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50 years ago, Marine combat unit landed in Vietnam

By MICHAEL P. MAYKO | Connecticut Post | Published: February 8, 2015

NORWALK, Conn. (Tribune News Service) -- Fifty years ago this month, John Rey was counting down the days until his four-year U.S. Marines stint ended.

"I had a job as an electrician waiting for me in New York," said Rey, now 72 and living in Norwalk.

Then came Feb. 7, 1965, Rey said.

That morning, a 300-member Viet Cong raiding party surprised Camp Holloway, an American helicopter base near Pleiku. Their five-minute attack killed nine American military advisers, wounded 128 and destroyed or damaged 25 aircraft.

That night, President Lyndon B. Johnson told his advisers "I've had enough of this," and launched Operation Flaming Dart I -- a bombing attack on North Vietnam.

The next day, Rey, a Marine corporal assigned to Battery A of the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, was sent to Da Nang. He was among the first 100 combat Marines dispatched to Vietnam. Their task: To protect the airfield.

One month later, on March 8, 3,500 more combat troops were sent. Those deployments marked the beginning of a time that changed America.

"The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 gave the president a blank check to stand up against communism," said Gary Rose, Sacred Heart University's professor and chair of its government and politics department.

By 1968, American ground forces numbered 536,100. Rose's brother, Arthur, a Marine lieutenant, was among them.

"I know he saw a lot of combat but he never talked about it," said the professor.

And, for the first time, Americans saw the death and destruction of war broadcast into their homes on the nightly news.

A war abroad hinders one at home

The costs, not only in American troops -- 58,156 died another 303,704 were wounded -- but in equipment drained money from Johnson's War on Poverty.

"He only reduced poverty by a half," Rose said. "If not for the war, he could have reduced it two-thirds or even three-fourths. It took money away from his education plans."

America exploded. Riots burned inner cities. Peace demonstrations shut down campuses. Dodgers and deserters impaired the draft. The deceit fostered by three administrations detailed in the Pentagon Papers left Americans forever skeptical of politicians.

"The war was something all these diverse groups rallied around," said Yohuru Williams, a Fairfield University history professor. "It derailed the Great Society. If not for the quagmire this created, Johnson could have been one of the country's great presidents."

Facing a contentious battle for re-nomination in 1968, Johnson slinked into retirement.

"The war did him in," said Ronald Heiferman, Quinnipiac University's Asian studies director.

But in 1965, that was years into the future.

Rey was one of the last of his battalion to arrive in Da Nang. He had been ordered by his First Sergeant, Cecil A. Bazzell, to make sure any stragglers returning from liberty were on flights.

'I'm dying protecting my fellow Marines'

In an recent interview at the home he shares with his wife of 49 years, Rosemarie Piscitelli, formerly of the Devon section of Milford, Rey said that he thought he would be killed.

"I'm not going home like I expected," Rey said. "There were only 100 of us. But I decided, if I'm going to die, I'm dying protecting my fellow Marines."

So when he was offered a ride in the back of a troop carrier to his battalion's post, Rey refused.

"No way," he said. "I'm riding atop the canvas."

Why?

"If the Viet Cong attack, they're going to shoot the cab and spray the back. They're not going to know I'm on top. I could jump off and return fire, that's my thinking," he explained. "If I'm going to die, I'm going to take some of them with me."

Only two days earlier, Rey's battalion had unwittingly won the right to be sent to Vietnam. That was their reward for defeating an Army battery in a drone shoot-down off Okinawa. The exercise simulated an incoming attack by Russian MIGs -- the North Vietnamese fighter planes.

"A MIG could take down a whole battalion; our job was to keep them away," Rey said.

"Our guys fired five HAWK (surface-to-air) missiles at the drones and destroyed all five," Rey said. "The Army only got three."

Rey's group won liberty passes and a ticket to Da Nang.

Rey said no MIG ever penetrated the Da Nang base while he was there. But the Viet Cong did -- on two occasions.

The first time was on Easter Sunday, 1965. Rey believes Viet Cong infiltrated a South Vietnamese Army unit, placed a satchel charge near a pile of bombs and detonated napalm.

"I was sleeping about 300 yards away, and all of a sudden I'm being showered with shrapnel -- 500-pound bombs are going off," he recalled.

Rey escaped uninjured. But that incident bolstered his inclination to be leery of any Vietnamese.

"We heard ... that a guy had bought a bottle of soda from a Vietnamese selling it on the base," Rey said. "He takes a swig and starts gagging -- it was filled with shards of glass."

Swelter and terrible food

Next came the July 1 attack. At 1 a.m. the Viet Cong began shelling the base with mortar fire.

"I had just completed three hours of patrol and was trying to catch some shut-eye," Rey said. "I started hearing explosions and figured our tanks were firing into the jungle. Then my tent flaps open and Staff Sgt. Harold Walker is there telling me its incoming fire. I grab my rifle, my cartridge belt, grenades and run to my fighting hole."

A Viet Cong suicide squad penetrated the base, attacked and fled, he said.

The incident was recorded in that's day's San Bernardino (Calif.) Daily Sun. The paper reported an American was killed, five were injured, three planes were destroyed and three others damaged.

The damage could have been worse. Rey said that earlier, his unit had moved the HAWK missiles and launchers farther back. As a result, the enemy mortar fire fell short.

"Vietnam was tough," he said. "The food was horrible -- just eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was like being in heaven."

Temperatures hit 115 degrees in the day and cooled only to 98 at night, he said. Monsoons would come and flood large areas, bringing mosquitoes and rats.

Going to the bathroom meant risking your life. Viet Cong snipers monitored those sites.

"So you regulate yourself to go at night," Rey said. "And you kept your gun close."

As the battalion's administration chief, Rey spent much of the day in an office, compiling daily reports, picking patrols and assigning machine-gun bunker posts. His nights were spent on patrol -- three hours on, three hours off.

"The gunnery sergeant would come around at night, telling us to fix bayonets, feeding us intelligence about how badly outnumbered we were," Rey said. "But there were only two major attacks while I was there. Surviving war is all about luck. You could be in a trench when a mortar hits. You live, but your buddy next to you dies."

He believes American politicians lost the war by employing a defensive strategy.

"We could have won, but the politicians were afraid. So a lot of good guys got killed," said Rey, who has dozens of photographs of himself and his men in Vietnam as well as the faded, tattered battalion flag.

Rey, who still runs J& R Rey Electric in the Bronx, N.Y., not only survived Vietnam, but also four months of chemotherapy in battling mesothelioma. He suspects working around asbestos as an electrician caused it. It cost him a lung.

"That was tough," he said of his battle with cancer. "My heart goes out to anyone who ever had to go through that. I'd rather be back in Vietnam."

(c) 2015 the Connecticut Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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