A Former Marine Platoon Commander Reflects on Vietnam
Profilers: Richard Vining, Dev Pokhriyal, Paul Carbon
Eric Chase Interview
Text: “I think it’s important to distinguish between our troops and the government that gives them the orders. The Marines I knew and still know are the greatest people I’ve ever met. I can’t say that about the politicians.”
My fellow Americans: – As President and Commander in Chief, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.
The destroyers and supporting aircraft acted at once on the orders I gave after the initial act of aggression.
There were no U.S. losses.
Chase: When it came to light how much lying our leadership did about Vietnam, I found that to be offensive. My gold standard, most Marine’s gold standard is the truth.
Chase: My name is Eric chase. I served as a Marine Corps. Officer in Vietnam. And my first choice was to be an infantry officer. And I was, I went to language school for a while before I went to Vietnam. And found myself as a platoon leader in Vietnam which was a very memorable and mostly positive experience for me even though I was wounded in combat, and saw others get wounded. I felt I was doing a good thing. Looking back on it I still feel I was doing a good thing, not withstanding my previous comments about how our national leadership did not tell the truth about Vietnam and its prospects.
Question: Can you describe the path you took to become a Marine, before going to Vietnam?
Chase: Yeah I started that during college. I was in a Marine Corps program called platoon leaders class. So during the summer between sophomore and junior years and then one other summer, I went to Quantico to OCS so that when I graduated from Princeton in 1968 I got my commission at the same time. I became a second lieutenant and then shortly thereafter I went on active duty for over three years which included my Vietnam time and some other service as well.
Question: What is OCS?
Chase: That’s called Officer Candidates School. And in the Marine Corps, it’s centered in Quantico, Virginia. So you go down there, in my case, I did it during summer breaks, in college. But if you go to OCS after you graduate that’s where you go to. It’s the one place where they train their officers-to-be in the Marine Corps and weed out the ones who aren’t going to make it. And those who do make it go on to get their commissions.
Question: Did you have any additional training or education before going to Vietnam?
Chase: Well, yeah. In the Marine Corps, generally speaking, with certain kinds of exceptions for pilots and others, you go to Quantico for six months after you’ve been commissioned. And you go to school essentially for second lieutenants in Quantico for six months, which I did. And then after that, I was assigned to go to language school for eight months which I did in Monterey, California at the Defense Language Institute, for Vietnamese. So, I spent many months learning the language before I went to Vietnam.
Question: Did you get to know any of the Vietnamese speakers at the language school?
Chase: Of the ones that I got to know a little bit, there was one who had gone South from the North and was a South Vietnamese when I knew him and married to a South Vietnamese woman who was also one of our teachers. And yeah, they were very fine people and the ones that I got to know at Monterey were generally bilingual. In other words, they were pretty good English speakers as well as being native Vietnamese speakers.
Question: Did the Vietnamese language teacher disagree with North Vietnam and their political ideologies?
Chase: Well he didn’t get into that kind of philosophical discussion, but obviously he did I mean he fled the North which was a totalitarian place, and the South was a much freer, Democrat oriented place at that time. It wasn’t so after we were gone and the other side took over. But these were people who wanted to be free just like we do, and a lot of people went South from the North at the time of the division. The North was a tough place, the South yearned to be free.
Question: What was your impression of Vietnam before the war?
Chase: Well before the war I had no impression at all. I knew nothing about Vietnam, but as as we became more involved and I was in school I got to read about it a little bit, and it sounded like some very tough history. And I learned a lot about that when I was going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for eight months. All of our instructors were Vietnamese. So, I got to know those people. They were wonderful, and as part of our coursework, mostly in Vietnamese, they would talk about Vietnamese history and their many troubles over time with China that you know was obviously the big guy in the neighborhood and goes back a long way and at that time at least they had no love lost for each other.
Question: Before attending college and OCS, did you want to go off to war?
Chase: It was going on all that time. So, I had no mistaken thoughts about doing anything else. I was going to the Marines and a heavy percentage of Marines do what I did. I became an infantry officer. I went to Vietnam as an infantry officer, and there I was.
Question: Did you want to be a Marine while you were a child?
Chase: I did. My dad was a World War II Marine. So, when I grew up I had his example. He never tried to persuade me of anything, I just went ahead and did it myself but I had his example.
Question: After graduating, what was the process like going to Vietnam?
