MEET OUR VETERANS:
Virgil Melton, Jr.
USMC, Canton Tx.
Virgil Melton Jr. was born on July 8th, 1947 in Tyler Texas. He spent one day for his birth in Tyler and then went to Van Zandt County and has lived there all his life. He had four brothers, Tony, Rand, Brent and Paul. He had one sister named Carolyn. He had one brother, Tony that was in the Navy.
“My dad, Virgil Melton Sr., was a truck farmer and a truck driver and how he made a living,” said Virgil. That is what we did as kids, my dad had 30 acres and we farmed watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, peas and okra. We sold them to the farmer’s market. We also had a few cows we sold to market. My mother’s name was Shirly,” Melton said.
“I went to Canton High School. I played all the sports there including track, football and basketball and I lettered in all three.
My junior year we set a state record in football for being unscored on, in the regular season. We had a heck of a defense. It still stands today. I played offensive wide receiver and defensive end. I liked playing defense better. We had a lot of seniors on that team. We lost in regional that year, mostly because of injuries. In my senior year I changed to middle linebacker and offensive end.
Growing up I always hunted and fished a lot. I had a 22 when I was about 13 years old. I hunted squirrel and rabbit. We had a little pond in the back of our house and I liked to bass fish. My biggest being about five pounds. I don’t hunt anymore because I don’t eat what I shoot.
Joining the Military
In 1966 Virgil graduated from High School and in February of 1967 he volunteered for the military and went to boot camp in May of that year. “My dad was a WWII veteran and was a Marine but he only had a little bit of influence on me joining the Marines,” said Virgil. “My dad was in the first wave of Marines that hit Okinawa. He never talked about his time in the service, he was really quiet about it. At the time I joined, in my mind, I wanted to be trained by the best, and that was the Marines. The War in Vietnam was really going on and I was going to Henderson Junior College and was reading the newspaper and seeing all these young men dying. I thought I wasn’t any better than they were. It was my country too and my duty.
At the time I didn’t know anyone personally fighting in the war so I quit college and joined the Marine Corps. I went to San Diego for Boot Camp. I was in good shape but it was different for me. It was definitely a wakeup call,” laughed Virgil. “Back then the DI’s had a “swat stick” and they would pop you on the head really quick if you didn’t do something right. I spent about nine-weeks in boot camp and when I graduated I knew my MOS but I didn’t know too much about it. The classification was 1800, it covered mostly track combat vehicles, including tanks. I first had to go thru infantry training at Camp Pendleton and that was about six weeks. From there, I went to Camp Delmar for Tank School,” said Virgil.
“When I was in Boot Camp I met a lifelong friend from Athens. His name was Eddie Mirer’s. We both were assigned the 1800 MOS. We went to Infantry School together and went to training at Camp Delmar. We were standing in these two lines. He whispered to me, what do you want to do,” and I said let’s go into tanks, that’s good with me,” laughed Virgil. We both got stamped with “Tanks.” About a week later we started tank school. The first day in class this old Master Gunnery Sargent came out to us and said, “I want you guys to know God blessed you when you got this MOS of 18ll.” It was changed from 1800 to 1811. We were driving the M48A3A1’s.
It shot a 90mm round with a range banked up of about eleven miles. They would call in the grids and you would look at your grid map and make the calculations and dial it in. We used it as an artillery piece and it was a good weapon. They are not as sophisticated as they are now with all the GPS coordinates and all. It was a big difference from driving the farm tractor and now this big tank. It was scary. In tank school you learned every position within that tank except for being a tank commander. They figured if you knew every position then you would have no problem being a tank commander. You start out as a loader, and then move up to a driver and eventually the gunner. Loading those 90mm rounds is not easy. You have to be careful because they will come back on you. You would think the noise inside is very loud but it is muffled,” said Virgil. “I liked the loader position because you did have a hatch where you could stick your head out while you are driving down the road and look out with the tank commander. There was also a 30-caliber machine gun on the tank and a 50 caliber the tank commander used. I knew how to break those machine guns down and put em back together,” he said emphatically. “It was 54 tons of “MEAN GREEN,” laughed Virgil.
