When Dennis Lynch enlisted in the Marines in 1963, it was more a lack of options than a valiant effort to serve and protect his country.
“The old man had kicked me out of the house ‘cuz I was out drunk every night. I’d gone to the little religious Huntington College in Indiana, and fell out with them, so I finished the year and went back home to Flint. I was nineteen – out on the town every night of the week. I’d come stumbling in the door in the morning, and the old man would say, ‘I thought you were gonna look for work today.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I am, I am.’
“My old man was a little guy, but he was scary and could be violent. One morning we nearly came to blows, so I left again, this time staying with a series of friends ‘couch surfing’, but that got old too.
“Two of my drinking buddies and I decided to enlist in the Marines. They didn’t pass the physical, but I did. I went to San Diego for recruit training, then El Toro, which doesn’t exist anymore. I was assigned to be a truck driver. We were standing there in two lines, and the major said, ‘You boys in the front row are going to be mechanics. You boys in the back row are going to be drivers.’ I ended up doing both for about four years, and I got to be pretty good at it. I could take all sorts of things apart and put them back together if I had to.
“I was sent off to Vietnam in 1965. I served in three different places there: Danang, Marble Mountain and Chulai. I was a lance corporal mechanic/driver in a company attached to a helicopter squadron in the air wing.
“Most of my war was boring, except for the few times when it was absolutely terrifying. We were always right on the edge of the bases and experienced a few attacks and some sniping.
“At Marble Mountain we were part of a helicopter unit on a base we’d built from nothing on the South China Sea near Danang. One night a kid in our squad named Jantzen, who was on temporary guard, ran into the tent and grabbed his M-14. They had been issued shotguns. All of a sudden there were explosions and tracers flying everywhere. We got in our tent foxhole, wondering what to do. Of course, nobody knew. This tall skinny black corporal said ‘Let’s go down to the motor pool.’ It was on the edge of the squadron perimeter. We did, and got set up. I was on a machine gun. All night long planes dropped big flares, and tracers were flying everywhere. People were shooting at shadows and flashes.
“The next morning, a squad of dead Viet Cong bodies was stacked near us – the local boys. One was a kid who couldn’t have been over 13 or 14. The idea had been for this group to come in, open the lines, blow up some helicopters, and then this larger North Vietnamese outfit outside would move in. The plan failed because the machine gun positions had been moved that very day. Most of the VC walked right into them.
“Three friends had taken a tanker to get water to put out fires and ran over a mine and were all wounded. They ended up in the middle of a big firefight without a working rifle, so they just crawled up behind the back dual tires of the truck and waited it out. By daylight, the North Vietnamese army unit had retreated.
“The morning after, once the lines were secured, we were brought in to eat — we actually had hot breakfast — and we were talking to some of the grunts who had been engaged all night with the NVA. That’s where I had met an infantry sergeant who had just returned from Operation Starlight, the Marines’ first big offensive battle. He told us that when his squad would come under sniper fire, and he would automatically hit the deck. His actual words were ‘I would think ‘If something happens to me, who will take care of my wife and babies?’’ He said he would look up and see his 18 and 19 year old troops advancing toward the shots, firing as they went. He would have to make himself get up and lead them.
“Months later at Chulai we were on another perimeter, and my squad would sit in holes in the ground every third night with machine guns on lookout. We’d get sniper rounds from time to time. They weren’t very good shots. Every now and then, we’d just get up and dare the bastards to shoot at us, ‘cuz we knew they were there. If they would have, then we’d have known right where they were.
“We got some new people in and so we all started getting an extra night off now and then. Staying up most of the night and still doing your day job was exhausting. On my first night off to get some extra sleep, at about midnight, the whole place went crazy. I thought ‘That’s my squad out there,’ so I threw on a shirt and pants, and started to slip over the top of the hill toward our foxholes on the other side. Someone behind me cut down on me with a machine gun. The bullets snapped as they went by me, as I recall. I could have touched the tracer rounds right in front of my face. I must have been silhouetted against the sky. I dropped down and stayed low. I had thought ‘If the VC come in, I’ll be able to back up my guys and help.’
