Sgt. Angel Mendez - An Example for Others
Angel Mendez - 1964
For those who remember it, the decade of the ‘60s was an exciting time to be alive. It was a time for choices and personal decisions, a period of change and development for America, and change is occasionally painful. There were issues of civil rights and a Cold War that was heating to confrontation. Pres. John F. Kennedy’s assassination made a profound impact in November 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech also made a lasting impact in August, 1963. There were events that should ideally have drawn us together and unified us as Americans but, in years that soon followed, the escalating war in Southeast Asia and our commitment in the Republic of South Viet Nam proved extremely divisive, and it polarized the nation.
I graduated from high school in June, 1964, and wasn’t prepared to go to a college or university. I earnestly wanted to leave the urban crush of life in Manhattan, had no passion for a career direction and, like many other high school graduates, wanted to press on. Born in 1946, after World War II ended, I was drawn to military life for the same reasons as a great many of my idealistic peers. Shortly before my 18th birthday, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps
Arrival at Parris Island, South Carolina, is a lastingly memorable experience. As a bus full of seated recruits crossed a bridge over Archer’s Creek, an NCO at the front of the bus stood and admonished us in no uncertain terms to be silent, adding, “When this bus brakes to a stop near the Receiving Barracks, my babysitting duties will end. You will be addressed by another Marine and you will listen carefully to his instructions. You will follow them to the letter. Am I understood?” There was a ripple of response, and he barked. “You will properly respond ‘Yes, sir!’ to my question. Again, am I understood?” He was answered with a more responsive, “Yes, sir!”, and he grimaced, “You will find your voices very shortly, I kid you not.”
The bus groaned to a stop and that NCO dismounted, spoke briefly with another Marine wearing a campaign cover or “Smokey Bear” hat and he handed him a folder and clipboard. There was a brief exchange before that Marine stepped up, seemingly filling the front of that bus, and his booming voice seemed to reverberate throughout the bus. I was certain he could be heard miles away. From that moment, it was clear our lives would change.
At his command, we would promptly dismount the bus, moving in an orderly manner. We would step off the bus carefully, but we would be running the very moment our foot touched the ground and fall into formation at the direction of the NCOs awaiting us. We were not to dawdle, sashay, stroll or otherwise slow the process of emptying that bus and, to provide additional incentive, he warned that the last person off the bus would suffer the pain of his displeasure. True to his word, the last young man off the bus was required to do push-ups (many of them).
Without going into detail, the days ahead were a confusion of places to go, things to do, and immediate compliance with directions. All commands were shouted at ear-piercing volume. All deviations from commands were immediately and decisively corrected. We received haircuts, were inoculated against every disease known to man or beast, x-rayed, tested for hearing, and checked for footwear size. We were issued ill-fitting utility uniforms, two pairs of boots, and an assortment of health and comfort items for our personal hygiene.
Recruit platoons consisted of about 80 recruits. Four platoons comprised a series. I would find myself in Platoon 395 of the Third Recruit Training Battalion. Our senior drill instructor was Sgt. Jimmie B. Morgan, and he was assisted by two junior drill instructors, Cpl. R.J. Violette and Cpl. James French. For the weeks ahead, nothing we did was accomplished quickly enough or well enough to merit their approval. It was clear we were an assortment of subhuman life forms and, without considerable education and behavioral modification, we were unfit to dream about being Marines.
Recruits do not have a great deal of leisure time, but there are shared tasks, work details and moments for conversation. Without the distinction of individual haircuts and clothing, we all looked very much the same. One morning, early in the recruit experience, Sgt. Morgan called us to attention and directed us, “Look to your front. See that recruit directly across from your position? Now, look to your left. Do it! Now look to your right. You will leave your cheap civilian attitudes and racial crap behind you. That was another life. There is no black, white, brown, red or yellow here. You are green. Every damned one of you is green! I don’t care how many brothers and sisters you had; you now have a new family. These are your brothers. Should you survive to become Marines, you will have a larger family. Every man or woman who earns the right to be called a Marine will be your brother or sister. Every man or woman who has served honorably will be related to you. You will not forget this. Am I clearly understood?” We shouted, “Yes, sir!” He frowned, “I don’t want you to whisper! I want to hear you. Is that clear?” Louder, we shouted, “Yes, sir!” Sgt. Morgan turned to Cpl. Violette, “Will you carry out the plan of the day? I’m going to get the stench of these recruits out of my nostrils and I’ll be back at 1600 hours.” Cpl. Violette nodded imperceptibly and accepted the clipboard that Sgt. Morgan extended to him.
