A sniper inches forward through rough bush. He’s been crawling on his belly for four days and three nights over a distance of 1,500 yards, but at last he has his target, a North Vietnamese Army general, in view. Steadying his high-powered rifle, the sniper draws a bead on the man through his telescopic sight. He curls his finger round the weapon’s trigger. The general’s life hangs by a thread.
The sniper who painstakingly dragged himself for almost a mile was Carlos Norman Hathcock II of the United States Marine Corps. Hathcock was born on May 20, 1942, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and raised 100 miles away in Wynne by his grandmother after his parents split. Guns played an important part in Hathcock’s early life. His first one, given to him by his father when he was just three years old, was a non-working Second World War Mauser.
From the old Mauser, Hathcock graduated to a single shot .22 caliber J.C. Higgins rifle. At the age of just ten, he used the gun to hunt for rabbits and squirrels to help feed his poverty-stricken family. But although skilled with a rifle, Hathcock was apparently no scholar. Indeed, he dropped out of school at the age of just 15 and went to work for a Little Rock construction company.
Reaching the age of 17, Hathcock was now able to further indulge his love of weaponry. Armed with the written authorization from his mother, necessary because of his tender years, Hathcock enlisted in the Marines at Little Rock on May 20, 1959.
Hathcock was sent to a training facility in San Diego and showed himself to be a bit of a sharpshooter. And the young gun continued to demonstrate his firearms expertise after he moved to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. On one of the ranges there, he achieved a near-perfect score of 248 out of a possible 250, a course record.
In 1965 Hathcock’s prowess with the gun saw him gain the lofty status of Marine Corps Distinguished Sniper. Later that same year, he competed at the 1,000-Yard National High-Power Rifle Championship at Camp Perry. He won the competition outright, taking the prestigious Wimbledon Cup in the process.
A year later, Hathcock was deployed to Vietnam as a military policeman. By that time, the U.S. was well and truly embroiled in the war between the American-backed south of the country and the communist North Vietnam. In March 1965 some 3,500 Marines had arrived in Vietnam, marking the start of America’s involvement in ground fighting.
By December 1965 there were 200,000 American troops in the country. Hathcock arrived in Vietnam in 1966, but he wasn’t content with his role as a military policeman and volunteered for combat duty. A transfer to the 1st Marine Division Sniper Platoon soon followed.
During his two tours of Vietnam, Hathcock killed a confirmed total of 93 enemy personnel with his sniper’s rifle. It’s an astonishing tally, but it doesn’t actually paint a true picture of his uncanny eye for a shot. That’s because to get a confirmed kill, there had to be a third party present (in addition to the sniper’s spotter) – and that witness had to be an officer.
However, in the heat of battle this demanding authentication process was often impossible. Hathcock himself reckoned that he had shot and killed somewhere between 300 and 400 of the other side. In any case, the heavy toll that Hathcock was taking on the enemy did not escape the attention of the North Vietnamese.
In fact, so concerned were they that the North Vietnamese actually put a price on Hathcock’s head. This wasn’t unheard of during the war, but in Hathcock’s case the bounty was three years’ pay, the equivalent of around $1,000. That was a truly handsome sum to a North Vietnamese soldier in the 1960s.
Sometimes, Hathcock found himself up against a North Vietnamese sniper who was actively hunting him. One such occasion came near Hathcock’s base at Hill 55 near the port city of Da Nang. Accompanied by his spotter John Roland Burke, Hathcock was tracking a sniper, who was probably also looking for him. The sniper had been nicknamed “Cobra” and had already killed a number of Marines.
During the game of cat and mouse Hathcock caught a glimpse of reflected light, which he figured was likely from the lens of Cobra’s telescopic sight. He fired, hitting the enemy sniper. When he went to the body, Hathcock discovered his shot had gone straight through Cobra’s scope into his eye, killing him instantly. Thinking about it, Hathcock figured that had to mean that the two adversaries had been aiming at each other. Luckily for him, though, Hathcock had been faster on the trigger.
Another notable incident, also near Hill 55, was Hathcock’s dispatching of a notorious female Viet Cong sniper. She was known as “Apache Woman” because of her alleged propensity for torturing U.S. and South Vietnamese troops with a knife before leaving them to bleed to death. Hathcock’s buddies were more than glad to hear that this terrifying woman had been terminated.
But let’s return to the North Vietnamese Army general that Hathcock was stalking at the beginning of our story. Hathcock had been invited to volunteer for a special operation. It was so sensitive that he would not be told exactly what the mission was until after he’d agreed to undertake it.
Hathcock being Hathcock, he of course agreed to volunteer. And that was how he found himself crawling along the ground for four days, deprived of sleep and food but totally focused on his quarry. He later recalled that on one occasion someone had almost stepped on him, and he’d also come close to being bitten by a viper. But at last, he was within range of the general’s compound.
Hathcock now waited for his moment, his concentration on the task at hand intense and complete. The general emerged from his hut on to a small veranda. Hathcock now had him in his sights. But then an aide appeared, obscuring the sniper’s field of fire. Seconds later, the aide moved and Hathcock squeezed his trigger, shooting the general through the chest.
Target dispatched, Hathcock made good his escape to a rendezvous with the helicopter that flew him to safety. After the rigors of this highly risky mission, Hathcock then returned Stateside. However, it wasn’t long before he was back in Vietnam. He arrived again in the war-torn country in 1969 for a second tour of duty. This time he took command position, leading a sniper platoon.
Hathcock’s time in Vietnam ended dramatically when the armored personnel carrier he was traveling in was blown up by a mine. He suffered severe burns to 40 percent of his body but still managed to rescue several of his comrades from the blazing wreckage. However, his injuries put paid to his days as a sniper – though not to the art itself. Instead, he dedicated himself to training the next generation of sharpshooters. Tragically, though, in 1975 his health began to go downhill and it was revealed he had multiple sclerosis. The true American hero died in 1999.
As an epitaph for the man, it’s worth hearing what he had to say about his lethal trade. His words were quoted in a 1996 book, The One-Round War: USMC Scout-Snipers in Vietnam, by Peter R. Senich. “I like shooting, and I love hunting,” Hathcock said. “But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”