“I saw someone coming, and I was ready to shoot. Then I realized it was the company Gunnery Sergeant Ainsworth. I decided to play a trick on him. I already had a round in the chamber. There’s nothing that sounds quite like a bullet being chambered, so I slammed the sling keeper on my weapon against the stock to imitate that sound, and he hollered: ‘Gunny Ainsworth, Gunny Ainsworth, don’t shoot!’
“That was quite a night. Later, I met the guy who’d shot at me. He said he’d been drunk and I told him he damn near killed me!
“Another time at Chulai, a guy named Trundy and I were sitting in a hole together looking out on the South China Sea at night. He said. ‘Lynch, see that rat?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Then he cut loose on it with the machine gun. All of a sudden, WHOOSH, all hell broke loose — people shooting, flares popping, loud general confusion. The lieutenant in charge ran to our position and hollered, ‘What are you shooting at? What are you shooting at?’ Trundy says, ‘They were out there; they were out there in a boat!’
“The next morning, there was a palm tree floating by, and the officers thought he’d mistakenly shot at it. So we got away with that one. I think a certain amount of that whole thing was just plain boredom.’
When people endure the realities of war together, it’s good to have something to laugh about, but there were plenty of somber times as well for Lynch and his comrades.
“One Sunday morning at Chulai, we weren’t very busy, and one of our guys came over and told us they needed help at the hospital down the road. The helicopters were hovering in the air, waiting for landing space on the helo pads. So we all went over and saw Marines who were just shot to hell.
“I saw one guy I knew from boot camp, Hibbard, who had taken some shrapnel to the back. His face was filthy dirty, and you could see these two light-colored streaks along his cheeks from where he’d been crying. He didn’t recognize me. He was all doped up. We put his stretcher on a stand in the operating room next to the operating table, and the doctor told us we would have to roll him onto his stomach. He said he would count to three, and we’d do it. I put my hands underneath, and we rolled him over. I got his blood all over my hands and arms.
“Someone asked another Marine what had happened and he said, ‘I don’t know – I got behind this log, and three of them popped up. I got two of the three, and the other m—f— got me.’ Another Marine, an officer, kept saying, ‘I’m hit. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die.’ And he did. He had been shot in the arm and died of shock, I guess.
Dennis grows quiet and looks out the window, pointing. “We saw a lot of dead men. I saw stacks of Flak jackets and helmets that seemed as high as a light pole. Later, I found out that had been Operation Utah.”
Dennis returned to the States, finished his enlistment at Camp Lejeune in 1967, and wound up at Northern Michigan University, where he graduated in 1971. He skipped commencement ceremonies to report to Quantico, Virginia and enter Marine Officer Candidate School. He and the Marines weren’t done with each other.
After completing the training, he returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as a second lieutenant where he was accepted as a platoon commander at Second Recon Battalion, his favorite assignment, which involved heavy physical conditioning, paddling rubber rafts, and jumping out of airplanes. From there he went to a Marine infantry battalion in Okinawa, and then back to Parris Island, where he was a series commander, helping train recruits.
He left the Corps a second time, in 1975, from there.
“I served in the Second Battalion, Fourth Regiment, Third Marine Division in Okinawa. I was a grunt there. I became H&S Company commander for a short while, then got bumped down twice by new officers who outranked me, so I ended up with a platoon — the 106 recoilless rifle platoon – the battalion’s anti-tank component.
“The Marine Corps kept, and probably still keeps, three reinforced infantry battalions on ships, floating in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. These “cruises” usually last about four months. So, we were out floating around the Pacific Ocean, and the word came in that our battalion landing team was going into Cambodia to evacuate the American embassy in Phnom Penh, which was in danger. We received the operation order and even found out which helicopter teams we would be in. The 106s were going to support the battalion perimeter at a soccer stadium. Helicopters would pick up the evacuated people from within its walls. All we had to do was draw the live ammunition. Fortunately, it started raining, and the whole thing was called off because the Khmer Rouge had to withdraw.
