Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III: Sniping in Vietnam Part I
Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III volunteered to be a part of the first group of trained Marine Corps snipers in the Vietnam War. He spent almost all his time in the field, accompanying various infantry units on their missions.
Ferran describes sniping as both an art, and a personal business. He was a co-founder and former president of the USMC Scout / Sniper association, and received two Purple Hearts, five presidential Unit Citations, and the Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon.
Learn more about Ferran, and his service, here.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’ll hear from Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III. Ferran volunteered to be a part of the first group of trained Marine Corps snipers in the Vietnam War. He accompanied various infantry units on their missions, and received two Purple Hearts, five presidential Unit Citations, and the Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon for his service.
Thomas D. Ferran III:
Well, I grew up in Queens, New York. Most of my life was spent on the block, so to speak, growing up with the neighborhood kids. I was going to a parochial school at the time, Catholic Grammar school and Catholic high school. Upon graduation from high school- I was playing high school football at the time. I got a scholarship to high school and I was voted the most rugged. So with that in mind, I figured there was only one place for me that was a Marine Corps.
So I volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1966 after seeing an article on Life Magazine about the Marines in Vietnam and the Viet Cong and the whole war, beginning of the war going on and I felt I needed to be part of it. So I volunteered for the Marine Corps and after Parris Island volunteered for infantry, volunteered for Vietnam war, I got to Vietnam in the infantry, then volunteered for snipers. So my career started out as one of these volunteer kind of guys, knowing that I liked the volunteer because I knew what I was getting into and somebody else was not just assigning me a mission, so to speak. And then that would prove to be quite true later on throughout my tour and experience in Vietnam.
Well, in terms of the Marine Corps, the cliche ‘we didn't promise you a rose garden’ hadn't come about quite yet, but it didn't take me 15 seconds in Parris Island to realize this is something that I didn't really quite expect. But I knew the Marine Corps was the best, and I knew that if I was going to go to war, I wanted to be trained as a Marine from a personal standpoint. The Marine Corps had an image that I wanted to be part of and a legacy that I wanted to be part of. So from that standpoint, I had no real choice, but to join the Marines.
Of course, I didn't make my father very happy at the time. In fact, he went down to the Marine Corps recruiter to retrieve my enlistment contract saying that I was not of sound mind and that I had been hit too many times on a football Gridiron and I wasn't quite doing what I was doing. So given that, of course the gunnery Sergeant said "well your concern for your son is honorable, but he's a Marine." So that was that and I was in.
Well, in 1966, Vietnam was just something that was mentioned occasionally on the front page, mostly found itself on the second and third page. It was still young in terms of development. And there was a lot of feeling that, oh, it's just going to be a short war and it will be over quite quickly. And in fact to that end, I thought that if it was going to be a short war, I didn't want to miss it. So I needed to get involved as soon as I could. And consequently joined the Marine Corps in April of 1966.
I arrived in Vietnam on November 10th, 1966, which of course is the Marine Corps birthday and I thought that was quite ominous to have that as a starting point for my Marine Corps career. I was assigned to the first Marine division. At that point in Da Nang you either went first Marine division or third Marine division. So I was assigned to the first Marine division and ordered to the seventh Marine regiment. From that point, I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and then ultimately Bravo Company.
So I started as an 0311 infantry man in November of ‘66, spent about six weeks as an infantry man doing the normal infantry things, night ambushes, combat patrols, search and destroy missions, county fair operations, and the Marine Corps at that point was just in a process of authorizing the use and employment of Marine Corps snipers- that is to say that they were now sanctioned officially under the TONE: Table of Organization and Equipment, and that a platoon would be formed at each regiment within a division, taking the infantry men from the infantry units and formulating the Scout Sniper Platoon. So at this point I had a chance to volunteer for the Scout Snipers being newly formed up in Da Nang.
At that point in time, as I read through history later in my career, in fact snipers were being used in the Marine Corps initially from 1965, as I recall. But, they were used in a rather unorthodox fashion and unofficial fashion, depending upon the tactical situation and the commander, many of the commanders, and certainly senior NCOs were from Korea and they knew the importance of the sniper on a battlefield and its employment as a combat multiplier to the maneuver force. So consequently, they would employ snipers as, you're the sniper for this operation, because they would know their Marines and they knew who the best shots were and then typically they would say, you are the designated sniper. In many cases, they didn't have any more sophisticated rifles than their M14, but they knew how to use it very effectively.
