Decorated Vietnam vet reminisces

By on August 14, 2019

“We had no idea we were going to war.”

That’s how Russell “Russ” Thompson remembers his introduction to the Vietnam War, though it was not so much an introduction as it was an education he would take with him from the other side of the world into the rest of his life. He joined the Marines in February 1964 on a 120-day delay that allowed him to finish his senior year of high school at Twin Valley High School in Berks County.

After high school, the Honey Brook native and his pal Norman Thomas traveled to Parris Island for boot camp. After that, Initial Training Regimen (ITR) in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and then they were off to a locked down base in California where Norman would become a rocket launcher and Thompson would receive advanced training as an infantry M-60 machine gunner.

The last part of his journey would involve 12 months of Amphibious Raider Training on Okinawa Island. Or so they thought.

“A couple months (into training) they woke us up and told us to get all of our military gear together, and everything that’s personal… you bag it, tag it and ship it home. We had no clue what was going on…” he said.

The next thing he knew, Thompson was onboard the USS Iwo Jima — an 18-year-old with no blessed idea as to what lay ahead of him.

“It was the third day out, the ship’s captain announced over the intercom that we were in the Red China Sea and then he told us good luck.”

Live ammo was distributed to all the boys. It was happening. As a result of the escalating conflict in Vietnam, Thompson would not receive a single day of leave in the two years he spent serving and little if any contact with family back home.

It wasn’t long before he found himself involved in two historic engagements. In August of 1965, Thompson was in Chu Lai, where his outfit was tasked with setting up a perimeter around the peninsula to guard the Seabees who were building an airstrip. The location was of vital importance to both sides, as evidenced by the ‘welcoming party’ of 1,500 Vietcong that was readying itself to wipe out the US troops. Luckily, a Major General of the Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been captured and he revealed his regiment’s location during interrogation. Armed with this intelligence, Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt launched a preemptive strike. Thus began Operation Starlite &tstr; a five day firefight involving more than 5,500 marines. The fighting was intense, with naval gunfire supporting the ground troops with 12 inch rounds.

Thompson recalls a frightening story in the lead-up to this conflict. His company had marched all night in the dark to get in position to block the VC advance. He remembers falling asleep while marching and waking up to find himself all alone in the jungle.

 USMC veteran Russell Thompson, of Ephrata, displays medals that he received during the Vietnam War. Photos by Missi Mortimer.

 

 USMC veteran Russell Thompson of Ephrata holds a photo of the helicopter carrier that took him to the war, the Hijama.

 

 USMC veteran Russell Thompson, of Ephrata, displays medals that he received during the Vietnam War.

“I knew they weren’t dead ahead of me or I would have run into them. I had to make a choice to go right or left,” He chose to go right and was able to catch up to his unit a few minutes later. Still, in the dead silence of a pitch black night with only the stars to guide him, he had to pray he’d fallen in line with his guys and not the enemy. Thompson was right in the middle of it all. He had his twenty-first birthday two weeks later, but it wasn’t long before he was involved in a second major battle.

On the morning of Dec. 18, 1965, during Operation Harvest Moon, Thompson’s battalion was ambushed while passing through the village of Ky Phu. As a part of H Company, Thompson’s boys were located at the rear of the column and found themselves trapped. He remembers stepping over a lot of bodies, including that of his company commander. They were surrounded. The jungle had become a deadly maze in which one wrong step might prove to be the last one he ever took. Every single decision became a matter of life and death.

“I began spraying heavy fire at the base of a wooded area because we had no clue where the VC were shooting from and that’s when I saw the enemy running. I called out to Lieutenant Barnum to let him know we had them on the run and he called in airstrikes. I began charging forward in order to draw fire away from my unit and I just kept shooting. It was all gut instinct, there was no time to stop and think about what I was going to do, I just did it.” Barnum was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role, made possible by Thompson’s heroic efforts.

Thompson says he would have loved to stay in touch with men like Barnum, as well as 1st Lieutenant Charles Krulak, who was in charge of his rifle company.

And he very well might have if not for a life threatening event that happened after he was discharged from the Marines.

“I was back home and I woke up one morning and my whole left side felt numb,” he said.

He went to his family doctor who immediately put in a call to the Philadelphia VA and informed him that Thompson had to see them immediately. By the next day, Thompson’s left side was completely paralyzed and he couldn’t close his left eye, thanks to a brain abscess the size of a goose egg. They brought in neurosurgeons from Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, seeing as how it was only the second emergency operation the VA had ever conducted. Thompson would spend the next four months in a Coatesville VA hospital &tstr; the first two months recovering and the next two months learning how to walk again.

Learning to live a “normal life” again posed a very different set of challenges. There was no handbook on how to cope with life after the war for the boys who returned home. While he wasn’t aware of the term, given the time, Thompson suffered from PTSD. He turned to drinking.

“I never did drugs,” he said. “I would just go to the bar and then walk home and pass out. I did that for a short time before I finally came to my senses.”

The memories never went away. Thompson still remembers the faces of those fallen boys. He could draw you a detailed sketch of the little knoll on which he stood when he was spraying gunfire to draw out the enemy. More than 50 years later, it’s still all right there.

“The first couple years of marriage were tough for my wife because it was nothing for me to wake up in the middle of the night, stand up on the bed and start yelling in Vietnamese,” he said. He’d have no recollection of it the following mornings.

And still, if he was asked to do it all over again, he would.

For his service

For his service, he was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Vietnam Service Medal, National Defense Medal and the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. He also earned a sharpshooter badge in both rifle and pistol. But the reason he would do it again is because, quite simply, service is ingrained in his family seal. His great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Russell, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. His grandfather was an artilleryman during World War I in France. His uncles served in World War II and Korea. And his son Jason was a helicopter engine mechanic who was stationed overseas three times — twice in Iraq and also in South Korea with a unit that included 52 Chinooks — the largest fleet of Chinooks in the entire US Army.

“I believe you respect and honor the country you live in. My father would not have had to go to war, only because he already had two young children, but he chose to because he knew that was the right thing to do,” Thompson explained.

Nowadays, he is making all new memories. He’s got family get-togethers to look forward to. There are the 20-minute walks with his dog that end up turning into hour long walks because Toby loves to schmooze. And he has a very special date with his bride Kathy coming up in September, when they will celebrate 45 years of marriage. The current chapter of Russell Thompson’s story can be summed up in three words — life is good.

Marc Anthony is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. 

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