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Saluting Our War Heroes: Horror of televised execution inspired service in Vietnam

Daniel C. Emke, 65

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Vietnam War

Years of service: Enlisted, July 1968 – July 1972

Most prominent honors: Combat Action Ribbon, Meritorious Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Vietnamese Service Medal with one star, National Defense Service Medal

Specialty: infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Daniel C. Emke has never forgotten the image that inspired him to enlist in the Marines.

It was an image that shocked millions around the world.

A South Vietnamese police official raised a pistol at point-blank range and shot a Viet Cong operative in the side of the head on a Saigon street.

National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan then walked over to reporters, including the AP photographer and NBC cameraman who had captured the image, and explained his reasoning:

“These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me,” he said.

Emke said he was 17 and a student at Riverside High School when he saw the execution on television.

“Just the fact that it happened, watching that amazed me. … It was my influence on why I joined the service to go to war,” Emke said in recalling as best he could what had gone through his young and impressionable mind back then.

So after graduating from Riverside High and turning 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. By January 1969, he was in Vietnam.

Emke experienced plenty of the horrors war had to offer as he and fellow Marines made their way through rice paddies and jungles conducting search-and-destroy missions.

“It was nonstop humping. We carried everything we owned on our backs. We’d go out for 30 days and then return for two days of recovery. We’d get two warm beers a day, and then we were back out on the missions. Thirty out, two in,” he said, describing the routine as “monotonous.”

But encounters with the enemy shattered the boredom. And bad decisions by inexperienced officers could make things even more intense.

Like the time a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant gave a command that could have wasted American lives.

“We’d been marching through a rice paddy, and there was a treeline and then a village. We marched 15 to 20 feet apart and we were out in the open and had drawn heavy fire. So naturally we hit the deck and tried to find cover. The dikes in the paddy were typically 18 to 24 inches high and we tried to find cover behind them.

“If you can imagine in your mind’s eye, here we are hunkered down and we had a new lieutenant with less than a week in the field. So here we are. It is very loud. We’re stretched out 200 to 300 yards and he yelled out to the platoon sergeant, ‘Where are you?’ He was behind this mound of dirt in the middle of the paddy and he raised his hand and started waving it around.

“The lieutenant said, ‘Get your men up on line and assault the village.’ Typically under those circumstances you’d lay suppressing fire or call in mortars or an airstrike. The lieutenant said, ‘Do you acknowledge the order?’

“The hand came up again and he had the middle finger extended. Everybody could see it.”

Marines normally obeyed orders, but not when an inexperienced officer “failed to comprehend the situation,” he said.

The platoon sergeant crawled over to the lieutenant, Emke added, and “they worked out a better plan.”

To have stood up and charged the village under heavy fire, Emke said, “would have been costly.”

As it turned out, the enemy’s fire subsided and the platoon overtook the village with a barrage of machine-gun fire, grenades and M-16 rifle fire.

“The grenade launcher was my preferred weapon,” Emke said.

When his tour ended, he said he was in no rush to return stateside, since he had a four-year enlistment to complete.

“I would have had a lot of time stateside, so I volunteered for international duty,” he said.

His request was granted and he served 10 months in the Philippines.

“It was great there. Manila was right across the bay. You could rent a car and driver and head down to the resort area. It was a beautiful area. I’d go out into the villages and buy a lot of wood carvings.”

When he did return to the States, he provided infantry training for new Marines who were headed to Vietnam.

“I was 21 years old, and here I was in charge of 200 Marines,” Emke recalled.

As a footnote, Emke pointed out that when he completed his Vietnam deployment, his older brother, Al, who had enlisted in the Army, was sent to Vietnam and, like him, made it home alive.

In civilian life, Emke attended college on the GI Bill and then was recruited by Union Carbide to work as an electronics field representative in the production of oxygen. After a few years of that, he decided to start his own manufacturing business, making accessories for the photographic and optical industries. He again changed jobs and went to work for a manufacturing company that made scuba gear. And there he stayed for 32 years, working his way up to president of the company.

Married twice, he is the father of a grown daughter and now spends his days baby-sitting a 4-year-old grandson.

Emke says he never thinks of the war, but adds, “it is always there somewhere in the background.”