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Platoon’s survivors still stick together

Evergreen Platoon veterans and lifelong friends Larry Plager, left, and Doug Simpson meet at the Vietnam Memorial in Riverfront Park on Thursday. 
 (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Evergreen Platoon veterans and lifelong friends Larry Plager, left, and Doug Simpson meet at the Vietnam Memorial in Riverfront Park on Thursday. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

At a time when the United States was shoring up its military presence in Vietnam, the Marine Corps signed up 80 young men from Washington state and allowed them to train together as a unit.

Many of the surviving members of the Evergreen State Platoon, as it came to be known, will meet July 12 in Olympia, 40 years after their induction in the Capitol Rotunda in a ceremony attended by then-Gov. Dan Evans and Miss Washington 1968.

“We all left together, but we came back alone,” said Larry Plager, of Spokane, one of 16 members of the Evergreen State Platoon from Eastern Washington and an organizer of the reunion.

Six members of the platoon were killed in action, half of them from among the small group that started out together from Spokane on the adventure of their lives.

Like many of the young recruits, Plager signed up before graduation. At 5 feet 11 inches tall and 125 pounds, he was “not particularly athletic or pugilistic,” and he wasn’t sure whether he could make it in the Corps. But he wanted to be a Marine like his father.

Plager joined with his buddy, Doug Simpson, a Rogers High School student who appears in Plager’s Ferris High School yearbook in a photo taken on a day Simpson had skipped school and was hanging with his friends at Ferris.

“I joined, I guess, because Larry did,” Simpson said, adding that the anti-war sentiment gaining momentum across the nation had not reached Spokane yet. “When you’re 18 you think you are invulnerable. You don’t understand how quick it can all end.”

Simpson’s father was a Marine who served in the air wing at Guadalcanal and Saipan.

“He tried to get me not to do it, but I was following him,” said Simpson, another reunion organizer.

Glenn Walker’s brother, Bruce, was already in Vietnam as an Army medic.

David Oxford signed up because an older student he had known at Gonzaga Preparatory School was killed at Khe Sanh.

Mike Coleman, a G-Prep graduate, joined with his best friend, Mike Duffy, who graduated from Ferris after attending the Catholic school for three years.

“It was something I thought I could do for my country,” Coleman said.

Tom Beam didn’t have much choice in the matter. By 17, he had already had some run-ins with the law. His father, an Army veteran, was an alcoholic. Things were tough for the North Central High School junior. He skipped school, drank and disappeared from home for a while.

After getting arrested for stealing, Beam was offered a choice by the judge: jail or the armed forces.

“Nobody else would have me but the Marine Corps,” Beam said. “They needed bodies.”

All 16 of the recruits appeared in the July 12, 1968, edition of The Spokane Chronicle in a group photo taken in front of the Federal Building and captioned “Evergreen State Platoon Ready.”

The other Spokane recruits were David Russell, Del Thum, Andrew Gardella III, Robert Miller, Jimmy Colbert and Craig Hemphill.

Steve Dunn, of Colfax; Michael McEachern, of Pasco; and John M. Smith, of Walla Walla, were also in the group. Standing in front of them in the photo was their recruiter, Sgt. Charles R. Armstrong.

The day the photo was taken they were all driven to Seattle where they spent the night at the YMCA. The next morning they were bused to Olympia for the ceremony, attended by Joyce Stepanek, Miss Washington. She is now Joyce Stember, of Monrovia, Calif.

“I just remember those bright, shiny faces eager to go off to San Diego to be trained,” said Stember. About 10 weeks later she attended the group’s boot camp graduation at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

“It was a very nice thing for them to have me do,” she said.

The entry fee

Plager recalled landing in San Diego after the ceremony in Olympia. The other passengers got off, leaving the young recruits at the back of the plane.

“A drill instructor came on and read us the riot act,” Plager said, recalling the shock. “That’s when they began to strip you down of everything civilian. We wanted to become Marines, and this was the entry fee.”

