In Country – An Easton Marine’s Account of His Tour of Duty in Vietnam

Grab a cup of coffee or pour yourself a glass of wine and then take a few extra minutes to read the “In Country” story of Easton Marine Brian Lusebrink. Fighting a war halfway around the globe in the unhospitable jungles of Southeast Asia was unpleasant enough in its own right, but then try to imagine that when you finally return home that many of your fellow Americans weren’t about to give you the hero’s welcome you certainly deserved.

For those of us who lived through the turbulent years of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, it can be painful to recall just how badly divided our nation had become over our continued involvement in the ongoing war in Vietnam. But those who served continued on with honor and without complaint.

In his own words, the remainder of Brian’s story:

I’ll take up after I left Rusty on Okinawa and arrived in South Vietnam in late August of 1969. We flew into Da Nang airbase and were then sent to Mac V for processing. Upon arrival, of all the Marines called, we five communicators were the first. We were ordered by the staff sergeant to stand over by a corner and await our orders. This was mid-morning.

We waited all day. No chow. It was getting dark, and all the other Marines had been sent to their destination. You can just imagine what was going on in our heads. Hell, had a unit been overrun and all their communicators killed? We had no weapons and no idea what is going to happen.

Finally, the staff sergeant returned and bellowed, “Where are those communicators?”

I still do not know why he yelled. We were in the exact same spot he had left us and now we were only ones remaining. He escorted us inside and announced, “You have two choices. You can go to a line unit or be assigned to Mess Duty at 1st Medical Battalion.”

Being the terribly brave souls we were, we all replied, “Mess Duty!”

He replied, “Good, because that is where you are all going any way.”

Initial assignment had Brian serving with the 1st Medical Battalion

We were transported by 6X6 truck to 1st Medical Battalion and assigned to H&S Company. I had developed a case of strep throat before leaving Okinawa and was running a fever over 100 degrees. In Da Nang, I was sent to Sick Bay and was told I would be riding shotgun for a truck that picks up Vietnamese workers and supplies for the base until I was medically cleared to return to work in the Mess Hall. This was a cushy job except for the fact I was issued an M-16 with no ammunition. I fixed the ammo problem by going to the body box. This was where the wounded who arrived via chopper were stripped of their gear before heading to triage/surgery. I picked up several bandoleers of ammo, two frag grenades, a bayonet, and a boonie hat (which I still have and wear on Memorial Day).

I skated with the strep for as long as I could. Riding shotgun was much better than working in the Mess, even if there were some pretty Vietnamese ladies working with us in the scullery. I preferred the truck.

One day the truck broke down in Dog Patch (a section outside of Da Nang proper). We had just picked up a load of food and medical supplies from FLC (Force Logistics Command) and were a prime target for the locals attempting to pilfer the goodies. The driver went for help, and I was left to guard the material. I took this task seriously and decided the best place would be to be on top of the supplies to be able to see all around. I must admit there might have been some broken fingers from my rifle butt smashing down on the hands that were trying to steal, but I was following one of the General Orders drilled into us back at Boot Camp. “…protect all government property in view”. The driver arrived back with a tow truck, and we were towed back to 1st Med without further incidence.

My strep was finally abating and I was going to be in the scullery soon. The movie of the night was “Valley of the Dolls”. While watching it and drinking some brews, a scene was playing, and the area looked very familiar. It looked like a crossroads with church and colonial houses that I used to drive by in Redding Center – which of course, it actually was! Well, this led to my becoming nostalgic and swigging down a few more beers. After the movie ended and I was almost back to my hooch, our friendly VC decided to send some 122’s towards Da Nang airbase. Still being a true, “Cherry Boy” I did my best head dive into a ditch near my hooch (something I had learned at the infamous Easton Mudhole). Upon landing, I split open my finger, which required several stitches. It wasn’t a combat wound, just an idiot wound. One cannot submerge stitches in water, so I was able to stay on shotgun duty for a couple of more weeks more until I was detailed back to the scullery. Shortly thereafter, we were all transferred to other units. I was sent to the 3/26 at H&S CO on 6 November 1969.

