On this day in 1941, a hero is born. Did anyone really expect Walter “Joe” Marm to become a war hero? His father once tried to teach him boxing, but the younger Marm wasn’t interested. A degree in business adminstration from Duquesne University was more his speed—at least at first.
On the other hand, he was an Eagle Scout, and he could handle a rifle. When the Vietnam War began, he decided not to wait around for his draft notice. He instead volunteered, subsequently attending both officer candidate school and Army Ranger School.
He wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting into. “I didn’t know much about Vietnam,” he later explained. “I started going to the library and checking out books about Vietnam to see what it was like.”
Either way, then-1st Lieutenant Marm wouldn’t be there long. His act of heroism came a mere two months after he’d arrived in the country. It was November 1965, and American forces were engaged in one of the war’s first big battles in Ia Drang Valley.
“One of the platoons became trapped on the side of Chu Pong Mountain,” Marm later explained. “They were surrounded by the North Vietnamese and needed help; they couldn’t get out on their own. So our mission for the rest of that day was to try to get up there and get them out.”
A first attempt to get to the platoon didn’t work. Naturally, a second attempt was soon made, but, by then, Marm and his men were taking heavy fire.
“Right in front of my position was a solidified anthill about 7 or 8 feet in height,” he described, “with trees and shrubs around it. The NVA were using it as a machine gun bunker.”
He told one of his men to aim a bazooka at it, but the other soldier was having trouble. The air was too humid and heavy. So Marm took over the bazooka, firing at the enemy and listening to the big “boom” that followed.
“It really picked up morale, it picked up my morale, because we thought we’d knocked it out,” Marm said. The men started forward, only to discover that the enemy nest hadn’t been destroyed. Our boys were soon under fire again.
Marm figured that he’d just have to take care of this problem on his own.
“I told my men, ‘Don’t shoot me up,’” he later explained, “and I ran across about 30 meters of open terrain to the bunker. I threw a grenade over the top and ran around to the left side. There were still some bad guys who were trying to shoot me, but I was able to silence them.”
It was a rather humble description of what he’d done. One eyewitness was astounded, describing the “little lieutenant” who “just got up and ran them down.”
Marm cleared the bunker, taking out 18 of the enemy before turning back to his own men. His mind was back on the stranded platoon and how to get to them. Just then, he was shot. “It went in my left jaw and went out there,” he later told an interviewer, pointing first to his left, then to his right cheek, “and kind of ruined my day. . . . I had to feel my teeth to make sure I still had teeth.”
He was evacuated for medical treatment and fortunately recovered from the injury. He received the Medal of Honor about one year later. The honor made him the second to receive that Medal during the Vietnam War.
His parents were stunned.
“I’m very proud, to say the least,” his dad told a reporter. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what kind of soldier Joey would be. He’d never been in a fight in his life. I never heard him say ‘Hell’ in his life. I never knew him to be mad at anybody.”
But Marm didn’t see what else he could have done. “It’s hard to determine,” he said, “uless you go into combat, how you’re going to act. I would say no, I wasn’t surprised. I had 40 men to look after.”
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COL Walter “Joe” Marm, Jr. (Army Heritage Center Foundation)
Courage at Ia Drang (Knights of Columbus website)
Edward J. McFall, “Little Lieutenant” just “Got Up, Ran ‘em Down” (Latrobe Bulletin; Nov. 24, 1965) (p. 21)
Jerome S. Cahill, Medal of Honor Is Presented to Penna. Soldier (Philadelphia Inquirer; Dec. 20, 1966) (p. 1)
Jim Graham, Post Soldier Gets Medal of Honor (Columbus Ledger; Nov. 17, 1966) (p. 2)
Lieutnenant Honored as Hero (Corpus Christi Caller-Times; Dec. 20, 1966) (p. 11)
Medal of Honor citation (Walter Joseph Marm, Jr.)
Nominee For Medal of Honor Recalls Details of One-Man Attack on Cong (Modesto Bee; Nov 24, 1965) (p. A-2)
Walter Joseph Marm Collection (Library of Congress website)
Washington, PA Soldier Assaults Cong Bunker (Simpson's Leader-Times; Nov. 26, 1965) (p. 8)
Viet Hero Wins Medal of Honor (Tallahassee Democrat; Nov. 17, 1966) (p. 8)