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Interview with James E. Livingston [n.d.]

Unidentified interviewer:

For the editor just state your name, your rank and when you served.

James E. Livingston:

I'm James Everett Livingston. I retired in 1995 as a major general and I served almost 34 years in the Marine Corps and I was assigned and had command of every organization from a platoon to a force level. From 43 Marines to 110,000.

Unidentified interviewer:

Let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

James E. Livingston:

I grew up in a little area called Towns Lumber City McRae, Georgia. Either one of the choices, they finally got a red light in one of them. And it's down in southeast Georgia. It's between Macon and Rums [ ? ] Georgia and I grew up on a farm. And my high school graduation class had about 26 people in it. So it was a relatively small rural community.

Unidentified interviewer:

What did you like to do when you - when you were not in school, did you take up sports, were you farming, what were you doing?

James E. Livingston:

Well when I was not in school, my dad found reasons to keep me working. We had about a 3000 acre farm. And back in those days, it required a lot of manual labor. So he got his manual labor out of me also. But I enjoyed basketball and I played a little baseball, fishing and hunting. The things you normally do in the rural south. But primarily my life was involved with work on a farm. And my dad taught me very quickly about manual labor and working.

Unidentified interviewer:

Growing up who would you say had the biggest -who made the biggest impression on you and why?

James E. Livingston:

Well I think the biggest impression was made on me by both my parents. My dad for his real great nature in working with people. And my mom for her commitment. She determined [ ? ] and she stuck it out and I mean she finished the course. And so I think I got a little bit of character from both of them.

Unidentified interviewer:

What made you decide to enlist in the -

James E. Livingston:

Well first of all in the Marine Corps - we'll get it right.

Unidentified interviewer:

We'll get this right.

James E. Livingston:

But I almost enlisted in the Army believe it or not. I was attending Auburn University and I was one year from graduation and i got my draft notice. And my notice said you fixing to join Uncle Sam and probably the US Army. And I had a friend who had just left the military academy and he said you know I just got this card from this recruiter. And it said something about a marine on it and I didn't know a doggone thing about the Marine Corps. So I said well, I got my draft notice. So I sent this notice in and this good looking marine major showed up at Auburn University at the student union one day. And I was talking to him. He said why don't you go to Quantico, Virginia for the summer. I mean you're gonna have a good time. So I said, based on that, I think I'll join up with the Marine Corps. And so I joined the Marine Corps and spent 12 weeks in Quantico, Virginia. And it was a wonderful training program but it was tough. Only about 35 percent of the people made it. But after I completed that summer program at Quantico, I graduated in June of 1962 in civil engineering from Auburn University. And joined the Marine Corps and embarked on what I thought was gonna be a 3 year career in the Marine Corps. I was gonna do my time. As a matter of fact, they were calling, they even offered me a regular commission. And I wouldn't accept it. Because if you accepted a regular commission, they wouldn't give you the 300 dollars to buy your uniform. So you can tell I was not committed to a stay in the Marine Corps. I wanted to stay my required time and get out and go into engineering. But I enjoyed the stay and I stayed for 34 years.

Unidentified interviewer:

And it worked out.

James E. Livingston:

Yeah. It was a wonderful time. Every day was fun.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about that training period when you went to Quantico. Was that an officer's training, was that -

James E. Livingston:

It was what is called a training period is called platoon leaders class. And it's a form of officer candidate school but it's a particular program for the Marine Corps. And back in those days it was broke up into two 6 week increments. And most of the people went one 6 weeks, one summer, then 6 weeks the next summer. I was late in my career. As I told you, I had one year from graduation. So I had to take all 12 weeks of training in one summer. So I went the first 6 weeks and then a second 6 weeks. It was just like starting over again. And it was primarily - the first 6 weeks was very physical. A lot of drill. A lot of you know just trying to determine whether or not you had the ability to withstand the fatigue. And the association with people. And the second 6 weeks was more focused on whether or not you had certain qualities to be an officer. The first 6 weeks we lost probably about 50 percent of the class. And the second 6 weeks, the first night I recall, 35 percent of the class quit. And after it was all over, we had about 20 percent of that particular class left. So it was very demanding physically. It was very -pretty tough intellectually too because of the fatigue you were under. And it really sort of measured a guy in terms of his ability to be an officer. And lead young Marines under tough situations. And I think it set the course for my career in the Marine Corps.

