Welcome Home

By Tom Bartlett - Originally Published September 1979

Nine million Americans served in Vietnam; 46,616 lost their lives and another 10,000 died of war-related wounds. More than 448,000 Marines served there, and they did far more than fight a war....

"When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah;

"We'll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah, hurrah..."

But it wasn't that way at all. I came "marching home" four times. My mom was happy to see me, and my father had tears in his eyes. The dog wagged, but that was about it.

The Vietnam War lasted from August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975.

During that span of time, I served in Vietnam in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, and 1970. I wasn't there for the entire 12 months of each year, and some of the years overlapped, but I made the trip four times. I didn't see a single "Welcome Home" sign or banner, even at the military installations where we landed on our return.

And then, just like leap year, I read where there was a "Vietnam Veterans' Week" from May 28 to June 3, 1979. June 3rd is my birthday, so that's a date I don't forget. And there's another date in there that'll always remind me of service in Vietnam...Memorial Day.

As a combat correspondent in Vietnam, I met many Marines. I've forgotten the names of some, but I still correspond with others. And, because I work for Leatherneck, I still run into a few I met over there. They're older now and not as tanned. Their hair is thinning or turning gray, and they've gained rank, or, if out of the Corps, they've gained weight.

Some of these Marines left some of themselves behind in that country. Arms, legs, eyes.... I've done stories on them, also.

For others who returned physically whole, they left something behind, too. Like a year of their life, which will never be returned to them.

Or a close friend.

To this day, when I hear a firecracker, a backfire or a hunter shoot his weapon, I'll jump, feeling my gut tighten into a knot. If anyone is around me, my expression must be entertaining, because they often laugh at my reaction. I smile in embarrassment, but I can't help myself.

And I get flashbacks of Operation Star Lite and the young Marine next to me who was hit in the stomach and screaming for a drink of water. Or I hear the Marine on Operation Hastings who cried because his right leg hurt. He didn't know that the leg was gone.

And when I was sent south of Marble Mountain to a Combined Action Platoon near An Hoa/Hoi An to take photos of the young Marines who had been tortured, their bodies mutilated even in death....

And I remember an interview with LtCol Joe Muir of the Third Marines. I'd been with that unit before and during Star Lite, and I knew many of the young men who had been wounded or killed in that battle. As I interviewed the colonel after the memorial services held on the beach, he wept unashamedly over the deaths of his teen-aged Marines. Two weeks later, I wept. Joe Muir was killed along with his sergeant major, by a booby trap.

I wept, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, as the result of an act performed by General Lew Walt. Those who served with the former Commanding General of the III MAF, or those who remember him as Assistant Commandant, will recall that he is all man. He earned the Navy Cross; he's a former Marine Raider; and he's seen his share of killing and' hurt.

He was at the Da Nang airstrip, talking with wounded Marines who were returning to hospitals Stateside. One young Marine was bandaged across the top of his head. He literally wore a turban of bandages, ending at the bridge of his nose. Therefore, he couldn't see who was talking to him.

"How are you doing, Marine?" General Walt asked.

"Just fine, thanks."

"They treating you okay?"

"Fine."

"Who are you with?"

"Ninth Marines."

"How old are you?"

"Just turned 19."

"Got all your gear together for your flight back home?"

"The unit is going to ship it back for me," the young Marine said. "All except my eye."

Another voice from behind General Walt was heard. "This young corporal is being recommended for the Silver Star, general. He went out under heavy fire to bring in a wounded radioman."

And with that, General Walt undid his own ribbons, removed the Silver Star from his personal decorations, and pressed it into the young Marine's hand. "Here," the general said, tears running down his cheek, "you deserve it more than I do..."

The general asked his aide to get the name, rank and address of the Marine to ensure that the medal would be forthcoming.

"Hard" is a term I've heard to describe General Walt. "The Brute" was a term used to describe retired Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak.

But I remember "The Brute" when he wasn't quite so hard....

I was at a medical aid station. Marine casualties and body bags were being ferried in by helicopter. It was like M*A*S*H without "Hotlips," and there wasn't any joking. The wounds, pain and bleeding were all very real.

The doctors and corpsmen were working under canvas tents, and it was very hot. The medical people had been working for hours in the heat.

Someone came through, saying that General Krulak was in the area, and that the doctors and corpsmen should try to square away a little.

I remember one doctor who had been operating in his scivvies. Remember, it was very hot, and there were no females around, anyway. Finishing with the operation, he turned to leave the tent to get some pants on and to change out of his bloodied T-shirt.

Outside, he was blinded by the sun, and he stopped to rub his eyes and wipe the sweat off his forehead.

A hand went to the doctor's shoulder and a voice said, "You guys are doing one hell of a job. I want you to know that I appreciate all you are doing for these Marines..."

The doctor turned and stared at three stars. It was "The Brute."

