Gregory Pace thought he was dreaming when he woke up to a nightmare in the wilds of Vietnam.
“I heard this chatter,” the Carlisle native recalled. “Then a group of men and women walked right through the ambush. There was supposed to be somebody on watch.”
Near as Pace could figure, the whole squad of Marines had fallen asleep as they waited to spring the trap they had set for the enemy.
“I was not very well concealed,” he said. “I was afraid they were going to see me so I slowly reached over to my M16 and put it on full automatic.”
A Navy corpsman, Pace was ready to open fire if necessary had the group spotted him. Instead they passed through without stopping, setting his mind somewhat at ease.
He noticed how the men and women were carrying supplies while dressed in the black pajamas, characteristic of the Viet Cong. After they left, Pace alerted the squad that fired in the general direction the group was heading.
Pace will never know if anyone was killed or wounded that day in 1968. There were no bodies when the squad searched the area in the morning. Nothing left but frayed nerves.
“I felt I was in pins and needles the whole time I was there,” said Pace, 69, now of South Middleton Township. “It was one of those things. You were constantly concerned.”
Pace had reason to be leery. The enemy had placed a special bounty on the head of corpsmen. Anyone who shot and killed a field medic for the Marine Corps could earn an extra ration of rice.
Knowing that the enemy had placed a bounty, the squad worked with Pace to help him blend in. They had him carry weapons and ammunition so that from a distance he would appear as a Marine.
Corpsmen were the most vulnerable when they were doing their job and patching up the wounded. The enemy would key in on men using medical equipment and try to take them out.
Though there is a tradition of mutual respect between Marines and corpsmen, each individual had to earn the trust of his brothers in arms.
“You have to prove yourself with them,” Pace said. “Once they understood I knew what I was doing, they would do anything for me. I didn’t like Vietnam, but I did enjoy the fellowship ... the camaraderie.”
Like anyone experiencing combat, Pace struggled with self-doubt. “If someone gets hurt, am I going to have the knowledge to take care of that situation?” he would ask himself. “Even if I have the knowledge, am I going to able to act and do something necessary?”
Once while walking through camp, Pace felt the urge to enter the tent of a Marine he never knew before. The man lingered in a back corner. He was obviously distraught and had something in his hand.
The Marine had taken a snowball shaped clump of C4 plastic explosive and covered it with rocks. He then took the detonator out of a hand grenade and plunged it through the center of the clump.
With eyes on Pace, the Marine had his finger on the metal pin and was ready to pull it out. Pace knew he could not clear the space in time to spare himself so he talked to the distraught Marine.
“I convinced the guy not to commit suicide,” Pace recalled. “I told him ‘This is not the right thing to do,’ and ‘I am getting whatever help he needed.’ I took him down to the sick bay. That was the brightest point I had over there ... Where I did the most good.”
It was not his only brush with death. One day Pace came close to becoming a statistic.
“I almost got hit by a sniper,” he recalled. “He shot at me, but hit a tree right in front of me.” The squad fired back.
Pace’s first taste of combat came during a night patrol shortly after Pace arrived in country on July 11, 1968.
His squad was moving through a gully heading for its designated spot when they got caught in the middle of a firefight. Though the Marines were concealed, the shooting pinned them down, hearing soldiers on both sides shouting among themselves.
“Tracers and bullets were just whizzing by my head,” Pace said. “I remember hugging Mother Earth as close as I could. There was a lot of shooting back and forth. It seemed like hours but it was less than a half hour. That was my introduction.”
A 1965 graduate, Pace had been out of Carlisle High School almost a year – working a job at the C.H. Masland and Sons carpet factory – when he was drafted. Rather than go into the Army, Pace enlisted in the Navy thinking his classes in clerical studies would come in handy as a yeoman.
But the Navy trained Pace as a corpsman teaching him lessons in first aide, minor surgery and patient care. His first duty station was the orthopedic floor of the Navy hospital in Philadelphia.
In May 1968, Pace was transferred to Camp Pendleton, California, and the Field Medical Service School. There he learned how to amputate limbs, treat gunshot wounds and handle tropical diseases. It was all the gritty work that went with stabilizing casualties for medical evacuation.
Along with the training came rigorous physical conditioning at the hands of Marine Corps drill instructors. The next stop was Vietnam, and Pace had to be ready. “I can’t say I was happy about it,” he recalled. “I knew what was going on. We were told things were pretty bad. I knew of people that went there but never came home.”
Pace had arrived in Vietnam just months after the TET offensive. This campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command centers seriously depleted the South Vietnamese, the U.S. military and their allies. Pace was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion of the 7th regiment 1st Marine Division.
“They were down by half,” he recalled. “They really got nailed. We were in a build-up phase.”
Corpsmen in his unit were put into a loose kind of rotation. Sometimes they were expected to accompany a squad out on a patrol. Other times they were ordered to man the sick call tent and handle routine medical complaints.
Still other times they were assigned to go into a village and provide health care direct to South Vietnamese civilians who may or may not be enemy collaborators in disguise.
From July 1968 to February 1969, Pace was assigned to the First Hospital Company. This duty station was more in line with what he initially learned stateside in corpsman school except for the fact there was no such thing as a secured area in Vietnam.
He awoke one morning to the sound of incoming rockets and mortar shells exploding near the hospital compound. The headquarters nearby was being overrun.
“Bad guys were throwing satchel charges into buildings,” Pace recalled. “It was mass hysteria. It was nighttime, and you couldn’t tell between the good and bad guys.”
Pace survived by running to the nearest bunker where he hunkered down and waited out the attack.
He left Vietnam in 1969 and reported for duty at the naval hospital in Millington, Tennessee. There he worked as the head corpsman in the emergency room before his discharge from the service in March 1970.
Pace returned to the Carlisle area and his job with Masland’s carpet factory, which would later become Lear Corporation and later International Automotive Components. He stayed on for 42 years retiring in March 2007. The factory closed in December 2008.
Pace is married with two grown children, including a daughter who is a registered nurse in the maternity ward of Holy Spirit Hospital.