United States Marine Corps
(1st Battalion, 26th Marines, B Company, 2nd Platoon)
We few, we precious few. We who have shed our blood, together, shall forever be……a band of brothers.
“We had a plan. Well, actually, I had a plan. It was a good plan. Bill Bohlen and I were going to join the Marines and be musicians at the Marine Barracks “8th and I” in Washington, D.C. It was close to home, good duty, playing the baritone.”
A baritone horn is a bugle used in the drum corps. It has 3 valves and a face forward bell and is the middle voice of a drum corps. It has a forceful tone, as if sounding like a tenor trumpet.
The Marine Barracks at “8th and I” in Washington, D.C. is the oldest Marine Corps post. It has been the home of the United States Marine Band since 1801. It was at the barracks that John Philip Sousa, during the time he was the director of the Marine Band, wrote many of his immortal marches. Today’s barracks Marines perform a variety of tasks including light infantry training, ceremonies and presidential support duty. A company of “8th and I” Marines serves at Camp David; another serves at the U.S. Naval Academy. Precisely the “good duty” Denny desired.
However, after signing up for a three-year enlistment in 1966 and completing basic training at Paris Island, Denny discovered a problem. The Marine Corps had a different plan for Denny and Bill and it did not involve the baritone or parades. It involved rifles and tanks in Southeast Asia, in a place called Vietnam.
Denny was the youngest of four boys. In fact he was thirteen years younger than his brother Joe and was raised more like an only child by very patriotic parents. They were a solid, extended Irish Catholic family and Denny was to later realize how important that was.
Dreams of playing college football (he had played football at Baltimore City College in Baltimore) had evaporated and after two years of general studies (Denny claims that he was a “general studies” kind of guy) at Baltimore City College, Denny and his friend Bill were at a crossroads in their young lives. Fortunately, or perhaps not, Denny received some career advice from an unlikely source, a local judge in whose courtroom he was appearing. The charge was illegal possession of alcohol.
The judge doubted Denny’s ability to abide by the terms of his probation and suggested he consider the military. He and Bill enlisted under the Marine Corps buddy system. He recalls the Marine Recruiter asking if he was sure that he wanted three years instead of two years. Why not Denny thought, what’s another year? He was to learn the answer the hard way.
Denny admits to having been challenged from a personal discipline standpoint. He was ridden hard by his drill instructors in basic training. He described himself as “an average GRUNT”. The Dictionary of Military Terms and Abbreviations defines “GRUNT” as the folklore acronym for Government Reject – Unfit for Normal Training, but as used in Vietnam, the term specifically, but not always, referred to an infantryman.
Denny and Bill were separated after completing basic training. The buddy system did not apply once basic training was completed. Bill was assigned to tank training and Denny shipped out to Vietnam where he joined the 2nd Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines as a rifleman and radioman. He recalls that he and other members of his unit helped to load 92 full body bags onto the plane they had flown in on. Denny, in his somewhat unique way of understating the obvious, said that “it had a bad effect on their morale.”
Denny’s unit was assigned to the I Corps area in the very northern section of Vietnam where their business was to interdict the flow of enemy troops and supplies into South Vietnam from the north. Business was good. They were operating out of an isolated American base at a place called Khe Sahn. During one operation, Denny and about 200 other Marines walked into a perfectly executed enemy ambush. The fighting was fierce, up close, and personal. “If it were not for the fact that I had a .45 caliber pistol, I would probably not be here today” he states. Only 17 Marines walked back into the base camp. He was wounded, the first of three wounds that ultimately garnered three Purple Hearts, and was cited for his bravery under fire.
The 26th Marine operations were part of a plan by U.S. General William Westmoreland to lure the North Vietnamese into a major battle in which superior American firepower would end the war. He chose the American base at Khe Sahn where 5,000 U.S. Marines were stationed. They were surrounded by between 20,000 and 40,000 North Vietnamese.
On January 21, the North Vietnamese began a rocket and mortar attack. One rocket landed in the middle of the Marines’ main ammunition dump setting off 11,000 rounds of ammunition, destroying the airstrip’s navigational aids and setting off canisters of tear gas which filled the base. The bombardment continued for another 76 days. Denny was wounded two more times at Khe Sahn and was again cited for bravery under fire. He began to realize what his off handed remark, “what’s another year” meant; another 365 long days.
The Americans made several attempts to destroy the Vietnamese with artillery and air bombardment but had limited success. The Vietnamese made several attempts to overrun the base but were repelled. The Marines had insufficient food and water and were being re-supplied by air. Eventually the Vietnamese decided to abandon their attacks. Five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to American troops at Khe Sahn. A portion of the major television networks nightly news was devoted to coverage of the siege.
Denny claims to have had a strong belief that he would be a survivor and that he would eventually return home but he did have doubts. Then, mercifully, the 365 day countdown ended when he flew first to Okinawa and then on to Travis Air Force Base in California. He was forced to endure the disgraceful treatment inflicted upon returning soldiers by the anti-war crowd, which included taunts, jeers and being splattered with urine. Relatives in California welcomed him, and after a short stint as a Marine rifle marksmanship instructor, he was discharged and returned to the Baltimore airport to a tumultuous welcome by about 150 friends and relatives.
The violence, cruelty and randomness of war are often difficult to understand for individuals who have stared directly into its cold and profane gaze. For Denny Bowers, a man who some may consider experienced more than his fair share of war’s ugliness, his tour in Vietnam was cursed and brutal. It changed the way he thought and the way he lived his life. He burned his uniforms. He wouldn’t talk about his experiences and was nagged by the “why me?” question that many surviving veterans have when they think of their dead comrades. Denny’s buddy Bill did make it home. He had been severely wounded by a sniper on July 29, 1967 and taken to the hospital ship USS Repose (AH16) with a gunshot wound through the abdomen. He returned to his unit 59 days later to finish his tour.
Denny moved to Salisbury, Maryland where he eventually played a key role in the construction of two separate Veterans Memorials in Wicomico County. He began to change and to heal. He initially disagreed with the decision to place names on one of the Memorials but acceded to the desires of other Vietnam veterans regarding the names. “It was a good thing” he said.
He eventually moved to Ocean Pines. He was instrumental in shaping the design and construction of the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines. He was overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support and participation in the construction and dedication of the Memorial. Raising the American flag at the dedication ceremony was especially emotional and he began to think that perhaps he had found the answer to the “why me?” question. “The boys would have been proud.” Denny is beyond closure – “It’s come and gone.” He simply “wants to be thought of as a good Marine…by other Marines”…by that band of brothers.
Denny has not returned to Vietnam and feels no need to go back for “closure” as some Vietnam veterans have done, although he would probably do it given the opportunity. Speaking of the enemy, he says “They were just doing their job like I was doing mine.” His daughter has visited Vietnam and traveled to Khe Sahn to better understand Denny’s reluctance to discuss his time there. Her visit, and subsequent dialogue about the place, has cemented the bond between the two of them.
When asked about his most vivid memories of his time in Vietnam he talks about things like the 110 degree heat, lack of fresh milk and living in bunkers without electricity. He gets a charge, no pun intended, out of turning on a light.
Denny Bowers holds the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”(Valor), a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart Medal with “*” (the “*” denotes multiple awards), the Presidential Unit Citation Medal with “*”, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with “**”, the Vietnam Campaign Medal with device, the Good Conduct Medal and the Rifle Marksman Badge.
~ GEORGE REISWIG