NEW TOWN Their unit may have been one of the most decorated noninfantry units in the Marine Corps during Vietnam War, although it was in existence for only three years.
On July 10-13, 16 men who served with the U.S. Marine Corps' Amtrac Platoon met for a reunion in the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge west of New Town. Of particular significance is that 40 years ago, these men were serving in Vietnam.
Amtracs are the amphibious vehicles they used while serving in Vietnam.
Eloise Ogden/MDN --
Military veterans who served with the Marines’ Amtrac Platoon in Vietnam gathered in the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge west of New Town July 11 for a photo during their reunion. Two in the group are from North Dakota – Vern Bjugstad, Mandan, third from right, and Austin Gillette, White Shield, far right. Several members of the reunion group are not shown.
Eloise Ogden/MDN --
Vern Bjugstad, Mandan, a former member of Amtrac Platoon, shows the front of his T-shirt with the Amtrac Platoon.
Submitted Photo --
Amtrac Platoon members took part in the grand entry or opening ceremony of the White Shield powwow July 12.
North Dakotans Austin Gillette, of White Shield, who arranged the reunion, and Vern Bjugstad of Mandan, were members of Amtrac Platoon. Other former platoon members attending the reunion came from various states.
Amtrac Platoon was first formed as the 4th Platoon, B Company, Amtrac Battalion and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, as part of the battalion landing team in 1967. The platoon was later assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, and then the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, until November 1969, then returned to Okinawa to the 1st Amtrac Battalion.
The unit, comprised of around 50 men, "give or take," was in existence a relatively short time.
"We figure from October 1967 to November of 1969," said Tom Williams, a former platoon member from Vermontville, Mich. "And over that period of time people rotated in and out of the unit, some were killed."
During its existence, there could have been about 200 people who were assigned to it. The full tour of duty was 13 months.
After their boot camp, the men went to specialized training in Amtracs at Camp Pendleton or nearby Del Mar, in California. Then they went overseas.
In Vietnam, Amtrac Platoon members hauled supplies. The former platoon members at the reunion said they could haul just about anything. They also transported the wounded.
The Amtrac Platoon took part in more than 20 amphibious landings and 30 operations in the field.
Although not an infantry unit, they served on many occasions as infantry on operations because the rule of the Marine Corps is that all Marines are first "riflemen."
"Fifty percent of the time we were infantry people," said Gillette.
The platoon took part in many battles but one of the most significant and deadliest battles of the Vietnam War was the Battle of Dai Do April 29 through May 15, 1968. Although vastly outnumbered, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, stopped the North Vietnamese Army's push into the Quang Tri province in early May 1968 in the Battle of Dai Do.
At the Battle of Dai Do, they faced a whole division of North Vietnamese Army, Amtrac Platoon members said. Marine Corps history says it was 2,000 troops of North Vietnamese.
Tom Williams, of Vermontville, Mich., who returned to Vietnam in 1997, said he has learned that actually they had faced 5,000 or more North Vietnamese troops. There were about 600 Marines.
"We had two guys get the Medal of Honor and both survived," Williams said. The Medal of Honor recipients were in their battalion. He said no one in their platoon was injured in the Battle of Dai Do.
If they had not stopped the North Vietnamese Army at Dai Do, the North Vietnamese probably would have gone on and hit the 3rd Division Marines headquarters at Dong Ha, Williams said. Dong Ha was nearby and a major supply center.
Williams read the list of the platoon's unit decorations including three presidential unit citations, five naval unit citations, two meritorious unit commendations, combat action ribbon-cross of gallantry and meritorious unit citations awards from the Republic of South Vietnam.
The platoon also took part in the first prisoner of war exchange in September 1968, going to the coast of North Vietnam near the city of Vinh. Aboard the USS Duluth, they had 13 North Vietnamese Army members. Five pilots were returned in the exchange. They were escorted by the USS New Jersey and many other destroyers. Amtrac Platoon members recall watching the USS New Jersey on its first fire mission on the way back below the demilitarized zone.
Many of the men who gathered for the recent reunion were wounded while in Vietnam.
"After the war, pretty much all of us stayed friends," said Gene Cox of Phoenix.
The Amtrac Platoon held its first reunion in 1991 in Washington, D.C., Gillette said. Reunions now are held about every two years. This is the second reunion held at the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge.
"When we serve in the war, men become lifetime friends. So we come together as friends, older now, but still bonded by the war that we took part in," Gillette said.
The group's reunion activities included a dinner in the casino July 11 with speakers Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general, and Marcus Wells Jr., chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes.
The next day the group took part in the grand entry or the opening ceremony of the White Shield powwow, then shared in a supper with other veterans and powwow participants sponsored by the Gillette family. Reunion events ended with reunion participants attending a church service.
Amtrac Platoon will hold another reunion in two years, this time in Florida.