Unidentified interviewer:

Was there a particular - END SIDE A BEGIN SIDE B, JAMES CONTINUED [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

James E. Livingston:

Well I graduated in 1962 from Auburn University in civil engineering. And as I said, my intent was just to stay for 3 years. And I went to what is called the basic school which is a course in Quantico, Virginia again. But it's designed for second lieutenants. And it really sort of is the refining training to make you an officer and make you primarily an officer to go into the infantry. And I chose the infantry branch. And concurrently while we were going through through that course, the Cuban missile crisis kicked off. And my basic course was scheduled to be the first replacement group going down to Cuba if that had kicked off and really got into combat situation. And I recall all our tanks, all our equipment was pulled out of Quantico and we were practicing tank warfare with jeeps and you know. So if the Cuban missile crisis had not gone away, that would have been my first association with some combat.

Unidentified interviewer:

How did that make you feel?

James E. Livingston:

Well you know I think it was just sort of, as a marine you know you come into the Marine Corps for a particular purpose. And one was sort of ready to go. I think you know we were very patriotic, you were very focused. And you understood what the Marine Corps was all about. And the thing is, the indoctrination - you know the Marine Corps went through the process of getting you ready to accept your leadership position in the Marine Corps. I think it was a good - it put me in a situation - I knew what I was in the Marine Corps about very quickly.

Unidentified interviewer:

Was there anybody in particular that you remember from your early training that influenced the way you were thinking or somebody you would say, he really taught me a lesson.

James E. Livingston:

Well you know one of the guys in my staff platoon command was a guy named Dickie Saw from New York City. And Dick was the personification of what a marine officer should be. He was very athletic, very outgoing. Friendly guy. You know just had all those good qualities of leadership. And I saw a lot in him as being a role model. But you had so many role models you know. These guys, most of them were Korean vets. A lot of them had a lot of combat time. So we had a sprinkling of people who had a variety of sort of personality traits that I thought were very positive. And something that you looked at to emulate. And adapt to your own sort of military persona if you will.

Unidentified interviewer:

Was Vietnam even on the road map -

James E. Livingston:

Well it was starting to come on the road map. You know Kennedy was starting to send advisors and we had a small advisor group in. It was just beginning to crank up a little bit. But it would crank up very quickly for me shortly after I got out of basic school because I was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California. I went through what is called a transplacement battalion. And in 63 and 64, I was either off the coast of Vietnam or in Vietnam for short periods of time. So I spent 13 months which turned out to be 15 months because it was a month over and a month back. We were now flying over and back to Okinawa during those days. And I spent a whole 13 months in and around and off the coast of Vietnam getting ready to go in. So that was my first association with the republic of Vietnam and all the far east. We spent a lot of time in Hong Kong and Okinawa, Japan. So I hit every port in the far east. Young Baxter and I enjoyed it. [LAUGHS]

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about your first combat in Vietnam. Do you remember the first time that you actually were in a fire zone -

James E. Livingston:

Well my first combat in Vietnam was really in 64. And it was a couple of rounds over my head in Danang. And we didn't stay in very long. So it was a very very short exposure to combat. But you know bullets are bullets. But my real association with combat was back in 67 and 68. My second tour. And I arrived in September 67 and my battalion had just been pulled back and just got the crap kicked out of them. And they were sending all kind of replacements in and I was a replacement company commander. And I'd been on the ground 9 hours and my battalion commander called me in and says Livingston, your company's gonna be the assault company going into Anshau[?] valley. And Anshau valley back in those days - you didn't go into. And he said you can expect 50 to 60 percent casualties. And I'd been there for 9 hours. He said every other guy has basically taken a body bag with you. Because we don't, we expect you to have about 50 percent KIAs when you hit the ground. Fortunately that operation didn't go down. And I was damned glad it didn't. After being in Vietnam only for 9 hours. But that was the beginning of that career or that tour that led up to me getting the Medal of Honor in May of 1968.