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On Christmas Eve of 1969, I had the dog watch in the guard bunker on the ridgeline. As dawn started to break there was a heavy mist/fog over the battalion area and it almost looked like snow. Heavy thoughts of Connecticut Christmas’s ran through my mind.

That Christmas, I received a silver mug as a gift from the Easton Volunteer Fire Department. I had been a Jr. Volunteer for a number of years, while my older brother Joe was a full member of the fire department. It was a wonderful surprise and greatly appreciated that they had thought of me. While I made it back from Nam, unfortunately, the mug did not. It was damaged when I had it stored while I was out in the boonies with another unit.

Jim Beam, the EVFD Mug, and DEROS (date of estimated return from overseas)

Drinking whiskey was against regulations. Marines under the rank of SGT E-5 were only allowed service beer. That year, I won a ticket to see the Bob Hope Christmas Show at Freedom Hill, just outside Da Nang. I wanted to bring something back for my radio section. I saw an older Army soldier standing in the line just in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder intending to ask him if he would buy some Jim Beam for me and in return, I would buy him a bottle as well. Much to my amazement instead of a senior NCO, he was a full-bird colonel! I snapped to attention and saluted him. He asked what I wanted, and I reluctantly told him. I guess he was in the Christmas spirit, or at least in shock that a Marine would show him such respect. He bought the bottle for me and did not ask for any compensation.

Enjoying his Jim Beam while holding up a Julian calendar showing days served and days to go

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I was not a big letter writer, so there was not a lot of communication by me to the home front. My grandmother mentioned it to Mrs. Loper, a neighbor on Flat Rock Road. Her son Archie (Arthur) was a sales rep for Sikorsky based in Bangkok, Thailand. Whenever he was home for vacation, Archie had been like a big brother to all us kids in the neighborhood, so we knew each other fairly well. When Mrs. Loper told Archie that my family seldom heard from me, he said he would look into it, as he had a meeting with the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division coming up. During the course of that meeting Archie mentioned the conversation he had with his mom about me. There are only two things in the universe the Marine Corps is scared of: mothers and grandmothers. The general asked for my information, and then gave it to his grave robber who returned with the message that I was not available at the moment, but he was told that when I did become available, he could rest assured Lance Corporal Lusebrink would be in contact with his home.

 My first sergeant had me report to the battalion sergeant major who ordered me to be in the Combat Operation Center at roughly 0200 hours. I would be on a telephone call to my mom. It would be about 1400 hours on the East Coast. I would be on an AE-1hand-crank telephone, patched through to a MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) station on the West Coast and then long distance to Milford, Connecticut

To make this arrangement work, you needed to say, “Over,” so the MARS station could switch between talk and listen – a hard concept for my mother to grasp. When the call went through, the first thing out of my mother’s mouth was, “ARE THEY SHOOTING AT YOU?”

 I replied, “No, Mom, they are being nice and holding off while we talk.” The rest of call was pretty much chopped up because she could not get the hang of saying “Over,” after she was done speaking.

I had to report back to the sergeant major who had to report back to the battalion commander, who then had to report back to the regimental commander, who in turn reported back to the division commander that said call had been made and the Marine Corps was once again safe from the wrath of motherhood and could concentrate on fighting a war!

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The following information comes from when I was transferred to the 2/1 when the 3/26 was deactivated. In my opinion, here’s what was really happening. With all the dissention about the United States’ continued involvement in Southeast Asia, President Nixon was making a big deal about “Vietnamization”. This was a program where we would supply the training, equipment, and funding so the South Vietnamese Army could take over most of the ground war and we would draw down our Marines, soldiers, and sailors (this included females in their respective branches).  I had roughly 6 months left on my tour, so I was transferred in-country, and Marines who were “Short” were transferred to the 3/26 for return to duty in the Continental United States (CONUS). I felt it was basically a shell game, but it looked good in the press when the 26th Marine Regiment debarked the ship in the good old US of A!

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When I transferred in to the 2/1, I was assigned to be the radio operator for the 81’s FO (Forward Observer) attached to Hotel Company. We fired several missions in support of night ambushes. The Battle Damage Assessment Patrol was to go into the impact area and determine results.

