CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 3rd Marine Division
Date: March 14, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, Dean Medina
Summarizer: Dean Medina
Michael Quilty was born in 1946 to an Irish-American family in New York City. One night in 1965 when he was out with his friends — and a little tipsy to boot – Quilty joined in a pact to enlist in the military. None of the group wanted to be drafted, which seemed likely at the time, so they volunteered. Three of his friends enlisted in the Air Force, three in the Navy and Michael and another friend joined the Marine Corps.
With the blessing of his father, a U.S Army veteran, Quilty enlisted in November of 1964, taking advantage of an offer to enter active service the following month in exchange for a three-year active duty commitment, rather than the usual four year. He left for Parris Island on December 23. After completing basic training, Quilty went on to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, for advanced infantry training. In one rather bizarre incident, Quilty, who had annoyed his drill sergeant, was ordered to eat an apple pie while sitting next to a dog. In all, however, he did well and became proficient in the use of many different types of weapons.
After completing his training, Quilty was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division’s 9th Marine regiment, then serving in South Vietnam. He remarked that he was, in one way, lucky, as fighting in Vietnam was rather light in 1965 compared to what it would become in later years, although the assignment was still a dangerous one. Quilty landed at Da Nang and then moved to Chu Lai, where his unit was deployed in defensive operations around an expanding American base camp. The large bases that would characterize the war’s later years had not yet been built, although Navy Seabees had constructed makeshift airfields that would eventually develop into bases. The 9th Marines were assigned to defending these airfields, and Quilty was engaged in digging foxholes, bunkers, trenches and various other defensive works.
Although mostly serving as a rifleman, Quilty was also detailed to assisting with transporting Marines who had died, an experience he sorrowfully recalled as “sad.” Most of his days, however, were spent staring out from sandbagged bunkers along the base camp perimeter into an extremely dense jungle, awaiting a Vietcong attack. He referred to the first of a number of enemy attacks on the Chu Lai camp during his tour of duty as his “baptism by fire.” Quilty suddenly realized that his situation was “for real,” and life threatening. Despite the danger, however, he felt that his training got him through those tough days.
“They owned the night and we owned the day.”
Quilty remarked that most enemy attacks occurred at night when visibility was poor and many of the Americans were sleeping. He recalled that it wasn’t uncommon for airfield sentries to fall asleep at their posts, due to exhaustion from performing hard manual labor during the day. To alleviate this problem, night guard duty periods were brief, often only thirty minutes on duty before being relieved.
In a typical attack, the Vietcong would rush the perimeter from the shadows, trying to penetrate into the base and destroy or damage high value targets like aircraft, helicopters and supplies. During one of these attacks, the Vietcong successfully destroyed two aircraft, and Quilty received a shrapnel wound in his leg, causing an injury that still bothers him today. In most engagements with the Vietcong the Americans were victorious, but Quilty acknowledged his respect for the enemy’s tactical skill, saying “they owned the night and we owned the day.”
Quilty noted that the weather in tropical Vietnam was unbearably hot most of the time, punctuated with periodic heavy rain. Due to the intense heat, staying adequately hydrated was a necessity for soldiers, and he recalled that “we had to drink a lot of water.” Since the countryside was largely rural farmland and jungle, snakes, bugs, disease and infections were commonplace, necessitating good medical care beyond treatment of battle casualties. Quilty recalled that the field hospital in his area, which treated sick Marines as well as combat casualties, “had some of the best doctors you’ve ever seen.”
At the time of Quilty’s service in Southeast Asia, the standard issue rifle of the Marine Corps was the Springfield M-14. Essentially an updated and larger capacity magazine version of the famed World War II and Korea era M-1 Garand, the semiautomatic M-14, in 7.62 millimeter caliber, was a powerful, accurate and reliable weapon, but rather bulky and heavy for use in the dense jungles of Vietnam. The size of the M-14 led the military to adopt the cheaper, lighter and more compact M-16 in caliber 5.56 millimeter, which had the added advantages of having a full automatic capability and using much smaller cartridges, enabling a soldier to carry much more ammunition.
The M16 was initially issued to army troops in Vietnam and then, later on, to Marines. Quilty was never issued an M16 during his tour but did not regret the fact, as he preferred the M14. He cited the accuracy and reliability of the M14, which rarely malfunctioned in the field. Quilty recalled that he had heard horror stories of the early M-16 jamming (due, it was discovered, from the use of improper powder used in loading ammunition – ed.) and its lack of durability; although, he did concede that the M-14 was too heavy to be optimal in the environment of Vietnam.
In addition to his unit’s defensive operations, Quilty also participated in 1965 in Operation Starlite, one of the first American offensive campaigns against Vietcong forces. The operation made extensive use of helicopters, including the army’s UH-1 “Huey”. He noted that helicopters were some of the most helpful tools employed by the U.S military during the war, recalling that they often seemed to be everywhere in the sky. Quilty said he still has flashbacks of the sound and the feeling of riding in a helicopter.
Quilty remarked that in retrospect he wished the U.S had done more in Vietnam. He believed in the cause that the U.S was fighting for — bringing democracy to South Vietnam and stopping the spread of Communism as envisioned in the “Domino Theory.” Quilty recalled that, despite the fact the U.S won almost every single engagement with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, public support for the war plummeted in the United States when the enemy, despite heavy losses, showed no signs of giving up.
After returning home in early 1967, Quilty completed his three-year Marine Corps service in Norfolk, Virginia, where he worked in supply management. He then served an additional two years in the inactive reserve. Quilty was given the opportunity to volunteer to return to Vietnam, but declined, although he sometimes wonders if he should have done more.
Once he was a civilian again, Quilty used his GI Bill education benefits for an apprenticeship in glass manufacturing, an industry he worked in for a number of years. He married, and he and his wife raised three children. Quilty continues to honor veterans and share experiences through veteran support groups, which are, he stated, a “tremendous help” that he looks forward to participating in. He also works with fellow Vietnam veterans in school presentations throughout New Jersey, sharing his war experiences with young people.
Quilty looks back on his service with pride; although his leg wound and some of his experiences still trouble him, he believes his service “straightened him out.” He returned from the war determined to enter the workforce and be productive. Corporal Michael Quilty served with honor and service to his country, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.