The Vietnam War polarized America. By 1967, 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in South Vietnam and in April 1969, the number of Americans killed in Vietnam surpassed the total death toll in the Korean War. Opposition to the war intensified and peaked in 1968 with mass protests across the country.
Tony Keys was one of millions of Americans who took to the streets to voice their opposition to the war.
“I was a politically leftist radical,” Keys said, “I was dating an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) girl at the time. But I kept thinking, how can you dislike something if you haven’t experienced it?”
Keys decided the best way to gain first-hand experience of the war was to enlist in the Marines. Because of a draft deferment, Keys was 21 when he joined the Marine Corps in 1968. He trained for six months in San Diego and shipped out to Vietnam after a 30-day home leave.
Keys served in K Battery 413, 4th Battalion of the 13th Marines. He was stationed at two bases, An Hoa and Que Son, during his yearlong tour from Jan. 15, 1969, to Jan. 15, 1970. Each base was about 30 miles from the strategic air base in Danang, a city on the central coast of Vietnam.
Keys was a Lance Corporal, E-3, and worked in artillery fire direction control. He spent his days with maps and geometry tools to calculate range and deflection for large artillery pieces they called a “penny-nickel-nickel,” or 155 mm artillery gun.
“Our basic mission was to throw an 80-pound shell 12 miles,” he said.
Most of Keys’ work was done at the base, but he spent two months out in the countryside as a field forward observer for his battery. He traveled through the bush with infantry units and kept track of enemy positions in order to direct artillery fire from his battery back at base. Completely exposed to the elements and the enemy while out in the field, Keys said the experience “was not a fun sort of deal.”
Back at base, the soldiers lived in huts or tents surrounded by sandbags. The base even had a church with sandbag walls. The men built furniture out of used ammunition cases. The soldiers slept in cots. There was never enough mosquito netting to go around, Keys said.
Monsoonal rains swept across the countryside in late fall, turning dirt roads into a muddy mess and making conditions miserable for the men.
“The canvas on the tents didn’t stop anything, even rain,” Keys said, “The tents always stunk like hell from all the mildew.”
The canvas tents were also exposed to enemy fire. The Vietcong used the antennae tower at the Que Son base as a target for their artillery. One night, Keys switched guard duty with his tent-mate. A rocket tore through Keys’ tent, vaporizing his cot. His tent-mate was seriously injured and wound up with a metal plate in his head.
“That rocket would have killed me if I was in the tent sleeping that night,” Keys said, “Luck plays an awful lot in who survives, no matter what you do to prepare.”
In February 1969, North Vietnamese forces launched another major offensive to coincide with the Tet New Year’s holiday. The Vietcong attacked American bases throughout South Vietnam, killing 1,140 Americans.
The ammo dump at Danang was hit and Keys could see the flames from his base, 25 to 30 miles away. Then the Vietcong turned their sights on An Hoa where Keys was stationed. They managed to hit the ammo dump there, too. Shrapnel flew everywhere, Keys said. The fire burned for two days. He and his unit were “sandbagged well,” and they survived.
On the very last day of his mobilization, Keys found himself fighting in the thick of a major battle that broke out at Que Son on Jan. 10, 1970. He was supposed to fly out with his unit on Monday morning and the Vietcong struck on Sunday night. Keys and his unit were tossed into the battle even though they were to be decommissioned in less than 24 hours.
The Vietcong pounded the base with 200 rounds of mortar. Thirteen Marines were killed and 63 wounded. Thirty-eight Vietcong were killed. Five made it into the base perimeter.
“It was a really scary night,” Keys said, “I thought (the Vietcong) were coming right for me and my buddies since our time left in Vietnam was so short you could crawl under a snake’s belly.”
Many of the men Keys served with were “peaceniks” and anti-war, he said. These were the guys he spent most of his time with.
“There was a general awareness that the war was winding down,” Keys said.
“Everyone thought that the war was run poorly by the administration. Battles seemed fruitless. We never seemed to gain any ground, Keys said. “We’d put a lot of money and ordinance into battles – what we called $500,000 firefights – to gain a position, just to leave an area the next day for the VC to retake.”
Keys returned home to his former group of anti-war protesters. He attended a protest around the time National Guard troops opened fire on Kent State students on May 4. The America he returned to and some of his friends disillusioned him.
“People (at home) weren’t as concerned about life as we were over there,” Keys said.
“We had to be on alert, fully aware, 24/7. My former friends were lollygagging around. People weren’t serious enough. I took everything seriously,” he said.
“I’m proud of my service. But I wouldn’t do it again,” Keys said.
Keys works as a self-employed carpenter, woodworker and handyman in Pinedale and Cora. He is also the sole U.S. Commerce Department field representative for Sublette County and conducts census bureau surveys. Keys is writing an adventure novel based on his experiences.