The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Theodore Gatchel

Interview and story by: Carly Long
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the student's edited story below, you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter , as well as a table of cues and contents .

We Had One Year's Experience Twelve Times

As I ended up high school, I decided I wanted to be a geological engineer and work in the oil business. At that time, there were only two schools in the country that taught geological engineering, Oklahoma University and the Colorado School of Mines. There was also a draft, so I wanted to go to a school that had a naval ROTC. Oklahoma was the one that had a naval ROTC, so that was where I decided to go to get my engineering degree. I graduated in 1961. Little by little things changed as I got out there, and I decided to go in the Marine Corps rather than the Navy. I liked that enough that I just never got out; I stayed in the Marine Corps. I spent thirty years in the service. From 1961 to 1991, I was a marine. Since I retired in 1991, I've been a writer. Most of what I write is based on the military.

When I was commissioned, it was as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. When Vietnam came along, I'd already been an officer for almost five years. I was part of a unit that was called to go to Vietnam in 1965. We had less than a week to get our unit ready to go aboard ship, get our families packed up, and leave. We were living on the west coast at the time. My wife had to get the house packed up. She was going to move back to the east coast while I was gone. I figured it would be a year and a very short period of time.

I served there twice. I went the first time in 1965 with a U.S. Marine Corps unit. I came back home in the summer of 1966. I went back again in 1969 and served another year there with the Vietnamese Marines. I was engaged in combat the first time when I was the commander of a Rifle Company, and then the second time when I was an advisor to Vietnamese Marine Battalions and Brigades. We were engaged in combat on a day to day basis.

You go through days and days of nothing happening. You're just marching through the jungle and living in the swamps. All of a sudden something explodes. An hour, a day or two of just complete chaos, people being killed, explosions, everything going on. And then it all is over and you go back to just hours of nothing. I had a lot of friends who were killed, or badly wounded in Vietnam. I lost a good portion of my hearing from a rocket explosion. When you see people killed around you, you realize that it might have been you. It does make you think about what's important and what's not. I knew what the advantages, disadvantages, and the risks were. I had been trained as well as anybody could be trained to deal with that.

My understanding of our presence in Vietnam was that it was to prevent the Communists from dictating to the South Vietnamese people how they would operate their country. We got the newspapers and heard on the radio about the protests that were going on. One of my marines brought a flyer to me and he was very worried. It had come from a girl whom he knew in high school. She had sent him this flyer that said something like, "Why are you out there fighting peasants who are only trying to protect their homes with pitch forks and knives?" This arrived just about the time that the North Vietnamese units started carrying the best, the latest Soviet arms and weapons.

It was a joke what people back home thought about the war, how misinformed they were. They thought we were out there fighting peasants who were armed with pitchforks and knives. Basically, we had a job to do, and we weren't concerned about what people at home were thinking. I was in the military and my government had sent me over there to fight a war. That was what I was doing. When I was in Quantico training young marines, we'd get a lot of letters from marines who were still in Vietnam fighting. It's astounding when you know what was going on first-hand and then watching American television. It was like there were two completely different wars that were being fought and reported on.

The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated I was a marine lieutenant and involved with counter insurgency training, which was something that President Kennedy had been very big on. When we were called back in out of the fields, a marine officer came up to us and told us the President had been assassinated. We all thought it was just more part of this training exercise. They were able to get a television set an hour or two later and let us really see that, in fact, the President had been assassinated.

I can remember exactly when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was on my second tour, with the Vietnamese. We were in a triple canopy jungle. It's really heavy jungle; you couldn't even see the moon. The Vietnamese carried these little transistor radios and one night a lot of them were coming up to me. My Vietnamese was pretty good. They were telling me that there was an American on the moon. My first reaction was that I wasn't hearing what they were saying right. Then, I realized what they were saying and what was going on. It was a contrast between being in a jungle in Vietnam and not even been able to see the moon, and thinking that there was somebody up there walking on it. It was really startling.

During my second tour, I was with the Vietnamese marines. I had gone to language school by that time, so I could speak Vietnamese. I was treated as one of their officers. For the most part, I spent lots of time with the Vietnamese without any other Americans around. I became very friendly with one or two of the Vietnamese Marine officers. As a result, my views changed quite a bit from my first to my second tour. During my first tour, I looked at the Vietnamese as probably not caring much about their country; not willing to fight for their country. However, after I went to language school and could speak Vietnamese that view changed completely. Having lived with the South Vietnamese for a year, I became much more aware of how they felt. I became much more sympathetic towards their views. I found the Vietnamese were both willing and capable of fighting for their country.

I felt that we should have pursued the war more aggressively, not allowing the Communists to take the initiative the way we had. I think we did a lot of stupid things over there in the war, but I don't think we were wrong to have been there. We went there with good intentions. We were trying to do the right thing. Anybody who says that we were morally wrong hasn't read very much about Communism. We strategically and tactically made a lot of mistakes which contributed to our defeat. I think we had allowed the enemy to have the initiative and instead of having some kind of coherent strategy that we were following. We just found ourselves constantly reacting to what the enemy was doing.

During most of my second tour, the North Vietnamese were allowed to use Cambodia and Laos with impunity. They could come over and attack us in South Vietnam, but we weren't allowed to go and attack them in their bases. This created a huge problem for the American forces and the South Vietnamese. Towards the end of my tour, President Nixon did away with that restriction. If we had done things like that earlier in the war, it might have turned out very differently. We didn't have twelve year's experience in Vietnam. We had one year's experience twelve times. What would happen was that people would come to Vietnam, and then they'd have to learn what was going on, try to decide what tactics were being used, and by the time they'd mastered all that and were being effective, their year was up and they went home. They were replaced with a whole new group of people. I saw a lot of friends of mine killed and wounded. I was very disappointed. In the past, in spite of American sacrifices, we'd always ended up pretty much achieving what we had attempted to achieve. This was the first war we've ever clearly lost.

In my two years in Vietnam combat, I never saw anyone commit an atrocity. Atrocities aren't inevitable, but when you fight the kind of war that we were fighting in Vietnam, where a lot of civilians are involved, where you know some small kid may come out and put a hand grenade in the gas tank of your jeep, the frustration level gets so high that it's very likely, occasionally, somebody is going to commit an atrocity.

Kennedy got us started down the road of getting into Vietnam. Johnson was then handed this war, and he didn't want to be the one to go down in history as the one who lost this war, but he wasn't willing to take the steps needed to prosecute it successfully. Nixon got us going to Cambodia. The anti-war movement just went wild over that, and yet, it at least sent the message to the North Vietnamese that they couldn't use those so-called neutral countries with impunity. The other thing he did was to mine the harbor at Haiphong. That was the best way possible to keep both our Cold War enemies like the Russians and our supposed friends like the Europeans from re-supplying our enemies. And yet, it didn't actually. Most of the people I knew were really supportive of Nixon because we thought if we were over there fighting a war, we'd like to see a president who was supporting us. I think Vietnam made a lot of Americans skeptical about the role of government. It polarized Americans into two sides, whether we should be in Vietnam or whether we shouldn't be in Vietnam.

Glossary Words On This Page
Neil Armstrong
Cold War
John F. Kennedy
Richard M. Nixon

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