A Minnesota PBS Initiative

Career Enhancement or Life Education?

I accepted an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy from a small town in Northern Illinois and graduated in 1964. My first two years was aboard USS Yarnell, a guided missile destroyer out of Norfolk, Virginia as Gunnery Officer and Asst. Missile Officer. We were deployed twice for long assignments to the Mediterranean as a part of the Navy's 6th Fleet. We were literally in Norfolk for a period of three months during the two years aboard Yarnell and I had one real "date". 

The Navy was looking for volunteers for one year Vietnam tours, suggesting that such assignments were good for your career enhancement and promising a first choice for any subsequent duty assignment. An Academy classmate also assigned to Yarnell volunteered and received a Swift Boat Command, certainly considered a "good" assignment. My application for Vietnam followed. 

My chief rival was Ensign John McCormick... A test on the Base obstacle course usually saw John and I 'neck and neck' but I often 'bested' him on the basketball court. Friends and Rivals.

In July 1966, I received orders to schooling as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer with the Marines and the class of about Twenty officers I joined consisting of Ensigns and Lieutenants Junior Grade quickly went through basic principles to plan Naval Gunfire Support when the Marines requested it. 

When not in academic classes, we did variety of physical training and my chief rival if we divided up the class for athletic competition was Ensign John McCormick who also shared an apartment off base with myself and two other officers.

John was very athletic, but apparently had been dropped from UDT school. He was also tall, dark, good-looking, and was everything with the 'ladies' on the dance floor that I was not. The base at Little Creek Virginia had Friday night dances which we frequented. A Test on the Base obstacle course usually saw John and I 'neck and neck' but I often 'bested' him on the basketball court. Friends and Rivals. 

Despite being an officer with limited experience I was of senior rank among the officers in our class and joined the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade as their Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer in September 1966. The assignment ordinarily would have gone to a Lt. Commander, two ranks above mine so I was pleased.

The unit was stationed on Okinawa and tasked with planning and executing small scale amphibious operations along the South Vietnamese Coast using rotating Marine ground units. John McCormick's assignment was to a Marine ground Battalion then in-country. 

Between Sept. 1966 and May 1967 I drew or reviewed plans for four landing operations which the Marines executed in Vietnam. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a landing in the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, to also involve South Vietnamese Marines. The assigned ships were an 8 inch cruiser and the last remaining Navy WWII era rocket ship left on active service, the Saint Frances River. The two ships were assigned because the beach gradient was so shallow that only the rocket ship with its shallow LST 'flat and shallow' hull and the cruiser with its big guns could position themselves to provide adequate gunfire support. 

U.S. soldier standing among sandbags piled high.

Paul Jennings LtJG. USN Hue PHU Bai August 1967.

Because this was the first major joint operation in the Delta, General Westmoreland came down mid-operation to be briefed on its impact. It like many other operations of that time period was deemed a "success". 

In early May 1967, our unit was tasked with a landing in Quang Tri Providence close to the DMZ in far northern South Vietnam. Heavy opposition was expected and I had the use of a Heavy Cruiser and Five Navy Destroyers. I felt pleased that The Marine Battalion that we would put ashore had as its Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer my friend John McCormick. Since I could monitor the Naval Gunfire radio net from the Helicopter Carrier off the coast, John could join one of the Marine ground companies going in by air. 

The Naval bombardment went off impressively on the morning of May 5, 1967 but Marine Helicopter Pilots returning to the ship after delivery of ground troops were heavily 'shaken' with the intensity of enemy ground fire in the selected landing zones and in fact so shaken they were unable to say if the troops went into the selected clearings or others nearby. Subsequent intelligence confirmed that a full North Vietnamese Regiment occupied the hill the U. S. Marines landed on. 

I was of little use given the close combat that was occurring, but John McCormick earned a Silver Star for bravery that day calling in several Naval Gunfire missions to aid his Marine Battalion comrades. However, he and his radioman were killed within an hour of the battle's start along with a lot of other Marines that day.

I went in the next day to operate ashore with the Battalion's headquarters company and act as their Naval Gunfire Officer. After a week the operation was another declared "success". 

In August 1967 a Navy Reserve Lt Commander arrived as my replacement and I finished my twelve month deployment with the 3rd Marine Division in their Fire Support Center at Hue Phu Bai, a large base eight miles south of downtown Hue, and the base to become famous for Marine reinforcements to retake Hue during the Tet Offensive starting on January 31, 1968. I had, however, left in September 1967 following orders to teach Navy Rotc in Minnesota.

Fifty Thousand Americans and more fell in a war I now feel should never have been fought and certainly was not a "career enhancement".

I stayed in Minnesota after leaving the Navy in 1969 to graduate law school, marry, raise a family, and enjoy a public career in law in this state of Ten Thousand lakes.

I got my "first" choice following my Vietnam assignment, but as my close friends will attest, it took twenty-five years plus for me to publicly relate the story of the loss of John McCormick in Vietnam that fateful day in May 1967. 

For me, that loss was like the many others that friends, family members, and for sure fellow survivors felt as Fifty Thousand Americans and more fell in a war I now feel should never have been fought and certainly was not a "career enhancement". 

Now for anyone who might be thinking 'just another example of 'survivor's guilt', I can only say I have participated in many discussions of the use of our Armed Forces in subsequent military actions and found some worth supporting and others not.

The implications politically are often "murky" and each of us as citizens should hold the politicians putting their fellow Americans in "harm's way" to a very high standard: we all should have a very well thought out rationale for commitment of anyones' lives.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Hue Phu Bai, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Navy

Dates of Service: 1964 - 1969

Unit: 9th Amphibious Brigade

Specialty: Naval Line Officer

Other Locations During Vietnam: Okinawa, Japan

Story Themes: Death and Loss, Dissent, Enlisting, Phu Bai, Reflection, Relationships, Saint Louis Park, St Louis Park, Survivor's Guilt, USS Yarnell

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