It wasn't ours to choose, it was just our time
Profilers: Chaklam Andy Wong, Julian Hricik, Ying Shao
I was in high school during the start of Vietnam war. I actually enlisted in the Marine Corp in my last semester of high school. I graduated from high school on June 22nd, entered the Marine Corp on July 10th, and had my 18th birthday in boot camp on August 7th and my 19th birthday in Vietnam. I arrived in Vietnam in late January 1968, and because I was in the Marine Corp I did a thirteen month tour, or what they call a thirteen month in country tour, so I didn’t return back to US till the March of 1969. Obviously in the thirteen months I was there, there was a lot that I saw: the Tet offensive, three major engagements; it was a very difficult year.
George’s Duties In Vietnam
I was an ammunition and explosive ordinance disposal technician so I got a lot of what we called TAD, temporary additional duty, so I was assigned to different unit all over I-corps. I was in places like Dang Ha, Phu Bai, Kon Kiem, Danang, Chu Lai, a place called the RockPile; I think that Chu Lai is probably the further south that I was and that was still in I-corps. Places like Dangha and Phu Bai were right at the DMZ, they were way, way up north. I served essentially with one unit but because of what I did, I had TAD with a number of different units, so I spent a lot of time on helicopter going from base to base. I spend a lot of time on C-27s and C-130s. Some of the Marine bases near the DMZ you couldn’t even land a C-130 because the air strip was too short, so we came in either by helicopter or C-127 which is a smaller aircraft.
Its kind of different from what it is now. We didn’t have to be concerned with any remotely detonated devices. Back then it was unexploded ordinances or caches of munitions. We would set charges to blow them but we didn’t have to worry about some guy setting with a cell phone some place and trying to take us out. It was dangerous but we knew what we are doing and we did it in the safest way possible.
I never came across any booby traps but we found caches of munitions in some of the tunnels. Usually the best way to do it was to set charges and blow it in place. They had different rounds for their AK-47’s and their mortars weren’t necessarily compatible, so the best thing to do was just destroy the munitions that we found.
George’s attitude towards the War
I don’t believe in war but I believe in defending you country. From my point of view it was service and dedication to the oath that you had taken on entering the service. Not a popular war obviously, Vietnam, no war is good. It was our time to serve. The people that I served with, we did our best; we served honorably, we served with dedication, we fought the foe that was put in front of us. It was not ours to choose it was just our time. We did the best we could and I really want to stress that the guys that I was there with looked out for each other, kept each other alive, and made sure that we were honorable guys. Apocalypse Now, that was surreal. Platoon, some of the combat scenes were very realistic but some of the things that they showed I never saw; the hardcore pot-smoking and things like that. Maybe in later years. I was there in ’68 and early’ 69. I don’t know how things changed after I was there but that’s not what I saw.
George’s attitude towards American protesters of the War
I believe in protest. I believe that part of what I served for to defend was the right to protest. I just don’t think that part of protesting should be bringing criticism to those who are defending your freedom. That was the more difficult thing for me. Whether they realized it or not that’s what we were doing. Our time was the Vietnam time, but we were still serving to protect their freedoms and part of their freedom was the ability to protest. Anytime, if somebody truly feels there’s a need for protest they certainly have the right to, as long as they’re not forcing their opinion on someone else.
When I returned from Vietnam, our flight came into an air-force base out in Riverside. On the return flight we had personnel from the Marine Corp, the Army, the Navy, all services were on the flight coming back. Once I left the air port I caught a bus back to Long Beach and I got off the bus in downtown Long Beach where the station used to be. I had just taken my two C-bags out of the storage compartment on the bus and this girl had come up to me and she was looking at my chest and she says, “Are you just back from Vietnam?”. I said “Yeah” and I thought she was going to say welcome home but she started calling me names and I was kind of dumbfounded about that. I didn’t understand what that was all about because it wasn’t like that before I left. I think that year, ’68, might have been a turning point as far as the views as the American people. A lot of the young people started getting radical views.
We weren’t the bad guys, we just didn’t have a popular war. Most of us, all of us, really, served honorably. We didn’t do anything bad. We served our country just as our fathers did during WWII or WWI or any other conflict that we were ever involved in.
