Keith Marston is quiet about his service in Vietnam. For a long time he would not even tell people he had served there.
“My friends knew, but for those that didn’t, I didn’t even bring up that I’d been in Vietnam until the mid-’80s.”
Keith joined the Army in September 1967. His military experience started with a miscommunication. “I was at one of my hangouts in Mechanicsburg and my mother called and said, ‘You’re supposed to be leaving today.’ I didn’t know that, so I left the next day. That’s how my Army experience started.”
Keith was assigned to a training unit at Sand Hill, one of the two major training areas at Fort Benning. A major training post, Fort Benning is the home of the infantry, and known for red clay, pine woods, fire ants, cacti, and high heat and humidity. “That was late September, early October in Georgia. You’d get up in the morning and it was freezing, and by afternoon you couldn’t stand it because it was so hot.
“It wasn’t anything I had been used to. We’d run in the morning, three or four laps around the mess hall area, a lot of physical stuff. Marching, shooting. Shooting the M-14 was the fun part. I’d hunted before I went in the Army, so I was pretty good at it.”
Keith described how the drill sergeants could always find a reason to punish soldiers as part of their training. “I come back from the rifle range one day, they said, ‘Clean your rifle. For every speck of dirt we find you’ll do 10 push-ups.’ So I turned in my rifle, they inspected it, and said ‘40 push-ups!’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ But I had four pockets unbuttoned on my uniform; I got 10 push-ups for each unbuttoned pocket.”
Keith was assigned to Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, then Fort Hood in Texas before being sent to Vietnam in March 1969.
“My first impression was ‘What did I get myself into?’ You’re busy getting issued stuff and you really kind of overwhelmed because you don’t know where you are going or anything. I came in at Tan Son Nhat. From there I went to Red Beach, 263rd Maintenance Company, which at the time was called Avel, just a little bit north of Da Nang.”
Avel is short for aviation electronics. Keith was assigned to the critical task of repairing communications equipment on aircraft. “We repaired anything to do with the radio from the antenna to the frequency selector. At one point I went to Vung Tau for a couple of weeks for some training, I don’t remember what it was, and while I was there I actually walked past one of the radar sets I went to Fort Monmouth to train on. That was the only time I ever saw one. I didn’t do the job I trained for the whole time I was in Vietnam.
“Whatever came in the door, we fixed. We saw some pretty beat up aircraft. We had a Chinook we were just pulling parts off of. We’d get radios in that had holes in them, things like that.”
The living conditions were typical. “We lived in what we called hooches, six of us to each one. Plywood about 4 feet up the sides, then screens, a door at each end, and a tin roof. Surrounding them were piles and piles of sandbags. Between every other hooch was half of a corrugated steel pipe, and that was where you went if there was a mortar attack or that kind of thing. We had a mess hall I’d put up against anybody. It was really good. The only time we had anything other than that ... was when we had guard duty, we had c-rations. Some of them weren’t as bad as what a lot of people think.”
Though he was tasked with repairing communications equipment, guard duty was inevitable.
“We’d go out on the perimeter. We had a guard tower with sandbags around it. There was a lower level with a bunk. There’d be two of you on guard, one would go down and rest and the other would stay on guard. You had a Starlight (night vision) scope you could see with, it made everything look green. I didn’t do guard duty a lot, a few nights. On the south side there was a Seabee battalion, so we only had a three external perimeter sides. Of course when the helicopters would come in at night and land, they had big spotlights so that just destroyed your night vision.
“I was alright (in the towers). They weren’t that far apart, so if the guys in the towers on either side of you were paying attention, you’d be okay. I wrote my mother about one time the lieutenant was up in my tower and he saw something in the perimeter and got all excited about it. I told him not to worry about it, it was just a dog. You pay attention. You don’t know what’s going to happen.“
Another duty soldiers had in Vietnam was human waste disposal. Most soldiers remember it, few talk about it.
“We’d had 55 gallon drums that were cut a little short of half and had handholds cut into them. And we had outhouses, we built them up and had Avel spelled out in tile in ours. I don’t recall if it was a two or a three holer, but at the back there was a door that lifted up and gave access to the drums. We had a local who helped us, and him and the guy who had the duty would load them on a truck and take them to the far corner of the compound. You’d get some diesel fuel, saturate them and light them up. When you were done burning, you had some ash left to dump, then you’d take them back where you got them.
“Not everyone had to sit down. So you had a little area that was maybe 3 feet wide, almost like the bottom half of a phone booth on three sides. They had a galvanized piece of pipe stuck in the ground at an angle with a piece of cloth over it, and that’s where you went. It was right along the road that came down between our compound and the runway, so you couldn’t be bashful.”
Keith recalls an accident that happened during his deployment.
“In April, after I got there, there was an ammo dump a couple of miles down the road, and the story is that a local was burning brush or trash or something and it got away and into the ammo dump. We could watch the thing burn and watch the explosions. And in the smoke in the air you could see the shock wave coming in the smoke in the air. We got on the roof of the hooch and when a shockwave got overhead the front of the hooch would bow in, and the back would bow out from the concussion. They were building new barracks near the dump, they were destroyed, the main PX, it was destroyed. I wrote home about it, and my mother said there was a little article in the paper about it.”
Keith says he felt “reasonably secure,” but remembers always being somewhat on edge.
“We were always aware of the general situation. Where we were, there was a beach and an inlet that was almost circular, and where it went out to the South China Sea there were pretty good sized hills. One hill was ours, one hill wasn’t. On occasion we’d watch the fire back and forth, we’d watch the gunships where every few rounds is tracer and you could see the red lines of fire. You could hear, on occasion, not very often, you could hear the B-52s. When they dropped the bombs you wouldn’t hear the airplanes, but you’d hear the whump when the bombs went off. You were always aware of where you were.”
Most of his time was spent working.
“We had regular hours with two shifts. You came in at seven in the evening work until six in the morning. Get off, go get breakfast, get some sleep. At 6 at night you’d get up, go get supper, and at 7 o’clock you’d go to work.”
“I was in Vietnam for 13 months. I came home through Fort Lewis, Washington. I never saw any of the trouble that some people had. In Mechanicsburg you’re not going to get that type of thing. You’ve got the Navy base, New Cumberland, the War College, Letterkenny, all of this around, it’s a military area. There was never any name calling or any of that that I heard.
“If you came home with less than five months you got an early out. That’s why I was there 13 months, I extended for a month. I didn’t have reserve duties, so that was the end of my military involvement. Thirty-one months of service. I did not consider staying in. I think because of the public attitude at the time, that was probably consciously or subconsciously that was my motivation to get out.”
His homecoming included a special welcome.
“While I was still over there my parents wrote me a letter and said ‘There’s a girl here who wants to write you, is that okay?’ Sure, fine. And the girl’s sister went to her and said ‘Hey, he wants you to write him, is that OK, do you want to write him?’ She said ‘Yeah.’ So when they came to Middletown to pick me up at the airport she was along. This last November we celebrated 42 years of marriage. That kind of sticks out a little bit.”
Reflecting on the war, Keith’s opinions are familiar to many veterans.
“I think they ought to let the military fight the wars and let the politicians do whatever they do. I understand the purpose of it, it’s the same way now and it was the same way in World War II: if you don’t stop them someplace, where are you going to stop them? Or are you going to stop them?”
Asked if he would recommend military service to young people today, Keith does not hesitate to give his opinion.
“Military service is what you make of it. I would recommend it to anyone. I have thought it should be mandatory, but I know that’s not going to happen. The experience I had, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”