Unidentified interviewer:

What made you decide to reenlist. You said -that you were gonna do a 3 years and out. What made you change your mind?

James E. Livingston:

Well I tell you, I was at Cherry Point, North Carolina and I was finishing up my final 3 years. And the monitor who handles the personnel direction of the various military organizations called me up and said would you like to go to Parris island, South Carolina? And I said well, to do what? And he said to be a serious commando. And I said well, you know I'll give it a shot. And I may stay around for a year. So I went to Parris island, South Carolina. And saw that phase of the Marine Corps. And I really enjoyed training enlisted Marines. And I met my wife down in Parris island. So that sort of all come together very nicely. And the low country sort of grows on you and Parris island sort of grows on you. And when you get a feel for what goes into making a marine, it really sort of brought it all together. You know I'd been involved with the officer, been involved with diplomates overseas. And I got a chance to witness how we make Marines at Parris island. And the war was cranking up more and more. And I was a little gungy I guess. And I said well, I'm gonna stay around and see if I get another shot at Vietnam.

Unidentified interviewer:

What makes Marines unique?

James E. Livingston:

I think what makes Marines unique is the training, the attitude, the confidence. And the fact they just totally believe in themself and believes that no one's any better. And I think that's just sort of ingrained in them from the get go. I mean they start off and they take you down to the barest level. And they just totally rebuild you like a building. Started that foundation which is that basic human and start putting that bricks and mortar back together. And when you come out of there, you know you can run through buildings with a single bound here. And I tell you, it's amazing down at Parris island when you see mothers after only 12 weeks, their sons graduating or daughters most - I was primarily involved with the male side on my first trip. But when a mother can't recognize her son after 12 weeks, you know you done something pretty good.

Unidentified interviewer:

Let's talk about the actions that led up to your citation. Tell me what was your mission and what were the things leading up to it.

James E. Livingston:

Let me set a stage for this - my battalion was located between the Kwaviet river and the Ben Hai. The Ben Hai was the river that sort of split north and south Vietnam. And we were to the east of the area called Dong Ha combat base. Dong Ha combat base was the focal point for moving supplies through what we called to the area we called the Trace. Which was Khan Tien, Khe San, C4, C4 bridge. All that area was the McNamara line. And this was the hub of all that supply movement. Because these supplies would come out of the ocean aboard ship, up the Kwaviet river into Dong Ha. Then they'd be distributed from Dong Ha. So it was a very strategic target. My battalion had been sitting there after a major fight by another battalion to relieve them and basically help the south Vietnamese who were also in there defend this strategic target. So we were up a river and protecting some strategic locations. And I got a call one day from my battalion commander. Said we're reassigning you for a short period to the tnhird marine division. And you're gonna protect the bridge that leads into Dong Ha. It was later a bridge that John Ripley blew up and gotten the navy cross at it in 1973. And I was there protecting that bridge. And one of our units got involved with a small fire fight and they kept engaging. And then they got pinned down. Then another series of units got involved with a fire fight. So that basically the whole battalion got pinned down just to the north of the Kwaviet river and to the east of Dong Ha. No one realized the size of the force. But we knew we'd had activity north of us up to -close to an area called Ji Lin and the south Vietnamese were engaged in that. So I went up to witness some of that. And suddenly I got a call from my battalion commander and he said we're in a real problem here. Most of the battalion is engaged. We have lost a significant number of Marines. So we're gonna bring you back and have you join the battalion. So I got a call from the division who I was under the operations control of, said we're moving you back to the battalion. So you gotta move down the Kwaviet river, rejoin your battalion. And you'll be under control then of your battalion. And be involved in this particular operation. And I went through the process of bringing my platoon commanders up, telling them what the mission was and we started moving down the Kwaviet river towards my battalion. And we had to fight our way all the way down. I mean the north Vietnamese were almost to the point of closing the river. So we were in a firefight the whole time up to the point we linked up with the battalion. And there's a little anecdote, story if you read the book. That's where we had the famous Livingston river crossing. And this river crossing was brought about by the fact that we had to go across this stream and we didn't have any means to get across the stream. So it was about neck deep on me. So I took all the Marines who were about my height and undressed them. And we took all the equipment off and we passed - got into the stream. So all the short Marines, we passed them one to the other and got them all across the stream with all their gear. So the Livingston river crossing was completed. And if you read the book about the magnificent bastards, that's the little center story of that particular book. We finally joined up with the battalion and there had been a company that was in part of our battalion called alpha company 13. And they'd been in the attack against the village of Dai Do. And they had Marines dead all over the battlefield. And they had dropped back. So I assisted the battalion commander and reorganized in this particular company while I was positioning also my Marines. And about 3 o'clock that morning, he called me and he said - - and we'd been having some small engagements all night - he said you're going through the remnants of alpha 13. You will attack and seize the village of Dai Do. And so to give you a positioning of the forces, goth[?] company, second battalion fourth marine was in the edges of the village of Dai Do. The other two companies were in the fringes just to the south and just to the east of Dai Do. And goth company was basically surrounded. And we didn't know what the size of the contact was. So I called my Marines, particularly the young lieutenants in about 4 o'clock. Give them a mission order. That we were gonna attack across this rice paddy which is about 500 yards. And we had all kind of support in our arms. We had gunships, we had air of all sorts, we had naval gunfire, artillery unit, mortars, you name it, we had it. And we kicked off after I told them, all the fixed bayonets, this is probably the last bayonet charge of the war. And we moved across that rice paddy which was about 500 meters in the assault. And just as we started to close on the village of Dai Do and I was being provided support from goth company - - my two lead platoons got pinned down and was taking a hell of a lot of casualties. We were taking direct RPGs, we were taking all kind of machine gun fire. Even though we were pouring all this fire back on. And I moved back up and slammed my reserve between the two platoons in the assault. And we finally penetrated their lines. And then we began rolling them up on both flanks in classic sort of penetration rollup operation. And finally took the village of Dai Do and I, probably I had went into the fight with about 180 Marines. And after that stage of the fight, I only had about 35 Marines that were still walking. Most of them had been killed or wounded except for the 35 that I'm speaking of. And I'd been hit a couple times with shrapnel. And we killed probably 3 or 400 north Vietnamese on this initial rollup. And after we got all the medivacs out, I reconsolidated my company. I joined forces with goth company and we cleaned out the village of Dai Do. The battalion commander said we're gonna continue the attack, based on his orders from the regimental commander. And so he had a company move through me and they began the attack. And they probably got about 300 yards from me and they screamed back, we're getting surrounded. And we don't think we're gonna make it. So I packed up my 35 remaining Marines. And I had - this was without any orders, and I said we gotta go help those kids. So I packed them up and we slammed forward, joined forces with this goth company, second battalion fourth Marines and continued the attack and I don't know how many north Vietnamese we killed. After the battle was over, 3 or 4000 north Vietnamese were killed. And we were kicking butt. And probably about an hour into that fight after seizing a series of ridge lines and rice paddy areas, we found myself facing north Vietnamese with a 50 caliber machine gun. One of the old machine guns that was used to knock down airplanes primarily. And as I come across this berm, he shot the hell out of me. And I went down. And all the kids saw me go down and we had been really slugging it out. And we'd been taking a lot of casualties. And basically I told the kids to get out of there and - because we were getting surrounded. And I told them basically to get out of there and leave me there and I'd sort of take care of the bad guys up to the point I could no longer take care of the bad guys. And a couple of young black Marines said hell no, skipper and they dragged me back and it was a pretty intense engagement as you might well surmise. After the battle was over, like I say there was 3 or 4000 north Vietnamese they said were killed on the battlefield. We were up against the north Vietnamese division of about 10,000 north Vietnamese against about 80 Marines. So it was a fair fight. And at the end of the day, we had probably about 230 Marines who were either not killed or wounded in that fight. And I got 3 purple hearts out of the engagement. And I was medi vac'ed and I was recommended for the Medal of Honor. And we were pretty - I was pretty well close up to a lot of the guys. Too close.

