Against the Odds is a new television documentary series that features incidents from Vietnam, Iraq, Korea and World War II where troops faced insurmountable opposition and managed to find a way to come out on top. The six-part series debuts Monday March 3rd at 10pm ET on the American Heroes Channel.
We talked to John Ligato, a Marine vet who's featured in the premiere episode The Marines at Hue, which details their efforts to retake Hue City during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Ligato served in Alpha Company during the battle and later went on to have an incredible career that includes undercover work for the FBI.
(What is the American Heroes Channel? It's a rebranding of the Military Channel that also launches on Monday. Obviously they're not giving up on the military-themed programming but they say they want to "broaden the scope" of the channel. That probably means they're going to make reality shows about first responders, but it's early days. You can find the American Heroes Channel at the same number on your TV that you've been using for the Military Channel.)
The two screener episodes we've seen include The Marines at Hue and Those Damned Engineers, which details efforts by Army engineers to blow up bridges and keep Nazi forces from retaking Antwerp in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The series is narrated by Rob Lowe and these two episodes focus on the first-hand accounts of the men who fought with minimal use of historians for context.
John Ligato is one of the main interview subjects in The Marines at Hue. Even though the show focuses exclusively on his role in the battle, he turns out to be a fascinating guy with a lot of history aside from his role in this battle.
Is the first documentary interview you’ve done about your experience in Hue City?
I've been doing a lot of speeches for the Marine Corps and the military over the years, but this is the first time. They’ve done several documentaries on Hue but this is the first time that I was asked. Part of the reason I was asked is that they were looking for somebody that went in first in Hue and I was with the first contingent, probably the second fireteam in Hue.
Have you had a chance to see the documentary?
I have. We're doing a premiere at Camp Lejeune for 1500 active duty Marines next week. And I snuck and saw it and they did a great job with it.
I was glad to see that “The Marines at Hue” is the first film that’s being broadcast and that the World War 2 stories are coming late. It seems that your generation is finally getting their recognition for its service.
I guess it was a generational thing. You know, we skipped a generation where we heard, “Thank you for your service.” The first time I heard that was in the Iraq/Afghanistan war. It's great. I think for the first time the American public is able to separate the war from the warrior. They haven't been able to make that distinction before. And they could be against the war, but they're pro-veteran.
The film doesn’t give a lot of background on you. Tell our readers how you became a Marine.
I'm from South Philly. I grew up pretty poor. We didn’t even have a bathroom sink and we brushed our teeth in the tub. I got accepted to college, but coming right out of Philly, I was a rascal of a kid who came from the inner city. I got expelled and those were the days when got drafted in about 30 days if you left school. That was ’67.
Going up in the 50's and 60’s, I had always enjoyed watching cowboy movies and war movies. My father and uncles were in the Army in World War II and I just had to see what it was like. Everybody tries to talk you out of going in the Marines. But once you earn that title, Marine, it’s worth every extra mile and pushup. And you hate to say it, but you know when you see a Marine, we think of ourselves as the best.
After Hue City, how much longer you were a Marine?
I got wounded three times and back then they had a rule that, if you got three Purple Hearts, you couldn’t go back. I kept volunteering to go back and they wouldn’t let me. So with the three Purple Hearts, they let me out a year early because I was a rifleman. And a rifleman without a war, there wasn’t much for me to do, so they let me out to go to college.
So I got out, maybe five, six months after Vietnam. I was in the hospital for a few months in the Philippines, came back to the States and went back to the college that expelled me. They let me back in and I ended up getting my bachelors and master's degree.
Talk about your law enforcement career after college.
I think that any veteran that’s seen a lot of combat, when you come back you're a little squirrelly the first year. I don’t care what your education or background is. And once you adjust to that, you’ve got to decide to go on and do something.
My father was a Philadelphia Police Officer. My grandfather was a Philadelphia detective. I always liked law enforcement. But when I got my bachelors, I worked with handicapped children for ten years. Then got my masters and I joined the FBI.
This was back when the FBI didn’t have as many rules and regulations on undercover work. Mr. Hoover did not allow agents to go undercover. And once he passed, they got an undercover program. I was in the heyday of that. Generally, we were just making it up as we went along. It's very sophisticated now.
I had grown up in South Philly, which is predominantly Italian, first generation. I knew the culture. I knew the language. I knew what to do and not to do around wise guys because I grew up around wise guys in Philly. So it was very natural for me to go deep against the mafia. And once you're successful, you stay in it. You know, that’s who you are and that’s what you do.
You worked with Special Agent Joseph Pistone and were involved in the undercover operations that were the basis for the movie “Donnie Brasco.”
He was my partner for a while. They did a movie called 10th & Wolf based on my life. And it's like, "10th & Wolf," which was a street near where I lived. I talk to Joe all the time. We did work undercover for many years and Donnie Brasco is still Donnie Brasco, who hasn’t changed from when he was undercover.
I retired from the FBI in January 2003. I have a radio show, a talk show for nine years in Cleveland. I did some contract work for the government. I taught college. I taught criminal justice at a college in northern Ohio. I developed a covert ops course, which was funny. I actually took the FBI undercover certification school and adapted it to college, which was fun. The students loved it.
I do shows for the USO and first responders. It’s likke an old Bob Hope vaudeville show. And I go out and try to raise money for the nonprofits that are associated with first responders or the military. For example, like Third Battalion 25th Marines has a nonprofit group that we raise money for.
“Against the Odds,” which features events from Iraq, Korea and Vietnam as well as World War II, seems like it wants to put the men who’ve fought in all our wars on the same footing and give their experiences equal recognition.
Well, that’s how it is with the guys I know. It's a brotherhood. The military is timeless. Every generation of the Marines has been the same and Marines from 1775 are no different from us. We're trained the same. We're Marines.