Vietnam veteran John Musgrave went to war with a learned hatred of the enemy and no knowledge of what the conflict was about beyond that of Cold War rhetoric.
But over the years, those feelings ultimately gave way to an understanding of and empathy toward those men he fought a half-century ago. And it's that evolution of his own attitude toward the war that he touched on during a Saturday presentation at the Watkins Museum of History.
Musgrave shared the platform at the program with former Lawrence mayor David Longhurst. The two men are both Marine veterans who served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. Musgrave, of Baldwin City, will be featured in and was a consultant for the Ken Burns documentary PBS series “The Vietnam War,” which debuts Sunday.
Musgrave grew up at a time when young men were expected to give their country two years of military service, he recalled at the presentation. As a child, he thought “it would be great if there was a war” when he achieved his goal of enlisting in the Marines. At 17, those twin wishes came true.
Although first posted near Da Nang, Vietnam, fighting Viet Cong guerrillas, he volunteered to transfer to the north to serve with “the varsity,” a group fighting North Vietnam regulars, Musgrave said. The tour would last 11 months and 17 days before enemy bullet ended his war.
“I grew up fearing and hating Communists,” he said. “All I needed to know and all I really knew was we were fighting Communists.”
Nearly 50 years later, he saw Burns’ taped interviews of the North Vietnam soldiers he fought in South Vietnam’s northern jungles, Musgrave said. It was through viewing those interviews that he came to fully embrace in his heart what he said he had already acknowledged intellectually — that the North Vietnam soldiers he fought were fellow warriors.
“I saw these old men talking about being in combat and being there beside their buddies and losing friends in fighting,” he said. “I had always seen them as the young fighting men of my nightmares. To be confronted with their humanity was overwhelming. I knew then, I had more in common with them than those who sent me to kill them. I’m glad they made it.”
Like Musgrave, Longhurst said he was also motivated to join the Marines through a sense of duty to his country.
“I was at the University of New Mexico getting extraordinary good grades and a member of the swim team,” he said. “The reason I enlisted was John F. Kennedy, who I greatly admired, said in a speech, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’ The next day, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.”
He chose the Marines because of their history and the perception that they stood for the best in America’s fighting forces, Longhurst said.
“That turned out be true,” he said. “There’s an incredible bond you build with your fellow Marines. I didn’t have strong feelings about Vietnam. The reason I was there was because of my fellow Marines.”
Every Marine is trained first as a combat infantryman, Longhurst said. His 13-month tour was spent maintaining aircraft at Da Nang Air Base, and he didn’t experience the combat horror Musgrave endured, he said. But there were times when he and his fellow Marines were called on to defend the base. One of those occasions involved an internal conflict between the South Vietnam army and air force, a bewildering situation that only increased his ambivalence about the war, he said.
He quickly determined the United States wasn’t going to win the war, Musgrave said. In hindsight, he said there was not a clear, national purpose or resolve to win. At the time, he found the country didn’t give its fighting men the tools needed to win the war. On a personal level, that meant arming him with a rifle that “didn’t work,” he said.
As a replacement in his platoon of “experience teenagers,” he also doubted his training, Musgrave said.
“I was terrified,” he said. “I remember being surprised and disappointed because I didn’t think a Marine could be terrified.”
His platoon was called on to help rescue other units from his battalion caught in the deadliest ambush of American forces in the war, Musgrave said. When the platoon returned to its base, members found a package of what they hoped would be goodies from home. It turned out to be a bag of dog food with the message, “Eat, animals, eat.” That and the stories on peace demonstrations in the slanted Stars and Stripes predisposed him against the America’s growing anti-war movement, he said. It was an alienation that prompted him to join in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he got home, rather than the wider peace movement, he said.
Although he never supported the war, his attitude toward the peace movement while in Vietnam and, later, on the University of Kansas campus was an unmoved “whatever,” Longhurst said.
But in the five decades since he returned home from Vietnam, Longhurst said he has seen the public change its attitude toward the war’s veterans.
“I took a little abuse from people chanting and yelling,” he said. “That’s changed in the intervening years. Today, most people thank you for your service.”