Cover image for A sniper in the Arizona : 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in the Arizona Territory, 1967
A sniper in the Arizona : 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in the Arizona Territory, 1967
Culbertson, John J., 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Ivy Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
270 pages : illustrations ; 18 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS557.7 .C85 1999 Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks

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"Morning was always a welcome sight to us.nbsp;nbsp;It meant two things. The first was that we were still alive. . . ."

In 1967, death was the constant companion of the Marines of Hotel Company, 2/5, as they patrolled the paddy dikes, mud, and mountains of the Arizona Territory southwest of Da Nang. But John Culbertson and most of the rest of Hotel Company were the same lean, fighting Marines who had survived the carnage of Operation Tuscaloosa. Hotel's grunts walked over the enemy, not around him.

In graphic terms, John Culbertson describes the daily, dangerous life of a soldier fighting in a country where the enemy was frequently indistinguishable from the allies, fought tenaciously, and thought nothing of using civilians as a shield. Though he was one of the top marksmen in 1st Marine Division Sniper School in Da Nang in March 1967--a class of just eighteen, chosen from the division's twenty thousand Marines--Culbertson knew that against the VC and the NVA, good training and experience could carry you just so far. But his company's mission was to find and engage the enemy, whatever the price. This riveting, bloody first-person account offers a stark testimony to the stuff U.S. Marines are made of.

Author Notes

John J. Culbertson served with the 2/5, 1st Marine Division, at An Hoa, Republic of Vietnam, from December 1966 to July 1967. Mr. Culbertson served as a Marine Rifleman, MOS 0311, on Operation Tuscaloosa. He completed 1st MarDiv Sniper School in Da Nang, where he earned the secondary MOS 8541. He was wounded in action and earned three Purple Hearts. He also was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, and multiple expert rifleman badge awards. Mr. Culbertson received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1971 at the rank of sergeant.



