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Back to Vietnam

Back to Vietnam

The end of 2018 is fast approaching, and all year people have been marking the 50th anniversaries of the momentous events of 1968. A half-century since the Tet Offensive, a major turning point in the Vietnam War. A half-century since the shattering assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the violence in the streets at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the widespread student protests; the astronauts of Apollo 8 making a triumphant Christmastime trip around the Moon; and, on March 31st, Lyndon Johnson stunning the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Also on that March 31st, 50 years ago and more than 8,000 miles from LBJ and Washington, D.C., another momentous event played out for U.S. Seabees and Marines near Phu Loc, Vietnam, when they were attacked not once but twice by a combine force Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars.

Some of those Seabees and Marines would be killed, others injured. None of the survivors would ever forget. And 50 years later to the day — March 31, 2018 — one of those surviving Seabees found a profound way to mark the heroism and loss of life. He returned to the site of the attacks with family members of his fallen comrades, next-of-kin he’d reached out to, at first never planning on going back to Vietnam together.

The extraordinary mission was the undertaking of Judge Richard King, who sits on the bench of the Superior Court of California in Orange County. Before his current appointment, he was a homicide prosecutor, law professor, and attorney. But Rick King began as a Navy man, enlisting in late 1965 and getting assigned to the Seabees. As with everything he says, King is straightforward, recalling, “When I graduated from high school, I was near the bottom of my class. I think I was 100th from the bottom of my class out of 900 people. Basically, I was just going to operate heavy equipment the rest of my life. And then I knew I was going to get drafted, so I signed up.”

That decision changed everything. “If you look at what my life was prior to 1965 and then you look at what happened afterwards, after I got out, well, there’s something very significant that happened in between. And that was being a member of the Seabees,”  King says. He achieved the rank of Equipment Operator 2nd Class, and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, operating bulldozers as he and fellow Seabees built roads, air strips and bridges. He was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V” for assisting in treating the wounded and for retrieving the wounded and dead for helicopter evacuation that day 50 years ago.

(Detail Echo Operations, 1968)

King, who decades later did extensive research into the details of March 31, 1968, says it was about two o’clock in the morning when more than 200 combined forces of the North Vietnamese regular army and the Viet Cong attacked, with a second attack coming later that morning at around eight o’clock. “The first thing that comes to mind is the loss of life of six Seabees, two who I knew very well, as well as those 16 Marines who were defending a bridge about four miles down from our camp, as well as the two Marines who were in the helicopter that was the initial medevac that was coming to pick up our wounded before the second attack.”

His recollections remained vivid, but decades later he was moved to learn the backstory of that deadly day. “At the time, I was 20 years old, and I went out there and I was operating a power shovel. I was also part of the blasting crew. But the backdrop I did not know. What caused the battle resulting in this incredible loss of life, not only for the Seabees but for the Marines as well?”

King did a lot of research into March 31st, 1968, and found a key was a mighty American weapon:  long-range 8-inch guns. “The bridge was going to be attacked. That’s what caused the enemy to send a detachment to attack these 8-inch guns. These weapons were very lethal in the eyes of the enemy. They could shoot a round, a shell, for many, many miles. And this is all before computers. What I understand, it was all radio communication. So they knew at the beginning of the attack, the enemy, from what I’ve been able to gather from this information, that those 8-inch tanks would be called upon to provide support. So they started the attack on our camp to wipe out those 8-inch guns, and it was our Seabee mortar team that was able to suppress and repel their attack.”

While King learned more of the what and why of the attacks, it was the who that never left his mind. “I retrieved the bodies shortly after the attack, and the wounded one, we got him to the corpsmen very quickly, so that’s what my conduct was. But the real heroes are those who died.”

King reflects on the arbitrary nature of it all, and, as he puts it, “how random death can be.” He says, “Those six guys were assigned to the mortar detachment. I’m sure that was somewhat random. I’m sure it was random that 8-inch tank coming into our camp. That’s why we were attacked, because that tank was in there. That’s what the randomness in the war is about. The first person who was mortally wounded, Jim Galati, he was sleeping in a tent and his round, I’m sure, and the fragments, randomly hit that place.”

James Galati. The first Seabee to die that day. Five others from Detail Echo, in Vietnam working to widen a stretch of Highway 1 between Da Nang and Hue, would also be killed on March 31, 1968.