Dealing with casualties and the death of comrades
The first time you see it its very, very difficult. Not that it gets easier but you became a little numb to it. I had a few friends that were killed. A lot of times when I would go out to combat zones, I would do what I needed to do and on the way back I’d help to carry the dead and wounded on to the helicopter. That was always difficult because sometimes you would see a guy that looks like he’s asleep but he’s dead and its hard to find a wound. Another time a guy’s got an arm and a leg blown off and he’s talking to you. You’ve just got to numb yourself to it and keep on going. You just keep hoping its not going to be you.
The unforgettable memories
You remember the faces of the guys that didn’t come back.
To the interviewer: “Open that up right there and take the top photograph. Read the back of that.”
Interviewer (reading from back of photograph): “Captain Flanigan promoting me to Corporal. Captain Flanigan was killed in action.”
He was a good man, a terrific officer. He was actually decapitated by a rocket. Things like that, those are the tough ones.
I didn’t know any details about him. I was an enlisted NCO and he was a commissioned officer; its not the kind of thing where I sat down with him and talked about family. The officers had to maintain a certain amount of separation from the enlisted. There were a couple of others that didn’t come back. Those are the ones that you remember.
He was probably in his mid to late 30’s. Most of us there that were enlisted were 18 to 21 or 22. I can’t remember anyone that was older than that. Like I said I had my 19th birthday when I was there; I had been in the country for eight months when I had my 19th birthday. I had already seen a lot before I was even 19 years old.
On being miles away from home
We didn’t talk to our parent, just wrote letters. About two or three weeks before I got the order to return home I was out on TAD to another unit so I hadn’t sent out any letters to my parents. I got orders to return home so I got my gear together and got on a plane. I was on Okinawa for about two weeks before I was actually able to get a flight back here to the United States so I hadn’t written to my parents in about a month. I found out later that they were very concerned and they were really starting to worry.
My mother was a cafeteria worker at the local elementary school. When I returned home I went over to the back gate of the school and I walked in and stuck my head around the corner, and I said, “Hi, how are you doing?” She looked at me and she said, “Can I help you?” She didn’t recognize me; I guess I had changed enough over the year. Later she told me, “It’s because when you left you were still a teenager but when you came back you were a man.” But one of the other cafeteria workers said, “Mary, isn’t that your son?” and she started crying. It was because she hadn’t gotten a letter in so long so she was very concerned that something had happened to me. She saw a lot of change in me.
The General Atmosphere before George left home
It was certainly much better than when I returned. The war had been going on for a while but it had not gotten to the point where people were openly protesting or anything like that. I had always wanted to be a Marine so I was going to go in. Obviously at the age of seventeen I wasn’t drafted and I was only seventeen years old when I entered the Marine Corp. I was going to serve whether there was a war going on or not. I had actually at one point thought to make the Marine Corp a career, but having met my wife after returning from Vietnam, who is my wife now and has been for thirty nine years, I knew that I had to make a choice either to Buy trandate online be a Marine or marry my wife. So for me it was an easy choice; I was going in no matter what was happening at that time. It just happened that my war was an unpopular war. But we served honorably. The movies that I have seen, some of them are realistic but others are surreal; the things they portray aren’t necessarily so.
The general atmosphere for Marines in VIetnam
We were up at the Northern I-corps, right up at the DMZ. The 1st and 3rd Marine divisions, our responsibility was that northern I-corp area which was very much contested all of the time. We were in artillery range from the DMZ; it wasn’t like the Army that was down around Saigon and not until the very end of the war did they see heavy artillery or anything like that. We took rockets and heavy artillery because we were close enough to the DMZ for them to use that kind of stuff. We were engaged with North Vietnamese regulars, they weren’t Viet Cong. I saw a lot of Viet Cong during my tour but it was the NVA regulars that we were often engaged with. They had uniforms just like we did, they had crew served weapons, they had pretty much everything that we did except the air support. Their air planes wouldn’t come down below the DMZ because we would shoot them right out of the sky.
Distinguishing between Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese regulars
It was nearly impossible. They could be a Viet Cong and part of a village, and they’d be acting as though they were a farmer and once you had cleared the area they could come up behind you. That was always difficult, you were always wary of that. After a while you’d start to get a certain sense of the ones you would have to watch, and you’d be very carefully. You would never complete turn your back.
We would come under fire from time to time and usually, once we engaged them heavily, they would back off. The Viet Cong wouldn’t stand and fight; the NVA Regulars would stand and fight. That way, the only prisoners that we were taking were too wounded to fight. They meant to keep the ground that they held and of course we meant to take it back, and we did.
