|Delta Company 1965 - 1971
Sgt Joseph "Rock" Musial
|Maybe it was all the images of war that filled my TV and newspapers this past fall. But for some reason, for the first time in many
months, I began staring at a photo that hangs on my office wall.
It was taken 35 years ago. In the picture, an Army sergeant is on his belly, pinned down by enemy fire, looking grim and determined.
In the foreground is a dead GI, in the background, a seriously wounded one. The person behind the lens that day was me: a skinny
young civilian war photographer experiencing his most terrifying day in Vietnam.
I have relived that firefight countless times. It wasn't my first battle experience, but that day, on the Bong Son plain in Vietnam's
central lowlands, it felt like the North Vietnamese were shooting at me. Burst after burst kicked sand in my face. I remember
wondering what odds I had of living through it.
I remember also that sergeant crawling out into the killing zone, inching toward his dead comrade to retrieve his grenade launcher.
Was he nuts? That's when I took the photo.
(To see the pictures taken that day, click here. http://www.hodierne.com/rock.htm It will open in a new page. Close it to return here.)
The photo has faded into the background -- become like wallpaper -- over the years, but I've always given it a prominent place in
various offices and dens. If anyone asked why I had it on the wall, I'd joke: "To remind me that no matter how bad things get here, at
least people aren't shooting at me."
When I began gazing again at the picture last fall, I started wondering about that hard-luck sergeant. How many more firefights had
he endured? Did he even survive the war? Strange how one terrifying day could bond me to a virtual stranger, but it had. I decided to
try to find him, see how his life had turned out.
I posted my photos from that battle on the Internet, along with queries to Army alumni websites. Did anyone who was with the 1st Air
Cavalry Division remember that Valentine's Day fight? I wrote. Did anybody recognize the soldiers I'd snapped that day at Bong
Within days my phone rang and George Goswick was on the line. "Everyone called me Baby Huey," he said by way of introduction.
Goswick, of Adairsville, Ga., had been a radio operator in the 1st Cav. "I know who that Sargent is in your photo," he said. "That's
Sergeant Rock. Joe Musial."
Goswick told me Musial had been well known by everyone. "He liked to fight with officers," Goswick said with a chuckle.
Apparently Musial had been one of those peacetime garrison screwup types. By 1966, when he was shipped to Vietnam, he'd be in
uniform for 12 years and was just a Specialist 4. Draftees with less than a year in the Army outranked him.
The next phone call told me that Musial's story didn't end on the Bong Son plain. Bret Barham, 54, is now an assistant district
attorney in Jennings, La. But in 1968, Barham was a 21-year-old sergeant in the 1st Cav in Vietnam. "Rock was an absolute legend
in our battalion," Barham told me. "I can remember guys in other units, when Rock walked around the perimeter, they'd stare and
ask, 'Is what they say about him true?'" And what they said about him, I learned, was that Joe Musial was the real deal. He was a
Roger McDonald, 66, of Cartersville, Ga., filled me in on the metamorphosis of Joe Musial. McDonald was a 1st Cav Recon platoon
sergeant and a buddy of Musial's from stateside. In 1966, McDonald was leading a reconnaissance platoon in Vietnam, 30 or 40 men
who would be dropped by chopper deep in hostile territory. The sergeant sought out his old pal, Joe Musial. "I said, 'You want to join
The Valentine's Day battle I photographed was one of Musial's first. His bravery in that fight went pretty much unnoticed by the
Army. There were no medals won that day. But Musial went on to serve two more tours in Vietnam, leading recon patrols and
infantry platoons, and by the time it was all over, he wasn't Joe Musial anymore. He was Sergeant Rock.
Nobody could remember when he first got tagged with the name of the World War II comic book character. But everyone knew how
he earned it.
In August 23, 1968, Musial's troops were surprised by a far larger enemy force. North Vietnamese machine gunners began ripping
rounds into their position. Musial didn't duck for cover. He charged forward under heavy fire, flinging grenades at the machine-gun
nest, destroying it. That day Joe Musial earned his first Silver Star.
He was awarded a second Silver Star for his actions on March 21, 1969, defending an obscure little outpost called Landing Zone
White. North Vietnamese Army sappers -- explosive experts -- had broken through the perimeter and were throwing charges into
bunkers crowded with GIs. Musial, out in the open helping wounded troops, spotted three sappers. Armed only with a pistol, Musial
shot two before the third one tossed his charge. Bits of shrapnel tore into Musial's flesh, but he stood his ground and gunned down
the third attacker.
