At my core, I am a United States Marine. I was once a Marine, I am today a Marine, and I will always be a United States Marine. Further, I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, having served one full tour “in country” in 1967 and 1968 as an infantry officer with the 1st Battalion of the “Fighting Fifth” Marines, the legendary Marine infantry regiment.
I have always loved to read (at least since my sophomore year in high school after my English teacher assigned us the book Brave New World, a novel written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley) and ultimately my joy in reading transferred into a similar joy in writing. In particular, I love history, although I found much of what was taught in those history classes to be very boring (after all, why did I need to remember when the Magna Carta was signed? It was much more interesting to know what the Magna Carta was, and how it impacted humanity and affected our world, wasn’t it?).
And then, in the summer of 1966, I found myself in USMC Boot Camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, and my interest in history ramped up rather dramatically. With a little help from my Drill Instructors, who made it very clear to us that in order to “be” a Marine, we would need to learn not only the names and dates of our historical characters, but also what they did, and how it affected the Marine Corps’ history and legacy. Those very fascinating “characters” (and yes, many of them were truly just that) caught my imagination, and I have never stopped reading and studying history, in particular the Vietnam War chapter of U. S. Marine Corps history.
My friends and family have often asked me why I must write these histories. First and foremost, I’m determined to write the truth about the Vietnam War as I experienced it. How it tasted and smelled, looked and felt. How it is remembered by those who rose to the challenge of serving their country, risking everything in that worthy endeavor. Much of what has been written and most movies about the Vietnam War focus on “caricatures of aberrations” – a renegade general being pursued by a drunken Army Captain; drugged-out sergeants turning on each other, Americans killing their own. These lurid stories are mostly made-up; if similar incidents did occur, at least in my experience, they were the rare exceptions, not the rule. For the most part, those who experienced combat in Vietnam served their country and the South Vietnamese people with honor, did their best to do their duty and to survive the ordeals of combat, and then returned home and went on with their lives. That’s the Vietnam War I choose to write about. There will always be writers out there who wish to focus on those caricatures and aberrations, and there will always be folks willing to pay for the book to read those lurid stories. I willingly and gladly leave it to them.
When asked to describe the fighting during the battle for Iwo Jima in the South Pacific in World War Two, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz summed up the Marine fighting spirit with these few powerful words, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” These words aptly describe the Marines and sailors I served with in Vietnam.
I write about the Vietnam combat veterans of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, because they’re true Americans who have done some rather amazing things as they served their country and Corps with honor and distinction, and because they are my friends. I will never forget the Marines of “One Five,” our battalion. All of them seemed so very young, yet many of them displayed an awesome courage, a gut-wrenching toughness and determination that allowed them to stand up in the face of certain death, and to somehow overcome their fears and push forward toward the sounds of gunfire. Over and over, for nearly thirteen months, I witnessed these young Americans as they overcame those all-too-real fears to defy the enemy trying to kill them, and somehow overcame adversity; and, in virtually every single battle during the Vietnam War, emerged victorious.
I also can’t forget the exotic sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the beautiful country called Vietnam. If ever a place fit the description of an “exotic foreign land,” Vietnam does. A picture taken from almost any spot in Vietnam could instantly become a best-selling “scenic” picture postcard. Vietnam’s coastlines boast hundreds of miles of palm-lined, white sandy beaches splashed by the clear, blue-green water of the South China Sea. Her western highlands are dominated by towering jungle-covered mountains overlooking huge expanses of emerald-green rice paddies spread dramatically between the feet of the mountains, and the shoulder of the South China Sea;s coastline.. Beautifully framed, nearly-magical villages and hamlets lay haphazardly across the landscape, near rivers or streams, interspersed throughout the lowlands, almost all of it paddy land. Yes, Vietnam was and is a beautiful, exquisitely scenic place, although many very disturbing black blemishes scarred the countryside during the war.
I can’t forget the smell of death, and the constant and shattering scenes of destruction that the war machines from both sides wreaked upon this beautiful but unfortunate land. Nearly every day of my 13-month combat tour in South Vietnam I witnessed, up close and personal, just how ugly a picture postcard scene could become at the hands of a 250-pound bomb, or some daisy-chained 105mm artillery shells set up as a command-detonated bomb, or napalm, or mortar and artillery fire, or the sustained concentration of small arms fire from machine guns and other automatic weapons; or worse, by shattered animal and human bodies littering the ground. Many of those scenes remain etched within my memories, and in my soul, indelibly, forever.
But most importantly I can’t, and I will never forget the U. S. Marines, the young American heroes who served with Charlie One Five during the Vietnam War. I can’t forget what they said and what they did. I have forgotten some of their names, but I can’t and won’t forget what they looked like. Their faces appear as canvases in my memories, upon which the complete scale of human emotions played out.
I saw laughter and happiness on those faces, because even in the most difficult and trying circumstances, these guys could somehow find humor. I saw the joy and elation of survival on those faces, but almost always those particular emotions became shaded with guilt, because they experienced joy from a victory in battle which meant that they had killed other human beings. Their faces often showed another form of guilt, generated by an involuntary but very human elation that overwhelmed them when they had somehow survived another battle, but their buddy had not. I saw their faces filled with anger, with hatred, with frustration, with fear, and with abject terror. I saw the facial etchings of hunger and fatigue, the dark shadows of sleep deprivation surrounding their wary eyes. I saw the quick acquisition of deep lines of physical exhaustion on their young but rapidly aging faces, oftentimes caused by physical deeds that they seemed uncertain they could do – but that somehow, they did.
These emotions came not only at the hands of our enemy, the Viet Cong and NVA soldiers, but also from our other enemy, the very land we fought to protect. The extreme terrain and weather conditions, as well as the exotic and dangerous wildlife and supposedly domesticated animals of South Vietnam sometimes took a greater toll on us than our Viet Cong and NVA enemy. Vietnam was then, and remains today, a truly amazing, exotic, and beautiful place.
Another emotion I invariably witnessed on the face of the Marines I met was love; love of America; love of the Marine Corps; love of freedom; love of a buddy. The reason didn’t matter one bit. Love simply resided there, in their hearts, every day. Love and deep friendship became determination, which became courage, which became the bravery to act in the face of certain death. And act they did, on many, many occasions. Some came home; too many didn’t.
These young Marines and their stories are my “motivation” to write the truth as I saw it in Vietnam. I believe their stories, especially the stories of those who did not come home, are very important. I believe that every American should study these stories and all the others that have been written about this era in American history, often labeled “the most divisive period in our history.” It’s important because I believe that the tragic outcome of the Vietnam War is negatively impacting our nation today, and every day, and has been since that long-ago day, April 30, 1975, when the war came to its horrible and unnecessary conclusion – the day the North Vietnamese Army secured Saigon. This was the day that the U. S. Congress’s betrayal of our ally, the Republic of South Vietnam, and the abandonment of their people to their fate, took their tragic effect.
In my heart, I believe that until we learn the truly important lessons from the Vietnam War, that legacy will continue to haunt our nation, and we will never be able to effectively defend our rights, our people, and our way of life, militarily, against any foe that has learned from those lessons and understand our Achilles heel. The only war in world history wherein one combatant won all the battles and yet lost the war, the American chapter of the Vietnam War, will remind them that all they have to do is watch and wait, and eventually we will give up and go home.