As we continue with our Easton in the Service series, we are fortunate enough to have had one of our home-grown veterans approach us and offer a first-hand account of his time in the Marines Corps. Unlike some of the posthumous letters and journals we’ve been able to use in this series, here we have a living vet who has been gracious enough to not only share his experiences, but who has answered countless queries from yours truly about his personal feelings and some of his less than pleasant encounters with a few of his fellow countrymen after returning from his deployment in Vietnam. What you will read below is mostly in Brian Lusebrink’s own words, with just a little editing and clarification done by me in an effort to condense the thousands of words that Brian was generous enough to share via weeks of emails. Everything in italics was either written or expressed by Brian himself. There are really no words that adequately express my gratitude for both his candid accounts and his service to his country.
1968: North and South Vietnam were in their 13th year of a vicious civil war that seemed destined to go on forever. At the International Geneva Conference, the French had finally abandoned their post WWII efforts to recolonize much of southeast Asia as of July 21, 1954 with an agreement between the new socialist French government and the Viet Minh which effectively gave the Viet Minh control of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) above the 17th Parallel, portioning the country of Vietnam into two separate regions. The new smaller State of Vietnam in the south would remain under the rule of Bao Dai until October 26, 1955, when Bao Dai was deposed by his then prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, creating the new Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Insurgents, backed by North Vietnam, soon developed against Diem’s government. The conflict gradually escalated into a full-blown civil war with Russia and China actively supporting the North, while the United States, Australia, South Korea, and other allies would support the South. The Cold War was anything but cold in Southeast Asia beginning in the fall of 1955.
Beginning in 1955, President Eisenhower initially supplied about 700 military personnel in the form of advisors, as well military and economic aid to the government of South Vietnam. The United States was operating under the theory that if one country were to fall to the communists, that neighboring countries would soon follow suit, toppling like dominos. That thinking became known as “The Domino Theory.”
In May 1961, John F. Kennedy authorized sending an additional five hundred Special Forces troops and military advisors to assist the pro-Western government of South Vietnam. By the end of 1962, there were approximately eleven thousand military advisors in South Vietnam. In 1963, fifty-three U.S. military personnel lost their lives in Vietnam. Despite his reluctance to escalate U.S. involvement in the conflict, Kennedy would continue to send additional military advisors to support the South Vietnamese Army. By the end of 1963, the numbers had risen to over sixteen thousand.
As the 1960’s wore on, Americans were divided when it came to supporting another war in Asia. The Korean Conflict had sullied the United States’ reputation as a winner. Many Americans felt that a “draw” was akin to a defeat, and it certainly appeared that the war in Vietnam was paralleling the results in Korea from the decade before. None-the-less, there were many young patriotic Americans who were still willing to fight to retain the freedoms their fathers and grandfathers had fought for during the first two World Wars.
One such young man was Easton resident Brian Lusebrink:
I graduated from Joel Barlow June 1968. At that time, I was working for Tony Colonese at the Sport Hill Gas Station. I guess that was my first real job. Also, I was dating a girl from Fairfield. I had played football for Barlow all four-years. I suited up for Varsity for three years and ended up playing and lettering Varsity two years. I was interested in playing football at the college level, and one school, William Penn in Iowa, seemed pretty interested in me. I do not know what Coach Engler said to the athletic department there, but it must have been good.
I had submitted everything but the application. I received a couple of letters from the school expressing their interest and one day a call from the recruiter for this area saying that I was in but needed to complete the process and he would come to my home to help me do the paperwork. I was excited about playing football at the university level, but somewhat ambivalent about going to college for several reasons. First, the cost of tuition was high. Even though we lived in Easton, we were not affluent. My Dad, older brother Joe, and I had moved in with my grandparents when my parents were divorced. Financially we were okay when my grandfather was alive. He had a great position at Singer Manufacturing in Bridgeport, but he passed away my junior year in high school and things suddenly became financially tight. Second, the relationship with the girl that I was dating at the time did not work out and I was somewhat messed up over the breakup. Third, I had begun to let my grades slip after football was over my senior year. I went from a decent B average to “a let’s just get out of here” C average. I also began to let out some of the pent up typical teenage years misbehavior after having to be a good citizen in order to play for the Falcons. To sum up I was probably not mature enough to risk going to school and placing additional strain on my family without a good chance of success.
