Col. Norm Mac Lellan of Venice had already served one tour in Vietnam and survived the 1968 Tet Offensive when he got in the firefight of his life with North Vietnamese Army troops during his second tour of duty along Highway 1, north of Saigon in the summer on 1972.
“When I arrived back in Vietnam in 1972 on a second tour the Easter Offensive between the NVA and the South Vietnamese was going on. I became a forward air observer to call in air strikes against the North Vietnamese Army,” he said.
“Every morning, as soon as it got light, the NVA would start zeroing their guns in on us. They were using 105s they captured from the South Vietnamese along with 20,000 rounds of ammunition. They were giving it back to us one shell at a time,” Mac Lellan explained.
“We were being pretty heavily pounded by the NVA’s artillery when I was hit in the arm by shrapnel on June 21, 1972. At this point we were taking so much enemy artillery on us they couldn’t take me out in a helicopter.”
By this time he was a major serving as an advisor to ARVIN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops in the Central Highlands. His job was to call in air strikes on the NVA.
“Our command post was an L-shaped bunker. I was sitting at one end of the L near the entrance. Next to me was my translator and next to him was the Vietnamese regimental commander, a full colonel,” Mac Lellan said. “An NVA shell hit right outside our bunker. A piece of shrapnel hit me in the back of my neck. Another piece of shrapnel, from the same shell, hit the colonel and killed him.
“The reason I wasn’t killed is because I had taken off my web belt that held my plastic canteen and hung it behind me on a peg. The piece of shrapnel that hit me went through my canteen first. If it hadn’t, it would have probably torn my head off. ”
Holding up what was left of his battered canteen, he smiled and said, ‘This canteen is my lucky charm.’
“I was temporarily stupefied by the piece of shell that hit me. My neck wound was cauterized so it didn’t bleed,” he said. “When I regained my faculties I realize the shell that injured me and killed the colonel had also knocked out our radio antennae atop our compound. I couldn’t reach air support because our antennae were down.
“I used another radio to call in an emergency air strike. I figured we were about to be over-run by the NVA and somebody needed to do something to stop them immediately,” Mac Lellan said. “They put in 16 sorties right over us that day that caused the NVA to break off the fight.
“They wanted to Medivac me out, but the NVA continued their fight and the LZ (Landing Zone) was too hot. I stayed awake for 24 hours straight at the command post until I collapsed from exhaustion. Several days later they flew in another Medivac helicopter, accompanied by two gunships for protection,” he said.
“The three helicopters came in at treetop level. The gunships shot along both sides of the road to suppress enemy fire. We were on the left side of the road and we yelled over the radio to the pilots–stop, stop, stop!
“As the Medivac helicopter set down on the road we started running toward it. Me and a couple of ARVIN soldiers carrying the colonel’s lifeless body wrapped in a poncho were headed toward the chopper,” Mac Lellan explained. “As we were getting closer to the helicopter an NVA soldier came out from the other side and started firing at our helicopter. I took him out with my M-16 rifle.
“By the time I got aboard the helicopter it was full of wounded ARVIN troops who wanted to get out of the war zone. There were so many wounded solders on the helicopter we weren’t sure it could get airborne,” he said. “The Vietnamese wounded were throwing everything out that wasn’t tie down. They even threw out the body of their dead commander tied to his stretcher.
“Some how we made it back to Saigon and dropped off all the ARVIN wounded at a hospital. The hospital staff also decided they were going to keep me for a couple of days for observation. I discovered I had broken one of my hands during the shootout. They wired it back together and put my arm in a cast.”
For his action during the “Easter Offensive” he would receive a Silver Star medal.
Mac Lellan thought he was headed back to the States to recover. Instead he was returned to his ARVIN command. The South Vietnamese troops wanted him to stay.
“I ended up on an advisory team in Suan Loc. Most of my time was spent out in the jungle fighting small groups of NVA with ARVIN soldiers,” he said. “I received the Army Commendation Medal with a “V” for valor for that action,” he recalled more than 35 years later.
“On Jan. 31, 1973 the NVA signed a peace treaty with South Vietnam. Canadian peace keepers came in and took our place. Myself, an American captain and a sergeant got a Jeep and headed south down Highway One from Suan Loc to Saigon. We didn’t even have a pistol, we had turned in all our equipment.
“For the moment the war was over and we went home at last. Two years later the NVA attacked the South once again. Without our air support the South Vietnamese Army fell to the North. On April 30, 1975 the NVA marched in and took over the South. That was the end of that war,” Mac Lellan said.
He continued his assent up the chain of command as he went from post-to-post in this country and Germany for the next 20 years.
Mac Lellan wrapped up almost three decades in the Army as a full colonel in command of the American garrison at Mainz, Germany. In January 1993 he retired from the service. He and Ellen, his German-born wife, moved to Venice in 1995 where his parents had retired.
“When I came back here I got a job teaching Army ROTC at Riverview and Booker High Schools in Sarasota. I did that for six years and retired for a second time,” he said. “The I was asked to help start the Sarasota Military Academy. I worked there for a year and started its ROTC program. During this period he also served as the commander of the American Legion in Venice.”
Now his time is spent playing in the North Port Concert Band. When Mac Lellan isn’t doing this he can often be found as part of the Legion’s Color Guard at local military funerals.
His major in college at Eastern Michigan University in 1962 was music. He joined the school’s Army ROTC program and graduated a 2nd lieutenant. The rest is history.
Mac Lellan’s File
Name: Norman Alexander Mac Lellan
D.O.B: 30 April 1940
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 1963
Unit: 4th Infantry Division
Commendations: Purple Heart 2 awards, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, two awards, Bronze Star, 2 awards, Army Commendation with “V” for Valor
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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