John Barber came home from Vietnam after two tours of intense jungle combat. Sometimes during those search and destroy missions, most of the guys in his unit never made it back—at least in one piece. Why he survived the odds is hard to understand, he ponders. Maybe it was luck. Maybe not.
Despite having endured thirteen months in Vietnam, John wanted to stay in the Marine Corps. His record showed that he had served dutifully and honorably in-country. So perhaps in his next hitch he could get embassy duty, somewhere safe out of the rain and mud and stench of death.
But the Marine recruiter couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t get sent back to the jungle. After all, that’s where they needed trained and experienced infantry men.
“I don’t think I’m going to survive a third tour in Vietnam,” John pleaded. There had been too many close calls already. It was only a matter of time. No guarantee. The recruiter wasn’t negotiating; the combat-weary grunt was either in or out of the Corps. It was his call.
He was out.
During John’s separation processing, a disdainful young officer freshly out of OCS gave the combat veteran some parting advice: “Well, we all can’t be Marines.”
When Post Chaplain Joe Mavero called to invite us to interview veterans at VFW Post 128 in Rochester, PA, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to preserve more Beaver County stories. After Commander Tom Crawford and the Post’s executive board generously reserved a quiet space for us in the building, we set up a recording event on August 25, 2014.
VFW Post 128 sits on Rochester’s Virginia Avenue, high above the Ohio River valley. It is a spacious location, with reception hall and meeting rooms. In addition to being the home to the Rochester VFW Ladies Auxiliary, the Post hosts Chapter 862 of Vietnam Veterans of America, the largest VVA chapter in Pennsylvania and second in the nation.
“We’re thankful that Post 128’s leadership recognizes the importance of preserving the stories of their members,” said Kevin Farkas, director of Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh. “They understand the historical significance of what their members experienced and the importance of giving each veteran a chance to tell his or her story in their own words so that future generations of Americans will better understand and appreciate their service.”
KEYWORDS: 16 INCH GUNS (NAVY); 1966-1969; BOUNCING BETTY; CAMP PENDLETON; CAPTAIN CHRISTMAS; CHU LAI; CON THIEN; DA NANG; F-4 PHANTOM; HANOI HANNAH; HENDERSON HALL, VA; HILL 69; HOTEL COMPANY, 2ND SQUAD (USMC); KA BAR KNIFE; LARRY BURROWS (PHOTOGRAPHER); LIFE MAGAZINE; LISTENING POST; M-14 CARBINE; MARINE CORPS; MOS 0311 (USMC); MILITARY POLICE; NEWSWEEK; NORTH VIETNAMESE ARMY (NVA); OKINAWA, JAPAN; OPERATION PRAIRIE (VIETNAM); PARRIS ISLAND; PAUL KELLOM; PHU BAI; POINT MAN; PUNJI TRAP; RADIO MAN; RED HILL; ROVING AMBUSH; SEARCH AND DESTROY MISSION; USS BEXAR (APA-237); VIETNAM; VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA (CHAPTER 862)
When John Barber came home from the war and looked for work, employers would ask him what he did in the Marine Corps. “I killed people,” he said bluntly. It was the truth. As an infantryman trained to carry out search and destroy missions, that’s what his job was. Kill people . . . or be killed, perhaps by the enemy, perhaps by your own troops. That’s the way it was over there, John admits. “I just wanted to stay alive.”
POST SCRIPT: The Vietnam War was a long time ago. Memories sometimes disappear, fade, or blend together with others. Upon hearing his own story recorded for our project, John Barber remembered that it was his brother, not he, who carried that carefully worded “denunciation” letter. John carried a different kind of letter in his backpack that might have saved his life if he were captured by the enemy. It told of how he thought “the war was going nowhere” and he “disliked that so many Marines were getting killed”—all true sentiments, of course. Who could blame him? Many serving on the front lines seethe with disgust for war. They see a different kind of truth. “I threw my rifle down many times in the dirt demanding, When will it end?” John admits. “Then I’d realize, shit!, now I have to clean my rifle.”
This interview is a production of the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, in partnership with the Veterans Breakfast Club. It was recorded August 25, 2014 at VFW Post 128 in Rochester, Pennsylvania. Interviewer and audio: Kevin Farkas.
Stories from the Veterans Breakfast Club
While many Vietnam veterans regretfully wish they’d written about their military experiences—before the memories began to fade irretrievably into middle age or worse—Aliquippa’s John Barber manages to preserve his story as a young Marine infantryman in raw and powerful detail through his personal memoir, Vietnam Requiem.
As moving as it is authentic, Barber’s physical and emotional journey to and from the war in Southeast Asia reminds us that history is never really in the past, especially for combat veterans. Barber spent two years slogging through countless search and destroy missions. Order of the day: kill or be killed. It was the kind of work so amazingly captured by the shocking realism of famed Life Magazine photographer, Larry Burrows.
John Barber can tell us all about these famous photographs. He’s in one of them, standing on a hilltop with fellow Marines, their hands interlocked. Heads lowered in prayer. Voices mumbling. Dear Lord, give us strength. Save us from our enemies. It’s kill or be killed down here.
John Barber is not a professional writer, but he is a remarkable, effective storyteller and accidental historian of the Vietnam War. After all, he’s an authority on the subject. He was there. As such, his memoire teaches us more than we thought we already knew about the war; it is so much more than a catalog of names, dates, and places. It is a life lesson:
Although I was only in Vietnam just shy of two years, it seems like it lasted a lifetime. I remember just about everything that happened there, from the intense fire fights and the heart-pounding will to stay alive to the never-ending search and destroy missions and the constant pressure to perform well in combat–as I was trained by the Marine Corps. Watch your ass. Take care of your buddy. It’s kill or be killed.
Vietnam was another life, almost fifty years ago, but its sights and smells still haunt me: the searing scent of jet-launched napalm raining down upon an enemy hot zone, bloated corpses and burning bodies, and the distinct musky whiff of dark dung water slowly seeping through an emerald-green rice paddy. There were times I thought Vietnam was so damn beautiful and peaceful, and just about then all Hell’d break loose and somebody would try to kill me. After awhile, I became blinded by the constant danger; it was all I could see or cared about.
But that was a long, long time ago. The war is now over, at least on paper. I’m here because I survived combat. Hell, I survived a lot of other things in Vietnam, too. Only now do I realize how those experiences continue to shape my life and teach me to value important things—even everyday stuff that can really matter. Often when I’m down and out about something, I just have to look at the gleaming golden eagle, globe and anchor of my Marine Corps emblem and think about my two years in Vietnam. I think about the guys who never made it home to their families. And suddenly, as if emerging from a darkened tunnel into the daylight, those things worrying me don’t seem so bad.