As snipers came to play more of a role with the infantry, we were finding Marines, going to Okinawa on Liberty, getting hunting rifles and scopes to makeshift a sniper rifle, and bring it back to Vietnam and use it accordingly. A fellow by the name of Captain Russell within the third Marine division was the first one really to put together a platoon of snipers under an experimental mode to see how they would be employed. He was very successful in this. And as a result, the Marine Corps went ahead and authorized the use of snipers. And at that point, Captain Jim Land, and certainly Carlos Hathcock came on the scene as the trainers to that end.
The Vietnam war by its nature of being a guerrilla war, the use of snipers were an integral part of both sides just by the nature of the type of warfare, the terrain and the conditions. The conventional wars that we have seen in the past of Armies massing certainly was not the case in Vietnam. It was a small unit operation type war, and as such gave a lot of levity and licensed to the use of snipers, the Viet Cong and the NVA were quite good in the use of their own snipers. And of course, they'd been at war with the French before we even got there. So they certainly knew the terrain and tactics and how to fight in the countryside. We came on board, not knowing that type of warfare. We still had World War II and a Korea mentality in our leaders.
So Vietnam was a brand new experience for us fighting in the jungles. And that's something we had to adapt to. Not only did we find the jungles as a challenge, but then we had the use of the helicopter, which became paramount to our success on the battlefield, not necessarily the success of the overall war effort, but certainly on a battlefield, those things, those new implementations of tactics and weaponry were something now that the commanders were finding very, very useful against a hardened enemy that had been there in place and knew how to fight us.
When the first Scout Sniper Platoon was being formed, and I had volunteered for it, and been given orders to the Sniper Platoon, we formed up in Da Nang, at which point we went to Marble Mountain where the sniper school had originally been set up. There we met our sniper instructors, one of which was a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant by the name of Gunnery Sergeant Mitchell. He had been a Korean war sniper. He was retired, but the Marine Corps brought him back to active duty for the exclusive purpose of training snipers. There were a couple of other sniper instructors there as well. Mostly they were marksmanship instructors, but Carlos Hathcock arrived on the scene as an instructor, but he was more of an instructor from the standpoint of coming and going.
He spent most of his time in the field. And frankly, when he was with us, there was a certain degree of frustration that you could see with us as new trainees in the sniper field. I knew he couldn't wait to get back out in the field and do what he did best. While instructing us with something he did well, I knew his heart was really in the field. So to that end, we saw bits and pieces of him, he'd come and go. And of course, it was only a two week school at that time. And recalling back, all we pretty much did was shoot and use a radio for artillery fire. We were already infantry men. So we knew how to tromp through the bush, so to speak, which was something we were trying to get away from now.
But we did have tactical experience from being a former infantryman in any way. Now we have to learn the effective use of the new rifle the Remington 700, with the Redfield 3-9 variable accu-range scope and it's employment and how it functioned this bolt action rifle and getting away from an automatic rifle.
We also had to use radios for the first time and of course being a PFC, we weren't given a radio at the time, but now with snipers we had radios because we were the eyes and the years of that maneuver force. And as such, we had occasion to really see the battlefield as it unfolded and being in a very advantageous position on the battlefield, we could see the development of it and act accordingly, such as calling air strikes or calling artillery to enhance the commander's intent and the completion of his mission.
After graduation from Sniper School, we went back to the regiment, awaiting orders for assignment to the next infantry unit. My first unit of assignment was with Mike Company 3rd Battalion 7th Marines. And of course, snipers arriving on a battlefield at this point was something completely new. And in fact, my rifle, which has a long bull barrel and a scope mounted on top, kind of looks like a shotgun with a scope. And in fact, some of the guys, some of the Marines would say, "Is that a shotgun with a scope? Boy that could really come in handy."
