Leading up to Memorial Day we’ll spend some time reflecting and celebrating the lives of some of the greatest war heroes in U.S. history. Today we honor legendary sniper Carlos Hathcock, who served in the Vietnam War.
Years before Chris Kyle ever fired off a single round, Hathcock was the “American Sniper.” Even Kyle himself praised how incredibly talented Hathcock was despite having more confirmed kills than him.
“I had more kills, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than (Hathcock) is. I was just put into a position where I had more opportunities. I definitely cheated. I used a ballistic computer that tells me everything to do. So, I was just a monkey on a gun.”
Hatchcok racked up 93 confirmed kills during the Vietnam War compared to over 160 for Kyle. While Hathcock doesn’t have the most kills, though he once guessed that he had taken out upward of 300 enemy personnel during his time in the Vietnam, he did hold the record for the longest recorded sniper kill from 1967 to 2002. Hathcock rigged an optic to an M2 machine gun and used it to record a confirmed kill at 2,500 yards or 1.42 miles. To this day, despite advances in equipment and firearms, Hathcock’s renowned accomplishment is still the 5th longest confirmed sniper kill in history.
Hathcock was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and his parents got divorced when he was a young boy. He was then sent to live with his grandmother. He taught himself to shoot as a youngster and hunted small animals in the woods near his grandmother’s house.
“As a young’n, I’d go sit in the woods and wait a spell,” Hathcock once said in an interview. “I’d just wait for the rabbits and the squirrels, ’cause sooner or later a squirrel would be in that very tree, or a rabbit would be coming by that very log. I just knew it. Don’t know why, just did.”
Hathcock dreamed of being a U.S. Marine his whole life, and as soon as he turned 17-years-old he enlisted in the Marines. In his first few years in the USMC he broke several marksmanship records and he won several shooting championships, including the prestigious Wimbledon Cup in 1965 and the U.S. Long-Range High-Power Championship. He was then deployed to the Vietnam War where he would leave his mark.
Initially, he went to Vietnam as a military policeman in 1966, but he immediately volunteered for combat despite the lethal possibilities of the dangerous environment. He was soon transferred to the 1st Marine Division Sniper Platoon, stationed at Hill 55, South of Da Nang. This is where the legend of “White Feather” was born.
Hathcock always wore a white feather on his bush hat. Even though it could have compromised his camouflage, he wore this feather almost as a distinctive calling card so the enemy knew who was taking out their soldiers. After Hathcock had killed a significant amount of the enemy’s military personnel, the Viet Cong gave him the name Du kích Lông Trắng, which translated means “White Feather Sniper.”
Hathcock had a mindset that a sniper needed seven characteristics to not only achieve their mission, but also come back alive.
- Excellent marksman
- A good woodsman
- Emotionally stable so as not to be easily excited
- Keenly observant and aware of his surroundings
- Good with a map and compass
Hathcock had all of these skills and he was able to excel in a horrific conflict that had as many as 3,595,000 casualties.
“The thing that made him different in Vietnam, it wasn’t the marksmanship skill, but he just had this ability to totally integrate himself into the environment, and he noticed everything. He had a total awareness of his surroundings,” said retired Marine Corps Major Jim Land, who was Hathcock’s boss in Vietnam in and lifelong friend. “We all developed an edge, but Carlos took it one step further. He was like a mountain man. He noticed every breeze, every insect. He certainly did have Indian blood.”
Land added that he and Hathcock were doing so much damage to the enemy as snipers that they both had a bounty placed on their heads by the Viet Cong. Anyone who killed either of them would be paid three years salary, about $1,000. After a platoon of Vietnamese snipers were ordered to hunt down “White Feather.” some Marines also wore white feathers to confuse the enemy.
Some of the mind-boggling feats of accuracy by Carlos Hathcock include shooting an enemy sniper through the foe’s own rifle scope, hitting him in the eye and killing him. An achievement you only see in movies.
Hathcock and John Roland Burke, his spotter, were stalking the enemy sniper in the jungle near Hill 55, the firebase from which Hathcock was operating, southwest of Da Nang. The sniper, known only as the “Cobra,” had already killed several Marines and was believed to have been sent specifically to kill Hathcock. When Hathcock saw a flash of light (light reflecting off the enemy sniper’s scope) in the bushes, he fired at it, shooting through the scope and killing the sniper. Surveying the situation, Hathcock concluded that the only feasible way he could have put the bullet straight down the enemy’s scope, through his eye, would have been if both snipers were zeroing in on each other at the same time and Hathcock fired first, which gave him only a few seconds to act.
