MARQUETTE — When Bob Bannan, 77, of Negaunee Township was asked to describe how he became enlisted during the Vietnam War, he called it “divine intervention.”
Bannan said he went to the post office for the third time in search of the means to register for the draft.
However, he found another path, or rather, it found him.
“I couldn’t find the right office,” Bannan said with a laugh. “But these two guys in this office looked pretty squared away and I walked in and asked where I had to go to sign up for the draft. And they said, ‘Well you don’t have to go anywhere … We’ll take care of you right here. So, he had a pretty good sales pitch and he convinced me that that’s where I needed to be, I guess.”
The 18-year-old Bannan had instead found recruitment officers for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Bannan said he figured it was either “wait for three years and get drafted” while he was “in the middle of something,” or enlist immediately. At the time, he said, the draft seemed “pretty imminent.”
The year of Bannan’s enlistment was 1962, and the U.S. was in its eighth year of involvement in Vietnam by this point, a domino effect which started, according to History.com, with President Dwight Eisenhower pledging support — first in the form of training and equipment— of South Vietnam and its “strongly anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem” in 1955. The goal was to assist in liberating Northern Vietnam from a communist regime.
By 1962 — during John F. Kennedy’s presidency — 2,000 U.S. troops had been sent to Vietnam. And by 1965, despite “concerns by some of his advisors, “(President Lyndon B.) Johnson authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops at the end of July … and another 100,000 in 1966.”
With the flood of troops being sent by the year of Bannan’s enlistment and especially in the three years following, it is certainly possible that the draft would indeed have been imminent for him.
While many at the time were evading the draft, Bannan “jumped in feet first,” he said.
In fact, although the first two years of his service with the Marine Corps was spent in the United States, he extended his term of service by three months in order to take advantage of an opportunity to go on an overseas tour.
That opportunity came in January 1965 when, shortly after attending Camp Pendleton’s Staging Battalion in California, an order came through for 55 Marines out of the 900 going to Japan to head to Okinawa, Japan.
“My name was on the list of 55,” Bannan said, “and I’d heard that this unit was a chopper unit that had a contingent in Vietnam. So, I thought, ‘Well, it’s an overseas tour, I guess. I’ll take it.’ And it’s not like I had a whole lot of choice at that point.”
On a pier in San Diego, Bannan and hundreds of other U.S. Army and Marine soldiers waited to be packed like sardines into a ship set for Japan. After 1,500 Army soldiers were loaded in the aft of the ship, and 900 in the fore, Bannan and the 54 who were ordered to Okinawa still needed to get on the ship, but with little space left.
However, a spot was found in the tight spaces of the forward brig, “at water level in the prow of the ship,” he said.
This was probably “the worst place to be if you’re riding any kind of sea, which we did,” Bannan said.
From San Diego to Hawaii, Bannan and the accompanying Marines loaded into the brig weathered 40-foot swells and the resulting sea sickness.
Rather than spend the rest of the night in the brig, his group instead moved to the cargo hold. The troops stopped in Hawaii for a night before continuing to Japan.
On the pier in Okinawa, Bannan and the other 54 were lined up and 33 were chosen to continue to Vietnam from there, including Bannan.
To Bannan and his accompanying Marines, a commander said, “All you guys that are going, we’re gonna pay you. You got three days, you might as well enjoy them. They might be your last.” Bannan, ever-ready, responded simply, “Thank you.”
From Okinawa, Bannan and the others selected to proceed to Vietnam were taken first to an old base called Shufly, before moving to the Marble Mountain Air Facility along the coast of Vietnam.
From there, Bannan’s experiences were a constant juxtaposition of moments of joy, followed almost immediately by moments of trauma and pain.
As Bannan puts it, “Things tend to happen in bunches in my life.”
On a Friday afternoon, while working around the base, a couple of men struck a run of luck. Bannan said that one man, while unloading ships, discovered broken cases of beer among the cargo and loaded his truck up with as much as he could fit. Another, passing through Da Nang, Vietnam, happened upon a fish market and returned to base with 200 crabs.
