Lt. Col. John B. Lang’s Remarks for the Maxam Park Dedication, 17 April 2010
First I would like to acknowledge the members of the Maxam family who are here today. Larry Maxam was the eldest of three children. His brother, Robin, and his sister, Linda, and Linda’s daughter, Bernadette--Larry’s niece—are here. Larry’s cousin, Gary, is also here with his family and there are a number of other members of the extended Maxam family here today.
This is the first time Linda and her daughter have been back to Burbank in 20 years. Please welcome them back.
The other distinguished guests here are the gentlemen seated behind the Maxams. These are Larry Maxam’s brothers-in-arms. They are the Marines from 1st Battalion, 4th Marines who served with Larry--and most of them were there the night Larry Maxam earned the Medal of Honor. Gentlemen, please stand for a moment.
Now, I would like to ask all of the other Vietnam Veterans who are here today to also stand.
Many of these men never got a proper welcome home when they returned. Please join me in showing our appreciation for these men’s terrific service to our country.
Thank you for allowing me to speak here. It is a unique honor because I am neither a member of the Maxam family nor a Vietnam Veteran. I was a Marine for most of my adult life and have become associated with this project, and with Larry Maxam, through my research on Marines who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. In December 2006, I tracked Robin Maxam down in Australia and called him on the phone. When I asked him if he had some time to talk to me about his brother, he said, “I ALWAYS have time to talk about Larry.” I also talked to Larry’s mother, Alice, whom we lost about a year ago and Larry’s sister, Linda.
I qualify my remarks about my historical research. You see, as anyone who has served as a Marine will tell you, the Marine Corps is very much a family. Within the Marine Corps, those Marines who went before are viewed more as ancestors in our martial family rather than as mere historical figures. To all Marines, men like Larry Maxam are people who have brought us to today.
Following me, Major Clark, who is the current Executive Officer for 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, Larry Maxam’s unit, will talk to you about how Larry Maxam is still leading Marines—through his legacy and the example he set as a Marine.
Thank you again for this honor.
Every single one of us living the wonderful life we are afforded in this great country has a duty. Our duty is to remember. It is the one thing that our fallen ask from us—to remember them. As the old saying goes: The first duty is to remember…..The City of Burbank has made a wonderful commitment to that duty with this monument to one their brave sons who fell on a battlefield halfway around the world 42 years ago. It is also worth noting that, this memorial to Larry Maxam also serves to memorialize the other 57,177 men and women who also made the supreme sacrifice in Vietnam. I salute the citizens of Burbank for their loyalty.
I’ll tell you some of what I know about Larry Maxam.
Larry Maxam lived here in Burbank until he went into the Marines. The house were he grew up, on East Magnolia Avenue, is still there. When I spoke to his mother, she said that he liked to pack a lunch and hike up in to the mountains there above the town. He would spend all day up there—exploring. He was a good son and a good older brother. His father died when he was fifteen and he tried to be a source of strength for his mother and an example for his little brother and sister. He had always been fascinated with the military. When he became restless and bored with high school he decided to enlist in the Marines.
He was a superb Marine. He was a low-key and methodical leader. His men trusted him—a rare quality when men know that a mistake would cause them to be killed or named.
I would like to tell you some of what I know about Larry Maxam and that terrible night in 1968:
General Giap, the head of the North Vietnamese Army was ordered in April 1967 to come up with a plan to win the war in Vietnam. The plan he devised and executed became known as the Tet Offensive.
The plan was to stage massive attacks all over South Vietnam while most of the people were celebrating the Chinese New Year—which is called “Tet” in Vietnam. For us to understand Tet, you have to imagine a holiday that is Christmas, New Years Eve and Easter all rolled into one. While families across South Vietnam celebrated Tet, tens of thousand of communist soldiers staged for attacks.
One of the objectives identified in that plan was the Vietnamese District Headquarters at Cam Lo. Cam Lo is located just south of the DMZ—the border between North and South Vietnam.
