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Interview with Walter Washington [8/23/2011]

Virginia Dodge:

Today is Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011. The time is 4:49 p.m., and we are in Boston, Massachusetts. My name is Virginia Dodge, and here with me is our videographer, Anthony Piccirilli; our court reporter, Justina Pettinelli; and Walter Washington, born on June 19th, 1946. Walter is a Marines veteran of the Vietnam War, achieving a rank of E-6. This interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

Virginia Dodge:

Good afternoon.

Walter Washington:

Good afternoon.

Virginia Dodge:

Where were you born?

Walter Washington:

Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Virginia Dodge:

And please tell us a little about your family, your parents, and any siblings.

Walter Washington:

I am the number four son of seven sons and one sister, who is the baby of the family. I was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My mom was from Meridian, Mississippi; and my father was from New Orleans, Louisiana.

Virginia Dodge:

And were any other members of your family in the Service?

Walter Washington:

All the boys, all the boys, all seven boys were members of the Service. My oldest brother was in the Air Force. He was actually -- before the Air Force, actually, it was the Army Air Corps and then it became the Air Force. So that was my oldest brother, the next brother was in the Navy, the next brother was in the Army, me in the Marines, the brother after me was Marines, and the brother after him was in the Army.

Virginia Dodge:

Great. What did you do before entering the Service?

Walter Washington:

I was a banker. I worked -- I was an operations manager for the First National Bank of Nevada. How I got into the Service and the Marine Corps, I was married with children, because I had a son, and a college exemption. I went through a divorce and became 1A, and I got a draft notice from the Army. And I never wanted to be in the Army. I wanted to be a paratrooper or in the Marines; and I went down to enlist in the Army Airborne, and they said I had to do six years, and I said, well, no. I went to the Marines and said I wanted to do a two-year enlistment in the Marines. They said, oh, you've got to do four years, six years. I said, well, I got my draft notice to the Army, so I guess I'm going to the Army. As I left the door, the gunnery sergeant walked over and said "Wait a minute. I'll split the difference with you. You do three years, and I'll enlist you in the Marine Corps." And that's how I wound up in the Marine Corps.

Virginia Dodge:

What was it like leaving for training camp in those early days?

Walter Washington:

Actually, my younger brother Alex, who had been in the Marine Corps and he was actually in the Marine Corps when I enlisted, so I had a good idea from my older brothers and from my younger brother, you know, what the military life was like. So I went in with a full knowledge of what I was getting myself into.

Virginia Dodge:

Where were you sent for training?

Walter Washington:

I went to San Diego, to the Marine base San Diego, and I went through boot camp in San Diego. I was awarded the Blues Award. I got the American Spirit Honor Medal out of boot camp. They sent me to schools battalion for intelligence school in Santa Ana. Then they sent me to Iwakuni, Japan. Then they gave me orders for Vietnam. And then I worked as a courier, because we were Air Combat intelligence; and what Air Combat intelligence does is high-level photography, and the images that you capture on film, in those days they'd cut out a segment of the center portion of the film, pasted all those interlocking frames together, blew those up and made a map. And my job as a courier was to take the overlay that had all the troops, all the identified things that we had seen on the ground in picture, and I would do the briefings to the general staff at Iwakuni where our four units were. So I'd fly in once a month into Iwakuni and do those map overlays, because I never got custody of the map that was associated with the overlay, just in case I got captured. So that was my job as a courier.

Virginia Dodge:

That sounds interesting. Did you like it?

Walter Washington:

