James Mariska is a retired colonel who spent a career in the United States Army and the Reserves. He is involved in numerous veterans organizations. He grew up in California, but calls Billings home. He also is known throughout the baseball community for hosting an army of Billings Mustangs players. Here is an excerpted, lightly edited portion of his interview. For the entire interview, please see billingsgazette.com
Mariska: My brother and I were born in San Francisco... On my father's side, several generations of my family had been involved in the military, and on my mother's side, the same... My father flew in the Pacific (in World War II); my uncle was a seaman in the Pacific in the Navy in World War II; and I had my uncle who was in the European theater. My grandfather had been a seaman on the battleship New York during World War I... So I grew up around all that. Of course, after the war, there were 15 or 20 military bases around there, so it was just kind of part of our life and upbringing. When my brother graduated from high school, he was a little bit older than I was and he immediately entered the military. I thought I would take a little time off. I came up to Montana and lived with my uncle in Missoula and started at the University of Montana. I first put on the uniform at the University of Montana in the ROTC, which was, at the time, mandatory. That was in the fall of 1964. I entered college. By 1965, it was obvious that I was going to get drafted. I remember my classification physical, which was Oct. 15, 1964. It was the day that (USSR Premiere Nikita) Khruschev was deposed from the Soviet Union government. I knew I was "1A," and it was going to happen so a friend of mine and I went down in October and volunteered for the military. Come to find out, it was the largest draft call of the Vietnam War at the time. I believe October 1965, they drafted 35,000 people for the Vietnam War. Things were starting to get pretty hot there. By the time we got processed through Butte, it was Dec. 6 when we left Butte. They flew us to San Francisco — back home — then onto a bus and we arrived at Ford Ord, California, real early in the morning on Dec. 7, greeted by two Hawaiian drill sergeants. I don't know if it was fate, or if it was purposely done.
Gazette: So 1964, it was understood that you were going to go into the military, being from a military family?
Mariska: Eventually, yes. One way or another. Either I was going to go through college and get an ROTC commission, or I was going to join.
Gazette: Why did you decide to join rather than draft?
Mariska: I could pick where I could want to go. You could volunteer for the draft which was two years. They just threw you in the pool for wherever they needed you for. Or you could volunteer as a regular volunteer and that would be a three-year commitment or you could pick a specialty and that would be a four-year commitment. I picked the specialty. I asked for the army security agency, which they could guarantee you if you volunteered for four years and it was specialized education. Of course, they had to do a top-secret background investigation for me. Once I finished basic training in Fort Ord, California, then they sent me to Fort Gordon, Georgia, with training in, what was at that time some fairly advanced technology, which was cryptography. From there, I volunteered for the Infantry Officers Candidate school at Fort Benning, and once I graduated from the school, I got commissioned as a second lieutenant on February of 1967 before I turned 21.
Gazette: You're seeing Vietnam heat up. Does that worry a 21-year-old?
Mariska: Oh yeah. My ROTC instructor at the University of Montana had just come back from Vietnam and he had talked to us about that. Almost all of our drill instructors from basic training to (advanced training) to officer candidates school had been to Vietnam or had been in Korea. Our platoon sergeant at basic training had been in both World War II and Korea and his sole goal was to make sure that all of us soldiers in that platoon survived on the battlefield. I will never forget him. His name was Sgt. Cha.
Gazette: What did they say to you about surviving Vietnam?
Mariska: When we were out in the field — doing whatever it was that we were training on — he would bring that up. He said, "This may, someday, save your life. You need to learn what this is about and what we're doing and why we're doing it." He was good at explaining it. Sometimes, he didn't and he'd just let you experience it.
Gazette: That was probably a good experience too?
Mariska: Those are the ones you never forget.
Gazette: So you decided rather than just go into a pool at two years, you were going to spend four years. Did you intend to make the military your career?
Mariska: It provided a lot of opportunities, particularly for education. Our family always considered education the key to having a better life, maybe not a successful life or a happy life, but it was certainly something that my mother and father made sure we both understood — that education was a very important thing as we were growing up. So, it was drilled into us. There are tremendous educational opportunities in the military. I don't think there was hardly a year — I spent 34 years in both active and reserves — that I was not in some type of schooling or education program or something where I was learning something new almost every single year.
Gazette: It seems interesting that you volunteered for the four years and you wanted to do this career and you go into Army intelligence. Did you know, going in, what you'd want to do? How did you determine that was the path you wanted?
Mariska: It was one that had — right at that time — was when all the 007 movies came out, OK? There was a certain amount of excitement to that. Now, there was no chance of me becoming an agent, but there was a chance of being involved in that type of business and it excited us.
Gazette: 007 versus what you're being trained for — probably there was a gap between what you saw on the silver screen and what you experienced?
Mariska: There was a huge step.
Gazette: Did you find it to your liking, or was it a disappointing?
Mariska: Oh no. It was probably the best thing I ever did. I mean talk about opening doors to adventure, if nothing else. Once I got commissioned, they said, "Well, we can't keep you in the Army Security Agency." I said, "Why?" And they said, "Because you don't have a college degree." As an officer, you had to have a degree to be an officer; you could be an enlisted man... I said, "Aww, crud."
Gazette: Do you wish they had told you?
Mariska: Why would they? They already had you. They said, "But, we will transfer you to the military intelligence branch, but you are going to have to get your college education either part-time or something so that we could keep you." So, it was pretty clear that at the age of 20, where I had to go. I went to ... the intelligence school in Maryland. I became a counterintelligence specialist and I was transferred 6667th Military Intelligence Detachment in Fort Richardson, Alaska. I had orders to go to Nha Trang Vietnam, but my bother was in Phu Bai, and there was only my brother and I. And he was in the Army Security Agency and they wouldn't send the two of us in the same spot. They sent me to Alaska while he finished out his tour in Vietnam. I ended up being in the counterintelligence section of the military detachment. Then, for one reason or another, fate, I got transferred to the general staff, and I worked on the G2 section. I was counterintelligence and graphic officer and as such, I got to travel all over the command, either with the general staff or on my own. I went all the way to the Naval Arctic Research at Port Barrow and then hopped on a C-130 and they flew me out to Ice Island, T3, which was 950 miles north of that and 300 miles from that and landed on an iceberg and stayed there for 10 days and floated around the Arctic Ocean, listening to our neighbors.
Gazette: So that's what you had to do to listen to your neighbors?
Mariska: Well, you know who our neighbors were.
Gazette: Of course.
Mariska: That was fun. Colder than heck.
Gazette: So you can beat anyone's Montana cold stories?
Mariska: Ah yes. There's nothing like being on top of the world in February.