Marine Hero Receives Silver Star 51 Years To The Day After His Death In Vietnam
Because Marine 1st Lt. Philip H. Sauer screamed for him to retreat, trading his own life to buy precious seconds for his ambushed men, William Marks survived Vietnam to become a father of two, grandfather of four.
âIf it hadnât have been for him, Iâd probably still be there,â said Marks, 72, of Rockport, Massachusetts. âHe could see what was going on there. Youâd have to have been an idiot not to have seen what was going on. Gunfire. Grenades going off. I mean, we were that close. You could see the shadows of people running toward us.â
Fifty-one years to the day since he died on a wet cliff near Khe Sanh, Sauer was commemorated at the âWhite Houseâ â" the 1st Marine Divisionâs command post on Camp Pendleton â" where his four siblings accepted a posthumous Silver Star on his behalf.
Itâs the militaryâs third highest award for battl efield bravery, but the paperwork for Sauerâs medal was lost in the chaos of war, only to be resurrected by a fellow Vietnam War vet â" retired Marine Lt. Col. David Little â" in early 2015.
Little only knew from a La Jolla Cove swimming buddy, Tom Sauer, that his brother had died in Vietnam.
Sifting through military records, however, Little soon learned that Private 1st Class Marks, an artillery observer with D Battery of 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines, was the sole survivor of Sauerâs five-man patrol.
Marks met the 25-year-old Lt. Sauer, who grew up in Coronado and St. Louis, only hours before they hiked into an ambush sprung by an entrenched platoon of North Vietnamese Army soldier s around 11 a.m. on April 24, 1967.
âAll hell broke loose,â Marks recalled.
The point man died screaming but the lieutenant and Marks dove into a hole. Sauer, the commander of 2nd Platoon, A Company of the 3rd Anti-Tank Battalion, stood up and began firing with his Colt .45 pistol as North Vietnamese bullets and grenades tore through the dirt and trees around him.
He ordered the patrol to flee, pledging to cover them.
âIâm listening for Sauerâs pistol, and I donât hear it anymore. That stops,â Marks said. âI kinda figured heâs not here anymore. Heâs gone.â
Marks reached his buddy, Private 1st Class Bradley Nelson, and spotted an ominous hole in his radio. He lifted up his face saw he was dead, too.
Marks slid down the rain-slicked Hill 861 to safety, never dreaming that nearly a half-century later heâd emerge as a key piece in Lt. Sauerâs long forgotten valor award.
Little knew that he needed three things to get it approved: a witness to the firefight, a superior officer in Sauerâs battalion who would sign off on the submission and a waiver supplied by a congressional representative.
It took nine months of research and a slew of phone calls, but he got all of them â" sole survivor Marks; Sauerâs former company commander, retired Marine Lt. Col. Barclay Hastings; and Rep. Scott Peters, D- San Diego.
Little never told Sauerâs siblings until Navy secretary Richard V. Spencer approved the medal.
âHe jumped through a lot of bureaucratic hoops,â said Tom Sauer, 70, of La Jolla.
In a private moment amid Tuesdayâs pomp, Maj. Gen. Eric M. Smith, commander of 1st Marine Division, whispered his thoughts to Tom and the other Sauer siblings â" Mary Schoelch, 72, of Minnesota; Coulter Winn, 66, of Monrovia in Los Angeles County; and Nick Sauer, 77, also of La Jolla â" as he presented them the award
âSenior Marines take care of junior Marines, and Lt. Sauer was senior,â Smith said. âIt was his responsibility to take care of that patrol and he did that, at the cost of his own life. That is what Marines do.â
After the ceremony, the lieutenantâs siblings, friends and family said they always knew heâd be a great Marine.
Dennis Behan, 78, of Mississippi, remembered Sauer as a âtough, tough kidâ who dreamed of joining the Marines after he finished his studies at Missouriâs Westminster College.
A family divided by divorce, Nick and Phil Sauer left Coronado as teens to live with their father in Missouri, but the siblings always found a way to be with each other.
Tom Sauer recalled living with him in the sweltering third-story attic of their grandparentsâ house in St. Louis during the summer of 1963.
âHe really believed the cause there was right. He wanted to be a part of it. He really thought heâd be helping to defeat communism and he was gung ho about it,â Sauer said.
Their younger brother, Winn, remembered Sauerâs summertime visits to Coronado in other years, when they lived along Margarita Avenue. Phil worked at Cavanaughâs gas station â" now a Mobil outlet at the corner of 4th and Orange â" and tinkered with his own Chevy Impala in the family driveway.
âI thought my big brother was so cool to let me ride shotgun,â Winn said.
Schoelch, their sister, recalled Sauer as a ârescue rangerâ who once nursed an injured seagull back to health in their bathtub. Another time, he reunited kittens lost in a drainpipe with their mother.
Thatâs just who he was.
âHe epitomized the character of a great Marine,â she said. âHe loved his Marine Corps family. He took care of his men.â
Â©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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