by CAPT Samuel Baez, CHC, USN (Ret.)

I served with the Marines in Vietnam in 1962. Prior to the Civic Action involvement by the Marine Corps unit I served, US Army Green Berets had been sent to Vietnam in the mid ’50s to train the Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces who were fighting the Viet Cong.   

The “Vietnam War” series now featured by PBS leaves out the Marine Corps involvement in 1962. I saw us as a “Peace Corps.” Those Americans in the early war were loved by the Vietnamese because of the “People to People” activity.  Vietnamese, men, women and children who had never seen a doctor or dentist or talked to Americans came for kilometers to be seen. 

It was a common thought that “show a Marine a dog or person that needed attention and that’s all they needed to help.”  My Naval Academy Preparatory School (’53) experience as well as the time I spent at the Naval Academy (ng ’57) was essential to what I did while in Vietnam as a chaplain assigned to Marines in 1962 - Sub Unit 2 (Task Unit 79.3.5 – code named Operation Shufly) in Soc Trang, Vietnam. The record shows the commanding general of the First Marine Aircraft Wing located in Iwakuni, Japan through the command chaplain Chaplain Elihu Rickel, USN, sent me to relieve the first Navy chaplain in Vietnam, Chaplain, Ernest, “Ernie” Lemieux.  

While in Soc Trang my efforts as a chaplain were to do whatever I could to assist the command in ways that would improve the morale and welfare of the men under him and make them better at their assigned mission. There were several ways my experiences as the son of a minister, a student at mission schools in the Southwest, an enlisted Marine, a NAPS graduate, a midshipman, graduate of Macalester College ’57, graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary ’60, two Master’s of Theology degrees and counselor and associate minister in Minnesota and chaplain in the Navy Chaplain Corps proved invaluable.

My background, and the needs of the Marines and Navy I was serving, took the form of getting volunteers to help an orphanage install screens in their windows. In my initial visit, I saw none existed and the babies in cribs were getting bitten by mosquitos and flies were visible. In addition, volunteers jumped at the opportunity to build a ceiling, and close openings between the top of the walls and ceiling where birds would fly in and disturb the worship at a local church in Soc Trang.

The Province Chief of Ba Xuyen Province, Lieutenant Colonel Chiu Nguyen invited the Marines to teach English to residents. I convinced two medical officers, the dental officer and the Marine interpreter to join me three nights a week. Money was raised from the men of the command for the projects and to buy diapers, milk and vitamins for the orphanage. It was important to introduce Vietnamese Roman Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, and Protestant ministers and school authorities to the Marine Command. This resulted in interesting reciprocal meetings.

A request for a Command Tent to host a wedding reception was met by eager volunteers and they set this up in the front yard of the Tin Lanh Evangelical Church in Soc Trang. Helpful in our “People to People” efforts was the relationship with the “Fighting Priest”, Father Hoa in the village of Bing Hung where several of us were hosted and we responded by providing regular supplies and equipment.

The former Japanese air strip served to house the helicopters flown in from aircraft carriers. In addition, dilapidated WWII buildings rehabilitated by Marine Corps carpenters housed senior officers and senior enlisted marines. The rest of us, including myself, lived in tents. Mosquito netting covered the cots both day and night. The mosquitos were huge!      

The tarmac air strip was no more than the length of a football field. The helicopters were parked there and when required the ARVN commander asked our command to assist in their efforts to fight the Viet Cong. This meant taking armed ARVN troops as well as women and children, food and live animals (pigs and chickens) in our helicopters piloted by Marines. Single engine trainers and one single engine fighter plane also operated there. 

The town of Soc Trang, 12 miles South of the airfield had several churches, both Christian (Evangelical and Roman Catholic) as well as Buddhist. I conducted Protestant services in a Command Tent and used the Chaplain’s Religious Services Kit. We had a small pump organ and a large communion set. It was too much for our small chapel so eventually it became a gift from the military unit to the Evangelical Church in Soc Trang.  

I was glad to have memories of the beautiful chapel at the Naval Academy. Conducting services under the wing of a plane or in a tent was nothing like my having sung in the antiphonal choir and witnessing the thousands of midshipmen who worshiped there in 1953.   

The hymnals were used on Sundays and placed in a bookcase when not in use. I discovered the rats liked to eat paper.  Several of the hymnals had pages and covers partially shredded.  

The First Marine Aircraft Wing unit in Vietnam moved to Danang, North of Saigon in mid-September 1962.

On 6 October 1962, one of our helicopters crashed near Tam Ky. The helo lost its bearings, flew into a cloud bank hiding tall trees which mangled the blades causing it to go down. It was the last helo in a diamond formation of four such groups (16 helos, four in each group). Five Marines including the co-pilot, two Navy men assigned to Marines - a doctor, and his corpsman perished.

The Marine pilot is the only one who survived. He was taken to a hospital in Nha Trang. What I keep remembering is that less than a minute before lifting off, I heard the executive officer’s voice coming over the speakers saying “Chaplain Baez, do not go on this mission, we need you at headquarters.” Less than two hours later we got word the helicopter crashed.

Chaplain Anthony Peloquin LT, USNR, a Roman Catholic priest who flew in from Okinawa and I conducted the Memorial Services for our brothers. These five Marines and two Navy men assigned to Marines were the first operational deaths of Marines in the Vietnam War, 1962. Their names are engraved on the first panel (1E-1959) of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

As we sadly know, the Vietnam War later became the longest war in our nation’s history (1955-1973) at that time, killing over 58,000 military personnel whose names also are engraved on the Memorial.