Part One: Vietnam Day One
We recently celebrated Veterans Day, in which our nation salutes all of the men and women who have served our country in many conflicts over many years. At one such celebration I met men who served in World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq to name but a few and I couldn’t help but to be struck by the fact that the United States of America seems rather eager to engage in armed conflict. Then I met one intriguing man and I asked if he wanted to discuss his experience in whatever conflict he had served in. He agreed and we sat down.
Hamilton: I am David Hamilton and I am a freelance writer for various publications and today I am particularly curious about the American Veterans we are honoring today. My I have your name, branch of service and your years of service.
Irwin: My name is Ron Irwin and I was a United State Marine from 1963 to 1967 with service in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967.
Hamilton: May I ask what part of Vietnam were you in?
Irwin: Sure. I was stationed in Chu Lai about 50 clicks south of Da Nang.
Hamilton: Do have any memories that are particularly strong for you?
Hamilton: Want to talk about them?
Irwin: Sure but right off I want to make one thing very clear. I was just one of over almost three million American men and women who served in Vietnam during the war. Every one of them have their own stories, many far more chilling than anything I could talk about. Yes I was a Marine but I make no pretense of being a hero.
Hamilton: Good point and I respect your perspective but what do you want to tell me?
Irwin: Like most veterans I know I have long kept my thoughts pretty much to myself but just recently, maybe because I am now fully into the realm of geezer, I have felt a need to tell my tale because in many ways it is actually rather funny.
Hamilton: I’ll bite what was funny to you about your Vietnam service?
Irwin: Well first of all the way I ended up in Vietnam. My first years as a Marine I spent in Asia and it was fantastic. I mean I got to travel all over the place on a helicopter carrier, stopping in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Okinawa and the Philippines. Heck one night I and maybe a dozen other Marines ran into William Holden at a bar in Hong Kong and he bought us all drinks all darn night long. That first year was like one very long very fun party and I didn’t want to leave.
Hamilton: So why did you leave?
Irwin: Because I was ordered to, that’s how it works in the military.
Hamilton: Got it, so what was next for you?
Irwin: I was stationed at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina and it really sucked so I kept looking for a return to Asia and then it happened. I found a group coming together to train and then deploy to Asia only this time it would be Vietnam. So not being too bright I asked if I could join the group because after all they were heading off to Asia. They said welcome aboard and not long after I was back in Asia only this time it was way different.
Hamilton: How so?
Irwin: Shortly after landing in Da Nang, Vietnam I was given an M14 rifle, lots of bullets and six hand grenades and told to get on a C-130 for a ride to Chu Lai. I was in shock, I hadn’t had that much stuff since infantry training right after boot camp and I finally began to understand I was now in deep s**t. But I had no time to dwell on it as we were quickly loaded on a C-130 aircraft and flown to Chu Lai where we were off loaded as the flight crew got out in a hurry.
There we were eight of us with no idea what would come next and no other Marines in sight. I speculated that maybe we were there to win the war and then we could go home. Yes, I know — stupid. But you couldn’t see all of the tents and stuff were on the other side of a sand berm so it seemed as if we were all alone and that was a truly scary thought. But then a truck came towards us and we were taken to our respective tents.
As night fell I struck up a conversation with another Marine who had been there awhile. As we were talking I saw a bright string of tracer rounds being fired maybe a half mile away. I mentioned that to the guy I was talking too and he just shrugged and said “ain’t our problem.”
Now just imagine in America being told to get on an airplane with a loaded rifle and a half dozen hand grenades. I don’t think so. And I am certain that anyone shooting off tracer rounds from an automatic weapon would get the immediate attention of a whole lot of people real fast, but no big deal in Vietnam in 1966.
Hamilton: Very interesting first day.
Irwin: Yes and then it got even crazier. I was just starting to fall asleep when I suddenly felt something on my chest. I opened my eyes and instantly saw a huge rat wiggling his nose almost touching mine. Instinctively I reached over and grabbed my bayonet and started to plunge it towards the rat when I realized I was about to stab the rat right into my chest and heart so I stopped the thrust.
Hamilton: That had to be very scary.
Irwin: Oh yeah I was less than a second away from doing something that likely would have resulted in my parents getting a letter telling them I had died from a self-inflicted stab wound while battling a Viet Cong rat. And you don’t get a purple heart for self-inflicted wounds. So that was day one.
Well that was certainly a full day for the young Marine. But as our interview continued I learned even more about mortars, mosquitos and places they were all going next in Part Two.
David Hamilton attended Northwestern University and his a freelance writer who has written article, scripts and short stories for a variety of publications, including Time Magazine, National Journal, the South China Morning Post and others. He now resides in the Los Angeles area.