Hard-Hit Marine Class from Vietnam War Celebrates 50th Reunion

The 6/67 Memorial at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia commemorates The Basic School's sixth graduating class, which suffered more than 250 casualties, including 43 officers killed in Vietnam. (US Marine Corps photo)
The 6/67 Memorial at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia commemorates The Basic School's sixth graduating class, which suffered more than 250 casualties, including 43 officers killed in Vietnam. (US Marine Corps photo)

In the fall of 1967, The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, finished training 498 twenty-something Marine second lieutenants. By the end of the year, nearly all were in Vietnam.

Before Christmas, the first of them was killed in action: 2nd Lt. Michael Ruane, of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, on Dec. 18, 1967. The TBS class that began in June 1967 (TBS 6/67) would have a casualty rate of more than 50 percent -- the highest of any Marine officer class during the Vietnam War.

For those second lieutenants and their platoons, the pace was unrelenting. They would go past the wire -- when there was wire -- on daily patrols through terrain that ranged from paddies and dikes along the coast, through the scrub brush and elephant grass of the interior, and into the triple-canopy jungles of the high ground reaching into Laos.

The New York Times declared that "the era of big battles" had come to Vietnam in 1967. Le Duan, the real power in Hanoi, ordered North Vietnamese Army regulars into South Vietnam to support the Vietcong. The battles became bigger in 1968.

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At home, 50,000 anti-war protesters marched on the Pentagon. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the big album. President Lyndon B. Johnson was getting ready to hang it up. So was Mickey Mantle. The Rolling Stones were painting it black.

Polls taken during the summer of 1967 showed for the first time that American support for the war had fallen below 50 percent.

The lieutenants would fight at Khe Sanh and Hue City, Dai Do and the A Shau and Con Thien, and so many other places that would, however briefly, grab a headline.

Meeting at the Monument

The small monument to TBS 6/67 on the grounds of The Basic School states the toll. Forty-three were killed in Vietnam. One was killed in Lebanon. Another six died in training accidents. More than 200 were wounded.

The remaining members of TBS 6/67 gathered June 2 at their monument, probably for the last time -- 50 years to the day after they began at TBS. They laughed about their screwups, boasted about grandkids, and continued to grouse, as always, about the switchover during their time in Vietnam from the M14 rifle to the M16.

They grappled again, mostly in silence, with the question that has no answer -- why am I here when so many aren't? Libraries can be filled with books on the subject, going back to Homer.

Shrinks would call it "survivor's guilt." The guys from TBS 6/67 mainly call it luck, and the result of the sheer grit of the privates first class and lance corporals in their platoons. They had the gift of coming back that so many of their classmates were denied and, now in their 70s, they wonder how well they've used it.

In a ceremony at the monument, Alan Green of TBS 6/67, who served with the 26th Marines, said of his fallen comrades: "What a great loss when they were taken, what a great gift that we were spared -- how hard it is to reconcile the two."

The words inscribed on the monument are from Dale Wittler of TBS 6/67, who would become a school principal after the war: "Any one of us could have had our name listed [on the monument] but it was only by God's grace that we were spared."

Remembering the Fallen

The names of the 43 killed in Vietnam are listed on the memorial according to the date on which they died. Bernie Plassmeyer's name was last on the list of those killed in Vietnam, though many of his classmates still count him as missing-in-action.

The A-4 Skyhawk flown by 1st Lt. Bernard H. Plassmeyer, of Freeburg, Missouri, went down in an attack on enemy positions in the A Shau valley on Sept. 11, 1970, as Bernie neared the end of his tour. There was a "presumptive" finding of death after the crash; the official listing is "killed, body not recovered."

From their monument, the members of TBS 6/67 moved to a ceremony presided over by Col. Mark Clingan, commander of TBS, for the re-dedication of a refurbished "Graves Hall," named for Terry Graves of TBS 6/67.

Graves' name is inscribed on Panel 39E-Row 071 of the black granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial. His name is also inscribed on the wall in the "Hall of Heroes" at the Pentagon.

Terry was a ballplayer at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio -- a catcher with some pop on the school's team. The Cincinnati Reds had come to take a look. Instead, he became a Recon Marine. He served with the 3rd Reconnaissance Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.

On Feb. 16, 1968, Graves led a small unit from 3rd Recon called "Team Box Score" in the area of Quang Tri province called "Leatherneck Square," bounded by the strong points at Gio Linh, Con Thien, Cam Lo and Dong Ha. They ambushed a patrol of North Vietnamese Army regulars, but more NVA rushed to the scene.

Graves and his men fought them off and then pulled back to a medevac helicopter. He put his wounded aboard but was told that one of his men was not accounted for. Graves screamed at the crew chief: "Get out of here." He headed back to the fight.

As the helicopter began to lift out, one of his Marines jumped off to join him, according to the Medal of Honor citation. By other accounts, there were two. Their lieutenant would not leave anyone behind. They would not leave their lieutenant behind.

They went back into the firefight, which built in ferocity as Marine reinforcements arrived. The citation stated, "Confronted with a shortage of ammunition, 2d Lt. Graves utilized supporting arms and directed fire until a second helicopter arrived.

"At this point, the volume of enemy fire intensified, hitting the helicopter and causing it to crash shortly after liftoff. All aboard were killed. 2d Lt. Graves' outstanding courage, superb leadership and indomitable fighting spirit throughout the day were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Navy. He gallantly gave his life for his country."

A more detailed account of the battle can be seen at the website of the U.S. Marine Corps Force Recon Association.

President Richard M. Nixon signed the order for 2nd Lt. Terrence Collinson Graves to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously. On Dec. 2, 1969, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew presented the medal to the Graves family.

