Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Honor on the Hill: Alex Colvin remembers
It was raining on February 6, 1969, in San Diego when Pfc. Alex Colvin stepped off the plane back onto U.S. soil. With the atrocities of war still fresh in his mind, the damp weather matched Colvin's somber mood.
"I'll never forget that day," Colvin says. "No one was there to greet us at the airport the way they welcome troops back home today. When we got back--the way they treated us--you were kind of hesitant to even wear your uniform. You just wanted to get it off."
Just 13 months earlier, Colvin had arrived at Da Nang Air Base, the northernmost military installation in South Vietnam and, at the time, headquarters for the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Rein) of the 1st Marine Division.
Colvin vividly remembers the near-constant shelling going on around them from the day he arrived. In those days, he thought it was normal. Not until later did Colvin realize that he'd arrived at the beginning of one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War by the People's Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam--the Tet Offensive.
Soon after arriving in Vietnam, Colvin met a quiet, unassuming fellow from Charleston, South Carolina, named Ralph Henry Johnson. The young Marines got to know each other during the days-long surveillance missions they spent monitoring Viet Cong activity. They bonded over their appreciation for music and the time they'd both spent as recruits at Parris Island.
One unforgettable day
On March 3, 1968, Colvin and Johnson were part of reconnaissance unit A-3-1, call sign "Texas Pete," led by Lt. Patrick "Clebe" McClary. A helicopter delivered the team deep in enemy-controlled territory on Hill 146, which overlooked the Quan Duc Valley, for a scouting mission as part of Operation Rock. The bomb crater atop the hill indicated previous activity there, but created an ideal defense position for the patrol unit. While digging their fighting holes, Pfc. Johnson discovered two landmines while they canvassed the area, which the team immediately defused.
However, by their second day on the hill, the 15-person team was spotted and was taking on sniper fire. In the early morning hours of March 5, 1968, the team was under attack by a platoon-sized force of North Vietnamese soldiers. Four rockets were propelled toward the unit, but overshot the hill. Viet Cong continued in their advance, launching hand grenades, firing automatic weapons, and setting seemingly endless satchel charges. Despite the onslaught, team Texas Pete was determined not to give up and fought their enemy back; the VC eventually receded.
However, the battle was not without losses. One grenade had landed in the fighting hole occupied by Pfc. Johnson and two other Marines. Johnson yelled a warning to his comrades and selflessly hurled himself onto the explosive. His body absorbed the impact of the blast, killing him instantly, but saving the life of the Marine next to him and helping prevent further VC advance.
In that moment, Colvin was shattered by what had occurred. He'd just lost his friend and one of the most genuine men he had ever known. But he didn't have time to grieve. Almost immediately, his unit came under heavy fire once again, this time more ferocious than the initial attack.
At one point, a helicopter made an attempt to rescue the besieged forces, but could not withstand the hail of gunfire. Just when it seemed they might not be able to hold the VC forces back any longer, Colvin and the team were relieved to hear the sound of an AC-47D coming in from above.
The plane, a gunship designed for close air support to ground troops, had the capacity to blanket an area the size of football field with up to 18,000 rounds of machine gun power per minute. It had affectionately been named "Puff the Magic Dragon" due to the plumes of smoke it let out while firing.
"Puff came over that hill like an angel," Colvin remembers. "She lit a ring of fire around that hill."
All in all, the assault on Hill 146 resulted in two Marines losing their lives, and another four being wounded in action. It wasn't until after they'd safely returned to the base that Colvin realized he'd also been shot.
Colvin was treated for his wounds and remained in Vietnam for another 11 months. He lost others and saw things he wished he could forget, but none impacted him in the same way as the assault on Hill 146.
"During combat, you bury a lot of stuff. You feel sorry, and you can get really down, but you have to stuff that stuff down and keep going."
Colvin spent years trying to ignore the pain caused by the time he spent in Vietnam. Colvin says he knows that post-traumatic stress disorder is real because he dealt with it for years.
For years, Colvin drowned his pain in alcohol, destroyed his closest relationships, and let his anger get the best of him. By the early 90s, he realized something needed to change. Through prompting from a Korean War Veteran and assistance through the VA, Colvin found his way to Alcoholics Anonymous. This year, he is celebrating 25 years of sobriety.
Now Colvin uses his experiences to reach out to Veterans dealing with PTSD. His goal is to simply be there for them because he knows what it feels like to have no one understand what you've been through. He says he doesn't want anyone to feel the way Vietnam Veterans were made to feel in the years after the war.
Every day Alex Colvin remembers his brothers in arms and the time he spent as a U.S. Marine. He no longer feels the shame he used to associate with his uniform.
On April 2, 2016, Colvin accepted an invitation to attend the commissioning of the USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The Arleigh-Burke class Navy destroyer ship is named in honor of Colvin's fallen comrade.
He ranks the ceremony as one of the most important highlights of his life.
"I feel like God spared me on that hill so that I could witness Ralph being honored in this way. I'm just so glad I lived to see it."
Alex Colvin currently resides in Washington, D.C. For his service, he has earned a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, the Vietnam Service Medal, a Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and a Presidential Commendation. He is a retired mechanical engineer and teaches engineering courses two nights a week. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Dive Instructor.