While confined to a hospital bed at a base in Japan during the Vietnam War, United States Marine Corps helicopter pilot Marion Sturkey confided to his wife, "I want very much to be with you. But even if I had the chance, I donít think I would elect to come home just yet. Because I have an important job to do here, and I must do my share. If we donít face the problem now, then our children will have to face it" (10 September 1966).
This collection documents life during wartime for McCormick County, S.C., native Marion Foster Sturkey in Vietnam and his young wife, Agnes Hubert Sturkey, who was living stateside in Arkansas and, later, in South Carolina. At this time, First Lieutenant Sturkey was midway through his tour (1965 - 1968) as a commissioned officer piloting H-46 helicopters after having served his first "cruise" (1961 - 1965) as an enlisted man.
The Sturkeys had lived together but a few brief months before Marionís deployment to Vietnam with Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMM-265. To cope with this separation, the couple exchanged letters, photographs, and audio tapes. The resulting collection consists of one hundred twenty-eight manuscripts: letters (11 May 1966 - 1 March 1967), certificates (1964 - 1968), and twenty-five photographs (1963 - 1968, 1998 and 2006). Envelopes sent home by this twenty-four-year-old Marine typically contained multiple letters written during one or more days. Correspondence dating from May to early August 1966 originated from various United States military locations in Vietnam but primarily from the Marble Mountain Air Base near Da Nang City.
During early August 1966 Sturkey sustained a bullet wound in the heel, an injury that required multiple surgeries including a skin graft and earned him a Purple Heart. After more than two months of recuperation at the United States Naval Hospital at Yokosuka, Japan, he rejoined his squadron in early December and continued to write frequent letters to Agnes until his departure from Vietnam during the spring of 1967.
Like most veterans of war, Sturkey showed a reluctance to provide details of his combat experiences for personal and security reasons. Despite his reticence, however, this collection documents themes remembered by many veterans of Vietnam. Letters detail his support for the war effort, his thoughts on the social changes of the day, his delight in shopping for Japanese stereo equipment and electronics, as well as his use of recycled equipment to make the dusty camps of Vietnam more comfortable.
Although this collection preserves only those letters penned by Marion, his answers to Agnesí comments hint at more intimate details of the adjustments familiar to most newlyweds - negotiating relationships with family and in-laws, paying bills and filing income taxes - as well as those specific to military families - namely the operation of a household when one member lives on the far side of the globe, and the acknowledgment that a loved one might not return home alive.
Marion wrote brief letters during the summer months of 1966 that refer frequently to enclosed clippings, photographs, or slides. With the exception of several photographs, however, these enclosures no longer remain with the collection. The Sturkeys exchanged recorded audio messages on reel-to-reel tapes - a common practice of the day - and often recorded subsequent messages over previous communications. As a result, correspondence of this period apparently holds far less information than was contained on the lost tapes, while Marionís writings served as cover letters to accompany the latest set of photographs, as suggested by his comment, "I will do all of my Ďtalkingí on the tapes, so I will just send things in letters I write" (28 May ). A desire for privacy at times prevented Sturkey from communicating via the audio tapes as frequently as he would have liked. "I wanted to talk with you for a long time on the tape recorder tonight, but the tent is full now, so I canít.... I donít mind writing, but I can say so much more when I use the recorder" (12 June 66).
In these brief letters, Marion notes his daily routine of piloting his helicopter on short trips shuttling men and cargo and the associated waiting to return to base camp. "I am on standby status up north of Da Nang. We flew up at 6 this morning and wonít get back until after 7 tonight.... Iím up at Phu Bai, or ĎHueí as you have probably heard of it in the papers. (pronounced ĎWheyí like Ďtheyí). We wonít do any flying today I donít think. Nothing much going on. We are just sitting in the club waiting for 7 PM to come so we can fly home." (13 June ).
When Agnes requests that he send a map with details of the regions over which he flies, Marion declines, citing security concerns, although he promises to identify locations that she could find on a civilian map ("20 or 21 June" ). Despite such precautions, a subsequent letter, 26 June 1966, suggests that his maneuvers were far from secret: "security of information wasnít very good on yesterdayís strike. It was supposed to be top secret but NBC news, Life, and Newsweek correspondents knew of it far enough in advance to fly up from Saigon. So if they knew, I imagine the V[iet] C[ong] knew too."
This routine changed with the delivery of telegrams on 11 and 12 August 1966 alerting Agnes that her husband "sustained a penetrating missile wound to the right foot" while flying "in the vicinity of Quang Tri," which was the northernmost province in the Republic of Vietnam. This event marks a significant change in the nature and content of the correspondence as the bedridden soldier recuperated for several months.