James Galati. Allan Mair. George DeShurley. Mark Hodel. John Peek. James Retzloff. Six names that became indelibly etched in Rick King’s mind.

James Galati
Allan Mair
George DeShurley
Mark Hodel
John Peek
John Retzloff, Jr.

“The impact of the loss has been for 50 years. And it’s still so real.” Those names never left his mind.

In 2000, when he was appointed a Superior Court judge by the Governor of California, King contacted Rob DeShurley, Jr., whose father George was killed that day in 1968, and invited him to the swearing-in ceremony. King says, “It was a tremendous honor for me for him to be there. And when I did give the speech after you’re sworn in, the last thing that I did talk about was how these six people died as heroes.”

Then, in 2012, at the age of 65, Rick King faced another turning point in his life. He was diagnosed with one of the dozen recognized cancers caused by Agent Orange. King says the diagnosis was the motivation for reaching out to the next-of-kin and eventually returning to Vietnam on the anniversary of the battle.

“Going through that phase where you’re upset, you’re angry, you’re saying ‘why me?’ and then all of a sudden I realized that those guys who gave their lives, they didn’t have the 50 years that I had.” So, King took action. “I then went on that journey to attempt to locate the next-of-kin,” he says, with one goal in mind. “To be able to share with them what I knew about how their loved one died as a hero.”

So, having already connected with George DeShurley’s family years earlier, he sent letters to the families of the other five, introducing himself and sharing basic details of March 31, 1968. He said, in part:

I would like to make contact with you if that’s acceptable.  

I have some documents of our time in Vietnam.

I would very much like to share these documents with you.

“I made the first contact with Jim Retzloff’s brother, who was 14 when he died,” King says. “He reached out to me after I sent him a letter. I mentioned to him, you know I may go back. And then he said, ‘well, I’ll go with you.’ And that’s how that happened.”

And on it went.

“The next family that I made contact with was Mark Hodel’s family. He had an older brother and a younger brother. The younger brother was seven at the time that his brother passed. So we met. It was the same reaction. I gave him the information and then I said, ‘Now I’m thinking about going.’ And then he said, ‘Well, I’d like to consider going with you.’ And then it was everyone who I contacted after that.”

King will never forget meeting with Jim Retzloff’s brother, Ken. “He’s a great guy, and he’s a big guy, and we got to the point where I told him how his brother died as a hero, and he physically started to shake and I sort of backed off, and he goes, ‘No, no, I want to hear it. He was my big brother. He protected me.’ And that was just so real 50 years after the fact, his loss and the impact it had on him.”

That kind impact was something King had seen before. “I had some experience in loss of life because before I was a judge I was a homicide prosecutor for 15 years. I was constantly meeting families of homicide victims. It was just so real when you look at the loss of life and how it impacts the family.”

The randomness of life. The impact of loss. So many things struck King, who was dealing with cancer and connecting with the next-of-kin of the deceased Seabees. Another thing that struck him was the passing of time. “It’s just hard to believe it was 50 years. But that’s what people say — the older you get, time just seems to kick into fifth gear.” He adds, “Time does not diminish the impact of the loss.”

Eventually, joined by the family members who chose to accompany him — brothers, a sister and a daughter — Rick King returned to Vietnam. And on March 31, 2018, at exactly 8 a.m., the group stood at the site of that deadly battle a half-century earlier.

Greater love has no one than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

They shared that Biblical quote, and talked, reminisced, and asked and answered questions about those they loved — and lost.

(Judge King with family members of the fallen at the site in Vietnam.)

King said he couldn’t believe how the jungle had overtaken the rock quarry that was at that spot in 1968. “We stripped that place. We bulldozed that place. We blasted the mountain to get to the rock. And I couldn’t get over the vegetation. On my iPhone I had pictures of the camp 50 years earlier, and one of the pictures was the cross that was constructed shortly after the attack that had the names of the people who died that day. And I knew that was the site. That picture was taken looking out toward that lagoon, and there were marks there like the sign of an island. And then there were pictures that I had of me that were taken looking away from the lagoon, showing the contour of the hill, and I also had pictures that I took of the contours on the left and on the right.” King also had a map, and says without the photos and map, he never would have been able to find where his fellow Seabees died—a place where rock had yielded to jungle.