Anyone who has been to Vietnam has memories; some good, some not so good. We all remember the heat and the rains; we remember the sand and the cactus. Those stationed in the south remember the fear of booby traps; those up north knew the frustration of watching the enemy boogie into Cambodia or Laos, knowing the Marines couldn't (most of the time) continue the chase.

Or the violations of Tet or Christmas "truces..."

Or 11- and 12-year-old sappers coming through the wire, spraying Marines and their aircraft with homemade grenades or AK's.

But some memories are of Stateside. "How many babies did you kill over there?"

Rocks thrown through recruiters' windows. Obscene phone calls.

But there is more; much more. There are nine million Vietnam Vets. These men and women will remember that America extended amnesty to those who fled to Canada and Sweden before recognizing those who served....

Max Cleland is head of the Veterans Administration, and he is a Viet Vet. "They served with bravery fully equal to that of Americans who served in other wars. Yet, they are a different group of veterans...one beset by lingering problems and by an uncertainty that their service was just."

Of those nine million who served, 46,616 were killed in action and another 10,000 died from "war related causes."

Mistakes were made; cruel acts were performed by both sides. These were publicized, especially when Americans made the errors.

But there was so much good accomplished by so many individuals and units.

Unfortunately, the American press had little time or space for the good....

In November 1964, Marine helicopters of HMH-365 evacuated some 1,700 Vietnamese flood victims. HMH-162 delivered 900 tons of emergency supplies to stricken areas.

And the 1st Battalion, Ninth Marines, initiated its "Golden Fleece" program in the Marble Mountain area, south of Da Nang. LtCol Verle Ludwig was the battalion commander at the time.

Vietnamese villagers came to his area, pleading for the Marines to protect their rice from being stolen by the enemy. The battalion of Marines, backed by armor of the 1st Amtrac Battalion, protected the farmers while they reaped their harvest.

In 1965, the United States shipped 110,000 tons of rice to the Republic of Vietnam, and in 1966, another 110,000 tons of rice was sent.

How many kids were helped at the Hoa Khanh Children's Hospital at Red Beach by the members of the Force Logistics Command; how many orphans at the Nam-O, China Beach, or the Catholic and Buddhist orphanages in Hoi An received medical or educational benefits through efforts of Marines, Sailors and Seabees?

And few know about the efforts of the Marine Corps Reserve Civic Action Fund which worked through CARE in providing medicines, soaps, self-help kits (such as metalworking kits, agricultural and hand tool kits; carpentry kits; needle trade kits; elementary school kits; blacksmith kits; masonry kits and barber kits).

Then, under the direction of Col Donald R. Kenneth, California Reserve units got together and began their own project. Along with the help of Maj Grover Knowles and LtCol John Benelli, a million dollars in aid and pharmaceutical supplies was realized, and some 75 tons of medicines were shipped to South Vietnam.

And what about the school at Thu Duc, the pig farms, fish ponds, bridges, or the wells provided by 1st MP's, FLC, III MAF and engineers...?

And the doctors and corpsmen who conducted "MedCaps" outside the gates of bases or in the various villages?

Of the 448,000 Marines who served in Vietnam from 1965 until the final withdrawal, 41,000 were black. Five black Marines earned Medals of Honor.

Nearly 18,000 corpsmen served in Vietnam; three received Medals of Honor. Two were posthumous awards.

Bi-monthly, MedCap teams traveled to the Crescent Beach Orphanage and nearby Leprosarium. For the medical teams, it meant vaccinations and treatment of infections. To the dental teams, it usually meant tooth extractions.

More than 650 Navy chaplains served in Vietnam, and many were with the Marines. Thirty-five Navy chaplains received 38 Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam. Three died in combat there.

Lt Vincent R. Capodanno was posthumously awarded this nation's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. Navy Lt Raymond Johnson was decorated four times, including the Silver Star Medal, for heroism in Vietnam.

In the summer of 1969, the dedication and involvement of Navy chaplains became obvious when word was officially released that the Third Marine Division was returning to Okinawa. Of the 16 Navy chaplains eligible, 14 requested transfer to other units of the III Marine Amphibious Force so they could remain with combat Marine units in Vietnam.

There was one hell of a lot more to Vietnam for the Marines, doctors, corpsmen, dentists and chaplains than helping to fight a war.

The Third Marine Division's Memorial Children's Hospital at Quang Tri or the Hoa Khanh Children's Hospital were more like Stateside hospitals than most in Vietnam.

And never before had Marines been asked to rebuild a country as they secured it. During the Pacific island campaigns of World War II, Marines fixed bayonets, charged, scored a victory and moved on to another island, leaving the mopping up to other allied units.

In Vietnam, during an 18-month period, nearly two million South Vietnamese received free medical and dental care offered through a variety of medical civic action programs.

