"I think of how many died in the whole war, how many Vietnamese and how many civilians died and I wonder, why I am still alive?"
My name is Patrick Slattery and I was a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps.
I had two great uncles in the Civil War. One of them, John Jay Cowels, was in the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and, shortly before he turned twenty-one, died of typhoid during the siege of Corinth. The other, John Johnson, joined the army of the Cumberland, was taken prisoner and was being sent to Libby prison, but was spared by confederate General Johnson. My wife’s father was in the Navy during WW I. She also had uncles in WW II. My father was in the Army Air Corps and his brother was in the Navy. My sister-in-law’s father was a career Army officer who taught at West Point. My brother was in the Army. I never thought of all these people at once before. It may make us look like a “military family.” We are not.
In the summer of 1961, after graduating from high School, I worked as a casual laborer for Palo Alto. I dug trenches in what is now Bowden Park, worked with the street department sprinkling glass beads on wet paint, and scrubbing graffiti off the walls in the University Ave subway. It was a good time. Then I was back to school, this time at the University of San Francisco. That is when I decided to join the Marine Corps. The draft was in effect. I assumed I would have to serve sooner or later and I was ready for a break from studying.
I was in the ROTC and living in a dormitory during my one semester at USF. Both those things gave me a leg up on adapting to the military. I liked hiking, backpacking, shooting, sneaking around in the dark—anything that had to do with being outdoors. That was basically what we did for the next two years at Camp Pendleton. During the last year of my three year enlistment, I spent a lot more time aboard ships and was stationed at Camp Schwab in Okinawa.
On the way to Okinawa, I was still asleep in the early morning when I heard a lot of banter and someone say, “Alright! Got rid of one of those goddamned Catholics.” We were entering Yokohama Harbor. It was the day President Kennedy was shot and how I heard of his assassination. It marked a change in the world I knew.
We continued our regular training cycle with cold weather training at the foot of Mt Fuji, gorilla warfare training on Okinawa, a training exercise with Japan on Taiwan, all with a little more intensity and seriousness than at Pendleton. In June, as the forward observer radio operator for 81mm mortars, I became part of Advisory Team One, Marine Detachment, the first Marine Corps ground unit to operate independently in Vietnam.
We flew into Danang and then to Khe Sanh. Our plane touched down in a little clearing. It turned around without stopping as we ran off a ramp that opened at the rear of the plane. Its crew began pushing our gear out onto the runway. We pulled the stuff out of the plane’s way as it turned, headed back toward us, and took off again. Shots came from the trees nearby. We returned fire for a minute or two, then continued by truck a mile or so along muddy roads to an old French fort.
Next to a guard shack at the entrance was a Vietcong prisoner of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was laying naked in mud and penned in by barbed wire so he could not sit up or straighten his legs. We dug in across the road from him.
Planes from the Seventh Fleet flew over us into Laos carrying bombs and returned without them, we heard about arms being supplied to groups in Laos, saw unmarked helicopters flown by Americans in civilian clothing. We were there to capture radio signals from North Vietnam, not to do any advising. None of this went along with what we had heard on the news.
After a couple of months, just after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, we were replaced, returned to our battalion and spent fifty-seven days at sea aboard the USS Valley Forge off the coast of Vietnam. Then we sailed back to San Diego. My three years were up, I was discharged from the Marine Corps and home for Christmas.
On Veteran’s Day I visit the Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page and read through the names of the 1300 Americans, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, who were killed in action in that one little isolated place in the jungle. And I think of how many died in the whole war, how many Vietnamese and how many civilians died and I wonder, why I am still alive?
I walked through the University Ave subway today and saw that somebody is still keeping the graffiti scrubbed off the walls. In the news today, I didn’t hear about any American troops being killed or bombs being dropped from drones. I wish I could believe that’s true.