At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Private First Class Harold B. Smith had just sixteen more minutes of the Korean War to survive before the cease-fire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this twenty-one-year old marine from Illinois, out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch. Smith didn’t have to be in Korea. He had already served his time in the Philippines. But he volunteered for the fight. He also didn’t have to be on patrol that evening. But he offered to take the place of another guy who went out two nights before.
Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. “I was looking directly at him when I heard the pop and saw the flash,” recalled a fellow marine. “The explosion was followed by a terrible scream that was heard probably a mile away.” Another soldier said, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in.”
Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon were marine guards near an air base outside Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. He once built a grandfather clock that still kept time decades later. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines,” said one friend.
The two men had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. They were part of a small U.S. security force that remained after the main American withdrawal in 1973. McMahon and Judge arrived just in time for the military endgame, as North Vietnamese troops bore down on Saigon. McMahon mailed his mother a postcard: “After this duty, they may send us home for a while…. I’ll try to write when I have time and don’t worry Ma!!!!”
At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a Communist rocket struck…