Hugh O'Brian

In Vietnam, in 1967, my combat unit’s down time consisted almost entirely of pulling perimeter guard around places like Lai Khe and Quan Loi where we were sporadically mortared, sniped at and booby trapped, while continuing to run security patrols during the day and ambush patrols at night and believe it or not, we looked forward to this, as “down time” compared to the stress of field operations. One day, to my surprise, a strange event occurred, which instantly punctuated the very divergent meaning of “down time” for us combat troops, as compared to the “down time” that many other troops in Vietnam were able to enjoy and secondly but just as important, this strange occurrence helped teach me not to judge a book by its cover. The event, itself, was a chance encounter with the movie actor Hugh O’Brian. We were on our way to a hot LZ (Landing Zone) somewhere in the jungle north of Saigon and we took the first leg of the journey in C–130 cargo planes, which flew us into a landing strip where Hugh and his entourage were also waiting to be flown in or out (I don’t know which) of a USO show somewhere. I don’t remember any ground pounder who served with me ever getting to go to a single USO show during their entire tour. I am sure now, that it happened once in a while, but I am also sure that it almost never happened to us. That was a higher level of “Down Time” than our world view could ever imagine much less hope to be a part of.

Anyway, here they were and here we were. You might say, "Two very different worlds colliding just for an instant in time". Most of my guys scattered out to get closer to the girls in the group, but a sick little feeling in the bottom of my stomach said, “Why bother”? As the guys, who had been surrounding me, drifted away, somehow I found myself starring Hugh O’Brian eye ball to eye ball. He had been my boyhood hero when he played Wyatt Earp on TV. Now, here I was, standing in front of my unarmed hero, rifle in hand, wrapped in hundred round belts of machine gun ammo, a grenade clipped to each strap of my ruck sack, and a rocket launcher and machete sticking out somewhere else.

In a very surreal way, it seemed our rolls had now been reversed and I definitely no longer regarded him as my hero. As I stood there, staring into his handsome face, it could just as easily have been a taunting scene in a bad dream, just before waking up as I fell out of bed. Anyway, all I could do was say “Hi” and all he could do was stare back at me, with a mysterious expression on his face. This was not at all what I expected. He continued this haunting stare for a couple of seconds too long, and finally grunted a “Hi” back at me. That was it. We both turned and walked away from each other forever, but that mysterious expression on his countenance would be seared into my mind, from that instant, until this very day. However, I would not understand the meaning of it until years later, when I learned he had served as a marine in World War II.

With that new found knowledge, I now believe that I know why he stared so long and then only grunted back at me. He had seen the look in my eyes, on other soldiers in the past, perhaps some, just before they went to their deaths. It’s a far away, “going to the grave” look and it can usually only be recognized by other veterans, like Hugh, who had been a drill instructor at one time, preparing many other marines to go into harms way. When it is recognized, especially by an older war horse, this look can be very disconcerting. As I said, Hugh had seen this expression on other soldiers and it, no doubt, jarred him to see it on me. He may have worn that look at one time, himself, and he most certainly knew all too well that there is very little chance of engaging in small talk with anyone who is wearing it, nor would he have wanted to do so anyway, because He knew nothing he could say would be appropriate.

Too bad that it took me so many years to realize that I had not been looking at the face of a dethroned boyhood hero at all, but instead, I had been looking into the face of a real live hero who helped save the world and for that he will now always be my hero.