LTC Michael Christy US Army (Ret) (1966-1984)
There was no single reason that persuaded me to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1956 or to join the Army ten years later in 1966. It was a combination of reasons, strongly influenced by the world in which I lived at the time. When I graduated from high school in 1956 I had no clue on what to do next. I knew I wouldn’t be going to college like some of my friends. College was never a family tradition nor could we afford it. Besides I wouldn’t have been accepted anyway because of my miserable grades.
I had been working a part time job counting coins and wrapping them into rolls at a bank since the 11th grade but now that school was behind me I wanted a fulltime job. I looked for work wherever I could but nothing panned out. Failing to hit upon fulltime employment, I decided to keep my part time job at the bank with plenty of off time for bumming around dating girls, swimming, playing baseball and going to parties. But before I knew it, my lazy, crazy summer ended and it was time to get serious about finding work. I began by returning to many of the same places I started with at the beginning of the summer but still no work was available. That’s when I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps.
One hot late August day I climbed the steps to the Marine Recruiting Office on the third floor of a downtown building. I was met by a tanned, physically fit, spit-and-polished Staff Sgt. who was eager to sign me up. He told me a lot of things about the Marine Corps but what sold me was when he said Marines are lean, mean fighting machines (this was before J. Walter Thompson advertising coined the phase “The Few, the Proud, the Marines.”). It all sounded like a perfect place for a tough, scrappy, streetwise kid with a questionable future. With my mother’s permission, I signed up. Three weeks later I was standing at attention for the first time on the ‘grinder’ at MCRD San Diego. My journey from adolescence to manhood had begun.
The draft hanging over my head and no job had a lot to do with why I joined the military. But there was an even greater, more powerful influence that convinced me to join the Marine Corps and later the Army: I grew up during World War II—an experience that shaped forever my passion for the military. I was three years old when the war started and eight when it ended. The war was ever present and all consuming during those five years—not only for the military men and women but the entire nation.
The patriotism that had been hammered into early on during the war took a more realistic turn in 1944. Every since I could remember our next door neighbor, Harold Bradley, was my boyhood hero. The 19-year-old Harold was handsome, athletic, smart, and women (girls) loved him. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. When he joined the Marine Corps, I wished I was old enough to go too. To remind myself that the vanished Harold really did exist somewhere, I often stared for long periods of time at the patriotic red and white flag with its blue star hanging in the Bradley’s front window. One day in early 1945, I noticed the blue star had changed to gold. Harold had been killed on the beaches at Iwo Jima. Perhaps that’s the moment a subconscious seed was planted in my mind that would one day sprout into my wanting to make the military a career.
It was also at this time that I believed war was a natural state of affairs. I assumed I too would march off to war one day. But that isn’t what happened during my time as a peacetime Marine. Our war was the ‘cold war’ and our single mission was preparing for a future war. I secretly wished a shooting war would erupt but it never did, until that all changed nine years later.
Like many Americans in the mid-60s I sat in my living room watching the Vietnam War unfold on television. Every night I noticed the war getting more and more intense. I also noticed my desire to be part of it was growing as well. By early 1966 I made up my mind. I was already a 2nd Lt. in the National Guard so I put in my papers for active duty as a commissioned officer. My application was accepted and in Nov 1966 – 9 years and two months since I first put on a marine uniform – I was back on active duty.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR CAREER PATH IN THE SERVICE?
I reported to MCRD San Diego in September 1956. Although I had been somewhat athletic as a teenager I had a rough time physically for the first half of boot camp beginning with the excruciating pain of squatting for a very long time going through my ‘bucket issue’ of toiletries piece by piece. What I found equally difficult was the duck walking with foot lockers held overhead or standing at attention for long periods with my M1 Rifle fully extended in front of my chest. All of the physical training eventually made me stronger. In fact, the cumulative effect of boot camp’s physical training and behavioral modification fostered a remarkable degree of strength, discipline, teamwork and esprit de corps that not only helped me make it through the 13 weeks, it shaped me into a remarkably more confident person ready to do great things in the world.
Following boot camp, I completed AIT at Camp Pendleton and cold weather mountain training at Pickel Meadows in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I then sailed off to Japan aboard the U.S. Breckinridge where for half of the trip I was seasick.
I was originally assigned as a truck driver in the 3rd Tank Battalion at 3rd Marine Division Rear at Camp McGill, Japan. But shortly after arriving I retired my greasy dungarees for a clean white pistol belt with a shinny brass buckle and the crimson and gold brassard of a military policeman.
What I really loved about Japan was the experience of living in a foreign country. I mingled with the people, climbed Mt. Fuji and visited many historical landmarks such as the Imperial Palace and the Great Buddha in Kamakura. I also had a couple of girlfriends and through them, learned how to speak and write a fair amount of Japanese. I returned to the United States after 13 months overseas and ended my enlistment as a ‘brig’ guard at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Illinois.