Chase: Well, it didn’t take long. I arrived in Vietnam and I was assigned to go to the First Marine Division, went there, they assigned me to a regiment, and then to a battalion, and then to a company which was, it’s a company. Lima company which was in the Third Battalion, 7th Marines, First Marine Division. So, as you go down that ladder I eventually ended up with Lima company as a platoon commander, an infantry platoon commander, which is what I was in my time in Vietnam.
Question: How many men were under your command?
Chase: That varied quite a bit. A standard platoon, a table of organization, TO platoon would have had about 50 guys. In one platoon we sometimes had 15 or 20 so in essence I took two platoons, and the total of the two platoons which I commanded were probably 30 or 35 Marines. Table of organization calls for many more, but by sickness, injury, wounding it was depleted. And I didn’t last that long. I was only in Vietnam roughly about three months, give or take, before I got wounded and medevac’d out of the country. I spent six weeks in the hospital in Japan and they didn’t send me home then. They sent me to Okinawa. I tried to get back to Vietnam, but the commanding general I spoke to about it looked it up and he couldn’t send me because there was a, then, an administrative rule saying if you’d been wounded in combat, hospitalized for more than 30 days, you could not go back. So, I spent the rest of my tour in Okinawa.
Question: Were you disappointed after learning you couldn’t return to Vietnam after being wounded?
Chase: Yeah I was very disappointed. I tried to go back. And I went and personally saw the commanding general of the Marine Corps. base on Okinawa. He was a one-star and later became commandant. General Bob Barrow was his name. And I went before him and said “sir, I’m getting kind of a run around. I’m trying to get back to my unit in Vietnam” and he said to me “Well, that’s a worthy request. I will look into it and call you back in as soon as I have an answer for you.” A few days later he called me in and he said “there is now a regulation in affect. For anybody who was hospitalized because of combat wounds for more than thirty days, you are barred from returning to Vietnam and there is nothing I can do about it.” So that was that. I stayed in Okinawa.
Question: What did you do for the remainder of your tour in Okinawa?
Chase: Interesting. I was in a battalion called a maintenance battalion, which had nothing to do with infantry or anything. I was the one officer with an infantry M.O.S. assigned to this battalion and I was the training officer for the battalion. It was interesting and fun but not what I wanted to do.
Question: You were awarded the Purple Heart award? Can you describe what it is and why you received it?
Chase: The Purple heart is given to those combatants who are injured by enemy action, and I was shot in the leg by a North Vietnamese while on a combat patrol.
Question: Which part of Vietnam were you stationed?
Chase: We were in a place about 60… Most of my time up there, from beginning to end, was in an area called the Que Son mountains, not to be confused with Khe Son, the Qua Son Mountains. Every day we were out searching for and trying to make contact with the enemy and we did. A lot. And then on that final day, when I got hit and got medevac’d, I got hit so I was sent to the hospital at Danang and then Japan and then Okinawa for the remainder of the tour.
Question: Did you socialize with any of the locals?
Chase: No. No, my time was always, you know except for the very beginning when I was back at the regiment near Danang, I had no contact with civilian Vietnamese. My interaction with Vietnamese were with the enemy in the field and we were shooting at each other.
Question: How often did you encounter the enemy?
Chase: Every day. In fact, the day that I got hit, the day before that we had an engagement where we killed a bunch of ‘em, and then went back looking for the unit where they came from and got into another scrap and that’s when I got hit. And of course we were good at what we did and obviously careful, but sometimes even when you’re careful, with armed combatants on both sides, we get hit too. And yeah, we were we were looking for them, often found them and when we found them the shooting erupted we would call in air, artillery support. We had a tremendous power advantage over them because our enemies didn’t have those kinds of support that we did and they couldn’t where they were. Well they could at times but not here. We had artillery from a distance and we could call in air support.
Question: Can you describe the battle where you were shot?
Chase: Sure, it doesn’t take long to tell because everything happened quickly. But the day before I was wounded, when I look back, that day was January the fourth, 1970. On the third, I led my platoon in an ambush where we shot up a bunch of the enemy and went back into the same area the following day, the fourth. And, early on in that movement toward where we had been, the enemy opened up on me. They were targeting me. So I had a lot of rounds hitting around me and one of them hit me in the leg.
Question: What types of feelings did you have before, during, and after combat?
Chase: I guess the feeling I had was more one of excitement than fear. I think you would find that common among people who have been in combat. You’re trained for it. Of course I had been there for a while already and faced it before. It was somebody doing a professional job, well trained for it as a Marine. I also had a father who was a World War 2 Marine on Hiroshima where he was wounded twice. So he shared some of those experiences with me. I now have a son who’s soon to be a lieutenant colonel in the Marines. And he saw combat in Afghanistan and Syria. So we have a legacy within the family. It’s not something that’s unusual for us. And I still have a lot of friends from the Marine Corps to this day, and we have a lot in common in that regard, I think.