A brick factory operated by the 7th Marines Engineers obtained raw material from CARE and employed refugee labor to make bricks, which were then supplied, without cost, to hamlets in the area for schools.

Among projects designed specifically to increase the level of education was the General Walt Scholarship Program established in 1967 to assist needy students showing potential. The program grew from 465 elementary and high school scholarships to over a thousand. Financial support was provided by the Marine Corps Reserve Civic Action Fund.

Additionally, there were more than 70,000 members of Free World forces who served in Vietnam, with the Republic of Korea represented by 50,000 troops. Australia, New Zealand, Republic of the Philippines, Thailand, Nationalist China, Spain.... And there were more.

West Germany was represented by teams of medical personnel and a hospital ship; Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Italy, Liberia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britain all sent medical help.

Nearly 3,500 members of Free World forces (excluding Americans) died while serving in the Republic of Vietnam.

Australians first came to the aid of Vietnam in 1962. In addition to 7,500 men and the guided missile destroyer Hobart, Australia was also committed to many economic and social assistance projects.

New Zealand provided two rifle companies, an artillery battery, a tri-service medical team and special air service troops from their First Ranger Squadron, totaling 600 men.

The Republic of the Philippines was represented by 1,000 engineers and 1,000 security troops based at Tay Ninh, scene of one of the largest and most successful operations of the war, "Junction City."

Thailand had more than 12,000 men of the Black Panther Division and a variety of air force and naval units, including river patrol boats.

Marine Corps redeployment in Vietnam began in September 1968. Following the activation of the Fifth Marine Division in March 1966, Regimental Landing Team 26 arrived in Vietnam and later received a Presidential Unit Citation for action at Khe Sanh.

The 27th Marines, following a 48-hour notice, shipped out of Camp Pendleton, arriving in Vietnam during the height of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Part of the unit went to the Da Nang "rocket belt," and the remainder went north to help mop up Hue City. They returned to the States in September 1968.

Most of the Fifth Marine Division was deactivated on October 15, 1969. The final ceremony was held November 26, 1969, at Camp Pendleton.

The Third Marine Division was next, and as the word spread, Marines on Dong Ha Mountain and Mutter's Ridge smiled from the fog, the slime and the clay.

They were manning the northernmost positions. As Marines were replaced by American Army and ARVN units, they'd move south for ships to Okinawa. "Lima"/3/4 was last to leave.

The Ninth Marines, first to land in Vietnam, was the first major unit pulled out of the war zone, and by late August 1969, it was training on Okinawa.

Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-165 bundled up its Sea Knights and loaded aboard the LPH Valley Forge in mid-'69, also heading for Okinawa. Fixed-wing aircraft squadrons followed, most going to Iwakuni, Japan.

Perhaps the most enviable redeployment for Marines in Vietnam was made by the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion. Its 692 men went all the way back to Marine Corps Base, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Armed with HAWK missiles, the unit had arrived in Da Nang in February 1965, even prior to the landing of the Ninth Marines. The 1st LAAM never fired in anger, but the threat posed to the enemy probably had something to do with his never flying south of the DMZ.

The Marine Corps began returning to the pre-Vietnam posture. Early outs were granted many Marines in time for Christmas 1969, and others were timed to benefit those enrolling in college.

In Vietnam, American casualty figures dropped and units of the First Marine Division began turning areas of responsibility over to Vietnamese units.

Marines landed at Vietnam's Red Beach on March 8, 1965. From that date, through 1969, 417 large Marine unit operations were conducted. Thousands of patrols and ambushes were run.

President Jimmy Carter's proclamation stated that Vietnam Veterans Week is to honor those who served and "to recognize with appropriate ceremonies and activities yesterday's service and today's contributions of Vietnam era veterans."

For many, the war has not ended.

There is no end to the nightmares; anyone who has served in combat, from the trenches at Belleau Wood to the ash at Iwo; to the freezing cold of the Chosin.... The war never ends.

It may be difficult for those who weren't there to understand the bitter taste in the mouths of some Viet Vets.

"The decade now drawing to a close began in the midst of a war that was the longest and most expensive in our history, and most costly in human lives and suffering. Because it was a divisive and painful period for all Americans, we are tempted to want to put the Vietnam war out of our minds. But it is important that we remember-honestly, realistically, with humility..." the proclamation states.

"It is important, too, that we remember those who answered their Nation's call in that war with the full measure of their valor and loyalty, that we pay full tribute at last to all Americans who served in our Armed Forces in Southeast Asia. Their courage and sacrifices in that tragic conflict were made doubly difficult by the Nation's lack of agreement as to what constituted the highest duty. Instead of glory, they were too often met with our embarrassment or ignored when they returned."

There were many good men who served. They were told to go; they went. They were told to fight; they fought.

They've been back four years, but we just thought we'd say it again -"Welcome home..."