Sunday, December 8, 2019

Intersections


I attended a ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park in Pensacola yesterday where the Pensacola Chapter of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association laid an engraved walkway brick paver in memory of my father-in-law, Si Kittler, and several other deceased alumni. Before the event, one of Si's friends told my wife - Si's daughter - and me a story about him. Although I already knew some of the story from the medal citations of those who were involved, I didn't know some of the back stories and just how the individual stories intersected.

Si's friend began by telling us the story of Marine infantry Sergeant Frank Reasoner. Sergeant Reasoner attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School with Si's friend in 1957, but he couldn't get into the Naval Academy as a midshipman so he walked up to Capitol Hill to the office of Senator Henry Dvorshak of Idaho and told him that he needed an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. The Senator must have been impressed with Sergeant Reasoner because he awarded him the appointment he wanted.

After Reasoner graduated and was commissioned as a Marine Second Lieutenant in 1962, he returned to the infantry for service as a reconnaissance officer. By July 1965, Reasoner was a First Lieutenant in command of A Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Major Si Kittler, a 1953 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was flying UH-34D helicopters out of Danang, South Vietnam as a member of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (HMM-365). His squadron had been in Vietnam since October 1964, not long after the squadron was formed.

Then on July 12, 1965, First Lieutenant Reasoner led a recon patrol deep in Viet Cong territory when the patrol was suddenly engaged by machineguns and other automatic weapons from an estimated 50 to 100 enemy soldiers. The patrol's point man, Corporal B. C. Collins immediately returned fire, killing three enemy soldiers before withdrawing to the advance party where Lieutenant Reasoner and three other Marines were.

Lieutenant Reasoner, Corporal Collins, and the other three Marines were practically isolated from the main body of the patrol due to the intensity of automatic weapons fire which prevented the main body from moving forward.  Lieutenant Reasoner repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire and provided covering fire for his team while he attempted to rescue a wounded Marine. As casualties mounted, Lieutenant Reasoner attended to his radio operator who was among the wounded. Then, when the radio operator attempted to move to a covered position, he was hit a second time so Lieutenant Reasoner ran to his aid. However, as Lieutenant Reasoner maneuvered toward him, Reasoner was struck and killed by machinegun fire.

With his commander dead, Corporal Collins took charge of the situation and silenced the enemy machinegun with an M79 grenade launcher while exposing himself to heavy fire. He bandaged one wounded Marine then laid down covering fire so the wounded Marine could crawl out of the range of enemy fire. Then, Collins carried the remaining wounded Marine to cover before personally carrying Lieutenant Reasoner's body 100 yards back to the main body, again exposing himself to enemy fire from the flanks.

When the call came in to HMM-365 that night that Lieutenant Reasoner's patrol had been ambushed, was surrounded, and needed an emergency medical evacuation and extraction, Major Kittler flew his helicopter out to get them. "The landing zone, surrounded by Viet Cong, was under a crossfire from three automatic weapons, which made it virtually untenable. In spite of heavy enemy ground fire, unknown landing zone conditions and a lack of visibility due to darkness, (he) ... landed and assisted in the evacuation of the patrol," saving eighteen lives in the process. In addition to the eighteen members of the patrol, he successfully evacuated Lieutenant Reasoner's body as well.

For their actions that day, First Lieutenant Reasoner was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, Corporal Collins was awarded the Navy Cross Medal, our nation's second highest award for valor, and my father-in-law was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for valor.

Thirteen years after his patrol was ambushed in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant B. C. Collins reported to G Company, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8) at Camp Geiger, North Carolina to be my platoon sergeant (which is a series of stories in itself). Then, five years after I served with Staff Sergeant Collins, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant at the University of Missouri where Colonel Si Kittler was the Professor of Naval Science. After I was commissioned, I was transferred to The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia where I attended classes in Reasoner Hall named in Lieutenant Reasoner's honor, and two years later - almost exactly 20 years after the ambush of Reasoner's patrol - I was a helicopter pilot in HMM-365, the same squadron that Si Kittler served with in Vietnam.

Each man's story is extraordinary, made even more so by the fact that they are woven together forever in history. It's an honor to have served with and known two of these three great Marines.

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