TRIAL BY FIRE
“So many of the guys,
when they came home just fell apart [by] drinking, doing drugs, dealing with it in different ways. When I came home … I had to get to work and take care of my family. That probably helped me more than anything.”
SPRINGDALE — Derl Horn was tired, dirty and tanned from patrolling with his fellow Marines through the Vietnamese jungle, so he used a tree stump as a stool while drinking from his canteen in a rare moment of peace.
“As a Marine, did you check that stump for anything?” his lieutenant gruffly asked, already knowing the answer.
He pointed at Horn. “You’re going to die over here.”
The words shook Horn to the core. The thought of not returning to his wife and newborn twin daughters made him more alert and cautious to listen to his superiors.
As a draftee, he was placed in the 1st Battalion 9th Marines Bravo Company, a division known as “The Walking Dead” because they were the first ones in action and the high casualty rates meant they often needed replacements.
When Horn returned to Springdale on Valentine’s
Horn, 72, grew up in Springdale, where he learned responsibility by working the farm with his brother and sisters.
“He was just a great younger brother and never seemed to be in trouble,” says Norma Eastburn, Horn’s sister. “We all just looked out for each other and entertained ourselves — rode bikes, climbed trees and we swung over the creek on vines.”
He attended Springdale High School, but work at the AQ Chicken House left little time for extracurriculars. A friend introduced him to Marilyn Buchanan, another Springdale student. They dated for two years, beginning with a school play and a circle around the Drumstick — the nickname for the AQ Chicken House’s fast food area, which no longer exists.
By the time the Vietnam War began, he had graduated from high school and was selling life insurance locally, driving his Volkswagen around Northwest Arkansas to collect premiums to support wife Marilyn.
Being drafted interrupted that comfortable life. They had a good workplace, church family and relatives nearby.
He assumed he’d have to serve in the Army, but he didn’t know where. He assumed that he’d be stationed stateside, where his wife could join him on the weekends.
In February 1966, he made the trek to Little Rock for tests, his official assignment, and was surprised when several high-ranking Marines were given first choice. The Marine Corps had used conscripted men only once before, briefly, in World War II. This day, they only needed seven of the 50 men, and Horn was picked first.
“I thought, ‘Wait, I don’t want to be a Marine. I thought I was going to be in the Army.’ They said that I could go in the Marines or I could join the Army for an extra year … so I guess I’ll be a Marine.”
A NEW BOOT
Horn was not the average recruit. At 23, he was at least four years older than most; at 160 pounds, they called him “fatso,” and when he boasted about his nice family life with Marilyn, they told him if they wanted him to have a wife, they would’ve issued him one.
The road to Marine training was almost luxurious. He enjoyed easy flights, had two steak dinners and met a friendly man who waved him onto a bus. But once the doors clapped shut, his world was turned upside down.
Marine Corps training met his expectations as an overbearing, extensive process. He did his best to go unnoticed so his platoon wouldn’t have to pay for his mistakes. When others fell behind, Horn empathized with them and had difficulty maintaining the unrelenting, ruthless character he was supposed to take on.
With a crew cut and new fatigues, he arrived on his first assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where for five months he served on guard duty to keep locals from areas full of landmines.
Another aspect of his life in the military was a series of travel delays. He finally shipped out to Vietnam in April 1967.
But it wasn’t until he was leaving the military base in Okinawa, Japan, that reality began to set in. To board a plane to Vietnam, he had to wait for the crew to unload a flight full of body bags.
“We were out just waiting for them to unload the C-130. They were unloading all these bags and I was curious. I didn’t [realize], so I asked ‘What are you guys unloading?’ They said ‘You’re replacing these guys,’” Horn says. “It was an eye-opener. I thought I should watch my step or I’ll be one of those.
“I was fortunate to have a wife and family praying all the time. I credit that as the reason I even came back.”
They arrived in Vietnam in the middle of the night, landing raucously on rickety strips of metal barely stuck together. Without any lights to speak of, it was hard to tell whether they’d crashed or landed.
Horn didn’t know where he was, what was going on, and he didn’t have a weapon yet. The inauspicious beginning brought a lot of fear. Horn didn’t sleep the first night, and when the sun rose, the fear only grew.
The experienced Marines, “old salts,” were a little worse for wear and told the “new boots” how things really were. But they did their best to impart how to survive in Vietnam. Horn listened closely, and never forgot: Stay alert. Keep your weapon clean. Listen to your superiors. Listen to the “old salt.”
Pray a lot.
Once he ventured out in the field, Horn added one of his own: Don’t use M16s. For a time, Horn carried only a .45-caliber pistol, and so he searched the fallen for more appropriate weapons he could use. He wanted an M16, but noticed a trend. There were a lot of men who died holding one. Newly adopted, the weapon had a lot of flaws and many of them jammed, which left the user in a tight spot if they didn’t have a second weapon at hand.
To top it off, Horn’s final comfort — training in 81-mm mortars, weapons that indirectly fired projectiles at a distance [and were stationed in a relatively safe position] — was taken from him. They needed someone using 60 mm mortars, which placed him closer to the front.
On his first day of patrol, Horn and his company had mortars fired on them by their own people, who mistook them for the enemy. Evenings were spent exchanging survival stories and sleep was hard to come by.
“During the night, you’re scared to death because you don’t know what’s going to happen or what is happening because you hear all the bombing and shooting and you’re just not ready for that.”
The next day, they were ambushed on patrol. What Horn found nightmarish was a dream come true for some weary men. Marines were sent home if they were wounded three times, no matter the severity, or if they were wounded severely enough to be taken out of combat, but not permanently disabled, and some would hold up their hand in the gunfire to get a so called “million dollar wound,” the one that would finally send them home.