“All these 18-19 year old kids were walking around on the ship, saying they wondered what it would feel like to kill someone; and all I could think about was the young sergeant I’d talked to after the sapper attack at Marble Mountain in Vietnam. I would have gone, and I know I would have done what I was supposed to. Another battalion went in a year later.
“Again, I rotated back to the States and was assigned to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., where I had to pass a shortened version of Drill Instructor School and then served as a series officer, training recruits. I would command four recruit platoons of between 50 and 70 recruits and their drill instructors, about twelve non-commissioned officers.
After about a year, I was the whistle-blower in a recruit abuse incident and ended up catching grief for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was outraged and submitted my letter of resignation and left the Corps for good three months later.
“Twenty-seven seemed so old back then. I had to decide what to do with the rest of my life.”
Dennis was married at the time, with two children. Since he liked people – “and kids are just people” — he decided to try to be a teacher. He had always loved learning new things, although his own high school grades had not even approached mediocre sometimes — 1.9 on a 4.0 scale. After passing the required teachers’ courses at Radford University in Virginia, his first job was in the beautiful mountains of Giles County, Virginia.
Dennis taught for 34 years, the last 24 in Norway.
For many years, he kept a John Wayne poster hanging in his classroom above his desk.
“It was an inside joke for me. John Wayne was an actor. They told him what to do, and what to wear, and what to say. But I knew people who did things, and I did things myself, that they make movies about.
Since retirement, veterans’ causes have found him. He is the adjutant for both the local VFW and American Legion posts and serves on the county veterans’ council and board. Last year he volunteered over one hundred hours at the Oscar Johnson VA Hospital in Iron Mountain and is a representative on the Voluntary Services Board.
He marches in parades, helps with school assemblies, assists in placing flags on graves at Norway Township Cemetery, and often participates in veterans’ funerals and last rites.
His active participation in vets’ issues began after a former student enlisted in the Marines after high school.
“The old coaches, who always know everything, were surprised and predicted the young man would wash out; he had been in band. As it turned out, according to the story that made the rounds, in the first Gulf War he was manning a machine gun at night when a flare went up, exposing a group of Iraqi Republican Guard soldiers. He did what good Marines are trained to do: opened up on them and killed several. I believe that has troubled him since.”
“Whenever you ask somebody to do something like that – something that will affect them for the rest of their lives – you owe them something. That’s why I do a lot of what I do for veterans.
“I remember sitting at the VFW hall after a meeting one night with a guy named Mike Thompson who recently died, and Mike Zanoni and Mike Dagner. I think all of us were ex-Marines, but I’m not sure. It was right before that first Gulf War in Kuwait. And Mike said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if there were no more Veterans of Foreign Wars because there were no more wars? Maybe we would be like the little dot that fades away when you turn off the TV, getting smaller and smaller, and then, poof it’s gone.’ “That didn’t happen, and we now have a whole generation of new veterans, some of whom have had to do and see horrible things.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Dennis continues, “I never felt more alive than I did in Vietnam when the night got over and the sun came up, and I was still there. But I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Dennis looks off into the distance, then slaps the table and rises, “But I’ve got a roof to do.”
He shakes my hand, gives me a hug and a heartfelt smile, and heads for the door.
I sit quietly for several minutes after he departs, thinking of my former school teacher Dennis Lynch’s war, and all the different kinds of wars – boring wars, action-packed wars, wars that end lives, wars that never seem to end.
How many stories are out there today? I wonder. And how many have never been told?
On the table beside me is my grandfather’s journal from his experiences as a gunner in a B-17 bomber in World War II. I brought it with because I knew Dennis would find it interesting.
“WOW,” he beamed when I showed it to him. “A lot of people would like to read this.”
He’s right. Many of us are eager to hear and read the stories of WWII vets and Vietnam vets — all vets, really.
The stories of the men and women who stepped up to serve out of boredom or out of valor, in boring wars or exciting wars, are precious to us.
I hope we never stop telling them.
Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for sharing your stories with us. They are anything but boring.
With gratitude for your willingness to serve, and your willingness to tell about it,
If you enjoyed this post, read more Grand Edits Feature Stories here.
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