I had always intended joining the Marine Corps at some point. In my high school yearbook, there are some references to that effect from some of my friends. Going into the service was a duty as far as I was concerned. I was also very anti-communist in my politics. I believed in the Domino Theory and thought we should help people who wanted to be free. All those Easton Memorial Day Parades marching with the Cub Scouts, Little League, or the Staples Marching Band, and seeing the men who marched with the American Legion and how respected they were, played key roles in my thought process.
Well, the day came when the college recruiter was to come over. That same morning, I decided that was it, I was going to enlist. I called my best friend from high school, Keith Burgess, and announced that I was going to Bridgeport to enlist and asked if he would like to come along to watch. He said yes and called another friend from Bridgeport, Jack Scanlon, to come along as well. You can imagine the excited look on the recruiter’s face seeing three young men enter his office first thing that morning. Keep in mind this was the summer of 1968, just after the big Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong. He had a big smile, but it somewhat faded when I told him it was only me who was there to sign-up. I turned 18 on August 15, 1968. It was probably around the 22nd of August when the visit to the Marine recruiter happened.
He began a small sales pitch and asked for how long would I like to sign-up? I asked what the available options were? He replied two, three, or four years, explaining the active/inactive reserve requirements after completion of active duty. I replied, “Let’s go all the way. Sign me up for four!”
The papers were drawn up, I signed them, and then only a few of things left to be done. One is wait for September 13th (a Friday – perhaps a harbinger of things to come over the next four years) when I would leave for Paris Island. Another was to tell my parents. The final task was to call the college recruiter and tell him not to come.
That afternoon I had to work at the gas station and my dad stopped to say hello. Skip, the mechanic, yelled to my dad, “Guess what your kid did today?”
Dad thought I might have smashed up the car I recently bought, a 1961 Dodge Lancer. In a mad voice, he asked what I had done this time. Now, my dad was an inch shorter than I was, but about 200 pounds heavier. He was heavy, but strong as an ox. I was very glad I had a car in the service bay between us when I told him I had just enlisted in the Corps. He was furious, not that I joined the service, but that I joined the Marines. He always said if you go, at least you have clean sheets in the Navy. He calmed a little, again it helped to have that car between us, then asked if I had told my mother, to which I replied, “No.” We went to the pay phone in Tony’s waiting area and he had me call her. Now, me being a smartass kid, when mom answered the phone, I told her dad was trying to kill me and threw the hand set to my dad for him to relay the news.
In September of 1968, Marine recruit, Brian Lusebrink shipped out to Paris Island in South Carolina to begin his journey as a United States Marine. Paris Island is an 8,095 acre installation that has been used as training base for the Marines since 1915. All recruits living east of the Mississippi receive their initial indoctrination and training there.
Upon graduation from Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Paris Island boot camp on 11/20/1968, I was assigned to MCRD San Diego Communications Battalion School to become a 2800 Radio or Radar Repairman. Needless to say, this is not what I envisioned my role to be in the Corps. This would have required about a year of schooling, the first being in basic electronics. There was a fifty question test every week that was graded on the bell curve basis. If you failed the test you were confined to base for the weekend/week following. Since I wanted no part of being a repairman, I purposely answered questions incorrectly, but I somehow kept passing because of the curve. You were allowed three fails before being reassigned.
After the second failure about six weeks into the program I spoke to the field radio school instructors who explained to me I was being an idiot. Radio operators were prime targets for the enemy and had roughly a 30-second life expectancy in a firefight. Well, this sobered me up a bit, but it was too late. On the next test, the bell curve got me, and I failed. I was reassigned to radio school.
The plain truth of the matter was that radio operators in Vietnam had the shortest life expectancy of any soldier on the ground. Here’s why: The standard issue PRC-77 radio system weighed 13.5 pounds without batteries. Adding the necessary batteries and the spares required to make certain the unit had enough power to maintain communications for the entire time out in the field, plus a rather large encryption device called the Nestor, and the weight of the radio equipment alone added up to fifty-four pounds. Adding his weapons and ammo, and it took a really well-toned Marine to keep up with his unit while moving through the jungle.
