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John Keefe enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1949, and served tours in Korea and Vietnam.

Courtesy photo

John Keefe’s life has taken him around the world, from Europe and China to a pair of deployments in Korea and Vietnam during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The son of a Texaco marketing executive, Keefe was born in Dublin in 1930 but moved to China when he was 18 months old, settling in the city of Qingdao.

When the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, Keefe and his sisters were evacuated to Shanghai, and as World War II loomed they were sent to the United States. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Keefe’s father was captured as a prisoner of war. He was later traded back to the U.S. and reunited with his family.

After graduating from boarding school in Oregon, Keefe attended Gonzaga University in Spokane. At the suggestion of a roommate who was a veteran, he enlisted in the Marines in 1949.

“All that seems like yesterday,” Keefe said.

Since retiring from the Marines in 1977, Keefe, now 85, his wife Sheyla and his golden retriever Buddy have lived in Missoula. Four of the couple's sons also joined the military – Shawn and Timothy were Marines like their father, and Brian and Mike were in the Air Force and Navy, respectively.


Q: What happened to you in the lead-up to joining the Marines?

A: At Gonzaga, I lived with four guys who had been in the military. Keeping up with GIs is just impossible because these guys are ready to catch up on the years they lost in the war. At the suggestion of one of them, I joined the Marines in August of 1949 and was sent to San Diego for boot camp.

Q: How did you get sent to Korea the first time?

A: I go to Camp Pendleton, and by that time the Korean War has started. Boot camp was not a piece of cake, but it was a hell of a lot easier than four years of prep school under priests and brothers.

The Marines' overall numbers go from 86,000 to 315,000 during the Korean War and they needed more lieutenants. So I’m sent to Quantico for screening. The Marine Corps, then and now, still has a belief that I share of a close relationship between physical and mental courage. I make it through and become a commissioned second lieutenant. I’m sent to Army school to learn tanking, then sent to Korea for a year in 1952. I was originally supposed to be a platoon leader in an assault amphibian battalion, but it is switched to an infantry unit.

Q: While in Korea, you adopted a daughter. How did that happen?

A: I used to give extra food from the unit to a Catholic orphanage. I kept noticing this girl. The nun said her father was a GI and her mother had been a Korean woman who had died after childbirth. I thought if I can do anything in this world worthwhile, maybe this is it. It took three years to get it done. She couldn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Korean.

In December, Jackie will be celebrating her 60-year anniversary of coming to the U.S.

Q: What was your military experience in Vietnam?

A: The first time I was in Vietnam was with the Marines, the second time with a group called CORDS, which stands for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. My first tour was with the 1st Marine Regiment. During the tour, my best friend Bob Harris, a battalion head, was killed and I took over his battalion. At that time, I was a lieutenant colonel. I extended my deployment and stayed 15 months. I should have stayed longer, because I was a professional and we were putting the hurt on the bad guys and keeping the good guys safe.

Q: You were awarded a Purple Heart. What happened?

A: After I took over Bob’s battalion, I was shot in the right calf. We had a guy who would come up to the wire and shoot at us, trying to get us to fire back and show our size and position. I went into the med the next morning, but the helicopters were dropping off casualties from a firefight. I said what’s it going to do if you just close it up? That bullet stayed in my calf for nine years.

Q: What did you do during your deployment with CORDS?

A: I was there again four years later in 1971 and 1972. We were half-civilian, half-military and headquartered in Saigon. We would do pacification attitude surveys. We had 300 Vietnamese working for us spread throughout the districts of South Vietnam, essentially (taking) a census – how they felt things were going, where their information was coming from. The surveyors couldn’t use paper, they had to remember the questions and answers. If they were suspected of working for us they would be put on a list for elimination.

This was classified, and there was a long time I couldn’t talk about it. There’s a lot of things I have put out of my mind and don’t think about. If you have some bad experiences, you have to replace them with some better ones.

I came back and was promoted to colonel, and was tasked with reconstituting my division to be battle-ready again. Then I became the assistant chief of staff for human affairs, which means I took on the jobs nobody wanted, including re-enlistment and education programs, racial relations and took over a drug rehab program.

Q: What was different when you returned to Korea?

A: When I left Korea, it was wooden plows and human labor. I was impressed at the advancement. The thing I learned about Korea is this is what Vietnam could have been like. I was sent there as a senior adviser to the Korean Marine Corps in 1975. One thing I did was help them procure new amphibious assault vehicles. They had been using old LVT-3Cs. The interesting thing to me was the old Cadillac engines were still running. These guys are fabulous, they could take a broken shoelace and make a whole boot out of it.

Q: What do you remember most about your time in the Marines?

A: It took me a long time to realize that I really love the Marines. It’s a dumb word and we use it for so many things. Every day, I think about the Marine Corps. It was that camaraderie, that love we had for our brothers in arms.

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