Among the recruits of Platoon 395 was Private Angel Mendez, also a New Yorker. He was a short, wiry fellow who enlisted soon after his 18th birthday in August, 1964. While other recruits spoke about their lives before enlistment – their sports, their schools, their girlfriends, their families – Mendez listened quietly but was not forthcoming. He didn’t speak much about his past at all, but focused on whatever task was at hand, on cleaning our M14 rifles, cleaning our barracks, scrubbing our clothes on the washrack, shining our brass or polishing our boots. He seemed a serious young man, but he had a sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh. He regularly attended Roman Catholic services during boot camp.
In every cluster of young (and not-so-young) males, there will be some competitive effort to establish a pecking order. It’s part of the pack mentality. In the competitive environment of recruit training, in which many are trying to display leadership capability, it’s often reduced to the juvenile exercise of attempting to bully others. We had a few recruits who were unquestionably class bullies in high school and thought they’d continue that behavior at Parris Island. Angel Mendez was a short, athletic fellow and when the attempt was made to bully him by one of the odd personalities, Mendez made it clear he was not intimidated. Indeed, he rose to the challenge without hesitation, and the taller, heavier loudmouth was promptly humbled.
The same person turned his attention to another of the shortest members of our platoon, and the resulting fistfight was a marvel to behold, like watching a badger or wolverine attack a larger predator. One of the lessons we do well to learn quickly is never to judge a book by its cover. One of the shortest recruits in the platoon quickly and decisively pounded one of the largest. As I look back, some of the most courageous acts I’ve witnessed were accomplished by quiet, soft-spoken individuals who conducted themselves without bluster or boasting, but simply recognized a need and rose to the occasion.
There is no room for pretense in recruit training. As weeks pass, every individual’s strengths and weaknesses become transparent and obvious in this environment. Drill instructors observe carefully and assess personalities quickly, accurately. The opportunity to lead is rotated, distributed, to see how those responsibilities are managed.
Angel Mendez was quietly efficient. Physical fitness is a high priority in recruit training (and remains so throughout one’s enlistment in the Marine Corps). Mendez had no problem with the physical training, with running while carrying combat equipment, with the swimming qualification. Another high priority in recruit training is the rifle range, and Angel (who was not familiarized with firearms before his enlistment) qualified as a marksman with the M14 rifle in recruit training.
After graduation from Parris Island’s recruit training, we were sent to Camp Geiger, within Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, for Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) where we were issued M1 Garand rifles and familiarized with the spectrum of infantry small arms and tactics employed by the Corps. About 320 of us were assigned to “R” Company – “Running Romeo” – and the Spartan conditions at Camp Geiger during a North Carolina winter continued to shape our characters.
Some of these weapons were relied upon in WWII and Korea and were no longer primary issue, but they were often encountered in different corners of the globe, currently issued to our allies and remained in Marine Corps inventory. We learned to fire, disassemble and clean a variety of weapons, including the Browning Automatic Rifle, the M60 machinegun, the M1919A1 light machinegun, M3 “grease gun”, the flamethrower, the 3.5 inch rocket launcher, and many others. We practiced small unit tactics, patrolling, reconnaissance, night navigation, map reading, and tank-infantry coordination. That training and exposure would serve us well later.
The food in Camp Geiger's mess hall fell short of impressive, and some of us regarded it as toxic waste. The most appetizing choices were spaghetti and meat sauce (canned and heated) and the peanut butter was palatable. Other than that, no menu items lodge in memory as worthy of mention. This wasn’t the fault of the cooks; they worked with the resources they had.
