MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER, N.C. -- He never thought he would reach his unit alive.
Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Joe Houle, recounted events from his tour in Vietnam during a Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day ceremony Monday here.
The year was 1965, and Houle, then a corporal, arrived in Vietnam facing backward in a C-130 Hercules transport plane. Seeing tracers flying from the ground below, he just knew he was going to die before he ever reached the ground.
Houle, now the director of the Marine Corps Museum of the Carolinas, spoke to the assembled Marines, veterans and guests about his first night in Vietnam. He was there with Mike Company, 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
According to Houle, he arrived in Vietnam with no pack, rifle or combat gear. He and five other Marines were ordered into the back of a truck by a master sergeant. They were told to relax their first night. Houle said the master sergeant gave them a place to sleep and showed them their bunker in case of an artillery attack. He also told them they would draw rifles the next day.
"We were set up at Marble Mountain, just down from the naval hospital," Houle said. "Those of you who were there know exactly where I'm talking about."
About 1:30 in the morning, Houle said Vietnamese mortars opened up on the camp and he hid in the tent hoping none of the shrapnel would find him. He said it was too dark for him to see to find the bunker. A hand reached out of the darkness, grabbed him from the rack and threw him into his bunker. The hand was from his company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Stonewall Jackson.
"I won't tell you what he called me," Houle said, "but he told me not to get out until morning. I said, 'No problem, first sergeant.'"
The next morning he was issued a rifle and taken to his platoon. He was assigned as squad leader of first squad because he was the senior corporal, despite having only been in country one day. Their first mission was to locate the mortar unit that had shelled them during the night.
Houle said he looked in the eyes of his squad and saw no emotion.
"The look in their eyes was like the life was sucked out of them," he explained. Later he learned the term for their condition was the 1,000-yard stare. "After I lost my first friend, I felt it was best to be detached."
In Vietnam, you did not make friends, you made "military acquaintances," he said.
Cans of pebbles strung along the camp perimeter were the early warning system against enemy attack in a darkness where you could not see your hand in front of your face. Claymores and trip flares were set to alarm them if the enemy tried to infiltrate the camp during the stygian night, according to Houle.
Once the night's dead silence set in, the long wait began.
"If you were to sleep, it was only in two-hour shifts," he said.
"Knowing this sounds strange - when you can hear a mosquito suck blood out of a water bull at 1,000 yards, it's damn quiet."
Houle remembered Vietnam at night by the smells of diesel fuel and death. When something rattled a can twenty yards out, or a flare went off, the enemy was met with the steel spray of claymore mines and the rattle of M60 machineguns.
"Questions pop to mind," said Houle. "Will I take care of my Marines? Will I bring them back alive? Will I be a good leader?"
Houle said the nights were a hell that could drive a man insane.
Still, when Houle returned to America, he said they were greeted not with fanfares and parades, but with calls of "baby killers" and worse.
"They asked us to do our job and we did," Houle concluded, admonishing veterans to support and stand behind today's active-duty military service members.
"We Vietnam veterans hope and pray there is never another Vietnam."