To add to the radio operator’s problem was the antenna required to maintain communications. The standard three-foot unit wasn’t all that cumbersome, but it was inadequate to maintain contact while deep in the jungles of Vietnam. For that, the operator needed a ten-foot whip antenna. Much heavier, much more difficult to maintain balance with on uneven terrain, and most importantly, acting as an easily visible marker for the enemy, it made the radio operator a prime target of snipers.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it was extremely difficult to control the volume of the radio. The radio was mounted on the Marine’s back, making the volume control dial almost impossible to reach. Radio chatter and that whip antenna made the operator a sitting duck. Taking out that operator meant that the Vietcong wouldn’t need to deal with U.S. air support attacking their position. It was also well known that the radio operator was almost always at the side of his unit’s commanding officer, meaning that there were two prime targets, not just one. A well-placed mortar could easily set an entire unit on its heels.
Perhaps a thirty second life expectancy for a Marine radio operator during a firefight wasn’t all that much of an exaggeration after all.
I graduated second in our class and earned the Military Occupational Specialty 2531. Since the top three graduates could pick duty station, I selected Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and took my leave before reporting.
I was back home in Easton for Memorial Day in 1969. My brother Joe in the Easton Volunteer Fire Department and marched regularly in the town parade. I was volunteered by my brother to march with the Honor Guard. If my memory serves correctly, WW II veteran Terrance Gilly also marched in that year’s parade with the American Legion. After the ceremonies at Town Hall, we went to the cemetery where fellow Eastonite and Marine Ronald Gilly was buried. Ron was Terrance’s son. Ron was killed in Vietnam while I was still at Joel Barlow, and I remembered the announcement and how angry it had made me. On that day in 1969, as a proud fellow Marine, we performed honors at his grave site. While I did not know Ron well, we knew each other from Junior National Rifle Association where he was an accomplished marksman.
Camp Lejeune was a two-year duty station. While I was on leave back in Easton, another radio operator from my class had gone directly to Lejeune. When I reported in after my leave, I hooked-up with that radio operator and asked him to give me the scoop. He suggested I request 2nd Tank Battalion. The next morning, I was being interviewed by the Sergeant Major, it went like this:
S/M: “PFC Lusebrink, I see you graduated second in your class.”
Me: “Yes, Sergeant Major.”
S/M: “I see you passed water survival course.”
Me: “Yes, Sergeant Major. I grew up near Long Island Sound and can swim all day and night.”
S/M: “Do you think you could jump out of an airplane?”
Me: “Yes, Sergeant Major.”
S/M: “Would you like to learn how to jump out of an airplane?”
Me: “Yes, Sergeant Major.”
S/M: “Would you like to go Force Recon?”
Me: “Are those the Marines with shaved heads or Mohawks?”
Me: “No, Sergeant Major. It has taken me this long to have my hair grow back to the way it is now.”
S/M: (with kind of a funny look on his face) “Well, if you do not want to go Recon where would you like to be assigned?”
Me: “2nd Tank Battalion, Sergeant Major.”
S/M: “Why the Tanks, PFC Lusebrink?”
Me: “Sergeant Major, in a Tank Battalion the radio carries you and you are not carrying the radio!”
S/M: Breaks out laughing and says, “Are you sure you have only been in The Corps 9 months?” While still laughing he assigned me to 2nd Tanks for the next two years.
Unfortunately, the First Sargent of H & S Company at 2nd Tanks had other ideas. When I reported in, he said, “Don’t even unpack you will be receiving orders to Nam in about a month.”
I replied, “But this is supposed to be a two-year duty station.”
He replied, “And I have a quota, so don’t get comfortable!”
While at 2nd Tanks I was promoted to Lance Corporal (E-3) and when I received my orders for Nam, I took another leave before going to Camp Pendleton for pre-deployment training.
While back home I was visiting Nancy Ahlbin, (JBHS 1968), she lived on Center Road and another ’68 classmate Russell (Rusty) Noble was visiting as well. Rusty lived in Redding. He had enlisted the Corps after I did and when I asked him where he was going, he said Camp Pendleton. We compared orders and we were going to the same staging unit.
We completed our training and got on the bird which took us to Okinawa where we stayed for several days. Three days in a row our unit of about one hundred and eighty officers and enlisted were bussed to Kadena Airbase to board a plane for Nam. Two days in a row we were sent back to our barracks. The third day out of all one hundred and eighty, only five names were called to board the plane. We were all low ranked enlisted and in the communication field. The rest of the plane was filled with high-ranking Senior NCO’s and officers who wanted to get to Nam for the tax break and hazardous duty pay. It was the end of August and they had to get there to receive those financial incentives. My friend Rusty was left behind to arrive in Nam another day.
Next in the series: In Country – the Brian Lusebrink story continues as he serves in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970.