By Robert Hodierne
All photos courtesy of Dana Stone

This story appeared originally in the May 2002 Reader’s Digest.

Maybe it was all the images of war that filled my TV and newspapers this past fall. But for some reason, for the first time in many months, I began staring at a photo that hangs on my office wall.

It was taken 35 years ago. In the picture, an Army sergeant is on his belly, pinned down by enemy fire, looking grim and determined. In the foreground is a dead GI, in the background, a seriously wounded one. The person behind the lens that day was me: a skinny young civilian war photographer experiencing his most terrifying day in Vietnam.

I have relived that firefight countless times. It wasn’t my first battle experience, but that day, on the Bong Son plain in Vietnam’s central lowlands, it felt like the North Vietnamese were shooting at me. Burst after burst kicked sand in my face. I remember wondering what odds I had of living through it.

I remember also that sergeant crawling out into the killing zone, inching toward his dead comrade to retrieve his grenade launcher. Was he nuts? That’s when I took the photo.

My notes from that Valentine’s Day ambush in 1967 were long lost, along with the sergeant’s name. I did remember the rueful, ain’t-it-a-joke look on his face when he’d told me that until a few weeks earlier he’d been an Army cook. The poor bastard, I thought. One minute he’s ladling out powdered eggs in a mess tent, the next he’s alongside me in hell.

The photo has faded into the background — become like wallpaper — over the years, but I’ve always given it a prominent place in various offices and dens. If anyone asked why I had it on the wall, I’d joke: “To remind me that no matter how bad things get here, at least people aren’t shooting at me.

“When I began gazing again at the picture last fall, I started wondering about that hard-luck sergeant. How many more firefights had he endured? Did he even survive the war? Strange how one terrifying day could bond me to a virtual stranger, but it had. I decided to try to find him, see how his life had turned out.

I posted my photos from that battle on the Internet, along with queries to Army alumni websites. Did anyone who was with the 1st Air Cavalry Division remember that Valentine’s Day fight? I wrote. Did anbody recognize the soldiers I’d snapped that day at Bong Son?

Within days my phone rang and George Goswick was on the line. “Everyone called me Baby Huey,” he said by way of introduction. Goswick, of Adairsville, Ga., had been a radio operator in the 1st Cav. “I know who that sergeant is in your photo,” he said. “That’s Sergeant Rock. Joe Musial.

“Goswick told me Musial had been well known by everyone. “He liked to fight with officers,” Goswick said with a chuckle. Apparently Musial had been one of those peacetime garrison screwup types. By 1966, when he was shipped to Vietnam, he’d be in uniform for 12 years and was just a Specialist 4. Draftees with less than a year in the Army outranked him.

The next phone call told me that Musial’s story didn’t end on the Bong Son plain. Bret Barham, 54, is now an assistant district attorney in Jennings, La. But in 1968, Barham was a 21-year-old sergeant in the 1st Cav in Vietnam. “Rock was an absolute legend in our battalion,” Barham told me. “I can remember guys in other units, when Rock walked around the perimeter, they’d stare and ask, ‘Is what they say about him true?

“And what they said about him, I learned, was that Joe Musial was the real deal. He was a hero.

Roger McDonald, 66, of Cartersville, Ga., filled me in on the metamorphosis of Joe Musial. McDonald was a 1st Cav platoon sergeant and a buddy of Musial’s from stateside. In 1966, McDonald was leading a reconnaissance platoon in Vietnam, 30 or 40 men who would be dropped by chopper deep in hostile territory. The sergeant sought out his old pal, Joe Musial. “He was handing out groceries in the chow line,” McDonald recalled. “I said, ‘You want to join recon?’ He took his apron right off and left the mess hall.

The Valentine’s Day battle I photographed was one of Musial’s first. His bravery in that fight went pretty much unnoticed by the Army. There were no medals awarded that day. But Musial went on to serve two more tours in Vietnam, leading recon patrols and infantry platoons, and by the time it was all over, he wasn’t Joe Musial anymore. He was Sergeant Rock.

Nobody could remember when he first got tagged with the name of the World War II comic book character. But everyone knew how he earned it.

