Two Carson City Marines return to the scene of battle in Vietnam
This time, Dan Anderson has a much better feeling about his return from Vietnam. In 1966, the first time, it was the start of years of alcoholism and personal strife. Years of fighting battles over and over in his head and thinking of friends who didn’t come home.
It took many years, and therapy, for him to find peace.
Anderson, 61, was with a group of 10 others who recently returned from a three-week trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. In that group were six other members of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, and one of them was another Carson City resident, Robert Burnett. Anderson, who retired to Carson City 10 year ago, met Burnett when he noticed him in a Nevada Day Parade wearing a T-shirt indicating he had been a member of the 2nd Battalion. They’d fought the same battles together and had never met.
Anderson spent 13 months in Vietnam starting in 1965. He never graduated from high school. The day President Kennedy was assassinated, he walked out of his senior English class and enlisted. He had planned to anyway … military service was a family tradition. But the frustration of Kennedy’s assassination, and the president’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you …” led him to enlist early.
I learned about their recent trip from Thomas Miller, also a Marine from the 2nd Battalion, who lives in New Jersey. He sent me an essay not only about this trip, but about the afternoon of Dec. 18, 1965, in a village called Ky Phu, where all of them fought together.
The battalion had been marching for nine days in steady monsoon conditions. The 1,400-member battalion was down to about 600 Marines, largely because of trenchfoot brought on by the constant rain.
Anderson was walking in a column in the battalion’s rear guard on a dirt trail when the ambush began. He was a radioman, meaning that he carried 60 pounds of gear and was a prime target for enemy snipers determined to cut off communication. When the ambush began, Marines fell all around him. Of the five radiomen in the companies in the rear guard, he would be the only one to survive the fight.
There were many heroic actions that day. Anderson credits the two Marines behind him with giving him a chance to get to cover by laying down cover fire. Then they took up a defensive position for hours before they were able to rejoin the rest of the battalion in the village.
Burnett was farther ahead in the village when the fight began. His company charged back to cover the companies in the rear guard. He says his memories are not sharp of that day. He recently read a letter he’d written to his mother in which he wrote that there were dead Marines all around him, but that memory has left him. He remembers clearly, however, how a sailor looked at him once they’d been evacuated to a ship after the battle … like he’d seen a ghost. Burnett figures he had the 1,000-mile stare of troops who’d been in combat.
The Marines went on to win the day, even though they had 21 killed and 97 wounded. A farmer from the village they met on their trip estimated that villagers had buried more than 450 Viet Cong.
Burnett said the village doctor treated some of the injured Marines that day. He learned on their trip, from a villager who was only 15 at the time of the battle, that the Viet Cong returned later and assassinated the doctor for his deeds.
After his 13 months fighting in Vietnam, Anderson decided not to re-enlist. He had a bad feeling about the war and the way it was being fought.
Plus he had a life to get on with. And he tried. He worked as a salesman and began to raise a family, but the war was always in his thoughts. Alcohol was “anesthesia.”
“Combat is probably the most intense experience a person will have in a lifetime,” he said. And when it’s over and you return home, “the things you do don’t seem that damned important … If you get fired, what the hell, it’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me.”
He knows that’s the same struggle those fighting in the Middle East are facing, especially those serving multiple tours.
Yet Anderson’s memories of Vietnam were not all bad.
“I always thought it was a pretty country,” he said. And he liked the people. He remembered how they laughed and smiled, even during war.
Burnett, who also moved to Carson City later in life, said he had problems, too, including emotional breakdowns. He left the Marines after being injured in Vietnam by a hand grenade. For a time, he lived in the woods in a Volkswagen bus, and was later diagnosed with PTSD.
On this trip, they weren’t prepared for how much the country had changed.
“We were really surprised with how different it was,” Anderson said. Roads and electricity, development, advertising in English, resorts. That trail where the ambush began for him is now an asphalt road.
“What amazed us is how prosperous the country was as far as the tourist industry,” Burnett said.
There was a new school in Ky Phu, where they left school supplies for the children.
While there, they held a memorial service and spread the ashes of a Marine who’d fought with them and had died years later back home.
Anderson’s passions in retirement are riding motorcycles, visiting his children and grandchildren, playing with the dogs he and his wife rescues.
He still thinks about the war every day and about the friends he knew there.
But it’s been years since he’s needed his anesthesia.
“I feel joy being alive,” he said.
• Barry Ginter is editor of the Appeal. You can reach him at 881-1221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.