CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 9th Marine Regiment
Date: September 16, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Jon Furson
Carmelo Burgaretta is a United States Marine Corps veteran. He served as a rifleman in I[ndia] Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment from 1966 to 1967 in South Vietnam, achieving the rank of Lance Corporal. During his time “in-country,” Burgaretta’s company participated in numerous “search and destroy” missions in and near the “Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ) near the North Vietnamese border.
Burgaretta was born in October, 1945 in Pozzallo, Sicily, Italy. His father served in the Italian army during World War II, and the family emigrated to the United States in 1956, settling in Brooklyn, New York. While growing up, Burgaretta enjoyed watching John Wayne World War II movies. He was so deeply impressed by them that he chose the United States Marine Corps when given a service option when he, along with nine of his former high school classmates, was drafted on January 29, 1966.
Burgaretta was assigned to Parris Island for basic training. He recalled that his experience there had him feeling as if he were “playing a part in a movie.” At one point during training, Burgaretta happened to laugh, which caused a drill sergeant to scream at him. It was the last time he laughed at Parris Island. Following basic training, Burgaretta was assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and then Camp Pendleton, California, for advanced instruction in tactics and weaponry. On July 5th, 1966, he flew to Vietnam, landing at Da Nang. Burgaretta recalled that his first impression of Vietnam was of the “100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity.” The accommodations were not exactly first rate either, and got worse. During his time in Vietnam, he went from sleeping in beds, to cots, to tent floors.
On September 3, 1966, Burgaretta’s company was ambushed during a search and destroy mission. Five men were killed and fifteen wounded, and another company was rushed to the unit’s assistance to help beat back the ambush. The Marines managed to kill ten Viet Cong in the fight. On September 5, India Company went out on patrol again, and a booby trap exploded and killed a Marine, whose body was literally blown to pieces. During these search and destroy missions, the Marines burned down a number of villages thought to be the hideouts of Viet Cong sympathizers. Following a series of these expeditions, Burgaretta’s company withdrew from the field, for a month of training in a location east of Khe Sanh.
On March 30, 1967, India Company, divided by its commander to guard separate posts, lost fifteen marines killed, when part of the unit was overrun by North Vietnamese troops. During the attack, Burgaretta’s platoon leader was wounded. An enemy soldier fired directly at Burgaretta, but the bullet went over his head, missing him by a few inches. He fired back and killed the attacker; and, a short time after, killed another North Vietnamese.
In the quiet following the fight, Burgaretta heard someone yelling for help. He ran out and found captured Marines tied up by the enemy. Five more Marines and a helicopter arrived to assist in the rescue operation, as well as retrieve the bodies of fallen Marines. At one point, Burgaretta turned around and saw no one behind him, but one dead North Vietnamese and one dead Marine. He saw some people to his front and, thinking they were fellow Americans, called out to let them know where he was. Burgaretta soon realized, however, that they were enemy soldiers and threw a grenade at them. He heard screaming and threw another grenade, and then more Marines appeared and helped him retreat.
During his time in Vietnam, Burgaretta says he “learned to cope with intense situations by lightening up and telling jokes.” After serving in the field for eight months, he was given five days of “Rest and Recuperation” or “R&R” leave. While on the way to Taiwan, Burgaretta stayed with a friend in the Air Force, and he realized the dramatic difference in living conditions in Vietnam between the Air Force and the Marines. He was amazed by the fact the airmen were provided with mattresses, air conditioning, hot meals, ice cream and cold beer on their base. On returning to his unit from this trip, Burgaretta jokingly questioned, “what the hell are we doing wrong here?”
Following his R&R, Burgaretta returned to Camp Carroll near Khe Sanh, from where his company was beginning a new cycle of search and destroy operations. On July 30, India Company, advancing alongside Bravo Company, was attacked near the DMZ. The two companies lost seventy-eight men killed and wounded between them. Burgaretta was detailed to retrieve the bodies of the dead, and he was shot at during the process. While he was performing this grisly task, his friend was being interviewed by a television news correspondent named John Johnson. As soon as the firing started, Johnson and his TV crew ran for a nearby helicopter to leave the area.
Three days following this event, Burgaretta’s friend Slim was hit by shrapnel during a North Vietnamese artillery barrage. Unfortunately it became impossible to airlift Slim to a hospital, due to the heavy fire, and he died. Under cover of the barrage, the enemy charged India Company’s position, but the Marines were reinforced by Alpha company, and heavy fire from the two companies killed many of the North Vietnamese attackers. Burgaretta was involved in more operations before he finally left the field on August 1, to board a plane to America two days later.
After returning home, Burgaretta felt guilty. He told people “it’s not the movies. It’s not John Wayne. It’s not good.” People would ask him how many people he killed. Burgaretta found it difficult and unnatural to sleep in a bed, so he began sleeping on the floor, and he often forgot he was home. At the time he wished he had his M16. Reflecting back on it, Burgaretta recalls being “angry.” It took a while for him to calm down.
Burgaretta began to develop severe anxiety, especially on crowded subways, and he decided it was best to avoid the subway. One day while he was walking on Wall Street, a truck lost control and ran into two women. Burgaretta instinctively ran towards them to help; and, when he arrived at the scene, he saw that one woman had the “same look of death” he remembered from Vietnam. The woman indeed died, although the other woman survived. On his way home that night, Burgaretta thought he was having a heart attack, and his anxiety began to worsen. He began to self-medicate with alcohol; but, he couldn’t tell his wife why he was drinking so much. Burgaretta gave her fabricated excuses, as he found it “demeaning” to tell her the truth.
In 1985, Burgaretta had a reunion with men from his unit for the first time since he had left Vietnam. His friends made him aware of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); and, his wife subsequently took him to a doctor, who asked had he served in Vietnam, and diagnosed him as suffering from PTSD. Although Burgaretta received help, his anxiety did not go away entirely. He started talking more openly with people about the war and his problems, and he recently began receiving assistance at a Veterans Administration facility. Carmelo Burgaretta currently resides with his wife in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.