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Interview with John Butler on November 14, 2001

Jessica Brandis:

Question: I'm Jessica Brandis (Ph) and today is November 14th, 2001. I'm here with John Butler at his home, 15559 Golf Club Drive, Montclair, Virginia 22026. Mr. Butler was born November 1st, 1945. He served in Vietnam as a Marine and he was released as a captain. Did you enlist or were you drafted?

John Butler:

Answer: No, volunteered. Almost all the Marines volunteered.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: How -- what were your feelings when you joined? What did you expect?

John Butler:

A: Well, a couple of things. Number one, I knew I wanted to be a Marine since I was probably 10 years old. And it was a goal of mine and I decided to go to college because of my mother's urging, or else I would have enlisted as an enlisted man. She convinced me to go to college. And then while I was in college, I joined the Marine Corps whereby I could finish and graduate and then go into officers candidates school. Just after I joined, my brother was killed in Vietnam as a Marine, so obviously I had a lot of feelings about wanting to get to Vietnam. And so I graduated from college in June and in September went into the Marine Corps through the officers candidate program.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Describe your first days in --

John Butler:

A: Bewildering, busy. They -- it is a -- it's -- boot camp for officers takes place right here in Virginia at Quantico. And the -- it's 10 weeks long and the whole time they're trying to weed out individuals that they don't feel will be able to become Marine officers. It's a lot of physical training. A little bit of weapon and fieldcraft. But the -- it's basically a program to weed out those that shouldn't become Marine officers.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And when you -- when you first went to Vietnam, when did you first arrive there?

John Butler:

A: I arrived there in July of '68. And having -- this would have been having completed four months of officers candidate school, which you go through after the -- or after basic school, which is after officers candidate school. So you have 10 weeks of officer candidates school. If you pass that, then you become...at that time you become a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. And then you attend the basic school, which at the time was about -- it was only about four months. We worked six days a week because of the need to get people over to Vietnam. So I went through that. Then at the completion of the basic school, because I had scored high on language aptitude test, I attended 10 weeks of Vietnamese language school, which was weird in that after the first week, it was found that I'm tone deaf and Vietnamese is a tonal language. Most words have five different tones which mean five different things. But the Marine Corps decided that they had chosen me for this, therefore I would attend and I would pass the school. So I -- I was able to pass the written part of the test and I could understand enough to pass, but I was certainly never anywhere near proficient as a speaker. Then after that, I had probably two weeks leave then went to California and there they have what they call a staging battalion. You were put in charge of a company of Marines that were going over to Vietnam. You got them ready to go for two weeks, just basically getting equipment and a little bit of training. And then we flew from California then overseas to Okinawa. And I spent probably three or four days in Okinawa before going what we called "in country." Landed in Da Nang and all Marines were either assigned to First Marine Division, which was in the southern part of I Corps -- I Corps being the northernmost sector of Vietnam running from just south of Da Nang up to the DMZ. First Marine Division was in the southern part of that. Third Marine Division was in the northern part. So I was assigned to First Marine Division and flew from DaNang then down to An Hoa, which was a fire base and the headquarters for the Fifth Marine Regiment. And that's where I was assigned for the four months I was in Vietnam.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And what were the feelings and stuff of the men that went over with you? What was the --

John Butler:

A: Certainly fear. I don't -- they were very young, as I was, and I don't think any of us knew really what we were getting into. But we had a belief that -- the Marine Corps does an excellent job of training people to become warfighters. And I think there's just that feeling in the Marine Corps that as long as I'm with other Marines, they'll take care of me. And obviously as an officer, you know, you will take care of your men. So -- but obviously a lot of apprehension. We were losing an awful lot of people. It was right after Tet. We were losing a lot of military people in all of Vietnam and I think especially in northern Vietnam there with -- in the Marine Corps area. I know when I got to An Hoa, they wouldn't allow any Marines to leave the fire base for five days so that they could write a letter home and they wouldn't be killed prior to their parents finding out they were in Vietnam. So I think they were saying that the average life expectancy of a second lieutenant, which I was, was like three days at that time in Vietnam. So a lot of nervousness and I remember the flight over was very rough with turbulence and because we were using regular passenger aircraft, you know, probably an old 727 or something. And so -- but mainly it was, you know, when you don't know exactly what you're getting into, there's a bit of adventure with it as well.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And how did all the controversy going on at home in America affect you before you left? What was your opinion about that?

