Born and raised in Arkansas and having spent the first 12 years of his life living with his grandmother, Carlos Hathcock learned to shoot on his own, hunting rabbits and squirrels in order to feed the family. His father fought in the Second World War in the Marine Corps and Hathcock had dreamed of becoming a Marine since childhood. In 1959, at the age of 17, he joined the Marines. After refining his shooting skills through formal instruction at boot camp, he passed the basic training marksmanship course with Expert status — the highest qualification given.
From boot camp he was transferred to Hawaii, where he received an early education in sniping under the tutelage of Captain Edward James Land, who is considered the founder of the Marine Corps sniping program. In 1961, Hathcock, by then 19, was assigned to the Marine base at Cherry Point, North Carolina. The following year, the shooting team at Cherry Point nearly defeated the premier Marine Corps rifle team, who were from the base at Quantico, Virginia. A few days later, Hathcock was ordered to report to Quantico.
In 1965, Hathcock won the Wimbledon Cup, which was the most prestigious shooting award in the United States. This prize was awarded to the winner of a 1,000-yard shooting contest. At that distance, a bullet's trajectory reaches the height of a three-story building and the center of the target is not perceptible unless a high-powered scope is used. In March 1966, a few weeks after winning the Wimbledon Cup, Hathcock was sent to Vietnam.
At the time of his arrival, the Marine Corps had no organized sniper program. His first assignment in Vietnam was as a military policeman. Wanting to see more action, he volunteered for regular reconnaissance patrols. Unable to take advantage of his exceptional fieldcraft and marksmanship skills, he yearned to hunt for the enemy on his own. At first, the usefulness of a lone sniper was questioned by his fellow Marines, but racking up 14 confirmed kills over six months earned their respect. Meanwhile, Captain Land, his former mentor in Hawaii, had been tasked with creating the Marine Corps’ tactical field program in Vietnam and discovered Carlos Hathcock's name included in a list of distinguished marksmen in Vietnam. This is when he became a Marine sniper.
The Elimination of "Apache"
In late 1966, Hathcock and Land were dispatched to a Marine strongpoint on Hill 55, southwest of Da Nang. Hathcock was stationed with the Scout Sniper Platoon of the 1st Marine Division and Land would start a Marine Scout Sniper school at that location.
A female Viet Cong sniper, platoon commander, and interrogator known as "Apache" had acquired a notorious reputation among the Marines stationed at Hill 55. Shortly after arriving, the two men saw for themselves why. One night, the screams of one Marine who had been captured in an ambush were heard throughout the entire evening. Apache was torturing him. He staggered toward the camp the next morning, bleeding, with much of his skin cut away, castrated, his arms hanging limp, bones broken and exposed. Hathcock ran toward the Marine, who collapsed and died before reaching him.
Hathcock and Land began to stalk her "just like an animal". Every morning the snipers went and searched for Apache; for weeks they returned to base with no sighting to report. Late one afternoon, Land pointed out to Hathcock a small woman fitting Apache's description, ascending a small hillside with a group of armed men. Hathcock observed that the she was carrying a rifle with a scope, which indicated that she was a sniper, confirming the match. When she reached the hilltop he fired, and she collapsed. Land ordered him to "put another one in her". He did, and the body convulsed. Hathcock would later recall that this was the sole kill that he enjoyed, adding that the fact that he did enjoy it scared him.
In a 1987 interview for the Washington Post, Carlos Hathcock was asked if he suffered from nightmares. He replied "not much anymore", adding that there had been one particularly bad one. There was a recurring dream about the Marine that Apache tortured and killed. Sometimes a critical detail in the dream was altered: The Marine was himself.
A Legend Among Snipers
During Operation Desert Storm, a report on U.S. Marine snipers and scouts who had been deployed to Kuwait included the following observation:
The only book snipers all seem familiar with -- other than the Bible -- is Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills, an account of life as a Marine sniper in the Vietnam War by Carlos Hathcock. "You can't get into this sniper unit if you haven't read it," said Sergeant Barrett, who has been a Marine sniper for six years.