commissions its newest guided missile destroyer,
Vietnam Marine recalls its namesake saving his life.
By Sgt. Chet Decker
NORFOLK, Va. (Aug. 20, 2000)
When USS Oscar Austin
was commissioned Saturday night at Naval Base Norfolk
in front of a crowd of more than 2,000, a fallen hero was remembered
for his life-saving actions in Vietnam.
The officers and dignitaries who spoke to the crowd told of
Marine PFC Oscar P. Austin’s sacrifice in a country far from home.
They told of his actions that earned him the Medal of Honor.
They spoke of a grateful military, and the more than 300 sailors
who will honor him by manning a ship in his name.
But surely there was no one more grateful
than the person Austin saved from certain death.
Douglas Payne has lived his whole life knowing there
is only one reason he breathes the air he does.
He realizes he has been able to have a family of his own
because of one person’s strength and courage.
Douglas Payne owes his life to Oscar Austin,
and he has known this for more than 31 years.
“I always think about it and the sacrifice he made,” said Payne,
a retired teacher who instructed prison inmates.
“It’s just so very overwhelming for me.”
PFC Austin, 20 years old, and Lance Cpl. Payne, 19, were good friends,
often watching each other’s backs and helping one another deal
with being so far away from home in such a hostile place.
On Feb. 23, 1969, their unit, Echo Company, Second Battalion,
Seventh Marines part of the 1st Marine Division,
was manning a hill near Da Nang, Vietnam.
Austin and Payne were manning the same observation post when they came
under a fierce ground attack by a large North Vietnamese Army force.
A grenade landed near Payne, and detonated before he could react.
He was forced to the ground in a state somewhere
between consciousness and total black out.
While manning an M-60 machine gun,
Austin saw his buddy in trouble and,
exposing himself to enemy fire,
ran and carried him into a sand bag bunker.
Then another grenade landed close to Payne.
Austin dove on the grenade, placing himself between it and his friend.
The explosion severely wounded him, and soon after a NVA soldier
appeared at the top of the bunker and aimed at Payne.
Austin again dove in front of Payne and was killed.
“After the grenade exploded, his abdomen was a bloody mess,” said Payne.
“He moved me into cover.
Then an NVA (soldier) came up on us and he put himself on top of me.”
What happened next isn’t in the Medal of Honor citation.
“Somebody (killed) the guy who shot Oscar,
and I think it was Oscar himself as he was dying,” said Payne.
“I wasn’t seeing that well of course, but I think he got him.
“I started yelling for a corpsman, but I couldn’t hear myself yell,
so I couldn’t tell if anyone could hear me, because I couldn’t hear.”
When the corpsman arrived, it was evident nothing could be done for Austin,
so Payne was placed under better cover.
Echo Co. ended up manning the hill for another couple days
because it was too wet and too foggy for helicopters to land.
Payne earned the Purple Heart that day and stayed in the Marine Corps
two more years before discharging as a corporal.
He went on to earn a commission in the Navy before retiring as a lieutenant.
John Chu, Austin’s squad leader in Vietnam,
was also in attendance at the commissioning ceremony.
“Oscar was a very low key person,” he said. “Physically he wasn’t a big guy,
but he was outgoing even after a hard day of hiking.”
Chu, of Woodland Hills, California, was discharged in 1969 as a corporal.
PFC Austin, a native of Phoenix, Ariz.,
joins a long list of Marines with ships named after them.
There are more than 100, and 61 are Marines or corpsmen
who are Medal of Honor recipients.
“I can’t begin to express the deep felt appreciation
of all the Marines of the respect and honor
that is being bestowed on Oscar Austin,”
said Marine Brig. Gen. Samuel T. Helland,
Director of Operations, U.S. Joint Forces Command.
“We in the Marine Corps place a great value on battlefield heroism
and live the legacy of the battles fought before us.”
Thirty-one and a half years since the day his best friend died for him,
as Payne returns to his residence in Spring Valley, Calif.,
he takes Oscar with him.
PFC Oscar Austin has never left his side.
“To this day I think he’s always been with me,” said Payne.
“It’s just amazing that someone cared enough to do that.
He expected no less of me of course, and I would have done the same for him.
That’s the way it was in Vietnam.”
During Payne’s days as a teacher, he would tour prisons and speak to inmates,
often telling them stories of his days in Vietnam.
“I used to spend a lot of time talking to gang bangers and inmates,
and they’d tell me about their friends (that got them in trouble),
but they’d always use the excuse and say, ‘Well, he’s my friend.'
But soon the tough convicts would be weeping as Payne told his story.
“I’d tell them about Vietnam,” said Payne.
“l’d tell them about a very good friend of mine named Oscar.”