I WANTED TO BE A MARINE by Marion “Doc” Cole
Len Wiersma could run faster and jump higher and farther than most other children who, in the excitement of youthful life, loved to compete, to race, to have fun.
Ever since he was ten, Len wanted to be a Marine. And he would become an exceptional one.
Born in November 1946 in Hayward, CA – and raised there – he attended junior high and high school in town. He was a natural athlete who excelled in all sports. Len still holds the record as an eighth-grader at Strobridge Junior High for the long jump: 19’10”.
He lettered in high school varsity sports four years in track, three in football and basketball, and probably could have been a world-class all-around athlete. As a senior in 1966, he long-jumped 23’7” at a state track meet – that placed him at eleventh place in the nation. He was also able to run the hundred-yard dash in 10.2 seconds when the world record was 9.8 seconds.
But above and beyond these accomplishments, Len wanted to be a Marine.
Len’s experience with weapons was limited to one occasion with a neighborhood boy’s BB gun. After taking one shot along with another boy at a poor bird, his neighbor escaped the wrath of Len’s strict Irish Catholic mom, but she caught up to Len, and he bore the brunt of her kitchen broom.
His physical ability, competitive nature, and great eyesight made him destined to become a Marine’s Marine. He enlisted in the Corps three weeks out of high school in July 1966, shortly after US planes began bombing Hanoi and Haiphong.
He reported for Basic Training at Camp Pendleton having never fired more than that BB gun. Len was considered a city boy by many of his country-fied Midwestern trainees, many of whom grew up familiar with rifles and hunting.
His advantage was that he hadn’t picked up any bad habits – he was very teachable. He learned from the best instructors, and with his competitive nature, he developed into the best expert marksman in his entire series, which consisted of three training companies.
His eyesight was remarkable, and he scored 238 out of a possible 250. He was also first in these training series in his physical testing.
Len was asked if he’d given any consideration as to a possible military assignment. He said, “Absolutely not. You’re told what your military specialty is as a Marine.”
The Marines told Len he was to report to Advanced Infantry Training and then to the best in the world, the US Marine Sniper School, all at Camp Pendleton, CA. Len completed his three-and-a- half-week instruction and took a thirty-day leave home for Christmas 1966 before reporting to an assignment in Vietnam.
He arrived Friday the 13th of January 1967. Len was directed to another in-country Sniper School on Hill 55, south of Danang. The school’s senior instructor was the famous Carlos Hathcock of One Shot, One Kill book fame.
Len was in class two days a week with Carlos, and did field training for the rest of the three-week program. Len’s spotter, Harry, was assigned to him at this time, and they formed a two-man team.
They reported to Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Division, and were right there in the middle of the action.
Their commander was Lt. Colonel Chapman, a fierce veteran of Iwo Jima, WWII, Korea, and now Vietnam. He was definitely old school – the type of Marine Hollywood movie stars sought to emulate.
He was the real deal.
Hotel Company consisted of three infantry platoons and a weapons platoon – about three hundred men were in the Company all told. Snipers and Navy Medical Corpsmen were also attached.
This meant that almost every time a Company element was deployed – whether it was a platoon or squad – a sniper team was also deployed, and Corpsmen would usually accompany them. As a result, sniper teams and Navy Corpsmen saw more patrols than the average Marine.
Len Wiersma was in the bush four times more often than most other Marines over there.