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James Howard Sawyer

Courtesy Cynthia Mullins

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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James Howard Sawyer
1945-1965

"As each day passes, we must take the time to remember what this hero gave up so that we could live in a free society."

John O’Donnell, Marine Veteran

James Howard Sawyer was born on June 2, 1945, to Marjorie Sawyer of Crown, West Virginia, near Arnettsville in the southwest corner of Monongalia County. He had an older brother, Robert, and uncles, Thomas and Hugh, who were coal miners. However, neither Robert’s nor James’ father was among the family; the boys bore their mother’s maiden name. Ms. Sawyer lived with her grandmother, Virginia, and uncles in 1940 and never married. The locations of her mother and father are not known.

In 1965, James was only 20 years old but had been in the Marines for three years. He was likely 17 when he joined and would have required his mother’s consent in order to join early. Not much is now known about James’ early life, but there are clues to the type of man he was. He volunteered to join the Marines, early, and leave West Virginia before the draft. He inspired loyalty, as will be seen later.

By 1964, James had joined H Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, as a rifleman, and he was stationed in Hawaii on Oahu at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station. He had friends among his tight-knit squad and was known as a happy man, quick with a joke, and always laughing and smiling. Says Jim Mazy, a Marine who remembers James Sawyer, “One couldn’t help but be in a good mood with Jim around.” James teased younger Marines to “mind your elders” though he was only 19 himself in 1964. He is remembered to have “an attitude like Goliath” if he was angry.

James didn’t talk about his family or his past except in vague terms, but he told his friends that he wanted a wife, a family, and a home in which to raise them. He teased his friend that he’d take him into the West Virginia woods and prove he (James) was the better hunter. The company had several men in it from the northeast who recognized James’ drawl and so nicknamed him “Hillbilly,” which he didn’t mind.

While in Hawaii, James took advantage of the station, traveled the island, and dated the visiting granddaughter of a local woman whom he’d befriended in Waikiki. Favorite stops were the International Market Place, where vendors drew caricatures for the tourists and where gifts and clothing were sold.

Hawaii offered exotic opportunities in an exotic location. His battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph “Bull” Fisher, a decorated veteran of Iwo Jima and Korea, was a technical advisor on a John Wayne movie which was being filmed there. According to fellow Marine Pete Pomilio, he and James were volunteered by Lt. Col. Fisher to be extras in the World War II set movie, In Harm’s Way. There they had their photos taken with John Wayne and were relieved of training duties for a few days to participate. The whole 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, would appear as extras in the film.

In late March or early April of 1965, James Sawyer packed up his personal things for storage and headed to Okinawa. Remembers Pete Pomilio, they sailed for three weeks. They were in Okinawa for about a month before heading to Vietnam, where James and the battalion landed in Chu Lai on May 7, 1965.

Chu Lai was a Marine Corps air base, so named after the Chinese pronunciation of Lieutenant General Krulak, Commander General of Marine Fleet, Pacific. The area had been secured May 6, 1965, and the Marine air base became operational on June 1, 1965. Marines in the vicinity of Chu Lai had only casual, light contact with the enemy, but recon teams reported a build-up of Viet Cong in the area around Chu Lai in the summer of 1965, which corroborated the reports made by a defector. H Company, called “Hotel,” was about to be involved in the first large scale regiment-sized offensive operation of the conflict known as the Battle for Chu Lai, or Operation Starlite. The plan was hastily drawn together over two days and two sleepless nights at 3rd Battalion headquarters, where Operation Satellite became Operation Starlite when a clerk mistakenly wrote “Starlite” by candlelight during a power outage, according to a military.com article. (Note: The account of the Starlite offensive is told as recounted by Sawyer’s fellow Marines, as well as from Otto J. Lehrack’s “Leatherneck: Operation Starlite: The First Battle of the Vietnam War,” Military.com, Web, accessed 2 October 2015. Additional accounts can be found on the Web sites OperationStarlite.com and History.com.)

According to the Operation Starlite Web site, M (“Mike”) Company began setting up for the operation on August 17th by heading south that afternoon and evening. The battalion landing teams were inserted onto the beach, and then they headed across land, north. The Starlite log collates their actions, including searching a village. They took sniper fire and found booby traps, incurring some injuries. They reached their destination, secured the area, and began digging in that evening. Mike Company’s job was to block exit by the Viet Cong to the north when operations began the next day farther south. Other companies would be placed west and south, pushing the enemy into American forces.