While in training, I received a card from my grandmother, written in Spanish and signed, “Abuella” (Grandmother). It was a beautiful card, a keeper, and I shared it with Angel, who was sitting next to me as I read my mail. He commented, “Abuella? Are you Spanish?” I explained that my maternal grandparents immigrated to New York City from Spain. He nodded, “I thought you were Italian.” I further explained that my paternal grandparents immigrated from southern Italy. One topic led to another, and Angel told me something about his background and some hardships his family had encountered, but that discussion was personal and has no relevance to this writing.
While in ITR and on a forced march with full combat equipment, an exhausted Marine began to lag behind the column. One Marine fell back to take that Marine’s left side and Angel Mendez took the right, encouraging that young man to keep up. About 500 yards up the road, the pace eased and the three young Marines were able to resume their original position in ranks. Angel commented about it later; three of us, one white, one black, one brown, teamed together in mutual support. Four or five months earlier, we had nothing in common. We were beginning to think like Marines. And so it continued throughout our training.
At the completion of ITR, we went our separate ways, depending on the schools or the occupational specialties to which we were assigned. Angel’s MOS was 0300, Basic Infantry. He was transferred to mainside at Camp LeJeune to attend the School of Infantry. I was sent to San Diego, CA. Having no idea what our addresses or units would be, we lost contact with many of the guys we trained with, but the Marine Corps is an interesting fraternity, just small enough so that a transfer to any base or air station would permit some of us to meet again, either on Okinawa or in Viet Nam or other duty stations, and seeing faces with whom we went through recruit training was like seeing an old friend or relative. The brotherhood of the Corps is a reality.
I was eventually sent to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, CA, where I would be assigned to a series of units – 11 Marine Regiment, Force Logistics Support Group – Bravo, 7th Comm Battalion, and eventually to HQ (Comm) 5th Marine Regiment. I’d quickly learned that nonrated Marines (E-1, E-2, E-3) who weren’t otherwise occupied were invariably assigned to maintenance or mindless tasks intended to use us productively, so whenever an opening developed for a class, I volunteered. Thus I attended Radio School, Message Center School, and a brief cryptographic course that taught us how to set up and and maintain three of the Corps’ more antiquated crypto communications systems.
On completion of a few courses, I was again transferred, this time from HQ 5th Marines to Bravo Company, 1st Shore Party Battalion, at Camp Del Mar (located near the beach), and we used our time well, setting up antennae, radio nets, teletype units, wire communications, and practicing amphibious landings. Our company-strength support unit would deploy as part of BLT-2/5 (Battalion Landing Team – 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment), and 2500 of us left the continental United States from the Long Beach (CA) Naval Base on the morning of January 9th, 1966, aboard two troop transports, the USS Talladega (APA 208) and the USS Merrick (AKA 96).
We paused briefly at Pearl Harbor, then pressed on to another practice amphibious landing at White Beach, Okinawa. We remained on Okinawa long enough to receive the new FM family of radio equipment (the AN/PRC-25), sets of ill-fitting jungle utilities, and as much logistic support as was available, then we boarded the ships again and shoved off from Okinawa, pressing on to Chu Lai, South Viet Nam.
I was unaware that Angel Mendez was now with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, which shared the Division’s tactical areas of responsibility in Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces, and elements of the 5th and 7th regiments participated in special landing forces (SLF) that would come ashore in different areas along the coast. It soon became clear that a better method than amphibious operations to insert troops was a vertical assault, proven by the U.S. Army as a swifter and more surprising method of projecting ground forces. It had been a generation since World War II and Korea, and there is little surprise in an amphibious landing from ships. It's a time-consuming process. Rapid insertion was made possible by increasing use of helicopters.
Operation DeSoto began in December 1966, with elements of the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments operating in what is described as a “hammer and anvil operation”, an effort to catch the enemy between two elements. The 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (2/7) approached from the west, from the sea.