They called in airstrikes to escape the ambush and to encourage the enemy to back down. Horn watched as two captured Viet Cong were taken away in a helicopter, and barely suppressed shock when one fell to his death during the midair interrogation.
The first two days of his experience was only the beginning of the chaos.
Horn was stationed in an area that was bombed by the North Vietnamese Army daily. Beyond having to continually refortify his bunker, it meant sometimes going without a bath for weeks at a time. When one of these bouts stretched beyond the 20-day mark, Horn had had enough. He would have a shave, even if it killed him. He ventured out and set up a stand, mirror, and filled his helmet with water before he heard the calls of “incoming.” When he returned, the shaving stand had been blown away. The men gathered water from the puddles created by tanks, making it drinkable with halazone tablets, and they took baths in bomb craters.
Despite many struggles, Horn would later recall a sense of consistent fortune in always dodging the bullet. He survived a punji trap — a hole or ditch filled with sharpened stakes coated in human fecal matter — a helicopter landing directly on top of his foxhole, and a close encounter with a venomous jungle snake.
But it was the battle at Con Thien on July 2, 1967, that tested Horn’s faith more than anything else.
It began as a search and destroy mission, one to an area that superiors knew was peppered with 5,000 members of the North Vietnamese Army. The goal was to move them out of the area, and Horn’s company rode their coattails. When the Viet Cong began to bomb areas where the Marines weren’t, they thought they’d succeeded in evading detection.
In reality the act was to distract the Marines, pulling them into a U-shaped ambush where the Marines were outnumbered about 20 to one.
Horn suffered through the three day battle with a couple of injuries — a grenade exploding overhead sprayed shrapnel over his ears, and then additional shrapnel hit his arm when mortars exploded nearby while he was moving an injured Marine.
It wasn’t until the lieutenant sent in tanks that the remaining men were able to escape, a move that saved other men’s lives but not the lieutenant’s.
The majority of the Walking Dead battalion were casualties of the July 2 battle, and Horn wrote Marilyn right away to let her know that he wasn’t among them.
It took Horn and the remainder of his company days to collect their fallen Marines, and his job was to keep them from falling off the tank. Newsweek captured the controversial moment in an image that stoked Americans’ unrest with the war.
FROM RIFLES TO BABIES
Horn served seven more months after that battle, but the challenges didn’t stop when his service time was up.
Getting a ride out of battle was tricky. Helicopters were hard to come by, taken up with moving civilians to safer places and moving Marines to the dangerous ones.
After repeated reminders that his time on the battlefield was up, Horn was able to secure a helicopter flight, but was told to be prepared to be dropped into gunfire. A second helicopter flight crash- landed and a third required him to help load the wounded. Even then, he narrowly escaped injury as a mortar hit took the rudder off the aircraft. But he finally made it out.
Back home, Horn was decorated with honors, including the Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal and more for his service as section leader, squad leader and lance corporal.
But none of that compared to meeting his twin daughters, Cynthia and Cathy, for the first time, who he says were the best remedy for the scars of war.
“So many of the guys, when they came home just fell apart [by] drinking, doing drugs, dealing with it in different ways,” he says. “When I came home … I had to get to work and take care of my family. That probably helped me more than anything because I had responsibilities.”
Horn began a career at Kearney Electric, where he worked his way up from packing electrical switches and making fiberglass rods to becoming supervisor and learning industrial engineering responsibilities on the job.
“Derl appeared to be a straight shooter,” says friend and former co-worker Charles Peterson. “He was a real asset … honest and a good, productive worker.”
Friends and family describe him as someone who values each connection, and his actions echo that. Every week he gathers a group of retired and former Kearney employees to have lunch and keep up with each other. He organizes the annual company reunion, and never misses a Marine Corps reunion.
“Each Tuesday, Kearney employees meet for lunch,” Peterson says. “Derl keeps us together. I consider Derl and Marilyn to be just good solid people.”
They were there for Peterson when his wife was dying of cancer, and provided support in the form of visits, prayers and meals.
“He’s always been the kind of guy you like to be around,” says friend and former co-worker Benny Stout. “He always seems to be in a good mood, and if he isn’t, you wouldn’t know it.”
His attitude helps him be a unifying force to bring friends, family and fellow church members together whenever they can through meals, retreats, and mission trips.
“He never has anything bad to say about anyone and most definitely I have never heard anyone say a negative thing about him,” Stout says. “He’s strong and steadfast in his beliefs and I think that is the main reason for all of his other good qualities.”
Horn didn’t always share his experiences as a veteran, but came to terms with his experiences through writing a book, which he’ll self-publish in the future.
“I don’t think I realized until I started reading his story,” Marilyn Horn says. “It’s hard to think about what he dealt with and still does … [but] we’re fortunate because we have a tight community of family and friends who have been supportive while he was gone, when he came back and through this process of dealing with all that he saw.”
“I’m so proud of the way he’s handled being a veteran,” says Eastburn, his sister. “I don’t think anyone can imagine what [he] went through.”
Now that he has gained some distance from it, he helps other veterans, some whom he knows personally, and others by volunteering at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville.
“Derl was a mentor to me and still is,” says brother-in-law Kenneth Buchanan, who served in the Marines and saw combat in the Tet Offensive. Buchanan was in Vietnam for three months before being wounded and sent home. “We still, when we get together, we can share things that only in combat you would know.”
That alone is incentive enough for Derl Horn.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have been through a war, and they won’t talk about it,” he says. “A lot of things you’d rather not remember … I was that way for many years, but it does help, you know.”