Fighting– and living– in Vietnam

Ahead of Veterans Day Parade, LBUSD member recalls living in Vietnam villages during war

While standing in line to register for classes at Santa Monica College, Mike Murray came to the conclusion that he no longer wanted to wait in a line.

He wanted something more. So, he enlisted in the United States Marines.

“I went down to Santa Monica, and I joined the Marine Corps and then stood in line for two years straight, basically,” Murray chuckled.

With the Long Beach Veterans Day parade slated to start next month, Murray, now retired from the Marine Corps and a current Long Beach Unified School District Educare specialist, spoke with the Signal Tribune at the One World Trade Center offices on Oct. 23 and looked back at that two-year time in Vietnam.

He looked back on old images of former comrades from a different time– men who he struggled alongside within the mountains from 1968 to 1969.

He referenced old newspaper clippings of his time in Vietnam and how his experience overseas intertwined with that of the Vietnamese people.

He gazed back at a map of Vietnam and the crisscrossing arrows across that map that indicated where the U.S. launched its attacks, such as the Tet Offensive and Operation Rolling Thunder.

Dotted along the map were small villages. It was in those villages where Murray said he had discovered the meaning of unconditional love and respect buried deep within the death and destruction of war.

“I was what they call a grunt– the numerical is a 0311,” Murray said. “For my first three months in Vietnam, I was in 33 Kilo Company in northern South Vietnam running operations in the mountains.”

While Murray and the rest of 33 Kilo combed through Vietnam’s jungle terrain, he noticed other Marines living in the villages that the company passed by.

Intrigued by his observation, Murray joined the Combined Action Program (CAP)– this initiative allowed U.S. military personnel to live within Vietnam’s villages and launch cooperative military strikes with local village soldiers. One of the qualifications was to be in the country for at least three months.
“The units were made of 10 to 12 Marines,” Murray said. “We lived in the villages. Two or three Marines would move into the homes of the Vietnamese villagers.”

He was integrated with the people of Nuoc Ngot village. There, Murray slept, ate and worked with local villagers and other CAP Marines.

“You can imagine if two or three Marines came to your house tonight and said, ‘We’ll be here for a couple of weeks,’ what kind of reaction you’d get,” Murray said. “But the Vietnamese in the village that I was in were very welcoming.”

Murray said he also took advantage of Vietnamese language schools that the Marine Corps offered. He graduated top of the class in the Da Nang Vietnamese Language School.

“It’s a very difficult language,” he said. “Each vowel has six different signs, and that determines how you pronounce the word. So, one word can mean six different things based on the way it is pronounced.”

Murray told the Signal Tribune that he would stay in his barracks studying the language while the other Marines went out to party. He attributed his success at the Vietnamese Language School to that determination.

As CAP operations continued, Murray’s language skills made him the unit’s “PR guy” between the Marines and the village soldiers. If there were communication issues between the troops, Murray would help translate. He began to develop public-relations skills deep in the jungles of Vietnam that would transfer over into civilian life after his time in the war.

“I couldn’t speak [Vietnamese] very well, but I would always give it a try,” Murray said.

As he learned about village life, Murray and the other Marines orchestrated raids and ambushes on enemy positions with the help of the village soldiers that also resided in Nuoc Ngot.

His time there connected Murray deeply with the Vietnamese. On days off, he would play football with other Marines in the dry rice paddies, and the villagers would watch, amazed, as two foreign war fighters wrestled in the mud over the pigskin.

He made a lifelong bond with a village girl who would help Murray with daily chores. Her name was Bé, and she was 10 years old. Murray said that the bond he developed with the small child was one that he will never forget.

“These kids showed me what love was all about,” he said. “I didn’t really have a clear sense of what it felt like or what it was, but when I was working with these kids, they really showed me what it meant to love someone, in a sense, unconditionally.”

Murray told the Signal Tribune that his time in Vietnam overall was a positive experience. Despite the life skills and friendships he acquired while in country, the Vietnam War didn’t let Murray go home without scaring him.

Photo courtesy Mike Murray
Former U.S. Marine and current Long Beach Unified School District Educare specialist Mike Murray and his squad mates sit atop a bunker in Dong Ha, Vietnam, after coming off an operation in 1968. Pictured are Tim (bottom left), Don (right) and Calvin Muldrow (back).

One night, while conducting a raid with the CAP, Murray and his friend, nicknamed Angel, were struck by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).

Murray could not identify Angel’s given name, but he said the Marines in his unit gave him the nickname “Angel” because he was a member of the Hell’s Angels Biker Club back in the States.

“I heard all these explosions, and I knew he was in trouble,” Murray said. “I got my rifle– I moved to the wall– and was moving along the wall to go outside to get to the doorway, and an RPG round hit the doorway.”

The blast swept Murray across the room. He laid on the ground for a moment– motionless. Murray said he confused sweat for blood that was sitting atop his forehead when he noticed it was all over his hands.

Murray could not move, but he listened for Angel.

“I heard him say, ‘Somebody, help me. Anybody, help me,’” Murray said. “And then it was quiet. I knew, as sure as I’ve known anything, that he was gone.”

Angel had just been beginning to appreciate the Vietnamese culture as he hung out with Murray. He had easily picked up the language, according to Murray, despite not going to a Vietnamese language school.

Murray was sent to a hospital in Phu Bai after the attack and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

“I was in there for I don’t know how long,” he said. “I caught shrapnel in my chest and face and went to the hospital, and then I went back out into the village.”

Upon Murray’s return from the hospital, Murray’s original CAP unit was broken up due to the number of casualties it sustained after the attack that put him in the hospital– and killed his friends.

Murray was designated to Cau Hai, located just north of Da Nang city.

In the transition, Murray lost contact with Bé. However, he acquired the help of a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy called Sinh, whom Murray nicknamed Joe and connected and bonded with while he lived in the village.

When Murray returned home in 1970, he went back to school and earned a degree in Asian studies. He also played college football, which Murray said made the transition from military life to civilian life a lot smoother.

He enjoyed working with teammates that took care of each other and worked to reach a single goal.

From 1975 to 2016, Murray worked as a public affairs specialist with Verizon. He helped Vietnamese communities mostly in Orange County.

In 2000, Murray worked as an advisor for U.S. Vets and helped other veterans transition to civilian life.

Murray told the Signal Tribune that he doesn’t usually talk about the attack his team suffered near Nuoc Ngot village, but he believes that veterans working alongside other veterans is the best method to ease into civilian life, because many times they share similar stories of friends they lost overseas.

Murray later discovered that Bé, the girl who helped him in the village, died in 1990 while giving birth. He never met with her or Sinh again. Murray said that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever want to return and visit Vietnam.