I remember checking in and the first Sergeant saying, "Well, that's the skipper's rack, that's my rack and that's your rack. You're going to be our bodyguards." And I said, "Well, wait a minute, first Sergeant, we're snipers and I think we can enhance the battlefield with the use of snipers, and let me tell you how we can operate."
At that point I explained to both the first Sergeant, the Gunnery Sergeant and the company commander, how to employ us and they were pretty sold on the idea. So at that point, we worked with the Weapons Platoon and then eventually were assigned to different squads as needed, the squads that were typically going out on patrols.
That was one of the drawbacks perhaps of a sniper in that you're always busy. If you could use a ratio about 25% of the time was downtime in that you'd spend some time in the field, come back for rest RNR, whether it even be going out of country or even a unit being pulled back to man battalion whole watch, protective battalion area. So this was programmed into the typical infantry's schedule of ‘In a field’ - Combat - Rest.
A sniper on the other hand would go out in the field with the infantry, get into contact. And once the infantry unit came back, the sniper would be reassigned to another unit in contact. So we literally spent our entire time in the field, one mission after the next, after the next, with one assignment to one company after the next, after the next. It's great for collecting presidential unit citations on your ribbons, because you're always in contact with the enemy one way or another. To that end, it was quite an interesting experience, but on the other hand, it was very fatiguing. And after about nine months of that, it was time for my own rest and it was time to go on RNR.
As we would get assigned to an infantry unit, typically we would go into a unit that we didn't know and a sniper showing up on the scene while the infantry knew that we were there to help them, typically, we were not connected to the hip, so to speak, as you would find infantrymen in the foxhole. We were different, we had a different rifle and we even had a different mentality. We all looked at as executioners part of the murder incorporated syndrome that was bestowed the snipers. And sometimes when we arrive on a scene, the infantry would just part out of our way. Perhaps, maybe it was that 1000 meter fight with a pilot stare that we had that got their attention. I don't know, but we were different and they knew it.
So the bonding was really never there. We operated alone for the most part. We would be with an infantry unit right down to a fire team of four men, but we never bonded with them. We never got really close with them. It was rare to do that only because we knew that within another week or two, we would be with another infantry company again. So making friends was just not something we did even among us within the sniper team itself, the two of us, we would rotate teammates for that very purpose, because I found that if we were to get too complacent, that was a detriment to our survivability on the field. You just didn't want to do that. You didn't want to take anything for granted. You didn't want to get too close to your teammate because you just never knew if we were going to make this particular mission or if he was going to come back alive or not. And typically we'd go six weeks to eight weeks and then change out to a new teammate and start all over again in that process, and you would bring different levels of experience that way as well. So it worked out pretty good. And it was pretty much the policy of the Sniper Platoon to rotate sniper members within teams
Our relationship with the infantry was one of support. First of all, we were there to support the infantry, the concept of operation, the maneuver of what the tactical situation dictated. And we would enhance the combat multiplier of that commander on a battlefield. We were from the infantry ourselves. We were all 03s, we slung the M14 over our shoulder. We had our backpacks, we had our three canteens, and we did all of that. All we had now was a different type of rifle and a different type of mission. So we certainly had the ultimate respect for the infantry men. Their view to us, however, was, as I may have mentioned, the murder incorporator is on the scene. And if you want to confirm, kill, these are the guys to do it.
So depending upon the tactical situation was depending upon how we were employed, typically would be used as a blocking force. That would be to gain a tactical advantage on a battlefield, typically key terrain, and then observe the battlefield as the maneuver force would go through a particular area, the enemy would either have two choices, fight or flight. If they fought, the infantry would take care of them. If they were to move out of position, that's where we could take care of them and with the war conditions, it was pretty much like ducks in a shooting gallery. You can only do that to a point because after a few rounds being fired, you'd have to move because your position was compromised just by the sound of your rifle. And it would gain their attention as to your presence.
Moving just a few hundred meters would make a difference and still continue that type of operation. But variably we'd have to move, which brought up another situation of risk because now you're occupying key terrain, good fields of fire, a good observation and invariably, that key terrain is also a key to your enemy. And the chances of running into the enemy were there. They were always omnipresent and that something, our biggest concern, was capture.
