From Rural Fields to Battlefields Part 2: Vietnam
This blog is part four in a five-part series about Clark Hall by 2019 National History Academy student Dominique Castanheira.
Part 2: Vietnam
He was no longer Clark Hall of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was Clark Hall of the Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9). Throughout the Vietnam War, 1/9 would earn the nickname “The Walking Dead” for not only enduring the longest sustained combat operations but also suffering the highest killed in action rate in Marine Corps history. Before any of the bloodshed, however, the battalion of 800 Marines got its first taste of Vietnam in 1965.
“You can smell Vietnam before you get there,” Mr. Hall said. “The country is rice paddies and jungles and Highlands. The atmosphere is heavy with humidity. Heavy with a vegetation smell. When we arrived, we locked and loaded our weapons to face combat. We went down into these amphibious tractors, and we headed for the beach. We didn’t know if we were going to be attacked. When we got there, there were people with soda trying to sell us a Coca Cola. We were all relieved nobody tried to attack. But that didn’t last very long.”
Mr. Hall jumped into Vietnam with keen anticipation; he was told he was saving a people from themselves. North Vietnam, a communist regime under Ho Chi Minh, waged war against South Vietnam to turn the democratic republic into a communist state. The United States believed that if South Vietnam fell to communism, other Southeast Asian countries would follow suit. Soon, the Land of the Free was funneling American soldiers, Clark Hall included, into the Vietnam War.
“Joining the Marines literally saved my life while simultaneously almost ending it. It gave me a purpose, a goal, and an appreciated skill set. It was a rigorous organization that spoke to me about service to my country. They didn’t have to teach me discipline, just refine it. They rewarded the skills that I had by promoting me faster than those around me,” Mr. Hall said.
He was put in charge of 20 men as a reinforced squad. In this pivotal position, Clark Hall could not let on how the war was affecting him lest it damage morale. But the cost of the war was already too high: of the 200 men in his original company, less than half remained, their lives stolen by snipers, mines, firefights, and disease. He was powerless to stop their deaths.
“I knew the war was a fool’s errand, but I never let my men know,” Mr. Hall said. “You can’t save the hearts and minds of the people with Search and Destroy missions. We search out and destroy the enemy. Well, in the process of searching, you go into villages that have been owned by generations of Vietnamese farmers. And many times the enemy – the Vietcong – were in those villages, were sons and husbands of the people in the villages. So you would end up doing a Search and Destroy mission in a village. Ironically, you’re trying to save the place but you destroy it in the process. So I knew we weren’t trying to save it from communism. I knew it for what it was.”
When he got out of the war, Clark Hall quickly began to oppose it. Marked with the tragedy of a hard tour, he was instrumental in forming the Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter in his school, Kansas State University.
“Coming back to school, I felt at home there,” Mr. Hall said. “Before, I had felt out of place. Now, I found the university to be exactly what I needed: warmly nourishing. People knew I was a veteran, and both the school and my professors were very understanding. I integrated carefully and quietly.”
Although his service as a Marine hadn’t been the glorious combat he had read about as a child, his first goal was complete. It was time for his focus to shift to what lay ahead: getting into the FBI. He structured his studies to attract the Bureau. He earned a spot on the Dean’s list. And then he got a part-time job with the sheriff’s department in Gary County, Kansas.
“I walk in, and the sheriff looks at me and says, ‘You’re exactly what I need.’ I had sought him out for the job, and I was in school. He thought that that was a little different than your average deputy. So he hired me and it couldn’t have been a greater experience. The sheriff’s department handles all felonies in the county, so here I was working homicides and stick ups and assaults as a deputy sheriff. And so I met the local FBI agents. They investigated bank robberies, and we had bank robberies, and I made it my business to get to know them. I let it be known that I sought a career with the FBI if I was deemed worthy,” Mr. Hall said.
And when the FBI started a hiring push in 1970, the agents who investigated bank robberies in Manhattan, Kansas, deemed Clark Hall worthy. Having married a girl from Kansas early in his career, Clark Hall took his wife and two young children full speed ahead into an uncertain future.