On March 3, 1969, on Hill 484 in Vietnam, Marine Cpl. Cleveland King Jr. became more than the chief radio operator. He became the leader because there was no one left in charge.
Bullets were flying all around him. Many of his fellow Marines were dead. Their mission was to seize that hill and hold it, but they were under attack from a North Vietnamese army regiment and they were outnumbered and outgunned.
Fourteen of the Marines, including King, made it up that hill. People all around them were dead; and the Marines couldn’t shoot because the enemy was between them and their people.
“And they threw everything they had at us,” King recalled. “And we did what we could do. Our commanding officer was shot. This was where I took over the unit, making the decisions, making the calls.”
He had nearly completed his yearlong tour in Vietnam and it was like the enemy intended this to be his final firefight in more ways than one. “And we were at the point where I could actually see the enemy coming up on us,” he said.
They threw two grenades at him; and fortunately neither exploded. King got up and everywhere he ran, bullets were all around him.
“But something happened, and I don’t know what,” King said, wiping away tears from the memory of that early morning firefight. “It had to be the Lord to give us the wisdom on how to get out of there.”
He got on the radio and called their units for support. And the response was that his landing zone was too “hot,” so they couldn’t land to get his Marines. “I forgot about radio talk (etiquette) then,” King said, managing a laugh.
But then there was an Army helicopter. And the Soldiers told King over the radio that “if you can live long enough we’ll get you out of there.”
That’s when King – in his words – became John Wayne and Audie Murphy. He stood on the hill waving and shouting as bullets flew past him. He helped the injured Marines to the helicopter. He was the last to leave the hill.
As the Army helicopters carried him and the others to safety, King looked down on Hill 484 and could see the Viet Cong troops “coming up that hill like ants.”
“The only thing I could say was God we made it. We made it,” he said.
Years later King, who was born in Georgia and grew up in Ohio, would receive the honors he deserved for his heroism that day and during his tour 1968-69. He received the Silver Star with combat “V” for valor, Bronze Star with combat “V,” Purple Heart with three gold stars, Combat Action Ribbon with two gold stars, Navy Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze campaign stars, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Meritorious Mast, and Rifle Marksman Badge.
Born in Oconee, Georgia, he grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, from age 10 until four years ago when he moved to Huntsville. He dropped out of Youngstown State and joined the Marines in 1967 and he left as a corporal in May 1969. He chose the Marines over the other military branches because he liked the uniform.
King was a 19-year-old private first class when he went to Vietnam in 1968 with Charlie Company, 4th Division, 1st Marine. He was the main radio operator for the four squads. Most of their fighting took place near the Demilitarized Zone.
“Vietnam was like a place – to look at it, it was beautiful,” King, 67, said. “But when you actually get in firefights, you get in woods (where) you can’t even see the sky sometimes because the trees were so thick above you. It was hot, rainy.”
King was wounded on three separate occasions from shrapnel from rocket propelled grenades. But he was always able to return to the fight. He was wounded on his back, right arm and right hand.
“Every time we went into the bush we didn’t necessarily engage in a firefight,” King said. “But when we did, it was like pure D hell. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at. You couldn’t see where the rounds were coming from. It was only instinct and the buddy system.”
But every day wasn’t a fighting day in Vietnam. He and his fellow Marines found time for fun. One day King saw a young Marine he recognized from his Ohio hometown. “And I thought if I had my way, I would send him back home and I would stay. Because he does not know what he got into,” King recalled.
Both survived the war. And eventually both went on to work at the Delphi Factory, a subsidiary of General Motors, in Cortland, Ohio. King worked there 32 years until retiring in 2007. He and his second wife, Libby Ann, an Alabama native, moved to Huntsville in 2011. Combined they have nine children and 26 grandchildren. This includes King’s five children and 10 grandchildren with his first wife, Penny.
In November 2012 King was honored during the local community’s Heroes Week for wounded warriors. He was the guest speaker at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball held by Kilo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marines. Many of the Marines whose lives he saved that fateful day in 1969 on Hill 484, and their family members, have called him to share their emotional thanks.
“I know my story was real,” King, who walks with the aid of a cane, said. “And it took me 40-something years to talk about it.”
He appreciates this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “The guys that were over there, some people think they’re unsung heroes. They all need to get what they deserve. They earned that and more from this country.
“Sometimes when things seem to be their worst, God has a way of making them their best – our best.”
Editor’s note: This is the 23rd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.