That perhaps scared us the most because we were literally hanging out in a breeze, so to speak. We did try to operate with a small unit, typically a fire team of four other Marines that would provide rear security for us, but pretty much we had first 180 degrees to our front and they provided security to our back. But nonetheless, a team of six men is small in comparison to an overriding squad of enemy soldiers coming upon you or knowing that you're there and then coming after you.
So we always had in the back of our mind escape routes and we'd plan these escape routes. The last thing we wanted to do was tangle elbows with the enemy on some piece of terrain and try to fight it out. First of all, my weapon was not designed for a firefight. It was designed for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to reach out and touch you from the furthest distance away. The idea of putting a bayonet on the end of our sniper rifle just doesn't exist. There's no bayonet lugs on it. So to that end, our opportunity and our existence was not to get into contact with the enemy.
The typical table of organization and equipment was that the sniper team had one automatic rifle. We started with the M14, and then in April of ‘67, switched over to the M16 and the sniper rifle. That was it. That's the only two weapons we had. We didn't have a side arm, which we thought would be a preferred, nice piece of gear to carry just in case.
In one particular experience on an ambush, which was not designed to be an ambush. Our mission was to go into this village and take out a village chief who was a known collaborator of the enemy. And the commander wanted this village chief put out of action. How we did it was up to us, but snipers were along in the event that we couldn't get into the village. We could take them out during the daylight hours.
The infantry unit was a company size operation. This was with Delta Company 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, August of 1967. We were traveling in a company size operation search and destroy. And I was traveling with this one particular platoon at the time and our mission was to be dropped off. The infantry moved out, and we crawled away. The six of us crawled away from the infantry unit, and we had enemies following us all the time. So, we would crawl away from the company to get out of range and get out of sight. And then once we felt confident enough, we'd get up and proceed on our mission with our checkpoints and those kinds of things. We had set in on a riverbank, this one particular afternoon, waiting for the cover of darkness to go into this village and take out the village chief.
We just happened to be at the right place at the right time or proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. We were on a MSR, a main supply route of the NVA, this NVA unit. We didn't know it at the time, but we just happened to be at this location and we had set in at 50% alert. The six of us. I was asleep at the time and I was awoken by my teammate to the sounds of the closing of the hammering of the bolt going home on the other side of this river which was no more than about 15 meters, 20 meters wide. Heavy vegetation and foliage on both sides and we could hear the distinct metallic sound of an M14 and AK-47s.
Well, M-14 was surprising because that's a friendly weapon, but certainly the AK-47 was the preferred weapon of our enemy, so we knew there was something wrong. As we could see movement across the river we decided to set up a hasty ambush.
A hasty ambush is one that can work very, very successfully because it employs the element of surprise which is a principle of warfare and that in and of itself can be a combat multiplier. The element of surprise and we had that. We were right on their main supply route coming across the river. They set across their point to see if that infantry unit was still in the area not knowing that the six of us were harbored right underneath this wooded treeline, and as the point looked up and around signaled to the other forces across the river to move forward, which was perfect for us. That's where we wanted to get them right in the river.
Once we decided to set up this hasty ambush we communicated back and forth with the use of hand and arm signals. The Lieutenant took out his Ka-Bar and I motioned to him as to what was that for? And he was going to jump this point. The enemy point. The security force. And I said “I'll use a sniper rifle” at which point he agreed. The intent was to get as many of them into our kill zone. Our kill zone was only, you know, 45 degrees and we knew that if we didn't get as many as we could we'd have to deal with the others at some point in time.
Well, I still had my sniper rifle and I'm looking up, down at my sniper scope at this fellow that's 15, 20 feet away from me. He's up on the bank and I'm down still covered in camouflage. I used a parachute to kind of break out my outline and we had the vegetation to break up on our outline. He, I'm sure, never thought for a minute that we were right there, but of course as metallic sounds typically do betray you, one of our Marines went to the automatic mode of his M-16 and that sound triggered this NVA soldier who had the biggest AK-47 I've ever seen. As it swung in our direction and his hand was going on the trigger I was looking down at my scope and I had the scope on nine power, and as he moved his head around, I couldn't keep track of him. I moved to three power and it was just like, “Oh, to heck with it” and just pointed in the general direction.
