We’ve all seen those Hollywood films where the protagonist has a resume that is so full of incredible feats of derring-do that it can’t possibly be true. Well, in regard to Major James Capers, every word of it IS true. Major Capers is a legend, not only in the Marine Corps but in the Special Operations community as well.
Capers’ biography does in fact read like a Hollywood script and what is even more incredible is that it probably is understated. Capers fought plenty of our nation’s enemies during the course of his storied and amazing career. He also fought against racism and prejudice in our own country, where some NCOs and Officers refused to believe that he was worthy of being counted among the best in Special Operations.
Capers was recommended for the Medal of Honor but it was downgraded to the Silver Star. There is now an active push to get his award upgraded but it remains to be seen whether or not it will ever happen during the Major’s lifetime. He’s now 82 years old.
Capers was born in Bishopville, South Carolina, in the Jim Crowe south, just three generations removed from slavery. His father moved to Baltimore and it was a while before the rest of the family could move up with him and be reunited. Capers graduated high school in 1956. He remembers the military recruiters coming to the school looking for recruits. “You had to register for the draft, back then,” he said.
“You had the obligation to serve your country and it started with registering for the draft. I liked what the Marine recruiter had to say and the opportunities that the Corps had available, so I joined up.” Capers was in the infantry and after his first hitch would be up, he would have to face the possibility of getting out with little hope of finding a job on the outside at that time.
But he had found a home in the Marine Corps: it was a good fit for him and vice versa. Capers asked his girlfriend, Dottie, to move out to California, where they would marry and start a new life together. Capers reenlisted to go to the Marine Corps’ Force Recon, the Marines’ Special Operations component. He would spend the next three years with Force Recon at Camp Pendleton.
He would go to jump school and scuba school; yet, still, some old prejudices remained. “Black people can’t swim was all I heard,” Capers remembered. “And I conducted three combat dives and a combat swim in Vietnam and people still persisted with the ‘Blacks can’t swim’ narrative around me.”
Capers was the first African-American to get a battlefield commission in the Marine Corps Force Recon. He went from SSG to 2LT and took over the unit.
“It was an adjustment for some, having never seen a black officer before… I wasn’t an African American back then, I was a Negro, and for some people, they couldn’t accept a Black officer doing the job.”
Capers said he learned about himself as well during that time. Having never been inside an officer’s club, he went there to see what it was “all about.” He ordered a drink at the bar when he saw “a rather large Marine officer come in… [remove] his cover (hat), and [make] a beeline for me.”
Capers said his first thoughts were that he was going to get in trouble for getting into a scrap with a field grade (Major) officer whom, he thought, was obviously going to attempt to remove him from the club.
But it wasn’t why the Major was coming toward him. “This officer knew who I was and wanted to congratulate me on being promoted to 2LT,” Capers remembers. “So, I learned some things about myself, I had prejudged this guy, sometimes we prejudge people like people had prejudged me. I thought he didn’t want me there, and I learned from that.”
In 1966, Capers’s team, which called themselves “Team Broadminded” conducted more than 50 classified missions in Vietnam. Some of them sound like a Hollywood action film; among them, a Top Secret recovery operation. Its purpose was to recover the contents and pilot remains from a USAF B-57 Bomber that had crashed in enemy territory. The plane is rumored to have highly sensitive materials that included a nuclear bomb. The five-day mission was successful and the Top Secret materials were recovered.
Another mission was “Operation Doubletalk.” Capers and a 12-man team was tasked to go deep into Viet Cong territory and rescue four Americans, two Australians, and 26 South Vietnamese allies that were being held prisoner in a jungle POW camp. The CIA provided intelligence and the mission was personally approved by President Johnson.
But what transpired was much like what would happen to U.S. Green Berets in Son Tay about 10 miles outside of Hanoi four years later. The captors had moved the prisoners before the raid. “Our intelligence was bad back in those days,” Capers said sadly.
“I thought we had a good shot at it,” Capers added. “We had a pretty good battle at the camp, we had to fight our way out. We destroyed the prison, killed all the guards, and they were pursued by popular forces all the way to the LZ.”
“It was a difficult time for us,” he said. “Psychologically, we worked so hard to prepare for the mission and we had a Chieu Hoi, (a South Vietnamese VC) who came over to the South Vietnamese government and personally knew where the camp was and led us there.”
The problem for the team was getting back to the LZ. Capers held off the enemy while his men were boarding the choppers and finally, he too was picked up. “It wasn’t about heroism,” he pointed out. “It was just doing your job and making sure we didn’t leave anybody behind.”
“I was the last man on the chopper and got my first Purple Heart and my first Bronze Star on that mission. I was being lifted up by the hoist, about 70 feet off the ground, and I got hit just before they were able to pull me into the chopper.”
