On August 18th the Church of Transfiguration was home to a Memorial Service for those who lost their lives in Operation Starlite or the Battle of Van Tuong. This battle was the first major offensive regimental size action conducted by a purely US military unit during the Vietnam War. The operation was a combined arms assault involving ground, air and naval units. US Marines were deployed by helicopter, and in amphibious landings.
Our Parishioner, Chet Wauters, fought in this operation. The memorial was a way to honor his fallen comrades. The service included an honor guard from the Apache Junction American Legion Post 27 and members of the Young Marines. The honor guard, along with presenting the flag, also read a poem and a prayer, had a bugler play reveille and taps, and retired the colors. The Young Marines demonstrated flag folding with a narration by Chris Whitehead on the meaning of each fold. The significance of the POW of the congregation held flags representing the various branches of the military to form a tunnel through which the procession and recession walked.
Chet Wauters gave a reflection on his experience in the battle. The full text follows this article. Father Bob also gave thoughts on the nature of war and sacrifice. A reception followed in the Parish Hall. The reception featured food provided by members of the congregation, a rum and Coke toast and music from the era selected by Chet.
My wife and I want to thank you for coming. It is greatly appreciated. Over in the hall is some rum and Coke my wife brought. Rum and Coke was the last drink my fellow Marines and I had the night before the operation. Every 18 August I have a rum and coke. Today it is more coke than rum.
The uniform I’m wearing is the same my fellow Marines wore back then with the exception of Cpl. Carpenter who would have had a silver star, MSgt. Marino and SSgt Collier might have had Korean War Medal. Some of the men would have had good conduct medals and all except for Bell and me would have also had marksman badges.
Carpenter, Principe and I first met at Pendleton. We were all going to our first duty station – new PFC’s. We realized we would be assigned to the same company. When we reported for duty we were also assigned to the same platoon. SSgt. Collier, Sgt. Williams, Sgt. Bush and LCpl. Hailer were all members of the 3rd Platoon. There were others. Although, I still can see them; I can no longer remember their names.
After our first landing in Vietnam, six Marines were detached from the 3rd Platoon and assigned to the 2nd Platoon. For a second landing Sgt. Gilford, LCpl. Flores, PFC Bell, Sgt. Massey, Cpl. Duval and myself made up the six from 3rd Platoon who were assigned to the 2nd Platoon. After that landing the 2nd Platoon detached us and assigned us to 2/4 in the field. We did not rejoin the 3rd Platoon until the beginning of August.
MSgt. Marino, PFC Brown and I met in the 2nd Platoon and they along with Cpl. Kailue, Cpl. Craig, LCpl. Pass, Pfc. Reeff were on the supply operation with me along with about 33 or more whose names I don’t remember. I spent most of my time detached from the 3rd Platoon and the six of us spent most of our time attached to the 2/4.
The battle was 52 years ago and it seems like yesterday to me. I still see the men who served with me - some more vividly than others. Some I see clearly in my memory and wish I could remember their names.
In this operation, we carried on a tradition of our parent units. Our battalion was destroyed in WWII, Our company was destroyed in Korea and in Vietnam it was our platoon. We started the operation with a reinforced platoon of around 42. Twenty-four hours later there were eight Marines walking and one being supported.
Pfc Bell was a special Marine. My wife remembers him most. When the six of us were finally ordered to rejoin the 3rd platoon SSgt Collier had orders to send one of us on R and R. He picked me. But, I wasn’t interest. The discussion between the SSgt and me became a little heated. Pfc Bell interfered and offered to go in my place.
The platoon that was assigned from our company for the operation was made up of tracks from all three platoons. Pfc Bell’s track was assigned from the 3rd platoon and since Pfc Bell was gone on my R&R, SSgt Collier assigned me to take his place. After we left for the operation SSgt Collier was informed that the plane Pfc. Bell was on, the plane I should have been on, went down and all hands were lost. Pfc. Bell was dead.
Being assigned to Bell’s track was ok with me as I knew both Sgt. Gilford and LCpl Flores from Hawaii. We had been detached together since March. LCpl Flores was an excellent Marine. You could always count on him. To be fair, except for one Marine who didn’t leave Hawaii with us, you could count on everyone always. To be poetic, when the drums rolled, bugles sounded and pipes played you never had to look to see if the Marine was where he was supposed to be. They were. The last time I saw Flores he was next to me in a paddy, he turned to say something and was shot in the head.
Cpl. Kaluie I saw around, he was in the maintenance section. It was a matter of manhood with Cpl. Duval that we never had maintenance work on our track. I swear things were held together with bailing wire and bubble gum. But, Cpl. Kaliue was assigned to us for this operation. When we made the landing Cpl. Kaluie asked to do a perimeter patrol. During this patrol we came across a number of dead VC and Cpl. Kaluluie asked me to make him a promise. He asked. I refused. He asked again. I refused. He asked again. I agreed. I kept that promise but not in the way we both thought.
When we were assigned to column 21 Cpl. Kaliue joined our crew – don’t know if he was assigned to us specifically or if he just joined us. He was in the rear port hatch. The last time I saw him, I was making sure he was dead. A round had hit the port hatch and killed him.
Other Marines died that day - some in my arms - others next to me. The only other one that hits me is Pfc. Brown. He was a 2nd Platoon Marine who I had become friends with when we were ordered back to the beach for two week maintenance. I had been assigned mess duty to keep me out of trouble – it didn’t work. Pfc. Brown was a good friend. I didn’t know he had been killed or how until I was in the Army Hospital in Okinawa.
18 August 1965 – we were supposed to be going to another Marine Company. It didn’t happen. Instead we were led to a battalion area. The only problem was we weren’t on the same side. Twenty four hours later we were defeated. Nine made it out alive. We brought our dead back with us.
It’s been a long time since that August day in 1965, but I remember that day and my friends and all the Marines that were there with me. Those memories still affect me. Those Marines, who I remember to this day, served us and the citizens of South Vietnam. I have been told that a veteran is a person who signed a blank check to their country, payable up to and including his or her life. My friends signed that check and paid it in full. Today we honor them and all who paid that check in full.