I fired first, and tactically a sniper will always fire first because in an ambush that's one confirmed kill. And a sniper is usually a little bit more trained in that regard for ambushes even though you're not supposed to be in ambushes, but the policy of the SOP of the unit was that snipers would trigger ambushes. Somebody has to trigger it. The sniper will trigger it, so I triggered the ambush.
As he turned his AK-47 in our general direction I knew it was at that point that he had to go and looking through the scope I couldn't quite keep him in sight, so I just pointed. The round hit him in the face stopping all of his actions. He dropped his AK-47. I ran into the kill zone to get the AK-47 because my sniper rifle was literally obsolete in an ambush. The ambush pursued for about five seconds. We had 15 or so dead in front of us. Not one of us received a scratch, but we still didn't have them all. The other part of the main body had literally run through the jungle area in an attempt to regroup.
Unbeknownst to us what we had in this kill zone was a Willy Peter bag. One of our Willie Peter bags that they were using and in it, it had the listing of 42 spies, the position of all of their 81 millimeter mortars, as well as their 57 recoilless rifles. That information went up to battalion headquarters and turned into a battalion size operation. We didn't know at that moment what was contained in this Willy Peter bag, but the enemy wanted it badly. They wanted it back. Not knowing that, but we did expect to be hit again.
The enemy, in fact, regroup came down river and around and started back in on us. We were six men, as I mentioned before, and during the ambush we expended most of our ammunition. That's where fire discipline really comes in. It is very, very important because we probably got a little carried away in this ambush. We redistributed ammo. I collected what I could off the bodies, AK-47s, and those kinds of things using their weapons which was certainly better than my sniper rifle. As would be typical of any heroic story we got on radio, called for the company to come down and save us and of course they did. The cavalry to the rescue, so to speak. The enemy was caught in a pincer movement. The company came down and us through our back to the river. While the enemy wanted that bag back and all the other information that we had they just didn't want to fight a two front battle. We had an air force fighter plane over us. To this day I think I'd love to give this guy a hug. Even in Macy's window.
He stayed on top of us, protecting us, giving us the eyes in the sky and at one point we saw these tracers going up at him and he marked their limits, their left and right limits, so we knew exactly where they were and we could set up all fields of fire accordingly. He threw down to a red smoke and I'm not sure if I was seeing things or what, but I knew his arm was outside the window of his Piper Cub and I'd like to think he had a .38 in it shooting at the enemy as they're shooting traces up at him. I'm thinking this guy has got bigger cojones than I could ever hope to have.
But at this particular time, when the ambush was over, and we had the bodies out in front of us, we hadn't gotten them all. And in fact, most of them had escaped the kill zone of our ambition because we were only a six man team, and they were in a process of regrouping and coming back in to get us. It was at that point that I realized that this was a pretty scary business and my sniper rifle was not going to afford me the personal protection I needed, and hence the use of captured enemy weapons and equipment that I used for my own personal protection.
But, after the ambush we went back to the company area. I asked to go back to the regimental area to regroup, so to speak. It was a pretty hair-raising experience considering that snipers are not supposed to be in ambushes. Our mission is long range death not close-in hand-to-hand. At that point we got back to the regiment and I had an opportunity to go down to the NCO club and I met with the regimental sergeant major. Sergeant Major Mike Macovich who is still a Marine Corps legend as of today. He sat down next to me and I said, "Sergeant Major, I had a hair-raising experience the other day. I was in an ambush..." I went on and on and on and he was very polite enough to listen to me, but finally decided it was time to shut me up and he looked at me with his cold gray steely eyes that certainly reflected his experience of three wars and he said, "Moose". He said, "You want a .45?" He said, "The day you have to use your .45 is the day you wish you had a rifle."