Brian in his “hooch” cleaning the firing pin on his weapon

Here is one of the excerpts from unit’s Command Chronology during this time period: 

4/29/1970. 1400 hours Hotel 21 loc BT030690 on 291400H. A gun team from Hotel 21 proceeded to the river to clean up. At 0140 hours a Marine came to the area and announced that he was going to swim across the river. He then entered the water and a short while later, his cries for help were heard. Upon seeing that the Marine was in trouble, the team entered the water to attempt a rescue. Two men were forced to return to shore as they were poor swimmers. The third man continued his rescue attempt, but after three attempts were made, he had to return to shore. Further attempts were made to recover his body with negative results. Positive identification was made of the USMC NBC by the men who attempted to save him. Further attempts to recover the body with assistance of aerial observer are presently continuing.

I remember that drowning incident well.  We were hooked up with a Vietnamese unit and were in our bivouac position. We were playing volleyball with them when we heard the news. Everyone in our unit was shaken. Most people do not realize that there were a large number of non-combat deaths in Vietnam.

On another occasion while I was attached Hotel Company as a radio operator for the FO: It was about 0800 and a patrol had just departed the berm area that was HQ Platoon and one maneuver PLT base. It got a couple of hundred yards out when we heard an explosion. One Marine (radio operator) had stepped on a booby trap and was seriously wounded. When it was called in, the skipper had my FO, a grunt for security, and myself make a poncho stretcher and go to the site in case we could not get a “Dustoff” (medivac helicopter). You make a poncho stretcher by laying out the poncho on the ground then place two poles a little inside the edges. Then you fold one side over the pole then the other. The weight of the body will secure the poncho in place.

We made the stretcher and were at a run once we were through the concertina wire and approaching the site. A grunt who was part of the patrol and who was then providing security suddenly yelled at us to stop and begin looking for booby traps. We got the message and slowed down. We finally reached the wounded Marine and placed him on the stretcher we had made. As we were about to bring him back to our camp, a Dustoff arrived. We then took him to the chopper for transport to 1st Med BN. 

When we exited the chopper, I looked at my hands and they had bits and pieces of flesh and blood from the Marine’s wounds on them. This is something that is hard to forget but you try. It needs to be buried deep inside, as you have to go on and perform your duties, but it does come to mind every once in a while.

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The skipper of Hotel Company 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines was Captain DeFremd. Officers like him were referred to as Mustangs. That meant he had been an enlisted man before becoming an officer. He was on his third tour, first two as an observer in a North American Rockwell OV-10 – a twin turboprop, light attack, and observation aircraft. He wanted a line company and he got us. He was a great leader. One day we dug into a new position. That night we heard all kinds of noises just outside our perimeter: cymbals, chanting, etc. Needless to note that our nerves were high. Captain DeFremd just grabbed his K-bar and gave the alert he was going to inspect the perimeter beyond our fighting holes and no one was to go with him. After he had completed his inspection, we all breathed a sigh of relief. After that, we would then follow him anywhere, as he had certainly earned our respect that night.

Brian with Captain DeFremd

On another night, I had radio duty on the dog watch. One of our Marine Killer Teams radioed in and told me to ask Captain DeFremd if he would like some duck for dinner? I asked and he replied in the affirmative. Now, we both thought the KT would simply capture the ducks and break their necks, but we were mistaken. All of a sudden, a cacophony of M-16 rifles shooting on automatic could be heard. The ducks never had a chance. Of the dozen or so mutilated birds, only two or three that had succumbed to neck and head wounds were usable, any other lead to the body had destroyed the meat. We had Gunny Epps with us (he had also been with the 3/26 and transferred to the 2/1). Gunny took charge of preparing the food. I believe he was part Creole. He made a wonderful stew supplemented with some C-rats and spices that I had.

During this time, I received a letter from my dad that Mr. Halliwell had died. The Halliwells lived on Center Road. Susan and Tom were classmates of mine. Like me, Tom had enlisted in the Marines and was training to be a tanker. Because of his father’s passing, Tom was issued a hardship discharge to take care of his family. I wrote a letter of condolence to Mrs. Halliwell expressing how it was such a shock. Here we expect death to come every day, but we do not anticipate it happening at home.

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Hotel Company in 1971. Brian is in the middle of the second row just to the right of the Marine w/helmet holding a rifle.

