Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III: Sniping in Vietnam, Part II
Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III volunteered to be a part of the first group of trained Marine Corps snipers in Vietnam. He spent almost all his time in the field, accompanying various infantry units on their missions.
Ferran describes sniping as a personal business, that is simultaneously an art, and a hunt. 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.
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.
Last episode, we heard from Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III, and today we’ll hear the rest of his story. 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:
A sniper is the premier marksman on a battlefield. They are the commander's long range shooting capability. They are the commander's eyes and ears of the battlefield. They are the top gun, if you will, of the infantry.
When I got to Vietnam, I was assigned as an infantryman, 0311, and snipers were just newly being formulated at the regimental level. The companies have to submit two names to the regiment from their unit and the typical requirements at that time were obviously expert shot, high expert shot, a certain GCT and intelligence level, a certain PFT score, moral character, those kinds of things. And then you had to volunteer for the assignment as a sniper based on the natural hazard, and the inherent danger of being a sniper is one that the Marine Corps did not assign you to. It was strictly voluntary.
I volunteered for snipers for the opportunity to do something that I thought was exciting. I really didn't know what the mission or how snipers would operate. So I wanted a challenge and I knew that being a regular infantryman after six weeks in the field was something that was getting very boring and very mundane, so I wanted a little more excitement in my life and volunteering for snipers gave that to me.
I arrived in Vietnam on November 10th, the Marine Corps birthday of 1966, and was assigned to Bravo Company 1st Battalion 7th Marines as an 0311 infantryman. I spent six weeks as an infantryman at which time snipers were formulated at the regimental level and I was able to volunteer for the assignment to snipers. And from that point on, I spent the rest of the 11 and a half, 12 months in country as a sniper.
Vietnam was a guerilla warfare for the most part, but as you went further North, you were encountered by more conventional hardcore North Vietnamese troops. So at any one given time in the tactical area that we were operating, you can in fact run into both Viet Cong, the local indigenous type enemy, or North Vietnamese regulars.
The Viet Cong tended to operate in smaller units and hit and run type ambushes, whereas the North Vietnamese predominantly were larger in size and were more conventional in nature. Certainly, they had their own snipers as well, which was the main function that we were formulated for was to counter snipe. So our mission as a sniper was to not only support the infantry and their operations, but to also seek out and locate and kill enemy snipers.
Being a sniper is the ultimate challenge of the hunt. Hunting man is unequivocally perhaps the most difficult thing you can do, and perhaps best summed up in the words of Ernest Hemingway, when he said, "For those who have hunted men long enough and liked it care for nothing else thereafter." Perhaps it really sums it up from the standpoint that being a sniper is the ultimate hunt. Hunting man is the greatest experience one could ever endure.
Since we were the first group of snipers in 1967, January of 1967, the training for snipers at that time was quite limited. We were trained in country, in Da Nang at Marble Mountain. It was a two week course predominantly for marksmanship with the new Remington 700 Marine Corps sniper rifle, as well as the use of the radio for calling in supporting arms, such as artillery, Naval, gunfire, and air. Primarily, however, was marksmanship. We only spent two weeks on the rifle range and at other schools, and then went back to the infantry units as snipers, because we came from the infantry. So we already had that inherent infantry skill of beating the bush, so to speak, of living in the jungle, of contact with the enemy. We were all seasoned veterans for the most part. Today's snipers, however, go through a grueling intensive 10 to 12 week curriculum, which would far exceed anything we experienced at the time. And in fact, thinking back on it, looking at today's snipers, I'd be hard pressed to graduate successfully from their school today.
Sniper school gives you the bare essentials to be prepared to conduct sniper warfare in the field. After which time, every day in the field is another day of learning experience and training. You're constantly training. As such, you're constantly zeroing your rifle. From a normal patrol that would come under an ambush or fire being presented to you and you having to hit the deck could perhaps cause the alignment of the scope and rifle to go ajar. As such, you have to re-zero the rifle. Constantly re-zeroing that rifle for that one shot because you were only getting one shot, maybe two shots, at your target. After which you're ineffective, and you've got to get out of the area. When you're in your high position and you know you've got a zeroed rifle, that's the first step in the mental process of taking out the enemy.
