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First Days in Vietnam
My name is Gary Parker and I was born on March 22, 1949. I joined the Marine Corps December of 1966. It was just 2 months after my mother passed away and 1 month after I had a bad car accident that left my girl friend in the hospital not to mention my father who took to drinking. I figured I had to get away from my spiraling downword life at that time so I quit school and signed up.
I went to boot camp in San Diego Christmas day ’66 and realized at 17 years old I would have to grow up fast and my life was going to change. After boot camp I was sent to radio school for 4 months and then to more infantry training in Camp Pendleton, California. It’s then I knew for sure I would be going to Vietnam soon. Ended up there 2 days before Christmas of 1967. As soon as I arrived in country I was sent to Danang to await orders. About a week later I was assigned to 1/26 infantry division that was up in a place called Khesanh. Never heard of Khesanh but knew it was about a mile from the border of South Vietnam and North. On the way to Khesanh I got a call on my radio that I was being diverted to Hill 881s which was about a mile or so from the Khesanh base to replace another radio operator who was killed the night before. I also found out that I was also going to be doing landing zone duties along with radio duties. My job with that included calling down the hill for supplies and replacements to be helicoptered in. The worst part of my duties were when I had to call in choppers to get our seriously wounded off the hill because those who were killed could wait. There were priorities first. I remember looking out if the helicopter window and wondering if I could do what was expected of me. When we got there I remember being told we would have to circle for awhile because the hill was taking incoming and it wasn’t safe to land. When we did the crew chief screaming to get the hell off and fast because the mortar and snipper fire was all coming in. Didn’t have to ask twice. The first thing I saw as I was running of the helicopter was about 6 dead Marines covered up with their ponchos waiting to be taken off the hill. I knew It was going to be a bad place. I asked someone as to who was in charge. And that someone was Lt. Dabney. Later after the firing stooped he told me that he wanted me to work off of 2 landing zones on the hill and to check in with him every night to relay down the hill what they needed such as food, water and ammunition. He also wanted me to get whatever I needed off the Marine I replaced. He was one of the dead Marines next to where I got off the chopper. I took the radio off his back and a few radio batteries and that was the first time I saw a dead Marine and knew I was in for a long hell on earth. I set up in a fox hole next to 2 Marines manning a .50. Every morning before I set out to get in contact with the Lt. I had to decide which landing zone I would be using and both were zeroed in by the North Vietnamese army. No matter which one I picked I had only 20 Seconds the get them in and loaded with dead and wounded before the bullets and mortar rounds came in and that was nerve racking to say the least. It didn’t always work that way and sometimes I would loose. I can remember being the only Marine out in the open guiding the help in to hover in becaus It was too risky landing. I also remember many, many times standing under the cooper hooking up cargo nets while others took cover while the mortars came in. It was funny but being there you couldn’t hear the bullets or explosions because of the noise of the chopper blades. It was better that way because you just didn’t know and I didn’t have time to think about getting killed till the job was done. There was no other choice other than to stand there and prey that today wouldn’t be the day. I not only had to worry about my butt , but the lives of so many seriously wounded Marines. It was my responsibility to get them out as soon as I could. Something that I think about almost daily. There were times when I had very badly injured and when I say badly injured I mean clinging to life lying right next to me at times asking for their mothers or wives waiting to get off the hill so that they might have a chance to live another day. I also remember at times the incoming was so bad that the helicopters just couldn’t risk landing. There were times I even felt God like because I was the only one that could get the helicopters in at the time. If I couldn’t sometimes they died and something died in me also. I felt like I failed them. I believe I carry every dead Marine inside me to this day. I remember everything they said to me as they took their last breath. Something over whelming for a 19 year old. There was nothing more I could do for them. I just wante to crawl under a rock and die. I also that if I could have given my own life to save there’s I would have in a heartbeat.
Just before I was sent to an adjacent hill a few weeks later to replace another wounded Marine they sent another radio operator up the hill to give me a hand. His name was Richard and was from New Jersey. One morning while waiting for choppers to come in to pick up 2 badly wounded Marines, we knew if they circled much longer they would be at great risk of being shot down. I remember running into the open and waving them in. In the mean time Richard was helping to get the wounded into the landing zone for a quick loading. When the chopper finally got down Richard carried one of the wounded Marines onto the chopper. The chopper was having a problem lifting off and was spending way too much time on the ground. I waved for Richard to came over to me to explain what the problem was. Just as the chopper got about 10 feet off the ground I saw rockets hit about 20 feet in front of me and dove to the ground. Richard wasn’t so lucky. He got hit in the head and stomach. I ran over to him and saw that he was dieing right there. I did what I could for him but felt helpless at that moment. For the first time I felt like the whole world was coming to an end and there was nothing I could do. I took him in my arms and told him he was going to be OK and I knew I was lieing but didn’t know what else to say. Having someone die while looking into his eyes is something that has been with me for years. He was able to ask me if I could tell his mother how much he loved her and that he was going to be OK. That was the last thing he said to me before he died. He had to lay on the ground for hours before I could get him out and I stayed with his body the whole time.
I have always thought that if I had never told him to come over to me at that moment he would still be here today. I did locate his mother years later and told her he never suffered. We still communicated till she passed away. Made me feel good to get that done.