At boot camp, the unit won nearly every competition and was named honor platoon of the training series.

All but five of the 80 finished boot camp to enter basic infantry training. They were given leave at Christmas, and some returned to Spokane that hard winter of 1968-69 before going back to staging battalion at Camp Pendleton.

Most shipped out that January from the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif. Among them were Plager, Coleman and Duffy. Hemphill, a Mead High School graduate, also shipped out that January.

They were split into different units. Coleman landed in the same company as Plager, though he was in a different platoon. Simpson went to aviation school in Memphis and then was stationed at El Toro for a few months before shipping out in April as a helicopter gunner.

Beam, who was still too young to be in a combat zone, was kept back until his birthday in August. Walker was disappointed to be assigned to Camp Pendleton.

“There was only supposed to be one family member in a combat zone at a time,” Walker said. “It put me out of going.”

Much to his brother’s dismay, he talked the Marines into sending him anyway.

In country

Walker was sent into the bush as a replacement for a Marine unit that had walked into an ambush southwest of Da Nang. The majority of the unit had been killed or wounded.

He recalled a night his first time out on patrol, not knowing what to expect. After setting up a perimeter, his platoon waited in darkness. One of his fellow Marines thought he heard a noise and pulled out a grenade.

“He pulled the pin out and lost it, so he more or less had to hold it for a couple of hours until we found it.” Walker recalled scouring the grass and dirt while his comrade kept “a death grip on the grenade so the spoon didn’t fly.”

Upon his arrival “in country” Plager recalled being issued his helmet, vest, cartridge belt and other equipment aboard the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa.

The men in his platoon were told to take what they needed from a pile of equipment that had been dropped onto the deck in a cargo net. The gear had been salvaged from Marines who had been killed or wounded. Some of it was bloody and riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes.

Plager saw his first action during Operation Linn River in the area known as Arizona, southwest of Da Nang. His company was assigned to cordon off an area and take turns sweeping it for the enemy.

No sooner had they set up when his unit began to take sniper fire. One Marine lay shot and dying in the open and crying for help. Two men were killed and several others were wounded trying to reach him.

“We pulled back and the area was napalmed,” Plager recalled. “You could feel the heat burning the fuzz off your face.”

The three dead from Plager’s platoon lay at the command post for a couple days because helicopters were too busy ferrying men and munitions in and the wounded out. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m never coming home,’ ” Plager said.

Three of his friends did not.

In February 1969, Hemphill and Duffy were killed in action in Quan Nam Province in separate firefights a little more than a week apart. In November, Smith, of Walla Walla, also was killed in action in Quan Nam Province.

Three other members of the Evergreen State Platoon were killed in action: Donald G. Heider, of Renton, on Jan. 31, 1969; Daniel J. Minor, of Everett, on Feb. 27, 1969; and David Smith, of Silverdale, on Dec. 20, 1969.

Beam was with David Smith when he was killed. The two of them were serving in a Combined Action Platoon, a small squad of Marines and a Navy corpsman who trained and assisted Vietnamese Popular Forces in the bush.

Just the two of them were moving along the edge of a village 20 miles south of Da Nang off Highway 1, Beam recalled.

“We walked right into an ambush,” he said. “Those firefights would be over within a matter of seconds.” Beam called in a medevac, but Smith died, probably in the helicopter.

Other members of the Evergreen State Platoon were injured in combat.

Oxford had been in country four weeks when he tripped an enemy trap in elephant grass, triggering an explosion that shattered his right knee, cut his Achilles tendon and blew off the back hamstring of his left leg.

After months in hospitals in Da Nang, Japan and the United States, he was discharged in September 1969.

After arriving in Vietnam, Coleman was selected to be trained in demolitions, a dangerous job rendered more so by the humidity that caused explosives “to go off in an erratic manner,” he said.

In May, he was gravely wounded while disarming an explosive on a bridge north of Da Nang.

A quarter-mile away, Plager heard the explosion that sent his comrade home without his arms.