Other things had changed, too. “When you look at the memorial that we had, and everybody is speaking, you look in the back and you see these power lines that were not there. You’re hearing traffic from Highway 1, the very highway we built. You actually see people that are walking up on the ridge. In other words, this place, life is going on. Life is there. And to think that 50 years earlier, at that time, at that spot, there was this horrific battle. Life goes on there. You can hear it. You can see it.”

By the time the Vietnam War ended, a total of 85 Seabees had been killed in action. Six of them died that March day 50 years ago.

King does not want the spotlight on himself. “I just really wanted to put on the record — I was no hero that day. I really wasn’t. There were people who did a lot more heroic things than I ever did. I just felt that I had an obligation to attempt to contact the next-of-kin to tell them how their loved ones died as heroes.”

Mission accomplished.

Editor’s note:  For more details about the March 31, 1968 battle, how Judge Richard King connected with families, and their trip to Vietnam (including links to videos of the memorial they held on the 50th anniversary) please see the story in The Orange County Register, reported by Keith Sharon. 

26 Comments
  1. A great story, thanks for sharing it. I was in Vietnam as a CB in ‘70 with MCB 3, we also lost hero’s on our deployment. I often think of my my friends and fortunately we have a reunion group and we get together every year. Agent Orange I’m sure is effecting me and it has affected many of my friends as well. I can’t run from it, I just deal with it. I really enjoyed reading your story and I think it’s terrific that you were able to bring surviving family members to Vietnam and I’m sure it brought peace and closure to them.

  2. Well presented; Thanks Roger C Necas Hm1 Usn Ret MCB 9 Stat 0904 . 0906 / 1962 – 1965

  3. Rick “ Thank you “ Senator Jerry Ward • Alaska MCN 72 A co EO
    I had the honor of being with you that day 🇺🇸

  4. Jerry Ward MCB 62

  5. MCB 62

  6. Howdy, Virgil Gosch here. I was a steel worker assigned to equipment repair with MCB 3. I was not with MCB-3 when they got attacked at Phu Bai at the beginning of Tet however, when MCB-3 returned to Da Nang that summer i would be with them. I made numerous trips over the Hia Phong pass and if I remember correctly there was a ville, Phu Loc at the base of the pass on the north side. An armored deuce and half with a quad fifty set at the Hwy 1 bridge but I never saw anyone aboard. Spent the last 5 months of tour at the mouth of the Hue and Perfume river on the edge of Hue with a batch plant paving Hwy 1 north. Thank you Reminiscing, now both good and the bad.

    • Virgil, I was on detachment in Hue at bridge 5 by citael in 68 -69 MCB 10. We built loading ramp sea huts n metal butler buildings for aspalt plant. I believe MCB 3 relieved us there since an asphalt plant was built after we left for Camp Evans.

  7. I was there that night and was Jim Retzlofs squad leader and I was also the person who took and summitted the photo of the memorial we built for them plus we assisted and moved the bodies to the underground medical that we had built earlier.I would love to get in touch with Jim Retzlofs brother and also Keith if they are willing .

  8. Great article Rick. That was a super thing you did taking their family members over there. You are the best. Warm regards my friend. Jack.

  9. Really good story.God bless all of you!)

  10. Congradulatons on your accomplishments.
    Member MCB 9 now have lukemia.
    Leaving in Toronto Canada since 75.
    Still fighting for benefits from Cancer.
    100 percent plus now.
    Lewis Chaitov

    • i was in nmcb 9 danang 66/67 eoh cn did heavy equip transfer
      across area

  11. Was with Mcb1 got sent to Phu Loc June3 68 to build huts & new mortar pits finished up June 21 went back to Danang then went back to do security on July 8 till August 28 got mortared once in that time they walked the mortars in where the original mortar pits were guys from Mcb 7 got wounded they had a detachment there running 2nd crusher seeing that hill there brought back a lot of memories stared at it every night my bunker was right at the base of it. Always thought I would want to go back but belong to Island X3 Pittsburgh & one of our members went ther a couple years ago took tons of pictures didn’t really see anything that looked like I could remember lost any desire to go back. Very Admirable of you to take the boys family there Can Do

  12. Thank you for sharing this story with us. I currently serve with NMCB14, and have served with NMCB24 and NMCB28. My father, a US Army Vietnam Vet, also shared with me his stories of bravery from the Seabees that served in Vietnam.