Prologue   In Operation Tuscaloosa: 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, at An Hoa, 1967, I described how Hotel Company had destroyed the R-20th Main Force Battalion of the regular Viet Cong forces on January 26, 1967, at the river crossing over the Thu Bon River and in assaults against the VC/NVA regulars in the hostile villages of La Bac 1 and 2. Two hundred twenty-one enemy soldiers had been killed or wounded (body count) by the Marines of Foxtrot and Hotel Companies. By January 28, 1967, when Operation Tuscaloosa had been officially secured, the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, based at An Hoa Combat Base, twenty-five miles southwest of Marine headquarters at Da Nang, had sent a clear message to the Viet Cong high command to the north near the Laotian border: the U.S. Marines would press ahead with clearing the hamlets of I Corps of the indigenous Viet Cong terrorists who targeted its peaceful peasant South Vietnamese.   The peasants of South Vietnam themselves were the victims hardest hit by the violence sparked by the military dictatorship of Vo Nguyen Giap in North Vietnam's "People's Republic." For this reason, the Marines had chosen the sensible tactic of fortifying local hamlets using U.S. Marine and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) soldiers in civil action platoons (CAPs) to clear the countryside of the VC and NVA and to strengthen the local leaders so that they could maintain hegemony within their districts. Offensive strikes like Operation Tuscaloosa were designed to defeat large Communist military units and maintain U.S. superiority on the battlefield. However, victory in large-scale battles like Operation Starlight and Operation Prairie were simply not solely capable of stopping large-scale enemy infiltration into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail (particularly into the DMZ, the A Shau Valley, and the Arizona Territory, west of Da Nang).   Operation Prairie I, which ended on January 31, 1967, had lasted 187 days and compiled some significant statistics: a buildup of Marines to over sixty thousand combat and support troops in I Corps; an expansion of U.S. Marine tactical area of responsibility from eight square miles in the beginning of 1966 to one thousand eight hundred square miles at the beginning of 1967; one hundred and fifty combat engagements with enemy forces of at least battalion or regimental strength; the destruction of several enemy battalions (as in Operation Tuscaloosa); the deaths of seven thousand three hundred (body count) enemy soldiers in major operations, with an additional four thousand enemy killed in action (KIA) as a result of over two hundred thousand Marine combat patrols. U.S. Marine losses during the period were one thousand seven hundred KIA and nine thousand wounded.   Despite the enemy's catastrophic losses, infiltration into South Vietnam did not let up during 1967; on the contrary, it intensified.   In order to control and pacify the eleven thousand hamlets in South Vietnam, the U.S. and ARVN joint strategy was to present a strong presence by patrolling and village fortification and through the development of the Regional and Popular Forces that comprised the South Vietnamese National Guard. During the early months of 1967, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, patrolled the Arizona Territory to win the hearts and minds of the local populace. The local populace, on the other hand, would just as soon have sent us on our way back to America, as the war by then had orphaned and widowed many of them. In Hotel Company the grunts still thought the United States could kick Charlie's butt (Victor Charlie, i.e., the Viet Cong, our enemy in the Arizona Territory) and win the war.   A Sniper in the Arizona is a true story of the events surrounding Hotel Company and its sister companies in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. 2/5 was garrisoned at An Hoa combat base at the southern periphery of the huge rice basin that covered the several hundred square miles in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam, known as the Arizona Territory. Hotel Company, with the aid of Foxtrot, had just survived a near massacre on the sandbar wastelands of the Thu Bon River during Operation Tuscaloosa. After heavy fighting and maddening losses, the Marines had destroyed their foe in two frontal assaults.   CHAPTER ONE   Tuscaloosa Aftermath   The early weeks of February 1967 brought constant patrolling by Hotel and Foxtrot Companies along the meandering tributaries of the Thu Bon River (Song Thu Bon) deep into the Arizona Territory. The Communist high command in Hanoi was diverting new infantry and support battalions south to press the overall assault on the free Republic of South Vietnam. The invaders were entering South Vietnam through I (Roman numeral for "one") Corps, the northernmost of the four military sectors (formally called Corps Tactical Zones or CTZs) of Vietnam controlled by the Allied Forces.   The peasants had seen the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine (2/5), troops file through the dusty earthen streets of their villages on many occasions in previous months. Yet the old men and mamma-sans were oddly withdrawn and agitated. Something was undercutting the general kindliness the village communities had earlier directed at the Leathernecks. Subtle changes in the mood of the people were important to note in the ever-shifting drama of the jungle war.   Reports of village unease and unfriendliness reached the battalion's commanding officer at his headquarters at An Hoa. Lieutenant Colonel Jackson had replaced Lieutenant Colonel Airheart as the battalion CO. Colonel Jackson immediately ordered 2/5's patrols to take Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) interpreters along on any mission through Arizona hamlets expressing hostility toward the Marines.   John Lafley, Luther Hamilton, John Jessmore, and I saddled up for a long patrol that would keep Hotel's 3rd Platoon in the bush for several weeks. In Hotel Company, we wore flak jackets and carried small Marine haversacks high on our upper backs. Helmets were worn unstrapped at the chin but low over the eyes to cut down the horrendous glare of the morning sun as it filtered through the trees. Except for FNGs ("fuckin' new guys"), helmet covers were faded camouflage. Our packs contained extra 7.62mm NATO rifle cartridges for our M-14 rifles, socks, cigarettes, and extra C-ration meals. Our jungle boots were white from constant immersion in the water of the paddies that made the Arizona Territory one of the most productive rice- producing valleys in Asia. Our M-14s were spotless. They rested in the crooks of our arms or over the flak-jacket padding of our shoulders. We wore bandoliers of ammo crisscrossed over our chests. Bayonets and K-bar knives hung loosely at the hip.   The Marines of Hotel Company were the victors of Tuscaloosa, which had matched them against the VC in one of the bloodiest battles yet in the Marine Corps' Vietnam experience, and they had the cold eyes and the swagger of seasoned professionals. When the men of 3rd Platoon crossed the perimeter wire of An Hoa combat base to enter the paddies leading into the Arizona Territory, we took on the frame of mind of a band of hardened killers; too many of our brothers had been killed and wounded on Operation Tuscaloosa.   Gerald Burns swaggered into the gaggle of Marines swarming through the double-apron barbed wire and forming into a long column heading northwest into the Arizona. Burns wore a filthy flak jacket. His M-14 was draped across one massive arm the way a quail hunter would carry a shotgun back home. A half-finished Camel cigarette hung from the redhead's lip. Burns's helmet was tilted back on his head nonchalantly, and the cigarette smoke eddied around the helmet-visor lip with each puff. Lafley glanced at Burns as he passed, joining the column winding along the red-clay trail that served as the main road. Something drew Lafley's attention toward the front of the column and then back to Burns.   "Hey, numbnuts, what the hell are you doing with that flak jacket on? Boy, are you crazy or something!" Lafley stammered in disbelief as Burns turned toward him and stepped out of the column. His reply was a sneer combined with that peculiar brand of sarcasm that made Burns the platoon joker. But his humor mirrored an utter ruthlessness and total disregard for his personal safety in combat; Burns was the epitome of the combat Marine. "I took this jacket off Lieutenant Smith's body after Tuscaloosa, Lafley. I figured the son of a bitch had so many bullet holes in it that they'll never kill old Private Burns in this rig. I even drew a bull's-eye on the burst of rounds that tore through the back and killed the lieutenant. Fuck the VC if they can't take a joke! They killed my brother over here, and that damn sure ain't no joke to me. Lafley, when I've finished my tour in this shithole, some gooks are gonna remember old Private Burns real good; he killed their sons and brothers, too, by God!"   Lafley shook his head as Burns rejoined the column, by then spread out and moving fast, looking for signs of the enemy.   Excerpted from A Sniper in the Arizona: 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, in the Arizona Territory 1967 by John J. Culbertson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.