There's a psychological implication that goes with the ability of a sniper to successfully take out his target, and that is the idea that you are going to kill another human being, at your beck and call. And that's something that's a little bit difficult to deal with, unlike the infantry that would have to whom it may concern on their bullets and fire through fire suppression and superiority, and rarely see their target. The sniper invariably always sees his target. And as such, you become personalized with that individual. It no longer is a target, and in fact, no longer an enemy, but is another person. And as you go through life and you think back on those times on the battlefield, when you saw the eyes of your enemy, who were the enemy at that point, but now you realize back that in fact that they were human beings, and that's something you deal with because it's that last sight picture that you remember. As that rifle comes back out on target, after firing that round, and that last sight picture that you see is ingrained in your mind forever.
A sniper is more than just a mechanical being. Sniping is an art, as far as I'm concerned. I believe it's the ability to deliver a 173 grain projectile coming out the muzzle of your sniper rifle, traveling at 2,800 feet per second, going a distance of a thousand meters or more, and having all the adverse conditions affect that round. You have the effect of elevation, which is as a result of gravitational forces, you have humidity, you have temperature, you have elevation, and the key is when. That is the thing that's going to make or break the sniper, is the ability to discern the velocity, the direction of the wind and its effect on that bullet, and to do that successfully, what I would do is see that round in my mind's eye going down range before I actually pull that trigger. To visualize its movement declining from the gravitational forces and then being affected by perhaps left and right wind, and then going into the target. Almost as if a painter before he paints a painting sees in his mind eye what it's going to look like. The same thing is with a sniper. In my case, I visually saw that round going downrange before I fired it to ensure that's the way I wanted it to happen.
The mission of a sniper is first and foremost to kill the enemy, as in any war, it's a matter of attrition. The idea of a sniper taking out another human life, while personal, it also has to be understood in a sniper's mind that as he's taking out this other person, that is one less enemy soldier on the battlefield to inflict wounds or death on fellow Americans. When one thinks of the incredible heroics of two Marine snipers that come to mind, Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney, between the both of which had over 300 enemy confirmed kills, that was a lot of enemy soldiers that didn't come south to kill American boys.
I joined snipers in January of '67 and we were the first officially sanctioned by Table of Organization snipers in the Marine Corps. They had snipers prior to this, and in fact, Carlos Hathcock had been operating as a sniper for perhaps a year or more. He was our instructor on occasion at the Da Nang Sniper School. So we knew of Carlos Hathcock, And in fact, Carlos in January of 1967 was already a legend.
Chuck on the other hand came after me. So I really never knew Chuck, only through the association, the Marine Corps Scout Sniper Association. The legend of Carlos Hathcock was prominent, but in fact, we were writing history for the most part, the snipers that were employed in January of '67. Frankly, the first technical manual for sniping, Marine Corps Sniping Manual FMFM 1-3B, I believe, or 3A, the very first sniper manual that came out that had ‘DRAFT’ written across the top of it. It was produced in February of 1968. So consequently, the information in that sniper manual came as a result of the predecessors to that period, which was us.
I can recall giving situation reports regularly and being demanded, by the chain of command, the situation, and we'd have to give our log books up, and we were debrief on our missions coming in out of the field, for this information that eventually was going into the first training manual by the Marine Corps.
We were issued the Remington 700 rifle with the Redfield 3-9 variable AccuRange scope. It was an excellent system in its time. It had some drawbacks, however, but since it was brand new to us, literally the rifle came right from the manufacturer. The rifle was in pristine condition and we were the first to use it. But over time we found that the Redfield scope was not able to sustain itself in that type of a jungle environment with the humidity especially. The scope and its optics became compromised after a couple of years.
The Remington 700 had a wood stock to it, which over time also became compromised with the humidity. The stock would swell, touch up against the barrel, and render the sniper rifle inaccurate. As a result, today's sniper rifle, the M40A1, perhaps even the A2, a later model, has a fiberglass stock with a much more forgiving scope on it, and it's a much more durable instrument. Our sniper rifles were pretty sensitive in nature and over time became quite beaten up.