Question: You seem matter-of-fact about your experiences, do you choose to remember them in this light?
Chase: Well obviously it was very serious. And even though I have a calm exterior, I know that these are life and death events. And I recognize, intellectually and otherwise, that you can get killed doing this thing. But I remember it very well and looking back on it, the whole experience was positive. I’m glad I went and did my part and didn’t try to get out of it. In those days, there still was a draft. So whereas the Princetonians of today, almost none of them go into the military. I think about half my class, class of 1968 at Princeton, did some form of military service. But they make no bones about it. A lot of those people who did service took whatever steps they could to avoid first of all going to Vietnam and if they had to go to Vietnam, not in a combat role. I’ll see some of them on that reunion weekend. And there were others, including a couple Marines, who sought the hardest challenges, which I like to think is the better way.
Question: Do you remember any strong friendships with other Marines that were in Vietnam with you?
Chase: I do. I mean even to this day there are two in particular that I keep regular contact with. One of them, a fellow by the name of Jim Van Ripper was our company commander in Vietnam and he retired as a colonel. He stayed active duty for his full 30 years. His brother Paul van Ripper, his twin brother, retired as a three star and I’ve known the Van Ripper’s, particularly Jim, for all these years, and one of my fellow platoon commanders by the name of Arnold Punaro pretty much followed the same track I did: Came off active duty, went into the reserves, rose to the rank of Major General as a reservist, and he worked for 24 years ultimately being then senator Sam Nunn’s number one guy. He wrote a book that was published by the Naval Institute Proceedings. Very good book and I think the name of it is On War and Politics. The first part of it is all about the Vietnam experience, which I shared. In fact, he kind of starts the books off, not using my name in that part, but he mentions me a few times in the book, but he mentioned the day I got shot and he got shot later in the day. So, it’s an interesting story that sort of book ends what you and I are talking about. He gets into the longer part of the book later where he talks about all his time at the Senate with Senator Nunn.
Question: After returning from Vietnam, did you see any anti-war sentiment from your peers?
Chase: There were some of that. When I first got back, I spent some time at Quantico before I went home to go to law school. Home was in Minnesota so I went through the University of Minnesota Law School where a few of my classmates were veterans. Two of my classmates were active duty and one in the army, one in the Navy, and they they were spending their active duty time going to law school. And I would say you know there were protests on campus like most campuses and I just ignored it.
Question: Looking back, would you change anything you did in Vietnam? If you could.
Chase: I don’t know that I would change anything personally. I was very very offended in later years when I learned in in detail how much lying was going on from the presidential level on down about what we were doing and I found that very offensive. If you haven’t read it yet, H.R. McMaster did an absolutely superb book on all of that. You may recall, McMaster was in one of these administrations for a while. When it came to light how much light how much lying our leadership did about Vietnam, I found that to be offensive. My gold standard, most Marine’s gold standard is the truth. Leaders who lie to you for political reasons don’t have my respect.
Question: Were there any specific lies that offended you?
Chase: It was too big and broad to be specific. It was a whole campaign to be deceptive to Americans, and even from the President to other politicians. It was not a fine hour for the President of the United States. I remember Johnson bowed out of the 1968 election because of Vietnam.
Question: Do you have any final thoughts?
Chase: I think it’s important to distinguish between our troops, our people, and the government who gives them the orders. The Marines I knew and still know are the greatest people I’ve ever met, and I can’t say that about the politicians. And the American people should grasp an understanding of that. When you’re talking about political things, you aren’t talking about those of us who served in the military and they ought to make that distinction. I think it may be better today than it was when I returned from Vietnam. Although, there are some rumblings I see that people are saying things about the military that shouldn’t be said. Untrue things. We in the military have our bad apples just like any place else. One of my greatest friends who’s long gone now was both an infantry officer and a prosecutor in the Marine Corps and he prosecutes some war crimes. Of course, there were some people including Marines who did things that were essentially war crimes. Those individuals should have been and were prosecuted, by our guys. So when you have those bad apples, we like to clean up that mess. But there are very few of them. In my units, maybe I was lucky or maybe I did the right things as a leader where they didn’t do the wrong thing. They knew they’d be in more trouble with me than they would be with the enemy if they did things that were not right.