Rev. J. Houston Matthews
Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division
In March 1968, Houston had lost a leg and an eye after being wounded in a rocket attack on an outpost of the big marine combat base at Khe Sanh. “I don’t hold any bitterness about it.”
For Houston Matthews, Vietnam was the fiery crucible that forged a marine rifleman into a priest. “I was intrigued by what I thought was the glamour of war, John Wayne and all that sort of thing when Vietnam was coming along in the mid sixties,” Houston said. “I had spent a year in a military high school in Chattanooga and knew something about discipline and teamwork. I rather liked that kind of life. Just before graduating from high school in Gastonia, I told my father that I thought going into the military might be the best thing for me. I felt I was too unsettled to go right into college.”
Like a lot of other southern families, mine has a military tradition that goes back to the Civil War. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge with General Patton’s Third Army and was very proud of that, but he didn’t want me to join one of the services, especially the marines, with Vietnam heating up. He had suffered a nervous breakdown after the war and spent eighteen months in a hospital during his recovery. After I went down to the Marine Corps recruiting office in Charlotte and signed up, he got very upset and told me that war was serious business. He was certain that I would go to Vietnam and get killed or injured. As a man of some influence in our community, he tried to pull some strings to keep me from going into the marines. My mother was more realistic about my decision. “He’s of age now,” she told my father, “and he signed the papers. As much as I don’t want him to go do this, we’ve got to let him follow his path.”
I wanted to be in the marines because I believed they prepared their people for combat better than the army did. At least, that’s what some of the people I talked to said. They had been through marine boot camp and extensive infantry training afterward. I liked the idea of being a grunt and even thought of going into special reconnaissance units; I was just intrigued by the excitement of that sort of thing.
I had just turned twenty when I got to boot camp at Parris Island. I was a year or two older than most of the other guys, and maybe that’s why I didn’t have much trouble with boot camp except for some of the psychological games the DI’s liked to play. I never felt anybody was badgering me, though, nor did I ever see a DI hit anybody.
I got my orders to Vietnam while I was at Oceanside, California, for three weeks of advanced infantry training. I guess 85 percent of the guys in my company got orders for Vietnam as either machine gunners or riflemen. My parents were in a state of shock when I told them I was going, even though they knew the handwriting was on the wall. I went home to Gastonia for my thirty-day leave and soon began to feel something was being left unsaid among us. We all went down to Fort Lauderdale for a week, but even in that relaxed atmosphere, my father and mother couldn’t bring themselves to tell me how afraid they were that something might happen to me in Vietnam.
I landed at Da Nang in what must have been hundred-degree heat. When the tailgate of the C-130 that had brought us over from Okinawa dropped down, I couldn’t believe the heat, the smell, and the dirt of Vietnam. Most of the marines I got thrown in with at Da Nang were dirty and grungy; they were half-shaven and hadn’t had a shower in at least a week. I stayed at Da Nang for two weeks in a staging area before I got to my unit, Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines. I remember getting on an H-34 chopper with six or seven other guys and flying from Da Nang up to Dong Ha, which was almost on the DMZ. I kept all my unit locations written in an old Bible that I took with me to Vietnam.
The guys at Alpha Company kidded me a lot about being a greenhorn. Fortunately, a young buck sergeant from Puerto Rico took me aside and told me about the things to watch out for. Apparently, he had lived most of his life in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City. with his family. He knew about tropical places and how to get around in them. This guy was almost like an Indian-he had a sixth sense in the field. He could look at a bush and tell if somebody had passed that way.
I also went through a two-week training program at Dong Ha in which I and the other new guys learned how to maintain our health in Vietnam, which meant taking malaria pills and purifying water with Halazone tablets as much as anything else. But we also learned about ambushes and using our M-16s on “rock and roll,” which meant automatic fire. My marine unit apparently was one of the first to get M-16s and we soon found that it was much harder to hit a target on automatic fire than on semi automatic.
