Mike Wyrwas served in the United States Marine Corps from 1965 through 1968. He was living in Milwaukee when he joined the Marine Corps. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Gazette: Did you know about Vietnam when you signed up with the Marine Corps in early 1965?
Wyrwas: "Not during boot camp. ... After boot camp, you go to infantry training at Camp Lejune. ... After that, I went home on leave. After that, Vietnam was just starting to be on the horizon, and went back to Camp Lejeune and going through weapons school with 28 other Marines. We were asked if we wanted to go to Vietnam because they were filling divisions and billets for Marines and if we wanted to go out to Camp Pendleton. The 28 of us agreed: Let's go; we were Marines. We shipped out and went to San Francisco, and when we got there, we were told the outfit we were assigned to had already left. They didn't know where they were at. So, unbelievable: They gave us a choice on what we wanted to do. We could either wait for what they called the draft to be flown over as soon as they had enough Marines to fill a flight to go over. Or we could go with the 7th Engineer Battalion, which was part of the Third Marine Division. That was the last battalion that went over on a ship and they needed security, and we volunteered to go over as their security company.
"They were short Marines. Our officers — one was a gunnery sergeant, and two were staff sergeants that were Korean combat veterans. That made a big difference for us."
Gazette: When you signed up for Vietnam, any apprehension about going to war?
Wyrwas: "No, we were gung ho. To be honest with you, at that time, most of us thought we'd be home in six months. ... This is going to be a cake walk and we're Marines and we're sending in all the troops. We had divisions going over there; we'd be home in six months."
It took two weeks to get to Vietnam, and there was a stop in Japan.
Wyrwas: "When we got there, they woke us up at 2 a.m. There were three destroyers; we were south of Da Nang. The destroyers were just pounding the shores. We sat there until it was almost dark on the top side. We had brought sandwiches for lunch. We had higgins boats. We went over the side, down the nets into the boats, close to the harbor in Da Nang. Trucks picked us up and we went inland. That was just the 28 of us. It wasn't the rest of the battalion, just the security. Our officers, the sergeants who were combat veterans in Korea, they gave us a lot of hints. They talked to us constant on the way over. We had schooling on what to expect. They really prepared us because they had been in the situation before."
Gazette: Give me a flavor of what they said.
Wyrwas: "They told us that we were going in and it's dark and you're setting up a perimeter and you're in foxholes. There's no lights. There's no nothing. You couldn't smoke. You were told what's going to happen. If you're going to sleep, you sleep two on and you're with a buddy in a foxhole and he'll be awake. They'll come around at night, especially the first couple of nights are when you expect to get hit with a new unit coming in. They just prepared us for that. Going in during the dark ... there's no lights and you're out in the dark in the foxhole, it can be kind of intimidating.
Gazette: Even though you had done it, was it intimidating?
Wyrwas: "Not for me. The effects of it were later on, when I came home."
Gazette: You get over there, and you're watching the destroyers pound outside Da Nang, it's got to be a realization of where you're going.
Wyrwas: "Oh definitely. You're going into a combat zone."
Gazette: What are your first impressions of Vietnam?
Wyrwas: "The humidity and the smell. ... It's just different. It's kind of a putrid smell in a way. When you get in where you see the locals in the villages and the cooking pots, it just has a stench to it that I had never experienced before, and it stays with you."
Gazette: It sounds like you're getting to a place that had not been established. You're going into set up camp, right?
Wyrwas: "I slept on the ground for the first two, two-and-a-half months before we got tents. And we still slept on the ground inside the tents. During the night, you'd man the perimeter. during the day, you were digging foxholes or building bunkers. We had other jobs also."
Gazette: This sounds like a lot of manual labor.
Wyrwas: "In building the bunkers, yes. Helping set up the equipment for the engineers, and also we were assigned with details for the Seabees, riding shotgun on their equipment at night."
Gazette: What was that like?