'I Didn't Know'

It happened more than once for the members of TBS 6/67 that they would come to the aid of wounded classmates, or recover their bodies. It happened for Joe Johnston and Terry Graves.

"I didn't know. I just didn't know. I didn't know until much later that it was Terry," Johnston said. He had the 2nd platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, that day and was the "palace guard," meaning that he was protecting the unit's position about two miles south of Con Thien.

The company commander was on the radio -- "Joe, come up here." The helicopters were loading up and they were headed to a fight to the south. "They put us in. It was rainy, cloudy, heavy ground cover, couldn't see a damn thing," Johnston said.

He remembered stopping his men at one point. There were "dark objects" along a trail. "Couldn't figure what that was. Turned out it was the packs of the NVA that they'd left behind," he said.

They pulled back to a rise for the night, "and when the sun came up we recovered the bodies. The helicopter was upside down," Johnston said. They loaded the bodies on another medevac. Just as it pulled away, word came that another NVA patrol was approaching. "Things were going south again."

He said again that he didn't know until later that one of the bodies was that of his friend. He said it took a while to be reconciled with that.

"It takes a long time. It's hard to do," Johnston said.

Kidnapped in Lebanon

The casualties for TBS 6/67 continued well after Vietnam. There were suicides. Then on Feb. 17, 1988, Col. William R. "Rich" Higgins went missing while driving alone on the coastal road between Tyre and Naqoura on the Israeli border in southern Lebanon.

Gunmen had pulled him from the vehicle. At the time, he was serving as the senior military observer in the United Nations Military Observer Group, part of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization.

In 1990, his captors released a video showing his beaten body hanged by the neck. He was declared dead July 6, 1990. His remains were found on Dec. 23, 1991, on the side of a road near a mosque in south Beirut by Maj. Jens Nielsen of the Royal Danish Army, who was attached to the United Nations Observation Group.

The flag-draped coffin carrying his remains arrived at Andrews Air Force Base to a ceremony presided over by then-Vice President Dan Quayle.

In 1997, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer Higgins was christened by his widow, Robin Higgins, herself a Marine officer. Rich Higgins was the sixth graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and member of TBS 6/67 to fall.

Surreal Memories

The memories of Vietnam for the members of TBS 6/67 sometimes border on the surreal. Ray Dito, who retired as a captain after 29 years with the San Francisco Fire Department, recalled an incident when the base heard that North Vietnamese regulars were crossing a stream at some distance.

Dito, who would be wounded twice in Vietnam, had Jim Jones as a company commander in 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. Jones would become Marine commandant and later national security adviser to President Barack Obama.

At Dito's position, they could hear the clatter of the gunships that were called to meet the threat. It wasn't long before Dito's brother, Austin, an Army warrant officer flying a “Huey” helicopter in the action, came up on the radio to tell Ray: "Problem solved. They won't be coming in your direction. You owe me."

Dito and Don Shanley had second thoughts about coming to the reunion. Dito didn't make it, but Shanley did. "Some things you think you had put to rest but they rear their ugly heads," Shanley said. "Half the people on my hallway at Basic School didn't come home."

Shanley was with the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh during the enemy siege in 1968. He recalled his company commander pointing to a finger leading down from Hill 861: "When they hit us, this is where they're coming."

Shanley's platoon set in on the finger. "Well, they did come. There were a lot of them," he said. His platoon held. "We were losing guys every day. That's when it gets on you."

Years later, he was a tourist in Vietnam and the bus took them to Khe Sanh. "I looked up at that hill" where his platoon had held. "I looked up at that knoll, and I really didn't want to go there."

He got back on the bus.

Recently, Shanley was invited back to Quantico by the Marine Corps to a forum on the Battle of Khe Sanh. They wanted to know about tactics and gear, small unit leadership and weapons and intelligence. "I didn't have much to tell them," Shanley said. "I told them that the only reason I'm here is because of those amazing kids in my platoon."

The members of TBS 6/67 were split on how they were treated when they returned. There's the enduring story about being spit at or cursed, but Shanley said, "I never experienced anything like that. Never."

Others said that if anyone looked at them crosswise or said something, they didn't notice, didn't care or ignored it.

Jack Wells, an artillery officer who left the Corps as a lieutenant colonel, had a different take. He couldn't find a job when he came back and stayed in the reserves. "I didn't experience any problems with the general public," he said, but the atmosphere would change when he was sent on recruiting duty to college campuses.

At campuses such as Berkeley in California, "They would salivate when they saw a uniformed Marine come on campus to recruit officer candidates. It was difficult. We were picketed against" and, in one instance, he was confronted by a dummy in a Marine uniform that had been hung in effigy.

If there was any lingering bitterness toward Vietnam and the Vietnamese people among the members of TBS 6/67, they kept it to themselves for the reunion. Many have been back to Vietnam and have been heartened, and sometimes surprised, by the warm welcome of the Vietnamese.

Going Back

In 2006, members of TBS 6/67 raised money in cooperation with the East-West Center Foundation to build a primary school in Quang Nam province named for Mac Dinh Chi, a 12th- century Confucian scholar.

Wells went to the dedication with his daughter Clarissa, then 13. She told the Vietnamese kids that she loved books and hoped they would take advantage of the new library.

There was a catch to the building of the school. The contributing members of TBS 6/67 wanted a basketball court put up at the school to be named for Harold L. "Hank" Cheadle, who served with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and was killed on Aug. 23, 1968. He was a basketball player at Miami University of Ohio.

The court went up named for Cheadle, but Wells said the Vietnamese kids use it to play soccer.

The members of TBS 6/67 like to think Hank would be OK with that.

-- Richard Sisk was a member of TBS 6/67. He served with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in Vietnam. He can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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