I started going out on small patrols of five or six guys after I finished this course. A buck sergeant or a corporal was usually in charge when we went a couple of miles or so out in the hills, which resembled the Appalachians to a great extent. The company-size patrols that sometimes went out might go seven or eight miles.
The first time I went on a patrol, we were going through some woods when all of a sudden small-arms fire opened up on us. I heard a scream and looked around to see that a young guy about my age had been hit in the back. He was bleeding from three or four wounds Charlie had really nailed him good with an AK47 or a light machine gun. We all started shouting “Corpsman! Corpsman!” I ran back to the wounded grunt, but the corpsman beat me to him. He flipped the kid over and tried to put a big bandage on him, but there was nothing he could really do. The kid died within a few minutes of being hit.
While all this was going on, everybody was flat on the ground, firing wildly into the woods. We never saw the people who killed one of us. What we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hit. The kid’s death was a real shock to me. The only other dead person I had seen was at the site of an auto accident when I was a child. It really brought the seriousness of Vietnam together for me. I think my whole process of living out each day began then and there.
My outfit stayed at Dong Ha for three weeks and then moved on to the combat base at Con Thien. We took a lot of incoming rocket and mortar fire at Dong Ha, but Con Thien was much worse. I had been at Con Thien only three days when a 122mm rocket sailed over and hit a command bunker under construction. The rocket went right down the tube, instantly killing a lieutenant and a radioman because the sandbag roof hadn’t yet been put on the bunker. I vividly remember a captain, a guy from New York, being carried half alive out of all that smoking wreckage. He only lived a couple of days.
Con Thien was the first place I saw airbursts. The guys were always talking about them. One day I saw a puff of black smoke suddenly appear in the air. Somebody yelled at me, “That’s an airburst! Get down, get underneath something!” As I scrambled to find some shelter, a shower of hot metal hit me from the explosion. I was lucky that time. Marines were constantly getting killed by incoming fire at Con Thien.
I went to Khe Sanh in January of 1968 and it was like Con Thien all over again, only worse. One day we took seventeen hundred rounds of incoming fire; nobody could move without risking death. My battalion had a perimeter outside Khe Sanh proper, maybe a mile and a half from the base. We formed a kind of human tripwire, sent out there to help keep the NVA away from Khe Sanh. While I was there, another outpost on a little knoll a mile farther out was overrun by four hundred NVA. They charged a sixty-man platoon of marines and killed most of them in hand-to-hand combat. I had to go out there after it was all over to help secure the outpost and pick up the bodies.
By this time, I had seen a lot of people get killed in Vietnam. Every day to me became another day to survive, another day closer to going home.
I went to Vietnam as a spiritual person. I felt a calling to the ministry, but there were certain things about papal authority that I couldn’t buy into, so the priest steered me toward the Episcopal Church. It was there that I had a spiritual experience during communion. I believe I felt the presence of God at the altar rail. It was not an intellectual feeling, but something more physical, a feeling of warmth and security. In my mind, it was much like the times my grandmother would hold me close to her and assure me everything would be all right after I had been hurt.
And so, I looked at the things that were happening in Vietnam and I began to question the whole idea of war and why God could let these things happen. I didn’t feel that God was doing something terrible to us, but rather that we were doing something terrible to each other.
Let me give you an example. I saw the face of the first person I killed in Vietnam. We were in a village outside Cam Lo that had been infiltrated by VC and started to draw some fire from the rear of a building about forty yards away. I had an M-79 grenade launcher at the time and quickly dropped a couple of rounds in the area where the fire was coming from. When we went to check things out, a dead woman was back there. Beside her was some kind of bolt-action rifle I had never seen before, maybe a sniper rifle.
The woman was about twenty years old. She was wearing typical VC clothing, a conical straw hat, black pajamas, and sandals. I was responsible for the death of this woman, and even though I was well aware that she had been trying to kill us, what I had just done bothered me immensely. I tried to rationalize my way out of it: I didn’t really want to fight anybody, but this is war, I had to defend myself. Still, I felt a burning sense of guilt about the woman ‘s death.
