to provide his Marines a sense of security and reassurance, Coates told Bravo Company, with a total strength of only 150 men, that it would be unlikely they would make contact with any of them. Unknown to Coates and the rest of the Marines of Bravo, they would soon make contact with the NVA—in fact, Captain Coates was killed in action that very day.
The Marines of the 1/9 quickly earned their nickname as they walked into the middle of the five NVA battalions. They were caught in a U-shaped ambush, receiving fire from the front and both flanks. The fire was accurate and effective, with artillery in support. The Marines found themselves outnumbered, with their platoons essentially cut off from one another.
Fighting to make their way back to the landing zone, the 1/9 Marines encountered a strange sight: an NVA soldier wearing Marine Corps fatigues removed from the body of a dead Leatherneck. As a mortarman, Horn was armed with only his .45-caliber pistol. The NVA soldier had spotted them, and put two rounds into one of Horn’s fellow Marines. Horn took aim and fired, putting the NVA soldier down. Horn clearly needed more than his .45, and he did not have to search long to find an M16.
Another Walking Dead Marine, Lance Corporal Ray Linebaugh, recalled trying to establish contact with Bravo Company. It was there the NVA turned their attack on Alpha Company. Linebaugh, taking cover in the relative safety of a ditch, was taking incoming mortar fire when he spotted an NVA ahead wearing a flak jacket and carrying an M16. Linebaugh hesitated as he thought, “What if I’m wrong?” However, he opened fire after seeing the man greet a soldier dressed in a full NVA uniform. Linebaugh cut both men down.
The figures amassed by the 1/9 during Operation Buffalo in terms of casualties, gallantry and number of enemies faced and destroyed are astounding. According to the official Marine Corps’ after-action report from Operation Buffalo, dated August 1967, the battalion suffered 113 Marines killed in action (KIA), a staggering 390 wounded in action (WIA) and one Marine missing in action (MIA).
In his book Marine Rifleman, Medal of Honor Recipient Colonel Wesley Fox recalls receiving orders to the 1/9. Arriving at Third Marine Division headquarters, then-1st Lt. Fox asked for an assignment to a rifle company—a bold move for a command normally reserved for a captain. The personnel officer told Fox there was no shortage of assignments available in the unit. This was mostly due in part to the high casualty rate the unit had suffered in multiple battles. “No one wants to go to that battalion,” the personnel officer told him. “Secondly, if you do—regardless of rank—stick around long enough, you’ll end up the commander.”
Fox enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950. He saw action in Korea and rose through the enlisted ranks to reach first sergeant. At a time when most men would have been content with retirement, Fox decided to start over again and became a second lieutenant. Finding himself in Vietnam as a Walking Dead Marine, Fox would soon go on to earn the Medal of Honor for heroics during Operation Dewey Canyon.
Fox was not the only Walking Dead Marine, however, to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. While assigned to Alpha Company 1/9, Sgt. Walter Singleton posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Prairie III in March 1967. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Singleton came under intense enemy small-arms fire. He left his position of relative safety and made multiple trips to evacuate numerous wounded Marines out of the kill zone. Singleton managed to identify and neutralize the enemy position that had inflicted heavy damage on his fellow Marines. In the process, he killed eight of the enemy before he was mortally wounded.
Not all Walking Dead heroics have been recognized in a timely manner, however. Jim Stogner was a young Marine assigned to Charlie Company 1/9. Vietnam veteran and author Pete Mecca chronicled Stogner’s heroics in a 2014 article that appeared in The Covington News. During Operation Big Horn II, Stogner’s platoon was ambushed by the NVA. Machine gunner Eli Fobbs was wounded by enemy fire and dragged off by several NVA soldiers. Stogner, who used an illumination round to his advantage, cut down three NVA before his M16 jammed.
Instead of heading for safety, Stogner drew the only reliable weapon he had left, his Ka-Bar combat knife. As Stogner contemplated his next move, he could hear a Marine crying out in pain. It was Eli Fobbs. The NVA soldiers were driving sticks into Fobbs’ gunshot wounds. It was then that Stogner, according to Fobbs, “came out of the darkness screaming like a wild man”. He stabbed one NVA in the chest before wrestling another to the ground and killing him too. Stogner then threw Fobbs over his shoulder, picked up the M60 and scrambled for safety.
Stogner’s bravery would go formally unrecognized for more than 50 years, although that soon will change. During my phone interview with Stogner, he casually mentioned. “I found out on Monday I am being awarded a Navy Cross.” Better late than never, I suppose.
As Jim Stogner told the story of how the 1/9 came to be known as The Walking Dead. He also recalled how his unit killed Ho Chi Minh’s nephew in battle. According to Stogner, Uncle Ho named the Marines “Di Bo Chet,” which translates to “Ghost Walkers,” and vowed revenge. Ho Chi Minh reportedly enlisted an entire NVA division to annihilate the 1/9. Defiantly and in true Walking Dead style, Stogner said, “They never got the job done.”
When the smoke cleared, action during the Vietnam War had added 747 Walking Dead Marines’ names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
1969 brought the end of combat operations in Vietnam for the 1/9, although it did not mark the last time this storied battalion would fight. The Walking Dead kept marching, seeing action during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in support of the Global War on Terror. The unit’s colors were rolled for the final time so far in 2014. Nevertheless, this is likely not the last we will hear from this fabled Marine Corps unit. The nation will call again, and The Walking Dead will rise once more.