We got thru school and our next stop was Vietnam,” Virgil said shaking his head.
NEXT STOP, VIETNAM (November 1967-July 1969)
“We all knew we were going to Vietnam,” said Virgil. “I had a little anxiety and a little nervous about heading to war. I wanted to be cautious and be very alert. We flew into Da Nang. Two days later we took a truck convoy North to Phu Bai and that is where our Battalion Headquarters were. There were about nine tankers with the same MOS there including my friend from Athens, Eddie. There were mountains all around us. Here was this “old crusty Gunny” yelling at us to get in line and get at attention. We didn’t know if we were going to be fired on or what.
For the first three weeks we were attached to a “grunt unit.” They were short on infantry when we got there so we had to patrol the perimeter in the village of Phou Bi. We normally had the night shift and I carried an M14 and later we changed to the M16. However, I kept the M14 the entire time in Vietnam and carried it with me on the tank. It served me well,” laughed Virgil. “We had mostly “guerillas” instead of the “NVA” ( North Vietnamese Army ) in our area and mortars would come in periodically.
After three weeks in Phu Bai we finally got assigned to “A” Company and getting assigned out to the platoons. The gunny was asking some of us where we wanted to go, and I heard Eddie say, “Let’s go where the action is,” and we both started laughing. “Eddie was getting you in trouble again,” I yelled at Virgil. He said, “Heck yeah, let’s go.” The gunny yelled back at us, “Well that will be the 1st Platoon.”
So, we got assigned to 1st Platoon and finally ended up in Con Thien. We are still on convoy in infantry at this point. Not in the tanks, yet. When we finally got to Con Thien, Eddie and I were assigned to the same tank. My first assignment was the loader and Eddie was the driver. There were a lot of search and clear missions in that area.
Now we are fighting the “NVA vs the guerillas.” Most of the “guerillas” were down South. The North Vietnamese Army wore uniforms and had rifles and mortars and small artillery issued to them. They didn’t have any tanks but they did have some tracked artillery.
The only thing that really hurt the tanks were the “RPG’s” (rocket propelled grenades). They were cone shaped and when they hit the tank they would bore right thru the tank. Once they got into the tank it would be called “Back splatting” and would just go wild in the tank. In the front of the tank we had seven inches of steel, but on the sides there were four and sometimes two inches of steel. They knew to hit the sides. On some operations and when I became tank commander, we had an RPG hit right under my main gun. It was so thick there but it did not go all the way thru,” said Virgil showing me the picture.
By May of 1968 Eddie and Virgil became tank commanders of Alpha 1-4 and Alpha 1-5. We were also advanced to the rank of corporal which you had to be before you became a tank commander. We had several operations including myself as the tank commander. A major operation was THOR and a lot of search and clear missions.
Another tank recon mission we were involved in was called Lam Son 250. They involved tanks from the 1st Platoon and 3rd Platoon.
There were five tanks from each Platoon. We left about three in the morning, with a full moon, following the coastline up to the Ben Hai River which was deep into the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). We ended up on this ridge and looked down on an old plantation type place where there were about 450-750 NVA eating breakfast. We opened fire on them. We knocked out most of their artillery and their mortars. We killed about 470 of them. It was an all-day battle. Then we went up the Ben Hai and knocked out some boats and trucks. Captain Patterson, the Company Commander, was on my tank. It was around sundown and he said it was about time we got out of there. Alpha 1-3 hit a tank mine on the way out and disabled it breaking the track. We got it repaired in about fifteen minutes and started moving again.
My M-14 really came in handy on this operation. I was the tank commander but I took the loader’s position.”
I asked Virgil if there were any other encounters during his time in Vietnam. He looked at me and said “Phil, I will go into this if you want me to. I answered, it is up to you Virgil. “Sometimes it is hard for me to talk about,” he said. Virgil paused and continued.
