Lance Corporal – U.S. Marine Corp, Mike Battery,
4th Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division
Vietnam War (1967-1969)
Honor, strength and integrity best describe Lance Corporal Selwyn (Sel) Louis. As a U.S. Marine, Sel was tested at a deeper level than his fellow brothers. He is a first generation Chinese-American citizen doing his duty during an era when our country was entering its third war in the Pacific Rim, Vietnam, after the Pacific Theater of World War II and the Korean War. Because he is of Asian decent, he experienced racial discrimination at the beginning of the civil rights movement, but in the end, his military brothers came through with a unity and bond that was unbreakable and life changing.
His father was a Chinese immigrant. His mother was born in the United States but moved back to China as a young girl. They moved to San Francisco once World War ll broke out, married and settled there. In 1948, Selwyn was born in San Francisco and moved with his family to Marin County at fifteen, where he continues to live today. Sel’s family had some military history; he remembers he had an uncle that served in the Y Force of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army and in Burma. This unit came under the command of US General Joseph Stilwell in the war with Japan during World War II. Another uncle served with the US Navy during the Cold War of the 1950’s.
Sel was attending College of Marin when he was served with his draft papers. He remembers, “You had to have a full load of 16 units; unfortunately, I miscalculated and had 15.5 units, and my deferment was immediately lost. I was given a draft notice right away.” Knowing he was going to war, Sel wanted the best training he could get for combat, so he decided to enlist in the US Marine Corp. In 1967, he was sent off to thirteen weeks of basic training at the Marine Corp Boot Camp in San Diego to be trained as an artillery gunner. Sel stated, “Any sane person would have to think twice about going into Marine Corp Boot Training because it was the toughest training there was. I think if you were able to graduate, and most of us did, you accomplished something that most other people would never have to experience in their lifetime.” He remembers the bond he developed with his unit: “I think what helped me cope is that we were a whole unit. You were no better than the person next to you; you were no less. If they can do it, you can do it. The whole training of the Marine Corp at that time was to get through it as a unit, as one single unit, not 74 individuals.” However, in the beginning of his Boot Camp, he remembers facing some discrimination. He recalls, “It was, 1967, and civil rights were just being enacted. They were still wrestling with civil rights. Marin County was a very politically correct place to be and friendly environment, so I fit in very well. But, when I went into Boot Camp training, I was put in with a whole lot of people from all different parts of the country that just did not understand. For some people from the deep South, I was the first Asian they had ever met. All they knew at that time was that we were fighting Asians in a war.”
Louis received a two-week leave before his first assignment. It was Christmas time, and he was able to go home and say good-bye to his family. His first assignment was to Da Nang, Vietnam. He hit the ground running and served in four major operations consisting of Operation Worth, Operation Swift Saber, Operation Dodge Valley and Operation Taylor Common. He recalls the first few weeks being a blur. In addition to combat and being in a war zone, he had other issued he had to deal with. He, along with many Vietnam soldiers, was sent in as replacements for soldiers that finished their tour or that were injured or killed. Being the new kid coming in, and being Asian, presented the challenge of being accepted and trusted by his fellow Marines whom he had never met before. Furthermore, he was trained to be an artillery gunner and states, “but when I got there, I was trained to fire a different kind of cannon than I was trained on in Artillery School. I trained fairly quickly because it was fairly basic. I also had to learn how to drive a five-ton ammunition truck because we had to go and get the ammunition for the cannons from base camp. I learned to be fluent on every single weapon that we had at the time from a 50 caliber machine gun to a 45 caliber pistol.” He also mentioned, “I was a city kid. I had never held a weapon before in my life, but by the time I got through Boot Camp, I was able to hit a target 8 out of 10 times at 500 yards. That is Marine Corp training.”
When asked about the morale of his unit, he replies, “My fellow Marines were like brothers. There was nothing we would not do for each other.” This is apparent in a memory he shared, “I do remember this: there are a lot of faded memories, but this is when you know you are a true Marine. We had been out in the field for two months, and we were ragged and tired. We had just seen too many things, and we were going back to Da Nang to go back to our base. We had stopped by an Air Force base, and they live pretty good even in a combat zone. As we were going in, I was in a truck with a whole lot of other Marines that I served with. We were stopped at the gate. Now the Air Force is kind of funny, even in a combat zone. They do not allow weapons on to the base, so you need to check them in, which I thought was very peculiar. The next thing is they looked at me and pointed and said, ‘You, You can’t go up because undocumented Vietnamese can not go in to the base.’ I was ready to start a protest, and one of my fellow Marines grabbed the Air Force MP by the shirt and said, ‘That is a United States Marine; don’t you ever disrespect us again, or I will shoot you on the spot.’ It was then I realized right away I was truly a member of the US Marine Corp regardless of my race. Those are things you don’t think about that much at the time because you have so many thing going through your mind at the time, but you look back at it now, and that is what it is all about.”
