Salute to Veterans: Vietnam vet proud of his service
FERRISBURGH — American Legion Post 14 Commander Paul Paquin, like most American men who came of age in the 1960s, remembers how he chose to deal with the issue of serving in the Vietnam War.
Paquin, a Sheffield native born in 1947 whose family moved to a New Haven dairy farm in 1958, was working there when the recruiters approached him with the draft looming.
Paquin, now a Ferrisburgh resident who for the past 42 years has owned and operated a small construction company, understood those who were drafted could serve up to four years.
The recruiters, thought an 18-year-old Paquin, one of 10 siblings, had a deal that sounded too good to refuse.
“It was two weeks before I was going to get drafted that two recruiters come out to the farm, and they offered a two-year program. It was either a three- or four-year program you had to sign up for, and they offered a two-year, and I said, ‘I’ll take it,’” Paquin said.
That decision ultimately led a teen who said he was “fresh off the farm” to a year of combat in the rice paddies, forests and jungles of northern South Vietnam with Mike Company, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines.
According to Wikipedia, the Third Battalion “became the first battalion-sized ground combat unit to be deployed to Vietnam when they landed on March, 8, 1965, in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. Over the course of the next four and a half years, the battalion operated from Da Nang, An Hoa and Quang Tri and participated in over 40 combat operations.”
According to 3onevet.com, Mike Company was one of the most “highly decorated” combat units of the Vietnam War.
Paquin, who rose in rank from private to corporal during his 14 months in Vietnam, was wounded once, but finds it hard to quantify the casualty rate of his 40-man company, one of four in the Third Battalion. But he remembers his company’s nickname, and it might offer a clue.
“We lost enough guys. They always called us Medevac Mike,” Paquin said. “How we made it back, I have no idea. Everybody had everybody’s back. Some snot-nosed first lieutenants, second lieutenants, fresh out of OCS (Officer Candidate School) there, some of them they didn’t last long.”
Paquin as a corporal in the Marine Corps
ROAD TO VIETNAM
Paquin’s first step to Vietnam came in Albany, N.Y., where he and seven or eight other volunteers and draftees took physicals. He had no idea in which branch of the military he would serve until one of his peers spoke up.
“One of them said, ‘I’m going into the Marines,’ and we all kind of followed suit,” he said. “I didn’t know squat about anything about it.”
Next stop was Paris Island, S.C., for boot camp, and then Camp LeJeune in North Carolina for more advanced instruction. Paquin received M-60 training with machine guns. Then came California’s Camp Pendleton for survival — and teamwork — training.
“They give you a little bag of rice in a sock and a carrot and send you out three days. You’re supposed to survive and figure it out yourself,” he said. “We all made it. We did what we had to do. Everybody kind of got together and figured out how we were going to survive.”
Then it was pack their sea bags, standing duffels with a shoulder strap. Next stop was Vietnam.
“We jumped on a plane, a cargo plane, nothing fancy,” Paquin said. “Fourteen hours, we hit Guam, to refuel, and then we moved from there to Okinawa. You had your sea bags, so you had all your stuff with you, and you knew you was going right to Vietnam.”
There was never any question in Paquin’s mind that’s where he would end up when he spoke to the recruiters in 1965, when the U.S. government had committed to escalating its presence in Vietnam.
“Everybody knew the war was on, and they were sending troops left and right over there,” Paquin said.
‘SWEEP AND DESTROY’
The Third Battalion was based in Da Nang, on the South Vietnamese coast. The third-largest city in now united Vietnam, it was 120 miles from what was then the border of North Vietnam, the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
Mike Company and the battalion’s three other companies operated inland, ranging as far as the country’s western border with Laos. Paquin said the companies moved northward in concert, a couple miles apart, going from village to village, while maintaining radio contact. Their mission was to find and engage the enemy and to dismantle enemy structures.
“Our objective for the battalion was to sweep and destroy. Every day we headed out. We met up with the enemy. Every day we had someone tried to wing us, potshots or whatever. You’ve got to be always ready. I wouldn’t say every day, but most days we got in a slight conflict with somebody, somehow,” Paquin said. “(We) dug a foxhole every night, two guys in a foxhole, if you weren’t out on night patrol. You slept an hour on and an hour off.”