I had fun. My first in-country trip was not so much fun because I flew into Da Nang, Vietnam. They got mortared, and I had no idea where to go, what to do. So I hunkered down under a bulkhead until we got the all clear. They put me on a C-130 and flew me to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base; and I had breakfast, and I was walking past an open hangar, and they had bodies stacked like cordwood, and they were hosing them off with a water hose to keep the flies off, and I lost my lunch. I had Priority One orders. I was carrying top secret, and I went to the Air Force and then said I needed -- my orders say take a helicopter to Bien Hoa. And they said we don't have anything flying to Bien Hoa. You have to take a taxi, because it's only like 15 miles. I said, no, my orders were specific. And so I went to the G-2, called the base, and they said wait one. They came back and said go to LZ-12. A helicopter will be there to pick you up. The helicopter came in, hovered. "Get on." And I get on the helicopter, they fly me to the base. "Get off." "Where am I going?" "Over there." So it was one of those: My heart's pumping. In that 15 miles, we were flying treetop level, ground fire, never been shot at before. The gunners locked the 50-caliber machine gun, locked and loaded. And I'm saying "Why can't we fly higher?" And they said "We can't." And I didn't understand until later that we had to stay in airspace so that aircraft didn't run into each other. So it was a very exciting few minutes. I mean, it was 15 miles, only just five minutes at the most, and it felt like five years. I mean, it was just a very emotional kind of trip. The next time I went, it was not so -- I mean, I had my camera. We were flying at night. Every fifth or sixth round was a tracer round, so it looked like the Fourth of July. So I was taking pictures, hanging out the window. You know, you kind of get to a place where you get desensitized to life and death because it was something you saw; and on the base, for example, if -- you got almost a monthly kind of an attack where you got mortared or bombed or something or rockets came in. First time it happened to me, I ran to the bunker. Nobody's in the bunker but a couple of guys. I said, well, there's, you know, a thousand troops. Why aren't they here? Well, nobody comes out for this. They're not shooting at us. They're shooting at the aircraft or munitions or fuel stations, and the only guys that were in the bunker were the guys that just got there or the guys that were on their 30 days before they rotated out. So there was that window in between where nobody was afraid. I mean, everybody is kind of like: This is the way life is. When they got ready to go home, they got scared again. So they became cautious when they first arrived and when they were going home.

Virginia Dodge:

What were the living conditions like, the quarters where you stayed, and the food?

Walter Washington:

Would have loved to be at the Navy, with the Naval officers. I had the opportunity to be on a couple of Navy bases, and their chow was a whole lot better than the Marine Corps chow.

Virginia Dodge:

Always greener on the other side of the fence?

Walter Washington:

Always greener on the other side.

Virginia Dodge:

Yeah. Were you able to keep in touch with your family?

Walter Washington:

I sent letters, you know, but it wasn't something I really worked at. I mean, I was in my own situation, not worried about family. My dad -- my mom had passed away before that, so I had my dad, and I just sent letters. You know, once or twice a month, I'd send letters home. My sister more than anybody was worried about me, and so I sent letters to her. We communicated back and forth. I had a girlfriend back home that I sent letters to, so yeah. And then I was -- I don't know if I should say that on camera, but I was in the S2 and working directly for Major Way, who was my commanding officer; and I had access to orders, and I wrote orders for a lot of the troops, and so I'd write myself orders to get R and R in Taipei or R and R in Hawaii. So it wasn't quite as bad as it may seem, so yeah.

Virginia Dodge:

What did you do on your free time?

Walter Washington:

I had a motorcycle. I'd ride out into the country. I was in -- I took photography lessons, and I took pictures of anything and everything I could shoot pictures of, learned to develop my own film. I even had a little side business where I would blow up photographs and put them on boards and sell them to other guys that they'd send home; so just nature kinds of things, people kinds of things that I saw as I traveled around and rode around on my motorcycle.

Virginia Dodge:

What was a typical day like, or was there a typical day?

Walter Washington:

There was never a typical day. The Marine Corps was one of those units where middle of the night somebody said "Pack your trash." You had no idea where you were going, no idea what you were going to do when you got there. You just had to be at the ready almost always. And, you know, you just never got too attached to too many people because you'd wake up and they were gone. They were transferred someplace else, shipped out. I had -- I was Special Forces trained, had underwater demolition training with the Navy, had jump training. I had cold weather training. I had desert training, so desert survival training. So I was open for whatever. Never got that call because they put me in an Air Combat unit where we weren't on the ground. I felt really a lot of compassion and sorrow for the guys that were -- we called them grunts, you know, the infantry kind of guys that were on the ground fighting the day-to-day stuff. The frustration for me was we always knew where they were, what their military capability was, and we never went on the offensive. It had frustrated almost all the Marines that I ever knew, that we had the military capability to go take them out and we were not allowed to. Guys were dying, and we didn't have the opportunity to go kick ass like we wanted to as Marines, because that's what we were trained to do. So that was frustrating, to know exactly what was there, where they were. The other frustrating thing that I saw was a lot of the places where the Vietnamese National Army was were close to American installations like Exxon, Shell. So we always felt that there was some political kinds of things that -- why we didn't do the things -- we'd do the right thing that we thought at the time, to attack and take out some of those units. We were -- we never got a real fair fight against, because the National Vietnamese Army was an organized unit; but we got more guys lost with booby traps and Vietcong kinds of attacks where we were sniped and they were gone, sniped and they were gone. So it was frustrating because you had the military capability, but not the authority to do it.

