Pennsylvania native Walter “Joe” Marm had only been in the Army about a year when he embarked on the first combat test of the Army’s new concept of warfare, the airmobile assault.
Born and raised in Washington, PA, the son of a State Trooper, Marm attended a parochial school where he competed on a rifle team and excelled in the Boy Scouts.
Marm studied finance at Duquesne University. Upon graduating in 1964 he assessed the situation in Vietnam and decided to enlist instead of waiting around to be drafted. He attended Officers Candidate School and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. He also attended the Army Ranger School before receiving his assignment to go to Vietnam with the 1/7th Cavalry, First Cavalry division. The division’s mission, among other things, was to deploy the Army’s first airmobile troops, and to test the new tactic of using helicopters to insert troops into combat. Within two months, Marm’s unit would test their mettle in the Ia Drang Valley.
In 1965 much of the South Vietnamese countryside was controlled by the Viet Cong, with support from the North Vietnamese Army NVA. Units from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been trying to retake territory for the Central government but were often ineffective. General William Westmoreland devised a strategy whereby the U.S. would take on a larger role in combat operations in the hopes that American troops would succeed where ARVN troops had failed. The 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as one of the first units sent to implement that strategy.
The Ia Drang Valley lies some 30 miles northwest of Pleiku in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. The NVA had established a base of operations there on and around Chu Pong Mountain. In November of 1965, intelligence reports indicated that they were preparing to assault the provincial capital of Pleiku. The 1/7th Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore was ordered to fly in and clear the valley of the enemy to prevent the attack. The resulting battle would mark the first major combat for U.S. troops in Vietnam, and the first test of the airmobile concept.
Shortly after the first elements of the 1/7th arrived in the valley, an advancing platoon was attacked and cut off from the main body of the battalion. Trapped and alone, there were in grave danger of being wiped out, and LTC Moore made their rescue a priority. As a platoon leader, Marm was given the task of trying to link up with the surrounded platoon:
“My company commander attached me to Bravo Company to make an assault to try to link up with them. We made an attempt [but] weren’t successful, we had to pull back. We started up a second time late in the afternoon with an artillery prep in front of us. We were taking heavy fire from in front of us from the NVA.”
“There was a machine gun and an ant-hill, we called it a bunker but it was a solidified rock ant hill. It was about seven or eight feet in height, and maybe six feet in length, and there were shrubs and trees around it. So it was very difficult to get a grenade over it to where the enemy was. I tried to get one of my men to throw a grenade from where we were… We were pretty much right in front of the bunker, and I thought it was a pretty strategic position because most of the fire was going out to the flanks… He threw it and it didn’t get over, it landed in front and made a big boom.”
“I shot at it with a LAW, a Light Anti-tank Weapon, into that bunker to try and silence it. It went off, made a big boom. It really picked up morale, it picked up my morale, because we thought we’d knocked it out. We started forward again, and the weapons fire all on our front picked up again. That’s when I said ‘It’s time for me to do it myself’. So I charged across forty or fifty yards of open terrain, had my rifle and grenades with me. I told my men to hold their fire; I was worried about getting shot by my own men. I ran across in front of the bunker, threw a grenade over the top. When it went off I went around to the left side. There were still some guys there shooting, so I finished them off with my M-16… I turned sideways and told my men ‘Let’s go,’ we’ve got to get up to the platoon that was trapped on the side of the mountain, when I got shot.”
“It went in my left jaw and went out here [points to his right jaw]. Kind of ruined my day. I had to feel my teeth to make sure I still had my teeth. One of my sergeants, who was a medic in Korea, came up, him and a couple of other guys were the first up. They patched me up and a couple of my men took me to the back. That was the first day of the battle, and it lasted for two more days.”
Marm’s wound was not life threatening, but required evacuation to the States. Within a few days he was back in the U.S. at Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania. But other Soldiers, along with United Press International correspondent Joe Galloway, had witnessed and reported his heroic act. Marm was wounded on November 14, 1965. On December 19, 1966, he traveled to the Pentagon to receive the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor. His citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. As a platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 1st Lt. Marm demonstrated indomitable courage during a combat operation. His company was moving through the valley to relieve a friendly unit surrounded by an enemy force of estimated regimental size. 1st Lt. Marm led his platoon through withering fire until they were finally forced to take cover. Realizing that his platoon could not hold very long, and seeing four enemy soldiers moving into his position, he moved quickly under heavy fire and annihilated all 4. Then, seeing that his platoon was receiving intense fire from a concealed machine gun, he deliberately exposed himself to draw its fire. Thus locating its position, he attempted to destroy it with an antitank weapon. Although he inflicted casualties, the weapon did not silence the enemy fire. Quickly, disregarding the intense fire directed on him and his platoon, he charged 30 meters across open ground, and hurled grenades into the enemy position, killing some of the 8 insurgents manning it. Although severely wounded, when his grenades were expended, armed with only a rifle, he continued the momentum of his assault on the position and killed the remainder. His selfless actions reduced the fire on his platoon, broke the enemy assault, and rallied his unit to continue toward the accomplishment of this mission. 1st Lt. Marm’s gallantry on the battlefield and his extraordinary intrepidity at the risk of his life are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
“Some people say the Medal is harder to wear than it is to earn,” Marm said in an interview. “I’ve always been very humble, and feel that I wear the Medal for all those Soldiers in the 1st Cav who were there in that battle and other battles. I’m just the caretaker of the Medal for them. There’re so many valorous deeds that go on in combat, they all can’t be recognized. I’m no braver than many of my fellow Soldiers, I’m just grateful that they authorized me to wear it for them. So I feel I have to uphold the Medal for them. You have to take care of your fellow Soldiers and walk in their shoes too.”
After recovering from his injuries Marm returned to active duty. In 1969, feeling he had an obligation to share the burden of war, he requested assignment to Vietnam. The Army made him sign papers testifying that he was choosing to go, and then honored his request.
Walter “Joe” Marm, Jr. attained the rank of Colonel and retired from active duty in 1995.