On Hill 881 North in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, bomb craters became safe havens where wounded Marines were triaged.
Retired Navy corpsman Rod “Doc” Pierce can’t say how many men he patched up in those craters, but a few stand out in his memory. Past National Commander Don Samuels is one of them.
“I remember moving around the circle and then suddenly, I spotted Sgt. Samuels,” Pierce said. “And my first thought was, ‘Oh, Sgt. Samuels, not you. We need you.’”
On Jan. 20, 1968, amid a heavy firefight between the North Vietnamese and 1st Platoon, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, Samuels was shot and wounded.
“My hand was just hanging there and blood shooting out of the arteries,” Samuels recalled.
Thanks to Pierce, Samuels was quickly triaged and eventually flown to safety. This month, Samuels marks his 55th Alive Day, an anniversary that celebrates his survival and the life of service he’s led since.
‘A bad day’
Samuels grew up near Louisville, Kentucky, and was one of four siblings. He went to rodeos, worked on old cars and cut Christmas trees every year. He recalls that his family would get together for Sunday cookouts, and his uncles would tell World War II stories over a game of penny ante.
“That’s really why I thought about going into the service,” Samuels said, “because everybody pretty much in my family were veterans.”
Samuels joined the Marine Corps in 1960 and completed boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. He traveled around the world accumulating experience and training, including platoon commander school.
By early 1967, he was sent to Vietnam. Later that same year, Pierce arrived.
“He had the inner calm and the knowledge and the experience in the Marine Corps to help us begin to meld as a platoon,” Pierce said of Samuels. “We all had a clear idea of what we were doing from one day to the next.”
On Jan. 19, 1968, Pierce remembers going out on patrol with two or three squads. Halfway up Hill 881 North, they were ambushed and trapped, grossly outnumbered and taking heavy fire until airstrikes helped neutralize the fighting.
The next day, the company went back out, better prepared but still unsure of what they would face.
“It was a bad day,” Pierce said. “We lost two of our platoon commanders … killed immediately as we went up to the same area.”
Samuels remembers he and his radioman were moving up the hill and alternating shooting at enemies in spider holes hidden by elephant grass. That’s when Samuels was shot, a bullet ripping through his hand, another knocking off his helmet.
After spotting him in a crater, Pierce put Samuels’ hand in a splint and bandaged him up.
“I wanted to get patched up and get back,” Samuels said. “But that didn’t happen.”
“I never saw him again,” Pierce lamented.
The next day, enemy forces began heavy bombardment in what would become the 77-day Battle of Khe Sanh. By the end of January, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a deadly series of surprise attacks across South Vietnam.
‘A worthwhile life’
While at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Samuels met a DAV benefits advocate who encouraged him to go into the national service officer training program. What followed for Samuels was 20 years of helping veterans secure their earned benefits. With DAV’s help, Samuels eventually received a 100% disability rating.
“I think the injury probably gave me a better life,” Samuels said, noting he may not have had the same opportunity to help so many veterans had he not been medically discharged.
After retiring from DAV in 1989, he became the assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services, overseeing the state’s claims activities, legislation and outreach until he retired in 2011. That same year, he was elected as DAV’s national commander.
When Pierce saw a picture of the newly elected commander on DAV’s website, he sent him a letter.
“I want to thank you, Don,” Pierce wrote, “for helping me learn by your example how to be a professional Marine, caring for one’s men amid the ever changing settings of combat.”
Pierce remembers a short phone call with Samuels, but it wasn’t until Samuels contacted him for this story that the two men were able to have a long conversation about their time in Vietnam together and their lives since.
“He’s had such a worthwhile life and done so many wonderful things … for DAV and for veterans in general,” Pierce said. “What a gift to them.”
On his 55th Alive Day, Samuels said he’ll think about that day in Vietnam and all the men who didn’t make it out. Pierce hopes Samuels remembers how beloved he was and is.
“He’s an amazing man,” Pierce said. “I hope he knows that we’re celebrating [his life].”