John Butler:

A: Before I left, I don't -- I don't think I was really that aware of it. At -- even in when I was in college there in '67, at the University of Illinois, it certainly wasn't a hotbed like Berkeley or some of these other places. So I don't remember a whole lot of protest. The recruiters came right on campus. I mean, I joined and was sworn in on campus there at the University of Illinois. So -- and then after that, being -- I do know that while I was in officers candidate school, we had a -- he wasn't in my company but in another company we had a candidate killed in a restaurant in D.C. and it was linked to anti-war stuff and there was probably a robbery motive as well up in Georgetown. But I don't -- I was with a group of guys that all of us knew we were going to Vietnam. We were dating girls from Mary Washington. I don't remember of any protests or anything there. And so I just -- it wasn't until I came back that I think I really had any realization of how torn up the country was. Everybody I was associating with was going to Vietnam and was going there because they had volunteered to go there.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: When you first got to Vietnam, what were your first impressions of the country itself, of the climate?

John Butler:

A: Incredible heat. It -- it was confusing at first. John Butler 6 November 14, 2001 Da Nang was a main debarkation point for sending Marines coming from the CONUS here in the United States to the various commands that they would serve under. And the -- so the only place I saw there in Da Nang was like a transient area which is always people coming and going, no real unity or anything. Then when I got to An Hoa, being the regimental headquarters, it was just a fighting base. Artillery pieces, lookout, towers, obviously a trenchline around it. Bunkers. We lived in tents with wood floors. But again, very hot. It was either incredibly dusty when it did not rain, because the track vehicles and then just the multitude of people were churning up the dirt constantly. And then when it rained, it just turned into a sea of mud. And of course it did rain frequently. Of course, a lot of bugs. Very different from Illinois. But, you know, you find that you adapt pretty quickly and it's just, you know, a matter of really it just comes down to a matter of survival.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And what was your -- what was your daily life like?

John Butler:

A: Basically, I, as a platoon leader --

Jessica Brandis:

Q: How many men were in your platoon?

John Butler:

A: When I started off my platoon had 18 people in it. The lieutenant I relieved is General Peter Pace, who is the -- in the Joint Chiefs of Staff today. He's the -- I'm trying -- I can't remember the exact title, but he serves on the Joint Chiefs having been obviously in the military since that time. I relieved -- took over his platoon while he went back to become executive officer for the company. I had 18 men at the time, every one of them had a Purple Heart, meaning that every one of them had been wounded prior to my getting there. And I met them in a small Vietnamese village just outside of An Hoa where we were conducting search-and-destroy missions around in that area. And basically for the next four months, although I was medivac'd, myself and my platoon would just get orders, different missions, basically to protect the local Vietnamese there so they could harvest their rice and then conduct missions, search-and-destroy missions. When we thought we had VC or NVA located, we'd move in either in platoon or company or occasionally even in battalion force to eradicate them.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And what were -- what were your living conditions like? What did you eat? Where did you sleep?

