By Lew Avera
Earlier this week we celebrated Memorial Day in San Clemente, honoring those who have served in our military forces over the years and particularly those who have given their lives to preserve our freedom and American way of life. Celebrations are particularly moving here in San Clemente with the many veterans from all services. I’m sure that all veterans were reminded of some of the most poignant events of their military careers.
This year’s celebration also coincides with the 40th anniversary, in April, of the final departure of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975 and the conclusion of U.S. operating forces on the ground in the Vietnam War. Much was seen on television and in the press of the evacuation of Saigon and our embassy and the departure of some 200,000 Vietnamese civilians, thousands of whom ended up just outside of San Clemente in the most northern part of Camp Pendleton.
Both this week’s Memorial Day and the evacuation events of last month raised one of the most memorable and special times of my life during my career in the U. S. Marines and a time about which we hear very little. March marked the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first United States ground combat troops into Vietnam in March 1965. I happened to have been part of that event and have special memories of that first year with the people of Vietnam.
I was a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, First Marines at Camp San Mateo, just inside the back gate to Camp Pendleton from San Clemente. During that time I had resided in San Clemente on West Ramona Street for some two years when San Clemente had a population of about 7,000. On the day in March of 1965 when the very first U.S. troops landed in Chu Lai, South Vietnam, I was boarding a Navy transport ship in San Diego with the battalion for a pre-planned one-year deployment to the Far East. Of course, we went immediately to Vietnam.
At this time in South Vietnam, the U.S. had advisors to the Vietnamese military since the beginning of the1960s and some air support units as well, but no ground combat troops. The direct enemy of the South Vietnamese military were the Viet Cong, local residents and citizens abducted and trained by North Vietnam to fight and kill their own so that North Vietnam could take over and rule all of Vietnam, much like we see all over the Middle East today. However, the North Vietnamese were beginning to move south and infiltrate via Laos. Our landings in 1965 were the beginning of the “Vietnamese War” to halt this escalation.
At the time of our landing the U.S. advisors were spread all over the I Corps, the northern third of the country, with their Vietnamese units. Their safety was a problem and something we needed to ensure. The highlight of my experience was being selected to form a special U.S. Marine Company of some 200 Marines to deploy in six locations throughout the northern country to provide security for these advisors.
In doing this I was detached from Marine unit locations and located into the civilian communities of the major cities of DaNang, Hue, Hoi An, Quang Tri and Quang Nai. Remembering that actual ground combat had not yet begun for our U.S. troops, this gave me an opportunity to literally, in a certain way, become a member of the “Vietnamese community.” As such, I remember working with their military leaders, teaching English to school and church groups and young people, participating in recreational and social activities with local citizens as well as, and perhaps above all else, visiting with their critically wounded in their hospitals. Of course, the lack of quality and care in their military hospitals was heartbreaking. I have pictures of many of these activities that keep them active in my mind. To this day I know many Vietnamese people here in San Clemente and Orange County and consider them to be among my very best friends.
I continued in this role for my entire tour to April 1966 when I returned home to the U.S. and later returned to South Vietnam in 1970 on a major assignment, in country, as the last of the Marine ground combat units were withdrawn from country in 1971.
So it was with Memorial Day 2015, a recollection of my most memorable time as a Marine, and thinking about the thousands of others who served with me and the many who gave their lives for all of us.