Virginia Dodge:

Did you make any friends? Is there anyone that you still stay in touch with?

Walter Washington:

There was a lance corporal, Richard Giovanna, and I have no idea where he is now. We got attached in boot camp, and he and I were real close, and we always said we'd stay in touch, get an opportunity to go home and start doing your -- going back to your life and those kinds of things. I'm sad that we haven't been able to catch up again. He's a great kid. He was much younger than me. I was 24 when I went into the Marine Corps, so I was much older. And so he attached himself to me because if I wasn't going, he wouldn't go. He'd say "Wash, you going?" "No." "Me neither." "Wash, you going?" "Yeah, I'm going." "Okay, I'm in." So we had that kind of -- Most of the guys in my unit were that way for me. They just -- I was the, you know, the guy they wanted to make a decision for them, because they were much younger. I had a lot more life experience than them, so -- and I didn't mind, I mean, because they were young guys and in a situation most of them had never been in a fist fight, and I grew up in the hood. I boxed for eight years. I knew how to protect myself, and it made a difference in their lives.

Virginia Dodge:

Are there any particular pranks or practical jokes that you remember?

Walter Washington:

There was always something going on. I mean, there was never a time when there wasn't something going on, but nothing specifically that I would like to share.

Virginia Dodge:

Okay. So you mentioned the jump training and the underwater demolition. But you didn't have the opportunity to do those tasks?

Walter Washington:

No.

Virginia Dodge:

Okay. How about commendations or medals? You mentioned a few from training days.

Walter Washington:

No, never was in one of those situations where I was asked to do anything that would, you know, generate that kind of thing. I was restricted from leaving the continental United States when I got out because of my top secret clearance and all those kinds of information they thought I would have. But one of the other frustrating pieces of that was Thursdays was burn day, and we had a lot of top secret materials that we would declassify from top secret to secret to confidential. Once it got to confidential, we would burn them. We would burn on Thursdays. And we would have it under guard, armed guard any time there was classified, secret or higher; and we'd be standing guard on something, it would come out on the front page of the Japan Times, an operation that we had deemed top secret or troop movements that we had classified as top secret. So somewhere there were leaks in our system that allowed the Japanese media to have access to that. I don't know if anybody talks about Hanoi Hannah. I mean, on the radio, you know, they would have information about exactly what was going on with us, which was a frustration. So when you're holding something top secret, you've got it under guard, and that's open to whomever, it provides a whole lot of discomfort, insecurity with it, especially young guys. They don't understand the politics of how things go, and we felt that politics got in the way of a lot of things when it came to Vietnam and what we were doing in the field.

Virginia Dodge:

How long was that restriction on you? Are you able to leave the U.S. now?

Walter Washington:

Oh, yeah. I am 65 now, so -- when I came back in '73, then I went into the Reserves until '84, yeah, I mean, I've been lots of places. I'm a SCUBA diver, so I go diving where there's warm water. I live in the Seattle area, in the Puget Sound area; and it's not very comfortable to be in a quarter-inch wet suit and diving in the cold waters of the Puget Sound. So my wife and I both dive, and we try to go someplace tropical and do some where you've got visibility of 120 feet as opposed to 5 feet, 15 feet in Puget Sound. So we still do that.

Virginia Dodge:

How did your Service come to an end?

Walter Washington:

Got tired of the military crap, you know.

Virginia Dodge:

You served your initial three years that you --

Walter Washington:

Mm-hmm.

Virginia Dodge:

And what happened at that point?