The following accounts are from when I was with the Forward Observer for Hotel Company:

We were assigned to go with a squad of Hotel Company grunts and a K9 team on a Killer Team. I doubled in providing communication for the squad on Company net as well as the 81′ net. Our mission was a two-night duration. On that first day’s travel, we were looking for signs of the enemy or anything else out of the ordinary. Come late afternoon, we went into hiding until dark and then moved to an ambush site. Having the K9 team was a great bonus. Scout dogs can smell and see or sense things humans cannot. That provided us no little sense of comfort. 

The first day was uneventful except for being extremely hot and humid. When working with dogs, you must take care not to let them overheat. Normally dogs and dog handlers do not get close to others, but all my life, dogs and I have had an affinity for each other. Do not get me wrong, the dog would rip me apart if I went after his handler. Luckily, nothing of note happened that first night. I guess Charlie did not want to play.

When daylight broke, we moved to a lay-up position in a coppice of trees for shade and concealment, but again it was a scorcher. I carried several canteens that were all running low. I rationed portions for me, but I made sure the dog received the bulk of my water. Well, most of the squad ran out of H2O, so when we broke cover, we headed for a nearby river to replenish. This was acceptable as long as you purified the water. We used iodine tablets. Unfortunately, most of the Jarheads just flopped face down and drank. One could probably tolerate the little critters being ingested, but when we saw the dead bloated pig drift by from up-river, some green faces were suddenly evident.

We set up another ambush site after dark. It is amazing how in almost total darkness your senses other than sight attune to the environment. I thought I had every strap and buckle secured so as to not make noise. During the day I could not hear it but at night it sounded like Big Ben ringing in the New Year. Others assured me it was not as bad as I thought, and I was grateful for their assurances. Again, nothing of note happened and we geared up to head back to the Company.

While patrolling back, our dog went on alert. What we found buried in the ground was about 400 pounds of rice, a nice supply for our enemy. We called the find into the Company and were ordered to blow it in place. C-4 did the trick and we returned to Company area without further incidence.

Another night in a new location, the entire company was bivouacked in a light forest. The whole company was together, which was rare. Usually, the various maneuver platoons were at other locations to cover more area. One maneuver platoon would stay with HQ Platoon for security.

That night one of the perimeter posts said they had movement. We were out of 81mm range, so Captain DeFremd called in 105’s (howitzers). I was on Battalion and Company radio nets under a poncho strung up from the trees for weather shelter. Well, the skipper did not like that the rounds were landing so far away and adjusted fire closer and closer. I heard a thud behind me near where my radios were located but thought nothing of it. In the morning, the radio operator who relieved me called me over to where I had been sitting that night. There on the ground next to the radios was a large chunk of shrapnel and a very large tear in the poncho. I had used up another one of my lives.

On another mission, my FO and I were tasked with setting up Landing Zone security and communications for an air lift resupply. I was talking in the chopper, a Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight, a twin-rotor turbo-prop. It was coming right towards me. My radio was on a small berm and the whip antenna projecting into the air. I kept asking, “Do you see me?” and they kept replying, “Affirmative.” They saw me so well the chopper clipped my antenna, and I could see big smiles on the pilot’s and crew chief’s faces. Score one for the Marine Air Wing!

Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight

On another day, my FO and I, along with one grunt, were tasked with setting up a night LZ. We set up a triangle and at each point set up a strobe light to delineate the landing area. A platoon of Marines was being flown in on a CH-53 to assist with a cordon and search operation along with Hotel Company.  The chopper came right in over my strobe, landed almost on top of me, dropped his tail ramp and that platoon of Marines ran over me like a herd of buffalo. The platoon went off on its merry way and the three of us hunkered down until daylight when we rejoined our company.

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I was promoted to Corporal E-4 on May 1, 1970 and was ordered back to battalion to receive my promotion, get a haircut, take a shower and clean jungle utilities. While walking to where the 81’s area was located, a cherry 2nd LT passed me. I acknowledged him by saying, “Good morning, sir,” but did not salute. He took offense and called me to attention which I snapped too. He asked me why I did not salute.