On August 23, 1968, Musial’s troops were surprised by a far larger enemy force. North Vietnamese machine gunners began ripping rounds into their position. Musial didn’t duck for cover. He charged forward under heavy fire, flinging grenades at the machine-gun nest, destroying it. That day Joe Musial earned his first Silver Star.

He was awarded a second Silver Star for his actions on March 21, 1969, defending an obscure little outpost called Landing Zone White. North Vietnamese Army sappers — explosive experts — had broken through the perimeter and were throwing charges into bunkers crowded with GIs. Musial, out in the open helping wounded troops, spotted three sappers. Armed only with a pistol, Musial shot two before the third one tossed his charge. Bits of shrapnel tore into Musial’s flesh, but he stood his ground and gunned down the third attacker.

His buddies came to revere him, yet knew all too well the pugnacious side of Rock that couldn’t be suppressed. One night, away from the front, Musial got drunk and picked a fight — as usual, with someone who outranked him. That episode cost him a stripe. “We had this great fear he’d get busted again and we’d end up outranking him,” Barham said. “We’d have followed him anywhere, but we knew he wouldn’t follow us.”

And follow Musial they did: into enemy villages erupting with rifle fire, down booby-trapped trails, into dark caves where Musial insisted on entering first, alone. By war’s end, the screwup cook had amassed not just two Silver Stars, but three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. Perhaps the greatest tribute, though, came from his 1st Cav comrades. It was the tradition in that division to name chopper landing zones and other outposts after men who’d died in combat. But they decided to name one after a living man: LZ Rock.

A few of the veterans told me that if I wanted to meet Musial, I had better make it soon. The guy who’d survived so much in Vietnam was now in the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., dying of lung cancer. I called Musial, who said he’d be happy for the visit, so I made the ten-hour drive from my home in Washington, D.C.

When I walked into the hospice room, a 65-year-old man looked up at me, an oxygen bottle tethered to him. But there was a roguish twinkle in those sunken eyes, and I could see the ghost of that young sergeant.

“Oh, I remember you,” he said immediately. “You were bored because there hadn’t been any action.” We both laughed.

I put before him my battle photos. “God, I was young,” he said. “But I don’t remember these other guys. There were so many.”

His first major fight, he recalled, come on December 28, 1966. He’d led his platoon into the village of Gia Duc when Viet Cong opened fire. “That was a bad day,” he said. He earned one of his Bronze Stars there, but that’s not what pricks his memory. It’s Skip Baumann, a 20-year-old private. “He kept getting up to see them and I said, ‘Get down!’ And God darn it, he got hit. I got him and was holding him.” Musial paused to use his oxygen. “The reason I remember him so well is his last question. ‘Am I good soldier?’ he asks. I said, ‘Hey, you’re a great soldier, you’re the top. You’re airborne.’ And, of course, he passed away.”

We talked a bit about the Valentine’s Day ambush and I told him that some of his men said he should have gotten the Medal of Honor for LZ White. Musial shrugged. He wasn’t having any of the hero stuff.

I spent most of the day with Musial, during which he told me about his life after the war: how he went to work on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; how he lost his right leg in an accident there; and how, with his Army pension and a settlement from the oil company, he’d bought a house on 35 rural acres in southwest Michigan. “That place was his paradise,” his sister, Eugenia Zelas, told me later. “That’s where he found peace.”

Joe and I never talked about the fact that he was dying. When I shook his hand and left, we promised to meet at a 1st Cav reunion next June. We both knew he wouldn’t make it

On the drive home, I couldn’t get out of my head something that Bret Barham had told me. “In Vietnam, Rock was doing what he was designed by God to do — be a warrior. I always said he should have been frozen and put under glass with a sign that said, ‘In case of war, break.'”I put Joe’s picture back up at home. Battles raged live on the TV screen, while Rock’s war — and mine — sat frozen in time in a small frame.

Then the call came on a chilly afternoon. Joe Musial, Sergeant Rock, died in the early morning hours of November 11, 2001. Veterans Day.

A special “thank you” to Duke Barrett for bringing this story of his fellow Recon Platoon member to my attention. Joe Musial is standing center without a helmet. Duke is kneeling in the center of the photo.

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