His buddies came to revere him, yet knew all too well the pugnacious side of Rock that couldn't be suppressed. One night, away from
the front, Musial got drunk and picked a fight -- as usual, with someone who outranked him. That episode cost him a stripe. "We had
this great fear he'd get busted again and we'd end up outranking him," Barham said. "We'd have followed him anywhere, but we
knew he wouldn't follow us."
And follow Musial they did: into enemy villages erupting with rifle fire, down booby-trapped trails, into dark caves where Musial
insisted on entering first, alone. By war's end, the screwup cook had amassed not just two Silver Stars, but three Bronze Stars and
three Purple Hearts. Perhaps the greatest tribute, though, came from his 1st Cav comrades. It was the tradition in that division to
name chopper landing zones and other outposts after men who'd died in combat. But they decided to name one after a living man: LZ
A few of the veterans told me that if I wanted to meet Musial, I had better make it soon. The guy who'd survived so much in Vietnam
was now in the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., dying of lung cancer. I called Musial, who said he'd be happy for the visit, so I
made the ten-hour drive from my home in Washington, D.C.
When I walked into the hospice room, a 65-year-old man looked up at me, an oxygen bottle tethered to him. But there was a roguish
twinkle in those sunken eyes, and I could see the ghost of that young sergeant.
"Oh, I remember you," he said immediately. "You were bored because there hadn't been any action." We both laughed.
I put before him my battle photos. "God, I was young," he said. "But I don't remember these other guys. There were so many."
His first major fight, he recalled, come on December 28, 1966. He'd led his platoon into the village of Gia Duc when Viet Cong
opened fire. "That was a bad day," he said. He earned one of his Bronze Stars there, but that's not what pricks his memory. It's Skip
Baumann, a 20-year-old private. "He kept getting up to see them and I said, 'Get down!' And God darn it, he got hit. I got him and
was holding him." Musial paused to use his oxygen. "The reason I remember him so well is his last question. 'Am I good soldier?' he
asks. I said, 'Hey, you're a great soldier, you're the top. You're airborne.' And, of course, he passed away."
We talked a bit about the Valentine's Day ambush and I told him that some of his men said he should have gotten the Medal of
Honor for LZ White. Musial shrugged. He wasn't having any of the hero stuff.
I spent most of the day with Musial, during which he told me about his life after the war: how he went to work on oil rigs in the Gulf of
Mexico; how he lost his right leg in an accident there; and how, with his Army pension and a settlement from the oil company, he'd
bought a house on 35 rural acres in southwest Michigan. "That place was his paradise," his sister, Eugenia Zelas, told me later.
"That's where he found peace."
Joe and I never talked about the fact that he was dying. When I shook his hand and left, we promised to meet at a 1st Cav reunion
next June. We both knew he wouldn't make it.
On the drive home, I couldn't get out of my head something that Bret Barham had told me. "In Vietnam, Rock was doing what he
was designed by God to do -- be a warrior. I always said he should have been frozen and put under glass with a sign that said, 'In case
of war, break.'
I put Joe's picture back up at home. Battles raged live on the TV screen, while Rock's war -- and mine -- sat frozen in time in a small
Then the call came on a chilly afternoon. Joe Musial, Sergeant Rock, died in the early morning hours of November 11, 2001.
This story appeared originally in the May 2002 Reader's Digest.
As you know, Rock's condition worsened seriously last week. His doctors expected him to die last Monday or Tuesday. But true to
form, he didn't do what the authority figures told him to do. He hung in there until the early morning hours of today, Veteran's Day,
before letting go. Joe died at 1:20 a.m. today.
His sister says that tentative plans are to bury Joe this Thursday in the National Military Cemetery in Battle Creek, Mich. There
will also be a viewing and mass the same day. The day is somewhat tentative because the VA office that must approve it, is closed
until Tuesday for the Veteran's Day holiday. His sister Genie can be reached at.
I plan to be there. I'll arrive Wednesday evening and plan to stay at the Holiday Inn Express. Sorry to be the bearer of sad tidings.
Our prayers and condolences to members of the family. Joe was a Veteran and a true hero. He waited until Veteran 's Day for his
final "D" Day. God be with him.