I almost ‘shipped over.’ So strong was the possibility, some of the guys took bets. I can’t remember who won or lost but I bid them all farewell, grabbed a Greyhound bus and headed home having concluded my time on active duty in the Marine Corps.
Shortly after active duty I joined a Marine Reserve Rifle Company. I was then married with a fulltime job in a factory and going to junior college part time.
In 1962 I left the Marine Reserves and enlisted in the Michigan Army National Guard. I quickly made it to Sergeant but I wanted to be an Officer. I passed the prerequisite tests and was accepted to the 9-week reserve component OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. But five days before I was to go I was told my allocation was given to an older guardsman, this being his last chance to go. I was disappointed and frustrated but when my chain of command said I had to wait another year, I became determined I was going to OCS and soon. I called the commanding general and told him of my plight. A couple of phone calls later I was soon on my way to the regular Army 26-week OCS.
In September 1963 I traveled by train to Ft. Benning where I was met with a hard core reception reminiscent of my arriving at Marine boot camp. I was the only reserve component candidate in my class and 20-minutes after I arrived the company commander sought me out, braced me against the wall, stuck his face next to mine and threatened me not to screw up his class or else. That threat hung over my head like the Sword of Damaclese for the duration of the course. It also gave me all the motivation I needed to succeed.
Following graduation I returned home to college, my family, a new job as a Pinkerton’s private detective and the National Guard where for the next three years I was a rifle platoon leader. During this time I became more aware of the growing war in Vietnam. One night while watching the nightly news about the war, I decided go on active duty.
I received a commission in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer in 1966. I trained for a year and went to Vietnam. Following one year back in the states, I volunteered for a second Vietnam tour of duty. When I returned in 1970 I had orders to go to the career course at Ft. Benning but I declined. My absence from my wife and two children had placed a strain on the marriage and I had planned on resigning. But infantry branch suggested I take a job in my hometown of Grand Rapids as a National Guard Advisor – the very same unit I had been in when I was in the Guard. If I still wanted to stay in the Army following the assignment I was told that I could then attend the career course. I took the job. I also finished my college education with a BS in Political Science.
I decided to stay in the Army and attended the career course in 1973, a decision that brought my marriage to an end. Following the career course I was assigned as the infantry tactics instructor at the transportation school, Ft. Eustis, Virginia. I taught patrolling, survival and guerrilla warfare to freshly minted Lieutenants. When I was promoted to major, I took over the combat arms branch. In my spare time I got my Master’s in counseling and guidance and I also got remarried.
About this time the army put into practice a ‘dual-track’ system. This meant that all officers would be given at least one assignment in another MOS, my alternate field came up as a public affairs officer. The plan was to have one PAO assignment and when that was over, I would revert back to an infantry assignment.
My PAO assignment was a two-year, family accompanied tour with the 8th Army/United Nations Command. My wife, her three children, my two from my previous marriage and our two dogs packed up and flew off to Korea in 1978.
We tried learning the language and would spend equal time with Korean and military friends. We also got deeply involved in helping Father Keane with his poorly funded orphanage. At the orphanage we met an Amerasian brother and sister. We decided to foster them and through an international adoption agency, we adopted a beautiful nine-month old Korean girl. Living under the same roof were now eight children, two adults and two dogs. I think it was too much for some of the children as three decided to return home.
I discovered I liked the PAO business and asked HQ for another PAO assignment. Following two wonderful years in Korea we returned home with five kids, including our two fosters.
My next assignment was PAO for the Presidio of San Francisco. We lived north of the Golden Gate Bridge and every work morning I marveled at the beauty of Marin County as I carpooled into San Francisco. I wanted to retire there but of course I didn’t. My final assignment was Deputy Chief of Staff at Ft. Ord, I retired in 1984.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS?
My first combat tour was 1967-1968 with the 5th Special Forces Group. Two Sergeants and I were flown into A-102 (Tien Phuc) in I Corps when a number of their outposts were captured by NVA troops. For five months we augmented the A-team stationed there. The outpost was a magnet for enemy and rocket fire and an occasional “probing” by enemy sappers. A few months after I was there the Detachment Commander, Capt. Mac Speaks and three Army engineers, along with a half dozen camp mercenaries, were killed in a brazen night-time attack.
When I made captain I requested a transfer to Project Delta (B-52) in Nha Trang. I was the senior advisor to a company of the 81st Airborne/ Ranger Battalion under the control of South Vietnam Special Forces. We were a reaction force that would go in if one of our reconnaissance team was in trouble. We also ran routine, company size missions in areas where our reconnaissance teams found signs of large enemy activity. Following Tet 1968, we patrolled the jungle south of Tan Son Nhu Air Base for a couple of months.
