His vanity license plates in Virginia read SNIPER, and during the Vietnam War he was just that, the bearer of a surprising, sudden death to enemy soldiers. But when Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock II died last week at the age of 57, the enemy that ultimately felled him was the slow, patient progression of multiple sclerosis.
No Marine sniper was more effective than Hathcock at killing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The number 93 reflects his confirmed kills, but his actual total is believed to be well over 100.
As a testament to his effectiveness, North Vietnam once put a bounty of $30,000 on his head.
The Viet Cong knew him as well and called him "Long Trang," the white feather, because he often wore one in his bush hat.
Hathcock remains a legend in the Marines. The Carlos Hathcock Award is presented annually to the Marine who does the most to promote marksmanship. And there is a sniper range named for Hathcock at Camp LeJeune, N.C.
Late in his life, he was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest military honor, for an incident that happened nearly 30 years earlier, when he pulled seven comrades off a burning armored personnel carrier that had struck a mine. That act of bravery left Hathcock badly burned and effectively ended his career as a rifleman.
Hathcock, a native of Arkansas, was a slight, unassuming man with a self-contained temperament that made him perfect for a job that involved infiltrating deep into enemy-held territory and waiting, often for days, to take one shot at his target.
He once said that he survived in his work because of an ability to "get in the bubble," to put himself into a state of "utter, complete, absolute concentration," first on his equipment, then on his environment in which every breeze and every leaf meant something, and finally on his quarry.
His work demanded steady nerves and was exhausting. During one pursuit of an enemy general, he had to cover more than 1,000 meters of open terrain during three days and nights of constant crawling an inch at a time. Enemy patrols came within 20 feet of Hathcock, who lay camouflaged with grass and vegetation in the open.
During two 13-month tours of duty in Vietnam, Hathcock volunteered for so many missions that his commanding officer once had to restrict him to quarters to make him rest. At the time the 5-foot, 10-inch Hathcock weighed only 120 pounds.
"It was the stalk that I enjoyed," he once told a reporter for the Washington Post. "Pitting yourself against another human being. There was no second place in Vietnam--second place was a body bag. Everybody was scared and those that weren't are liars. But you can let that work for you. It makes you more alert, keener, and that's how it got for me. It made me be the best."
Raised outside Little Rock, Hathcock lived with his grandmother after his parents divorced. He loved the outdoors and taught himself to hunt in the woods as a young boy. He knew where the rabbits and squirrels ran. "As a young'n, I'd go sit in the woods and wait a spell," he once said. "I'd just wait for the rabbits and squirrels 'cause sooner or later a squirrel would be in that very tree or a rabbit would be coming by that very log. I just knew it. Don't know why, just did."
By age 10, he was bringing meat home to the table regularly. As soon as he turned 17 in 1959, Hathcock enlisted in the Marines. It didn't take him long to make his mark. He qualified immediately at boot camp in San Diego as an expert shot.
Over the next several years, he won many shooting championships, including the prestigious Wimbledon cup--long-range shooting's most prestigious prize--in 1965. A year later he was sent to Vietnam.
His first job in Vietnam was as a military policeman, but he wanted more action. He volunteered for regular reconnaissance patrols but felt uneasy with Marines who did not have the woodcraft skills that he possessed. He wanted to hunt on his own.
At first, his fellow Marines questioned the usefulness of a lone sniper, but after six months--and 14 confirmed kills--Hathcock's methods won acceptance. He once said that Vietnam was "just right" for him.
Although he once told a fellow Marine that he never looked at his work "as a shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal," he told the Post reporter that he "did enjoy it once. And it scared me. Bad."
Hathcock's career as a sniper came to a sudden end outside Queson in 1969, when the amphibious tractor he was riding on was ambushed and hit a 500-pound box mine. Hathcock pulled seven Marines off the flame-engulfed vehicle before jumping to safety. As was his way, he rejected any commendation for his bravery.
He came out of the attack with second- and third-degree burns over more than 40% of his body and was evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he underwent 13 skin graft operations. The nature of the injuries left him unable to perform effectively again with a rifle.