Darren L. Walton
U.S. Marine Corps, Corporal, E-4
I Corp, Da Nang
Vietnam War (1968-1970)
Darren Walton was born in San Francisco, California on March 12, 1950 to a father who was a machinist and a mother who danced ballet. He was raised in nearby Novato, Marin County, where he had access to “freedoms that nobody had.” Walton and his friends spent their childhoods surfing, scuba diving, and exploring Marin’s open spaces by bike and on foot. During this time, Walton also discovered his passion for running. This passion led to his competing in the famous Dipsea Race multiple times and would eventually play a large role in shaping his military experience.
After graduating from Novato High School in 1968, Walton began his first year in college. However, he was not motivated enough to keep his grades above the minimum level, and he received an army draft notice. Not wanting to go into the infantry, Walton began looking at the Marine Corps as a possible alternative. He knew that Billy Mills, a Marine, won the 10,000-meter race in the 1964 Olympic Games, so he decided that he would join the Marine Corps and become a part of their track team.
In 1968, Walton began boot camp in San Diego, California, which prepared him for basic training at Camp Pendleton. He remembered how well the drill instructors turned “cocky” kids like him into soldiers: “I was very humbled after nine weeks. They did a good job of making a Marine out of me.”
After basic training, Walton assumed he would join the track team. His commanding officer told him that he was physically qualified, but unfortunately he was enrolled in the Marines for two years, and only four-year enrollees could be on the team. Instead, he was “volunteered” for the Recon Force. Without ever being told exactly what the Force was, Walton began his advanced training.
During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps Recon Force consisted of four to eight man teams who provided intelligence to commanders while operating deep behind enemy lines. At the start of his first assignment, Walton and his team were sent to Okinawa, Japan and then on to Da Nang, Vietnam, where they continued to hone their skills and learn how to survive in Vietnam’s dense jungle. During this first part of his deployment, Walton remembered that he was “never not scared”.
On base in Da Nang, Walton lived at a place called “Freedom Hill,” which housed a group of recon teams. The men lived in “hooches,” tin-roofed huts filled with cots that housed seven men. Although the living conditions in Da Nang were “spartan,” Walton recalled that they were a luxury compared to living in the mud of the jungle during missions.
During his deployment, Walton and his team completed twenty-one missions behind enemy lines. The objectives of these missions were wide-ranging and reflected the unique investigative and combative abilities of the Recon Force: gathering intelligence data on enemy forces, carrying out ambushes, snatching high-ranking enemy officers, and calling in air strikes. These missions were so varied, in fact, that Walton’s team rehearsed each mission in detail beforehand to supplement their more general training.
Walton admitted that he didn’t think he would last thirteen months, however what kept him going was his love and respect for his team members. The Recon Force was ‘highly trained, highly motivated”. His team members came from all over the United States, and for the most part believed in what they were fighting for. He recalled, “All I wanted to do was to survive with my team and have us come home together.”
An important key to keeping the Marines’ morale high was receiving letters from home. Walton became emotional at the thought of how much those notes meant to him. He remembered, “A letter from home – you really cherished it…. When someone got a letter… he would walk off into the bush someplace, and you wouldn’t see him for hours.” They never threw letters away and would eventually share them with their buddies. Through those notes, they learned a lot about each other’s lives back home. Walton said, “They knew as much about my personal life as I did about theirs.”
One of the things Walton remembered vividly is the wildlife and beauty of Vietnam. He recalled some of the things he witnessed while out in the jungle: “I can’t even describe some of the beauty I saw – cascading waterfalls, I saw orchids blooming, I saw lush jungles and ponds and mountains.” However, sometimes this beauty did not last. Walton noticed that large swaths of jungle wereoften destroyed by napalm strikes or bomb runs. The animals and plants were “innocent,” he said, “we have to take that into consideration – what we’re doing to the environment.”
When asked about his most memorable experience, Walton told a story about the village orphanage. The orphans had nothing; the nuns who cared for them were often forced to beg for or steal food. Walton and his team wanted to help: “We had this grand plan to raise food and clothing for the village.” After being turned away by both the military chaplain and his own Novato church on the basis that the children were Buddhist, not Christian, Walton wrote home asking for help. There were many people in his town who did not support the war, but his mother encouraged them to give for the children. About ten days later, a truckload of food and clothing for the orphanage was delivered. Walton remembered feeling overwhelmed by the support: “It wasn’t the government, it wasn’t the politicians, it was the people.”
Another notable experience pertained to a secret Mr. Walton and his family kept for many years. It all started when the military decided to hold an Olympic style track meet in Da Nang to boost morale. Despite not being a member of the Marine Track team, Walton’s running talents had not gone unnoticed. A substitute point man was assigned to his squad, and he was sent to compete in the 5,000-meter event. After barely qualifying, his lieutenant asked him what reward would motivate him to medal in the final race. Walton said he wanted to go to Hawaii. Despite the fact that R&R on Hawaii was usually reserved for officers, the lieutenant said he would see what he could do. That motivation was all it took, and Walton won the silver medal. He was flown to Hawaii, but unbeknownst to the Marines, Walton had a secret plan. Family members had arranged to transport him to Canada where he could wait out the rest of the war in safety. However when the time of escape arrived, Walton realized he couldn’t abandon his team. He never followed through with the plan, and instead he bravely got on a plane back to the jungles of Vietnam.
Corporal Walton was discharged in 1970 and came home to a country that didn’t believe in the war. He went to work, got married and started a family. Through the years he didn’t discuss his service, and many friends didn’t even know he had gone to Vietnam. All that changed in 2012, however, when he was contacted by the Military Officers Association of America and informed that he was going to be presented with a Navy Commendation Medal with V for Valor. The award was related to an incident in June of 1970 when he overcame a weapon malfunction to successfully extract his team from a surprise encounter with an enemy patrol. During his service in Vietnam, Mr. Walton also received a Combat Action Ribbon, The National Defense Service Medal, the Viet Nam Service Medal, the Viet Nam Campaign Medal, and the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.
As for Mr. Walton’s current perspective on the Vietnam War, he thinks we are not doing a great job of learning our lessons: “We’ve got to remember a lot, and I don’t think we have. There are just wars, I’m sure, but we can’t keep getting into unjust wars. We can’t have our children sacrificing for what I would call nothing but politics and greed.”
To any young people who wish to serve in America’s military, Mr. Walton has one message: “Think about it.” Military service is a sacrifice, he added, and if you are in combat and around so much death, “you’ll be living with it for the rest of your life.”
When asked today, Walton does not believe all the sacrifices he made during Vietnam were justified. While he would make those sacrifices again for the villagers, for the orphans, or for the cause, he now sees that Vietnam “was not a just war.” He cited instances of corruption and greed on all sides of the war as reasons for this opinion. However, he does value the perspective he gained from being in Vietnam. He said, “Being in Marin County and having so much, and then going to a country and seeing people have so little… I think that affected me all my life, and I have a whole different perspective about living in America and living in Marin County.”
Interview by William Jaquiss Pyle on November 2, 2013.