SOUTHERN MEMORIES: Mississippi Marine dives on land mine in Vietnam to save fellow warriors

Hattiesburg, Miss., Aug. 13, 1967 – Lance Cpl. Roy M. Wheat, 20, of the U.S. Marine Corps, from Moselle, Miss., was killed Friday afternoon in the dense humid jungles of Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam, while saving the lives of two of his fellow Marines.
If you ever faced the ultimate moment of sacrifice, like Lance Cpl. Wheat did, would you give your life to save others? According to witnesses, Wheat answered that question without a moment’s hesitation.
Wheat and two other Marines had been assigned the crucial mission of providing security for a Navy construction crane and crew, building Liberty Road in Quang Nam Province. Liberty Road is a major U.S. military roadway, created to move soldiers and war material through the steep jungle mountains and long narrow valleys of northern South Vietnam.
The three Marines knew their job and knew it well. They set up a security position in a tree line above where the Navy crews were working on the road below.
Even though the three Marines had just walked through the entire area a few minutes before, Wheat felt it was important to inspect it again. He reconnoitered the area to the rear of their security position because Viet Cong were reported to be in the vicinity. He was taking no chances, but, fortunately, his search netted nothing.
Wheat returned to the security area and was within 10 feet of his fellow Marines. As has happened so often in this hellish war, as he started to speak to them, he stepped on one of those anti-personnel land mines planted virtually everywhere in Vietnam. Immediately, the bomb started to detonate with that dreaded hissing sound. In a split second, Wheat knew he didn’t have a chance, but he could save the others.
He quickly shouted to his comrades to take cover and threw himself on the land mine, absorbing the full impact of the explosion. He was killed immediately. His inspirational heroism, extraordinary valor and totally unselfish decision to die saved his fellow Marines from certain injury and possible death. Lance Cpl. Wheat gallantly gave his 20-year-old life for his country, the Corps and his companions. He provided his answer to the ultimate question asked above that most of us hope we never have to face. Would we sacrifice ourselves to save others?
Wheat is a growing number of soldiers in this war who have been killed by these land mines or homemade bombs or booby traps. They have many names. These types of bombs are a potent weapon for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. U.S. Military officers admit, these bombs are difficult to defend against.
Lance Cpl. Wheat’s body will be returned to the U.S. in a week, and he will be buried in Moselle.

2010 update
Lance Cpl. Roy Wheat received 12 meritorious commendations for his combat service in Vietnam, including the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously. He was one of only two Mississippians to receive the Medal of Honor in the entire Vietnam War. This young man was an exemplary heroic Marine. Interestingly, the land mine weapon used in Wheat’s death has become the weapon of choice in our current Mideast wars.
During the Vietnam War, these land mines or booby traps, as they were called then, killed a large – but unknown – percentage of the 58,000 U.S. troops who died in Vietnam. Sadly, training to avoid these type bombs was not as sophisticated in the Vietnam Era as it is today.
In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these types of bombs have been used far more than in previous wars. Plus, these weapons have a new name – Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. Some are manufactured. Most are homemade. Even though the use of IEDs has declined in Iraq, as the war there has wound down, the use of IEDs in Afghanistan increased dramatically in 2006-2007.
But, over the past two years, their effectiveness as weapons has been lessened, thanks to a Department of Defense $17 billion dollar Counter-IED Training effort for all military service people going into our war zones. One of the main Counter-IED Training centers is in Mississippi’s own Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg. In the past two and a half years, some 50,000 American troops have received state-of-the-art Counter-IED training at Camp Shelby.
And, speaking of Hattiesburg, Lance Cpl. Wheat has a post office named for him there and also a U.S. Navy ship named in his honor. Here in Tupelo, Jerry Thompson with the Vietnam Veterans of America provides a poignant verbal tribute for this fallen Marine hero: “All gave some, some gave all.”
Each of these tributes – verbal and otherwise – insure that Lance Cpl. Roy M. Wheat will be remembered for a long time in Southern Memories.

Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal

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