With little privacy to record audio tapes but many hours for thought and reflection, pages of opinion and observation replace the earlier tendency towards brevity as Sturkey put pen to paper. Letters from Agnes pressed for more details beyond the abrupt telegrams, a request with which Marion gradually complied over a series of letters, briefly describing his itinerary - from a field hospital to a larger facility in Da Nang, followed by a stop at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines before landing in Japan. A few more details appear in a letter written around the twenty-second of August 1966: "My foot is just fine.... You keep asking about my incident. Darling there are things in this world that people just donít talk about until they are ready to.... Some time after I return I may talk about it.... Iím not in a position to give you a running account of the day to day unpleasant things I come in contact with.... No, I didnít pass out; I flew the plane back to base. And for your peace of mind, no, it didnít hurt either.... I had medical attention approximately 15 minutes afterwards. Now please donít think me harsh, but thatís all I have to say about it now."
During reconstructive surgery on 26 August 1966, doctors grafted skin from his right foot to his left leg, immobilizing the pilot for three weeks, during which time it proved difficult to position himself to write letters. Demerol blocked the pain, which enabled him to write but impaired his penmanship. "I am so sorry I took so many days to write you. But I can just barely manage to twist myself so that I can write at all. You see, my right heel is grafted to my left calf, so I canít sit up to write. It was uncomfortable at first, but it is OK now" ([27 August 1966]).
Two weeks later, Sturkey reflected on his injury, "...I think everyone thinks the worst part of being wounded is the time when you get shot. They are wrong. The shooting doesnít bother you, itís the getting well process that is bad.... You know most people donít worry about getting hurt or killed over here - Personally, that is. But I would dread it for your sake.... "
As often occurs when in a foreign country, the visitor becomes keenly aware of the differences and advantages enjoyed in his home country. "I am constantly reminded of why I must go back to V[iet] N[am].... the people.... want to live free from communism just like I do. I know that I didnít understand what this war was all about until I had been in V[iet] N[am] for a while, no one can, until he sees for himself what kind of life the peasants and farmers are leading.... I need to go back. These people are grateful, just as I would be if I were in their place" ([11 October 1966]).
Several letters compare the options available to women in the United States versus Vietnam. "Unless a girl - (oriental) is born into a wealthy family, she stands no chance of ever being like a U.S. woman. She is judged by the amount of work she is able to do. And if she is lucky enough to be married, then that is what she is married for - her ability to work" ([3 September 1966]); "I wish they could trade places - just for one day - with an Asian farmerís wife. It would kill most of them - couldnít stand the work. But the ones that live would realize how well off they really are" ([13 September 1966]).
As more American women joined the workforce and gained financial independence during the 1960s, Sturkey predicted that the institution of marriage would decline in importance as a result, "I am glad we got married. Marriage is going to die out in 25 years though. 50 years ago, a woman had to get married, or spend her life with her parents.... Now days, most all women train for some kind of job so they can financially support themselves, so they donít have to be married " ([10 September 1966]).
In numerous letters, Sturkey expresses his support for the war, although in a letter of 15 August 1966, he suggests that he sensed some ambivalence in letters from family in South Carolina:
"Sometimes when I lie here I think of how lucky our country is - by that I mean the freedom everybody has. But more and more I think that somehow we have lost sight of the principles that made the country what it is today.... and everyone is looking out for himself, asking what does society owe me. And looking for a handout. Freedom is not easy to describe, but it is ironic that by taking advantage of its liberties we will destroy it.... Everyone wants, but no one wants to sacrifice....
Back in Plum Branch, my grandparents are fretting over me. Of course I will always be a little boy to them.... They think I am involved in something that I donít understand. I donít want them to think that way at all. Most of all I never want them to feel sorry for me. They may not understand why I have to be here, but I do. Will you please write them and let them know that I am fighting for a cause that I believe in."
Several weeks later, in a letter dated [13 September 1966], Marion condemns a decadent consumer culture in American society, although he acknowledges that he is a part of this problem as well. "I got a copy of Life magazine today and it made me sick. There was a picture of a blonde on the cover dressed in a new pop art dress. It is silly. Americans want to have everything these days, but nobody wants to sacrifice or work. And then we wonder why we get involved in places like Viet Nam. Families with 2 cars in the garage of a luxurious house complain of high taxes and inflation. Americans just want everything?But this country will probably never change its ways - and weíll wind up just like the Roman empire - decay from within. But I guess I am just as guilty as the rest."
Following three painful weeks of confinement to bed, doctors pronounced the skin graft healed and Sturkey began to enjoy the run of the base: "Iím feeling just fine these days. The doctors are just letting me wait until my foot gets stronger before I start to walk on it. But I run all over the hospital in my wheelchair. Sorta terrorize the nurses and corpsmen. But I am enjoying myself and gaining back the weight I lost" (25 September ).