Every day could be dangerous, he said.
“They were dug in so doggone bad over there you could walk right over them and not know they were there. And booby traps. I give credit to the guys who were first on the squads. They knew what they were doing. If they didn’t, they didn’t live long,” he said.
The size of conflicts varied.
“They seemed to know we was coming. Some would fight, and some would move on. But we did get in a horseshoe ambush. That was in May of ’66, three months or so after I was there,” Paquin said. “We lost about 18 of the guys that one time there. Once we got done there they sent our company back to Okinawa to regroup because we lost so many guys.”
The fact that the remainder of the 40 or so members of Mike Company made it out that day not wounded or killed still surprises Paquin.
“How the hell the rest of us survived, I don’t know,” he said. “We fired back and called in air strikes and called in Quad 40s (helicopters). They shot 40-millimeter rounds. The Viet Cong, they didn’t like those helicopters at all.”
WOUNDS AND DOUBTS
In August of 1966, Paquin’s luck did run out, although he says he wasn’t seriously hurt.
“Three or four guys got killed. One of my best buddies, I was holding his chest, he had a sucking chest wound,” he said. “I got hit with shrap metal in the face, arms and chest. Nothing too drastic. So I went back to a MASH unit. Terrible looking place. Guys were coming in there still living, but they were dead. Do you know what I mean? Both their legs gone, both their arms gone, but still living and nothing you could do for them.”
Afterward, the Marines sent him to Thailand for a week of rest. But Paquin still owed six months more of active duty for what he had by then concluded was a war without a coherent mission, even if he never failed to follow orders.
“I spent a year counting the days waiting to get out of that place. I thought it was senseless. I couldn’t figure out why we were even there, you know? What was their objective?” he said. “I did what I did and what I had to do. I always did that.”
Paquin made clear he always did his duty, had his comrades’ back, and was happy to have served.
“I was proud of my service,” Paquin said. “I’m proud to be a serviceman now.”
But landing back on U.S. soil in Alaska on a flight via Okinawa and Japan was a relief.
“That’s when I started feeling a little more relaxed,” Paquin said.
Paquin completed his service commitment as a military policeman back on Paris Island. The Marines wanted to keep Paquin on board, but he had other ideas.
“They offered me sergeant to stay in, but I said no, thank you,” he said. “I had enough of this.”
BACK IN VERMONT
No ceremony or ticker-tape parade greeted Paquin in Vermont. He flew into Burlington and crashed on a brother’s couch there for a couple days before heading to New Haven.
“It ain’t like now when you get a parade and the governor’s there and all that stuff,” he said.
He found work as a turret-lathe operator for General Electric in Burlington and then as a builder. His last job as an employee was helping to build the Middlebury shopping center that once housed Ames Department Store and the A&P Supermarket, and is now anchored by Hannaford Supermarket and T.J. Maxx.
Then he left to found Paquin Construction. He calls it “just small-time,” but adds that he has “built a lot of houses around here.”
Paquin doesn’t begrudge the bigger fuss made over veterans of other, more popular wars.
“I did get a hundred bucks from the state of Vermont. It just showed up in the mailbox. I’m proud of these guys now for getting what they get. They deserve it,” he said.
Paquin also notes the greater respect veterans get “trickles down to the VA system now. I’m glad people are catching up to some of the things they weren’t doing or were trying to finagle around.”
His service in Vietnam may have lasted for just over a year, but since then Paquin has dedicated 40 years to veterans’ organizations. As well as now being the Legion Commander, he is also a past president of the Addison County Eagles Club. Both organizations are known for their community involvement as well as giving veterans a home away from their homes.
“We offer them a place to gather and meet and come and talk,” Paquin said.
But Paquin himself is not in touch with any of his former comrades in arms.
“Never kept in contact with anybody, never tried to. When I got out, I was out. Glad I was out,” he said. “Glad I went over to Vietnam, but it was senseless. What were we doing there?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
Read stories about veterans John Rizner of Middlebury, Robert “Fireball” Many of Middlebury and David Lewis of New Haven by clicking on their names.
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