BU3 Terry Molinari
MCB 4, Delta Co., Chu Lai
It was a strange war we fought in Vietnam. We were young. We knew nothing. Vietnam is tropical, mostly jungle with temperatures averaging ninety-five degrees in summer with high humidity. The mosquitoes were little-bitty things that could get through a pinhole.
Our battalion, U.S. Navy Seabees, MCB #4 was home based in Davisville, Rhode Island. We had just made it back from deployment in Spain. Word was out we were being transferred to the west coast Seabee Base at Port Hueneme, California. We would relieve MCB #10 in Chu Lai, Vietnam. It was November 1965. I had just turned twenty-one. It was legal to drink in California. I celebrated. It wasn’t pretty. A William Shakespeare quote comes to mind. “My Salad Days, when I was green in judgment.” As it turned out those “salad days” were more like salad years for me.
Our next stop was the U.S. Marine Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for six weeks. There we were hosted by the Second Marine Division where additional training in combat demolitions, field communications, field medical, flamethrowers, and the M-60 machine gun. I remember Jack Lemon and I marching along a dirt road with packs, M-14’s and carrying the base plate of a .81 mm mortar. Some dropped out before we got to our “camping” destination. One such guy was a 2nd Class Builder named Sorenson. I never forgot the smirk on his face as he rode by us in the back of a deuce and a half kicking up dust in our faces. I never cared much for him after that. It was the early stages of the Vietnam War. LBJ extended all active duty enlistments for six months. Money and men where rapidly funneled into Vietnam.
The trip over was in a C-130. A rough ride with lots of stops in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. When we landed in Chu Lai, I remember the back of the plane opening and we were greeted by a wall of heat. As I deplaned I saw one of those wagons that reminded me of the ones farmers used to load hay bales on. It was stacked with rubber body bags. “They’re going home”, an old timer informed us newcomers. “Welcome to Vietnam.”
Our camp, a tent city, was named “Camp Shields.” It was named after Navy Seabee Marvin Shields who was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group. He was mortally wounded during an ambush at Dong Xoai and died June 10, 1965. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
LBJ was President. All members of the Armed Forces had their active duty enlistments involuntarily extended for six months. I was due to get off active duty in November 1965. I got to spend my extra six months in Chu Lai, Vietnam about fifty-five miles south of Da Nang. Our main job was laying metal matting for an airfield, Butler buildings, hospitals and more.. Packing and repacking sand under runway matting. We worked 12-hour shifts and often had four-hour guard duty at night. Our C-ration meals were delivered to us. The weather was always hot or wet. Exhaustion came and went.
All villages looked the same. People, pigs, chickens and villagers squatting along the road chewing beetlenut. The one near our camp called An Tan was no different. The Vietnam Cong offered a reward for every American vehicle blown up. Every now and then a woman would pull out a grenade and toss it. Little children came up to us smiling; they could blow us and everything within two-hundred feet to hell. Little children wired by their own people, wired to explode. How could we Americans understand this culture? Their determination was beyond our comprehension.
Morale occasionally suffered from news of anti-war protests back in the states. People always supported our soldiers. It was hard to comprehend the country was against it. Our mind played tricks on us. I remember fearing I was gonna miss the freedom bird out of Chu Lai when it was time for me to leave.
The clock ticked. Those who were lucky enough to escape in one piece returned to their hometowns and civilian life. I remember landing at the Marine Base in El Toro, California. I got off the plane and kissed the ground. I transferred to Long Beach Naval Station for mustering out. It was 1966, Teresa Brewer was playing on the Jukebox “Till I Waltz Again With You.” I flew TWA from LA back to La Guardia Airport in New York. The stewardess gave me a pack of playing cards. I still have them. William Mozingo was in my Battalion in Nam. He was from Oceanside, Long Island. He had a cousin, Juanita Odom. She wanted to write to someone in Vietnam. I volunteered. My home was four hours from La Guardia in upstate New York. No one from my family came to meet me at La Guardia. Strangers did; Juanita, along with her mother and father. They took me to their home on Long Island and drove me upstate the next day. Her father was a baker and her mother was a school crossing guard. Juanita was going to college at the State University in New Paltz, New York. I never forgot their kindness. I often wonder what became of them.
Protests about the war were rampant in the states. It wasn’t popular to be a Vietnam Veteran. We thought we were doing the right thing and risking our lives for our country. When we got home we learned the country believed otherwise. It was the end of innocence.
The guys I served with were quality men. Some of us kept in touch, other lost touch and went on to live their lives. Years later I have reconnected with some. They were well on their way into geezerhood but their personalities were intact. There were a lot of guys from my hometown, Oneonta, N.Y., who served in Vietnam. Some didn’t make it back. I was one of the lucky ones.