MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Most of them took the military road before they knew it was headed to Vietnam. They were high school graduates in 1962 – intelligent but not necessarily wealthy, and for many, ROTC scholarships meant a free ride to a college degree.
By the time they chose to become Marine Corps officers, there was no doubt where they’d be going. The war that would define them was burning on the horizon. It was their calling, and these boys on the verge of manhood were eager to take up the mantle.
For five months in 1966, 184 young men from across the country came together for a brief, defining time here at The Basic School, where newly commissioned Marine Corps officers are trained. They started in June, in the deadly heat of summer and spent the coming months exhausted and covered in dirt and mosquito and tick bites. By November, they were camping and running in the cold rain, covered in mud.
“I learned to laugh at adversity with these guys,” said Mike Wholley, who stayed in the Marine Corps for 30 years, retiring as a brigadier general. “These 200 guys from The Basic School – I love them. We all went through the same things. We laughed, we cried, we ate crappy chow, but we laughed through it all and we persevered.”
And then – almost to a man – they went to war.
The Basic School
This year marks a half century since TBS class of fiscal year 1967 came through this campus. The buildings have all changed, and the technology is new.
The men of B Company, now in their 70s, laughed in amazement at the large size of the modern classrooms, the perks for new officers and the elaborate choices in the chow hall.
But some things never change.
When Marines on the chow line heard who the visitors were, they shook their hands. And the Marine spiel – with its pride and ethos -- brought the veterans back to their own young boots.
“This is where we introduce young men and women to what it truly means to be a Marine Officer,” Maj. Dan Eagan, protocol officer at The Basic School, told the veterans during a briefing. “To lead, to take charge to make decisions when you are under stress, when the world is crashing down around your ears, and maybe the only thing that can be your saving grace is keeping your head on your shoulders, picking up a radio and getting the right support where you need it.”
“You all know it because you lived it,” he told the silent room.
The veterans had gathered on this autumn weekend to mark then and now, a 50th reunion for men who had been together fleetingly -- some before they could grow a full beard. But it was a seminal time, when they learned to take responsibility and were thrust into battle. Their mettle would be tested, and their ability to laugh, when fate would rightly have them shaking in fear, connected them in irrevocable ways.
For many Marines, service is a calling that bonds them like no other. But as these young lieutenants trained to be officers, they shouldered the added knowledge that they were preparing to take men into battle. For five months, day and night, they ran, jumped and crawled, cursed, fell, got up and did it again. They laughed when it got too hard, or something didn’t go right.
“What are they going to do, send me to Vietnam? Oh wait, they are already doing that,’” they joked.
They were hurting and dirty and knew that soon, they’d be at war, and not all of them would come home.
Some kept in contact, becoming lifelong friends. Others put the war behind them – or buried it. Ord Elliott put his manuscript in a drawer for nearly four decades before he published it. Wholley lived in Washington for years before he could bring himself to visit the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.
“I had this irrational fear I would walk down and see my name. It was not rational. But there were a lot of names of good friends,” he said. Now once a year, at 6 a.m., he heads to the Wall and spends an hour and a half there.
In 1996, 30 years after they graduated, classmate Bob Schmitt reached out to 12 classmates whose contacts he had and organized the first small reunion in California. Time passed, and every five years or so, they had an expanded gathering.
Now, about 50 of them were back where started so long ago.
They looked around at the young Marines training for new wars in a newfangled world, struck by how much had changed, but also, how much was familiar. Eagan’s words to them struck home.
“As much as we evolve technology-wise, as much as we advance, incorporate new things, these young lieutenants when they graduate have more in common with you gentlemen than they do with their peers out in the civilian world,” Eagan said. “Because the underlying fundamentals of what makes a Marine Corps leader are timeless. That they are going to be men and women of character. That they are going to make the right decision.
“That’s the institution you passed on to us.”
Ready, set, combat
The class graduated at the end of November 1966. Some went on to flight school, dividing further into fixed wing or helicopters. Others landed ground jobs – riflemen or artillerymen -- and were on the front lines by early 1967.
They entered a war in full throttle. The number of American forces in Vietnam had surpassed 350,000, but troops were stretched thin. As American losses multiplied, public support waned.
