STILL THE HIGHEST CALLING
By Ken Zitz
On December 5, 1960 I walked into the Student Union at Kent State University where I was a sophomore playing varsity baseball and major in Pre-Law and saw a table there with some interesting displays. There was a young Marine Captain, with Navy Wings of Gold on his chest signifying that he was a United States Marine Corps officer and an aviator to boot. I became very interested in this display and asked the Marine Captain all about the Marine Corps officer programs that he was promoting that day. He was very sure of himself, candid, and ended by telling me, “I’m not here to try to recruit you but just tell you all about the Marine Corps officer programs, you see I have been a Marine officer for the past 5 years and will soon be getting out but if you really are looking for a challenge and want to be a part of the world’s greatest fighting organization then come back tomorrow and let’s talk. If not that’s OK because the Marine Corps is not for everyone and I’m sure that you will do well in whatever career you choose.” I asked him several questions and he ended our conversation by offering that I go home, sleep on it and then come back if I thought I wanted to be a Marine officer. I ran back to my apartment and told my buddies about this encounter and they all kind of laughed and said go ahead and join if that’s what you want to do. Well, as you may well guess I spent a restless night pondering the Captain’s word and the next day went back and told the Captain that I wanted to take the written and physical test for the Platoon Leaders Course (PLC Program). This would lead to a commission as a second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, if I successfully completed the 12 weeks of officer candidate school at Quantico, Virginia prior to my graduation from Kent State University.
What led me to decide to join the Marine Corps? Well, first of all I was classified as 1-A by the Selective Service System and knew that upon graduation I would be drafted into the US Army if I did not join another service. And secondly, I knew that in order to beat the draft you had to be married and have a child (which was not an option) or teach school (which was not what I wanted to do nor was I qualified to teach) so in order to beat the draft I joined the United States Marine Corps for a three year hitch as a reserve officer (if I successfully completed officer candidates school).
Leaving Cleveland, Ohio the following summer for 6 weeks of fun in the sun at Quantico,Virginia proved to be a life changing experience for this college athlete and upon successful completion earned the right to return the following summer for 6 more weeks of fun in the sun which earned me a commission as a second Lieutenant on June 6, 1963 (19 years after D-Day in Europe) in the world’s finest fighting organization bar none.
I put aside my aspirations to be a professional baseball player, much to the chagrin of my dad and other people who followed my career in college, to serve my country. Why? Because I firmly believed it was my duty to do so and an honor to serve my country.
Sadly today, college graduates and high school graduates alike feel by and large that serving in the military is not their duty nor an honor. I wonder why? Could it be they saw someone like William Jefferson Clinton become President and Commander-in-Chief even though he “disdained and loathed the military” and evaded military service.
Now some 40 years later after having served 26.5 years as a Marine officer in war and peace (in Viet-Nam as both a tank platoon and company commander) I just returned from a reunion in Minneapolis with Marine tankers who served in that war so many years ago. To quote Andy Rooney, “There’s just so much sentimental baggage you can carry through life. I’m not much for reunions. Anyone who has reached the age of 60 (which I recently did this year) could easily spend the rest of his days just sitting around remembering.” So like Andy Rooney who went to the 306th Bomb Group reunion in England several years ago I decided to go to the Marine Corps Viet-Nam Tankers reunion in Minneapolis and be reunited with Marines from my old outfit: Corporal Chico Famularo, from Michigan, Corporals Mario Puentes and Corki Cummings from Texas, Freddie Silvester from Washington, Bruce “Boston” Manns from you guessed it Boston, Corporal Raasch and other Marine tankers who served in that war some 30 years ago. There were about 160 Marine tankers at the reunion and I met some new friends like Wally Young from Alabama who kept everyone in stitches with his stories and sense of humor. I also met tankers who served with buddies of mine in other tank companies like “Sparrow” Moad who was in Captain Mike Wunsch’s company up north in the the 3rd Tank Battalion near the DMZ (Mike was my best friend and we were both on orders to the US Naval Academy after our tours were over in Viet-Nam but Mike was Killed-in-Action five days prior to his end of tour). “Sparrow” told me that he agonized over Mike’s death over the years as he rotated out of country shortly before Mike was killed and thought maybe if he would have been there he might have prevented Mike’s death as his tank always covered Mike’s during combat operations. I assured him that he did the right thing and that Mike was right when he told Sparrow not to extend his tour in Viet-Nam but to go back to the United States.
The reunion was a happy occasion and a sad occasion: we all went to the Ft. Snelling Armor museum and took pictures, laughed and watched an M60 tank drive around the tank park and then went to the Ft. Snelling National Military Cemetery for a memorial ceremony where a plaque was dedicated to the 5th Marine Division, taps were played and members of my company, Bravo Company, lst Tank Battatlion, lst Marine Division had a a memorial ceremony for the Marines in our company who were killed in action during our tour: Sgt Hill, Cpl Keeling, PFC Pifer, PFC Schrecongost and PFC Epps. We reflected, we cried and we remembered these Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice. They never questioned the legality of the war and never once hesitated to give it 100% every day in spite of what they saw was happening at home. They served with pride, honor and dignity the nation and the Corps that they loved, and never once looked back. They were magnificent in every respect and we remembered them as taps echoed in the background at the Ft. Snelling national cemetery.
On the last day before our farewell banquet I sat outside with one of my Marine tankers and we talked, and he told me, “Skipper (term of endearment for a Marine Captain) I wish I was a better Marine in Viet-Nam and did more.” Can you believe this, here is a 52 year American who served honorably in that war and he is apologizing to me for not having done a better job. I assured him that he was a good Marine and that he did a great job in my book and that I was honored and proud to have served with him in Viet-Nam so many years ago. With tears in his eyes he looked at me and thanked me and I immediately told him that it was me who was thankful for having such a great American in my company.
The reunion was fun, like when we all posed for a group picture on Saturday afternoon and sang the popular theme song in those days of every Marine in Viet-Nam: “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do……girl there’s a better life for me and you.” It was sad when we talked about the Marines who paid the ultimate price and died for their country and beloved Corps and it was rejuvenating as we all had a chance to charge our batteries for love of country and the United States Marine Corps.
We said good-bye and vowed we would see each other again and closed with the phrase we used so many years ago in Viet-Nam, “Well, it’s been real!” As I walked through the terminal at Minneapolis on Sunday morning heading home to Hawaii I was reassured that the saying “Once a Marine always a Marine” was more alive and real than ever.
Ken Zitz is a retired US Marine LtColonel who served in Viet-Nam as both a Marine tank platoon and tank company commander in 1st and 3td Marine Divisions.