CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
John Egger was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was an instructor at the nearby United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Egger’s uncles all served in World War II, and one was captured by the Germans and held as a POW for two and a half years. Despite that traumatic experience, his uncle still discussed his time as a POW with Egger.
Egger always had a strong interest in the military, and he remembered being fascinated by the stories told by World War II veterans. He acquired a collection of German war trophy souvenirs as a teenager but had to relinquish them, when his Greek mother forbade any Nazi memorabilia in their home. Egger recalled reading about the Vietnam War in newspapers when he was in high school, and he watched the struggle there increase in intensity. Acting on the belief that he would be drafted, Egger decided to enlist in the Marine Corps, as he thought he would receive better training there than in other branches of service, as well as be better prepared for civilian life after the war. He left for Parris Island, South Carolina boot camp the day after he graduated from high school in June 1965.
Egger was very thin and weighed only 130 pounds, which earned him the boot camp nickname “Skeleton.” He was not, however, the smallest person in his platoon. His best friend, Mike Scanlon, was 5’1” and had to get Congressional approval to enlist in the Marines. Egger remembered assisting Scanlon in performing pull ups by lifting him, since he couldn’t reach the bar. Unfortunately, his friend was killed in Vietnam, and Egger is still very emotional about his loss. He told the interviewer that his drill instructor would slap and punch him daily, and that the instructor told him later that he knocked him around to “toughen him up” due to his small stature. The same Drill Instructor later introduced Egger to another platoon by pointing to him and saying, “this is a marine.”
Following basic training, Egger’s platoon was split up for advanced training in different skills. He was sent to Memphis, Tennessee to attend aviation school and then to Lakehurst, New Jersey for aircraft carrier “launch and recovery” training. Egger recalled instructors at Lakehurst showing a cautionary video of a cable snapping and taking off the feet of a crew member on the USS Forrestal.
After completing his training at Lakehurst, Egger was sent to Camp Pendleton, California, for “POW simulation training,” which involved being transported to the middle of nowhere to be “taken prisoner” by Spanish-speaking marines who only gave the “prisoners” a sock full of vegetables and rice. The objective of the simulation was to teach the students to escape and hide in the woods for three days.
Egger arrived in Vietnam in March 1966. After leaving San Francisco, his plane made stops at Guam, Wake Island, and Okinawa before landing at Da Nang. The first thing he saw at Da Nang was smoke on the runway caused by shelling the previous night. Egger recalled the climate as being very hot, with temperatures that sometimes reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunburn was a huge problem, and soldiers who spent too much time in the sand without boots on would burn their feet and be unable to walk for a week. The Marines shared the base with Air Force personnel, who had much better barracks than they did. Egger complained about this, but discovered that the Air Force area also had to deal with more rocket attacks since it was a hotter target.
While serving at Da Nang, Egger went on a week of R&R leave in Hong Kong. On return, he was transferred to Squadron 12, stationed at the then under construction Marine Air Base at Chu Lai. That unit’s task was to prepare the primitive base for expanded operations. On arrival at Chu Lai, Egger was shocked at how small and poorly defended the base was. The commanding officer told him the area was surrounded by Viet Cong, and that they were only protected by barbed wire and Marine infantrymen. Egger’s unit was detailed to recover damaged aircraft returning from bombing missions over Hanoi.
It took over two weeks for Squadron 12 to set up gear on the runway before they started to “trap” landing planes to prevent them from overrunning the runway. The pilots who were “trapped” compared the process to riding a rollercoaster. Egger’s crew had a few close calls – in one instance a plane couldn’t properly land because it didn’t have a tail hook to catch the trap cable. The plane slid off the runway and flipped into a pond. Fortunately, the pilot survived without a scratch. In another incident, when Egger was on guard duty, a plane with a 400-pound bomb aboard caught fire and leaked jet fuel on the runway. He called his sergeant to resolve the situation; and, fortunately the bomb did not explode.
Egger was honorably discharged on March 12, 1969. He moved to New Jersey on the advice of his brother, who was also in the military and stationed at Fort Hancock. Egger worked as a New Jersey Transit police officer; and, one of his partners was another Vietnam veteran who had been wounded three times. Among Egger’s Marine Corps service awards were the Navy Unit Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two stars, USMC Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal for his service.
While the interviewer prepared and researched MAG-12 Marines in Chu Lai prior to the recording of this veteran oral history, she received a unique response from a USMC veteran in California, David Prendergast. He told Carol Fowler he had been trying to find Egger for the last 37 years! The Marines who served in Chu Lai with Marine Air Group 12 had held reunions, but Egger had never participated. A surprise was planned for him, where six local members of his Vietnam unit showed up to his oral history luncheon, as did the father of Egger’s best friend in the Marine Corps! Elderly Tom Scanlon was located by Ms. Fowler; and, he drove from Connecticut to New Jersey to meet the Vietnam veteran who had named his only child after his late son, Michael Scanlon.
The experience of opening up during the interview process changed Egger’s life significantly. He and his wife began attending reunions with the veterans from the unit. Healing took place for someone who never spoke before about what he had gone through, even to those closest to him. Egger went to the Vietnam Memorial and was welcomed home by the volunteer tour guides. This veteran oral history experience stands out as an example of how cathartic it can be for those who have served and given of themselves to embrace that part of their identity again.