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Conyers Marine vet recalls perils of Vietnam

Rockdale County resident and retired Marine Bill Campbell

Rockdale County resident and retired Marine Bill Campbell

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Rockdale County resident and retired Marine Bill Campbell

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Special Photo Marine veteran Bill Campbell grew up in a military family and joined the Marines when he was just 17 years old. Campbell served two tours of duty in Vietnam and returned stateside when he was 21.

CONYERS — Born in 1948 at the Naval Training Center in Waukegan, Ill., William "Bill" Campbell explained, "My father was career Navy, so money was scarce. We lived in a cramped trailer. My sister made a family collage about five years ago before our family attended a memorial service in St. Louis. A lady at the memorial introduced herself and told me, "I noticed your collage. Your family sure did a lot of camping." I replied, "No, ma'am, that's where we lived!"

Campbell was in the second grade when his family moved into their first house.

"We moved in during Christmas. I thought it was heaven," he said.

After his father was assigned as chief of security at the Glenview Naval Air Station, Campbell saw the emergence of roots for the first time in his young life.

"That's unusual for a military brat," he said. "But we stayed at Glenview for several years until my father retired from the Navy."

He started work at age 12.

"My father knew the pro at a local golf course and got me a job as a caddy. I'd hide in the locker room when inspectors came around because I didn't have a work permit," he said.

Campbell recalled a golfer that took a liking to him.

"He was a big dude, and always asked for 'the Runt' to carry his bag. It was heavy. I literally had to drag the bag along the ground, but he paid me five bucks for 18 holes, so I really didn't care how heavy it was."

His parents divorced when he was in the eighth grade.

"I rebelled, so my father put me in a military school." Campbell admitted. "That lasted one year."

Defiant and troubled in high school, Campbell said, "I was losing my bearings, so my buddy and I went to the Marine recruiter and joined up. I was 17 years old and fearless."

Given a choice, Campbell chose San Diego for basic training. After basic, he was sent to Camp Pendleton for six weeks of infantry training.

"I was guaranteed aviation from my test scores," he explained. "First they sent me to Millington Naval Air Station north of Memphis, Tenn., for screening, then down to Jacksonville for aviation electronics training."

As Vietnam erupted in turmoil, Campbell was assigned helicopter transport training.

"There I received orders for FMF West Pac (Fleet Marine Force Western Pacific). Then I was sent back to Camp Pendleton for survival and combat training, which meant if your trigger finger worked, you were going to war," he recalled.

After spending two days in a staging area on Okinawa, Campbell flew straight into DaNang, South Vietnam, for his assignment with the 1st Marine Air Wing.

"I did a little work on medevac and other choppers, but mainly stayed airborne on a C-47 Gooney Bird with a flight combat crew," Campbell said.

Since radio transmitting requires line of sight, the C-47 carried a transponder capable of picking up radio activity over mountains, mainly relaying messages from Marines in trouble. Campbell and the crew also flew supplies or personnel from DaNang to Chu Lai to Phu Bai; then returned to DaNang. When asked what they loaded for the flight back to DaNang, Campbell softly replied, "DaNang was a body bag depot, but I'd rather not go down that road right now."

We didn't.

The night belonged to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

"Night vision capability wasn't available back then," Campbell stated, "We had to use flares. We carried 100 flares weighing 28 pounds apiece, each with 2 million candle power that lit up an area 5 miles across." With night turned into day, ground combat usually ceased when flares illuminated the battlefield.

"At first the VC and NVA thought the flares came from our artillery rounds, until they figured out they came from planes," Campbell continued. "After that we received ground fire."

A thick armor plate on the floor protected the flares and crew from ground fire.

"On station at 4,000 or 5,000 feet we could distinguish the battle lines by the color of tracers. Our boys used red or orange tracers, the VC and NVA used green tracers," he said.

Recalling his third mission, Campbell said, "We lost the left engine on take off, which caused the plane to bank an extreme hard right. The pilot knew we were in trouble and kept yelling, 'Throw the flares out!' but with the right wing perpendicular to the ground, we were sitting on the windows and couldn't move a muscle."

The pilot finally landed the plane safely.

From August 1966 until September 1967, Campbell flew in support of his fellow Marines engaged in ground combat. He earned an air medal for service under combat conditions and received combat air crew wings with three stars (30 missions).

"After 30 missions we stopped counting," Campbell said.

After 13 months of war, Bill Campbell flew home. Reassigned to the Naval Air Station in Millington, Tenn.

"I'd been there for five months and went through my first IG (Inspecting General) assessment, and came to the conclusion I never wanted to go through another one," Campbell said.

He volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam.Campbell landed at DaNang during the second week of February, 1968, to rejoin his old unit, right in the middle of the biggest battle of the Vietnam War -- the Tet Offensive. Back in the teeth of combat, Campbell was immediately sent into action dropping flares and relaying radio contacts from the Marines during the heroic yet infamous siege of Khe Sanh. His second tour was a kaleidoscope of violence, mistakes, and survival.

"Rocket and mortar attacks were a daily occurrence at DaNang. I remember one night the main ammo dump full of 500-pound bombs took a direct hit. That shook us up a bit," he said.

On April 1, Campbell was working on the flight line with no shirt, no hat, no belt, low shoes, and powder blue socks (not exactly Marine dress). He received a call to report to the Headquarters Office immediately. He did and found a large formation of Marines and presenting officers waiting to promote him to sergeant, powder blue socks and all.

"My superiors weren't too happy with my personal dress code," he said.

When he didn't write home for three months, his upset mother called the recruiter. The next day Campbell was standing in front of a chaplain.

"He graciously chewed me out. I called mom on the Mars network (Ham operators) that day. I never forgot to write after that," he said.

With only a few months left of his enlistment, the Marines released Campbell early because of his two tours in Vietnam. He was finally headed home. Campbell celebrated his 21st birthday on Okinawa but because of the International Date Line, he was able to celebrate again in San Francisco. "I partied both times," he admitted. Bill Campbell's war was over.

Retired from AT&T before his 50th birthday, Campbell has stayed active in business, veterans' issues, and local politics. Deeply involved as president of the Executive Board of Directors of Project ReNeWal for Domestic Violence, apparently Bill Campbell has not stopped helping people that can't help themselves. Sounds like a Marine.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.