Trapped Before the Long Road to Salvation
Marine Corpsman Alan “Doc” Sams at Death’s Door in Vietnam
The answer to why a friend, fellow platoon member and Christian died in Vietnam next to non-believer Alan “Doc” Sams came years later. Arriving in Vietnam on Thanksgiving Day in 1967, Sams served as a corpsman in the 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines. While he saw enemy fire or combat action nearly every day, the perils of war dramatically escalated one week after the start of the Tet Offensive in early 1968.
Marine engineers were building a supply road to serve Alpha 3 base along the southern DMZ and Sams was assigned with Kilo to provide security for the sweep. An enemy bunker complex was soon discovered, followed by an eerie feeling the North Vietnamese Army was close by. That feeling became reality and literally hit home in late morning on February, 7th. “It started with one rocket propelled grenade, followed by tracer bullets over our heads and then all hell broke loose in a torrent of grenades, mortars and constant small arms fire,” said Sams, 72 at the time. “I soon heard the ‘Corpsman up’ call and found a dead Marine, another with an arm blown off, one who lost an eye and another I performed a tracheostomy on.
The battle heated up even more and our platoon became stretched out into an L shape, before being overrun and cut off from the other units. We had lost radio contact and were basically trapped and surrounded in a dire situation. I got another call up and reached my friend Willie Adger who was the last soldier holding up the rear of the L. Of strong Christian faith the last thing I heard him say very quietly and without anxiety was ‘Doc, I’m hit’ before slumping over with a bullet hole between his eyes. I feel he saved my life by holding down the fort to the end and alerting me to escape any way possible.”
Sams and four other wounded Marines somehow survived a night of battle, but were still not out of the woods. Marine artillery and tanks had taken it to the enemy and in the morning were mopping up remaining NVA. “We could hear our boys close by and knew they’d cut down anything that moved, so I just started screaming cuss words, rose on my knees and they held fire,” Sams said. “John Mick of Mike Company essentially rescued us. We medevaced the four Marines out but lost 29 of our 50 man-platoon.” Miraculously, Sams wasn’t wounded.
Sams remained in the field and saw more, but less severe, combat before transferring to a MASH-like 3rd Medical Battalion in Phu Bai. He left Vietnam in November, 1968 and was released from the Marines as a Petty Officer Second Class in 1970 with a Bronze Star with combat “V” and Combat Action Ribbon. Sams returned to the states and graduated from what was then the new Physician Assistant program at Duke University and then worked for 30 years at Emory University Hospital before retiring in 2004.
His life had changed, however, as in 1987 he found the Lord. “It was a slow process because I had never been religious and just thought trying to be a good person was enough,” he said. “My wife Diane had accepted Jesus 10 years earlier and while watching Pastor Charles Stanley program I felt he was talking directly to me. Thoughts of that day, night and morning in Vietnam vividly returned to me and were an important part of my new life. Later I saw on the 3/3 website that Willie Adger’s brother was looking to talk with anyone who had served with Willie. I contacted him and said Willie died saving my life, which was a moment of joy for his brother and their terminally ill mother.”
Earlier this month in Pensacola, Florida Sams reconnected with fellow veterans at this year’s 3/3 RVN Association reunion, many of which have been managed by Armed Forces Reunions, Inc. He saw platoon Captain Don Frank, John Mick from Mike Company and many others. “It’s just wonderful to get together as we’ve all become family and many have found the Lord,” said Sams, who lives in Atlanta. “We of course talked about the ambush, still trying to put the pieces together from that tragic day.”
Sams and his wife are members of non-denominational Cornerstone Bible Church in Lilburn, Georgia and he often shares his story of Feb. 7th and 8th in 1968. “It took me a long time to realize the acts of Willie Adger and John Mick were God’s intervention. That I survived Vietnam was a miracle and turned out to be the seed of my salvation,” Sams said.
Scott McCaskey is a contributing writer for Armed Forces Reunions and BMR.com, former Account Director at Goldman & Associates Public Relations and a former staff writer for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.