“I was just quicker on the trigger otherwise he would have killed me,” Hathcock said. “I shot right straight through his scope, didn’t touch the sides.”
“He was doing bad things,” Hathcock said. “He was sent to get me, which I didn’t really appreciate. He killed a gunny outside my hooch. I watched him die. I vowed I would get him some way or another.”
White Feather had another nemesis, a female Viet Cong platoon leader and interrogator named “Apache” because of her notoriety for torturing U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese Army (SVA) troops and letting them bleed to death.
“She was a bad woman. Normally kill squads would just kill a Marine and take his shoes or whatever, but the Apache was very sadistic. She would do anything to cause pain. I was in her backyard, she was in mine. I didn’t like that. It was personal, very personal. She’d been torturing Marines before I got there.”
Apache captured a Marine Private in November of 1966, and then she tortured him so wickedly that Hathcock’s unit could her his screams of agony.
“She tortured him all afternoon, half the next day,” Hathcock recalls. “Apache skinned the private, cut off his eyelids, removed his fingernails, and then castrated him before letting him go.”
Hathcock vowed to get revenge on Apache before she could inflict more sadistic suffering on fellow Marines. The North Vietnamese Army sniper platoon was on the move and Hathcock got his shot.
“We were in the midst of switching rifles. We saw them,” he remembered. “I saw a group coming, five of them. I saw her squat to pee, that’s how I knew it was her. They tried to get her to stop, but she didn’t stop. I stopped her. I put one extra in her for good measure.”
To make some of his extraordinary kills, Hathcock needed exceptional patience and self-control. Carlos discovered a NVA General, but the area was swarming with enemies. He was determined to take down this general all by himself.
“Over a time period like that you could forget the strategy, forget the rules and end up dead,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone dead, so I took the mission myself, figuring I was better than the rest of them, because I was training them.”
For four days and three nights, he was belly to the ground and crawled inch by inch, a move he called “worming.” He stealthily crawled more than 1500 yards to get close enough to assassinate the general. He did not want to alert the enemy of his presence so he didn’t eat the entire time, and because of NVA soldiers nearby he didn’t sleep. This would be the only time that Hathcock ever removed the feather from his cap.
A magazine article by Green Beret veteran Charles W. Sasser details the stressful moment:
“When the general came outside with his aide to get into the car, Hathcock pulled his bubble around him so that nothing could disturb his concentration. He no longer felt hunger or thirst or weariness. The general came out onto the little porch. He yawned and stretched in the morning sunlight. Hathcock lowered his cross hairs to the officer’s heart. He was squeezing the trigger when the general’s aide stepped in front of him and by the time he moved away, the general was down, the bullet went through his heart.”
Hathcock was 700 yards away and had all the mounting pressure, fatigue and hunger, yet still struck his target perfectly.
In 1969, Hathcock was riding in a vehicle that was struck by a landmine and knocked him unconscious. When he came to, he pulled seven of his fellow Marines from the burning wreckage. He saved fellow Marines, but his heroic actions caused Hathcock to have 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 40 percent of his body. His injuries forced him out of the war and ended his illustrious sniper career. He received the Silver Star for his valor.
Some have criticized Hathcock for all the people he killed while he served his nation, and even floated the idea that he enjoyed it, but he once dispelled those notions.
“I really didn’t like the killing,” he told a reporter. “You’d have to be crazy to enjoy running around the woods, killing people. But if I didn’t get the enemy, they were going to kill the kids over there.”
When he came home he established the Marine Sniper School at Quantico, teaching America’s next great snipers about his seven characteristics. In 1975, Hathcock was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but he stayed in the Corps. His health declined rapidly and forced him to retire just 55 days short of the 20 years in the service, including two tours as a sniper during the Vietnam War.
At his retirement ceremony, Carlos was given a plaque with a bronzed Marine campaign cover mounted above a brass plate that reads: “There have been many Marines. There have been many marksmen. But there has only been one sniper—Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock. One Shot. One Kill.”
The debilitating disease took Carlos Hathcock’s life at the age of 57-years-old on February 26, 1999. Something that not one soldier or sniper in the Vietnam War was able to do.
A representative from a Native American tribe was invited to Hathcock’s funeral, and he presented eagle feathers to Hathcock’s wife, Jo; his son, Carlos III; and Jim Land. The tribe respected Hathcock, who was part Native American.
Let’s take some time away from our barbecues and suntanning at beach this long weekend to remember and pay tribute to the incredibly brave souls who have sacrificed so much to make this country so great.
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