John Butler:

A: Basically, you lived in the ground, with the exception of when we were back at An Hoa. Every man carried a poncho liner and a poncho and you would wrap up in that at night, having dug a hole, and that's where you lived. We were always short of water. This area is not mountainous at all. It's all plains and rice fields. And so there's very few streams and obviously, because of the pollution and the habit of using human and animal feces to fertilize to fields, none of the water was potable. So we had to pump our own water and then get water where we were resupplied. So everybody -- I believe I carried five canteens and you used water very sparingly. You didn't wash. You didn't hardly even brush your teeth. Water was used strictly for drinking. And then you had C-rations, which were metal cans of -- with food. Not unlike the MREs of today. And so in your pack you carried everything on your back, basically, that you lived with. Which was your C-rations, your water, your ammunition, your poncho and poncho liner and you put that on your back every morning and you started walking. And you walked till you reached a point where your mission was accomplished or where you'd contacted the enemy and then dealt with them. And at night you'd form a perimeter, a circle, everybody'd dig a hole, usually four -- two to four men in a hole. Eat whatever you felt you could eat that was in your pack, drink a little water and then stand watch off and on -- obviously with some time in there for sleep -- until the next morning. And then basically the routine started all over again.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And what kind of response did you get from the Vietnamese people? You said you protected them and helped them.

John Butler:

A: Yeah, they -- they were basically very confused and afraid. These were farmers. They had no -- I doubt most of them could even read and write, so they had really no knowledge of -- or very little knowledge of what was going on. So basically all they saw was on the one hand you had the Americans coming in and dropping bombs and shooting people, and on the other hand you had the VC coming in and telling them they needed to do or do that. They were certainly more afraid of the VC than us. And as a result that I would say that is a side most of them were on. We, you know, used our corpsmen, our medics to treat them using whatever limited medical they had. If we came upon people that were seriously injured, especially if it was due to our fighting, we would try to medivac them out. Big problem over there was that almost anyone that was injured, unless they got medical attention, probably ended up dying just from infection because the people all lived in thatched huts, they all dug a hole, a bomb shelter underneath every night. As soon as it got dark, that's where they lived until the next morning. It was really, I mean, basically they were only a couple of steps out of the Stone Age. A couple of pots and pans, rice was certainly the main food. Some dogs, pigs, chickens and water buffalo to till the fields, but that was it. Maybe occasionally a transistor radio or, you know, things like that. But almost no electricity or you know very little hygienic conditions or anything else. It was -- you were definitely in a Third World country.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And describe some of your memorable experiences.

John Butler:

A: The troops were incredible. I went from those 18 guys, building it up to 50. They'd moan about everything but they'd do anything you asked them to do. Incredibly brave. When -- there's so many stories out there about the tenacity and the courage and the skill and the ferocity and everything of the VC, but there was never any time that one-on-one a Marine would not fight. These kids were tougher. They were certainly better -- had better nutrition, and they were bigger and better armed and better trained. And basically, the average Marine rifleman, and I think it's still true today, is the toughest fighting man on the face of the earth. It doesn't make any difference if it's the Vietnamese or the Afghans or Iraqis. They were -- I think they were more concerned with the public's reaction to the war than I was. And a lot of that, I think, just came from education. Most of them weren't that well educated. A lot of them were just high school, in fact by far the most were just high school graduates and they were somewhat younger, of course, than I was. And it makes it a lot harder. And the other thing was that as an officer, you're so concerned with your people that you have very little time to worry about yourself or to contemplate your situation. So I really think it makes it easier as far as morale and that. Plus you know you have to be the -- their leader. But I just remember, you know, a lot of operations where we'd move in to villages. Occasionally, you know, through our corpsmen and that the kids would come around and the guys would give them whatever C-rats they had and could spare. And the corpsmen would take care of them and you could -- you felt like -- and you could see that they were getting their rice harvested that, you know, we were doing something that was working out. Most of our contacts were with small groups of VC and most time they'd haul off their dead, so it was very difficult to tell what we were doing as far as actually engaging the enemy. Big thing was staying alive. Booby traps were an incredible problem.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: What kind of booby traps?

