Richard Derbyshire, Viet Voices

Vietnam veteran Richard Derbyshire holds a display of his medals and dogtags.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Richard "Dick" Derbyshire served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1969. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.

Gazette: When and how did you decide to become part of the U.S. Marines?

Derbyshire: "I was pretty much a kid, a sixth-grader, and I knew some vets from World War II and played cards with them, and knew them and some of their stories. I went to a Veterans' Day parade and I was really impressed then. That's when I made up my mind that I was going to join and go to war.

" ... The day I turned 18, I went down to the recruiter's office and signed up. Seventeen days later, I went to boot camp."

Gazette: Were you aware of Vietnam or nervous?

Derbyshire: "It was just like fulfilling what I made up my mind to do, more or less."

Derbyshire went to boot camp in San Diego.

Derbyshire: "I enjoyed it, but it was quite trying at times. They break you down and build you up."

He was trained on large trucks and got orders to go to Okinawa to join a 155-mm self-propelled howitzer outfit. After that, he was sent to Vietnam.

Gazette: Were you nervous going to Vietnam?

Derbyshire: "No, I wasn't. I wanted to. I actually was looking forward to it, until I got on the ship off the shore and saw what it was like. Then, I got a little nervous."

Gazette: What did you see off shore that made you nervous?

Derbyshire: "Bombs going off."

Gazette: Is that when you first arrived?

Derbyshire: "Yes, we were offshore and you could see the bombs going off and ships were firing onto shore, too, at that time. You could see all that going on."

Gazette: All of a sudden you're really in a war.

Derbyshire: "My first day on land, they put me up in tower, which is four poles with a platform on top and no place to run and they put me up there for guard duty and watch and look for where the mortars were coming in and see where they were coming in from. That made me pretty nervous. I was scared to death."

Gazette: Was there anyone up there with you?

Derbyshire: "Yes, there was one other person."

Gazette: What did they tell you?

Derbyshire: "Just watch. That's it. They wanted us to let them know where they were coming from. We got some that night. I called it in. And, they apparently took care of it. We quit getting the incoming."

Gazette: What happens then?

Derbyshire: "It's just like a normal night. One of you is getting a couple of ZZZs until you hear something go off and explode or whistle in. Then, you got to watch where they're being fired from."

Derbyshire was assigned to a camp outside Dong Ha.

Gazette: What do you recall about Vietnam?

Derbyshire: "We got there during the monsoons. I'd never seen rain in my life compared to that. The canvas top off your truck, if you have it off, you'd be sitting driving and (the water would) be in your lap because it couldn't get out of your truck fast enough. It just poured. We were glad we had cold-weather gear because it was 50 degrees, but it was cold."

Gazette: What does it look like?

Derbyshire: "The land looked a lot like Montana, instead of wheat land, it was rice paddies and open areas, hills. You never see any mountains with snow. They had some hills. We were stationed at Dong Ha and we drove our guns to places like Con Thien. And Giu Linh was a hill pretty high up that looked over the demilitarized zone. You could see for quite away there."

Gazette: So the first night you were there, you were getting shot at.

Derbyshire: "I was scared. I was scared about 90 percent of the time you were there because one way or another, you were getting shot at, no matter what we did. We usually got shot at from a long distance. We were usually in a jungle along the road where our convoy is going. It's so thick there and they're shooting at us, but you couldn't tell who was shooting at you because you couldn't see them."

Gazette: So how do you manage to sleep in Vietnam?

Derbyshire: "You learn not to sleep a lot. Instead, you nap when you can. I learned that fairly quickly. You don't stop when you're in a convoy to use the facilities, you just keep going. You learn to adapt."

Gazette: What are the guys like that you're with?

Derbyshire: "Pretty good. Most of the guys were from the big cities. I was pretty much lost. They never seen anything quite like me, I guess. I was a loner on that part. Most of the others had been around and most of them were older than me. I was 18. ... You grow up quick.