“The bomb went off and threw me 30 yards,” Coleman recalled. Fortunately, it threw him onto the bridge instead of into the river where he almost certainly would have drowned.

He remained conscious until reaching the hospital ship, the USS Repose.

The way home

Many of those who fought in Vietnam remember a day-to-day grind without sleep. The Marines spent weeks in the jungles and rice paddies until the clothes literally rotted off their bodies.

“You could spend weeks without contact, being shot at or stepping on anything and then all hell would break loose,” Plager said.

“Life was so simple,” he said of the Corps. “In some ways, I kind of miss that.”

Danger was always lurking, but even then they knew what they had to do. “You miss it because it is so clear. The camaraderie and the closeness of the group – it was an interesting emotional thing.”

Once, Plager’s lieutenant ordered him to write home after his parents made inquiries about their son. It had been so long since he had written.

“Every day was the same,” Simpson recalled. “The only thing that mattered was how many days you have left. When you got down to less than 30, it was ‘I’m short.’ Then, ‘I’m so short I have to unzip my fly to blow my nose.’ Then it was, ‘I’m not short, I’m next.’ “

Walker was sent home in February 1970 with intestinal parasites. He had served only eight months of his tour. Less than a year later he was married and returned to civilian life in Spokane. He works for Kim Hotstart Manufacturing Co.

His oldest son joined the Army and served in Iraq. His youngest joined the Marines like his father.

“It never occurred to me at the time, but now I know what my parents must have gone through with both of them over there,” Walker said.

The former members of the Evergreen State Platoon returned to civilian life at a time when popular support for the war was bottoming out.

“My war was more over here than over there,” said Oxford, who works as a security guard at a pre-release corrections center in Missoula.

After recovering from his injuries, he said, he tried going to Spokane Community College, but the condemnation for his involvement in an unpopular war drove him away.

“I will forever believe we did not lose that war,” but that politicians “gave it away,” he said.

Plager returned to Spokane after having served just under two years of a three-year enlistment, including a yearlong tour in Vietnam that ended in January 1970. Today he is a cardiovascular technician at Sacred Heart Medical Center. He is married with a son in the Marines.

Simpson returned on April 1, 1970, and was married precisely one year later. Today he is a political consultant and lives in Issaquah.

Both Plager and Simpson have come to the conclusion the United States should not have been involved in Vietnam.

“Was it Jefferson who said, ‘Friend of liberty, but guardian of ours alone?’ ” Simpson asks.

A political conservative, he opposes the war in Iraq for the same reasons. “We can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over,” Simpson said. “It’s depleting our spirit and our wealth.”

Wounds of war

Coleman spent seven months at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California and was discharged from the Marines on Jan. 1, 1970. With the strong support of family and other wounded Marines, he pulled his life back together with the prosthetic arms he learned to use so well.

He married his high school sweetheart and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration, as well as an honorary law degree from Gonzaga University. He lives in Boulder City, Nev., after retiring from IBM, where he was an executive in the senior management group.

He has mixed feelings about Vietnam. Though he believes the Marines did exactly what they were asked to do, “the government wasted a lot of young lives,” because it didn’t have a plan.

Beam’s wounds were less obvious, but in many ways even more debilitating. He found himself in and out of fights and marriages.

“It was a very fearful place for me to be back here in the United States,” he said, recalling the contempt, rather than gratitude, he felt from the nation he fought for. “It got so bad I quit admitting I was a Vietnam vet. I didn’t tell anybody I was in the Marine Corps for 25 years.”

Since returning from Vietnam, he has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and the drugs he prescribed himself for it.

“It’s always been about drugs, about hating life, about not liking my memories and eventually, just not liking me,” he said.

In 2001, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced to federal prison in Texas. He was released in June 2004.

“It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Beam said. “I needed to get the drugs out of my system and federal penitentiary gave that to me.”

Today he believes he has finally turned his life around. He is married with grandchildren and lives in Mount Vernon, Wash.

“I am so grateful I came home,” Beam said.