Unidentified interviewer:

It says in your citation that on several occasions, people tried to come and treat you for your wounds and you refused treatment. Why was that?

James E. Livingston:

Well I think that I was more concerned about ny responsibilities as the company commander. But I didn't have time to worry about wounds. We had to worry about taking care of the young Marines, taking care of our mission and getting the job done. You know we could take care of wounds later. And none of them was life threatening at that point. So I was more focused on what we could do to continue the mission, kill a helluva lot of north Vietnamese. And make sure I took care of those Marines. And that was my principal focus at the time. And that's what a good Quantico training does for you. It keeps you focused on the mission.

Unidentified interviewer:

So at any point, I mean during this assault, did you feel that it was hopeless. There were so many of them coming at you and you had fewer and fewer men as the battle raged on. What were you thinking?

James E. Livingston:

As long as there's one marine still kicking, it's never hopeless. And that was my attitude. I'll tell you what - regardless of the number of Marines, I'll tell you, we said bring them on. And we were gonna take them until the last marine was walking. And I never had any concern about getting out of that battle whatsoever personally. You know I always thought we were gonna win at the end of the day and that was the kind of confidence I had in myself frankly. And I had most of all, I had confidence in the Marines. And those young fellas, I mean were absolutely wonderful. I mean I never had any difficulty with any marine said boss, I don't want to do this. I mean every marine I asked to perform a mission performed it superbly. And I tell you, just the character of those young 18 and 19 year olds was absolutely remarkable. And just the kind of threat they were up against and the numbers. I mean they just kept coming. But we kept killing them. And like I say, at the end of the day, they took about 3 or 4000 of them. I don't know, I was not there to count them. But there were plenty of them to go around.

Unidentified interviewer:

How important in that situation is leadership?

James E. Livingston:

Leadership is absolutely - I think is that element that really divides you from being successful and not being successful. It's that sort of thing that I think you have to reach back into in your inner soul. Leadership is about your inner soul. I mean and it's about your attitude and how you want to reflect that inner soul. And I think that's leadership. Everyone looks for all these kind of qualities and examples of leadership. I think leadership is a reflection of your inner self. And it's very important. Because I think young Marines are sort of always gauging you. And gauging you based on your reactions. And I think if I want to describe leadership, that's the way, for that particular day, it's the way I describe it.

Unidentified interviewer:

Many of the recipients say it's important not just to be a leader in terms of the words but in action. Do you feel that?

James E. Livingston:

My philosophy of leadership is lead from upfront. Absolutely. And I think most of the recipients would reflect that same sort of attitude. And the other saying is, don't do as I say, do as I do. If I'm willing to do it, then I can ask you to do it. A lot of guys can talk about and suggest and maybe ask people to do things. But I think the most important gauge is you're willingness to do those things.

Unidentified interviewer:

Do you remember anything specific about your fellow Marines doing heroic things that you were must amazed at?

James E. Livingston:

I'll tell you the one that I recall and I always sort of gauge is sort of one of the remarkable events of this particular battle was two days before I had young pfc. And he was a real - he was a character. So we were having trouble with him to clean his rifle. And just couldn't get him to clean his rifle. So first sergeant finally brought him in, we give him office hours. And office hours is a form of punishment. So what can you do for a guy who's in the bush in Vietnam? Take away his money. So we took away some of his money. And it was almost comical. Two days later, I wrote him up for a silver star. He led the charge going into Dai Do with a machine gun and he was one of the guys that rolled up the left flank of Dai Do as we were moving through and killed about 65 or 70 north Vietnamese. And so I wrote him up for a silver star. So that was sort of the gauge to know one of the most, I think one of the most refreshing - if it's gonna be something you can call refreshing, one of the most comical events to come out of there. One day you write him and bring him in and give him office hours. The next day you write him up for a silver star. And that's always been one of the comical events out of this battle. And it's always been a high point when I talk about it.

