CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Charles C. Gallagher
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 1st / 3rd Marine Divisions
Date: August 14, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Alexandra Stantzos
Charles Gallagher was born in February 1946, immediately after World War II. He grew up in Irvington, New Jersey in a military family. Although no one talked much about it, his mother and uncle served in World War II in the Navy and Army. At age 10, Gallagher lost his father. During his teenage years, he was taken from his mother and sent to live in Keansburg, New Jersey with his older sister Gail. At the age of 17, Gallagher dropped out of high school. His interest in the military was sparked by a friend of his. The friend also dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Marine Corps and then told Gallagher that he would never be able to handle the training required to become a Marine. Despite his friend’s and his sister’s warnings, Gallagher had his mind set on the Marines. After four attempts to enlist, he was accepted in November 1963, and then sent to Parris Island in South Carolina to train for five months.
At Parris Island, Gallagher learned the importance of unit comradery, an ideal that stuck with him for the rest of his life. After Parris Island, he moved to Camp Geiger, North Carolina, for advanced infantry training. Gallagher’s time in the military provided a definite culture shock, as he went from being a “punk teenager,” cleaning tables in a pool hall in order to play for free, to becoming a responsible young man. He stated that the Marines turned him from a “non-thinking human being” into someone who discovered how to learn and live on his own. Gallagher earned his GED while a member of the Corps. From North Carolina, he and his fellow Marines moved to Camp Pendleton, California, where they reported to the 7th Marine Regiment, then were sent to Okinawa for more training as part of the 9th Marine Regiment in the 3rd Marine Division. For thirty days, they learned how to deal with guerrilla warfare by being thrown into realistic tactical situations, with other Marines acting as guerrillas. Once they completed training, Gallagher’s unit got to become the guerrillas for a new trainee group.
When the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred in August 1964, Gallagher and his unit boarded the USS Renville. They were kept on alert status, and floated around the South China Sea for some time, in case they were needed in Vietnam. Food began to run low, and morale dipped, but the men on board did what they could to entertain themselves. They were interested in calisthenics and boxing and would often have boxing matches on deck. Gallagher reflected on this time and said that his sense of humor was the chief thing that helped him get him through. If they could laugh at small, silly things, it could make all the difference.
Gallagher told a story about when his unit finally got restocked with food supplies. One man in his unit stole the captain’s canned strawberries; and, for days the enlisted men shared a few cans of the fruit they hadn’t had for months. Fortunately, they didn’t get in trouble; a few days later, a message on the intercom rang out throughout the ship asking for whoever stole the strawberries to return them as the captain would like them back.
The Renville eventually docked in the Philippines, for the Marines to receive additional survival training in jungle conditions. Two weeks later, they boarded the LPD-2, aka The Vancouver. landed in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, and then were deployed in the defense of Danang Airbase. Gallagher recalled how hot it was in Vietnam and said that during routine patrols, men would pass out from heatstroke, especially if they only had two canteens of water. He spent a few days in sick bay, suffering from dehydration.
In July of 1965, the unit returned to the United States on leave, and were warned that protesters might be waiting to greet them in San Diego. After his initial period of leave, Gallagher was given two options in continuing his service; he could have become a Military Policeman, or he could stay with the 5th Marines in San Diego and become a cook. He chose the cook option for a while, but did not enjoy it much; when given the chance to switch, he rejoined the infantry. Before Gallagher knew it, he was back in Vietnam, in Chu Lai with Bravo Company, First Battalion. Seventh Marine Regiment, with which he served on a number of operations.
On patrol, Gallagher was skilled at spotting traps for his fellow Marines, so therefore became their point man on patrols. Twice he spotted traps that could have maimed or killed his men, bravely helping his squad leader keep their group safe. Gallagher continued such actions when he helped as a cook in Chu Lai, and he assisted in guarding the camp during an ambush at a neighboring village.
After his tour in Vietnam ended, Gallagher was sent back to Quantico, Virginia, where he was discharged as a corporal. He found he had to snap back to reality and live like an average citizen. Gallagher explained that he had a very hard time adjusting to civilian life, and said: “You can’t take a man that lived like an animal and try to domesticate him.” After being offered a jobs working for the military in the Reserves at Picatinny Arsenal, or to transition to the police force in DC, he refused to take off one uniform to don another, saying that four years of service was enough.
Throughout his struggles transitioning to civilian life, Gallagher battled PTSD and alcoholism. There came a time where he found his need to drink was more important than his work, and he asked his business manager at his contracting job for help. At the time, Gallagher was married with a son. He struggled through rehab and didn’t experience much improvement. It wasn’t until Gallagher applied himself and changed his environment that AA and rehab proved to be a success. He said he thought: “I survived the drugs and the violence in Newark. I survived 19 months in a combat zone and here I’m killing myself with alcohol.” His son was 10, the same age Gallagher was when he lost his father, and he wanted to see his son grow up. So, he turned his life around.
Much of this success in transforming from a Vietnam veteran with no direction to a man with a purpose came from his VFW group, as well as from seeking out comradery of fellow veterans who Gallagher could connect with. In 1989, he joined the VFW and then became more active in his community. Gallagher was the commander of his VFW Post at one point, and has been the head of the VFW Honors Society for a while, enjoying the work they do with veteran hospitals. He also went to a Veterans Administration medical center in 1972; and, he wished they had been more proactive in helping him with his PTSD during the aftermath of Vietnam. Gallagher valued the treatment they provided him when it came to physical effects from Agent Orange. He wished more veterans would join organizations such as the VFW, because they are a wonderful way to meet and bond with men who have similar experiences, helping to strengthen that strong bond of comradery that he enjoyed while serving in the Marines.
Gallagher concluded by hoping that, when he passes away, his final resting place is not in New Jersey, but in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. His reasoning is simple: “I want to be buried with my brothers.”