By the time the first graduates of their class landed in the I Corps tactical zone – the northernmost quadrant of South Vietnam just south of the Demilitarized Zone – they were seeing signs at home of the anti-war sentiment that would punctuate their service and return from war.
“The underlying fundamentals of what makes a Marine Corps leader are timeless. That they are going to be men and women of character. That they are going to make the right decision."
- Maj. Dan Eagan, protocol officer
Whether they served on the ground or in the air, they came home with the shared experience of combat that cemented their bonds.
“These are the guys that fought with you,” said Ord Elliott, who commanded a rifle platoon through battle along the DMZ. “We can understand even though we had different experiences – the wing and the grunts like me – we can understand what that experience was.
“So when we share stories, it’s warming,” he said. “It’s wonderful. It brings back the camaraderie we had as Marines.”
“It’s about spending time with Marines,” said Bob Lund, a CH-46 helicopter pilot in Vietnam. “My whole life, I’ve been tremendously proud to be a Marine, and I have tremendous respect for other Marines because I know what happened to them. I know what they did.”
A legacy of success
In the years that followed the war, the men of B Company had remarkable and successful lives. Hon Lee survived the ground war on Hill 881 South near Khe Sanh to be recruited by the CIA – first in their technical unit, and later, as a clandestine operative around the world.
Classmate Andy Vaart also worked for the CIA, as an analyst. He was born in Estonia before his mother escaped to the United States during World War II.
Mike Wholley, who joined the Marines so he could go to law school and become a politician, stayed 30 years, becoming a brigadier general and the top lawyer in the Marine Corps.
Hays Parks, a fellow lawyer who commanded a base security unit at 1st Marine Division headquarters near Da Nang, became the pre-eminent scholar on the laws of war, negotiating weapons agreements on behalf of the United States.
Others went into business or computer technology, or became doctors or surgeons. David Martin served as a U.S. Congressman and John Astle went from flying helicopters to serving two decades as a Maryland state senator.
In 2014, Astle introduced legislation in Maryland that passed unanimously, making March 30 the official Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day in his state.
He said he had been spit on when he returned home and a friend he’d grown up with turned his back on him because of the war. The legislation, for him, was a way to reconcile the pride these Marines felt coming home with the shame many Americans felt about the war they fought.
“I tell people that of all the things I’ve done with my life, the thing about which I am most proud is my service as a Marine,” Astle said.
A reunion of family
Last month, as they walked the campus of The Basic School, Vaart came across a dedication plaque with several names, including one that stopped him in his tracks: Lt. Col. Victor Ohanesian.
A Marine Corps major working with the Navy ROTC at the University of Rochester in 1964, Ohanesian recruited Vaart and Bob Rivers to join the Marines, not the Navy, at the end of their college scholarships.
He was Vaart’s mentor, a Marine he wanted to emulate. It made him proud that Ohanesian had selected him.
Three years later, Vaart was a young lieutenant in Vietnam when he got word that Ohanesian was killed in combat in the DMZ.
Vaart reached out and ran his fingers over the name on the plaque. “He was the first person to see something worthy in me,” he said.
The weekend took them to the Marine Corps Museum, where many of them relived their Vietnam battles. Lee stood on his Hill 881 South, John Sullivan and Lund under a Huey from their squadron – one they’d both flown dozens of times. Roger Hart and Astle walked down a CH-46 ramp, remembering how the Marines helped injured buddies onto a bird.
They rescued a lot of troops. But Astle hasn’t forgotten one kid who died on the back of his helicopter.
Astle’s helicopter had been called in for a rescue in an area where troops had come under heavy fire. But the security gunships were taking too long. He had to choose between risking the lives of himself and his crew to go it alone, or wait. He waited. The copter didn’t end up getting shot at, he said. Maybe it was because they came in with the big guns. Or maybe the bad guys had already fled. Maybe the kid would have survived had he gone in sooner. The memory brings him to tears.
“I wrestled with that for a long time before I came to terms with it,” he said.
For Bob Rivers, the camaraderie comes back the minute he gets into a room with these men.
“We shared something special,” he said, emotion bubbling up as he spoke.
“This is coming home. These are my friends. This is who I am,” he said.