“On March 28th, 1969 we were on one of those two-day operations. We were west of Con Thien. It was a hilly region. We were with the 2nd Platoon and the 9th Marines. The first night out everything was going pretty well. It was real dark. In Vietnam when it gets dark like that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. No stars out. I was the lead tank. The Marines had called in and told us they were getting some fire and needed some tank support. I had to go across a gulley with a creek going across it. I got the instruction, Alpha 1-5 go on up and I said ok.
I started down the gulley and almost got stuck. I backed up really quick and went forward again. I finally made it and was going up the ridge and all HELL broke loose. The NVA was on a ridge adjacent to us and had been watching us. Green tracers started going all over the place. “WOW…WOW….WOW.
The grunts already on the ridge started returning fire. The mortars were coming pretty thick. They were similar to our 81mm mortars. Bullets were bouncing off my tank. I kept on going up the ridge but the other tanks couldn’t make it. I dismounted from the tank and held Foxy’s hand as we advanced up the hill making sure we did not run over any grunts. I told the driver to hold on and I would hold his hand and walk up so we could see the tracks. His name was Bruce Fox, we called him “FOXY.” A little Italian guy from New York. So, I grabbed his hand and he told me, “you’re going to get hit.” I said Foxy, just stay with me. We slowly crept up the hill. We almost made it to the top. We had shot several 90mm shots into the hill. But, at the angle we were in it was just difficult to get a good shot off. I noticed a clearing ahead and didn’t see any other grunts. At that moment the left track hit a tank mine. Of course, that took me out. It knocked me 15 or 20 feet. I was unconscious. The only thing I remember was there was a corpsman around me trying to wake me up. He said, “you are hit, and you are hit bad.” I said, “where at? I was numb.” He told me,
“We are going to medivac you out of here.” Captain Chapman and some of the other grunts came over and got me on a stretcher and put me on a chopper. I was airlifted to Quang Tre Hospital. I stayed there for two or three days,” said Virgil.
Fortunately, it was a disabling type mine and I was told Foxy and the rest of the crew were ok. After a few days they airlifted me out to the USS Sanctuary to a ship hospital on the coast. I stayed there a couple more days and then they shipped me out to Dong Ha. There was a makeshift hospital and I stayed there for another 30 days. I was treated for shrapnel wounds, a concussion and my eardrums were busted out,” and Virgil paused for some time to gather his thoughts.
As a journalist I have unfortunately listened to stories of war casualties more often than I want to remember. NONE of them are easy. I know this is difficult for the person to relive such a traumatic event in their lives. Thank you Virgil. Thank you for your courage and honor to this country.
“At this point, I was ready to go home. Captain Patterson came in and told me I could go home, but you are well enough to come back, we are short and we need you.” he told me. “I said, heck, let me get back to my tank. So, I went back to my tank. My hearing was not that good, but the corpsman said it was good enough to get back out into the field. I didn’t know this at the time, the eardrums can heal pretty quick. I got back out in the field the last of April of 69.
On the 31st of July we got a field call saying they needed some tank support for a grunt unit. I grabbed my gear and got ready to hop back into the tank. The Captain said,” NO, you are going home, I don’t need you out there.” I said, “no, I want to go.” “He was adamant and no, you are going home.” We shook hands and I gave him a salute as he drove off in his tank. That afternoon a convoy came and picked me up. I had just gotten back to ship back to the states and I got the word that the Captain had been killed. An RPG hit his tank and got inside. He was such a good friend and a good leader, it really upset me,” Virgil said looking across the room.
“My friend Eddie was with me the entire time we were in Vietnam. When I got wounded, he almost got court martialed. He wanted to come up to where I was. I spent almost 21 months in Vietnam. That was not the normal tour but I had extended, along with my best friend.
Unfortunately, Eddie passed away about three years ago. We were lifelong friends. He came back to Athens and had some heart problems due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. I remember the defoliant was so slick on our tanks we could hardly get up on them. I have it on record of my exposure and today have neurotrophy in both feet,” Virgil said shaking his head.