John Butler:

A: Everything you can imagine. Although I never saw any of those punji pits. Our munitions were so available to them, hand grenades, unexploded mortar rounds, unexploded bombs. The VC and the NVA were very adept at adapting those to booby traps. So I didn't lose anybody to them, but I remember we had a second lieutenant that came in, he'd only been with us I don't even think hardly a week and we were out blowing up enemy bunkers and heard an explosion where there shouldn't have been one. And myself and the company commander went over there and the lieutenant going down this trail had seen some concertina wire that he wanted to use to I guess fortify his area where he was going to be spending the night and he picked it up and it was booby trapped and a grenade went off and it wounded him very seriously. Blinded him, in fact, and hit his radio man who, of course, is always right behind the seriously wounded. But he was -- later learned he lived, but he was blind. So booby traps were a constant problem. But I remember one time we did an operation and the transportation was always a problem. The Marine Corps was very poor at the time. We didn't have anywhere near the helicopter support that the army did and that. And a typhoon came in. It was probably the beginning of the monsoon season and so we ended up having to walk back to An Hoa from where we had been doing operations. And I remember we started walking in the morning and we walked basically for 24 straight hours. I don't think the water ever was much -- certainly it was always over my ankles and it rained the whole time. I also think it was probably the coldest I've ever been in my life and I've spent time in Alaska and done cold weather training and other things like that. But this was, between the wind and just being completely soaked, and of course fatigue, it was quite a hump. But we eventually made it back and everything. And then I guess my most memorable would be my last operation where we were going in. They had a special forces base that had been overrun by the NVA and they decided to use an entire Marine regiment to take it back. A lot of air and artillery support. And my company ended up being one of the point companies on that. And because almost my entire tour in Vietnam there was only two officers in the company, and that would have been the company commander, an individual by the name of John Poole (Ph), and myself. Like I said, we had some other officers that came, but they were wounded and medivac'd out. So because I was the only officer, I obviously would have the point platoon and were moving towards this base and we stopped for the night, set up and everything, and we were rocketed, which was kind of unusual.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: What does that mean?

John Butler:

A: That they were shooting rockets at us. And there was no doubt about it that there was a large presence -- enemy presence in this area and it was not the usual Vietcong that we were used to. This was regular NVA, regular North Vietnamese, regular army troops. And then the next day moving up this road, there was a small hill that had to be taken so that we could move our tanks and our armor down the road. And so I took my platoon up it and the Vietnamese, NVA realized the strategic importance of the hill and were prepared to defend it. As going up, they opened up on us with machine guns and rifle fire, wounded a couple of my men. Basically, the fire was so intense we couldn't go forward, we had to move down off the hill. And then we -- we called -- we had 60 mortars, 60 millimeter mortars which are attached to the company. So my company commander fired those on to the hill to try to dislodge the enemy. And we fired all the rounds we had and it was obvious the enemy was still there. But the regiment was -- the regimental commander was very implicit that we needed this hill taken because it was stalling the whole movement of the drive to take this base. So it was one of those times where you just -- everyone has just got to get on line, stand up and walk up the hill and kill everybody on it. There was no -- the hill was so small you couldn't like fire and maneuver, it was just face-to-face combat. And so the platoon got in line and we moved up and we pushed them off the hill. But myself and about seven other guys were wounded. We had, I found out later, only one individual killed. And then we were able to secure the hill. And myself and the rest of my people that were wounded were medivac'd out back to Da Nang, which was the main hospital in the area there. And eventually, a found out later that the regiment, of course, took the objective and secured the base. But after that, I was operated on there in Da Nang, spent -- flew to Japan, I believe spent a night there and then to Guam, which was the nearest naval -- U.S. naval hospital. And I was operated on there and then sent back to Great Lakes naval station which has a hospital just outside of Chicago. And spent about three months there recovering and then went back to duty.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: When you first got shot, what was your -- like what were you thinking?

John Butler:

A: Staying alive. It cut an artery. Blood was spurting about three feet in the air and I knew I had to get battle dressings on it. I had one of my guys come up and help me. Of course the next thing you're worried about is the enemy coming down and getting you while you're hurt.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Uh-huh.

