A Self-Imposed Charter: Marines Take the Initiative to Record their Own Histories

By: Kyle Watts


Marines bear the responsibility of honoring and preserving our heritage. We are instilled with the significance of our history from the moment we set foot on the yellow footprints. The qualities that define Ma­rines and differentiate us from the rest of the military are derived from many timeless examples set across the past 250 years.

To capture the spirit of this heritage, organizations like the USMC History Division are charged with recording, pre­serving, safeguarding, and disseminating volumes on the cumulative experience of Marines. While these official histories magnificently document the Corps’ achieve­ments, the sheer volume of in­for­mation available leaves the work incomplete.

Every Marine possesses a story worth telling. Individuals from each Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) create a unique slice of Marine Corps history, in many cases known only to those involved in that community. The stories from these niches energize and animate the details of an official history, describing not only what happened, but illuminating what it was like to be there. As time progresses, much of this history will only be passed on through individuals or groups who take it upon themselves to do so.

For one group of Marines representing an eliminated MOS, this self-imposed charter is not taken lightly. The veterans of the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association (VTA) are setting the example for other groups or individuals exploring options to preserve their own history.

The VTA launched its historical pres­er­vation efforts in 1998, even before the organization’s incorporation. Volume one, issue one of the VTA’s signature pub­lication, “Sponson Box,” was mailed out as a one-page document advertising an upcoming reunion for the 30th an­niversary of the Tet Offensive. It listed the names of the tank officers killed in action in Vietnam from 1st and 3rd Tank Battalions.

The VTA began as a chapter of a broad­er organization, the Marine Corps Tankers Association (MCTA). At the time of the newsletter’s publication, World War II or Korean War tankers filled out the MCTA. As the veterans from Vietnam neared retirement and watched their children grow families of their own, many found a renewed desire to connect with their buddies from the war. The first “Sponson Box” call went out and the group planted roots. In 1999, the USMC VTA was established as a non­profit organization.

The VTA eventually separated from the MCTA as its own entity, allowing it the freedom to financially support its own activities and priorities. While many of the veterans retained membership with the MCTA, the new association flourished. Any Marine of any MOS who served with a tank or Ontos battalion in Vietnam was eligible to join. Membership peaked at over 500 members around 10 years after the association was established. Today, some 400 veterans retain VTA membership. These include tankers, mechanics, various support MOSs, and even several infantry Marines who did not serve directly under a tank battalion, but credit tanks with keeping them alive through their time in country.

USCMC VTA President John Wear, right, inspects an M48 “Patton” tank at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2018. (Photo courtesy of USMC VTA)

VTA events focus on a structured ef­fort and purpose, described in the as­sociation’s motto: “Ensuring our legacy through reunion, renewal, and remem­brance.” Individual members passionately carry out the spirit of this creed through their financial support and avid partici­pation in the group’s events and historical programs. The VTA’s methods of ensur­ing that legacy and preserving their his­tory evolved significantly since the first volume of the “Sponson Box” was mailed out 25 years ago.


Member stories from the VTA’s newsletter, the “Sponson Box,” are compiled into four volumes titled “Forgotten Tracks.” These books are currently housed in various collections, such as the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Kyle Watts.“Sponson Box” remains the flagship publication of the VTA, and a hallmark of their historical program. Published four times a year, the magazine spans 48 pages with history, humor, association news and upcoming events. Individual Marines share their stories from Vietnam within its pages, affording them both a lasting place to see their work printed, and an audience that will understand and respond to them in the following issue. Hundreds of stories, otherwise told only in conversation around a reunion table, have been recorded and are publicly avail­able through the VTA website. Some Marines like Ben Cole have written nu­merous times for the “Sponson Box.” Cole served with Company A, 3rd Tank Battalion in Vietnam. He carried a cam­era throughout his time in combat and captured many stunning images. The newsletter provided a space for Cole to share some of his photographs with the people who would best relate to them, and explain the background stories.

Member stories from the “Sponson Box” were eventually clipped from the publication and reproduced as stand-alone books. So many writings existed from past issues that four full volumes were necessary to house them. Titled, “Forgotten Tracks: Stories from Marine Tankers in Vietnam,” each of the four books are currently included in the Library of Congress, the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive, and the Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center.

Wally Young, center, and other VTA members had the opportunity to drive their beloved tanks once again in 2022 at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Wyo. Courtesy of National Museum of Military Vehicles.

In 2014, the VTA added one of its most popular and widely recognized historical programs. A local news agency attended the reunion that year in San Antonio, Texas, to record the stories of veterans from the area. The recordings grew in popularity and the agency included association members from other locations. From then on, the VTA hired a professional videographer to attend each reunion and expand their video library. At their most recent reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo., during Sep­tember 2023, VTA members recorded an additional 17 interviews to be added to the collection. These included tankers and other Marines such as infantryman Gil Hernandez. Hernandez served in Vietnam with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He suffered severe wounds and was nearly killed while riding on a tank, and credits the tankers with saving his life. He is an active VTA member and has attended three reunions.