According to Bannan, “Somebody said, ‘Well geez, we can do something. We got a couple of guys from Louisiana.’”
And nothing more had to be said. The men from Louisiana grabbed a three-gallon pot and ran to the shore to fill it with salt water and set it up on a burner to boil, dropping as many crabs inside as would fit at a time. With their hodge-podge feast, the men found revelry in wartime.
“And I ate crabs for the first time in my life, drank beer,” Bannan said. “We had a heck of a good time till about 10, 11 o’clock at night and then we wrapped it up, hit our cots.”
But these moments were never allowed to last long.
“About midnight, little after, I heard explosions,” Bannan said. “You (couldn’t) hardly see out of the tent, so I lifted up part of it and I could look out and see towards the airstrip that there were flashes over there. So I jumped up, put my uniform on, grabbed all my ammo belts and everything and went charging out of the tent.”
Bannan had been hurtled from moments of joy and rest to awaken in chaos. As he ran, his vision was a shuttering film reel, transitioning between explosion-lit panorama and inky-dark intermission. Other Marines barreled out of the barracks and jumped into fox holes in just their “skivvies,” he said.
Bannan and four others found a tanker, filled it with water, and hurried toward the air strip, where Viet Cong forces had ambushed the air base, first taking out the crash trucks, crippling the ability of U.S. forces to stop their aircrafts from burning.
Scrambling between crash trucks, Bannan and others tried to see what could be saved and used to put out the burning aircraft.
He hurried up the ladder up one, but found that the truck was unsalvageable, the engine was “dragged” by Viet Cong beyond repair.
The next morning, Bannan was put on litter duty, carrying stretchers of the Viet Cong dead to be loaded and taken to Happy Valley, a Viet Cong “stronghold.”
Shortly after this, he was again tasked with delivering the dead to rest.
Two companies of Marines in March 1965 suffered 100% casualties, Bannan said. And his chopper group was tasked with carrying the dead to U.S. choppers in preparation for their journeys home.
While two choppers circled in the air, two sat on the ground for loading. As 12 doctors worked triage, Bannan and the others carried litters of soldiers.
“And that probably affected me more than anything else,” Bannan said. “Because there wasn’t a thing I could say or do to help those people on the litters. People messed up in every way imaginable, mutilated in every way imaginable. And all we could do was carry the litters, and … I couldn’t come up with anything to say or to do to even try to affect their life in any way.”
Bannan said that since then, doctors and other listeners to his story have told him that “sometimes the best thing you can do is just be there.”
“So I practiced that later in life,” said Bannan. “Being a volunteer to sit with dying veterans like at (the D.J.) Jacobetti (Home for Veterans) who have no family or anybody … And I don’t know if I’m getting any better at it, but I try. And … there’s some things you just don’t forget and … the feeling doesn’t go away.”
And while veterans of former wars at least had the warm welcome of celebrations in the streets, many Vietnam veterans returned to scorn.
When Bannan returned to the United States, he chose to avoid wearing his military uniform on the airlines — which was required to receive military rates — and instead rented a car and drove back to the Upper Peninsula alone in his civilian clothes after his term of service ended in August 1966.
“We came back and it turns out, nobody appreciated us,” Bannan said.
Bannan said that now, “Vietnam veterans are going to make damn sure” that the same experience does not happen to any other returning veterans of war.
While Bannan now lives with his wife on a wooded property in Negaunee Township, surrounded by peace and their animals, he says he is still proud to be a Marine. This is evident in the red flag with the U.S. Marine emblem which hangs high from a pole anchored to the front of his garage with an American flag adjacent.
However, of his experience in the war, he said, “It still bites.”
In addition to the many dead he carried, he said “the other 60% crying for mercy … to their higher power,” those are the people who really haunt him.
But, as Bannan said, “Some things aren’t meant to be easy, I guess.”
Shannon Konoske can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.