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Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section: Bob Cleary

Bob Cleary, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Retired

It was the early ‘60s and despite occasional mentions on nightly newscasts, Vietnam had little claim on Americans’ attention. Sergeant Bob Cleary, U.S. Marine Corps, was training in Okinawa when word went out that volunteers were needed.

“They wanted four officers and four NCOs to go to this place called Viet Nam,” he recalls. “Viet Nam? We’re thinking where is that?”

Cleary and his fellow volunteers were issued equipment, including a camera, notepad and Vietnamese currency. “They wanted us to do OJT, what we call on-the-job training,” says Cleary. “The only ones over there at the time were Special Forces, really super guys. We were the first Marines as far as I know.”

Their instructions – observe, record, but don’t engage. “We were to go out and live with the people, learn their ways and then come back with an after action report because we might be going to Viet Nam someday,” Cleary says. “Well, they didn’t tell us that, but we suspected it.”

In Vietnam, the team split up and Cleary was paired with a special forces advisor at a jungle outpost near the Cambodian border. The rats had the run of the place, but at least there was mosquito netting.

His first stakeout lasted nine sweaty hours with no enemy in sight. Back at the bunker, he stripped off his boots and socks. “My legs were full of leeches,” Clearly says. The Special Forces advisor, a jungle pro after six months at the outpost, showed him how to use a cigarette lighter to dispatch the blood- sucking creatures.

That night they hear a loud pop, pop, pop. Gun re, says Cleary. “The enemy is all over the camp, they’re shooting, we’re hunkered down in our bunker, we can see them, they can’t see us.” His Special Forces companion is shot in the leg, however. “So they medevac him; I’m by myself now.” 

Occasionally, says Cleary, a South Vietnamese captain would drop by. “I’d eat with him and he’d tell me this or that.”

Cleary continued to observe and one day he was ordered to another outpost. “They thought I was trained like the Special Forces guys, that I’d been to jungle school, recon, that I could advise. But I had lost about 30 pounds, I was weak, I was the one who needed advice,” he laughs.

A young pilot picked Cleary up in a Piper Cub, an aircraft small enough to maneuver in and out of short jungle landing strips. “He drops me beside a rice paddy and rolls out,” says Cleary. “An Australian officer is supposed to pick me up and I’m looking and see all these people in the rice paddy,” Cleary says.

Suddenly a jeep barrels down the path. “It’s the Australian and he yells, ‘Jump in!’ We take off and he tells me the men in the rice paddy are a battalion of Viet Cong. I was almost ready to wave at them.

“We were only there for a couple of months, but I watched and followed and took pictures,” says Cleary. “When they came to take us back to our unit in Okinawa, my comment was I hope we never have to come back over for a war.”

A short time later, Cleary’s one-year Okinawa tour ended. “The battalion was floating back to San Francisco on an LPH (an aircraft carrier for helicopters) when they turned us around. What’s going on everybody wanted to know. The scuttlebutt was flying, we’re at war with China, we heard all kinds of things.”

They were heading to Vietnam.

“We had about 1100 marines onboard and we were some of the first ones to make landing,” says Cleary.

“I was in charge of a platoon that was going in the second wave, and we’re waiting for the helicopters to come back when we hear the elevators on the flight deck. The first platoon came down and there they were, arms, legs missing – they went right into the middle of it.”

Cleary wasn’t new to combat – the Massachusetts native enlisted in 1951 at age 19, just after the Korean War broke out. “If I was going to join, I wanted to join what I still feel is one of the best outfits in the world – the Marines. We’re the 911 of the United States of America,” he says.

He trained in demolition, but when he reached Korea they put the young corporal behind the controls of a Caterpillar, building roads. “I could hear the explosions at night,” says Cleary. “I’m a Marine and I want to get into battle. When the Chinese broke through the front lines, they asked for volunteers.”

Cleary joined a group heading across the Imjin River, right into battle. “It’s pitch dark, the top of the truck is blown off and we get into a culvert in a fighting position. A second lieutenant says follow me. He shows me a line, tells me I’m in charge of it, here are your machine guns and he crawls away. I don’t have time to get scared, I’m responsible for these guys.”

He left Korea combat-tested with a meritorious promotion to sergeant, but Viet Nam would prove to be a whole different type of battlefield.