From that point on I carried two weapons. I had my business end of the mission, my sniper rifle, and I had my automatic rifle to rock and roll. And it wasn't three weeks later that we were caught in a similar situation and I was rocking and rolling without the sniper rifle. So, it was to that extent. And to this day when I'm graciously offered the opportunity to speak to Marine snipers at graduations I tell them about that experience and about that their sidearm, while it's authorized now the use of the nine millimeter pistol the day you have to use that pistol is the day you wish you had a rifle. And I think you can see the lights coming on across the audience. And even though it's not T/O&E the use of their own personal automatic weapon is something that's very, very desirable.
The rifle that I had captured and used in this ambush I had to turn in because it was an automatic weapon and policy was that while you could bring home war trophies they had to be rendered, especially automatic weapons, had to be rendered ineffective, had to plug up the barrel. I turned it in because we had numerous opportunities to gather enemy weapons. Spoils of war, so to speak. So, I turned it in as part of the intelligence gathering effort.
Five years later, in 1972, I was reporting at the first Marine division as a second Lieutenant for duty with assignment to the first Marine division as an engineer and being briefed by the assistant division commander as all officers will be briefed as to what the policies and procedures are and what the General expects of his officers core and those kinds of things. There was a particular room that we were in where we're surrounded by war trophies and there was an AK-47 up on a wall and, of course, one AK-47 looks like the other, as does an M14, but I decided to read this particular AK-47 and much to my surprise the plaque that was on it mentioned this team from Delta company, First Battalion, 7th Marines in August of 1967 that had sprung an ambush on this NVA reconnaissance unit. We didn't know the unit, what it was, but it happened to be a reconnaissance unit. Had we known that I think we probably would have ran for our own lives because that's somebody you don't want to tangle elbows with. But, anyway, the plaque went on to read a six man patrol from Delta company, First Battalion, 7th Marines sprung this ambush which resulted in a net effort of 42 spies and the position of all of these rifles. And there it was. My AK-47. I jokingly asked the General if I could have it and he jokingly told me in no uncertain terms which is not repeatable for TV use, but no. And who knows what happened to the AK-47. It's probably in somebody's garage right now and it's not in mine, unfortunately.
Snipers movement was based on a number of variables. Predominantly the tactical situation. You had degrees of level of contact and I don't recall exactly the terminology we used, but for conversation's sake we can use a numbered code, one being eminent and four being very, very remote. So, if we were in a category four, let's say, we could go swing arms and walk with a fire team or a squad out in a particular area. If contact was eminent we would certainly change the tactical situation and our employment of the members tactically. We would spread out. We would have weapons outboard. We would be moving very, very diligently.
Then once we got into what was called our "hide position", we would typically go to that hide position on our stomachs primarily because we didn't know what was beyond that hide position, and if the hide position was something that we didn't particularly want we would find another one, but we'd invariably crawl to it, or get on our hands and knees and move to it. We certainly would not just walk up to it, sit down, and open up our C-Rations and have an afternoon lunch. It was tactical.
In our movement with the infantry we did not want to discern ourselves any more than we had to from the infantry. We wanted to look like them. Certainly my weapon was different, and as such I had a piece of burlap that I wrapped around the scope to break out the outline of the scope so if another sniper, which is what snipers do, fight snipers. If another sniper was looking for a target to shoot, your first target is another sniper. I wanted to blend into the infantry as much as possible. So, we didn't have different uniforms. We didn't have camouflage on our face unless we all had camouflage on our faces. But, in my bag I had a piece of camouflage nylon. It came from an air force parachute. It was used for a drop of equipment.
It was a very, very large chute and I took about a 10 by 15 piece of this nylon camouflage chute. And I can roll up in a ball and fit very nicely in my pocket. And that was something that I used just to break up my outline and I could get underneath it, and it would just cover my silhouette in the bush.
So, we weren't as sophisticated as the Marines today with a ghillie suit which never would have worked in the jungles of Vietnam. You would probably dehydrate before you did anything with the weight in the heat of that kind of suit. But we would use whatever tactical and camouflage that was available in that particular environment. But once we got into a high position it was well camouflaged, but camouflage like harassment in the Marine Corps is continuous.
