Chu Lai was not “China Beach”

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Chu Lai, Vietnam was nothing like “China Beach,” a dramatic television series set at an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War. This was not a tourist vacation spot and the natives were definitely not friendly. There were no girls and no swim suit contests. If you like hot weather, you would love Chu Lai; Marine tents were not air conditioned and the chow was awful. The Marines would remain at Chu Lai from 1965 until September 1970.

Chu Lai

In 1965, Dave Klauder, my Paris Island boot camp buddy, and I were stationed at Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan. We were in the same former Japanese WW II barracks but in different squadrons. I was quartered in the upper deck; Dave was on the lower deck.

I had the duty phone watch one night and was really surprised when Mrs. Klauder, Dave’s Mom, called from Darby, Pennsylvania. As a kid growing up in Darby, I probably eat more meals at the Klauders than at home. To this day, I have no idea on how she managed to track me down. It had to be pure luck.

Dave was married; he hadn’t written his wife in several weeks; she was worried. Dave’s wife asked Mrs. Klauder for help. I told her that Dave was in the squadron right below me; just hold a minute and I’ll go get him. I yelled to anyone nearby, “Don’t hang-up, this is a call from home.” I flew down the stairs. Big surprise. No one was in the barracks. “What the hell was going on,” I thought. A Marine from another squadron happened to walk by. Where were these guys? Dave was assigned to the Short Air Tactical Systems (SATS). They had been deployed to Vietnam. When I got back to the duty phone, I told Mrs. Klauder that Dave’s squadron was on maneuvers. I don’t think she believed me.

Dave landed with SATS, the 4th Marines and several hundred Seabees in May 1965, in a no named landing site 55 miles south of Da Nang. It was promptly named ‘Chu Lai’, General Krulak’s name in Mandarin Chinese.

Dave filmed the landing from the assault craft with an 8mm camera. The grunts in the assault craft had to think he was crazy. As Dave tells the story, the Navy was bombarding the beach at the time. Lucky for him, no VC (Vietnamese Communists) were shooting back.

The landing was unopposed and the Seabees and the Marines in SATS built an airfield on a 4,000-foot strip of aluminum matting. Dave spent several months at Chu Lai before returning to Iwakuni, Japan, a good 35 pounds lighter before rotating back to the states. His SATS unit stood duty in bunkers at night to stop snappers from destroying destroyed parked aircraft, ammunition bunkers and fuel supplies.





At first, only a “short airfield for tactical support (SATS)” was installed. This SATS consisted of a 1,200 m runway with an aluminum surface of interlocking lightweight metal alloy planking, a catapult and a carrier deck-type arresting gear:

I was in MAG 12 in Nam and MWSG-17 (Marine Wing Services Group) in Iwakuni, Japan. At Iwakuni, we got on the LSD (Landing Ship Dock) at the Air Station. I have a video of the Ship in the back ground of the air strip. If you watched “Heartbreak Ridge,” that’s how it went. Packed up stood by the ship then had to stand-down. Then a couple days later we packed up again and got on the ship and sail down to Vietnam.

My outfit was SATS (Short Air Tactical Systems). We did emergency landings and touch and go for the pilots at Iwakuni. In Chu Lie we installed the runway and, caught fighter jets with our arresting gear. When I left Chu Lie they put a land-based catapult in operation. We landed in March 1965 hitting the beach (the first amphibious combat landing since Inchon, Korea) in a no man’s land. Jungle. No towns or buildings. We turned it into an airfield, built buildings and they called it Chu Lai. The Seabees helped us lay the aluminum matting for the runway. It was our job to set up the runway, putting our arresting gear and catapults in place for recovery of jet aircraft. You can see a replica at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico. The Seabees we’re only there to assist us. That they helped us lay down the matting for the runway. We had to show them how to do it. As it was our expertise on how to lay it down. We practiced this at Boge Field at field south at Cherry Point. That’s where we gave demonstrations to the War College.

