CORVALLIS – During the second week of June 1967, Bob Graler graduated from the University of Kentucky, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and married his sweetheart.
For the next six months, he received training with 500 other second lieutenants in Quantico, Virginia, and by December he was a rifle platoon leader in the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.
He served for six months in some of the bloodiest battles before he “ran into a disagreement with a booby trap” and was sent to Okinawa, Japan, to rehabilitate and serve in logistics.
Q: What was your biggest challenge when you arrived in Vietnam?
A: At the time, it was normal to have 41 men in your platoon, but in mine, we had 20. In the best of times, I had 25. We kept trying to do things like they taught in school, but during my entire service, we didn’t have the ranks of people we were supposed to have. Attrition was so high. We couldn’t keep up.
Another problem that we never overcame was Marines spent 13 months in country, but there was no rhyme or reason as to when people were transferred in or out. It was a big hindrance to unit cohesion.
My biggest challenge was making people work as a team when some were new and some were going home in two weeks. They hadn’t been through the same things together. Now, Marines go as a unit instead of individually, which is so much smarter.
During the Tet Offensive of 1968, we were involved in heavy fighting. At one point, I had seven people left in my platoon, and for a few days I wasn’t one of them. We moved between Hue and Da Nang, from fighting in the jungle to going house to house for about a 10-day period. It was quite an experience.
Q: The experience must have been traumatic?
A: Everybody’s war was different based on their background, their training and their expectations. I grew up with World War II heroes. I was proud to be a war baby, not a baby boomer. All the guys I knew were war heroes – fighters – and I wanted to be like them. I volunteered to go to Vietnam, but I was a little older than most and went in with a little different attitude and a lot more training. Things in Vietnam looked very different to a 25-year-old officer than to an 18-year-old toting a rifle for the first time.
Q: So you continued your military career after the war?
A: Yes, I had a 20-year career in the Marine Corps. I was deployed in the Western Pacific when my son was working on his college education. I didn’t know he was involved in the NROTC program and didn’t know he would follow in my footsteps. He’s been active duty for 24 years. We’re starting to get a line of Marines in the family. Between the two of us, we have almost 50 years of service.
The one difference between our deployments is communications. He can Skype with his wife and be in touch with family. For me, it took two to three weeks to get letters. So it was five or six weeks before I’d get a reply from my wife. We never really were in very good contact with each other while I was gone, which was hard. People nowadays don’t understand that.
Q: What advice did you give your son before he was deployed?
A: Keep his head down. What can you say?
Q: Do you keep in contact with the Marines you served with in Vietnam?
A: I trained with 500 people – a whole class of second lieutenants. We lost 47 of them – some in Vietnam – and the last classmate we lost during active duty was hung after he was captured in Beirut in the 1980s. Ten percent of my class was killed – decimated is the term for that. If Roman legions lost 10 percent of their soldiers, they were said to be decimated.
Needless to say, we lost a lot of heroes. I still keep in contact with some of them – one sends me birthday wishes every year. I think I adjusted well after the war because I had a very good support system. My first job after the war was a guard officer at a Naval sub base. So for years, everyone I associated with had been in Vietnam – Marines and naval officers – we had a positive support system.