It was late afternoon on Dec. 7th,
1966, another day in Chu Lai, when
24-year-old 1st Lt. Buddy Brown Spivey of Siloam Springs was setting his 3rd platoon of D Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (Delta 1/7) into a defensive position on Hill 30 above a village known as Phu Long 1.
Out of sight because of foliage, but in the near distance to the platoon’s north and east, lay the South China Sea, and to its west the Song Tra Bong River slithered slowly into an estuary, while the south opened up on rice paddies lacing together villages set among brown bush and verdant tree lines along Highway 525 running across the battalion area of operations. Delta 1/7 had been busy battling jungle, heat and fatigue, as monthly it had pushed out over 800 patrols, pacified and trained locals, while simultaneously fighting a tenacious Communist enemy that seemed everywhere and nowhere.
Gradually Chu Lai became the Marines’ backyard, but the Viet Cong, by planting mines, booby traps and spider holes, had converted it into a veritable devil’s garden. On this day, the platoon, upon reaching this little rise, was mercifully ending a long day’s patrol after already suffering two wounded earlier that morning. Erasing any hope of some fitful half-awake sleep, suddenly there was enemy fire, and Lt. Spivey and his NCOs hustled their Marines up the hill, tightening everyone into camouflaged foxholes, then Buddy went forward to check the perimeter. There was a roar and a flash-a booby trap!
Cpl. Leslie Jones of Wilson, N.C., a squad leader, saw it happen. “He was dead for sure,” he remembers. Medevacs always take a million forevers. “They’re coming … hang on, lieutenant! They’re on the way!”
As the helicopter rattled down, Lance Cpl. David Manipole from Syracuse, N.Y., a fire team leader, looked at his lieutenant’s face “chopped like hamburger.” He had been blinded, would lose a leg and had a head full of shrapnel. Finally Buddy was lifted away, taking his first step on a very long journey. Triaged, then out to the good ship Repose before flying over the Pacific again all the way to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, Buddy hung suspended between hope and life, despair and death for 18 months.
No one expected him to live or to do anything if he did. He would, in the words of his doctors, “be a vegetable.”
Before Vietnam, Buddy had been a musician and an artist. He earned an art degree from the University of Arkansas; painted portraits, landscapes and abstracts; played saxophone in the Marching Razorback Band, which he affectionately dubbed the “Stumbling Hundred,” and joked that he had “played” in Cotton and Sugar bowls.The son of an FBI agent, he had lived all over America. There is a family story of Buddy with his cousin Rex drinking beer at the Lincoln Memorial the night before the Vietnam deployment. Buddy loved cars, girls and dancing, but most of all he wanted to be a Marine, so he joined in 1964, volunteering for Vietnam and the “grunts”-the infantry.
But now Buddy made another decision. He decided not to die. Nor would he vegetate. He strapped on plastic for a leg, screwed in metal for a skull, and sported sunglasses for eyes. Then he was discharged as a captain.
This was not to be an end, but another beginning. He rehabilitated, learned Braille and obtained degrees in counseling and education. He married, had children and grandchildren. For 10 years Buddy worked with blind veterans in 14 states, then as a psychologist and social worker for the VA. Fred Steube, fellow Marine and counselor, sent Buddy the toughest patients. Steube said, “They all came back saying, ‘I got no problems.’ ”
Buddy never succumbed to anger, self pity or bitterness. Asked about himself, he always replied, “Outstanding!” or parting with a brother Marine, it was, “Semper Fi!” He was devout; he prayed every day.
Everyone admired him. Everyone loved him. Everyone was inspired by him.
He pinned on medals and met presidents. In 1975 President Gerald Ford gave him the “Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year Award” in the Oval Office. Other honors piled up from the DAV, Blinded Veterans Association and others.
Yet everyone in Delta 1/7 thought he was dead until 1995 when Manipole saw a name in a newsletter. He found the number and made the call. Buddy answered.
“Hello, is this Lt. Spivey, 3rd Platoon, Delta 1/7?”
“Yes, sir,” said Buddy. “Who’s this?”
“Lieutenant, this is … is … Lance Corporal …”
Manipole could not speak. He broke down. They broke down together. Manipole called Jones, and Buddy and his two Marines stayed in close contact till Jan. 9th, 2014, when Buddy’s journey finally ended. Burial with honors will be in Arlington National Cemetery next Wednesday.
There were 2,594,000 in-country Vietnam Veterans. Over 58,000 were killed and 75,000 severely disabled. Now more than half are gone, and our buddy Capt. Buddy Brown Spivey was one of the greatest.
Phillip H. McMath is a lawyer, writer and Vietnam veteran who lives in Little Rock.