His story in the U.S. Naval magazine, The Sea Tiger, had made his name known at last to the North Vietnamese. For months this Marine sniper had killed dozens of their finest soldiers, as well as their compatriots in the Viet Cong, practically at will. He did this with such effectiveness that they had nicknamed him Long Tra’ng (White Feather), based on the ornament he wore on the side of his boonie hat. This symbolism seemed to taunt his enemies with the fact that, no matter how hard they tried, they would never kill him and he would always be the last man standing in any duel with the best they sent.
This Marine’s name was Sergeant Carlos Hathcock II, of the 1st Marine division. A man who plied his trade around his home on Hill 55 in South Vietnam. An area where his mark was such that a bounty lay unclaimed by the many who had sought him out because they had become part of his tally of kills.
He knew he was wanted, but it didn’t faze him in the least. He continued his stalks, unaware that hundreds of miles away a certain man with a similar talent had read of his fame and been assigned, like so many others before him, to hunt down the wily American and end his mastery of the battlefield. Unlike them though, his superiors would make sure this hunter was especially good before sending him south along the Ho Chi Minh trail and into Hathcock’s killing grounds. Once he arrived, he planned to lure the sniper into a duel on his terms, with one well aimed shot that would signify the victor.
No one has ever found the name of this North Vietnamese sniper, when exactly he departed for South Vietnam, or how many he would/did kill before arriving around Hill 55, but his story is believed to have began with the confirmation of Hathcock’s identity in Sea Tiger. Senior officers sought out the best sniper they could find, and gave him the sole purpose of hunting down and killing White Feather.
To ensure success they set about training him in an area that looked like the region he would operate in. Here, he practiced field craft beyond what would be considered acceptable to the point that everything he did, stalking, building hides, escaping, marksmanship and enduring hardship was studied for any weaknesses. Like Hathcock, he seemed to become one with his surroundings, able to cover any trace of his presence, and move like a ghost through the jungle. There was no better sniper either in the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong on the day he was ready to head south.
Back at Hill 55, Hathcock, unaware of just how famous he had become, continued heading into the field almost every day with his spotter to lay in wait for an enemy that he felt was trampling in his back yard. He worked himself to exhaustion wanting to make sure he got the bad guys before they could kill his fellow Marines. All those who watched him knew his formidable reputation was well deserved.
By now, Hathcock already had dozens of kills to his credit, as well as hundreds of probables. Some of these were notable, like the time he killed a female VietCong sniper called the Apache, who seemed to derive a sexual pleasure from skinning alive captured prisoners. One of these episodes involved a young Marine that she carved on all night near Hill 55, so his screams could be heard by the camp. Hathcock listened to the pitiful wailing until morning when she released him at the forests edge, without most of his skin. He collapsed and died as he reached the hill’s concertina wire. A few days later Hathcock sent a bullet first into the Apache’s neck, then into her torso after the lifeless body rolled to a stop. “It was the best shot I ever made,” he later said with satisfaction about the kill.
He was also loaned out at times, such as to kill a Frenchman who specialized in interrogating prisoners, and later to knock off a general whose location could very well have been over the border in North Vietnam or Laos. Neither were ever verified. He also achieved a shooting record unmatched until 2002 in Afghanistan: a 2,250 meter kill using a .50 caliber machine gun upon which he had mounted his scope.
These accomplishments were among many others, but none ever rivaled the skill of a small man he soon heard was coming to visit him. He was informed this particular sniper lived off the land, slept amid rocks, ate snakes and bugs, and yearned for the moment Hathcock would step into his crosshairs. He thrilled at the hunt, just like him. It was the one from the North, with his special mission, later to earn the nickname the Cobra sniper. And the duel that he and Hathcock would have, along with its finish, is the stuff of legend.
The Cobra left his calling card one day when he peered through the stubby telescopic site on his Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle at Hill 55, and lined up on one of the Marines outside his tent. Controlled breathing and a gentle squeeze in between breaths sent a .30 caliber 180 grain round tearing into the man’s torso, throwing him to the ground behind sandbags, where others tried to stem the bleeding to no avail.
Hathcock watched the man die. He had heard the distant shot, then the cries for help. The hill’s return fire hit nothing. No more shots came from the jungle either. In his gut he suspected it was the one who gunned for him, and, at that moment, resolved to eliminate him.
Covered in leafy vegetation, the Cobra hoped White Feather would come after him. He retreated back into the jungle where he had prepared a trap for Hathcock. He deliberately left a trail knowing the American would see it as a ruse and avoid it, likely veering toward a cave near a hill where he would be waiting to ambush. As the rains fell and Hathcock didn’t show, he mentally prepared himself for tomorrow’s showdown, certain that only one would survive.
Hathcock and his spotter, John Burke, disappeared into the jungle just as sunrise approached and commenced their stalk. The temperature climbed rapidly as they wormed their way on their bellies through the thick greenery, over small hills and draws, through chest high weeds and snaring vines. They soon came upon the Cobra’s trail and Hathcock realized it was a trap. They began working their way away from the trail, trying to flank their quarry. The Cobra raised from behind a rotted log and sighted. He briefly saw the white feather and drew on the trigger. A shot rang out and John burke gasped. “I’m hit!” He rolled out of the scope’s field of view and lay next to Hathcock, who was already feeling for the entry wound.
He felt liquid. Not blood but water. The shot had slammed into Burke’s canteen.
“You ain’t hurt. He just killed your canteen,” Hathcock said in a low voice. “C’mon.”
They began crawling again, working their way up a hill near where the Cobra’s original position was. By now, the two sides had been stalking for hours. The Cobra, disappointed his shot killed no one, moved deeper into the grass and found a suitable place where he could watch the breadth of the hill where he suspected the sniper would be. Hathcock and Burke stayed away from its edge as the sun crossed its zenith and began its downward trek. With shadows starting to play around them, Hathcock finally found a spot where he could traverse his scope out over hundreds of meters of the clearing beneath him without being seen. And it was then that he saw the strangest thing.
A glint. It came from the high grass. It disappeared at first then came back as bright as sun shining against a diamond. Hathcock recognized it amid terrain they already covered. He saw nothing else, but that unnatural gleam puzzled him. He decided to go for it. Steadying the crosshairs of his Winchester Model 70 30.06 bolt action he squeezed, absorbing the recoil into his shoulder. An uncertain shot cracked from the hill.
A 173 grain Sierra boat-tail bullet slammed through the Cobra’s scope without touching the sides and exploded through his right eye into the brain. Blood spurted over the dark red Mosin-Nagant’s stock, making it darker still as more blood trickled over bits of shattered glass.
Hathcock and Burke exercised caution moving in on their kill, careful to avoid any booby traps or mines. When they reached the dead man, the sniper realized he had just made a one in a million shot and something else, more foreboding, dawned on him. As he studied the blown out scope he asked Burke, “What’s the only way I could make this shot?”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. He had to be looking through his scope right at me for me for this to happen. I was just the quickest on the trigger.” Relief turned to respect. “This guy was good. About as hard as they come.” They searched his pockets and found a map of Hill 55, took his rifle and ammunition and headed back as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Hathcock later tagged the weapon hoping to keep it as a souvenir. Unfortunately, he never saw it again.
Hathcock and Burke reported to their Captain, E.J. Land, about the encounter, and headed to their tents. After cleaning his rifle, the Marine sniper plopped down on his cot and quickly drifted off to sleep, thoughts of the day’s stalk already fading with what might happen tomorrow, and a certainty that he always carried…
He knew he was the best.
*Editor’s note: This article’s headline was modified on 9/6/2019 and was originally written by Mike Perry.