Capers’ team, the small 3rd Force Recon detachment, was soon assigned another mission. This one would take them to Phu Loc. Their mission was to locate a large Viet Cong base camp. Capers’ 10-man team had a dog named King with them on the mission.
After some sporadic fighting on the first day, the unit ran into large concentrations of enemy forces. On the second day, his team accounted for 22 kills. While trying to call in artillery fire and F-4 Phantom airstrikes on a hill, the Viet Cong sprang an ambush.
His men were getting wounded and the team set out Claymore mines to keep the enemy at bay. The enemy had been reinforced by NVA (North Vietnamese regular forces), but Capers’ team managed to drive him back. All of his men were wounded. King was killed. Capers was wounded 13 times; his leg was broken.
The team had to fight its way out of the area and get to an LZ from where they would be picked up. The team piled on to a helicopter, but it was overloaded and couldn’t get off the ground. “I decided that I’d lighten the load and I got off the chopper so that my men could get out of there,” he said.
Capers said the bravery and esprit of his team members stood out. He told the medic to treat the most severely wounded first and only treat those he thought he could save because everyone was wounded. The M-79 gunner was hit and being treated by the corpsman, who then moved on to another wounded Marine.
The gunner thought that it meant that he was deemed too injured to save. He squeezed Capers’ hand and said, “Lieutenant, hand me a rifle, I can still fight…” that was his signal to Capers that he was going to survive.
“Those are the personal things in battle that I never forgot,” Capers said. His M-60 gunner was still firing and fighting although missing a leg. It is seared into Capers’ memory as both a source of pride in his unit and a reminder of the horror of war.
The crew chief pulled Capers back on the chopper, yelling in his ear, that they’d make it out. Again the chopper couldn’t take off. Capers once again attempted to sacrifice himself for his men and the crew chief once again yanked him back onto the helicopter.
The third time, the overloaded helicopter shimmied, shivered, and finally was able to get airborne. The chopper crash-landed at the hospital, but everyone on board survived. His gunner had lost a leg, another would lose a kidney in the hospital, but everyone, other than the dog, was still alive. Capers was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions, but it was downgraded to a Silver Star.
Of his team, all but three are now gone, “God has called them home. But I have those memories, there are so many cases, I saw so much bravery there, that I was proud to lead those guys.”
Every year, the team would have a reunion at Capers’ home and they’d bring their wives and families to see their commander. His team couldn’t care less what color Capers’ skin was; he was their commander. “That was the team spirit and love we had as Special Operators,” Capers said. Capers had a brass plaque made with every team member’s name inscribed thereon. It now sits in his backyard, where he says he prays for them every day and will never forget them.
While recovering from his wounds at the Naval Hospital, Capers was approached by the Secretary of the Navy who wondered why the Marines and Navy had so few African Americans officers.
This question set in motion a national recruiting campaign called “Ask a Marine.” Lt. Capers as the face of it. Those posters were everywhere in the United States and spurred a big recruiting drive for the Corps.
“When we were taking the photos, my leg which had been broken, was still hurting from the last battle in Phu Loc and as I was standing there taking the pictures and my legs beginning to weaken and this young Marine standing behind me leaned up and whispered to me ‘it’s okay Lieutenant you can do this, I got you. Don’t worry, you’re not gonna fall. I’m behind you and I will hold you up.'”
Capers remembers the young Marine’s words “I’ll hold you up.” To him, they exemplify the reason why Special Operators are so successful. They are always putting others before themselves.
But still, there were others who refused to accept Capers as a capable Special Operator. Capers was a Major who had commanded the 2nd Force Recon company and was invited to speak to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. A Brigadier General from the Corps was going to take him over to meet the Secretary. Capers was in uniform, wearing his Major’s oak leaves and brought along his executive officer, a captain.
They were waiting for the general in his office and when the general entered, he stepped by Capers and addressed the young captain. “Hello Major Capers, it is good to have you back in the states,” he said. Those were the subtle things that still chafed Capers after 20 years of service. That this general couldn’t fathom that the commanding officer was a black man.
The young captain corrected the general, Capers was embarrassed by it, and the trip to see the Secretary passed in silence.
Capers lost his wife and his son to cancer. They are both buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He lives alone but young Marines continue to visit him and assist him wherever and whenever they can. He’s still a legend within this generation of Marines.
But he finally got the recognition that was due by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In 2010, Major James Capers Jr. was one of only 14 members inducted into the inaugural class of U.S. Special Operations Command’s Commando Hall of Honor at a ceremony in front of USSOCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
Major Capers Jr. is now recognized as a pioneer in Recon training tactics, which are still used by Special Operations Forces. And there is still a movement afoot to upgrade his Silver Star to the Medal of Honor.
But all of those war missions have taken a toll physically and mentally on Major Capers. He explained all of it in his memoirs which were titled “Faith Through the Storm: Memoirs of James Capers, Jr.” They should be a required reading for all Special Operators.