Dealing with the climate of Vietnam
It took a while to get used to the heat but the humidity was the worst. Sometimes it would rain so hard you had to keep your helmet on, or else it’d drive you crazy. Then the sun would come out and it was almost as though the water was raining back up and reforming the cloud, because of the heat. It would go tight through the cycle again and during the Monsoon it would rain for days on end. You never got dry, it was miserable. You dealt with it. After a while you kind of got used to it but you never got comfortable, at least I didn’t…It was nice to come back to the great weather we have in Southern California, though.
George’s attitude towards the government’s handling of the war
I thought they should have left the fighting of the war to the generals. I think they prolonged the war. You can’t win a defensive war and they didn’t want us to pursue the North Vietnamese across the DMZ. It was okay for the North Vietnamese to come down and attack us and then pull back but they didn’t want us going after them. Like there was a line we couldn’t cross. They would engage us and we would push them back to that line and then we would have to disengage even though we had the advantage. I never understood that. And that was all the politicians.
On air raids
I saw a lot of Napalm. The last major operation I was on was called Bold Mariner and we had a lot of air support. It was close enough that we could feel the heat of it. The napalm would create its own windstorm, it just sucked in the oxygen. The one’s that were really scary were the B52’s because you could feel it before you heard it. You could actually feel the ground rumble. We would be sitting out at night and it would look like the sun was coming up and then you could feel the ground shaking and the rumbling from the bombs.
The return of the soldier and post traumatic stress
I’m pretty fortunate that I have a pretty low-key personality, so it was easier for me and I haven’t had any problems. I recently did this thing called the Vietnam Veteran Registry, and I received a letter saying that I should go be interviewed and checked for stress and see if I have Agent Orange problems or anything like that. The psychiatrist said that I was just fine and asked me if I ever think about Vietnam. I said, “Of course I do, does that ever go away?” and she said, “No, not really”. I had a pretty smooth transition after I got back. You would still flinch at a car backfiring or loud noises and things like that. You’d get used to ducking and protecting yourself the best that you can, but that’s what keeps you alive. It took a few months to get adjusted but after that I was fine.
My father was a WWII vet. He spent thirty five months in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. Having him to talk to was probably the biggest thing that made my transition when I got back. For the first few months I would just keep things to myself and wouldn’t really say anything. Then he started to tell stories about the time he spent in the Pacific during WWII, and I started to tell about the things that I saw and my experience in Vietnam. I felt as though by talking to him I was being decompressed, I felt more relaxed. That helped a lot. The similarities between what he had seen and what I saw took a lot of the stress out of it and that’s probably why I didn’t have a tough time after that.
When I came back my duty station was at the Marine Corps barracks at the United States Naval station that used to be here in Long Beach. There was about a 250 man detachment and about 200 of us were Vietnam veterans. There were some guys who took a while to get settled down but I didn’t see anything that was that bad. Almost all of the guys in the Marine Corps were volunteers. The Army guys were almost all draftees. It makes a big difference, your mind set going in. Being a volunteer and being a draftee are two completely different things.
Comments about Apocalypse Now
The whole premise of the movie, the rogue officer leading a band of Cambodians, I don’t think any American officer would do that. The extremist things, the butchering of people, I never saw any of that. When we fought we were fighting against soldiers. If we fired at anyone that wasn’t in a uniform it was because they were shooting at us. The My Lai massacre was horrible. Any officer that would give orders to fire against unarmed civilians, that’s the worst possible thing I could think of. War is an ugly thing and you would have to be foolish or naive to think that you aren’t going to have civilian casualties in a war. A bullet doesn’t discriminate. People also think how horrible it is that somebody might be killed by friendly fire but when you’re in a combat situation there’s so much noise and confusion that things like that happen. You certainly don’t want it to happen and you don’t want to cause harm to someone that could possibly be your friend, but friendly fire happens. That’s just the confusion and horrors of war.
On respect for the enemy
You must respect anybody you are in conflict with. If you don’t have respect for them you’re foolish. I respected what they are doing, but I also knew that I had a job to do and I did everything possible to make sure that I did it to the best of my ability.
The enemies in Middle East deserve some respect. To me the worst possible thing is an extremist. I know a lot of people that are Muslims that are very good people, and they even say that the extremists are the problem. The greatest thing that our Founding Fathers did was the separation of church and state. Any government that runs their state base on religion is not going to work. Especially if they are extremist, you shouldn’t ever have clergy running a government.