My Vietnam Experience
My Name is George Griggs and I am a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel. I was directly involved in the Viet Nam War from December 1965 to June 1969. However, my first real taste of the war and its impact on ordinary Americans and their families occurred in the Spring of 1965.
As a young Captain stationed at the Marine Barracks in San Francisco located on Treasure Island I was assigned to escort the remains of one of the early casualties of the war home to his family in St. Louis, MO. He was a young Marine 2nd Lieutenant Helicopter pilot whose plane was downed by the enemy and he was gravely wounded while protecting his crew. As his escort, it was my responsibility to ensure that the handling of his flag draped casket was carried out with respect and dignity. From overseeing the proper loading of his casket at San Francisco International Airport to its offloading in St Louis, I was favorably impressed with the way this was carried out. Without them saying a word, I could sense by their somber demeanor that those involved felt the gravity of their task.
Upon arrival in St. Louis I was invited by the Lieutenant’s parents to stay with them for the three days I would be there before, during and after his funeral. From my initial meeting with them, to helping them select an appropriate headstone, to being present during the wake, to presenting them with the flag that had adorned his casket, to my departure, I was impressed by the fortitude and calm forbearance demonstrated by these Middle American parents who were grieving the loss of their only son in a conflict yet to be understood. To his parents, friends and family, the Lieutenant was a hero who had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country doing what he loved to do and they were extremely proud of him.
I received orders to go to Viet Nam in December 1965. In those early days of the war, many Marine officers were sent to Viet Nam on individual orders, rather than as members of a battalion which deployed as a unit. I left the States in early December and spent the first couple of days in Okinawa for orientation and further processing. After what seemed to be an endless flight in a Marine Corps C130, I arrived at Danang Air Base in the rain, in the middle of the night. Along with my gear, I was loaded in a jeep and taken to 9th Marines HQ which was located at that time on the East side of the Air Base. I was instructed to report to and take command of Company M, 3rd Battalion. At that time “Mike” Company was assigned a sector of perimeter defense for the Air Base. During the next few months things got more interesting as “Mike” Company made frequent forward deployments, each time establishing a Company Combat Outpost from which we conducted day and night patrols of squad and platoon size. We also conducted Company size operations lasting several days at a time; for one of which we were assigned two M60 tanks and a platoon of LVT’s (Landing Vehicle Tracked) for a river crossing operation that ignited a major contact with a large size enemy force. With good close air and artillery support we achieved our objective with only a few minor casualties. I remember a lot of days up to our knees in rice paddies and a lot of nights in water logged fox holes. The most gut wrenching thing I had to do was to write letters to the next of kin of four of my Marines who were killed in action, all by IED’s (improvised explosive devices). In June 1966, after serving the normal six months as Company Commander, I was assigned to duties as the 9th Marine Regiment Intelligence Officer. I spent the next six months trying to figure out where the enemy was and what he was up to. I had a Vietnamese interpreter (was extremely loyal and had my back on more than one occasion) assigned full time and a jeep driver that was a magician in getting out of tight spots. The best memory of that time was feeling the wheels of the C130 lifting off the Danang runway enroute Okinawa as first stop on my way home.
When I left Viet Nam, I had orders to report to the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, VA, to be a student for the next year. In the midst of making all the necessary arrangements for housing, moving etc., I received orders to report to the Commander, 7th Fleet in the western Pacific for duty as the Ground Combat Intelligence Officer. I left and eventually joined the Flagship, the USS Providence CLG 6 ( a Light Guided Missile Cruiser) in the Philippines. In addition to being the 7th Fleet Flagship, the Providence had a major gunfire support role (main battery of dual 6”guns) and spent the bulk of every deployment on the gun line off the coast of Viet Nam. I don’t know how many rounds were fired, but must have been in the several hundreds. On one occasion the ship was struck by counter battery fire from enemy shore batteries causing only minor damage and no casualties. My job required that I stay very close to what was happening on the ground in Viet Nam and that meant that when the ship got within helicopter range I hopped ashore to visit the various Marine, Army and Vietnamese HQ’s. This was a challenging and interesting tour of duty and provided the opportunity to see the War from a very different and sometimes impersonal perspective.
In the years since my Viet Nam experience, both before and after retiring from active duty, I have often reflected on that experience and the impact that it had on those of us who were involved and on those who were indirectly, but with no less impact, affected. They are the wives, husbands, children, parents and other loved ones of those who were striving, under very difficult circumstances, to carry out to the best of our ability the orders of our superiors, whether they be corporals, sergeants, captains or generals. We weren’t concerned with the politics involved and weren’t fully in tune with all of the turmoil and anti-war activities that were going on at home. We were concerned with the daily challenges of the changing combat situation and confronting the realities of life and death. It was our loved ones at home and the returning veterans who had to face and deal with the former, often times, as we have come to realize, not too successfully as lives were being turned upside down and families were being stressed to the breaking point.
If there was a positive that resulted from the Viet Nam conflict it is that the national consciousness was aroused regarding the treatment of veterans and their families. It is possible that, if programs similar to those currently in place to deal with returning veterans existed in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, there would not be the same level of homelessness and hopelessness of that lost generation of Viet Nam veterans.