Carlos Hathcock: The Forgotten History of the Iconic Marine Sniper Known as White Feather
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Carlos Hathcock is not a name that is widely known, even in military circles, but he is one of the most successful and prolific snipers in American military history. Hathcock boasted 93 confirmed kills during his time in the United States Marine Corps. With his longest official kill clocking in at 2,500 yards and longest unofficial kill being estimated at 2,800 yards, he is something of a legend. The M21 variant Springfield Armory M25 White Feather incorporated the nickname bestowed upon him by the North Vietnamese Army. They called him “White Feather,” because of a white feather that he kept in the band of his hat.
The Early Life of Carlos Hathcock II
Carlos Norman Hathcock II was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942, and grew up in the town of Wynne, which is about an hour and a half away. He lived with his grandmother during the first 12 years of his life, as his parents were separated.
It was during a trip to visit family in Mississippi that Hathcock first became interested in guns and hunting. Part of this was simply a necessity; his family was very poor and he needed to help feed them by bagging game in the forest. Hathcock greatly enjoyed his time in the woods, often pretending that he was an American soldier hunting down the Japanese during World War II using his father’s Mauser from the war.
Fulfilling his lifelong dream to serve in the Marine Corps, Hathcock enlisted in 1959, at the age of 17. He married his wife, Jo (nee Broughton) Winstead, on the Marine Corps’ birthday, November 10, 1962.
Carlos Hathcock II Arrives in Vietnam
It wasn't until 1966 that Hathcock deployed to Vietnam. Prior to deployment, he earned a name for himself as a top marksman by winning prestigious competitions, such as the Wimbledon Cup. Although Hathcock began his career in the Military Police Corps, Captain Edward James Land urged him to move into the sniper’s position to ensure that every platoon had their own sniper.
It’s worth taking a minute to consider what a “confirmed kill” is. For snipers, kills had to be confirmed by an independent source other than the sniper and his spotter. It was very rare for snipers to have an independent third party present, so the “confirmed kill” number is necessarily far lower than the number of enemy soldiers actually killed by a sniper.
Hathcock personally estimated killing somewhere between 300 and 400 Vietnamese communists. So incensed were the Vietnamese communists by Hathcock, that they put a bounty on his head – to the tune of $30,000, which is worth about a quarter million dollars in today’s money. It was also wildly above the bounties typically offered for snipers, which ranged from a princely $8 all the way up to $2,000. Hathcock’s bounty held the record for the highest of all time, and he capably disposed of every North Vietnamese agent sent out to collect the bounty.
During this period, soldiers in the region began wearing Hathcock’s iconic white feather in their hats to confuse the enemy.
Hathcock’s Greatest Hits
Perhaps Hathcock’s greatest act of marksmanship was shooting a North Vietnamese sniper through his own scope. The counter-sniper was killed by the shot, which entered through his eye. The shot was so clean that it didn’t touch the sides of the scope. The sniper was known as “The Cobra” and has killed many American soldiers on his mission to neutralize Hathcock.
Indeed, The Cobra was known as the best sniper in the entire North Vietnamese Army. This became a matter of deep personal interest to Hathcock after he watched a Gunnery Sergeant die from one of The Cobra’s shots right outside of his hooch.
After catching a glint off of the scope, Hathcock fired and got his kill. He did this just before The Cobra would have had an opportunity to take his own shot. Hathcock retrieved the sniper’s rifle, hoping to keep it as a trophy, but it was stolen from the armory.
Hathcock was also responsible for killing a Vietnamese woman, known as “The Apache Woman,” who had a reputation for viciously torturing captured Marines.
Much like The Cobra, this was a personal mission. He couldn’t stand the idea of this woman operating in his backyard. On one occasion, he personally heard her severely torture a Marine Private – skinning him, cutting off his eyelids, removing his fingernails, and finally castrating him before releasing him. Hathcock rushed to his aid, but was unable to save the poor private, who was too far gone for medical attention.
This was a transformative event for Hathcock, who quickly made clapping The Apache Woman his top priority. He got her when she squatted to pee outside, which confirmed her identity as the woman in the platoon. He considered this the best shot of his entire Marine Corps career.
Another highlight of Hathcock’s career in Vietnam, was the time he took out an entire company of green recruits by dropping four of their officers as they walked through a rice paddy. He used a .50-cal gun, specifically designed for the Navy’s Seabees, to clear an area around a mountain that was crawling with communists. It took him three days to zero his rifle, but after he did, the communists were sitting ducks for the White Feather. Finally, there was the time that he dropped a Vietnamese sniper using a recoilless 105mm M40 rifle.This Vietnamese sniper had been harassing GIs in the area, but he was unwise and didn’t move his position, which meant he was firing from the same spot.
