Recounts experiences in 'beautiful' Vietnam

Editor's note: These are reflections on experiences during the Vietnam War by Doug Sensenbrenner, a New Milford High School graduate who served in Vietnam in 1965.

A beautiful place?

Fifty years ago, in March of 1965, I went to a country that a gunnery sergeant enthusiastically described as a "beautiful place."

His short speech was after Mass on a Sunday in October of 1964 at a 3rd Marine Division base chapel on Okinawa, Japan. In his brief talk, he spoke about this exotic place and finished the interesting presentation with a wish: "I hope that someday all you guys have a chance to go there."

In early March of 1965, I was one of 30 Marines aboard the Washoe County, a US Navy LST (landing ship tank). We were sailing west on the South China Sea with many other ships.

Ironically, we were surprised to be sailing to that "beautiful place" the sergeant had hoped we would have a chance to see.

The LST was bulging with tons of supplies, like C-rations, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, shelters, barbed wire, etc.

On the 8th of March, the 1st and 3rd battalion landing teams of the 9th Marines would stage an amphibious landing at that "beautiful place" we know as Vietnam.

The Da Nang Air Force base was vulnerable and our job would be to set up a perimeter to secure the base from possible ground attack.

Our ships steered up to the beach, dropped the ramps and we spent the next couple of days unloading.

The first night we were there was a creepy experience. After a grueling day, I laid on the warm sand next to a group of skids stacked high with gear.

With darkness closing in, I tried to get some sleep, but the images I remembered from live fire combat and survival training, plus all those war movies from the past, began to play with my mind.

They roughed up my imagination and lit it up so that it went to work on my nerves. It felt like there were Viet Cong infiltrators crawling around with big knives locked between their teeth and they were looking for me.

Even with a firm grip on my M14 rifle, I'm sure most of us had those phantoms to deal with that first night. Unloading continued...

Finally, the LSTs and other ships were empty. We mounted and drove our machines with the miles-long convoy of trucks and other vehicles to our supply area next to the air base.

While we waited to cross the Da Nang River, young children swarmed us begging for food and other basics.

After crossing on the small ferry boats that could float about 10-20 vehicles per load, we formed into small convoys.

The next mile or so was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever enjoyed. We drove up Doc-Lop Street, the main route through the city of Da Nang.

Strung across and above the street every 100 yards or so there were white banners with colored lettering that shouted patriotic words in their language.

Sporadic groups of Vietnamese were enthusiastically cheering, smiling and waving at us. In March of 1965, they were genuinely happy to see the American military joining with them to help defend their country.

Our purpose at that moment seemed noble, valiant, justified and worthy of our involvement. I'm sure we all felt proud to be there helping.

The war was a political mess that could have been decisively won but, like recent conflicts, without solid leadership with mission commitment, support and exit strategy it is... difficult?

Regardless, along with thousands of other veterans, I am proud to have served our great country.

I'm sure most Americans salute and thank you for your service, integrity and patriotism.

And for the 58,303 true heroes who sacrificed their all -- we honor them with thankful prayers and rousing cheers and an endless salute to their memory for the ultimate gift they gave every grateful American.

Vietnam, right or wrong, all I can hope is we will have leaders who ask God for wisdom to be smart, honest and courageous when using our brave military.

Doug Sensenbrenner

New Milford