“In August of 1969 my Captain in the Marines encouraged me and my friend Eddie to join the Embassy Program. It is part of the Marine security guard and Embassy Program. We provided security for the Embassies all over the world. Ed didn’t get it but I did. When I left Vietnam, I received orders to report to Henderson Hall Battalion in Washington, D.C. for a six-week training program. To get the job, I had to extend my military career for another six months, which I did. I ended up spending four years and six months in the Marine Corps.
The school was spit and shine, nothing like what I had just spent almost two years in the boonies. I felt like I was back in boot camp again. I was a Sargent and I didn’t get any breaks at all. There were about seventy of us in the class and only thirty-six of graduated. Before I got my first assignment I had to fly back home for my grandfather’s funeral. It was one of those situations that they flew me home and as soon as the funeral was over I flew right back to Washington. When I got back they started assigning Embassies to all the graduates. People were going to Brazil, Germany and all over the world. We had no choice in the matter.
I got SSD. I had no idea what that was. I was thinking it was some secret deal. Two days later I still didn’t know what SSD was. Then someone comes in and says, “I am agent Tucker come with me. We got into a government car and we drove to Arlington, Va. They finally sat me and four other Marines down and told us we had been assigned to the Special Security Detail and here is what we do,” he said. “We provide cover and security for foreign dignitaries coming in to visit the United States. He said we were going to go thru a quick training at the State Department and go to the gun range and learn how to shoot a 38.”
The next day Virgil was in class talking about Dignitaries and what security was involved and how they would always be with a State Department agent. He was issued a special badge and a 38-caliber revolver. The badge said, “Special Agent Virgil Melton, Jr.” We were told to never show our military ID card. Next day me and another Marine were covering the Russian Cosmonauts coming into the country. It was like being in the Secret Service. After that we were on all kinds of missions like picking up the President of Venezuela, Prime Minister of Germany, France and other countries. There was a long list of names. One time we had the Premiere of Taiwan come into a hotel in New York and they tried to assassinate him. We were trained to take a bullet and jump in if we had to,” he said.
“The best duty I had when guarding a foreign dignitary was guarding Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. She was so kind. Most of the dignitaries didn’t know you even exist. We would always set up a security desk right outside of the room and another at the other end of the hall to challenge anybody that came in. Mrs. Marcos would always greet us with a , “how are you doing? Do you need anything to eat? I am going to order you guys some food. She was such a nice lady,” said Virgil laughing at the experience. “When she walked out of that room we went with her. We did not know where she was going. We were in our security car and followed her everywhere she went. We went to a big mall and sure enough she headed right to the shoe department,” he said bursting out laughing.
“After a year in Washington D.C. with the SSD, I could pick any embassy I wanted to go in the world. I picked Geneva, Switzerland,” Virgil said smiling. “I did have to turn in all my badges when I left and now I am back in the military for another year,” he said.
I had always heard that Geneva, Switzerland was a great place to visit and the people and the atmosphere. I thought that would be a great place to visit. The Marines lived in a Villa and it was everything I ever envisioned. I bought a car and we were only about eight miles from the Embassy. I knew other Marines at other Embassies and was able to travel a lot while I was stationed in Switzerland. I once took a train from Geneva to Luxenberg and on to Denmark. It didn’t cost us anything because we could stay at the Embassies. A couple of times me and a friend drove up to Germany and stayed at the Embassy there. Ended up in Munich for Octoberfest. Great stout beer and the sausage. WOW,” said Virgil. “When I left Geneva after a year, I got out of the Marine Corps.”
Virgil said he really enjoyed being in the Marine Corps and found a lifetime friend in Ed. He was a great friend with many he had met in the military. The compadre he had with his platoon and all of them working together. They got to know each other very well.
“Being in the SSD and travelling to Switzerland where I learned to ski and just the military gave me a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things, “said Virgil.