Wyrwas: "That was the first experience of being shot at. You don't really hear the shots. What you hear is the rounds hitting the side of the equipment."
Gazette: What does that sound like?
Wyrwas: "It's kind of neat that you ask that. A couple of years ago, I was going up to do some bowhunting near the (Missouri) breaks. I got out of Winnett, all of a sudden I heard this pinging on my truck. I said, 'I know what that sound is from." The pinging on my truck was grasshoppers, and I was going through a swarm of grasshoppers. They would hit and would make that ping. I recognized it. That's what the shots sound like when they hit the vehicle, hit the metal."
Gazette: What's it like being shot at? You'd think a newspaper editor would have some experience with that, but not having it, what was it like? What is your reaction and what do you do?
Wyrwas: "It puts you on a high alert. I don't think I was ever personally shot at, but the rounds hit close to you and you're looking for where it's coming from and you're trained to react to that — through tactics and training, locate where the shots are coming from. When I was there, the firefights we were in were with the Viet Cong, it wasn't with the North Vietnamese regulars. ... It'd be sniper fire when we were running shotgun on vehicles or at your bunkers at night. It would only last for a few minutes."
Wyrwas was near Marble and Monkey mountains, outside of Da Nang. He transferred to a security company at the headquarters of the Third Division, as a sparrowhawk squad.
Wyrwas: "When you were on duty, it was 48 (hours) on, 48 off. When you were on duty, you slept in your clothes and boots, you had everything right next to you. You had to be ready to go on the helipad in 15 minutes. If any of our line companies ... were on the run. When you weren't on duty, you took patrols around the ... headquarters, you manned the bunkers with your own personal weapons, machine guns were set up on the bunkers, just overall security."
Gazette: So the sparrowhawks went in for insertion when another company got in trouble?
Wyrwas: "Right, or dropped in behind."
Gazette: What was fighting the Viet Cong like?
Wyrwas: "We had a lot of (Vietnamese) civilians that came in and worked in the camps. The big thing was they would set booby traps underneath the vehicles. You really had to watch out for that . So we did the security and the sweeps, checking for that. I think we only got mortared one or two times, but the biggest thing was sniper fire at our bunkers. I don't know if it was just harassment at that time. They were just testing us."
Gazette: That has to be nerve-wracking.
Wyrwas: "It is. When you were in the bunker sometimes, trip flares would go off and you'd see individuals or shapes of bodies running in the trees and you didn't know if they were farmers or if they were the Viet Cong out there because they blended into the villages. You just didn't know who they were."
Gazette: Do you consider your time in Vietnam to be a good thing?
Wyrwas: "I do. I look at it as an experience in life. You know, it's one of those things you go through. Sure, there are things that you look back on that bothers me at times, but I read a lot of history and I've learned a lot of things about that period, and even when I was there and what we were doing. It took me a lot of years to take and read and find the politics behind it."
Gazette: Why do you find yourself going back, reading history about Vietnam?
Wyrwas: "When I got out of the service, because of the way we were treated — I wish I would have kept my uniforms, but I just gave them away — I just stayed away from everything as far as the Marine Corps and what was going on in Vietnam. ... Our daughter who is our youngest, when she was a sophomore in high school, I had an office in a bedroom in our home and I was gone for awhile and I came back ... she said, 'Dad, what's in the box up there? I was looking for something.' I had a file cabinet in there. On the top was a couple of boxes with albums of Vietnam. She says, 'You never talked about it.' Well, we did."
Gazette: What was that experience like?
Wyrwas: "We cried a lot. We talked about pictures and what it was like over there and we laughed. So it was one of the first times I talked to a woman or my children about Vietnam, and so that's gotten me interested in reading more about it. One of the first things I read was 19 years after I'd been there, when I mentioned the destroyers shelling and pounding the shores, that was the beginning of the first Marine search-and-destroy south of Vietnam called "Operation Starlight." So I found that out 19 years later."