To make sure this initial objective was a success, the mission of overrunning and capturing the compound at Cam Lo was given to one of the elite units in the North Vietnamese Army, the 320th Division. The 320th was proud that it had been one of the units to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu. The soldiers in the 320th Division were not the Viet Cong guerrillas—the farmer by day, fighter by night types. The men in the 320th division were professional full-time soldiers. They had gone through years of training. They had state of the art weapons, superb discipline and morale. They wore uniforms, and were tough and dedicated.
The 320th Division crossed the Demilitarized Zone and prepared to overrun the tiny contingent of local villagers and their advisors who were in Cam Lo.
Major Payne, the army officer assigned to Cam Lo, noticed that the local villagers had begun to leave the village a day or so earlier and he suspected they were leaving because they knew a battle was brewing. Payne went to the closest command to get reinforcements—the 9th Marine regiment at Dong Ha. The Marines told him they didn’t have any extra troops—they were already preparing for the coming offensive, but they would do what they could.
Eventually, word was passed to Lt Michael Stick, a platoon leader who was patrolling along Route 9, to take whatever Marines he had and spend the night in the Cam Lo compound to help Payne and his men.
Just before sunset on 1 Feb 1968, two squads from Stick’s platoon and one squad from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines wandered into the compound. They didn’t know much more than that they were supposed to spend the night there. One of the squad leaders was a 20-year-old from Burbank named Larry Maxam. He had been in Vietnam for just over six months.
Every day of that six months, Larry’s mother, his sister and his brother had been praying for him—and feeling sharp pangs every time the evening news turned to reporting on the war in Vietnam.
To imagine the compound at Cam Lo, think of a football field with a trench around the outside with a couple of buildings in the middle. The compound wasn’t very fortified because it had never really been attacked before.
The compound was defended by a local militia force of about eighty, who were led by a handful of US Army advisors.
At ten minutes after two in the morning, the 320th Division attacked. They initiated their attack with a barrage of mortars and recoilless rifle fire. The barrage was so intense; it was more of a continuous roar, rather than a succession of individual explosions. Major Payne was killed in the first few seconds.
Immediately after the barrage, the NVA soldiers came out of the woodline surrounding the compound, and began storming the barbed wire rolls around the compound. One Marine later said that there were so many of them that it reminded him of pictures of the lines of Red Coats coming forward shoulder-to-shoulder from the Revolutionary War books he had seen as a kid.
Intelligence gathered after the battle showed that at least 750 enemy soldiers assaulted the lines. Three squads of Marines—about forty men, and the local militia men, against 750 hardened professional soldiers. At best those odds are about seven to one. If you just count the Marines, it’s about 20 to one.
Miraculously, the Marines were able to fight off wave after wave of NVA soldiers. However, with each assault, the enemy assault lines got closer and closer to the last line of concertina wire around the compound. The Marines were resigned that it was going to be a fight to the death. They fixed bayonets and two men were sent to destroy the flagpole so that, if they were overrun, they would deny the enemy the satisfaction of raising a communist flag over their bodies.
On the east side of the compound, the NVA assault got close enough to hurl explosive satchel charges into the compound. This broke the nerve of the local militiamen who were defending that side of the compound. They abandoned their positions and retreated to the center of the compound—leaving their weapons behind and almost half of the perimeter undefended.
With half of the line suddenly empty, the NVA soldiers began to stage for their last assault. There was no way the compound could hold with so much of the line undefended.
Larry Maxam saw the situation and decided to take action. There was a machinegun located at a critical position at the corner of the compound and he knew that if he could get to it and man it, he could defend the line from there. He turned his team over to his assistant team leader and began sprinting across the compound for the gun. The fact that Larry told his assistant team leader to take over is important. Marines do not relinquish their commands unless they are fairly certain they are not returning. Larry Maxam knew that what he was about to do may be a one-way trip.
