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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fallen Marine: Thomas John Pool

A May 13, 1967 letter written on a piece of cardboard from the field. An "extra" pair of dog tags. And a Polaroid snapshot of Thomas John Pool in Chu Lai, Vietnam a month before he was killed in action.

By Maurine Pool
Thomas John Pool, a private first class with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, had been in the service less than a year when his life was cut short by the War in Vietnam on June 30, 1967. My oldest brother wrote me on June 5 of that year thanking me for a picture I had sent him of me in a new Sunday dress. Little did I know that three days earlier his Company A, which was in reserve, had been called into battle as part of Operation Union II and that 5 Marines in his group lost their lives. Many, many more Marines from D Company of the 1st Battalion and F Company of the 2nd Battalion suffered even greater casualties in two bloody battles near Vinh Huy. The commanders of Company A and Company F were killed June 2 in the Que Son Valley. A month earlier, Tommy had penned a letter to our parents on May 13 – just three days after an encounter on the battlefield that killed 6 and wounded 31 from his Company A as part of Operation Union I. Five of those Marines were killed by an unfortunate friendly fire air strike. His post-battle letter was written on a piece of cardboard box, and in that note he said: “I didn’t know I was coming out (to the field) until a few minutes before I came.” He said he would call in a few months when he was on R and R. Tommy’s company had switched out with another company on the morning of May 12 – being “chopped out” of the 3rd Battalion operational control; otherwise Company A would have been in the thick of it during a two-day ambush near Que Son, a town several miles northwest of Tam Ky.
The end came for Tommy during a different search-and-destroy mission called Operation Calhoun, which like the previous two missions took place in the Que Son Valley. Tommy was the only Marine in the 1/5 who was killed during that lesser-known campaign. About 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, a bullet pierced Tommy’s head above the right eye.
His eyes, those kind brown eyes, must have seen plenty during those weeks – though not as much as other Vietnam-era infantrymen because this 20-year-old had been in-country only three months.

I remember Tommy as a sweet guy sitting in the back of the school bus looking out for his little sister. He was an umpire for our hometown Little League, the league in which my other brothers played. Tommy had an aptitude for math and helped me with my math homework. As a boy, Tommy was “cross-eyed” and had ocular surgery to correct strabismus, or specifically an inward-turning left eye.

He played baseball and ran track in high school. He liked to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,and he rooted for the Dodgers. Almost every day, he visited our doting Aunt Laura who lived next door. We lived in a small town in East Texas, and we grew up around lots of our relatives on my dad’s side of the family. Tommy went to college a year before signing up. He trained at Camp Pendleton near San Diego in late 1966 and shipped out to Vietnam in March ’67. The best part of being in Southern California during those months was getting the chance to build a relationship with relatives who lived in California. For the most part, these were families from the Torres side, who invited him over whenever he had a free weekend. We had quite a few California relatives, so Tommy felt like he had a home away from home during those months. Many relatives wrote him in Vietnam, and he wrote short but frequent letters back home. Just a few of those letters are still around. 

He started his tour in Chu Lai as a personnel clerk, and according to one letter in early April, he said he was working in the office of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines and had to get the officers coffee the night before. A cousin who gave me two of Tommy’s letters from Vietnam also gave me an extra pair of Tommy’s dog tags. Apparently he had left them behind one weekend in L.A., and was issued a new set when he got back to Pendleton. 

One letter mentions Operation Calhoun and Hill 51. “Right now, it’s like camping out in the middle of nowhere … We sleep on the ground. We have a swimming hole where we bathe,” he said. 

Another letter to our parents said that he served at a requiem Mass for a fallen Marine in mid-June ’67. Logs show that a temporary chapel opened at the Hill 51 combat base on June 11, so Tommy probably went to Mass whenever he could. Family members and a fellow Marine say that Tommy’s faith was both outward and strong:  this altar boy wasn’t afraid to get down on his knees in front of others to say prayers. 

Fortunately the mail got through with all those letters and goodie bags. A Marine told me by email that Tommy received a box of chocolate chip cookies from home his last morning and that he wanted to share them with others. 

But the logs show that he had a busy day on patrol before his final firefight. A Command Chronology describes the scene: 20 rounds of small arms fire came from an unobserved sniper from the northeast. Company A returned fire with 150-200 rounds of small arms fire, 10 M-79 rounds and 20 60mm HE (high explosive) rounds. An air strike followed. Tommy didn’t die instantly. Corpsmen attempted aid, his personnel file says, and he was evacuated but pronounced dead upon arrival at 1st Hospital Co. in Chu Lai. 

Those of us back home would like to believe that our beloved brothers somehow died peacefully or quickly, though we know that’s probably not true. Still, I can hope that Tommy’s love of God and family served him well in his last moments.

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