A Marine and his rifle are one, it's a bond between you and that piece of equipment because that is what's going to save your life. My sniper rifle was my prize possession, even though I've had some misgivings with it, and at times perhaps abused it, it was still forgiving for me. Cleaning it was certainly, as any weapon system, paramount. But this was my instrument of war, this was my instrument of business, and I needed to reach out and touch somebody at a thousand meters or more so I had to know the intricacies of that sniper rifle at all times.
Camouflage back then was not to the degree that the Marine Scout Snipers trained today. And in fact, the ghillie suits that are used today would probably be rendered ineffective in the jungles of Vietnam, or the deserts of Saudi Arabia, just because of the climate and the heat conditions. So our degree of camouflage was, what us normal infantry men would do, would be with camouflage sticks. And in my case, I used a piece of nylon camouflage parachute about 10 feet by 15 feet in width and length. And I would just cover it over my body to break up my outline when I was sitting in a high position. And that worked very well for me.
You have two things that protect you, cover and concealment. Cover is which you get behind, like a big rock, concealment is which that cannot be detected. So if you can't be seen, you can't be shot. And for me, just that simple piece of nylon cloth that rolled up into a ball and fit in my pocket gave me the comfort of knowing that I was well camouflaged.
We were just out of sniper school and I joined Mike Company 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines on Operation Desoto. We were out in the field on this particular occasion and I was setting in with my teammate acting as a blocking force. That is to say that the infantry was moving through a particular village and we were to observe the enemy movement and take out any enemy that was not standing to fight the Marines that were taking the village. In fact, an enemy unit did deploy from the village in retreat. We engaged them with a sniper rifle only to find that they eventually got out of range. We managed five confirmed kills at that point and they were just too far for us to engage them any further.
We had predesignated target areas, such as to say target reference points on a map for fires from artillery. We called in a pre-registered mark, we adjusted from that mark, I asked for one shot VT. The VT came in within 30 seconds and landed right above the remaining 12 or so. The one artillery round took them all out, which was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my business as a sniper, and at that point, I was quite sold on the idea that the best sniper rifle was in fact, the 105 howitzer.
Upon graduation from Marine Scout Sniper School, the first infantry unit that I joined, we were up on this particular hill, Hill 10, I think it was called Mike company. I happened to be observing out in the area and I saw this enemy digging a fighting position, a spider trap essentially, which is typically built by snipers. So this was an enemy sniper building a sniper hide position for use at some point in time against this Marine unit. He was at about 1,300 meters, which was outside the effective range of the normal infantry rifle. And in fact, the enemy would walk with impunity beyond six, 700 meters because they knew that their infantry rifles wouldn't reach out that far, machine gun fire could, and of course mortars would as well, but they could hear that. But the Marine sniper was new on the ground, it was newly employed in the area and they didn't know, in fact, we had just come on the scene.
Well, I decided to engage this individual who was sitting at about 1,300 meters from me. My maximum effective range from training and on the rifle range was 1,100 meters. And of course, as you get further in distance, the trajectory is changing logarithmically, not arithmetically to say it's linear, but rather logarithmically. So it's declining in velocity and foot pounds of energy quite drastically as you further go out in distance. Well, I just did a hasty calculation and thought that, "Well, if I put the crosshairs up so far above them, that should work." Well, in fact, I wasn't even near what I thought I was, I missed him by at least five feet.
This was my first shot out of sniper school and I couldn't believe that my first shot was a miss. And of course, I don't think this enemy soldier realized that he was being fired upon either because he quite didn't believe it and turned around, and at that time I had recycled the rifle, my spotter gave me my new position, right five, up five, put the cross hairs five feet above him, five foot to the right, and fired a second round within five seconds, and took him out before he had a real chance to realize that, in fact, snipers were on the ground.
The term murder incorporated came about I believe in 1967 or so, perhaps 1966. And it was a term of endearment given to the Marine Scout Sniper, not sure exactly where it originated from, perhaps the Da Nang Sniper School with a gentleman by the name of Captain Jim Lange and Carlos Hathcock, but certainly among the infantry. When we would come on the scene, the infantry man would kind of part as the snipers would either get off the helicopter or jump off the truck and report a board because we had a funny looking rifle, one with a scope on it, and they knew that we meant business.