Unidentified interviewer:

When did you hear that you were gonna receive the Medal of Honor?

James E. Livingston:

Well I was medi vac'd to Hawaii and spent a couple of months in the hospital. And I got back to Okinawa and I was initially put in for the navy cross with Jay Vargas who was the other recipient from this battle. And my new brigage commander called me. And he said you know I read this and I'm gonna recommend you two guys for the Medal of Honor. And so he upgraded the citation to the Medal of Honor. And it worked its way through the system. I never had any hopes at all that - I was - my best hope was I'd get 3 purple hearts I guess. And the Medal of Honor is something that never even crossed my mind frankly. And it was not about medals for me. And in this thing it took about 2 years to work it through the system. And I was at Ft. Benning, Georgia with the US Army. And I got a call from Washington - said you're gonna get a chance to come to Washington and meet the president. And I had no idea at all this thing was ever gonna conclude as a Medal of Honor. So it was really a surprise for me.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me about the ceremony. Where was it first of all.

James E. Livingston:

It was in - the ceremony for me to receive the Medal of Honor was in February if I recall in 1970. And I got a call and said you know you can bring anyone you want. You can stay any place you want. You'll have all the money you want to spend. And you can do anything you want to. I said that sounds good. So I brought my mom, my dad, my brother, sister in law and I had my young daughter who ws born at Ft. Benning, Georgia. And I guess she was about 6 or 7 months old. And so we got on Southern Airways and my folks had never been aboard an airplane in their life, so we all flew to Washington. And I had a young marine captain was our escort. And said what kind of car you want you know. What - where do you want to go. So we said we want to go to the Blue Room and see Buddy Ebsen. And I tell you, my dad loved that TV program. So we went to see Buddy Ebsen and we finally went over to the White House for the ceremony. And Mr. Nixon was the president. And there was I think about 10, 11 of us that were to receive the Medal of Honor that day. And some of them are here today. And when Nixon come over to pin the award on me - put the award around my neck, he tried to reach up and grab my young daughter. She absolutely would have nothing to do with him. I mean she just - get away from me. And I mean we reflect on that ceremony. We always laughed you know, you were the one 6 year old that just told the president, I don't want anything to do with you. So it was really comical from that standpoint.

Unidentified interviewer:

That's funny. Do you remember anything that the president told you?

James E. Livingston:

I think he just sort of congratulated me for my service. And said thank you for what you done. He's a very personable guy. And you know contrary to all those negative things you hear about him, I found him very personable. And very open. And he was bouncing around between 11 recipients. But the brief time we had with him was very personal.

Unidentified interviewer:

Tell me what the Medal of Honor means to you.

James E. Livingston:

I think the Medal of Honor is a reflection of the experience I had in Vietnam. But most of all, it's a reflection of the fine young Marines that I wear it for. I don't wear it for Jim Livingston. I wear it based on the fact that I had the opportunity to lead a lot of wonderful young 18 and 19 year old Marines. And they performed magnificently. And they performed everything I asked them to do. If I asked them to attack, they would attack. If I asked them - - whatever I asked them to do. Echo was always and Echo was my company. Echo second battalion, fourth marine of the magnificent bastards always got the nod to take the lead. And I don't think there were many times when we would move out as a battalion or we would begin the attack - - we were not in the attack, taking the lead. And those youngsters always knew that we were gonna be out front. And at the end of the day, I think the battalion comnander if he was here with us today, he'd say we never let him down. I mean and we - the last battle, 67, 68 when I received the award - or the recommendation for the award was a tough day. But at the end of the day, Echo come through like champs. And I think the award is for them, not for me. And I know a lot of recipients say that. But I really mean that honestly. And I try to wear it in remembrance of them. [End of Interview]

 
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  October 26, 2011
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