“I remember a funny story when we were in Cam Lo Vietnam. We got a call about helping some grunts out and were yelling for some tanks. So, we went and got caught up in some heavy brush. I was the Tank Commander at the time and my loader was a guy by the name of “Snake.” He was also our mechanic too. We were going thru this heavy brush and my main gun hit dead center into this huge tree and it ejected the 90MM round. It fell inside of the tank and we were yelling “Live round, Live round.” Snake was grabbing me and I was grabbing him trying NOT to hit that round with a live primer on it and before it hit something and went off. Looking back, we still laugh about that day. Of course, the story spread really quick how I ran the tank barrel into a tree,” laughed Virgil. “The boys gave me hell for that one.”
“Another time we were on the road to Khe Sahn and we got to a place called the “ROCK PILE.” We got intel about a group of NVA that was dug in about a mile from there in some very hilly and mountainous area. We had a couple Companies of Marines and two Platoons of tanks. We started across this area and it was getting really hilly and was starting to put a lot of stress on the tanks. When that happens, you turn around and back up the hill. Our tracks were spinning heading up backwards on this hill. We get to the top of the hill and we are on this plateau. There was a huge valley below us and on the other side it was very rocky and you could see the caves. I had to turn the barrel completely around to shoot into the valley. When I did that I did not see this tree. It caught my main gun and started sliding. The grunts were already shooting and I thought I had messed up my sighting on the tank when I hit this tree. We finally got the main gun turned around. We took the round out of the chamber. I took my binoculars and put the main gun on the cave and sighted it with my binoculars. As soon as I got it sighted in with my binoculars the Company Commander said, “FIRE.” We opened fire and hit directly into those caves. That’s probably the first time that has ever been done,” laughed Virgil.
Virgil received a Purple Heart for his wounds in Vietnam and a Navy Commendation.
“A lot of people talk about “C”rations and how bad they tasted. I never had a problem with them. I like the one with bacon and ham. I loved the Lima Beans and a lot of time I traded my other rations for some Lima Beans. I even liked the spaghetti. I still have a case of “C” rations today,” he said. What I really liked was an Army meal called “LONGRATS.” You poured water in it. It was like rice and seafood and stuff like that. They were in plastic packages. Sometimes when we worked with the Army units we did some trading around,” smiled Virgil.
“I did make a mistake one time in Cam Lo. Some guy came by with the cheese and rice bread and I ate it. About a month later I got pin worms.
GOING BACK TO COLLEGE
Virgil got out of the Marines and was looking to go back to college and get into some type of security field. He went back to Tyler Junior College for a while full time including summer classes. From there Virgil transferred to the University of Texas at Arlington. He eventually got his degree in Criminal Justice Administration in December 1974.
“The first job I got after getting my degree was with the CIA. They offered me a job similar to what I had been doing in the Marine Corps. I could have travelled to Langley or just about anywhere in the world. However, they wanted me to sign a contract and I just didn’t want to do that. It was a long and detailed contract mostly in favor of the CIA. There was no retirement to it or any guarantees,” said Virgil.
“I then put my application into the Houston Police Department and the Dallas Police. Houston called and said they would hire me. I told them I had also applied to Dallas and Houston called back and said they really wanted me to come down there. Two days later I got a call from the Dallas Police Department and I decided to go to work for them. This was in January of 1975,” said Virgil.
He started off as a patrol officer in the Southeast part of Dallas. He stayed with Dallas PD for four years. “I like helping people,” said Virgil. “The area I worked, people didn’t really appreciate you. The pay was good but I was looking for a way to get out. I eventually got transferred to the County as a District Attorney Investigator,” said Virgil
I got married December 5th 1977 to my wife Janice. I met her in Canton. My brother was married to her sister. She is by far the better half of our marriage. She works with in State Representative Dan Flynn’s office as a District Manager. She runs his office here in Canton.
I ended up spending fourteen years with the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. I liked working the cases and building the cases up, talking to witnesses and getting the case ready for trial. I enjoyed doing that work,” Virgil said. “One of the Attorneys I was working with was appointed to the District Court and he asked me to come down and be his administrator. I took the job. As an Administrator of the Court I set the court and docket cases work on the budget and keep up with the jail cases making sure the accused had an attorney, either hired or court appointed.
