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Early days of the Vietnam War

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK St. Clairsville American Legion Commander Larry Barnes, left, recognizes Vietnam veteran Donald Blacker as the legion’s Veteran of the Month. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and celebrated that branch’s birthday Tuesday.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Donald Blacker, St. Clairsville American Legion’s Veteran of the Month, recalls the early days of the Vietnam War, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1963-67.

He was assigned to the Third AntiTank Battalion and worked with the relatively new Ontos anti-tank vehicle. He completed field training in Hawaii and Okinawa, then in March 1965 the unit boarded ship for Vietnam.

Blacker and his fellow Marines were braced for trouble. Their destination was Chu Lai.

“Chu Lai was supposed to be the first opposed landing of the Marine Corps since … Korea. There was intelligence saying we were going to be opposed by a significant force when we landed, but actually when we landed we were greeted by high school kids carrying banners and waving and welcoming U.S. Marines,” he said.

Along with enemy action, they dealt with shortages of food and issues with the water supply.

“Dysentery was just rampant. Everybody had no treatment for it,” he said. “There was just some small towns right along the coast. Very primitive for us. We lived in shelter habs and pup tents.

“We did a lot of patrolling. Setting up perimeters,” he said. “The Chu Lai airstrip was to be built, so basically Marine Corps fighters and bombers could get in there and be closer to the action rather than off shore on carriers.

“1966 was fairly early yet. We were the first major force that went into Vietnam, but after that it became much more intense,” he said. “Somebody shooting at you, it’s never a small thing.”

Eventually, battle was joined in the first major U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War.

“After three months of searching and looking and trying to find the VC, there was a significant body of them found just south of us,” Blacker said.

“I was with the third Ontos. We were attached to the Second Battalion Fourth Marines and we participated in the attack,” he said.

Blacker said at the end of six days of battle, 614 Viet Cong were killed, 56 losses among U.S. forces, and 203 wounded Marines.

“You were scared to death. You’re just trying to cover your butt, stay down during the training that you’re taught. Everybody was very frightened, scared, but you did your job and it was the first time we had cornered any sizable force of the VC. We certainly had superiority of firepower. We could call in airstrikes. We could call in naval gunfire. We had tank support and they were basically in tunnels and holes but they did have to be ratted out and taken care of,” he said.

“The whole three months we were there we’d get some sniper fire at night, maybe a mortar round occasionally, but this was the first time we had come under intense fire and attack,” he said.

After the engagement, they went back to normal duties of patrolling, setting up ambushes and establishing a perimeter around the airstrip. He said they continued to weather harassing fire and mortars, but no firsthand encounters with the enemy.

“In October the monsoons started. That was where it was raining every day, pouring rain. We went from the heat and the sun and blistering temperatures to … torrential rains with very little protection as far as anything but your poncho,” Blacker said.

“On Thanksgiving they brought up a hot meal, which was turkey and all the trimmings, but it was raining so damn hard you couldn’t find a place to eat,” he said.

In December he was transferred to De Nang Air Base and continued patrol duty, weathering harassing fire and other attacks.

“We’d have to pull guard on fuel trucks that went in the field to refuel tanks and other vehicles. Fuel trucks (were a) prime target for VC,” he said.

He was able to return home for 30 days’ leave in May 1966.

“Even coming home back then … you had to be in civilian clothes because a lot of demonstrations were starting at that time. A lot of uneasiness going on. A lot of civilian unrest,” he said. “I had lost 60 pounds almost and my hair was shaved, so they could tell you were coming back as a Marine. I didn’t experience it firsthand, but there were guys I know who experienced these demonstrators.”

Blacker carries those memories with him.

“I did have some good friends who were killed over there,” he said, remembering the refrigerated trucks used to store bodies until they could be flown out. “It was just miserable conditions.”

“Should we have been there in the first place? That’s still being debated … 58,000 guys lost their lives there and I don’t know what we accomplished. We turned it over to the North Vietnamese after 10 or 11 years there. But you can get T-shirts made in Vietnam today.”

Originally from Fairpoint, he now resides in St. Clairsville. In civilian life he worked in mine equipment sales and retired as a coding inspector.

On Tuesday, he celebrated the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.

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