"(Going toward the DMZ), you'd get in a convoy and head up... we hauled up there. We would haul up and the gun crew would come off and stay out and stay off the hill while we restocked the bunkers with the ammo. A lot of times, we'd get mortar rounds when we'd pull in up there. That's how I got wounded the first time. I had an arm hanging out the truck and a bunch of shrapnel got my arm. Bunch of scratches and stuff."

Gazette: What do you remember about that?

Derbyshire: "What we'd do go is go up separately. We'd park down below. Meanwhile, there's helicopters watching, flying over us. We'd go up one at a time and unload our trucks and stock the bunkers and we'd bring that truck off and bring up the next one."

Gazette: It sounds like there's a bunch of hurry-up-and-wait.

Derbyshire: "Meanwhile, you're hiding underneath a truck load of ammo, meanwhile there's a mortar rounds going off. ... You look at one another and think to yourself, 'What are we doing?' Nothing ever really happened. Or very seldom.

"We lost one gun once. He got a direct hit with a rocket. We lost one truck through a mine when we were on our way up. He was a friend of mine. He was in front of me and drove his truck down into this old mine hole. He was going to come back up. He eased in and he had the clutch down and the mine went off when he got into the bottom of it. The mine was buried in there. It blew up, we jumped out and were going to go help him.

"Pretty soon we decided we better get underneath our truck because all the stuff that blew off his truck was coming out of the sky. We got up there and I don't think he would have gotten hurt at all, but he broke his foot because he had the clutch depressed. But that was the only thing that happened to him. That was not an everyday happening."

Gazette: When you had shrapnel, were you medevaced, or was it something they could handle there? 

Derbyshire: "It was just a couple of pulls and that was it. And, I didn't even know I got it. And they said, 'We'll put you in for a purple heart, and I said, 'OK, whatever.' And I didn't even think about it, and there was this lieutenant there and he said, 'You're lucky you got a purple heart for that.' He showed me his, and he scars all across his back and he had almost been cut in half. That was a purple heart, not mine."

Gazette: I imagine if you were the convoy with the mortars for the 155s, you were always a target.

Derbyshire: "They shot at us pretty regular. It was mostly mortars and rockets. And we did have a couple of gun enplacements in our compound. They made us build a bunker right outside the tent so that we could get into it during mortar attacks. We built a bunker out there and we used it, I suppose a couple of dozen times. We weren't there — we were on a mission fortunately — it took a direct rocket hit and there wasn't anything left of it or the tent and a few people were wounded."

Gazette: When they blow up your living quarters, what do you do?

Derbyshire: "You just knock the dirt off and go to the sleep right there. You don't have much of a tent, that's all. You don't have much replacement stuff there."

Gazette: Did it help you being a farm kid from Montana?

Derbyshire: "I think it helped me adjust in the fact that I was used to working in fields and being dirty. I still could go about my business without worrying about things. Other than that, a lot of it was mind. I have seen some of the strongest people break down in their mind. Like myself, I was pretty fortunate from a small town and I'd get these care packages from all my mothers because it was everyone in town. They'd send a care package over about the time I was feeling pretty down, I'd get one of those and shoot, I was all right for another day or two."

Gazette: What would care packages have in them?

Derbyshire: "They'd have cookies and candy. It's just odds and ends. Shaving lotion."

Gazette: What was the hardest thing to overcome mentally?

Derbyshire: "Anybody that I knew not coming home. I'd talk to my mom in August of 1966 and I never saw her until February 1968. I never talked to her; never talked to anyone."

Gazette: Did you write letters?

Derbyshire: "Nearly every day."

Gazette: Did it keep the connection?

Derbyshire: "It kept a connection and it helped with the reasoning why I was there, I suppose. Most of those people I used to work for. The wives, they write. The guys, very seldom. I probably only got two letters from guys while I was there. It was mostly women. It was good to hear. They just say something simple like what was going on, like how the basketball team was doing, or how other things were going on."

Gazette: What did you miss most about home or Montana?

Derbyshire: "I suppose just the comfort of open spaces and comfort of being wide open and no war. You couldn't get away from it over there."

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