I also worked on a lot of capital murder cases in Dallas County including the Gayland Bradford case. It was a case in West Dallas area and Gayland came into a store and the security guard there was putting some items on the shelves and he was shot in the back two times. He was laying on his back begging for his life and he was shot again. He was found Guilty and put to death and was finally executed a few years ago. He was a true sociopath,” Virgil said shaking his head. “I stayed with the District Court another 12 or 13 years. I was vested in my retirement at this time.
“The Criminal District Court Manger’s job came up and I took that job. It covered all 17 of the District Courts and came with a big pay increase. I transferred within the county to take the job. This was around 2005 when I started and spent two or three years there. The total budget for all District Courts I managed and managed the administrators and the court reporters and their supervisor. I did the statistics on what the courts were doing and set up the mental health docket. I was busy. I did have a secretary and an administrator working for me. It was very interesting until I retired in 2006 for good,” Virgil said.
He then ran for Commissioner and was elected on January 2007 for Van Zandt County. He has been there for 14 years. “The biggest accomplishment I get working with the County is being able to work with my constituents and the citizens of Van Zandt County. When I took over Precinct 2 the roads were in pretty bad shape. We have come a long way in how we maintain the roads, the money spent on roads and working with FEMA on several cases where we had tornadoes or flooding with working with the Federal people for the county. Working with FEMA over the years I have gotten $5M dollars,” said Virgil. “Administratively I have written a lot of policies for the Commissioners Court, the culvert installation policies, the Van Zandt Country subdivisions rules and regulations and several emergencies polices on our dams and lakes. Most of the polices were not in place when I started,” he said.
“The biggest challenges for Van Zandt County is in the next 10 years we need a new jail. We need more room and a new courthouse. We need to renovate but eventually we need a new facility. We need to continue our road construction. We continue to grow by leaps and bounds. There are a lot of challenges moving forward. We need to be prepared. There are bonds we are going to have to be approved in the future. We need a new animal shelter. Citizens will have to vote in the future and new law enforcement and better pay. Some of the older maintenance people are retiring who headed up our roads department and they need to be replaced. That will be a big challenge for us moving forward.,” Virgil said.
We have over 5,000 veterans living in Van Zandt County and Virgil Melton, Jr. sits on the Board of Directors for the VZC Veterans Memorial. “A lot of our veterans don’t know the benefits we offer to them in this county. One of my main goals when I came to the county was to get a VSO (Veteran’s Service Officer). I talked Harry Fontenot to come and help us out and work a little for us. He started out on Highway 19 at a homeless veterans facility and eventually we got him an office in the courthouse with a little more pay. When the Veterans Memorial purchases the building they currently lease we hope to move his office next to the Museum and Visitors Center. He has done a great job and understands what the Veterans need and what forms to fill out,” Virgil said.
“I love to work and spend times with my grandkids. I have a few cattle I look after. I like to fish and hunt with my grandkids. I teach a Sunday School class. I try and stay involved with the community.
On my bucket list I want to see the Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky. I would like to go to California around the coast line and slowly take my time and go up to Oregon and Washington. My wife wants to go the Ozarks and make the trip to the Diamond Mines so she can find her a diamond,” he laughs.
“God has a plan for my life. I have tried to serve his plan. I have sometimes deviated, I am a sinner saved by the grace of God. I don’t have any do-over’s in my life,’ he said.
Virgil, thank you for your service to our country while serving in the United States Marine Corps. Your courage and bravery will not be forgotten.
NOTE: Meet other Veterans from Van Zandt County by going to the top of www.vzcm webpage and click on MEET OUR VETERANS and click one of the (5) branches of services and the veterans last name first and click to read.
“Every Veteran has a story to tell.” Phil Smith
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
(ALL photos on this Facebook page are ©2020, Phil Smith and Van Zandt County Veterans Memorial. NO unauthorized use without permission) All Rights Reserved.
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