My second tour was with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1969-70. I commanded Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment for seven months. We conducted “search and destroy” missions in the Bu Dop/Song Be region in III Corps along the Cambodian border. The area really belonged to the enemy as American or South Vietnam combat troops had not operated in the area for years. This often proved to be more than a little exciting. In May and June 1970 I took the company into Cambodia as part of Nixon’s incursion.
My final assignment was assistant operations officer in the 1st Brigade at Bein Hoa.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
Every assignment, every duty station and every school in which I served or attended provided strong memories – some of which appear in this document. Here is a rather funny one, however, that demonstrated the confidence I gained as a young marine.
On my way to the Navy brig at Great Lake following a weekend at home, I walked past a bunch of navy recruits in line to go into a base exchange. In my civilian clothes and carrying my laundry bag, I guess I looked like a new recruit. So much so that a number of the Navy recruits yelled things like, “Wait until they cut off that wavy hair” and “You’ll be sorry” and other cat calls. I stopped, turned to the group, and yelled in the strongest Marine DI voice I could muster for them to knock it off, that I was a Marine prison guard and if I ever saw any of their faces in the brig, their asses would be mine. They were stunned into complete silence. I continued my journey to the brig with a swagger I didn’t know I had.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU…AND WHY?
As was the case with memories of my service career, the list of men and women who impacted me is far too long to consign to a single person. There are the DI’s in Marine boot camp, my Tactical Officer in OCS, the many exceptional instructors and teachers I had in every professional school I ever attended. Every year of my 20 years of active duty and the four or five in the reserves I had some of the best Officers and NCOs around. Their steady guidance, tutoring and strong leadership inculcated in me the strength of a confident leader. But more than anything it was the courageous and faithful officers and men in my Rifle Company in Vietnam. Their respect and loyalty to me and each other was boundless. I own them all a debt of gratitude that words can never express.
DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULARLY FUNNY STORY FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?
Like many men and women caught in the rigors of war, I discovered that humor can sometime make some of the worst situations more endurable. That was the case in 1968 when 1Lt. John Scalley and I, along with two Special Forces sergeants, took out a 35 man indigenous patrol to check out a VC camp reported by a wood cutter. The VC heard or saw us coming and had scattered into the jungle, leaving so quickly that they left a half eaten bowl of steaming rice. After we ordered security around the entire area, John and I decided to take a dip in the cool river flowing next to the camp to clean up and cool off. We moved about a hundred meters upstream, stripped down, placed our M16s next to the river bank within easy reach and gently eased into the cold water. Suddenly, the jungle erupted in gunfire. Bullets pinged over our heads with some smashing into the river bank and others stitching the water, sending up geysers where each bullet hit. We grabbed our rifles and crouched down as low to the water as we could. I was crouched down behind John when I couldn’t help but notice the humor in the precarious situation we were in, nor could I help laughing. John didn’t see the humor but then he didn’t have the view I had crouched down behind him like we were. The firing continued but was no longer heading in our direction and eventually ended. We quickly got dressed and while heading back to where the patrol was gathered and I still couldn’t help laughing, mystifying John all the more, which made it ever funnier to me. When we got back to the VC camp we saw the bodies of 11 VC lying in an open field, we had missed the battle. Years later John finally saw the humor.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?
I became a writer, producer, and director. I also did some film and television acting.
I started acting on stage in summer stock theaters about a year after getting out of the Marine Corps and my film and television acting began in Korea in 1978. I was featured in nine Kung Fu films and two television dramas. My Tae Kwon Do instructor was my agent. I also did two American films in Korea, one where I played a Korean War army major in the movie Inchon opposite Jacqueline Bisset. She was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined.
While stationed at the Presidio I did a film with Chuck Norris and while stationed at Ft. Ord, I frequently drove down to Hollywood where I acted in a dozen or so military training films. But I never considered myself an actor. I always wanted to be on the other side of the camera.
My first job in that capacity was working for Charles Bordwell, who knew me from having cast me in some of his military training films. He hired me mainly to secure government film making contracts. Before long he let me produce and direct. A few years later I started my own production company and for the next 14 years produced military training films for every branch of the service. The most widely distributed film was Combat Leadership with Lee Marvin as the host. It is on the bonus disc of the re-released film The Dirty Dozen.
In 1992 my wife Kathryn, Bram Roos and I created Mysteries of the Bible for A&E. The show ran for five years. I then turned to writing documentaries for The History Channel.
I did have one more stint at acting, however, when I was cast as Major Duncan on Tour of Duty. I was also there military technical advisor for two seasons. My last TA job was the Iraq War sequences in 13 episodes of American Family.
I have two television series ideas currently in development. One is entitled Vietnam Case Files and the other is Free Fire Zone, which is about an elite Army CID unit.
