Few Vietnam-era Marines are more storied than legendary sniper Carlos Hathcock. He didn't just his success by confirmed kills or the longest shots taken (though he held both records in his lifetime). Others tend to judge a sniper in those ways, but that didn't matter to Gunny Hathcock.
He didn't enjoy the killing; he enjoyed the hunt.
His hunts are the stuff of legend. Hathcock was an expert marksman from a very young age. So even though he deployed to Vietnam as a military policeman in 1966, he was soon transferred to sniper duty.
And that changed everything.
Hathcock was so efficient at dispatching the enemy, he wore a white feather on his gear, taunting the Communists to come find him. Before his 1999 death from multiple sclerosis, Hathcock gave a candid interview about his time in Vietnam.
1. A Whole Company of North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
Hathcock recalled a time he had the "misfortune" of running into an NVA infantry unit so new, even their uniforms were new. Most importantly, they had no communications.
"That was a mark in our favor," he recalled. "They had no support."
No support against Hathcock while approaching him in an open rice paddy is a recipe for disaster. The sniper "dumped" the officer in front, while his observer did the same to the officer in the back. The sniper team killed four of them before the last officer in command took off running.
"That's not conducive to good health," Hathcock says with a laugh. "You don't run very fast across an open rice paddy, that's for sure."
He didn't last long. The enemy had no leadership, and it didn't move -- so the duo stayed and fought. The enemy lasted five days against Hathcock and his spotter, who called in artillery support through the night as they moved. When day came, the enemy attacked where they were the day before.
2. "The Cobra" -- a Communist Counter Sniper
The problem with being a legend is that pretty soon, someone is going to try to take you down. The NVA counter sniper who came for Hathcock was known as "The Cobra." The Cobra made it personal for Hathcock when he killed a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant outside of the sniper's own living quarters on base.
"I watched him die," Hathcock recalls. "I took a vow, right there and then. I was gonna get him some way or another."
Hathcock says he came out of his first tour in Vietnam with 86 confirmed kills and a "whole gob of probables." His next tour was just as eventful. In his mind, he was better than the North Vietnamese. He got his partner and his gear and began to trail the Cobra.
"He was close to being as good as I was but ain't no way," Hathcock says with a smile. "Ain't nobody that good."
The Cobra took a shot at Hathcock and his team as the legendary sniper accidentally fell over a decayed tree, forcing the shot to miss and hit his spotter's canteen instead. The Cobra took off running. Eventually, the two teams worked their way around until they had completely switched places. Unfortunately for the Cobra, his new position was facing the sun.
"The sun glinted off the lens of his scope, I guess," Hathcock says. "I saw the glint and I shot where the glint was. ... By the looks of things, I was just the quickest on the trigger; otherwise, he'd have killed me."
When Hathcock went to check his kill, he realized his shot went straight through the Cobra's scope -- straight through without even touching the sides.
3. "The Apache"
In his interview with Maj. John Plaster, Hathcock is surprisingly lighthearted and confident about his memories, recalling them all in vivid detail. There's one story he doesn't like to talk about, that of "The Apache," a Viet Cong (VC) sniper.
The Apache was much more sadistic than anything else in the jungle, since long before Hathcock arrived in Vietnam. When Hathcock's unit took over, they learned The Apache had been torturing captured Marines within earshot of the base.
"She skinned one kid that she'd captured all night and half the next day. When she turned him loose, he died right in the wire," he recalls with a sigh. "It was very, very personal."
When he finally got The Apache, it was all but by happenstance. While out on a regular patrol mission, he was almost ready to pack it in, when a group of VC came marching within range. That's when she made a fatal mistake.
"I saw her squat down to tinkle," Hathcock says. "The guys with her tried to get her to stop but I stopped her. I put one extra in her for good measure."
4. Infiltrating an Enemy Base
Getting in close with the enemy is always dangerous for any sniper. One mission to take down a high-ranking NVA officer required the sniper to get within arm's reach of some enemy patrols. One of the ways Hathcock saved his Marines was to take on the most dangerous missions himself.
This would be one of those missions, crawling two miles to infiltrate a base and kill an NVA general.
Instead of making the miles-long trek into enemy territory on his belly, Hathcock decided to sniper low-crawl in on his side, to reduce the visibility of his "slug-trail." He dodged dozens of patrols and two sets of twin .51-caliber "Copter Killer" machine guns to enter the enemy base.
"I was in their backyard because they didn't expect a one-man attack," he says. "I knew the first time they come lollygagging by me that I had it made. I thought to myself, 'This'll be good; this'll be real good."
He set up on a hill close to the treeline, 700 yards from where his target would be. After ensuring his escape route was in place, he took his shot. Instead of running for the sniper, the soldiers on the base made for the cover of the trees, allowing Hathcock to escape.
5. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
Hathcock was sent to help fit a .50-caliber gun onto a mount, specially designed by U.S. Navy Seabees. He would observe the area and help fit the new weapon for operational use. From his position on top of a small mountain, they could see they were surrounded by bad guys.
"You couldn't even send a patrol off that mountain, because they'd get eaten alive," he says.
After observing the enemy's movements for three days, he zeroed his new weapon. The closest range was 1,000 yards, and the farthest was 2,500. As soon as he was able to zero the weapon, like clockwork, came North Vietnamese troops.
One of them stepped right into the spot where Hathcock had just zeroed his new .50-caliber sniper rifle.
Bonus: The Recoilless Sniper
One possible apocryphal story of Hathcock's time in Vietnam is another counter-sniper story. Legend has it that a Viet Cong sniper harassing Hathcock's base was on the wrong end of a gun fired by Hathcock. Except it wasn't a bolt-action rifle; it was a 105mm M40 recoilless rifle.
One of Hathcock's sniper rules states that a sniper should fire no more than three shots from one location. Then, they should move on. When Hathcock noticed the VC sniper liked to take potshots at Marines from one location, he zeroed in on that area with the M40's .50-caliber spotting gun.
When the VC sniper returned, Hathcock fired the recoilless rifle.
The sniping stopped.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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