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Vietnam Voices: 'You realize you're going to a place where the lucky guys get shot, picked up and taken out'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series
  • 6 min to read
Vietnam veteran Tom Lowry

Vietnam veteran Tom Lowry.

Tom Lowry served in the U.S. Marine Corps and grew up in Absarokee. His father owned an electronics store, but he couldn’t make a decision on what to do after high school. This is part of his Vietnam story. 

Lowry: “Vietnam was going on, and they were needing people, and I would go (into the service) until I figured that question out.”

Gazette: That was 1966. Things had begun to escalate in Vietnam. Did it worry you going into a place like Vietnam?

Lowry: “Sure. I guess there’s some worry involved. There was always the question if you’d make it back, because everyone didn’t. I knew folks who had gone over and been wounded or killed. So there was always the question in the back of your mind, ‘Who is going to make it, and who is not?’”

Lowry enlisted in the “Montana Platoon.” The program allowed him to enlist but wait 120 days before going active. During that time, he was injured in a car crash, breaking his leg and some teeth. The only way the Marines could handle it was by giving him a discharge in order to recover. His discharge was completely blank, with no history on the back of the discharge paper, where the activities are listed. He was on the inactive reserve for a year. He went active in February 1968 — the same month as heavy American losses in the Tet Offensive. He completed boot camp in San Diego and went to an infantry training in Camp Pendleton and Jacksonville, Fla., for aviation ordnance training (handling explosive equipment — guns, bombs). During that period, he was doing some familiar work with test electronics — not so unlike the work he’d done back home with his father. He went back to El Toro, Calif., where the Marines said he might spend several years.

Gazette: Did you think that you might avoid Vietnam?

Lowry: “We kind of all knew we were going to take our turn in Nam. We were expecting that. We were looking forward to (it). I had been dating a girl since 1965, and we’d talked about getting married but didn’t have any specific plans. So in early 1969, I went to my (commanding officer) and asked him how long it’d be before I was called to Nam, and hadn’t been in El Toro all that long. He said it’d be at least a year. ... They wanted to have more experience as an ordnance man before they sent you over.

“So in late April I came home on leave — my folks lived here in Billings — and my girlfriend was going to school ... and our intent was to come home and make some plans for a June wedding or somewhere in that area. I had gone home, and I’d only been here a week and a half or so, and Sgt. Smiley from the recruiting office here in town, I remember his name., ... he called me down to the recruiting office. ‘I got something to tell you.’ I had no idea what it was. I went to the recruiting office, and he hands me this big manila envelope. In it were orders to Da Nang, Vietnam. Now we got to call off the wedding because it’s the first of May by now. There’s no time. I am going to be gone by (the wedding date). We discussed it a bit, and she was real strong that she would rather be married than not, and it was a little tough. It was that I didn’t know if I’d come back. It was kind of hard to make that decision, but we did. We got married. ... We got married on May 10. On May 13, I left for Nam.”

Gazette: How did that color the wedding?

Lowry: “We had three days. I don’t think my mom and dad thought much of it. I don’t think they didn’t think it was that good of an idea. In my heart, it was hard for me to decide if it was a good idea or not. Not that I didn’t want to get married. It was just: ‘What if you don’t come back?’”

Gazette: How was that shipping off and you’re just three days married?

Lowry: ”We’ve been happily married since then. So I guess it worked. You try not to think about it. It was a job, and you knew you were going to do. ... It was awkward as much as anything.”

Lowry staged for Da Nang in Camp Pendleton, including a prisoner-of-war camp where they’d train what to do if they were captured.

Lowry: “We were instructed to try to smuggle things in, see what we could get away with that was against the rules, and if we got caught, we had our boot camp discipline.”

Gazette: You were not long before that testing (vacuum) tubes at your father’s store, and then you’re in a prisoner of war camp. That has to be surreal — nothing like Montana.

