John Colone is the type of man that’s described as a larger-than-life character. Today, he lives in Hell, Michigan, a town where he runs multiple businesses and is the unofficial mayor. But that’s not what’s really interesting about Colone. For the story that’s defined his life, we need to go back in time to the days of the Vietnam War.
In 1962 America had some 12,000 military personnel in Vietnam, doing what they could to shore up the government forces of South Vietnam in their conflict with the communist regime of the North. By 1965 the US Army had some 200,000 soldiers fighting on the ground.
American involvement in what increasingly looked like an unwinnable conflict continued to escalate. By 1967, no less than half a million U.S. troops were serving In Vietnam. The efforts of the infantry were coupled with a massive bombing offensive against North Vietnam. US Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay said, “We’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.”
But this campaign of aerial terror did not defeat either the Viet Cong guerillas or the North Vietnamese Army. In January 1968 the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, timed to accompany the start of the Vietnamese New Year. For once, the Viet Cong emerged from their tunnels to openly attack major South Vietnamese targets, including the American Embassy in Saigon.
John Colone had joined the army in June 1966. He went through rigorous training in the fetid swamplands and mountainous terrain of Georgia and Tennessee. After that he was shipped out to Vietnam in October 1967, landing at Cam Ranh Bay, just south of Nha Trang.
And it was during the intense fighting of the Tet Offensive that John Colone’s Vietnam story unfolded. Now a sergeant with the 506th Airborne Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles,” Colone had an extraordinary experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
In February 1968 Colone’s unit, A Company, was in the city of Phan Thiet, the regional capital of Binh Thuan province. A coastal city on the China Sea, Phan Thiet is about 100 miles east of Saigon and was one of the locations targeted by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive.
In fact, Phan Thiet saw some of the fiercest fighting in any part of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. On February 18th, the Viet Cong had attacked and overwhelmed a South Vietnamese army post, overrun a jail and freed 500 prisoners. The nearby Province Chiefs Headquarters was ferociously attacked but successfully defended by soldiers of the Screaming Eagles.
The next day, Colone’s A Company, under the command of Lieutenant Joe Alexander, was ordered to move north-west from Phan Thiet towards the Ca Ty River. Their mission was to prevent the Viet Cong from withdrawing from engagements with other units of the Screaming Eagles who were involved in intense combat with the enemy.
A Company was to make sure that the Viet Cong would not be able to launch any further assaults on Phan Thiet, and they now crossed the Ca Ty River. The unit established a position not far from the banks of the river before proceeding again towards rice paddies. The men were now in an extremely vulnerable position with no cover anywhere near.
It was then, while they were so cruelly exposed, that the Viet Cong attacked. The troops had in fact walked into a carefully prepared ambush and they now came under a hail of automatic fire. Soldiers began to drop under the intense fusillade, and Lieutenant Alexander was one of the first to be hit.
Even although he was wounded, Alexander refused treatment and persevered in his efforts to extricate his troops from this deadly ambush. In fact, Alexander had been hit four times, but still he insisted that the medics attend to his men before treating him.
And one of the men who had been severely wounded was John Colone – he’d been hit four times. Actually, it seemed certain that he was dead. Years later, another member of A Company, Gary Purcell, told the Currahee website, dedicated to the legacy of the Screaming Eagles, what he remembered from that day.
“John was dragged from the rice paddy bleeding profusely from his wounds,” Purcell recounted. “I held his head in my lap and in my heart I knew he was dying, but I kept telling him he was going to make it and to just hold on until the ‘dust-off’ got there.”
Shortly after, another of Colone’s men checked him for vital signs. Finding none, he decided that the Sergeant was beyond help in this world. Accordingly, he told the medics to ignore Colone and concentrate on those wounded who could be helped.
Colone was now given the sign that meant there was no way back for him – his toe was tagged. His body was duly bagged and evacuated to the morgue. Years later, in an interview with CBS News, Lieutenant Curtis Washington remembered, “He came in as a DOA.”
But Curtis was a conscientious man and carried out his duties at the morgue with scrupulous care. Whenever a body was delivered, he made it his business to do one more check. Curtis tested the plantar reflex by running a pen along the sole of the corpse’s foot. If someone was alive, they would react to the motion of the pen.
As always, Curtis went through his routine, opening Colone’s body bag and reaching for his pen. “I would do it twice,” remembered Curtis. “And I did that, and he [groaned]. And I did it again, and he [groaned louder.] And I said, ‘wow!’”
Clearly, Colone was alive – brought back from the dead if you like. He’d actually been hit four times and remembered that, “All hell broke loose. I heard guys say I was dead. ‘Colone is dead. Colone is dead. Leave him alone.’ I was put in a body bag, toe-tagged and taken to the morgue.”
But even now, Colone has mixed feelings about his miraculous survival. “You still wonder, why me?” he told CBS News. Eight men from Colone’s platoon, almost a third of its strength, were killed that day. Now Colone honors those who died by having flowers laid on the graves of all of those from his battalion that died in Vietnam – no less than 160 men.