Phu Bai was Lt. Col. John Campbell’s baptism of fire after decades in Corps

Capt. John Campbell is shown when he worked for the Marine Corps in the Philadelphia, Pa. area during the 1950s. He served 28 years in the Corps. Photo provided

John Campbell was gung-ho to join the Marine Corp. He quit high school in his sophomore year at 17 and became a “Leatherneck” in 1946.

Although the Japanese sundered aboard the Battleship Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, World War II didn’t end officially for the United States government until December 1946.

‘”Following boot camp at Parris Island I was assigned to a 90 millimeter anti-aircraft battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C. By the end of my first year in the Corps I had made corporal and was serving in the battalion’s fire control systems,” the 82-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. Marine recalled.

“After two years in the Corps I decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and go back to school. Even though I didn’t serve in World War II, I received a World War II Victory Medal and that qualified me for the G.I. Bill,” he explained. “I went back and competed my last two years of high school and four years later I got my degree from Syracuse University in Political Science. I also graduated as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps.”

He stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve and decided to go back in the regular Marines in 1955. He served a couple of tours as an artillery officer and a couple more in the corps advertising department.

“At one point I became an instructor in American Government at the U.S. Military Academy at Annapolis,” Campbell,” said. It was a good tour teaching the midshipmen at Annapolis.”

There were no discipline problems, but he remembers one incident vividly involving one of his midshipman.,

“I had one guy who fell asleep in my class. He was snoozing away. So before the bell rang, I had the whole class get up and tiptoe out of the room,” he said. “When the bell rang, he was sitting in my classroom by himself. I never said a word to him, but I think he got the message. He never slept in my class again.”

Campbell first saw battle when he went to Vietnam as an artillery major.

“The real war for me started when I went to Vietnam in 1967. I was sent to Phi Bai with the 4th Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment. It was a big Marine Corps base with its own airfield. I was the executive officer of the 4th Battalion,” he said.

“I was coming back from a visit with my dear wife in Hawaii when the enemy’s Tet Offensive started. We landed in Phu Bai, I got off the plane and reported to the 1st Artillery Group,” Campbell said. “They had just gone through an enemy mortar attack. They were all frustrated about the attack.

“The mess hall was serving super chow –steak, fresh vegetables and ice cream. I knew then what they were doing and why the great chow. They were cleaning out the refrigerators to make room for the bodies of dead Marines they knew were coming,” he said.

“I was in the mess hall finishing up my second bowl of ice cream when I was involved in my only case of bravado,” Campbell recalled with a chuckle. “I walked out of the mess and there was my Marine regiment lying in a ditch. I climbed into the ditch with my 1st sergeant holding my bowl of ice-cream.”

Much of his time in Vietnam was spent as the commander of a fire base along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Vietnam called Gio Linh.

“If you followed Route One, the main highway in Vietnam, it was right before ‘Freedom Bridge,’ going across the river into North Vietnam. We had a reinforced artillery battalion — 120 tubes of artillery, infantry and tanks as well” he said. “It was a busy place. We fired about 3,000 artillery rounds a day into North Vietnam from our base along the DMZ.

“One night our radar officer picked up 1,000 NVA (North Vietnam Army) coming our way. He called me to come check it out.,” Campbell said. “We started hitting the NVA with our heavy stuff. They went back into North Vietnam. We were lucky as hell.”

Life in Vietnam for some Marines wasn’t all war. Occasionally they would take time to have fun. One of those times was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Party. It’s a big thing if you’re a Marine.

Campbell is shown when he made major. Lt. Gen. Louis Field, director of personnel for the Marine Corp, pins his  oak-leafs on his right shoulder while his wife, Marilyn, does the same for his left shoulder. Photo provided

“My guys were complaining that everybody in the regiment was going to have a birthday party except them. That wouldn’t do, so I call the mess supply offer that provided our base with food and told him I wanted a cake for my troops.

“He said there weren’t any more available. I told him, ‘I don’t care if you have to steal one from the officers’ mess, but get one for us.’ I added that I would send my supply sergeant down to pick up the cake along with our weekly supply of grub.”

On the way back with the cake and the food a Marine Corps helicopter unit flew into their DMZ base. It sent a chopper out to cover the return of the truck with the food.

“As the truck with the cake reached our front door the copter pilot, hovering overhead, called in: ‘Cake truck almost at your position,'” Campbell recalled. “We had a big bash. I made some appropriate remarks, read the Commandant’s annual message and cut the cake. I knew I had achieved the ultimate for my men, they were happy Marines.”

When he returned from Vietnam, he was sent to American University in Washington, D.C. where he graduated with a degree in computer science. Campbell ended up a lieutenant colonel running the largest installation of IBM-20 computers in he world at the Management Systems Department in Quantico, Va.

In 1974 advancement in the Corps was slow. Campbell had 28 total years in the regular and reserve Marines and decided to wind up his military career. Immediately after retiring from the service he joined Basic Systems, that had a Navy contract to help the government manage its Naval war games computer program.

After nine years with Basic Systems, Campbell went to work for Mitre Corp. For the next 11 years he helped this firm install computer systems for military purposes in bases around the world.

He and his wife, Marilyn retired to Riverwood 15 years ago. They have three grown daughters: Leslie, Laurie and Amy.

Campbell’s File

Name: John Wendell Campbell
D.O.B: 29 July 1929
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 30 August 1946
Discharged: 1 Sept. 1974
Rank: Lt. Colonel
Unit: 1st, 2d, 3rd Marine Divisions
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal w/1 Star, Organized Reserve Medal, Vietnam Service Medal w/4 Stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal w/Device, Presidential Unit Citation w/1 Star, Navy Commendation Medal w/Combat “V”, Combat Action Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation, Cross of Gallantry
War, operation, or conflict served in: World War II, Korea, Vietnam
Locations of military service: DMZ, Hue City (Tet)

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 2, 2012 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view Campbell’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

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  1. I was assigned to the 1st.Field Artillery Group at Phu Bai in September 1967.I remember a red haired Major Campbell in the unit.He was a super nice mature man who was a fine example of a true Marine. Best Regards, John Koons Murells Inlet South Carolina

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