“In Korea, we got into plenty of firefights, but we knew where enemy was – in front of us,” outlines Cleary. “Friendly forces are in back around our flanks and we have a main line of resistance. If the enemy broke through, we sent up reinforcements.” In Vietnam, the enemy was everywhere.

“There were Vietnamese working in our mess halls, but at night they’re walking off,” says Cleary. “There was one guy, we called him Jo-Jo, and I said we need to watch him. They told me no, he’s a friendly, we’re trying to make friends with the local people. But I watched Jo-Jo walk away from the mess hall, he’s got a cigarette in his mouth, and he’s turning around, looking back, walking, looking back. He walks ten steps to the right or left, I don’t remember which now.

“That night the mess hall took a direct hit. And that’s very unusual when they hit direct on the first round. But it was right on. And Jo-Jo didn’t come back – he’d told the enemy how to direct their aim.”

During his time in Vietnam, Cleary earned a Silver Star for a particularly grueling operation. He’s not one to talk about his heroism, but those who served under him aren’t so reluctant. One of his men, Danny Francis, recently posted an account of a battle from that operation on his blog, Lead, Follow, or Move Aside (two1marines.blogspot.com):

“During the heat of the battle, many of us were pinned down under withering NRA re…Cleary did what few men could ever do under such re. He crawled to the wounded, actually placed a few of them on his back, then crawled with them to the rear for treatment, still under re. He would do that several times; by a miracle he was not wounded himself…He did a great job. I’m proud to have been a witness to his acts.”

Along with a Silver Star, and a Navy Commendation Medal, Cleary also earned two Purple Hearts while in Vietnam. “The second time I was wounded, they took me to the back,” says Cleary. “Back to the rear with the gear, as they say. I told the lieutenant I wanted to stay, but the rule was if you had two Purple Hearts, you had to leave the country.

“Why would I want to stay, was I crazy? No. These were my troops. They knew me, I knew them. I don’t want some- body else taking charge. If they go down, I go down with them. That’s the Marine attitude I guess.”

Cleary was shipped home and continued to accrue honors and awards – nothing that made him special in his own eyes, just a Marine doing his job. But in 1982, at age 50, Cleary was selected as 10th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, the top enlisted rank. He reported directly to General P. X. Kelly, the Marine Commandant.

In that role, Cleary testified before Congress, met the President (and his horse), carried out diplomatic missions (he was part of a 4-man contingent sent to China to offer feedback on the newly-formed Chinese Marine Corps) and participated in high- stakes assignments (like prying a wounded Marine embassy guard from Soviet oversight in a St. Petersburg hospital).

When the Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by terrorists in 1983, President Reagan immediately ordered General Kelly to Beirut to discover what happened. Cleary accompanied him and they stopped at a military hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, en route.

Stepping into the room of one young corporal, Cleary saw a pair of eyes – the rest of the wounded man’s body was wrapped in bandages. The Marine had been blown over 200 feet into the air and was not expected to make it.

“His mouth has been glued together, but he begins to mumble,” says Cleary. “General Kelly bends down and says, ‘Thank you for what you did, the president sent me over to award you the Purple Heart. Is there anything I can do for you?’ And we’re all standing there with tears in our eyes.

“General Kelly takes off his stars so the corporal can feel them and know who is speaking to him, and the young man begins to mumble louder. General Kelly turns to me and says, ‘Sergeant Major, what’s he saying?’

“I say maybe he’s concerned about the other Marines. Be- cause when I talk to a wounded Marine, he may have his arm half gone but he’s worried about his buddy, did he make it.”

That produced even louder mumbles, says Cleary. “So a nurse holds a pad of paper and places a pencil in his pinkie – that’s all he has left – and the corporal begins to write. The nurse takes the paper and we’re all wondering what does it say.”

The paper read Semper Fi.
 Against all odds, says Cleary, the young Marine lived.
In 1987, after serving 36 years, Cleary retired. Today, at 85, he lives with his wife and a black and white cat named Diamond at Atlantic Shores, The Neighborhood for 55 and Better in Virginia Beach. His uniform still fits and he occasionally dons it for the Marine Corps birthday or on Veterans Day.

In 2010, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps at that time invited him to be the guest of honor at a special ceremony in Washington D.C. Cleary was baffled by all the fuss. “Don’t make me a hero,” he says. “I did what I was supposed to do.”

Article written by the Virginian-Pilot for their 2016 Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section insert