When you're moving into the high position, if you're crawling or on your hands and knees you're going to be coming into contact with the indigenous type of creatures that are very prevalent especially in the Southeast Asia region. This is where the element of strict discipline comes in as a Marine. I would recall standing on a gridiron at Parris Island and wanting to scratch my nose so badly, but I knew if I raised my hand I'd get chastised. Of course, beat back then. And it was that kind of discipline that you exerted in those kinds of situations that you just didn't let it bother you. If you had bugs on you, so what. The idea of giving away your position was more detrimental than the idea of getting bit by an ant or some other creature. Certainly snakes were of concern, but if you didn't bother them they really didn't bother us, so to speak.
The primary mission of a sniper is to counter snipe and to create harassment. I had a particularly interesting mission one time that transcended division lines which was very, very unusual for us to go to another division. This was with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion. 26 Marines operating up in the Khe Sanh area. There was an NVA sniper up there that we had affectionately named Zoro. He was very mysterious and he had already killed eight Marines. All headshots. This guy was good. We found out through his dossier from the S2 he was an NVA first Lieutenant who was responsible for all the tactical, psychological warfare in the area. He was responsible for the placement of landmines against the Marines and he was also a master sniper himself. So, we were going after this, this enemy sniper in his backyard and that was perhaps the scariest mission I ever endured.
I saw what he had done to the infantry. Now, I never really knew what the Marine sniper could bestow upon the enemy in terms of psychological warfare, but once I saw what he had done to this infantry unit and the morale of this unit was so decimated as a result of this enemy sniper operating in the area I finally realized the power of a sniper, and I also knew that we had to get this guy one way or another. So, we went out to hunt him and this was the first real hunt of my tour in Vietnam. Hunting one sniper against the next.
Being a sniper is a very, very personal business and I say that not only as a Marine sniper, but Army snipers, police snipers and those law enforcement agencies and military that have this capability. Sniping is a very, very personal business. Typically your infantry have on their bullets ‘To whom it may concern’. Your bullet, however, has a distinct person on it because you can lay in wait and watch and observe that person, that target, as we referred to them not trying to keep that personalness out of it. So, we've referred to the enemy as our target, but in fact, you are waiting for your moment in time to end this person's life and that's where it becomes very, very personal. In one particular case we waited for an enemy soldier to finish his lunch after which we decided to take them out.
So you decide the moment, the time, the place where you are going to end this soldier's life and to that extent it's a very, very personal business. Yes, the infantry does have that experience on occasion. Especially in closely confronted hand to hand combat situations, but generally speaking, the infantry does not necessarily see their enemy. It's a matter of fire suppression on both sides. So your business as a sniper is very, very personal. You see that person. You can see sometimes their eyes and that's the last thing that you remember of that person. It's like taking a Polaroid picture. The snapshot in time as you slowly draw back the trigger and the rifle is fired, and the rifle comes back up, and the scope comes back down on your target, and you see that picture. It's seared in your mind forever of that last picture sight. I can literally remember every single one of them.
The very first mission I had, again, was with my company 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines and I had a brand new rifle. Fired it on the range for accuracy and zero, but now I was using it for the first time in combat. My first target was out of range of our typical range that we had for the rifle. Our maximum effective range was 1100 meters. This target was 1300 meters. Well, I knew that the mathematics of the trajectory was not linear. It was logarithmic. That is to say, as around got further out the velocity of it was decreasing more readily and consequently the round was dropping in elevation. So, I calculated a rough calculation as to what the bullet would do at 1300 meters. And of course my very first shot was a miss which was kind of an embarrassment to me, but as we had planned for, and trained for, the spotter, my spotter, was able to see that round going downrange by putting his scope as spotter scope of quarter out of phase, of focus, and you're able to pick up the vapor trail and then he could say left or right, up and down as to where the impact of the round was to the target. And after that first round is fired, you're recycling the bolt, getting the next round into position to fire. That's SOP.
So after the first round is fired, the rifle comes back down on a target in the general vicinity, in this case, he said, "Right five, up five," meaning five feet. And I just held the crosshairs over the target's head who at this point was just wondering what happened, and the second round went down and got him. Unbeknownst to me, there were a few Marines from my company behind me going, "Yay," clapping and, "Attaway, that's the way to go."