Lowry: “It is, but you realize by then it’s very real. You realize you’re going to a place where the lucky guys get shot, picked up and taken out, and the unlucky guys get captured, tortured, beat and held against their will. So you hope and pray that that’s not what’s in store for you. But you realize the training they’re giving you is for a reason. That was one of the things I was proud of the Marine Corps because they didn’t pull any punches. They made things as realistic as they could. If you broke rules, the discipline was there. At the same time, it was nowhere near as bad as it was going to get if you got caught by the enemy.”

Gazette: What do you learn in the prisoner simulation?

Lowry: “I learned I could smuggle a little Instamatic camera in and take pictures inside the prison camp, which was not supposed to be. We learned that we could dig under the fence and cover up the dirt. ... Try to look very inconspicuous when the guards came around and proceed with our main objective, which was escaping. Me and two other guys did get under the wire one night. Then, of course, part of the goal is teaching you to survive in jungle atmosphere. Then, you go to the second phase of training. ... We learned how to trap rabbits and make shoes out of rabbit hide; how to tan leather with nothing. It’s how to survive in the jungle.”

Gazette: That doesn’t sound too bad.

Lowry: “Oh, I enjoyed that part. I was enough outdoors and liked to hunt and camp, prior to that, that it was fun for me.”

Gazette: You get to Da Nang. What’s that like when you touch down?

Lowry: “It’s a bunch of kids that don’t have a clue of what they’re up against. As much time and effort as the drill instructor and Marine Corps put into you, when you step off that plane, you don’t know where you are or what’s going to happen next. It’s pretty spooky. It’s an adventure like you never dreamt of.”

Gazette: You’re a long way from Montana and home. What do you miss a lot?

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Lowry: “I miss the mountains. And family.”

Gazette: When you were over there, your family didn’t have a lot of information about what was going on with you? Did you have any information about what was going on here? The protests?

Lowry: “Yes and no. We would get news, but it was pretty iffy. They didn’t want us to hear much on the news about the protesters and the protesting about the Vietnam War. The way a lot of soldiers were treated when they got home, they didn’t want our morale to go down, so they kept it from us, I think, intentionally. I didn’t know Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon for a good two weeks after he (did).

“We had heard that there was some draft-card burning and that there was some sentiment that people didn’t want to go. They weren’t spoken very highly of by us. Just how much the public was against the effort, I don’t think we had any real vision of how bad that was. When we got ready to leave Nam, we were in Okinawa — it seems like for maybe a week. There we went through the staging program and the purpose of that was to familiarize us with what was going on in the United States. They had to show us pictures of miniskirts and other things. They didn’t want us to go completely crazy when we went stateside, so they tried to help. Coming home was an eye-opener.”

Gazette: Was that a shock to most of the guys?

Lowry: “We had heard some of it before we left. We knew there were problems and antiwar sentiment, but you looked beside that because you were asked to go or you volunteered to go. You’re going to be there and do what you can do.”

Gazette: You wrote a letter — a letter to The Billings Gazette then. You have a copy of that letter still. Would you read that?

Lowry: “’Many of us here in Vietnam have been following the stories about unrest in the nation’s campuses with subdued anger. It is demoralizing to read about our underpriviledged counterparts vandalizing campus buildings, manhandling institution leaders and generally making asses of themselves. It is painful to thousands of less-pampered students who have taken their lessons from instructors in black pajamas and sandals; where a Saturday night date is a cold beer and a letter from home; where grades are not As, Bs or Cs, but sudden death, crippling wounds or maybe a victory.

“’We don’t expect you people back in the world to be concerned. We did our share in 44 — or was it 52 (weeks)? Now, you’re too tired to do more than mutter. Well, what’s this world coming to? Don’t worry people. Someday this war’s going to be over and half-a-million angry young men are going to descend on the 50 states with dreams of homes and families, education and jobs. When these men hit the campuses, I sincerely hope that someone tries to stop an ex-Marine from going to classes or that some sorry flaky social reject tries to plant a Viet Cong flag next to an artificial leg of a Seabee. Or, spits on the burned face of an army medic. I guarantee it will only happen once.’

“That was submitted by me.”

Gazette: I believe that was printed by The Gazette.

Lowry: “I don’t know. I wasn’t here.”

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