His missions were all search and destroy, not winning battles like in previous wars. He recalls, “We would go ahead and take a hill and give it back to the enemy within a week. It was all about body counts; unfortunately, General Westmoreland just wanted body counts. How many KIA’s did we have? It was a war of attrition. Looking back at it now, we were never going to win. There were just millions of North Vietnamese at that time, and we were invading their country, their home, and they were not going to give it up.” The North Vietnamese had a countless, endless source of infantry that made it very difficult for us to compete.
The living situations in the field, where he was most of the time, were under a poncho liner with a couple of sand bags eating C-Rations, when he went into base camp, they would sleep under a tin roof if they were lucky, and though the food was plentiful, it was not real good, but decent. There was no entertainment. However Louis did mention, “When you have a bunch of young kids together, they are always going to have a lot of fun. Even in a combat zone, you will find ways to be a kid because I think we are asked to grow up too fast, but that childhood spark, that is what is going to keep and get you through.”
Louis explains that the majority of his day-to-day life was not engaged in combat but was quite calm as he explains, “I think if you ask any Vietnam vet, you go through these long periods where nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, you would have an attack, a fire mission where you would, unfortunately, sometimes be taking in coming rockets or mortars. So, it was this long dreary period doing nothing, making sure your guns are clean. You are either doing guard post or all the little things; then all of a sudden, boom. Something happens, and it does not have to be long at all; it could be 45 minutes or and hour. It is just a flash, and then you go back to this quiet time again, but there was the waiting. You were always waiting for something, incoming helicopters, gun ships coming in all sorts of things, always this down time then a rush, then down time again.”
Lance Corporal Louis did receive one R&R, rest and relaxation. He was nineteen and in a part of the world he had never been. He went to Bangkok for five days, which he remembers, was great. The ironic part was here he was in a war zone and took leave at a vacation area only to return to a combat zone. Mentally, he felt you could only do this when you are young. I could not help but feel during this interview that he witnessed and was a part of many horrific moments, jumping into and out of what we would consider normal life. I think many of our soldiers that see battle do not process at the time what they see and are asked to do. They just endure it and try to survive, leaving the processing for a later date when they no longer have to be scared.
In the end, he had one great friend from Collinwood, Tennessee. He was a county boy, and Louis was a Northern California Asian liberal. They spent their entire tour together. He was sent home first, and Louis remembers his parting remarks: “I love you like a brother, but I am from Collinwood, Tennessee. They wouldn’t understand our friendship.” They parted ways, but you could see the sadness in Louis’s eyes. He still loved him like a brother with whom he shared life-altering experiences. Though racial discrimination had diminished by 1968, in the deep South, it had not, and that was one of the bitter pills they both had to swallow.
Soon it was Louis’ time to return home. Toward the end of his tour, his brothers took care of him and kept him out of harm’s way. They figured if you made it fourteen months, you earned the right to go home, and they protected you until it was your time to leave. When he returned state side, he had four months left to serve. He had an Artillery MOS, which means just for combat. They asked him if he would like to reenlist? He declined. The Marines did not see a need to train him for a new position to fulfill his tour, so they gave him an early release, a full honorable discharge.
Coming home was an unforeseen leg of his tour. He remembers standing in line at El Toro Air Base going through the release process. He recalls he was surprised, “They asked which part of the country we were going to? I could not figure out why. As we were being processed, people were going back East, and they said ‘fine, just put on your uniform and go home.’ When they found out I was going to Northern California, the San Francisco area, they said you go to the PX and get some civilian clothes. Do not travel up to San Francisco in your military uniform. I could not figure out why until I actually got home, and realized this was a hot bed for protest. This is where you learn about people being very disrespectful to returning service men.” The Marines were very much aware of the political climate in parts of the country and wanted to give him a heads up. Louis was on the GI Bill and wanted to return to college. He visited a campus in the East Bay and one in San Francisco; however, on both campuses they were desecrating the American flag, and he decided not to go. He did eventually continue his college education through night school after he was married and started raising his family.
He took a job as a banker and moved up the ranks to vice president. After forty-two years in banking, he has retired with a comfortable lifestyle. He does not talk about the war, and many of his associates and friends do not know of his military service. He mentions that no one talks about the Vietnam War. It is still a volatile subject. He has visited the Vietnam Memorial three times and states, “The first time out of pure curiosity, the second time I found the names of the Marines I served with, and the third time, which was maybe 3 years ago, I had an emotional breakdown.” He recalled that at the crest of the memorial there was a bench. The third time, he realized why it was there.
In closing, Lance Corporal Selwyn Louis looks back at his service as life altering. By the time he was twenty-one years old, he was an ex- Marine and an ex- Vietnam War Veteran. He feels his military service set a moral compass for the rest of his life. He fought for freedom and did what our country asked of him. It is unfortunate some people in our country do not understand the impact of what our Vietnam veterans were asked to do, nor did they treat them with the honor or respect they deserved upon their return. Our country should be proud we have men like Lance Corporal Louis that have fought for our liberties with honor and distinction. We thank you now, 45 years later.
Interview by Peter Jake Daniels on June 18, 2014.