Fred E. Smith Jr. served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

In 1966 at the age of 18 and fresh out of high school Fred joined the Marines. His father was in the Navy in WWII and Fred, along with friends, wanted to see what it was all about. All they knew about the conflict in Vietnam was what was on the news and that wasn’t enough for this group of friends.

When enlisting he was given the choice of either four or six years, not knowing he could choose less, and he opted for the four years. After boot camp and testing, Fred was sent to radio telegraph school to learn Morse Code and then on to combat training. He liked the training, but still had no idea what was ahead for him. Once sent to Okinawa for more training the realization hit him on what he was being prepared for.

When training was completed he landed in Danang with a motor transport battalion. The weather was hot and miserable and guard duty was strenuous. Fred received additional training on voice communications and never used his knowledge of Morse Code at any time.

He drove a jeep that put him in front of snipers and road mines that even officers would not travel near. In one week’s time, six of his old high school buddies were killed and Fred says the death and blood never leaves you in war. After his first tour of duty while at home, Fred witnessed the protesters but did not begrudge them doing so. He said by serving he gave them the right to protest, however painful it was to watch them.

One month later Fred was back in Vietnam and saw that over such a short time the fighting had become more intense. There was no way of knowing who was the good guy or who was the enemy. During the daylight people would wave and be friendly, but after dark they would shoot at you. In Fred’s unit the Marines went ahead of the Army leading the way south and then north. Because the Army carried better equipment than the Marines, after dark the men in Fred’s unit would fall behind and steal equipment from the Army. He laughs at it now, but it took a long time before he would tell anyone. He remembers once seeing a village of civilians standing in a row before the enemy troops and all were shot dead. Even though he witnessed this massacre he and his buddies’ hands were tied on what they could do to retaliate without orders to do so. 

Memories such as these are difficult to live with and had a big effect on Fred’s life after Vietnam. Fred says the first 30 days and the last 30 days in Vietnam were the hardest with the training he received and then with leaving buddies behind. It was a big adjustment to come home after his second tour and try to settle down into a “normal” life. Each time he would hear a car backfire or a loud noise it would send him into a panic and he would drop to the floor.

A job opened up at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office that led him to a position with the federal government in the mail room. He eventually retired from security in federal offices. Fred says if he were to be called up for duty again he would go without any hesitation. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

Fred lives in Independence, has three children and three grandchildren. His military history may be viewed in Veterans’ Hall in the Parks and Recreation Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple.

– This is part of a weekly feature on local veterans submitted by Helen Matson, volunteer program director for the city of Independence