  13. Thank you, your honor, for your diligent research and trip. I spent my last six months (6/69 -12/69) in Nam in Phu Bai in a small maintenance detachment so I am very familiar with this area. Dropped out of college to become a ???? Fortunate enough get into the Navy and to be selected for EA “A” school after boot camp. Proud to say that my time in the Bees was a growth/maturation time for me.

    We all did what we were called to do. My heart goes out to those who paid the ultimate price and especially to the family members left behind.

  14. Bill Kays MCB9 Thank you sir. I was in Vietnam in 1966 as an CEW3. I have often tried to contact fellow seabees in my battlion with no sucess. I never knew that we had loss so many seabees in Vietnam. Many of a night I sat in my bunker wondering if and when we were going to be attacked.

  15. Thanks for your story. I was with MCB 11 during its two tours ’67 (Dong Ha) and ’68 (Quang Tri). MCB 11 was Marvin Shields’ home battalion, a true hero fully recognized with his Congressional Medal of Honor. I was at Detail Khe Sahn and with SMC Donald Barnes when he was killed as was a man from MCB 4 whose name I unfortunately now forget. The MCB 11 Association recently sponsored a “50th Anniversary Memories Initiative” that encouraged our guys to write their stories. Twenty five of them (including mine) can be found at http://www.mcb11.com. as can my earlier story of finding my MCB 11 buddy Cliff Mullen’s grave site, 48 years after he died from his wounds on January 3, 1969. My search also turned up Cliff’s two brothers. I was able to spend a few hours with one of them. That story is also on the MCB 11 website. It is a story similar to your own, absent the visit back to Vietnam. Thanks for writing it!

  16. I was their may 1968 Jan 1969 some time as tet. M C B 1 . Their was another Battalion in same wire that received motor fire that nightSome Seabees where hurt don’t remember how bad . Don’t remember what battalion: I worked on night crew our crusher was down so our lights where off .iThe other battalion was working with lite on . The P&H shovel looks familiar. I operated a Northwest “6” shovel in rock face . Bring back memories

  17. Marvin g. Shields HM

    First Seabee killed in Vietnam

  18. M g. Shields

    Medal of Honor

    Only Seabee so bestowed.

  19. CM3 Shields

  20. As squad leader(BUR-2)with NMCB1,I deployed with my squad to Phu Loc circa July 68 for perimeter security duty. Our mortar pits were not in the same exact location as the original pits as they were already targeted (good thing as mortars were dropped there during my watch). My area of responsibility was at the base of hills 501 and 502. Army brought in artillery and set up near our camp which got us a lot of attention from the bad guys. I served with some very good and brave SEABEES at Phu Loc quarry.

  21. Thoroughly enjoyed your story. My wife and I spent three weeks in Vietnam in May, 2018. We visited MCB-9’s Camp Adenair in Danang now a beach resort area and Seabee Team 0908’s camp in Nui Sap in the Mekong Delta now a housing area. It was a very memorable experience. The Vietnam of 2018 is far different then the Vietnam of the mid 1960s.

  22. Just thought i would put in a shout about ACB-1 (64-65) chu-lai. Built the runway and put in landing docks for supply ships to land. Camp shields was what it was called. Was assigned to ltcdr Todd. We called it todds little acker. We would build the runway during the day, they would mortar it at night, we called it job security. I am so proud of the guys i served with. I would not trade it for anything in the world. My only prayer was that no one would ever have to experience war again. (Of course that never happened) so the next best thing is that one generation would never forget the next generation of warriors. Thank you all your service to this country.

  23. What a compelling story. It must have been very satisfying for you to bring that memory to full circle. I was an officer with MCB9 from Sept. of 1967 to its decommissioning in late 1969. As a boot Ensign in 67 when we arrived at Camp Hoover i was in charge of Special Services and all the clubs so I got to know a lot of the men of MCB9. I remember Jim Retzloff very well and the conversations we had in the Special Services hut about golf. Funny how certain things stick with you. I was at Camp Hoover on the that dredful day we received the news of the attack at Detail Echo. I would return to Vietnam during our deployment to Okinawa as the OIC of our detachment to MCB5 at Camp DeShurley and spent 4 more months in country. It was a memorable visit going back to Camp DeShurley. I have a lot pictures of the place as I was the designated photographer for the Cruise Book. Your story brought back many memories. During a visit to the Wall I found Jim’s name and took a rubbing of his name which I keep with the picture of the Cross in the cruise book. Thank you again for your story.

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