MINDEN - Forty-four years ago on July 11, Ed Heathman and Barry Craven had an encounter that shaped the rest of their lives.
U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines were on a reconnaissance mission when they ran up against a North Vietnamese Army regiment near Chu Lai.
Recently, two participants talked about their lives before and after that day, marveling that they'd survived the war and remembering those who had not.
Heathman joined the Marines from a little town in Iowa on March 28, 1963. He was just 19 years old when the third Marines made the first amphibious landing in 13 years on May 12, 1965.
The Marines were there to protect Navy Seabees who were building an airstrip. Heathman said that in retrospect it appears they were preparing for Operation Starlite, but at the time, he had no idea where they were or what they were doing.
The Seabees weren't the only Navy personnel at Chu Lai. Marines don't have medics, they have Navy corpsman. Craven, a 20-year-old Nevada native served as the corpsman with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
"We were doing actions up to that point, recons and night patrols," Heathman recalled. "I believe this was all prep work for the Starlite attack."
July 11, 1965
Heathman said his unit was on point near a large river serving as a major artery for Vietcong and North Vietnam Army supplies.
"We lost a lot of Marines over the entire war there," Heathman said.
Craven, a Johnson Lane resident, agreed.
"It was an infested, nasty area to be," he said.
"We were above the river on the high ground," Heathman said. "Our platoon leader sent our squad out. I set my fire team and was coming back to get our orders and fire assignments when they opened up."
Heathman said he felt his face burning and then fell to the ground.
"I woke up and Doc was there taking care of me," he said. "This man is the reason I'm here today."
Craven said he was down the hill when he heard the call for a corpsman.
"We were getting shot at and everyone was under cover," he said. "I ran up the hill about 100 yards. I managed to get up on top and get Ed behind a rock and work on him."
Heathman's wound looked bad. The bullet had entered next to his right eye, dislodging it.
"It was out of the socket and on his cheek," Craven said. "The bullet traveled along his cheek and severed the temporal artery. It just knocked him flat. He was doing some major bleeding."
Craven put a hemostat on the artery to stop the bleeding and started dressing the wound, putting the eye back and placing a moist patch on it. He then wrapped up Heathman's head with ace bandages.
"Ed had come to by that time and he was madder then a wet hen," Craven said. "He was using his very best colloquial Marine Corps vocabulary, yelling at the sergeant to get the guy that got him."
Heavy Marine shooting silenced the fire coming from a sampan, a type of wooden boat, on the river and as quickly as it had begun the skirmish was over.
"As fast as the shooting started, it stopped," Craven said. "The captain called in a helicopter and put Ed on there. He was very grumpy."
"I had a headache," Heathman replied.
It turned out that they had an entire regiment on the other side of the river.
The last time Craven saw Heathman his head was wrapped up with a hemostat sticking out.
Once Heathman was stabilized, he went to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines where they did surgery. Then it was back to Okinawa to heal outside of the tropics.
When Heathman recovered he went back into combat in November 1965. He returned home in 1967, where he went to college and became a registered nurse with the Veterans Administration. He married twice and has five children and seven grandchildren.
Craven returned home after his father, District Judge Thomas Craven, became seriously ill in February 1966.
"I was out in the middle of a night operation when they came and got me," he said. "Three days later I was in the middle of San Francisco getting verbally abused by a nurse."
Craven said most of the people he knew growing up were trying to get a deferment.
"I hated hippies and everything to do with all that nonsense," he said. "I didn't talk to anyone from the service. There were not a lot of Vietnam vets in Reno who were combat people. I just packed it away inside me. I went to work for the Nevada Division of Forestry, got so far back in the woods I wouldn't have to see anyone and I stayed there."
Craven always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, so he went to work for the prison and earned a degree in law enforcement from Western Nevada College. Then he worked for the Carson City Sheriff's Department, went back to school and became a forensic scientist, which is what he was doing when he retired.
Then one day he received a phone call that changed his life.
"One fine day one of my beloved Marines, Corporal Heathman called me, and asked if I remembered him," Craven said. "I said 'I've been thinking about you every day for the last 43 years. The last time I'd seen him before last summer was lying on the ground, squirting blood all over the place and me trying to keep from being shot.'"
Craven said one Marine officer told him he was truly blessed.
"Everybody I got my hands on lived and came home," he said.
The two men refer to each other as heroes.
"Ed Heathman is truly an American hero," Craven said.
Heathman said it was the Marines' defense of their corpsman that made him think that.
"Doc will tell you that we're his heroes because we protected him," Heathman said.
"I never stood up under fire once, and I stood up a lot, that I didn't have overwhelming suppressing fire from the Marines," Craven agreed. "One platoon would sound like an entire battalion. Those guys would cover my butt."