Ken Mertel, The 1st Battalion Commander in Viet Nam. (Jumping Mustang 6)
Mike Blake, D Co, 68-69 writes,
Just a brief note to express my sorrow with the passing of Joseph Musial. I served with Sgt. "Rock" for a brief time when I was with
Delta Co. 1/8 68-69. We didn't know what to think about this man when he joined up with our platoon. Having served a prior tour, we
realized early on that he would live up to his name. "Hard Core" was a very appropriate title for this man, he had a passion for what
he did and we soon realized that even though Sgt. Rock was Gung-Ho, he had Great Jungle Sense and a way of keeping his men out
of unnecessary "Harms Way". Those of us who served with Rock will miss him, may he rest in peace.
HONOR and COURAGE.
Pappy Loughran writes:
Greetings from Fayetteville, NC. Would you please put out the word on the net to everyone who knew "Sgt. Rock", Joe Musial that
they may make a contribution to the 1st Cav Scholarship Fund in his name. Make check payable to the Scholarship Fund 1st Cav
Div. and note in Memory of Joseph Musial. Mail to:
Foundation of the 1st Cav Division Assn.
302 N Main Street
Copperas Cove, TX 76522-1703
Sam Ault, writes:
Remembering SGT Rock.
Delta was on FSB White with "A" Company. I was in the Battalion Bunker when we came under attack. SGT Rock ran down the
stairs and told LTC Graham that we had NVA inside the wire. I do not remember what Graham's reply was, but he was in denial.
SGT Rock ran back up the stairs, threw open the bunker door and we heard his 44 magnum fire three times. The next thing we saw
was a dead NVA being thrown down the stairs followed by SGT Rock, who repeat to LTC Graham. "Sir, I said we have gooks inside
the perimeter. SGT Rock turned around and exited the bunker to fight the NVA. I will never forget that incident.
God Bless Him, and May he rest in Peace.
Sam Ault, FO "A"Company 1/8
Lefty Hanzella writes:
In reference to Sam Ault's recollection at LZ White about St Rock, I remember that night very well, just as if it were yesterday. I ran
generators on the LZ, being with the Commo section of HHQ Co. What Sam says is true. St Rock was a hell of a soldier, I often
mentioned his name in recalling that night on the LZ. May he rest in Peace and look down with favor on our troops today.
Lefty Hanzelka, HHQ 1/8 Cav
Glenn Sheathelm writes:
There were a lot of things exchanged about Sgt. Rock. The view of the FSB White incident was one of the things mentioned. Others
at the funeral with "E" 1/8 Cavalry said that Rock had gone to the TOC and told the CO (not mentioned by name in the version I
heard) that the movement both inside and outside the perimeter was real and they needed illumination. The CO told Rock that the
troops were just jumpy and imagining things and there was to be no indiscriminate shooting. Rock then went back out with a 357
magnum revolver in hand and started stalking a sapper who was approaching an old bunker. Rock quietly used the cover of the
bunker and got within 10 yards of the NVA before shooting him. Rock then picked up the NVA over his shoulder and trotted back to
the TOC. When he got to the TOC he went in and threw the dead NVA on the floor and said something to the effect, "Now you dumb
sh.., those NVA are real and if you don't get some illumination going you are going to be as dead as he is."
The general impression was that Rock treated everyone as if they were a fellow Sgt. If they were right he would congratulate them.
If they were wrong he would bluntly tell them off. We took three minutes tops to place a rifle with fixed bayonet in the ground
including helmet and boots. We wanted to put a "Death From Above" or "The Panther Stalks You" scarf around the pistol grip, but
we didn't think to bring one in advance since the whole thing with the rifle was difficult to plan with some people traveling and getting
the correct phone numbers. George Hull, Bret Barham, Robert Hodierne and I were four of the pall bearers. The internment was at
Ft. Custer National Cemetery west of Battle Creek, MI. Those looking for Ft. Custer National Cemetery will find it on MI Highway
96 between Augusta and Battle Creek. MI-96 runs parallel to I-94 a few miles to the north. I'll get you a picture of the pall bearer
behind the helmet and rifle later.
|NOTICE OF JOSEPH W. MUSIAL,
D & E Co, 66-70, passing on to Valhalla, 11 Nov 2001
|Platoon. This guy liked his new job so much that he extended his tour and his exploits became legendary. He even had a LZ named
I salute each and everyone who served with me in Viet Nam.
If you don’t think I’m proud of my tour with Delta Company, just check my license plate, D 8 CAV.
SGM John A. Loughran (USA Ret.) 1/Sgt.
D Co. 1/8th Cavalry June ‘66-June ‘67