Don Agan was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1964 to 1967. He graduated from Billings Senior High in 1963. He was living in Pocatello, Idaho, when he received his draft notice. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Gazette: Did the idea of the draft come as a surprise to you?
Agan: "I was shocked by the fact that I was getting this ... when I was starting to get things together. I was planning on going to college at Idaho State in Pocatello. It just blew my mind to have to give up all the things I was starting to accomplish and starting to do. I was devastated by it. I went up to the Selective Service in Boise, Idaho, and they basically did a physical and I told them that I had a problem — a dislocated shoulder I had received playing football in Billings, and it bothered me. I had a problem with that. They kept on saying, 'We don't see any problems with that.' And they classified me as 1A. I could either join up now, or wait and get drafted. Or I could go into Pocatello and select my own branch of the service. So I went back to Pocatello and checked the different branches of the service, and I ended up selecting the Marine Corps."
He went to basic training in San Diego. Agan came from a military family, his father was part of the Army Air Corps, stationed in England when Agan was born. His father flew on B-17s.
Agan: "(My father) told me after he found out that I had enlisted in the Marine Corps, he said, 'You're dumb for going into the Marine Corps.' He had been exposed to the Marines, and they're kind of a tough bunch of guys."
"I went into San Diego for basic training, and it was hell, going through Marine Corps training. They did a mental trip to your mind and wore your body down physically. One of the things we did: We had to get down on our hands and knees and pray to the gods that there would be a war in Vietnam. This is just to psyche us up so that we'd get the top-notch training and physical ability."
Gazette: Did you think that was odd at the time?
Agan: "We were so psyched up on everything, you know? I actually turned 21 in boot camp, on (kitchen patrol), washing dishes."
Gazette: What a way to spend your 21st birthday.
Agan: "Yeah, I thought so, too."
Agan completed advance individual training. He went to advanced training in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare training, the same military occupation specialty his father had.
Agan: "One of the practices we did was that we had to throw a grenade from a pit. And I had to throw this grenade, and the Marine after I had tossed it said, 'Get down! Get down!' He actually got on top of me. When we were in the pit, he said, 'You didn't throw that very far.' Well, the problem was because I had a bum shoulder the draft board said there was nothing wrong with me. My arm dislodges from my shoulder. ... At this time, all they were interested in was a warm body."
He was assigned to Vietnam in March 1965.
Gazette: Did you know anything about Vietnam?
Agan: "When I was going to Senior High School, I was sleeping in civics class and the teacher asked me a question and I was sleeping away, and the teacher said, 'Do you know where Vietnam is?' And this gal sitting behind me pokes me in the back, wakes me up. 'I said, 'No, I don't know where Vietnam was.' I wasn't too concerned until I was headed out to Vietnam."
Agan went as part of a unit.
Agan: "Because I was in motor transit, we had to board an LST, landing ship tank. The bow had double doors that opened up, and there was a tank deck and a top deck. ... They weren't very big ships. ... It was 30-some, 40 days to get from San Diego to Okinawa."
"A month or two months later, we got on another LST for Chu Lai, Vietnam. Before we got there, we got a notice that said all first sons or only sons please report to the office. I knew what it was all about. Well, I was an only son, and I didn't go because I wanted to go into 'Nam."
Gazette: In retrospect, is that something you regret?
Agan: "Not really."
Gazette: What's your first impression of Vietnam?
Agan: "It's kind of like going into a blast furnace. It's so hot and literally so hot that basically my sinuses started draining and I couldn't hardly see it was just so hot. Driving a deuce-and-half tanker and they're dark green, I could hardly breath over there. I got guard duty that night in the camp security. I said, 'Don't I get ammo for my rifle?' And they said, 'We don't know where it's at yet.' I said, 'If I get involved with somebody trying to invade our camp, what am I supposed to do?' Well they said, 'Use your gun. Just use it as a club, I guess.' That's how unorganized we were."
Gazette: Did it get better quickly?
Agan: "We finally got 100 rounds, and I was carrying an M14. ... That was quite a load to carry."
Most of Agan's time was spent near Chu Lai.
Gazette: In 1965, was there a lot of action in Chu Lai?
Agan: "No. I helped drive trucks and concertina wire, and we did a perimeter fence around our position. The Seabees had built watchtowers every five bunkers. The watchtowers were two stories in height, off the ground 40, 50 feet."
During his time in country, he spent time coordinating guard duty for the towers that lined the perimeter of the base.
Gazette: When you were in command of the tower, what would you do?
Agan: "The men in the bunker got a little nervous at times because the (Viet Cong) would fire a gun at us and try and draw us out. And I would say, 'Do you see anything to shoot at?' And they would say, 'Well, no.' (I responded) 'Then don't shoot back then. If you shoot back, they see your muzzle flash and they identify where you are.'"
Gazette: Was getting shot at or fired upon a common occurrence?
Agan: "No, it wasn't."
Gazette: At that time it was pretty calm?
After four months of being a dispatcher for motor transit, Agan was bored and put in for a transfer. He said that he wanted to drive the wrecker — the truck that went out to get disabled vehicles or hauling supplies.
Gazette: Was it dangerous running convoys?
Agan: "That's really what bothered me because I've thought about that many times. I was a very lucky because I was in the lead truck, and I had an "A" driver. The thing about it is when you're driving truck and you're hitting gears and clutching, you can't use an M14 rifle. It's just impractical to use that and try to defend. We had a driver, and we had no communication on the five trucks."
Gazette: Were there happy times, good memories? When you remember Vietnam, how do you think of it?
Agan: "I don't know. I just kept busy."
Gazette: In 1965, you're more setting up and getting things ready, right?
Agan: "When we hit Chu Lai, we were ... right on the beach. It was one of the most beautiful areas I had seen in my life. I loved to pull guard duty early in the morning because I'd see the east sky light up and there was multiple colors and the ocean. ... China Beach was just so calm and peaceful. That was during the summertime. During the monsoon season, it changed. We started out living in squad tents on the sand on the ground."
Gazette: Just as primitive as it sounds?
Agan: "Yes ... and we had framing: We could set a platform on bomb crates or whatever we could scrounge up in the dump and we'd build a platform and we'd set a floor down and we'd built frames and throw our tents on top of those. That was during the fall and then monsoon season came. The whole scenario changed. It became cold, miserable, rained all the time. You couldn't keep dry. It was just impossible. One night and the wind come up and I thought we'd lose the whole thing and I started screaming at everybody in the tent, 'Start grabbing the tent,' because the tent is all bailed up. I said, 'Grab onto the canvas and hold the tent,' because if we lost that tent, we'd be out drenched like ducks in the rain.
"Everybody — about 14 or 16 people in the tent — had a hold on the tent. They said, 'Now what do we do?' I said, 'Take off your belts, hook them into something — there were loops that we could strap down to the frame, and that's what we did. We took off our belts and tied down the tent."
Agan moved from Chu Lai to Da Nang. He became a prison guard for prisoners of war. The prisoners that Agan guarded were women with children, Viet Cong and the Gulf of Tonkin captives.
Agan: "We had a wood building where they housed the Viet Cong, and then the women and children were basically housed in a makeshift mess hall. They didn't have beds or anything else, they just laid on the concrete slab."
Gazette: That's pretty primitive.
Agan: "I felt very sorry because obviously these women were basically going with their husband or what not, and he was fighting and they would get captured. The kids, you know, it was just devastating to see these kids in this camp like this. They didn't deserve it. They were just kids."