John Butler:

A: So I managed to keep the platoon moving. I remember for some reason being worried about being bayonetted, but I don't think that was very logical. I even saw the individual that shot me and even before I had started to stop the bleeding, which I was trying to do on my own, had one of my men come up to kill that individual. He fired an M-79, which is a 40 millimeter grenade launcher, but it required about 20 meters to arm. This guy was only within about 10 meters so the grenade never armed. And I remember my grenadier took his 45 out and shot the guy. Why he didn't fight, whether he was already wounded or what, I don't know to this day. But once we stopped the bleeding, then we got people back on line and moved up, took the hill. I think I knew at that time I was going to live. So I was just more concerned about making sure that my people were going to be all right. The company commander had gotten on the scene by that time with the rest of the company and so I knew there'd be something there to take charge and that. And then there was, you know, a certain amount of relief to be -- at the time I felt just going back to the hospital where you weren't getting shot at was not a bad feeling.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And was that the end of your fighting at Vietnam?

John Butler:

A: Yes.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Did you go home after that?

John Butler:

A: Right. After about four months in the hospital, then --

Jessica Brandis:

Q: All right. Why did you decide to -- why and when did you decide to join the FBI?

John Butler:

A: Basically, I was going to have to go back for a second tour in Vietnam, and by that time I had decided that the way the war was being fought, it wasn't -- I don't think very much of it was public opinion, but it was just my feeling that the United States had decided to not really fight the war. We weren't invading North Vietnam, we weren't mining Haiphong Harbor or doing any of the things we should have been doing to defeat them, which we could have easily. And I decided that I wasn't going to go back and either get shot again or whatever. So my three-year tour was going to be up, I started looking for a job. At that time the FBI had just gotten permission from Congress to hire a thousand new agents and they were recruiting all over the country and on military bases as well. So I saw the ad in -- I'm sure it was in the military paper, and went down and took the test -- or heard about the FBI from the individuals, the recruiters and it sounded like exactly what I wanted to do. And plus it was a job, which was important because I was going to be married in a month or so. And eventually was chosen and came in the FBI.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: And your feelings about how the war was being fought, did you think that while you were there or was that more upon reflection when you got home?

John Butler:

A: Both. While we were there.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Did a lot of people feel that way?

John Butler:

A: Yeah.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Was it frustrating?

John Butler:

A: Very much so. I don't think anybody that I know that wasn't. It was, you know, take ground and then pull back and then go back and take it again. They -- it was obvious they had sanctuaries around Laos and then obviously their supply routes from North Vietnam. The -- it was like yeah, you're fighting with one arm tied behind your back. And it just seemed like it was just a war of attrition. And you never, obviously, vented any of that feeling to your people. But talking to other officers and I only -- I knew an awful lot of officers that I went through basic school with and were in Vietnam, and out of, you know, probably 50 or 60 people I was good friends with, I only know maybe one or two that went back for a second tour and that was mainly because they had decided to make the Marine Corps's career and, of course, had no choice. The majority of people I went in with got out and it was simply -- I mean, I went into the Marine Corps with all intentions of making it a career. I feel probably that if Vietnam had been fought differently, I'd have never been in the FBI, I'd have stayed in the Marine Corps.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: So overall now, you have a positive feeling with the military in general?

John Butler:

A: Oh, absolutely. I never lost -- it wasn't the military, it was the government. Because the military is controlled by the government. It was the civilians in the government at the time that had decided -- I don't know whether it was fear of Russia and China and nuclear war, that we shouldn't fight this war to the end. But this was so -- shown so clearly when the Gulf War came along and what everybody was saying was the officers that were in then were Schwarzkopf and all of them, Powell, had been in Vietnam and said, "We will never allow this to happen again." Well, in a way they kind of did when we did not go into Iraq. But I think all of us that, actually, I guess you would say "grew up" in that generation in the military had the same feelings that it was -- what was done was just wrong and it should never been repeated. And I don't think it ever will be repeated. But no, I mean, I probably have, with the exception of the FBI, my strongest feelings are for the military.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: All right. I think that's all.

John Butler:

A: Great.

Jessica Brandis:

Q: Thank you very much.

 
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