I tried to talk to some of the other guys about it, but most of them were at the point where killing just didn’t really make a damn to them. They had been close to buddies who got killed, and their hearts had become hardened. I know it was difficult for a lot of the guys to avoid hating the Vietnamese but thank God there were a few exceptions. One of them was a Navy corpsman with a real sensitivity to people; he would help every body. But his kind of compassion seemed rare.
I got wounded on March 28, 1968, while I was on the perimeter outside Khe Sanh. My company commander had warned all of us to stay in bunkers because the NVA had a habit of sending in rockets and artillery around noontime, but this was a bright, clear day, a good day to be outside. I had just come off a patrol and was standing around talking to some new guys when somebody asked me to distribute little cans of Dole pineapple juice around the area. I scooped up a bunch of cans in my shirt and started across the red dirt road to a bunker. Suddenly-bam! I was thrown flat on the ground. I felt like a football player who makes it to the end zone and gets tackled by somebody who isn’t supposed to be there.
I heard a couple of rockets go overhead and then the voice of Henry Radcliffe, my company commander. He was kneeling beside me. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “What are you doing? I told you not to get out of that bunker!”
I think a 122mm rocket got me. The explosion didn’t blow off my leg; it just filled the front of me with shrapnel, including my right eye. I started praying almost automatically when I felt the blast, and the same warm presence that I had known two years earlier at the altar rail in Gastonia flowed through my body. I asked God to pull me through whatever had happened to me. I knew, spiritually, that he was present with me and that he would not abandon me.
People kept pushing me down every time I tried to get up because a corpsman was putting a tourniquet on my left thigh. He popped me with morphine and put a patch over my bleeding eye. All the while, rockets were whistling over us, maybe twenty or thirty in all, on their way to Khe Sanh. The one that got me probably was a short round.
The marines who were helping the corpsman put me on a mule, a little flatbed utility cart used at a lot of firebases in Vietnam. The corpsman jumped on it and rode with me down to the underground surgical hospital at Khe Sanh. The people there put IVs in me and checked the extent of my wounds. I was moving in and out of consciousness because of the morphine, but I do remember that a medevac chopper came in later with several more wounded Marines. The NVA fired mortars at the chopper when I was rushed out to it on a stretcher for a flight to the USS Repose, a big white hospital ship on station off Danang. On the ship, I saw a long line of stretchers, America ns from all over Vietnam. I was just another body waiting for help.
When I finally got to the operating room, I was taken through doors that had blood all over them. The OR was a massive room inside the ship. On the operating tables were guys moaning in pain and seeing and hearing them shook me badly.
My surgeon was a Lieutenant Commander from Atlanta. I asked him, “Are you going to amputate my leg?”
“Not unless I have to, son. Not unless I have to.” Then I asked him, “Am I going to die?”
No, he said, I wasn’t going to die. I think I needed more comfort than that. I yelled to no one in particular, “Do you have a chaplain?” Somebody said a Catholic priest was in the operating room. When he got over to me, I said: “Start praying, Father.”
The next thing I knew, I was out. I woke up five days later with a feeling of sheer terror: both my eyes had patches on them. Everything was dark. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “am I blind?” I was truly frightened. Then I ran my left hand down my leg, but there was no left leg to feel. All I could do was scream in horror at what I was learning about myself. The surgeon heard me scream and came over to my bed.
“What’s worrying you?” he said in a reassuring voice. I told him I could see nothing and that I was afraid I was blind. He said a piece of shrapnel in my left eye had caused a traumatic cataract to form. A bandage had been put over it for protection. “Your left eye is fine,” he said. “And with surgery, your right eye should be corrected.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and I lost the right eye.
A lot of people who got badly wounded in Vietnam were sent to hospitals in Japan, but I went straight to the United States after five days on the Repose and a couple of nights at the Army hospital in Da Nang. The layover in Da Nang was very uncomfortable for me. In the bed next to me was a South Vietnamese soldier who had been hit by a flamethrower. He was burned over much of his body and screamed all night long in pain. The nurses gave him sedatives and put wet sheets over him, but there seemed to be little else they could do.