My mother in-law was the first to be suspicious as she was a WW 2 vet (nurse) and when Joan got my letters they were censored. As we were laying down the aluminum runway my lieutenant told me that my rotation was up but asked me to extend there for 6 months. It was supposed to be voluntary. I told him I would not, as my first child (Suzy) was born when I was in Japan. He then told me he was going to extend me anyway and left. I almost had an emotional break down when he came back and said he was kidding. I told him he didn’t know how close he came to being shot. His face turned pale and he walked away. Thank God no one was there to hear that. I remember packing up my gear and taking my M14 to the Amory and the Marine there told me to throw it in the corner with the rest since we were getting new rifles, the M16. I then got on a helicopter to Da Nang. There was three choppers and one had engine trouble so we all landed preparing to take on fire. But we were lucky and landed in an ARVN camp. When we finally got to Da Nang, we hopped on a C-130 to Okinawa, then flew into Iwakuni and then to San Diego by troop ship.

When Dave left Chu Lai, he didn’t know it but the M-16 was going to be a problem for the grunts and anyone else in a fire fight. The first issues of the rifle generated considerable controversy because the gun suffered from a jamming flaw known as “failure to extract”, which meant that a spent cartridge case remained lodged in the chamber after a bullet was fired. Reports of Marines and soldiers wounded were directly linked to the poorly designed M16. The M-16 had a twenty round magazine but you couldn’t load more than 16 rounds in the magazine and the cartridges jammed in the chamber and had to be removed with a cleaning rod. It would result in the unnecessary deaths of Marines and soldiers.

While Dave was at Chu Lai, I was a corporal attached to Wing Supply Support Division; assigned to a position usually held by a sergeant; several Marines and two Japanese nationals worked for me; a staff sergeant handled half the workload and sat directly across from me.

The big Polish guy who held this position before me came into work one day, with one shoe on, no tie, obviously drunk out of his mind. He was shacked-up with a Japanese girl, walked through her bamboo wall in the early morning hours, grabbed a taxi, made it through the main gate (MPs only checked for liberty cards and drunks were so common that anyone in a taxi with their IDs were passed on through), and managed somehow to stumble into work. One look from Captain Flaherty, our unit’s OIC, was enough to get him to the base hospital to dry out and orders back to the states. I was ‘volunteered’ to take over his position.

I saw an opportunity to get to Vietnam when we were notified that a large portion of our inventory had been designated for return to Inventory Control Points (ICPs) in the US. It made sense to run the inventory by Marine units in Vietnam, load the supplies aboard an LST and made the run to Vietnam. Captain Flaherty agreed and ordered me to coordinate a physical count with the warehouse and put together a current inventory list with the nomenclature of each item.

I went with Captain Flaherty to the Naval Supply Center, Yokosuka, Japan to obtain their approval. We got the okay to go ahead. Orders were cut for both of us to tour all Marine units in Vietnam. I had my bags packed and was ready to go when my name was kicked-off the C-130 manifest. Only officers were authorized on the flight; Captain Flaherty did a solo tour. I watched as our forklifts loaded the LST with supplies in August 1965. I did get a recommendation for sergeant but it came with a six year enlistment.  I turned the promotion down.  I had been accepted at two colleges (LaSalle College and Temple University) and was scheduled for discharge in January 1966. As it turned out the Marine Corps had other plans.

My discharge date had been pushed back 120 days due to involuntarily extension; trash the plans for college for now; I was assigned to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing (the 4th MAW) at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois.

I got to Chicago in January 1966 in the middle of a blizzard. My horse blanket (Marine overcoat) was in the bottom of my sea bag. I’ve never been that cold. Freezing, I managed to grab a taxi for the 20 mile ride to Glenview.

After checking in, a Marine warrant officer who knew me from El Toro said that we had been extended because the Corps had plans to invade North Vietnam and needed to call up the 4th Marine Division and the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.

President Johnson needed Congressional approval to invade North Vietnam.  The country didn’t want a bigger war.  I was separated from active duty in May 1966 and discharged in January 1968.

I started looking for survivors of Platoon 308 in April 2006. All I had was a faded copy of our Platoon 308 graduation book with the names and sometime only the initials instead of a first name, no addresses. Thanks to the internet and some good people, mostly veterans lending a helping hand, I found 55 out of 75 Platoon 308 Marines. A number of them were confirmed dead by relatives; there were no records for 20 of the men. I shared the names and contact information with the surviving platoon members. We were spread out all over the country.

One Marine who didn’t make it was our Senior Drill Instructor. In 1967, Jettie Rivers, Jr., was the first sergeant of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marlines (D/1/9). Delta, 1/9 was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam with mission of stopping the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops (NVA) across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Vietnam.

