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One of 30,000 – A Vietnam Veteran’s Story

By Lance Cpl. Uriel Avendano | | March 11, 2013

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“I was born a Canadian, I chose to be an American, I’ll die a Marine.” – Retired United States Marine Corps MGySgt. Carlton Edward “Chuck” LeDrew

Military memorabilia, photographs of times and friends gone by, books on Rome and historical fiction stacked about at his study. For Carlton Edward LeDrew, who simply goes by Chuck, they represent an important part of where he’s been, who he’s met and who he is.

The influence of our past brothers and sisters in the Corps cannot be underestimated. Rich history of past campaigns and battles is stored in the minds of those who wore the uniform before us. It is our responsibility to take the time to appreciate, respect and learn from them while we still can.

“The area we lived in was all tenement buildings; we were on the second floor,” said LeDrew, now 75-years-old and recalling his birthplace of Quebec City, Montreal, Canada. “To go to school, we had to cross a park because sometimes the local Catholics and Protestants got into the whole duke it out bit.”

LeDrew’s stay-at-home mother loved her children but never shied away from discipline. His hard working father provided for his family through photography and, as a side job, wrote for the thoroughbred horse racing industry on how to bet on the races.

“At the age of 10, my dad took a job in British Columbia. He was a commercial-industrial photographer, and the consolidated Smelter Mining Company in Trail, British Colombia hired him to do all of their underground photography.”

He went from Canada’s largest city to one of the smallest mining towns in British Colombia. A lifestyle change from a neighborhood where kids wearing shorts, knee socks and a white shirt got beat up by those wearing blue jeans, sneakers and t-shirts. The young LeDrew adjusted and, after a while, settled into his new surroundings.

Being the eldest son in a busy household carried with it many responsibilities; there was never a shortage of chores for the LeDrew family. Cutting kindling wood with an axe, bringing in coal for the stove, waxing the hardwood floor with a 15 lb. weighted manual buffer, weeding the garden and mentoring his younger siblings kept LeDrew on his toes at all times. Par for the course, considering where he would take his life soon after.

At only 12 years old, LeDrew was helping a reserve artillery unit as a cadet before enlisting with the Canadian Army as a boy soldier in 1954.

Nearly every male member of the LeDrew family has served in the military. A grandfather who put in six years as a private, a sergeant for a father and a regimental sergeant major for an uncle made indelible impressions on the young LeDrew. For the men, family gatherings would end up in the eldest LeDrew’s study and produced stories over Robbie Burn cigars and a snifter of brandy or cognac.

“That’s when I learned that they allowed me, a boy, to become a man. It was a transition period when I was allowed to join that group. It was a passage,” said LeDrew. “I was 16 years old and on half pay as a boy soldier, but I was in.”

From there, two years later, LeDrew transferred over to the airborne Canadian paratroopers at the age of 18. After two more years, he transferred over to the Black Watch (Royal Highlander Regiment) of Canada.

After his 7 years of service, LeDrew got out and ended up working for an industrial x-ray firm in Canada that had contracts in the U.S. His first visit to the States was to Pasadena, Texas, where he met two active duty Marine Corps sergeants.

“They were recruiters. I didn’t know they were recruiters, and I really liked them,” said LeDrew.

As a foreigner with prior service, at 24 years old, LeDrew found himself at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C., in 1st Battalion, Platoon 135. Wooden barracks by the swamp with a slab of concrete made up his new home.

“I lost a lot of free time because one of the drill instructors in the series, not of our platoon, had served with the Black Watch Highlanders in Korea. When he found out I was Black Watch, he said, ‘Get him to show you the Canadian manual arms,’” recalled LeDrew. “I also made the mistake of telling them I could do the queen hand salute, which is being able to spin the rifle. So, my free time was pretty much spent showing that to the drill instructors.”

In essence, the training LeDrew had in Canada was very similar to that he found in the States. Drill instructors were just as merciless and high priority was placed on drill and rifle qualification.

LeDrew would end up graduating top of his platoon, top of his series, won the American Spirit of Honor medal and Leatherneck award to go along with the only issued set of dress blues for the graduating company. All of which went nicely with the hand-polished, M-1 rifle stock he personally inherited from his senior drill instructor, SSgt. R.E. Steward.