I would like you all to look at your watches now. I have about ten after twelve. In an hour-and-a-half, it will be about 1:40. I would like you to try to remember to look at your watch again at that time. Most of you will be on your way home. I want you to reflect on how long an hour-and-a- half really is. I want you to do that because Larry Maxam manned that gun for an hour-and-a-half. He single-handedly fought off hundreds of enemy troops—being attacked from two sides. At one point, the enemy only focused on knocking out Larry’s position—throwing everything they could muster at it. Although being wounded again and again, he kept manning that gun and preventing the enemy from breaching the perimeter there.
How many times did he fight back terror and the instinct to run. How many times did he think of his family and wish he were anywhere else in the world. How many times in an hour-and-a-half did he pray. We will never know. What we do know is that he stayed there for an hour and a half—until he finally succumbed to his wounds. He had been hit at least seven times. He had never called for a corpsman the whole time.
Just before dawn, the 320th Division abandoned its mission to take the Cam Lo compound and retreated back into the jungle. They suffered hundreds of casualties and never breached the compound’s lines. The unit’s flag was found among their dead in front of the American lines. Their officers were so sure taking Cam Lo would be easy, they had already written victorious slogans on it.
Larry Maxam’s impact on the outcome of the battle could not be overestimated.
In the official package submitted to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, Lt Stick wrote, “Firing to the east, to the north, and to the northwest, with no one to his right or his left, Corporal Maxam without any doubt whatsoever saved the life of every man in the perimeter.”
Captain Weede, the company commander of Delta One-Four, wrote, “All of those who observed Corporal Maxam’s sacrifice that night are convinced that his actions, above and beyond the call of duty, salvaged what would have otherwise been a disaster.”
Alice Maxam had her son buried in the most beautiful spot she could find, the National Cemetary in Honolulu—known as the “Punchbowl.” He rests there today with thousands of other American heroes—overlooking peaceful Hawaii waters, beneath the gentle sway of palm trees.
On the 20th of April 1970, Alice Maxam accepted Larry’s Medal of Honor at the White House.
I would like to make a point about something that often comes up when discussing men like Larry Maxam: There is a quote, attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that goes as follows: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” I’ve always hated that quote and personally, think it’s a load of…nonsense. I don’t think Larry Maxam’s life was a tragedy…and I’ll tell you why.
Larry Maxam’s death on the 2nd of February 1968 was an incredible loss. To his family, his death left a void that can never be filled. To his mother, the world was never going to totally make sense after the day she was informed her eldest son was killed. His comrades, who fought alongside him in Vietnam, think of him every day and will tell you they have never been able to completely shake a feeling of guilt because he died and they lived.
However, I don’t believe Larry Maxam is a tragedy. Let me explain… People die every day, often for stupid reasons. However, Larry Maxam died because he chose to sacrifice his life to save his fellow man. And that is the greatest expression of love. And anyone making that unbelievable choice refreshes my faith in the nobility of the human race. To me, it would be a tragedy if we became a culture where we no longer found people who were capable of that depth of love and loyalty to their fellow man. A loss yes indeed, a terrible loss--but not a tragedy.
I would like to leave you with how an American President, when presenting the Medal of Honor, summed up the meaning and importance of the Medal of Honor—his words, I believe apply to Larry Maxam.
“War is a terrible thing, wasting the young before they have a chance to reach their full potential. But there are moments, terrible in their danger and devastation, that can also bring out unimaginable courage and leadership that cannot be fully described: but once seen and felt, can never be forgotten.
He went on….
As a people we need heroes, real heroes, who when tested excel and in doing so inspire others to reach for greatness within themselves. We need heroes not just for the victories that they make possible on the battlefield but also in later days to remind us of what America at its best can be now and in the future—the greatest nation on Earth.”
This park is a grand symbol to remind us of that nobility and will serve to challenge us and give us gratitude.
Now I would like to introduce Major Brett Clark, the current executive officer of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
Thank you for allowing me to talk to you this afternoon. It was indeed an honor.