My tour of duty in South Viet Nam ended on February 9th, 1967. I was not in Viet Nam when Angel was killed, but I learned of it later. Thus, I make no attempt to describe the circumstances of his death, but his citation for the Navy Cross accomplishes that well:
“The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the NAVY CROSS posthumously to:
Sgt. Angel Mendez
United States Marine Corps
For service set forth in the following citation:
For extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Right Guide of the Third Platoon, Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, in the Republic of Viet Nam on 16 March 1967. During Operation DESOTO in Quang Ngai Province, Company F was conducting a search and destroy mission when the rear elements of the company were taken under intense 50-caliber machine gun and automatic weapons fire from an estimated hard-core Viet Cong battalion. One half of the Second Platoon was pinned down in an open rice paddy and all attempts to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered Marines had proven futile. Sergeant (then Corporal) Mendez unhesitatingly volunteered to lead a squad into the face of devastating and extremely accurate machine gun fire to assist the pinned down Marines in returning to friendly lines with their two dead and two seriously wounded. The Viet Cong increased to a fever pitch as Sergeant Mendez calmly and courageously moved out onto a paddy dike, completely exposed to the intense fire, and commenced firing his M-79 at the enemy positions with deadly accuracy. He fired round after round as he stood, bravely defying the enemy, to give covering fire to his comrades.
Sixty meters across the rice paddy from Sergeant Mendez, his Platoon Commander was seriously wounded and he fell, unable to move. Immediately Sergeant Mendez raced through the hail of bullets to his Platoon Commander’s side. Shielding him with his body as he applied a dressing to the wound, he picked up the Lieutenant and started to carry him to friendly lines, which were more than seventy-five meters away. Exhibiting exceptional courage, he moved toward the lines as the Viet Cong attempted to hit this double target. Twenty meters short of his goal, he was hit in the shoulder and two of his comrades ran out to assist him. Even though painfully wounded, Sergeant Mendez chose to be the rear man, refusing to relinquish his hold on his Lieutenant’s legs as they carried him toward the hedgerow. He was shielding his Lieutenant with his own body when he was mortally wounded. By his dauntless courage, initiative and selfless efforts on behalf of another, Sergeant Mendez saved his Platoon Commander’s life and uphelp the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.” 1
Angel’s conduct that day was consistent with the young Marine I remembered. The Marine lieutenant Mendez saved was Robert D. Castille, and he would later be the district attorney of Philadelphia. Efforts are being made by Senator Charles Schumer of New York and the Honorable Robert D. Castille, now Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, to recognize Angel Mendez with the Medal of Honor. That effort is encouraged and supported by the Marine Corps League detachment of Staten Island, and it remains to be seen if that will be approved. 2
On May 26th, 2008, during the Memorial Day observance in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the inscription of the name of Angel Mendez was unveiled on “El Monumento de Recordacion”, the Monument of Remembrance, which is dedicated to Puerto Rico’s fallen military personnel and situated in front of the Capital Building. 3
More recently, a bill (H.R. 2422) was introduced by U.S. Congressman Michael G. Grimm, representative of New York’s 13th District, to rename a Staten Island post office on 45 Bay Street for Angel. The bill received enthusiastic support by the NY congressional delegation and was signed by Pres. Obama in 2011. The St. George Post Office is now known as the “Sgt. Angel Mendez Post office”. 4
Over time and shared experiences, the brotherhood or fraternity of the U.S. Marine Corps is undeniable. Some take it more seriously than others, though I suspect those that don’t agree with me have their reasons; they may not have had a good experience as Marines. I cherish the friendships and humor rooted in that time and those experiences, and those men and women who’ve earned the title “United States Marine” have my continued respect and appreciation. I have been blessed to work with members of all branches of service; I am well aware that there are extraordinary men and women of courage and commitment in all the branches, and I am thankful for them, but I will be a Marine in my heart until I press on to pass in review before Almighty God.
Angel Mendez was interred with full military honors on the grounds of Mt. Loretto, the mission where he grew up. I choose to believe that, had he survived, Angel Mendez would have been a fine drill instructor and an exemplary career Marine. I believe it is the responsibility of the living to share the memory, accomplishments and examples of the fallen. Angel Mendez will forever be 20 years old in my memory.