Sergeant, United States Marine Corps, 1st marine air wing
Vietnam War (1967-1971)
Dennis John Welsh was born in San Francsisco during February of 1949. He grew up there until he moved to Novato at the age of fifteen. There, Welsh remembers falling in love with the Marine Corps: “the first time I saw Marines in a parade I said, ‘That’s what I want to wear,’…and then I started reading a lot about the Marine Corps. One of my favorite books was called “Battle Cry,” by Leon Uris, and was based on his experiences in WW2, and that influenced me.” The Moment he turned eighteen, Welsh enlisted in the Marine Corps and started the path to serving his country.
First, Welsh was sent to basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He was pushed to the limit both physically and mentally. In his words, “they break you down, so they can re-mold you.” In fact, Welsh compared his boot camp experience to the famous Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. However, Welsh felt prepared because he was in good physical condition and had attended a strict Catholic school prior to his enlistment with the Marines. After basic training, Welsh was given extra infantry training and then a few months of specialty training in aircraft repair, specializing in the hydraulics of the KC130 refueling aircraft. Once he was finished, Welsh was ready for his first assignment.
Welsh was sent to put his aircraft repair training into practice at Cherry Point in North Carolina. His job was to repair KC-130 aircraft so that they were ready to refuel other planes in the Marine arsenal. At the same time, he was still being trained in aircraft maintenance and went to school for 4 hours a day. Since the base was mostly staffed by officers, Welsh lived in relative luxury compared to other Marine bases. He had good food, lots of entertainment and air-conditioned barracks.
Dennis Welsh’s world was turned upside down when he recieved orders for Vietnam. Welsh thought he was going to be reparining more KC130s in a different locale, but his real duties were made apparent when he was ordered to go through a refresher course on infantry skills. When Welsh finally arrived at Marble Mountain Air Facility, southeast of Da Nang, he learned he was going to be a machine gunner and mechanic for a CH46 helicopter. Welsh’s specific helicopter was designated by the Marine Corps as a utility helicopter, so the craft would fly any mission that the war effort required – meaning Welsh mostly flew recon and medevac missions. Whenever he wasn’t flying, he was fixing the helicopter. Welsh remembers the difference between Cherry Point and Vietnam: “It’s a rude awakening that there is actually somebody that wants to kill you. Reality of it came all-of- the-sudden. I think that’s true of anybody who sees combat. You don’t gradually get into it. It’s a shock.”
One specific medevac mission is burned into Dennis Welsh’s memory. When Welsh’s helicopter was on its way to pick up wounded soldiers, the Viet Cong started shooting at the craft. The helicopter was forced to turn back, but not before Welsh’s rear was grazed by a bullet. Later, he learned he could earn a purple heart for his wound during the firefight. After careful contemplation, Welsh decided to decline the award out of respect for the soldiers the Marine Corps could not save.
After his tour in vietnam, Dennis Welsh was sent to the Marine Corps Air Facility in Santa Ana, California. On weekdays, Welsh would fix hydraulics on the helicopters at the facility. On weekends, he would train newly enlisted soldiers on how to do his job. Welsh had to use the skills he learned in Vietnam and then pass them on to the new marines. However, the new enlistedmen weren’t always enthralled to train with Welsh: “There’s other things that have to be done and need he’ll need haircut, ‘Ok, go to the barber shop,’ and you wouldn’t see him for two hours. ‘It’s lunchtime,’ ‘OK, go over and have lunch,’ and then, ‘I need to go sign some papers over in admin’. So there went Saturday. And then on Sunday, every reserve there was a churchgoer.”
Dennis Welsh went through many trials across his military career that left him a changed man. However, Welsh feels that his experience in the marines was for the better: “I feel better about myself I think. I’m glad I went. I look at it and, during the war was the best year of my life really, because I was saving lives. Doing the job correctly.” Today, Welsh works with his local VFW chapter to ensure that veterans like him have a good community to share experiences like his with.
Interview by Gregory Markham Hill on June 28, 2017