Lately I have been writing magazine articles with the most recent ones appearing in the April 2010 and August 2010 issues of the Vietnam Magazine. I am working on a book about my experiences as a company commander during the Cambodian incursion of 1970.
HOW HAS SERVING THE ARMED FORCES INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
Beginning with Marine boot camp training, the values of courage, physical endurance, integrity, discipline, teamwork, duty and self-confidence were hammered into my mind. These strong character values grew exponentially every day I served in the Marines and in the Army and beyond into civilian life. They became the bedrock of my character and they have inspired me to achieve a standard of excellence in every endeavor.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL CURRENTLY SERVING?
Any advice I could give to those currently serving may well have already been discovered. But there are a few things that can never be emphasized enough. Know your job thoroughly so you can execute it with excellence. Then know the job of the person above you so if called upon to take over that job you will be able to handle it with self-confidence. Getting to this level takes training and experience so take advantage of all the training and education opportunities abundantly available in the military community.
Ask question if you find yourself in a situation where you feel uncertain. It is better to ask and learn than to keep quite and make errors that could have dire consequences. If you are the one with the knowledge, act as a mentor and take responsibility for showing what you know to all who will listen — superiors, juniors and contemporaries. The military takes self initiative and rolls into teamwork; it’s the combined efforts of all the men and women of a unit that gets the mission accomplished successfully.
Value the friendships you forged while in the military. The friends you meet in military training courses, varies assignments and in combat will remain forever. You and they have shared those extraordinary experiences that civilians have not, experiences that were hard, challenging, uncertain and fearful yet also pleasant, nourishing and exciting and even fun at times. These are the things that form a lifelong brotherhood unlike any others you have or will ever know. I run into old veterans who talk with pride and joy about their time in the military. Somehow most of the hardships fade away and what remains more than anything are the friendships they forged while serving in uniform. Someday, like I have found out, you too will be an old soldier and you will love your friends in a way only we have the capacity to understand. Make it the best job you’ve ever had.
HOW HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU TO MAINTAIN A BOND WITH THE SERVICE AND THOSE WITH YOU SERVED WITH?
I signed up for Marine Together We Served about five years ago. I was hoping to find some of my old buddies with whom I served while on active duty but regretfully I haven’t located any of them yet although I will keep trying. I often go to my training and duty assignment listings and check out the “also there” links, perhaps one day I’ll get lucky.
However, I’ve made friends with some fabulous former Marines and I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting three in person.
I met George Reilly nearly three years ago when he attended a business conference in San Diego. We went to dinner, had a few drinks and swapped stories about our past and current lives. George, a retired NYPD homicide detective, is a terrific guy. Anyone using the fabulous TWS locator service will probably find George on the other end doing his magic.
Two years ago my wife and I went to Las Vegas to pick up Lady Bird, an elderly Redbone Coon Hound who was desperately in need of a home. While there I had dinner with Larry (Smoke) Pagley and his wife Susan also from TWS, Larry looked every bit the quintessential former Marine.
John Foster, who lives in Palm Springs, and I had been exchanging messages for several years on TWS, when perhaps two years ago he drove to Los Angeles so we could meet. My wife and I later had dinner with him and his wife while they were in town for a Broadway road show. We stay in touch frequently with plans to meet more often.
I almost met another one of my MTWS buddies, Jack Lahrman. He and some of his boot camp buddies came to San Diego for a reunion and VIP tour of MCRD. Unfortunately I was in production at the time.
When the Army Together We Served came on line a few years back I immediately signed up. One of the first people I invited to join was Tom “the Black Prince” Johnson, the best point man in Vietnam. Tom is a gregarious, kindly soul who stayed in contact with a lot of the men that served with us in Vietnam. Together we were able to get 13 comrades signed up with most of us staying in contact through ATWS messages, email exchanges and an occasional telephone call. This experience provides us with a clearer understanding of the word ‘brotherhood’ and the power it holds. While the Vietnam experiences we shared are generally at the center of our conversations, we have learned more about each other’s post-Vietnam years. Occasionally the talk falls on the sorrow we feel for our fallen comrades along with plenty of “what ifs…” But for me at least I believe getting some of the more painful memories out after 40 years has been cathartic.
TWS nurtures connectivity. By using TWS for staying touch with some of the men in my rifle company in Vietnam, I have met with three of them: Steve Willey, Tom Johnson and Craig Troup.
I have also found others like Darrell “Moe” Elmore. He and I served in 5th Special Forces as advisors to the Vietnamese 81st Airborne/Ranger Battalion. I also singed up Ed Strazzini, a friend of mine for 35 years. I met Ed when I was an instructor of tactics at the Transportation School in 1974. He and I were both bachelors at the time so we chased the same woman but at different times. We still talk about those days of yore!
I’ve met countless new friends on both MTWS and ATWS whose friendship I value greatly. I love this site.