• U.S. Marine Corps, 1967-1969 - Vietnam

Joe Marshall was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but was raised in Independence. It was a bustling household with seven sisters and two brothers.

The family lived on a small farm with chickens and cows. Sometimes the cows got loose and Joe would have to chase them and get them back in their pens. They all had chores to do before and after school. Joe’s dad made a living as a welder at the Bendix plant.

Joe enjoyed working his way through Boy Scouts, but spent a great deal of time mowing yards to make money for the extra-curricular activities he wanted to participate in.

Joe attended Young School in Independence and then attended trade school where he learned how to do body and fender work on cars. He did that for a couple of years. He was 20 when he joined the military. He tried to join when he was 18, but they turned him down because of his flat feet.

Life was going pretty well for Joe, and then his friend said they should join the Marine Corps. He told Joe they could play football in the military and Joe thought that sounded good. He expected to be turned down, but both he and his friend were accepted. However, they didn’t get to stay together.

It was 1967 when Joe went through boot camp in San Diego, California. He was trained as a machine gunner, a “ground pounder.” He was extremely worried about going to Vietnam and his family wasn’t happy about it.

When Joe first arrived in Vietnam, he was told where he and the others needed to hike to in order to meet up with his company. On the way there, an ammunition dump blew up. Joe and his fellow soldiers spent two days in a ditch trying to keep the exploding ammunition from hitting them.

Their company was ordered to move into Khe Sanh and take over. On the last day of policing the area, one Marine kicked a little bit of dirt and a mine went off, killing two Marines and injuring others, including Joe. One of those men only had 30 days left until he was to return home to the United States. Joe spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from his injury. This was a lot to take in after being in Vietnam for only two weeks.

They were involved in many firefights, they felt like they lasted all day or night, but they only lasted an hour or two. Joe saw many men killed or injured. Seeing and hearing the enemy and not being able to keep them from killing your buddies was difficult. Joe tried not to think about it too much.

Out on patrol, there were two squads of machine gunners. One squad traveled with the point man in the front and the others traveled in the rear. Patrolling was particularly unnerving at night. A gun team consisting of 10 men was sent out on patrol. They had to cover a lot of ground and at least three or four times a night, they were caught in battle with the enemy. They found themselves using trip flares just so they could see to get back to safety.

They dug into a foxhole every night, two men to a hole, chest high. It got old living that way. They were on patrol for four hours on and four hours off. Their sergeant went around at night and checked the holes to make sure everyone who was on duty was alert. They couldn’t smoke at night because that might give away their position to the enemy. Joe began smoking after engaging in firefights; he needed something to calm his nerves.

There were big apes that were always around them. Joe heard movement close to the front of the line and could see the glow from a cigarette; he knew the enemy was near. He called his lieutenant and told him he saw movement and asked if he could spray a one hundred round burst out there, but the lieutenant said no, it was probably an ape and doing that would give away their position. Joe threw a rock out and immediately two hand grenades exploded nearby.

When Joe fired his weapon, he heard the enemy talking; he knew how close they were. He was very scared, so much so his knees were shaking. The captain and the lieutenant wanted to court martial him for firing his weapon when he was told not to, but Joe wasn’t taking a chance. He was told if they found no body, or no blood, they would follow through with the court martial. They did find blood when they investigated.

The troops wore the same uniforms day in and day out; they wore them until they fell off of them. They had no way to wash their clothes. Joe had to be med-evacuated out because he had big feet and they couldn’t find any size 13 boots to replace the worn out ones.

When Joe returned to the U.S., they were called “baby killers” and were spit on. He was ashamed for years to admit he had been in the military and fought in Vietnam.

He got a job at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and was a mechanic and body shop worker for the Facilities Maintenance Department. He held this job for 38 years.

Joe married his wife, Carol, in 1970 and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Carol worked at Western Electric and they had two children. Joe tucked away the memories and hard things he witnessed while in Vietnam, but it still affects him. Sometimes when a plane flies overhead, he ducks his head. That fear never goes away.

Joe and Carol enjoy spending time at Truman Lake, fishing and going out on their pontoon boat.

Peggy Sowders, a city of Independence staff member, compiles stories from veterans from around the area at the Truman Memorial Building. Contact her at psowders@indepmo.org or 816-325-7979 if you are interested in helping a veteran tell his or her story.