Vietnam: A Look Back To A War No One Wanted…
Gary L. Washburn, Lt., US Army, 1966-1969
Editor’s note: Gary and Judy Washburn, Realtors from Chatsworth, went to Vietnam on Nov. 29, 2012, to visit the sites where Gary’s brother, Lance Cpl. Robert Washburn, USMC, served his nation from November 1967 to his death in August 1968. Bob never met Judy and was looking forward to meeting her Christmas, 1968—that never happened. Visiting Vietnam was a long-time dream for Gary and provided a better understanding of the war in Vietnam.
It was a warm August afternoon and Dad was preparing his sermon at his small Barstow church. His sermon topic, ironically, was “O grave where is your victory, Death, where is your sting? (1 Cor 15:55)".
As he wrote, he saw his friend, a Marine chaplain, parking outside his church. Dad had performed a funeral for the chaplain's daughter two weeks previously (car accident). Dad stood to greet his friend and then he sat down. He saw other Marines with his friend. Dad knew. Families always knew.
As he welcomed his guests, the chaplain said, “Billy, we have some bad news from Vietnam...” Dad said his world stopped as he looked across the desk. “Your son was killed in combat in Quang Tri province… he took a direct hit from an artillery shell and knew no pain.” The chaplain explained that the troops who served with Bob had a memorial service to honor his service and death. He and his friend just stared at each other. And they prayed.
Bob joined the Marines in May 1967, and I was an Army officer candidate in the final phase of my OCS training to be a quartermaster (supply) officer. I would be commissioned in June 1967 with orders to rotate to Cam Rhan Bay, Vietnam, to work as a warehouse supervisor in May 1968. When Dad told me Bob had joined the Marines, I said, “Dad, Bob will die in ‘Nam… he’s a Marine.” Dad said that God would take care of Bob and he’d receive Marine training. I never rotated to Cam Rhan Bay because of my duties for a lieutenant colonel at the Atlanta Army Depot.
Judy and I recently completed three days of touring the Marine fire bases in ‘Nam – it was a lifelong dream for me to return to the spot where my brother and so many other guys served their country. It was a grueling time of climbing through bamboo grass and searching for the bunkers and other debris left by the Marines at their isolated posts. We also traveled through villages and back roads to find the remnants of American bases where so many kids – mostly teenagers – served in a war that was despised by their own country.
Bob deployed for Vietnam in November 1967. He wrote, “I’m on the ground in Alaska tonight, Gary, on my way to ‘Nam. It’s really cold here. I’m going to Con Thien to work with a mortar crew. The funny thing is that Con Thien means 'Valley of Peace'.” Judy and I were at Con Thien this week.
We had to walk a more than a mile with our guide, a retired major from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). He fought in the war and was able to take us to Con Thien because he knows all of the trails. Con Thien and all of the Marine fire bases were located on hilltops.
General Westmoreland, commanding general of the American forces, assigned the Marine Corps to the mountains where they could interdict the North Vietnamese troops as they moved south. The Marines established bases in the mountains at strategic sites. The bases included Camp Carroll (where my brother died), Con Thien (my brother’s first assignment), Khe Sahn (which was nearly overrun by the North Vietnamese in early 1968) and the Rockpile, basically a high mountain with an artillery gun on the top.
America’s strategic error was that the North Vietnamese travelled light and hid easily in the vegetation. The Vietnamese have been fighting for centuries and Vietnam is their terrain. The bases were based on criteria that would have been effective in World War II but not a jungle war like Vietnam.
The Marine fire bases were also surrounded by villagers who were members of the Viet Cong and followers of Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam. They wanted liberation for their country and hated the American presence. By day, the Viet Cong were farmers and merchants. At night they would emerge as Viet Cong and attack the Marine bases. My brother said that the Marines never knew who the enemy was.
“Sometimes,” Bob wrote, “we take incoming fire 24 hours a day -- it’s so exhausting and frightening. And at night we have to wrap our feet to keep the rats from eating our toes… this is an awful, awful place Gary…” Someone once wrote that the Marines who served in ‘Nam went to heaven because they spent their time in hell in Vietnam.
American military personnel going into and out of Vietnam arrived and left at Da Nang. Once in-country, the Marines would travel north to Dong Ha – where we spent two nights at a hotel – and west on Highway 9 into the mountains to their bases. Having toured the area I better understand the locations of all of the fire bases where so many Marines died or suffered life-long wounds. I always thought the Marine bases were located in the jungles on the flat lands.
Duke Wynn, a member of my Kiwanis Club of Northridge, was a young Air Force captain flying transport planes during the war in Vietnam.
Duke said that the Marines he flew to ‘Nam was naturally apprehensive and quiet. The flights grew quiet as they approached ‘Nam and the excitement of their training began to fade. They knew the odds of being wounded or killed were good. The Marines coming home – back “to the world” – were happy and celebrating. The worse flights, he said, were the ”DBs,” Dead Bodies.
He said that his crew, on the DB flights, was silent as the plane headed home with so many broken dreams and lives. He told me that he was flying the circuit, returning the Marine fatalities to Treasurer Island, San Francisco, when my brother died in August 1968.
The Marine caskets were loaded into shipping crates at Treasure Island and picked up by escorts for the trip home. When I picked up my brother, my orders were to make sure that his crate was loaded head first in the aircraft. I stood on the tarmac at San Francisco International to insure that my brother was properly loaded – a specific part of our protocol.
There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam and there is grinding poverty everywhere you go – it’s still a Third World Nation. And the government has left standing many of the buildings that were bombed as a reminder, I suppose, of what the Americans did to their country. There is a high school outside of Dong Ha that was destroyed by the “American” bombs but the remnants are standing with a sign explaining what happened to the structure.
Throughout Vietnam, the war is referred to as the American War. We were told that the Vietnamese could forgive but not forget what happened to their nation. Our visit was good because we were able to see so many combat sites in addition to the Marine fire bases and we better understand the war. Vietnam will always be a big part of my life because it is how I met my wife 45 years ago – she was a school teacher who moved in next door to me in Atlanta – and it is how I lost my little brother.
My trip won’t bring my brother back but it was informational and helped me better understand what happened in a remote nation called Vietnam so many decades ago.