The next day, other companies began their actions, including companies E (“Echo”), H (“Hotel”), G (“Golf”), I (“India”), K (“Kilo”), and L (“Lima”), B 3rd Engineers, and AmTrac support. India and Kilo reported a heavy volume of automatic fire that morning, with several wounded in action, but regrouped and continued to their objective. Hotel, which included Private First Class James Sawyer, was inserted into its position by helicopter, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai base. Hotel landed in the middle of the Vietcong 60th Battalion due to faulty intelligence. The 60th let the first helicopter land without incident but attacked the succeeding arrivals into the landing zone. Hotel was quickly surrounded by the enemy and was under small arms fire, automatic weapon fire, and 60 mm mortars. According to Jim Mazy, the enemy were also underneath, hiding in and moving through underground tunnels, from which they’d pop up, shoot, and disappear again.

In the afternoon of August 18, the log states that a platoon of Hotel 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, was pinned down by enemy fire and suffering heavy casualties which impeded their progress. A couple of hours later, the log notes that a platoon of Hotel 2/4 and two squads of India 3/3 were engaged with a large force of the enemy and suffering casualties. Hotel withdrew for a time, ordered in airstrikes, advanced to reach their objective at Hill 43, and then moved against Nam Yen. Jim Mazy writes, remembering the operation, “Those of us at Hill 43 managed to get out the next morning with 29 of us left, and that is counting attachments.”

Operation Starlite would continue for another day with only small engagements and another five days to complete village searches, but without Pfc. James Sawyer. Sometime during the August 18th operations, Pfc. Sawyer was killed. Overall, Hotel’s landing zone was the only one that met substantial resistance. It was a significant battle for Hotel Company, and for India Company, a half mile away.

The service record says that Pfc. Sawyer was a casualty of hostile small arms fire, dying outright on the battlefield, which does not describe the true nature of the hostility and scope of the battle. The casualty location was noted as Province Code 05, Country Code VS, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, at An Cuong, Namyen, Hill 30. According to the Coffelt Database of Vietnam Casualties (Web, accessed 2 October 2015), 52 men died over the days August 18 and 19 in these locations or died later due to injuries sustained in these locations on those two days. Sixteen of these deaths were men of H Company.

Operation Starlite was a success. The objective of ensuring the security of the base and preventing a fully-marshalled assault on Chu Lai later was realized. The losses to the Viet Cong were much larger, estimated by some sources as 788, than those sustained by the Marines, which totaled 46 that day, and a few more later on to total 52 eventual deaths due to injuries sustained on those two days.

In the Beckley Post-Herald on August 21, 1965, the short headline appeared: “State GI Killed.” The article said, “(Morgantown) – Relatives here have been notified of the death of Pfc. James Sawyer of near Morgantown in South Viet Nam. Sawyer was killed last Wednesday during a Marine engagement at Chu Lai on the Van Tuong peninsula. He was the son of Mrs. Margie Sawyer of Rt. 1, Morgantown.”

James’ body was recovered, and he is interred at Arnettsville Cemetery in Arnettsville, West Virginia. He was awarded a Purple Heart, in addition to the National Defense, Vietnam Service, and Vietnam Campaign medals. (Source: “James Howard Sawyer,” The Virtual Wall: Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Web, accessed 2 October 2015.)
headstone
grave marker

Headstone and grave marker for Pfc. James Howard Sawyer, Arnettsville Cemetery.
Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Ms. Sawyer would die in 1969 and is interred next to James. James’ brother Robert died in 1977 in Springfield, Illinois.

Recounting his story in the book Ordinary Lives: Platoon 1005 and the Vietnam War (W.D. Ehrhart; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), Tim Jenkins (1946-2013) admits he joined the Marines because he “wanted revenge.” Who inspired such loyalty? His boyhood friend, James Sawyer. At Clay-Battelle High School, Jenkins spent his senior year looking forward to the day he’d graduate and go to Parris Island and eventually to Vietnam, which he did. He came home with a Purple Heart. Much decorated himself, Pfc. James Howard Sawyer would not come home.


Some family information provided by Shirley Belt. Information about James Sawyer’s military career provided by Jim Mazy and Pete Pomilio.

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens, with editorial assistance from Patricia Richards McClure
October 2015

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James Howard Sawyer

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