Walter Washington:

I went into the Reserves. I went back to work. I was on a leave from the bank to go and do my military service. I came back, went back to work for the bank, transferred from operations to lending and started my life all over; got married, had another child, so went on from there; moved to Seattle from -- I lived in Las Vegas, that's where my point of entry was, went there from Vegas to Los Angeles for induction; and I moved to Seattle in 1980, and that's where I've been ever since.

Virginia Dodge:

So you had a pretty smooth transition --

Walter Washington:

Yeah.

Virginia Dodge:

-- from military back to civilian life?

Walter Washington:

I think it's just a matter of where you are in life. Like I said, I was much older. The things that I saw and that were asked were things that I understood a lot more than the younger guys. So there were some 17, 18, 19-year-olds that were not in the same place. And in those days, they didn't have post-traumatic stress syndrome; and a lot of guys that you see on the streets, I see them now, I do a lot of work with the veterans in Kitsap County where I live, and they have some challenges because they didn't have the same kinds of support systems that the veterans from Iraq and the Middle East have now. There's a lot of support systems out there; but for the older vets, there was none.

Virginia Dodge:

I was going to ask if you are involved with any veterans organizations?

Walter Washington:

Yes.

Virginia Dodge:

It sounds like you are.

Walter Washington:

Yes. We also have in Kitsap County, we have a Marine Corps veterans group, and we meet annually for our November Marine Corps birthday. We support all the veterans. There is another motorcycle club of Marines, Navy, Air Force kinds of military veterans that get together. I'm a member of that group. So there's a lot of support from those veterans that are doing much better than the others, and we really strive to help them.

Virginia Dodge:

Did your service overlap with your brothers'?

Walter Washington:

Just my -- yes. My brother Albert, who is a year older than me, he's now passed away, my brother Alex, who is three years younger, they both were in before I went. Albert was in the Army. Alex was in the Marine Corps. When I went in and went to Vietnam, they sent Alex home. Both of us were not in the combat arena at the same time. He got returned to Stateside, and he was discharged a couple years after I started, so --

Virginia Dodge:

That's what I was curious, whether your paths had ever crossed?

Walter Washington:

No. My brother Charles and my brother Albert were -- he was -- Charles was in the Navy, Albert was in the Army, and they crossed paths in the Vietnam area, but not for more than a couple of days where they got to see each other, yeah.

Virginia Dodge:

How has your military experience affected your life? Are there any lessons that you've learned from being in the military?

Walter Washington:

Command presence. One of the things, I worked as a troop handler at the base while I was in schools battalion. I was going to underwater demolition school, and they had me work as a troop handler for the new recruits that came on base; and you learn to teach them how to march and how to turn and that kind of thing, and how to give instruction, do classes, and how to present the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps values. And I learned from that a lot of patience, understanding, how to deal with people, how to give them instructions and have them follow the instructions, because they had a good sense that you knew exactly what it is we were talking about. I took that into the field; and that's why I said, you know, it was learning to deal with young guys who were emotional, young guys who had their girlfriends send them a Dear John letter, how to work them through that. So I grew a lot because the responsibility of those people was on me, because I'm the guy that they depended on. So that was an interesting but also rewarding piece of who I am today.

Virginia Dodge:

Very nice. Are there any other experiences that we haven't touched on that you wanted to talk about?

Walter Washington:

I think we pretty much covered it. I had fun in the Marine Corps. Some guys didn't; but like I said, my duty and the duty assignments were challenging at times, but there was a lighter side to it. We tried to make light of our situation and get through it as best we can. And like I said, at my age over the other guys, I had it a little bit easier, being single, not having any serious attachments was very much a burden that was lifted that some of the guys didn't have, especially the young guys. They left their high school sweetheart at home and she's found another guy and said "see ya." It was kind of difficult for them. So I had it pretty good.

Virginia Dodge:

Were you ever injured?

Walter Washington:

Not in combat. In the boxing ring. You know, I was on the boxing team for the Marines, and so trying to keep my mind on other things and doing other things rather than dealing with the situations at hand. So I had a lot of fun doing those things; got to travel to other places and see other things, went to the Philippines, to Taiwan, to Hong Kong. So I saw a lot of things because I was in the military.

Virginia Dodge:

Excellent. Well, thank you for your service, and thank you for your time today for this interview.

Walter Washington:

Thank you. It was fun. It was fun. I appreciate it. Thank you.

 
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