It was a pretty proud moment until I had a chance to think about it. I went off to the side and thought about it, and thought about it, and despite the training that the Marine Corps gives you and prepares you for combat, the taking of a life is something that is very, very personal and that's something that you're really able- you're trained to do. From the standpoint, it's a personal thing and some people can't handle it. Some people can't take a life in that regard.
So once I got over that, I turned the feelings of emotion of sadness to some degree, of killing somebody through my own hand, to now of one of sportsmanship and let's go get the highest numbers. And in fact, at one point, my teammate and I led the 7th Marines in the amount of kills, but soon to be beaten out by other teams that were much more successful than us.
Certainly, the inventory operates from the standpoint, you're there to protect your buddies and you're there to save each other. That's what you're there for, for each other. The idea of taking an enemy off the battlefield is one that you know that's one less that's going to kill an American force. When you think of the two greatest Marine snipers in my mind that I can think of are perhaps Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney. Between the two of them, have perhaps over 300 confirmed enemy kills and twice that many unconfirmed. Those are a lot of soldiers that never came South to kill American troops. And in that regard, it is certainly a well-worth attribute on a battlefield.
To me, sniping is an art. That is to say that you could do the mechanics of sniping, you know the muzzle velocity of the trajectory, you know the droppage, you have charts that are given to you, and you know at a certain distance, the round is going to be affected through gravitational forces accordingly. You know that, but what you have to calculate for is the wind. The wind is the greatest variable affecting the strike of that bullet on your target. And I found that before I would fire, I would try to visualize what that bullet looked like going down range, as to the variables affecting that bullet. I know it's a drop, but I have to now calculate what's happening to it from a left to right situation, because you've got cross winds affecting that bullet. I would look at the distance. The distance was known either through the rangefinder in the scope, which we really didn't use that much. In fact, mine was ineffective because I did something very unfortunate, left it against a tree one time and the sun came over and sun went through the lens and burned the bottom of the vernier, which was a very dumb thing to do and I still to this day, when I think of equipment, I didn't take very good care of my equipment. So the range finder was inoperative.
But doing range estimation all day long and logging it into your log book is something that comes as a second nature after a while. And we would even have bets with each other as to within 10 meters of a target out to a thousand meters. ‘Was it 1,010 meters or 999 meters?’ type of thing. So your range was usually pretty well on. You were trained in that and you constantly did it, but the biggest variable was the wind, and we would use the wind through evaluation of trees. That was usually your best indicator. The flags, the smoke, we didn't have flags out there. You didn't necessarily smoke. The wind coming off the ground and the trees were your best indicator, and then you would look through the distance. You may have cross winds that would zero out around. The bullet could literally go out the barrel and be affected by a left crosswind, and then be re-affected by a right course wind, and cancel each other out. Or you could have a solid left, or you could have a solid right. You had to understand the forces acting on that bullet to get to your target.
And of course, you're coming out what was called a cold shot. You're firing that shot with a cold barrel. Your dope typically came from a range where you had a hot barrel firing round after round. And that's why he constantly kept your rifle zeroed on the company area toward known range, and you'd zero it from a cold shot. So, that first shot out the barrel was true and what you have to calculate now for was the wind.
My tour in Vietnam was a full 13 month tour. A month and a half spent in Bravo 1st battalion 7th Marines as an infantryman, and then the remaining 11 and a half months or so as a sniper with the 7th Marines. Upon completion of my tour, I returned home to Camp Lejeune, and was discharged in June of '68. I resumed college studies and had the opportunity to come back in the Marine Corps in 1971 as a commissioned officer to be a pilot.
Things didn't work out with my eyesight, surprisingly enough, great eyesight for a sniper, but I had a hue impairment of slight color blindness, which is very undesirable for a pilot, but highly desirable for a sniper because you can't be deceived by camouflage with this hue impairment.
But nonetheless, I was quote on quote, “fallen angel without wings”. So now the Officer Corps offered me the MOS selection and said, "Pick one." So I picked Combat Engineers and then subsequently went back into the infantry as an infantry officer.
That was Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III. Make sure to catch the second part of his interview on October 14th, where he talks about the psychological impact of sniping.
If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.
Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.