CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Terrence J. Fearon was born in February 1947 in Summit, New Jersey. He grew up on a horse farm at Watchung Reservation in Union County. Fearon graduated from high school in 1964, when the Vietnam War was entering a critical phase. The following year he was notified that he was being drafted. Fearon traveled from his draft board with a busload of other young men to Plainfield, New Jersey, where he passed his physical examination for service. He was officially drafted into the army on December 7, 1965 and ordered to report to Fort Dix for basic and advanced training, before being assigned to a unit which might well be deployed to Vietnam. Fearon felt, however, that he needed more training before going to war, and was advised to enlist in the Navy by the father of a friend, who was a Navy captain.
The Navy recruiter in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was interested in enlisting experienced heavy equipment operators for the “Seabees,” the Navy’s construction and engineer outfit. Since Fearon grew up on a farm and had been a construction worker, he was an appropriate fit for the position, and he was accepted by the Navy. He went through boot camp at the United States Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois. Fearon then went on to advanced training at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center in Rhode Island, where he was assigned to the 21st Naval Construction Regiment. He received six months of training in the use of cranes, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment used by the Seabees.
At Davisville, Fearon’s daily duty involved waking up at about 5:00 AM, and, after dressing, being bussed from his barracks to training school. Training was held six days a week and lasted until about 6:00 p.m. He did not have much difficulty adjusting to military life, as he was filled with patriotic pride and excited to serve his country, as were the other men in his unit. At that early stage of the Vietnam War it seemed that everyone in the United States, from the government on down, was motivated to support a conflict portrayed as an effort to halt the advance of Communism.
In May of 1967, Terrence Fearon shipped out to Vietnam. He initially landed in Saigon; and, then Fearon was assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 6 (MCB-6) in Chu Lai, where he spent the next eight months. Fearon recalled that his first impression of Vietnam was that it was far different from the United States, even down to minor things like male and female bathroom doors leading to the same lavatory. It was a whole new world.
While serving in Vietnam, Fearon worked out of the Chu Lai Marine base. His unit was involved in ten different construction projects within a 50-mile radius of the base, working six and a half days a week on a 12 hour daily schedule. The Seabees built bomb storage depots, storage tanks, a hospital, a bridge and the Chu Lai airfield. Each morning, the men of Fearon’s battalion arrived at the heavy equipment yard before dawn each day for transportation to the various project areas. The yard was also, unfortunately, also the place where dead Marines in body bags were brought for further transport to rear areas.
On January 31, 1968, the Tet offensive, considered the “high point” of the war, began. A wave of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, equipped with Russian and Chinese supplies, trekked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and assaulted major cities and bases throughout Vietnam in a series of surprise attacks. Their targets included some of the facilities that Fearon’s unit was working at. One of his best friends, New Jerseyan James Scutere, was killed in action in February, yet the body was never recovered. Sniper fire was a constant. Another of Fearon’s fellow soldiers, named Gastineau, was killed right in front of him in a helicopter during Tet. Fearon said such incidents opened his eyes to the true cost of war.
Shortly after Tet, Fearon rotated back to the United States. Like many who served in Vietnam, he had mixed emotions about leaving. Fearon was happy to go home; yet, at the same time he felt guilty about leaving his comrades behind. When he arrived back at the Davisville, Rhode Island, base, Fearon was greeted by anti-war protesters. By this time public opinion was turning against the war, and he began to ask himself why we were even over there. Fearon considered that maybe it was a huge mistake.
Fearon recalled that fighting in Vietnam was different from other wars. It seemed like American troops were invading the Vietnamese homeland, and that many Vietnamese probably thought they were protecting their homes, which was the reason the fighting became so intense. Fearon and his fellow troops were told that they were saving Vietnam from Communism. It proved to be very difficult to expel people from their own homeland, however, even if they were Communists.
Upon returning to Davisville, Fearon worked in the 21st Regiment dispatcher’s office, in charge of the disposition of heavy construction vehicles on the base. He issued “trip tickets” to people who needed to check out a vehicle for work or training exercises. Fortunately, Fearon’s position precluded a second tour in Vietnam, and he continued in the job until the end of his service in May of 1971.
Terrence Fearon was negatively impacted by his service in Vietnam, developing PTSD to the point where he began ducking under doorways during fire drills. He tended to keep people at arms-length, because he was afraid of losing them, as he had his comrades in the war. Fearon began having flashbacks whenever he heard loud noises or was near construction sites like those he had worked on in Vietnam. He lost two things that were important to him, his Catholic faith and his childhood sweetheart. War made Fearon realize graphically that prayer cannot bring men back to life. He had fought in an unpopular war; and, he returned from it a completely different man. Fearon’s friends today are veterans who understand what he went through. He has, though, worked on causes that aid veterans and their families, and will continue to do so.