Wisconsin Vietnam veteran earns three Purple Hearts

By SHARON ROZNIK

Fond du Lac Reporter

FOND DU LAC, Wis. (AP) — Three-time Purple Heart recipient Tom Scherg can still recall what it feels like to sleep in a foxhole filled with mud and water about as close as U.S. troops could get to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.

When he hears people talk about having a bad day he keeps his mouth shut, he told USA Today Network-Wisconsin, but memories of him and his Marine buddies in Fox Company looking like shriveled up prunes day in and day out come flooding back.

In 1966-67, endless rains from the monsoon season were a constant torment in the jungles of South Vietnam, a kind of living hell that caused many an infantry soldier to be medevacked out when his skin came off, along with his boots.

Scherg, now 69, was a quarterback on the Orioles football team in his hometown of North Fond du Lac– a team that took the Flyway Conference in 1965 during his junior year in high school. That same year the November military draft call was the largest since the Korean War, and 184,000 American troops were stationed in South Vietnam by the time Christmas rolled around.

Tall and athletic, Scherg was ready to serve when his number came up. At the time he was working at Mercury Marine and had just purchased a new 1965 convertible with $300 borrowed from his grandmother.

Down at the local post office on Feb. 22, 1966, he was among maybe a hundred young men lined up to get sworn in to the military. They were told some of them better sign up for the Marines or they would pick out every fifth guy. Scherg stepped forward.

“I always liked their uniforms and I thought it might be more of a challenge,” Scherg said. His parents, Edwin and Margaret, certainly felt bad their son had to go to Vietnam, but they supported the boys being sent off to fight for their country.

The young Lance Corporal was assigned as a machine gunner to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (known as 2/9) stationed in the Quang Tri Province. The close-knit battalion, known as “Hell in a Helmet,” endured brutal battles like Operation Hickory and Operation Kingfisher (described as a “meatgrinder”) that involved heavy fighting in hill country. The province was subjected to the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of the world, more than the amount of ordinance used in Europe during World War II, according to foxco-2ndbn-9thmarines.com.

“Sure we were all homesick and pretty scared, but very seldom would any of us admit that. We quickly realized all the things we had taken for granted back home,” Scherg said, paging through a photo album that tells the story of his combat years. He pauses at certain photos, points to buddies he lost, like Phil Phillips, whose body he helped carry out of the jungle.

Sharing foxholes, the 13 Marines in Fox Company got to know each other intimately, Scherg said.

“You sit there and eat and talk, about your family and your girlfriend and all your hopes and dreams and you know just about everything about the other guy. And when one of them is killed right next to you, there’s a psychological effect. You ask yourself, when is the next round for me,” he said.

Scherg was sleeping under a poncho with two other Marines just outside North Vietnam when they were hit by heavy artillery fire. A piece of shrapnel went through his shoulder. Fellow Marine Dave Davis, who had been asleep next to him was also wounded.

“Dave cried out that his legs were broken and he was going to die. I told him no one dies from a broken leg,” Scherg said. But a tiny piece of shrapnel had pierced his lung and Davis died shortly after a corpsman said the “Our Father” over him.

Warren Clutter of Rockford, Ill., was the third man under the poncho that day, his body shielded by the other two. His friendship with Scherg has lasted to this day.

“I get to see him about once a year and we always talk about that day, it always come up,” Clutter said.

The day of the attack Clutter had begged off machine gun duty due to exhaustion and had hunkered down on the wet ground to get some shuteye. The marine that took his place on the machine gun, was killed instantly during the ambush.

Fox Company was so deep in the jungle they had to wait until daylight to be rescued. Navy corpsmen use machetes to hack down palm trees so the helicopters could drop down buckets and pick up the dead and wounded.

In July, 1967 Scherg was gravely wounded inside the Demilitarized Zone during Operation Kingfisher. The first grenade from the enemy attack spun him around, but a medic shot him up with morphine and the Marines moved closer to the fighting. The next grenade that hit Scherg picked him up off the ground and threw him back down, destroying his machine gun.

“I knew I was hurt bad,” he said. His stomach wound was visible under his flak jacket.

Scherg recalls he and the rest of the wounded being piled up on a tank on top of the dead and transported out of the jungle. He recovered on a hospital ship, the U.S. Sanctuary off the South China Sea, but not before suffering cardiac arrest from loss of blood. He eventually made his way back home to recover at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Ill.

The Vietnam Veteran ended up going back to work for Mercury Marine and retired after 40 years. He and his wife Sharon have a son, Andrew, and two daughters, Angela and Amy.

Scherg still carries with him the scars of war, and his license plate reads: FOX 29. As he ages, his old wounds hurt more. Of the 13 Marines assigned to Fox Company, he was the only one left in Vietnam by the end of his nearly two-year tour who was not killed or wounded and sent home.

This past summer he took part in an Old Glory Honor Flight, that took Vietnam Veterans to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

“I want people to know that these young men I served with stayed and fought for their country, and I want to make sure they know that the U.S. military didn’t lose the war. We never lost a battle and never surrendered,” Scherg said.