25 March 2010


From the initial landings by the 9th Marines in March 1965, the tour of duty for Marines in Vietnam was 13 months. Every Marine knew his “RTD” or “rotation tour date.” Starting with the date that he left CONUS (Continental United States), the RTD was 13 months later. Thus, when I left California on 18 December 1968, I knew that the latest date on which I would return to the States was 13 months later or 18 January 1970.

For those of us who had come in country in mid-December, 1968, that meant that we would “celebrate” two Christmases in Vietnam. Tom Pottenger, Mike Koch, and I were already trying to figure out how we could get to Danang for Christmas, 1969.

The Army and Air Force had a prescribed tour of 12 months. The history of this difference started with the way in which the pre-war 3d Marine Division (minus) was manned up. After Korea and before deploying to Vietnam, the 3d MarDiv was based in Okinawa. It had only two regiments, the 3d Marines and the 9th Marines. (Its third infantry regiment, the 4th Marines, was based in Hawaii as the ground combat element of the 1st Marine Brigade. When the Division deployed to Vietnam, the Brigade moved in country and was once again melded into its parent Division.)

Because of the limited training space in Okinawa, the pre war practice was for a battalion to form in the 1st Marine Division in Camp Pendleton, California. A cadre of experienced officers and NCOs would receive a draft of younger Marines, form them into a battalion, and undertake a rigorous 6 month period of training. Let us use 1/5 as an example.

On 1 January, 1/5 would begin receiving its troops. By 15 January, the battalion would be fully manned and organized. Company Commanders would begin a period of training dedicated to individual tactics and would then progress to fire team tactics, squad tactics, platoon tactics, and company tactics. The troops would spend most of their time in the field and on live firing ranges. Weapons platoons would work on gun drill and on live firing on the 1000 inch range and on full distance ranges.

Finally, there would be a time for training as a battalion. The troops would go to the rifle and pistol ranges to requalify, there would be a series of physical fitness tests, and each Marine would undergo swim qualification. The "lock on" training would end with a formal inspection by the Commanding General and a final graded field exercise.

During this time, the training schedule was full. Married men would report for formation at 0530 on a Monday. The battalion would move to the field, returning to garrison late on Friday. Saturday morning was dedicated to inspections and administration. Liberty call would be sounded after the Noon formation on Saturday, to expire on board at 0530 on Monday, when everything would start again.

Following our hypothetical schedule, on 15 May, 1/5 would board ship for a two week cruise to Okinawa. The battalion would remain in Okinawa for 12 months and then take a return cruise to California, arriving circa 15 June of the next year, 13 months after deployment. (On the way outbound, in mid-Pacific, it would pass the eastbound battalion it was replacing, let us say 2/9. As that happened, the westbound 1/5 would be re-designated as 2/9 and for the east bound unit, vice versa, preserving regimental integrity.)

Although replacements for the 1st and 3d Marine Divisions in Vietnam were flown in, no change in tour length was adopted. I do believe that, at its core, the Corps is presbyterian. The default position for the Corps was to “do it the way we have always done it.” (There was a slogan popular amongst the troops and junior officers: The Marine Corps—200 years of tradition unhindered by progress! ) Thus the 13 month tour was the norm.

With the advent of Vietnamization, a minor ground swell developed as parents and families of Marines began to contact their representatives in Congress. “Why is my neighbor’s doggie son home in 12 months, but my Marine has to stay for 13 months?”

Right after the 1969 Birthday, a rumor began to circulate that the Marine Corps was cutting the tour to 12 months. However, no official word was received.

One day, I received a letter from my brother. “We are so excited that you will be home before Christmas. With the wedding rescheduled to December 27, I am trying to change your reservations in New Orleans.” Huh? I had said nothing to anyone about any possible change.

The next morning, I went over to the MARS station to make a call to the States. In the medieval times before cell and satellite communications, e-mail and Facebook, MARS— the Military Affiliate Radio Service—was a collection of State-side ham radio operators. In Vietnam, volunteers from communications sections would man a shortwave radio. A user would place a phone call which was transmitted to the States. There, a MARS volunteer would make a collect long-distance call to the destination and patch the call through.

Although we were used to voice radio and communication security procedure, it was confusing to our families, but it was the only way to speak with them directly.

I waited all day. Finally, at about 1600 (3 am in Illinois) they put me through.

Maryann (MA): “Michael, is that you? Where are you?

Radio Operator (RO): After a long pause “Ma’am, when you are done speaking, you must say ‘Over.’”

MA: “Oh. Over.”

“I’m in Vietnam. When are we getting married, over?”

MA: “But where are you? Oh, it is so good to hear your voice.”

RO: After another long pause “Ma’am, when you are done speaking, you gotta say ‘Over.’”

MA: “Oh. Over.”

Damn it, I’ve only got 5 minutes! “Listen to me. When are we getting married, over?”

MA: “I can’t believe it’s really you. Where are you. Are you OK? [pause] Uh, over.”

RO: “Ma’am, he can’t say where he is, over.”

“When are we getting married? Have you rescheduled the wedding? Why? Over.”

MA: “On December 27th. Didn’t you get my letter?” Well, obviously not!

RO: “Ma’am, you really gotta say ‘Over.’”

MA: “Oh. Over.”

“No, I didn’t. Look, we are out of time. I’ll write. I love you, over.” The connection was broken.

When I got back to the S-4 shop, Maryann's letter was waiting. Enclosed was a newspaper article announcing that the Marine Corps had cut the tour to 12 months. I raced down to tell Pottenger that we were officially short-timers. From there, we went over to the Supply office to tell Mike who was now the Supply Officer.

We were going home. Christmas had come early.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.


Rev Dave said...

Took a MARS call from my brother when he was in the Navy for something or other back in the 80's. Yep, I was the poor civilian never remembering to say 'over' during the call. It was a pretty funny way to try to communicate.

Reformed Catholic said...

Funny, when I was stationed in Greece in 1976-77, I was the volunteer operator. We had a few patches going out, but mostly I got to listen to the civilians, just waiting for something to happen.

I really felt sorry for those hams running those patches ;)