Marvin Besel grew up between Laurel and Billings. He graduated from Billings West High in 1963. He served with the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1999. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the entire interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Besel: "I went to Eastern Montana College as it was called, and then transferred to Bozeman and graduated from Montana State University."
Gazette: Montana State had an ROTC requirement about that time, didn't it?
Besel: "They did, but I did not join at that point. At that time of my life, I thought, 'They'll never take me.' ... But that was during the draft. So I kind of shoved it out of my mind."
Gazette: Did you think that you weren't going because of a student deferment or just in general?
Besel: "Just in general. ... They're not going to get me, but deep down, I realized that everyone was being drafted, and sooner or later, my time would come. I did get a student deferment, so I was able to graduate in 1968."
Besel graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering technology.
Besel: "I graduated in June, and the day after I graduated, I had my draft notice. ... I had one day after graduation. So then after I found that out, I then checked my options, which weren't many at that time. Everything was full except for the Army. I was able to get a deferment until September, if I agreed to go through Officers Candidates School. ... It was one of those unplanned events in my life that ended up in the long run being very rewarding as an officer."
Besel went to Fort Leonard Wood for boot camp as a combat engineer officer. Officers Candidate School was in Fort Belvoir, Va.
Besel: "Officer candidates school was a whole other experience. ... Officers candidate school was condensed into six months. ... So basically, two or three years condensed into that time period. There was a lot of physical training and emotional training. A lot of emotional breakdown, harassment. They did pretty much everything they could to try to weed you out. Our company, for example, started out with 150 soldiers and graduated 30. A lot of that had to do with the physical requirements. A lot of it had to do with the emotional. There was a continual harassment, and it was designed for a soldier or an officer to react and withstand the pressure."
Gazette: Was it good training?
Besel: "It was good training. It definitely helps prepare you for what you have and what you can do. A lot of physical training, which you need, but the mental or emotional part that you need to overcome when you're in combat situations."
Gazette: So you're a guy who thinks, "They're not going to get me," and all of a sudden you find yourself a combat officer? That's a pretty radical switch. Was that hard for you?
Besel: "I was committed to doing it. I think once you're in the program and you're committed to it, you'll find a way to get through it. I was determined and just rebel enough to make it through it."
Gazette: Did you need to have a little bit of rebel in you to make an officer?
Besel: "I did. I needed that drive to say that, 'You can't beat me.'"
Gazette: You raised an interesting point: How do you prepare someone to be emotionally ready for combat?
Besel: "I don't know that you can. That is everyone's own experience, I believe."
Gazette: How do they prepare you to lead in a combat situation, especially since you're the leader and the stakes for your soldiers are high?
Besel: "That's part of the training, and a lot of the training in OCS is team training, where you have each other's backs. For example, if someone in the platoon maybe is not complying with standards or maybe not in a formation, as far as a uniform, if someone is out of compliance, everyone else is responsible. Part of it is teaching the team what they're responsible for and being responsible for your platoon."
He was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., for nearly a year, where he was a combat engineer.
Gazette: What does a combat engineer do?
Besel: "The primary mission of a combat engineer is to support the infantry. A lot of the assets that we have are dropped in by chopper. They're air mobile. A lot of what we do is ... work with smaller equipment that can be dropped in. Some of it would be jungle clearing, building support positions, road building, that type of thing."
While in Kansas, he got married. Three months after that, he was deployed to Vietnam.
Besel: "When we met, they were starting to freeze the orders of some of the officers going over there. This was 1970, and while I was at Fort Riley, 'The Big Red One,' the First Infantry Division, was brought back. That was the start of the drawdown."
Gazette: Did you think that you might avoid Vietnam altogether?
Besel: "At that point, it was possible. Some of the officers that I was there with did not have orders. Some never did. Some got them later."
When Besel deployed, he went to Bien Hoa.
Besel: "At that point, they told me that I would have two weeks orientation in country. In 24 hours, I had orders to report to the field. That was my orientation."
Gazette: What's your first impression?
Besel: "Flying over, you can see it looked pretty green. You could see the Port of Saigon. I always remember seeing 'SeaLand' containers parked out there. A lot of them. A lot of SeaLand containers and civilian contractors out there. I thought that was kind of strange to see civilian contractors. ... That was (as much) a part of the deployment as anything, which I didn't know at the time, but it is."
Gazette: So you thought that you were going to get time to acclimate, but you don't.
Besel: "What had happened was that a second lieutenant was killed just a few days before that, and so I was deployed to take over the platoon. So in 24 hours, I was strapped to the outside of a Huey with a gunner and headed out to the Cambodian border."
Gazette: What's it like near the Cambodian border?
Besel: "Everything comes in by chopper, the Huey was our main supply chopper. Everything was jungle around it. There were some defoliated areas that had been defoliated by Agent Orange. The bulk of it was jungle. Coming in was a fire support base. It had berms around it, concertina wire, an artillery unit was stationed there. There was a forward air strip for the C130s."
Gazette: Being along the Cambodian border, that's a pretty dangerous place to be, no matter what time during the war we're talking about.
Besel: "Right. Because of the border, we were not supposedly across. But the operation going on on the other side, which I was not privy to, but we supported the mission that was going on."
Gazette: So you were providing fire support or artillery over the (border)?
Besel: "With the drawdown, a lot of security units started moving out of Vietnam."
Gazette: Was that disconcerting? It would seem to have the effect of feeling left behind?
Besel: "A little bit. At that point, we relied on the (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops."
Gazette: What were they like?
Besel: "They were inconsistent at that time. Some units were OK. Some units were very disorganized and just didn't have it together."
Gazette: Were you a target for the NVA?
Besel: "We were a target. We had incoming rounds virtually every day, incoming rockets or mortars. A lot of that was to destroy the airfield and runway and, of course, the artillery units that were in there. We had a lot of harassing fire."
Gazette: Was it dangerous?
Besel: "It was sporadic, but our compound wasn't that big. If it hit anywhere within the compound it was going to destroy something. And it did. A lot of our hooches or places we stayed in were half culverts with sandbags over the top of them to protect against that. When you're out in the open, you're subject to that."
Gazette: What was the average day like there for a second lieutenant?
Besel: "The morning was to get to primarily the road. We had to mine sweep the road. A lot of days, I went with the sweepers just to see what they were up to or what they were subjected to, I should say. Whatever stretch of the road we would work, we had to mine sweep. A lot of the mines were set during the night. A lot of them were our own explosives that they would command detonate or pressure detonate. It was similar to going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq — explosives that take equipment out or vehicles or people. So the minesweeping was the primary thing. The rest was just if you get to the airstrip, patch up any holes that had been put there during the night with incoming. Then the C130s would come in and drop supplies and ammunition."
Gazette: Was mine sweeping scary work?
Besel: "Very scary because it not only are you sweeping for mines, but you're also subject to ambush."