During his entire tour of duty in Vietnam, Hathcock only removed his feather once upon crawling two miles to kill a North Vietnamese general. Hathcock remained awake for four days straight, slowly inching his way through the jungle. During his two-mile crawl, he was attacked by a bamboo viper. Fortunately, he was able to avoid both the attack and keep his position hidden from the enemy. When the general exited the camp, Hathcock dropped the general with a single chest shot.
Hathcock then spent another three days slowly crawling out of the area as North Vietnamese soldiers searched for whoever had shot their general. They had precisely zero luck in doing so, perhaps because of Hathcock’s chameleon-like quality. His commanding officer, Edward Land, once commented that Hathcock “became part of the environment...he totally integrated himself into the environment. He had the patience, drive, and courage to do the job. He felt very strongly that he was saving Marine lives.”
Following this mission, Hathcock returned to the United States in 1967. Missing the Marine Corps and his time overseas, Hathcock returned to Vietnam in 1969, this time leading an entire platoon of snipers.
The End of Hathcock’s Sniper Career
Everything came to a quick and crushing end for Hathcock when his transportation drove over an anti-tank mine. Hathcock rescued seven Marines from the wreckage, undeterred by the third-degree burns he suffered to his face, neck, arms, and legs. Someone had to pull him away from the burning vehicle and throw him in water, as Hathcock was completely unaware of how badly he was burned.
While recovering, Hathcock received the Purple Heart, but he had to wait 30 years to get his Silver Star. Hathcock was evacuated to Tokyo, along with the seven Marines that he rescued from the burning tank. He was eventually transferred to the burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Before going further with Hathcock’s life story, it’s important to note that he never fully recovered from the burns that he suffered while saving the lives of his fellow Marines. He was in constant pain and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975, which only increased his health problems.
None of this stopped him from being a model Marine during his final days with the Corps. He was instrumental in establishing the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. He continued to teach Marine snipers until he was medically discharged from the Marine Corps, just 55 days shy of his 20-year enlistment date, which would have made him eligible for a Marine pension.
Hathcock was now eligible for disability pay, which meant he received 100 percent of his salary. Had he retired, he would have received half of his pay in perpetuity. This might sound like a great deal, but it irked Hathcock and drove him into a deep depression. He felt that he had been shown the door and forced out of the Corps, rather than leaving on his own terms.
He was able to fight off his deep depression in large part to adopting the hobby of shark fishing in his retirement. He also continued to teach shooting to police departments and elite military units, including Navy SEAL Team Six.
Hathcock attributed his success to a monklike state of concentration that he called his ability to "get in the bubble.”
A friend once presented him with an Ernest Hemingway quote, "Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never really care for anything else thereafter." This resonated with Hathcock, who said, "He got that right. It was the hunt, not the killing." He also wrote in his memoirs that "I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That's the way I look at it."
He passed away in 1999, due to complications of his MS.
The Legacy of Carlos Hathcock II
Hathcock’s legacy continued when his son, Carlos Hathcock III, entered the Corps. The younger Hathcock retired from the Marines as a Gunnery Sergeant and became a member of the Board of Governors of the Marine Corps Distinguished Shooters Association.
Hathcock left a legacy far beyond his progeny. The Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock Award is awarded every year by the National Defense Industrial Association. It recognizes outstanding achievements in operations and small arms that have significantly contributed to the capabilities and readiness of law enforcement and the military.
The Marine Corps League, the only Congressionally chartered Marine Corps veterans organization, presents the Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock II Award to Marines who have made outstanding contributions to the training methods of marksmen in the United States Marine Corps. There is also a sniper range at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, named after Hathcock.
Carlos Hathcock is not simply noteworthy because of his prolific career as a Marine Corps sniper, but also because he is an example of raw American grit. It takes a special kind of man to permanently disfigure and disable himself while he saves the lives of his comrades. It takes an even stronger man to return to action doing whatever he can to serve his country despite living in constant pain. We’re also hard pressed to think of a badder hobby than fishing for sharks.
Thus, one doesn’t have to be a Marine or an aspiring Marine to take inspiration from Carlos Hathcock. He is a model of manly virtue who can – and should – be emulated by anyone facing a trying, life-or-death situation.
For Marines, Hathcock represents the best traits that the Corps attempts to instill in its men. He would do anything to get the job done, and “the job” was always saving the lives of his fellow Marines.
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