Tony Vargas

From City Boy to First Target

Profilers: Paul Martinez and Nick Bopp

Joining the Marine Corps

As a high school senior, I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t watch the news a lot, but I knew what was going on, obviously. I graduated from high school, went to one year of Mount SAC [San Antonio Community] Junior College. My major was police science. I thought I would go be something in law enforcement, and the following summer after a year of Mount SAC I was visiting with an old high school friend, and I thought I would join the army. And he says, ‘Well, you don’t want to do that—join the Marine Corps!’ and I said, ‘Well, that sounds look a good idea!’ [laughs].

So the young and dumb nineteen year-old I was, I went to the recruiter in Pomona and I walked into the recruiting office. The recruiting officer was there, and I said, ‘I’d like to have some information regarding the Marine Corps.’ He was a sergeant with hash marks from here to there [points from upper arm to lower arm], and he pulled out the drawer and pulled out a piece of paper—a form—and he put it on the table and he said, ‘Sign here, son.’ And that’s how I got in the marine corps [smiles].

Life of a Machine Gunner

The next day we were issued our jungle fatigues, which are different than your basic fatigues that you have here. You’ve probably seen the camouflaged fatigues that are pretty common in the street today, and they’re similar to that. And Buy purinethol online then we were issued our jungle boots, which are different than the regular boots that we had.

I went to the armorer and he issued me my machine gun. You tell the armorer—he asks you, ‘What’s your MOS?’ and he’ll give either the M16 or the M60, and I told him, ‘Well I’m a three thirty-one.’ That’s a machine gunner. He handed me the machine gun—the M60—and he looked at me and said to me, ‘You have seven seconds to live.’ And I looked at him and I didn’t quite understand.

What he was trying to tell me is the average life span of the machine gunner in Vietnam was seven seconds from the moment you pulled the trigger. There were three individuals that the Viet Cong would shoot for. Of course the officer, the radio man, and the M60 machine gunner. The officer you could understand. The radioman you could understand—there’s no communication. But the man who has the most firepower is the machine gunner. So the average lifespan is seven seconds.

What they would do is—if you were in a patrol and you got ambushed or you were in a firefight, you would open up and right away they would know where the M60 was because of the rounds and the rapid fire of the machine gun. They would spot you right away. So what you would have to do is once you were in a firefight, you would shoot, and then you would have to move if you could. If you couldn’t move, then you stayed where you were. But we would open up, shoot some rounds. I had an aide gunner with me, my assistant gunner. He was also trained as a machine gunner. One carried the machine gun, the other carried most of the ammo. And the ammo for the M60 was bandoliers.

You’ve seen pictures of bandoliers strapped across people. I would carry two bandoliers, my aide gunner would carry two bandoliers, and then he would carry the box that has the extra rounds. In a squad, there were, maybe, depending on the size, eight to fourteen [marines], and each marine would carry a bandolier. They never begrudged carrying the bandolier because they knew it was needed. I would use all the bandoliers that I had, use the aide gunner’s, and then the rest of the squad, as we needed, would throw the bandoliers to us so that we had sufficient rounds in the case of a firefight.


We saw this Viet Cong that was by himself, that we saw in the rice paddy, and we started chasing him. We saw him in the rice paddy, and he finally raised his hand to surrender, and I got to him. There were two other marines that were with me when we got him and I had my machine gun pointed at him, and the other marines said, ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’

He raised his hands and he stood up and I pointed my machine gun at him, and one of the marines was saying, ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’ For what must have been just a couple of seconds, I stood there, and the thought did cross my mind to pull the trigger. With a burst, he would have been gone, and nobody would have said anything. I thank God to this day that I didn’t pull the trigger.

Attracting Bullets

So we’re going down the road headed towards Hue City, waiting to be picked up by transport to be driven to Hue City. We were just outside of Phu Bai. And as we’re going down the road, all of a sudden, and this happened without warning, you never receive any warning — there was gunfire. It was right to my left. Off the road there was a little ditch — an embankment — and there was a railroad track.

And as we turned to look, I could see two Viet Cong that were shooting at us. And instinctively I just turned around and fired off some rounds. I always had a clip on my machine gun ready in case of situations like this. And the Viet Cong were shooting directly at me, I could see the rounds coming. I wasn’t hit but it’s one of those things that — one of those miracles that happen in individuals’ lives. I should have been hit, but the rounds were coming and then they were going up, as if they were hitting something and going up.

This lasted — this whole chain of events — lasted seconds. The moment I heard the fire, the moment I turned around and swung, and I saw the rounds as I just explained, was seconds. We went down to the side of the embankment to take cover and return fire and they were gone. We didn’t see them again. But I know that it was not my turn to die.

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