I went from Da Nang to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where I stayed until November of 1968. The first time my parents came up to see me, they just went to pieces. It was tough on them and on me. But after that first time, they started to adjust to what had happened. They stayed a week in Philadelphia on their first visit and came to see me every day. After that, they came up once a month until I started going home on short leaves.
A lot of thoughts about my future were going through my head. I was twenty-one years old; I had lost a leg and an eye. Would a woman ever be attracted to me? Would I be able to get a job or finish college?
I was badly depressed for a month after getting to Philadelphia. The hospital had counselors who would come by and talk to patients if they wanted such help. The counselors didn’t force themselves on anybody, though I sometimes wish they had. A lot of guys there didn’t take advantage of the counselors, therapists, or ministers who were available to help them. The local Episcopal priest had a ministry in the hospital and he came to see me once a week. With his help, I started to work through my feelings and gain the strength to overcome what had happened to me.
I was really back in battle. I think I won it when the spiritual side of me allowed the emotional and physiological sides of me to be healed. I believe all of us are three-dimensional beings: mind, body, and spirit. If one of those dimensions is not in union with the others, we are out of balance. The spiritual dimension unlocked the door that allowed me to accept my disability and overcome it. That did not mean I had dealt with Vietnam in its totality or everything else that had happened. But by the time I left the hospital, I was happy with myself.
I went back to Gastonia and lived with my family for six months, doing very little. I was weak and had to get used to the prosthesis. I did nothing more strenuous than visiting friends at Wake Forest, Chapel Hill, Duke, and the University of Georgia. Although some of my friends were from families that didn’t support the war, most of them didn’t seem to hold the fact that I had fought in Vietnam against me. A couple of my friends at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest who were involved in protesting the war were very critical of the soldiers in Vietnam, however, and their attitude upset me enough to get into a fight with one of them.
I felt such comments attacked me personally. For about a year after I came back I gave talks to high school kids and civic groups about the war you know, the hero comes back. It seemed to me that most people in their thirties and forties supported the war, but the young people were all mixed up about it.
By late 1969, though, I had come to believe the war was a futile effort. I thought we really needed to get out of Vietnam, and I backed off from giving talks. I had begun to hope that the country would have enough sense to get the war over with.
Several events came together about a year after I returned to Gastonia. My father died in a car accident and I got married to a girl who was four years younger than me. The marriage lasted all of four months. I had intended to start college at Chapel Hill, but after my father’s death, I felt I should stay close to home so that I could help my mother. Since Belmont Abbey College was only a few miles north of Gastonia, I enrolled there and earned my degree in psychology in 1974.
I was thinking seriously about entering the ministry during this time of transition. I went to see the Episcopal bishop of western North Carolina in the fall of 1972 and talked to him about my interest in the ministry. As a result, I met with the Commission on the Ministry several times and received enough encouragement to enter the General Theological Semi nary in New York. I was married to my second wife when I began three years of study for the ministry there in the fall of 1974.
After my ordination, I served Episcopal parishes in Louisiana for nine years. I was in Lafayette for three years and in Opelousas for six as the rector of a small parish before coming to West Columbia.
Yes, I think about Vietnam. I can see it now as a time and a place, one that in the end was a good experience for me. Coming from an upper-middle-class white background, it brought me together with people I might not have otherwise met-people who lived different lives, who had different religions and beliefs. It let me experience life in a way that showed me people are more important than money, power, or status.
It may seem paradoxical to say this, but Vietnam put my life back together. I think I was moving in a very destructive direction when I was in high school. I was a party boy and a hell-raiser. Vietnam made me realize that the world contains a lot of suffering as well as joy.
I’ll never be able to rationalize why we were in Vietnam or why we did the things we did. But I can truly say it was an experience that enabled me to be who I am today. I thank God for that and I’m glad I went.