The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (‘the Walking Dead’) endured the longest sustained combat and suffered the highest killed in action (KIA) rate in Marine Corps history. The battalion was engaged in combat for 47 months and 7 days, from 15 June 1965 to 19 October 1966 and 11 December 1966 to 14 July 1969. With typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 94% (747) were killed in Action (KIA) over this period.

On May 14, 1967, Delta Company was ambushed while in a column by a reinforced NVA company during a sweep near the hamlet of Nha Tho An Hoi when intense machine gun fire split the company into three separate groups. The two day fight cost the company six dead and sixteen wounded Marines and corpsman but could easily have been much worse, if not for the personal courage and willingness of First Sergeant Rivers to go to the aid of other Marines regardless of the consequences.

After learning that all the platoon leaders were casualties, Rivers, wounded in the ambush, took command and formed a defensive perimeter, linking up the split platoons, which successfully fought off attacks by the NVA armed with satchel charges.

For his quick response and decisive action on May 14-15, 1967, Rivers was awarded the Navy Cross and recommended for a battlefield commission.

Any Marine assigned to 1/9 was lucky to be alive. Rivers was killed on July 6, 1967 at Con Thien from incoming artillery fire along with Captain Richard J. Sasek, Commanding Officer, D/1/9, HM2 John J. Van Vleck, Corporal Joseph W. Barillo, and Lance Corporal Edward M. Brady.

The Secretary of the Navy had signed his commissioning papers without knowing he was killed in action. Rivers was posthumously promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, an exceptionally rare action taken by the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps lost an outstanding officer and the best Marine that I every served under. The good Lord couldn’t find a better platoon leader. He was survived by his wife and two children and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On March 26, 2012, Jack Kramer, a Marine veteran of Platoon 323, one of Jettie Rivers’ platoons at Parris Island from 1963, found my name on the internet linked to the story of Rivers’ death in Vietnam. We exchanged emails. After the Marines, Kramer had been a war correspondent, author (Travels With the Celestial Dog, Jack Kramer Papers 1968-1969) and said that along with his father, Jettie Rivers was one of the ghosts that followed him throughout his life. I can’t think of a better complement to the man’s character.

Navy Cross Citation

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Jettie Rivers, Jr. (1300239), Second Lieutenant [then First Sergeant], U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism as Company First Sergeant while serving with Company D, First Battalion, Ninth Marines, THIRD Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in the Republic of Vietnam on 14 and 15 May 1967.

While engaged in search-and-destroy operations against units of the North Vietnamese Army, Company D became engaged with an estimated reinforced enemy company and Second Lieutenant Rivers, a member of the company command group, was wounded. Realizing that the enemy had forced a gap between the command group and one platoon and the two rear platoons, he immediately informed the company commander. At dusk the enemy fire and mortar barrages intensified, and as casualties mounted, the two separate elements set up a hasty perimeter of defense. Second Lieutenant Rivers expertly directed his men’s fire, placed personnel in strategic positions, and personally participated in repelling the enemy assault.

Observing a number of enemy soldiers maneuvering toward the perimeter, he mustered a small force of Marines and personally led them to meet the enemy, killing several of the enemy soldiers. When evacuation of the wounded was completed, Second Lieutenant Rivers requested permission to take the point in an attempt to link up the smaller element with the other two platoons. A short distance from the perimeter, the group encountered withering machine-gun fire which instantly killed the platoon sergeant and seriously wounded the platoon leader. Second Lieutenant Rivers immediately took command of the situation, aiding the wounded and personally pinning down the enemy machine gun while the casualties were removed.

Now under complete darkness and subject to continuous enemy crossfire and sporadic mortar barrages, Second Lieutenant Rivers assisted in joining the two units. Discovering that all of the platoon leaders had become casualties, he assisted the company commander in setting up an effective perimeter and personally supervised the medical evacuation preparations. Presently a deadly mortar barrage precipitated an all-out enemy assault on the company.

Second Lieutenant Rivers was everywhere-encouraging the men, directing fire, assisting the wounded, and distributing ammunition to critical positions. Wounded himself, he continued this pace until late in the afternoon when relief arrived. By his initiative, devotion to duty, and aggressive leadership, he served to inspire all who observed him and was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines. His great personal valor reflected great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

 

 

 

 

Author Details
Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O’Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base. Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency. After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of Salem-News.com to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O’Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Exposure-Marines-Government-Cover-Up/dp/1502340003.
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