The term murder incorporated of course was a term that we all shared, but I didn't particularly feel it was very appropriate because the term murder is something that doesn't sit well with me. Killing on a battlefield is done out of necessity. I think murder is something that's done out of design, and it's a calculator thing that's done outside the hospices of warfare. Certainly there is murder in war and it's tried accordingly, but fighting on a battlefield and the killing and taking of human life is the unfortunate part of warfare.
The best moment of my tour in Vietnam certainly was when I got orders coming home, but it was interesting in that the snipers were always in contact on an operation. We would no sooner come off of an operation with a unit, go back to regiment for a cold beer, get our mail, and be reassigned to another unit that was out in an operation. So we were always constantly in contact with the enemy. It's great for adding presidential unit citations to your rows of ribbons.
But when I got my orders home, it was only five days prior to reassignment back to the States. I stayed in the field up to five days prior to departure home, which, policy was back then, most of the infantry men try to get back 30 days before reassignment. You stayed back at the company area, did whole watches, and you tried not to be assigned out to the field. Just as a- if you survive a year, that other last month, which was your 13th month, and interestingly, all the other services only had 12, the Marine Corps had 13, and that lucky number 13 was something you just didn't fool with. So most of the infantry guys usually got the last month off, or not out on patrol, but snipers were gainfully employed right to the end and I stayed there in the field, in the bush, in the jungle, right up to five days prior to departure. And I only got back five days before that because I heard it was a nice Thanksgiving meal being served and I just kind of said, "I quit. Time's up, I'm going home."
Patience is a virtue for a sniper. That is his most important element of the business. Yes, you have the rifle at zeroed, and yes, you have the radio, and you have your equipment, but the ability to be able to wait patiently, sometimes days before you even see a target, is something that most men find very, very difficult to do. Keeping your mind active, keeping your body still, not getting restless, to betray your position.
Consequently, what we would employ was the use of notebooks (which, in the hands of the enemy, would have been a very, very useful tool) constantly drawing the front area, marking trees as to its distance, known distances, looking out here, looking at all the elements and drawing them. So in your mind's eye, you knew if you closed your eyes and you knew exactly where the trees were, where the stream was, where the rock was, and you knew it all. Just something to keep yourself busy until a target came into your kill zone, at which point you knew exactly how far it was, you knew exactly the wind conditions because you've been studying it all day, and you could take out your target accordingly without any hesitation, without any second thought, or without any thinking, "Uh-oh, I got to figure out what to do now." You were already gone through that, you're just waiting now in sort of an ambush setting for your target.
The shooting of a sniper rifle really is no different than the shooting of any rifle, or for that matter, any weapons system. The principle of brass that I'm sure is still used in the Marine Corps, but certainly was a term by which we used was BRASS: Breathing, Relaxation, Alignment, Squeeze, and Sight picture. All of these things like a golf swing of all of the elements of the golf swing of the body alignment, the hands, the arms, the metal, procedures, everything has to be in alignment, and everything has to be accounted for. And certainly breathing is one of the critical factors. They're all critical, frankly, but breathing, you're taking a breath, exhale, and on the exhale of about half to three quarters of your oxygen in your lungs, you hold, and that's the time when you're squeezing the trigger. The trigger is to go off unexpectedly, but your focus now is on the cross hairs onto your target and everything is happening simultaneously. And by surprise, the rifle goes off and you get your target.
As I previously mentioned, sniping is a very, very personal business and it's very difficult to discern the feelings of a sniper. It's one that is personal in nature, it's one that a sniper has to deal with the morality of the business, knowing that you will be answering for your actions and those things, the conduct, especially. And that's why I do not like the term murder incorporated because I didn't look at it as murder, I looked at it as doing my job. The taking of another human life is not a natural thing. We've done it very well over time and as long as man is going to fight man, we have to be trained to do that, but it's personal, and you have to live with that, you have to live with your actions later in life. And unless you're prepared to do the right thing and you have the soul and spirit to acknowledge what you've done was the right thing, it's very, very difficult to live with.
That was Lt. Col. Thomas D. Ferran III.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear from Joseph Lockard, who served as a radar operator in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spotted the incoming Japanese an hour before the attack, but his warnings about the approaching formation were dismissed.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. 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.