John Wilson doesn’t remember LIFE photographer Larry Burrows turning and snapping his picture that day in 1966. The 22-year-old Marine lance corporal had other things on his mind.
Before he got to Vietnam, Wilson says now, “The thing I never thought about was death so close, right all around you, someone dying all the time. That’s something you don’t picture unless you’re there. Guys get blown away 10 feet from you as though nothing was wrong. You just keep doing your job and drag them with you until you get them to a safe spot.
“Every time a sniper shot, someone always got hit. Because they’re so close, they don’t miss. Every day. All the time. You don’t know who it’s going to be. The guy behind you? You get so goddamn tired of that crap.
“You see someone go down [from sniper fire], instantly you’re in a different world. All you want to do is get that sonofabitch. You don’t care if it’s a 2-year-old or a 100-year-old man. It’s unbelievable how you can feel like that. I don’t feel like that now. Back there, it was exciting to kill. God, that’s a terrible word. But that’s exactly what it was. It was exciting.
“After a while, you’ve done it so much, you can hardly wait to do it again. It’s a game. You carry this weapon [rocket launcher] around everywhere you go. You live with it, and when you get a chance to shoot you’re so excited you don’t care who’s in there. We were professionals. I hit everything I aimed at.”
Wilson is 41. He sells potato chips for a living. He’s married with four children, living in Spokane where he grew up. But Wilson says he still cannot escape the memories of Vietnam. “I can look out and watch the cattle graze and it’s water buffalo I see,” he says. “I don’t have flashbacks with screaming or go crazy in the house. It’s controlled. It’s something that’s imprinted. Things resemble things.”
Wilson was in his junior year at a Spokane Catholic school, when his parents separated and the family was split apart. Wilson moved in with a family friend and helped support himself by working in a gas station before and after school. After graduation, he moved to Southern California and landed a job on an offshore oil rig. Then, in 1965 he received his draft notice and enlisted in the Marines. “I wanted to be prepared,” he says. “So I figured the Marines, with the reputation they had, the old John Wayne antics, would be the way to go. So I did it and no regrets. I’m here today.”
Wilson says he went willingly to Vietnam. “One year to thank America—is that asking too much? I just figured I owed my family and my friends. That’s all there was to it. I didn’t go over there to be a damn hero. Nobody’s a hero over there.” Americans who thought differently infuriate Wilson. “Obviously it was a political war,” he says. “But [protestors didn’t] blame politics. They blamed the guys that went over there. It makes me sick. Burn your draft card and cross the line and come back a few years later as though nothing is wrong. How can people like that live with themselves? They turned their back on their country. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror.”
Even Wilson found the reality of war shattering: “I anticipated World War II. Go over, do your fighting, come home, and everybody loves you. I went over there and things were different.”
Arriving in Vietnam in April 1966, Wilson found little glamour. “They try to wear you down,” Wilson says of the Viet Cong. “A sniper here, a sniper there until you must go crazy. You never see them. They’d just follow you, then suddenly, bang they’d be right on top of you! They’d just wear you down. I remember going through one village and the lieutenant said, ‘Burn it.’ I said, ‘Did we get some sniper fire?’ He said, ‘No, let’s burn it before we get it. I’m tired of getting shot at first.’ ”
During one firefight, Wilson’s squad was pinned down behind a paddy dike in water up to the men’s chests. One recent replacement lay near Wilson, sobbing uncontrollably. Then the platoon leader passed the word to prepare to charge the enemy position. “Everybody had new life in them then,” Wilson says, “as if, ‘Who gives a shit if you get shot? Who cares?’ Anything would be better than laying in that God-blessed water. That shit stunk all the time, and the leeches were like snakes. I remember the rounds hitting the bank near my head. I was just waiting for one to get me. I just put my whole head underwater and held my breath.” When his unit charged, the North Vietnamese retreated. Wilson was unhurt.
He was wounded by mortar shrapnel in February 1967 but was reluctant to leave the field. “You don’t want to leave,” he says of the camaraderie that drew him back to fight with his fellow Marines. “It’s amazing.” In one battle, a man carrying an M-60 machine gun went down near him on a hill. “He got killed, so I went up there and got him,” Wilson says. “I strapped his machine gun under my arm and picked him up with one arm and put him over my shoulder and walked. I never got tired. When we all got down to the bottom, here I was carrying this guy. I looked behind me and there was a friend carrying another body. We were exhausted, just about passed out, but at the time I could have gone on forever.”
Wilson’s bad memories turn bitter when he recalls his discharge in 1967. On a commercial jet flight home to California, Wilson says, “No one talked to me. It would have been nice to have someone come up and pat you on the back and say, ‘Thanks a lot, John.’ I’m sure everybody who came back, that’s all they wanted to have happen. Just one person to come out of a crowd. My whole life could be different.”
As it happened, Wilson tried to make up for lost time with too much drinking and partying. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he had a succession of jobs. Now, he says, his life has turned around. He enjoys his work, loves his family (he and wife Teri have been married 12 years) and lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Occasionally he looks through a collection of memorabilia from the war years. (Wilson, who was not identified when Burrows’ photograph was first published, was correctly spotted by a number of callers after PEOPLE ran the photo again three weeks ago. Wilson himself has been looking for an old Marine buddy, Gary Viator, originally of Shreveport, La., thus far unsuccessfully.) “I wonder,” Wilson says, “what affected me more? Was it the killing, or coming home to nothing? I wanted to live a normal life. That’s all I really wanted. I wanted a family and to try and make some decent wages. To this day, 41 years old, I haven’t really settled yet.”