Member of ‘The Walking Dead’ Marine unit recalls deadly battle from April 1967

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JAMES STOGNER in his Marines uniform in December 1967 as a 19-year-old. (Photo courtesy of James Stogner)

James H. Stogner had his sights set on becoming a U.S. Marine even before his teenage years. His father was in the service, and he had a mindset of following in his footsteps.

“I wanted to be a Marine from the time I was a kid,” Stogner said 10 days after being awarded the prestigious Navy Medal Cross on April 5 in Polson. “When I turned 16, I joined the Marines. I got to boot camp on my 17th birthday.” When he enlisted, his body type was unlike most of those entering the service. He was 6-foot, 3-inches tall, but weighed only 105 pounds.

Stogner was not drafted. “I volunteered, he said. “We all went over there [to Vietnam]. We did what the country needed.”

He had the inate feeling that once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine. “You never get out. The Marine Corps never leaves you. You do away from ‘me’; it’s ‘us’” when you’re a Marine, Stogner said.

It was a nightmare — day after day — for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. “No one over there was friendly to us. We were eating 26-year-old C rations. There were mosquitos, bugs, leeches everywhere. Three days after I got home [from overseas] I came down with malaria ... You never know how long 13 months is.”

Stogner is willing to talk about the night of April 5, 1967.

“It was kaos. You do what you’re trained to do. You don’t have time to think about it,” he said. “Your mind goes blank and you react. The training kicks in.”

Stogner spoke about how adrenaline in a person’s body can effect his or her reaction to events.

“Not a drug in the world is like when you get pumped up on adrenaline,” and when he heard his gunner — Lance Corporal Elijah “Eli” Fobbs — screaming while being tortured by North Vietnamese Army soldiers, he reacted in a brave and heroic way. “There was no way in hell that I was going to let my gunner die,” Stogner said. “We still all lay our lives on the line for each other and we have a heckuva brotherhood.” It was a gangly, wounded 18-year-old who carried Fobbs to safety when so many Marines lost their lives.

STOGNER WAS wounded twice that night of battle. “You can’t quit. They would have killed Eli had I not gone in there [into enemy territory. We were a three-man machine gun team, we were all wounded,” he said, and all three of them survived their service in Vietnam.

However, the third member of their team committed suicide years after his time in the Marines. “We still miss him,” Stogner said.

Stogner and Fobbs are still best friends, keeping in contact with each other. He was there when Fobbs received his Prisoner of War citation some time ago. There is a major reunion for members of their unit every other year.

“We were known as ‘The Walking Dead,’” Stogner said of unit. That name was given to them — as the translation from Chinese — by Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was a key figure in the foundation of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. “He was going to annihilate 19 [his unit],” That was because of the damage the unit was doing to Ho Chi Minh’s army. “They killed killed 839 of us, but they never got the job done of wiping us out,” Stogner said proudly.

Stogner’s heart has always gone out to his comrades. “The guys who didn’t make it deserved it was much as us,” he said of commendations. “I’m here by the grace of God ... I never met an atheist in a foxhole. They were praying to God, or someone else.”

Stogner hailed from Oklahoma, where he lived with his wife Kemberly. She was a professional jockey.

However, she was killed during a training race at Blue Ribbon Downs just outside Sallisaw, Okla., in May of 1998. He then moved to Montana and lived in Polson for several years, then went to Plains in 2000 — remodeling a house on River Road West. Stogner moved to Texas, but returned to Montana — settling in Noxon about four years ago.

Stogner pointed out that his wife Kemberly has been a jockey for nearly 10 years. “She was a stakes winner,” he said. And Kemberly will always be a winner in her husband’s heart.

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