The story of Major Jim Capers: Legendary Force Recon Marine

Kaylah Jackson
June 22, 2018 - 11:50 am

Photo courtesy of MJC Ent

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When Jim Capers Jr. and his team of Reconnaissance Marines were on a mission to rescue American POWs during Vietnam, the then young Lieutenant had prepared what he was going to say upon their  rescue.

“I was going to say, my name is Lieutenant Jim Capers, I come to take you home.”

Unfortunately on that mission, more commonly known as Mission of Mercy, Capers was never able to say those words because the NDA had moved the prisoners prior to the Marines arrival.

While, the team was not able to rescue the POWs, Capers said “there will never be another POW camp because we burned it down to the ground and we killed everybody we could because we were angry at the way they treated our POWS. They starved em’ they brutalized em.”

Mission of Mercy was just one of many missions Jim Capers Jr. participated in. As the first African American to lead a Force Marine Recon team and the first African American to receive a battlefield commission, he has seen his fair share of war but as a young boy he had no idea what he would accomplish during his time in the Corps.

Only three generations removed from slavery, Jim Capers Jr. was born in Bishopville, South Carolina and grew up in a family of sharecroppers along with eight siblings, four of whom died at a young age due to medical complications at the time.  

Early in life, he was taken in by a Caucasian Family who helped raise him up until he and his siblings moved to Baltimore, Maryland to live with their father.

In Maryland, he describes how Baltimore was in good spirits after WWI and the idea of being in the military wasn’t a stretch for him. The draft was in effect and the only real choice he had was to decide on which branch. As Capers describes, everyone loved the Marine Corps uniform and they seemed the most disciplined. Coupled with the Marine Corps’ success at the tail end of the Korean War, joining the Corps was ideal for him.

On June 13th 1956, he left for Parris Island and like many veterans can attest, boot camp was no joke.

“It was an awakening. Parris Island is one of the more disciplined in which it takes a young man from civilian life and turns him into what we call a killer, because that’s what we do that’s who we are…they make you rely on your buddy. You eat, you sleep, you fight, if necessary you die as a team,” said Capers.

Photo courtesy of MJC Ent

In addition to the environment of boot camp, Capers entered the service during a time of racial unrest, only 14 years after the Marine Corps had integrated in 1941 and being drafted not too long after the Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Point Marines.

As an African American man who didn’t serve alongside too many that look like him, the Montford Point Marines became like big brothers to Capers.

“I was standing on their shoulders…those were the guys that kept you squared away…down here in the south it was segregated...There was a place where you had the black Marines and white Marines would go in different establishments…there were signs up all over the area that said “White only” and you had to walk on a certain side of the street,” said Capers.

Infantry training was the next accomplishment for Capers after boot camp but after three years and his contract obligation coming to an end Jim Capers had a decision to make—to go home and start another career or stay in.

With a lack of job prospects back in Maryland, he made the decision to extend his time in the Marines so he asked his high school sweetheart, Dottie to come with him to California and from there they would marry, start a new life and Capers would try his hand at join Force Recon Group, one of the Marine Corps Special Operations Forces.

The Force Recon test which he says is “brutal and I’d like to forget,” proved challenging the first time and he didn’t make the cut but that was only more inspiration for him to try again. The Special Operations recruiter told him to come back to the office and try again—which of course, he did.

Capers recalls “He was sitting at his desk and he had a grenade on his desk and he picked the grenade up and threw it at me and ask if I would jump on it and I told him ‘hell no’ and I was admitted to the company.”

This would be the start of his Marine Corps career, mostly overseas as part of an essentially 10-team tasked to go in before the infantry. He went to parachute school and became a frogman. He was an expert in martial arts and demolitions, all training that saved his and his men’s lives during his time in Vietnam.

Photo courtesy of MJC Ent

“Being a commando is not necessarily just killing people, you have to have the intellect. We have some of the brightest commandos because they’re not just guys that walk off the street. You got to be tough and you have to be willing to sacrifice to have that title,” said Capers.

In Vietnam, Capers was assigned with leading his team and because of his work, he received a battlefield commission from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. From this point on he was in command on Third Force Recon, also referred to as Team Broadminded (a name they gave themselves)

Working mostly at night, sometimes surviving on only a meal a day, the men would participate in multiple missions including Operation Deckhouse, an amphibious assault to clear the DMZ of Viet Cong Forces and rescued 16 Marines, a B-57 Recovery mission and the fierce battle of Phu Loc on a search and destroy patrol in an effort to locate an NVA regimental base. In was during that last firefight in Phu Loc where Capers was gravely injured.

Patrolling in the village of Phu Loc while the 10-man team was looking for North Vietcong, the unit became engulfed in a firefight. Capers would sustain broken limbs and enduring the blast of a Claymore before he ordered the rest of his team to evacuate on a helicopter with him continuing to return fire on the enemy.

After that mission he was sent to Marine Barack Ft. Meade and placed on limited duty due to recover from his injuries. While 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 questioned morphed into what would become a national recruiting campaign called “Ask a Marine” with Maj. Capers as the face of it.

What many don’t know is that the history behind that famous poster.

Photo courtesy of MJC Ent

“While I was taking the photos my legs been broke, still hurting from the last battle and I was standing there taking the pictures and my legs beginning to weaken and the trooper behind me leaned up and whispered to me ‘it’s okay Lieutenant you can do this, if you fall, I’ll pick you up. Don’t worry, you’re not gonna fall. I’m behind you.’”

Capers said he remembers the words “I’ll hold you up” and is intent on telling anyone who asks that the real hero is the young man in the poster standing behind him, not him, himself.

For his actions in Vietnam, he received the Silver Star and today, there is still petition for him to receive the Medal of Honor for which he was initially nominated for.

At age 81, Maj. Capers Jr. now lives in South Carolina. As a widower, he is still upbeat, and has quite a colorful recollection of his contributions to the Marine Corps. He participated in 50 classified missions, was wounded 19 times in battle but because of his humble spirit, he consistently uplifts the work of the men he served with and honors those that were lost in combat.

“Major Capers: The Legend of Team Broadminded” tells the story of him along with the number missions the Force recon Marines went on and is expected to be released this year.

Director and Executive Producer Ashley Cusato wants the military and both the African American community and a broader international audience to be inspired by his life.

“When he is told no or there is an obstacle in front of him, he always kept a positive outlook and he just continued to persevere. When someone told him that he wasn’t going to be able to swim when he was going through dive training as a Marine, he just took it like a grain of salt and ended up being one of the best swimmers in the Marine corps at the time and went on to lead dive missions in Vietnam.”

The level of grit and heart of Major Capers stretches across the Marine Corps and beyond and his legendary story is one that all, military and civilian alike can learn from.

To find more about the documentary, visit the website, https://www.capersthedoc.com/

Click below to listen to a portion of Maj. Capers interview during the Eye on Veterans weekend show.

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