I replied, “Sir we do not salute while in the field as a sniper would then know you were an officer and you would be a prime target.”

He just could not let it ride and had to say something, “Why are your dog tags laced to your boots?” 

We did that to avoid making any noise in the boonies, but I would not let him know that, so I asked him if he had been to the Combat Operation Center. He replied in the affirmative. I then asked him if he had noticed the score board – our KIA/WIA v. Charlie’s KIA/WIA.

 He again said “Yes”

I then asked if he had noted that our WIA number was substantially higher than our KIA.

“I did”

I then told him that is why we wear our dog tags in our boots, as we are in a heavily booby-trapped TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility). “If our leg is blown off, the Doc will know who to return it to, sir!

I then saluted, said again “Good morning, sir,” and went on my way.

After a couple of more days in the rear with the gear, I was assigned to be part of a two tube 81mm team attached to Hotel Company. The idea was to extend the coverage area of the 81’s since not all of our TAOR was in reach from the battalion base. I would be the communicator for the Fire Direction Center. Sergeant Lou Caggiano was the NCO-in-Charge. We shared a bunker. He did the plotting and I received and relayed messages from the FO’s to Lou so he could plot and provide directions to the tubes so they could fire the mission. One night we received calls for fire from two different FO’s in almost opposite directions. Lou remained cool as a cucumber, and we used one tube on each mission. Our mortarmen did an excellent job in providing support to the grunts in the field.

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After another month or so, I was ordered back to base to complete my tour with H&S Company. I was sent to a remote section of 81’s in the battalion base. Nothing of note happened during this time; just the drudgery of standing watch at night trying to catch some Z’s during the day and trying not to be bored out of your skull. One morning I received a telephone call from the company clerk saying he had my orders to rotate back to CONUS. I asked him why not R&R since I had not had one. He stared laughing and said, “Sure you can go on R&R but your orders home would be cancelled.”

Being an experienced Corporal I replied, “Then sign me up for that Freedom Bird.”

My time in Vietnam was not over with my return to the U.S.A. in August 1970. While I was assigned to Camp Lejuene, N.C. 6th Marine Regiment, I was supposed to go Temporary Duty to 8th Marine Regiment for a Caribbean Cruise. The 8th needed radio operators as there was a shortage. This would have entailed extra pay and the chance to see some Caribbean Islands at the government’s expense. Unfortunately, my orders were cancelled the day I was to report, as a new crew of communicators had arrived at the 8th.

This frustrated me a bit and I was pretty fed up with stateside duty, so I volunteered to go back to Nam for a second tour of duty. I had to go all the way up my chain of command to the regimental sergeant major to explain my reasons. Succinctly put, I had two: First, I was tired of stateside duty and was afraid I might lose my temper and tell off some shave tail 2nd LT, thereby getting in trouble, and second, I was damn good at my job, single, and why send a married Marine when I was willing to go?

The sergeant major told me to hang tight and he would see that my request was approved. The sergeant major, true to his word, got me those orders back to Nam in early 1971. 

While in route to Nam, I was stopped on Okinawa and told my orders were being cancelled as Marines were being pulled out of South Vietnam and there was no unit for me to report to. I was the assigned to 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, an artillery unit. This unit would be attached to infantry units and go on floats throughout the Western Pacific.

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In September of 1971, I participated in support operations with task forces of Composite Transportation Group 79.5 in territorial waters of the Republic of Vietnam. About a month later, I was a member of TG 79.4 (SLF-A) in contiguous waters of the Republic of Vietnam. That was as close I came to returning to Vietnam. Too bad we never made a landing.

On June 30, 1972, I was promoted to SGT (E-5)

On August 18, 1972, I was granted an early release from active service to attend Housatonic Community College and I transferred to the Inactive Reserves. I later attended Officer Candidate School and upon completion, I was commissioned a 2nd LT in the Signal Corps.

Brian’s service to his country earned him several medals: National Defense Service, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Service Medal with 3/stars, Cross of Gallantry with/palm, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Civil Action with palm and Good Conduct Medal. In addition, he was awarded a Letter of Commendation for his performance at Naval Gunfire School on 7/16/1971. 

Thank you for your service, Brian Lusebrink.

OORAH!!

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