About a week later I was flown to an adjacent hill. It was Hill 861a as a radio operator to replace another Marine who got shot but lived to go home. I had to work another landing zone out in the saddle of the split hill. There was a little more room to land but difficulty to work in the open. I tried to set up another landing area but that proved to be too dangerous. I found out early in time that the North Vietnamese had spotters on the ground and could see every helicopter coming and going. It just had to be timed right. I had another Marine working with me on the hill and it was always on my mind to try and keep him out of harms way if I could.
After working together for about 4 days and living in a fox hole next to our landing zone we would talk about our girlfriends and stuff like that. His name is Carlos and was from Brooklyn. Great guy too.
Around 0200 in the morning Carlobs woke me up and said he had a feeling something just wasn’t right. We heard what sounded like movement coming up the side of the hill. The nearest Marine to us was about 50 feet away and he was manning a .50 cal. Maybe 20 minutes later our flares were going off just in front of us. Guess someone else heard the noise too. After the flares we heard small arms fire and mortars hitting just in front of us. Needless to say we kept our heads down. We both could hear different areas of the hill firing weapons and lighting up the whole with flares. Everything was happening so fast just like a dream. I looked up in the flare light and could see people running and jumping over our fox hole and they didn’t look like good guys. They were heading for our command post about 25 yards away I believe the Marine with the .50 opened up and got a few. Carlos looked at me and said that it won’t be long till they look down and see us in the hole. It was a no brainer and we would both be killed. And that would be the end! We both stood up and started shooting our m16’s. We were about 12 feet away from where they were coming up the hill. I also knew that both of us had about 12 magazines loaded up and right at hand. I shot my m16 till the barrel started glowing red. I also used what hand grenades we had. I had a whole case that I had been sitting on to stay dry. Everything that night was like a dream and luckily or unluckily I don’t remember too much because of all the adrenaline going through me. It seemed like it lasted forever. Hours later after the sun came up I felt numb all over and sick. We checked each other to make sure we were still alive. One thing I thank God for is that because we were in charge of some supplies that were brought up the hill “we had plenty of ammunition”. When it looked safe to get out of the hole, all we could see there were dead North Vietnamese soldiers and a few dead and wounded Marines.
I think I may have walked around the area directly in front of our fox hole and shot any of the NVA that were moving or playing dead. At that point I just didn’t care. After that I called in as many medical helicopters I could get to have our wounded taken off the hill. We never did get any of the wounded NVA off the hill because we just wanted to watch them die. This whole thing changed my life forever because I wasn’t fighting for my country anymore, I was fighting for my fellow Marines and trying to keep them alive. Dealing in death day in and day out. When someone was killed I started to feel as though they were just a thing on the ground. I started to loose the feeling of that body being a person. I found out weeks later that Carlos was bayoneted in the back on another hill and was sent home.
The next day I was relieved off the hill and was sent to the base camp down the hill where they were many as 1400 rocket hits a day along with NVA artillery fire.
This place was no better than the hills near by I just left. In March 13 of 1968 while working on the base landing zone I got hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel from a .122 rocket or mortar. I was waiting for the next load of supplies to be dropped by parachute. As the the supplies were floating down, it came to me that the entire enemy was waiting for us to retrieve those supplies so that could shoot mortar rounds off to hit as we came in. I turned around just in time to see a friend standing next to his jeep when a mortar hit the hood and killed him instantly. I turned to run when the very next round hit right in front of my feet and hit me in the head and hands. After about 20 minutes I woke up and was covered with a poncho. As I tried to get up they realized I was still alive. I guss with all the crap going on and my head covered in blood, they must have thought I was dead. I was loaded on a Helicopter and taken to a field hospital then Japan.
I never did get back to Khesanh but in a way I am there almost every night with the Marines I watched dieing.
I live with the thoughts of why all those Marines died and I didn’t. I think they call that survivor’s guilt. Watching someone die right in front of you and calling their mothers or wives is a thing that will be with me forever. Out of all this I find having patience is something I lack and patience for people who don’t try really try isn’t there. Over the years being close to me takes time but I put on a good face. I have been married 3 times and fought hard to make them work but failed and had 14 jobs before settling into one for over 25 years and made it.. I have a wife now of 20 years that seems to be coming around to the way I am. The only real friends I have are people I worked with in my last jod and the ones I served with in Vietnam. My wife and my Vietnam friends are what keep me going. The wife says I dwell to much on my past military life but that’s just the way it is and it will never fade away. I went through too much too fast at too young an age to ever forget it. 10 years ago the Veterans Administration finally decided after 2 weeks of testing that I was suffering from a traumatic brain injury from my head wound in March of ’68. In fact I still have the shrapnel in my head. The results of the TBI is attention, concentration, and distractibility, my memory, my speed of processing, confusion, impulsiveness, language processiing and a few more. This all starting to come to the surface within the last several years. I have learned to take short cuts to accomplish most of what I do. Vietnam is a place where I grew up too fast and too young’ and I really believe it’s where I stopped growing up and living. But I would do it again if asked in a heat beat. I have learned to do whatever it takes to make my life normal not to mention doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever put to pen but wanted people to try and understand what it was all about in a young man’s head so many years ago. Some day I will be looking forward to seeing those brave men once again.