“In our sergeant’s mess at the Black Watch, we had a Marine emblem,” said LeDrew. “I remember going down to Philadelphia, on a visit passing through, and hit the Marine reserve detachment there. They had the cross of St. Andrew up, the Black Watch emblem. There’s a lot of respect going both ways.”

Many don’t know that some 30,000 Canadians came south to serve in the American armed forces during Vietnam. Despite the political fervor and nationwide atmosphere at that time, some made the conscious decision to fight. Citizens or not, fewer still made the conscious decision to fight as Marines.

“I went over to Vietnam in ‘66 and ’67,” said LeDrew. “I was still a Canadian citizen, I had carried a green card for seven years, and if I had said, over there, ‘I disagree with the American policy,’ I would have been back in the States seven days later, and been persona non-grata in Canada seven days after that.”

No regrets with his decision, despite the reservations of his family in Canada, LeDrew went into his first Vietnam deployment headfirst as an 03 infantryman buck sergeant. His 782 individual combat equipment gear, the rain, the mud, the sights and the people are all still vividly embedded in his mind.

Like a roll of film, memories of Vietnam fill LeDrew’s mind: playing soccer on the beach by the South China sea with international allied forces, a visit from Australian performer Shirley Simmons, the hard tents with corrugated roofing that could be attacked by an enemy mortar at any second, a lone Vietnamese mother trying to hand her child over to Marines because she could no longer provide, and local kids with water buckets going over to scrounge for food.

“I sometimes felt like I was out there with a shield and a spear. That first tour took me to Chu Lai, Hue, and Phu Bai - Second tour was the Da Nang area,” said LeDrew. “We had the M-16 on my second tour, but that was the first one to come out. That was like a Mattel toy and none of us liked it - I ended up carrying a Remington shotgun with 00-buck because you had more of a chance of hitting something with it than with the .223 round of the M-16.”

On his second tour, SSgt. LeDrew was more conscientious of the cultural courtesies of the locals. Although he was a much more seasoned Marine with first-hand knowledge of the realities that Vietnam offered, his second tour didn’t bring him back to the States unscathed.

“We were at Monkey Mountain at the time, came off the mountain to get some supplies and on our way back our jeep ran into an ambush. I’ve got pictures of the jeep, got bullet holes in the window and a grenade strike in the back,” said LeDrew. “Well, the captain I was with caught a round through the thigh and I caught one through the top of the arm. Buggered up the tattoo – Now it says, ‘Death or Glow.’”

LeDrew would spend 1969’s Christmas and New Year’s in a Naval hospital in Da Nang nursing his wound. That same year, after having hurt his back during an ambush, LeDrew found himself being unable to tie his own boots. Eventually, he’d lose some feeling in his feet and was medically evacuated out of Vietnam to a hospital in Camp Pendleton, Calif., for physical therapy.

“A few years later, I’d have back surgery and square it away,” added LeDrew.

Vietnam was a challenge, not just physically, but mentally as well. The toll the theater of war takes on service members often makes it tough for families to keep in touch.

In place of electronic mail or modern day video correspondence, Marines would use little reels of three minute long tape and recorders to record messages on for their loved ones. These spools of time would often record mortar harassments and sniper fire in the background.

“I’d tell my wife then, ‘Play this tape first so you know what’s coming on the other tape,’” said LeDrew. “Her and her girl friends would hear the sounds and be aghast, you know. ‘Oh my, oh my!’ and the whole bit.”

From a military working dog named Rip who tracked an enemy sniper down from roughly 300-yards out to close calls with enemy mortar and rocket attacks, LeDrew’s memories of Vietnam is a testament to the incredible time our past servicemen and servicewomen put in. Deeds that, unfortunately, were not recognized with respect by the American public in the 1960’s.

“I like the way people are supporting the troops nowadays. We didn’t have that when we came back,” said LeDrew, who’s worked at the post level, district level and national level with veterans support groups. “They had that in World War II, so-so in Korea – almost the forgotten war, in that end. Definitely not in Vietnam, on any portion whatsoever - but to see it build up again? You bet’cha.”

LeDrew retired from the Marine Corps in 1981, after 20 years of service with the rank of master gunnery sergeant. Today, he lives in Yuma, Ariz., with his wife Ida, who he endearingly refers to as his Swede from Nebraska who loves white tulips. These days, LeDrew spends his time reading, golfing, playing tennis, dabbling in photography and carpentry, and supporting his local American Legion chapter. Staying ever faithful to his past, present and future – Ever the Marine.
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