Young Marines from the local Pikes Peak region joined VTA members at multiple points throughout the 2023 reunion, including serving as the honor guard at the farewell banquet on the final night of the gathering. Clayton Price.
Peter Ritch, left, and John Wear at the 2015 reunion in Washington, D.C. Ritch served as a board member for the VTA and played a critical role in its history program. Ritch passed away in September 2021. (Photo by Richard Carmer)

Even before the addition of interviews recorded in Colorado, the VTA YouTube channel boasts impressive numbers. As of September 2023, the channel contained 91 videos with more than 1,100 subscrib­ers. Over 400,000 viewers from 40 dif­ferent countries have spent more than 85,000 hours watching the interviews. The videos offer a unique glimpse inside the stories, allowing viewers to see the veteran in action, and hear the candid stories in his own words.

For the veterans who have no desire to write and do not wish to be on camera, VTA member Frank “Tree” Remkiewicz created a third venue for capturing their stories. In 2020, Remkiewicz recorded the first episode of the podcast, “Tracking Our History.”

“We’ve got over 30 podcast episodes now, and almost every one of these guys has never written a story or recorded a video,” said John Wear, the VTA pres­ident for the last 18 years. “Frank figured out that these guys know they can’t write or don’t want to, and that they don’t want to go on camera. But you get them on the telephone, and they can’t shut their mouth. All they need to do is talk.”

The expansive historical program main­tained and operated by the VTA came about over a long period of time and through the tireless efforts of many VTA leaders. The commitment of one man, however, helped the project progress to its current extent. Peter Ritch, a former platoon commander with Company B, 3rd Tank Battalion during 1968 and 1969, took the lead for the VTA in organizing the historical program. He played a key role in curating “Sponson Box” stories for the four volumes of “Forgotten Tracks.” He initiated the video oral history pro­gram and coordinated its execution at each reunion. Sadly, Ritch passed away in September 2021, but his impact on the program endures. His voice is heard from behind the camera as the interviewer in many videos, and he took part in a group recording in 2015, sharing his experience in a larger event.

VTA members and other reunion guests ride an M48 “Patton” tank at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in 2022. Courtesy of National Museum of Military Vehicles.

An important piece of the legacy to be preserved by the VTA comes not just from being tankers, but from being Ma­rines. Like many USMC veterans, VTA members hold their time in the Corps as a defining feature of their lives, and share that passion with younger generations. At the most recent reunion in Colorado, for example, youths from the local Young Marines organization joined in at numer­ous points. One evening, 15 Young Ma­rines, ranging in age from 10 to 18, spent several hours at the hotel reception area with VTA members asking what it was like to be a tanker and fight in Vietnam. The older veterans explained in many different ways what it meant to them to be a tanker, but more importantly, what it meant to wear the uniform of a United States Marine.

Peter Ritch, far left, served as the interviewer behind the camera on numerous occasions, helping develop the impressive library of oral histories created and maintained by the VTA. Richard Carmer.

With the removal of tanks from the Corps, an end date now exists in the lineage of Marine tankers. For the vet­erans of the VTA, the change highlights the significance of their work and the importance of passing the torch onto the generation of tankers who came after them.

“Most of the younger tanker veterans from Desert Storm or the Global War on Terror are still at the age where they are highly interested in their families and their careers,” said John Wear. “The MCTA is recruiting and trying to get more interest in attending their reunions, but it is a struggle.”

VTA member Bob Peavey conducts the “Fallen Heroes” presentation at the 2019 reunion in Seattle, Wash. At every reunion, Peavey creates a presentation detailing the life of a tanker killed in action in Vietnam. These stories include commentary from surviving family members, when possible, and leave a profound impression on the viewers at each occasion. Richard Carmer.

As younger veterans reach the age where reflection and communion take on a greater importance, groups like the MCTA will be present to give them a forum to reconnect. Hopefully, the path laid down by the VTA will both inspire these Marines to share their own stories, and show them how to successfully do so. For other groups of Marines who feel their stories have not been adequately told, the VTA’s example proves that, while it may be tough, and it may take time and prodding, recording your own history will have a lasting impact.

Peter Ritch, Robert Skeels, Harold Riensche, and Mike Bolenbaugh discuss their viewpoints on the tank retriever ambush of March 24, 1969. For his heroic actions that day, Riensche received the Navy Cross. Courtesy of USMC VTA.
The VTA reunion group gathered at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Wyo., in 2022. Courtesy of USMC VTA.
John Wear, left, and Bruce Van Apeldoorn Sr., an executive director on the VTA board, at the 2023 reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo. Clayton Price.

Author’s bio: Kyle Watts is the staff writer for Leatherneck. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2009-2013. He is the 2019 winner of the Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr. Award for Marine Corps History. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife and three children.