Letters during the following weeks discuss Marionís research and purchase of stereo equipment to ship home as well as efforts to record an extensive collection of taped music while on the base, as noted in a letter dated [11 October 1966]. "I am sitting here listening to the Grand Old Opree which I recorded a couple of weeks ago.... Up to now I have just copied tapes from a couple of corps men here.... But starting tomorrow I am going to start going over to the tape library. They have over 750 tapes that you can copy. All you need is the tape; the machines are already there." A week later Sturkey reported a full dayís work at the tape studio and another letter, [27 October 1966], enumerates his eclectic collection of albums by the Tijuana Brass, Righteous Brothers, Beach Boys, Grenadine Guards, Kinks, Sonny and Cher, Flatt & Scruggs, Rolling Stones, Roy Acuff, and others.
By early October 1966 Agnes had moved from her motherís home in Arkansas to an apartment in Columbia, S.C., and Marionís envelopes show a Henderson Street address. Sturkey budgeted his pay with a shrewd and thrifty hand, managing to regularly send a significant amount home each month, with an eye to someday furnishing a future home with Agnes. However he also enjoyed the opportunities afforded by the large PX to ship home electronics and exotic goods unavailable in the Palmetto State. Looking ahead to his first wedding anniversary in November, he purchased and shipped a set of flatware to the States. To preserve the surprise, he only hinted at the intended use of this mysterious gift by means of four cryptic Japanese characters included in a letter, [11 October 1966], with the teasing challenge, "Figure out what that means, and get your anniversary present, and practice up so you can please your husband when he comes home." The message, spelling out the word "tabemono" was written in hiragana characters and translates into English as "food."
Although the October 1966 letters of this young Marine show a more optimistic tone than those written during August, Marion continued to contemplate more serious issues. When reading news from the home front, Sturkey lamented that control of the war rested with civilians with a limited understanding of the situation on the ground in Vietnam.
In reference to a recent news item, he observes that, given the opportunity to pilot Hubert Humphrey on a tour over Da Nang, he could disabuse the former senator from Minnesota of the notion that the United States "could declare a unilateral declaration of military victory in Vietnam. Itís almost funny sometimes to read about the things people say to get votes. I would be glad to fly him around over the Da Nang TAOR [Tactical Area of Responsibility] for about an hour at below 500 feet. He would be hard put to explain away all the rounds we would take" ([2 November 1966]).
Several days later, Marion expanded on this theme, "In the past few months I find myself growing bitter.... I generally agree with the aims of our countryís foreign policy, but I most strongly disagree with the means by which we implement it. If weíre going to fight a war, thatís fine with me, but I do wish uninformed civilians would leave the tactics to military experts. There is no such thing as a clean war.... Iím afraid my views would shock quite a few people. Maybe weíre just to[o] civilized. Nobody wants to be inconvenienced anymore" ([7 November 1966]).
Feeling recovered by early November 1966, Marion longed to return to his squadron in Vietnam. He writes of enjoying roast beef sandwiches and milkshakes between meals in an effort to regain the weight lost during his weeks immobilized in a hospital bed, while also acknowledging the future need to decompress from the stress of the combat upon his return stateside. Shortly before his release from the hospital and his return to Vietnam, Marion hoped to celebrate his first wedding anniversary on 20 November 1966 with a call home to Agnes in South Carolina: "I want to make our first anniversary a little bit special. But there are two carriers in port, and it usually takes 3 or 4 hours to get a call through to the states when the ships are in" (19 November ). Once released from the hospital and en route to Vietnam, Sturkey spent a week at Camp Hansen on Okinawa, south of Japan, where in a postscript to a letter, [24 November 1966], he happily reports receiving confirmation at last that he would return to his former unit, HMM-265.
Once again in Vietnam and writing from the United States Marine Combat Base at Dong Ha on 11 December , Marion reports comfortable accommodations amid more permanent structures and less enemy infiltration. "This place is entirely different now. When I left there were only a few tents here; now it is a bulging complex, and I am staying in a brand new tin covered building.... The area is also quiet out west of here in the mountains. We have a lot of troops out there now, and the North Vietnamese have all pulled out." During his week at Dong Ha, Sturkey provided security for a fellow South Carolinian. "I had a real lax day today. Gen. Westmoreland came up here this afternoon, and I flew escort for him. He went to a couple of places here and then left.... The squadron is breaking up now. Between now and March, 75% of the people will be transferred. As it stands right now, I will be staying here in the squadron" (12 December 1966).
Several letters describe the ingenuity of men in the field in adapting to the extremes of heat, cold, and dampness. After a few references to the need for a "hot locker," Marion includes an explanation in a letter of 17 January . "I made myself a hot locker to keep my clothes so that they will stay dry. Itís just a closed box with a hinged lid that has a light bulb burning inside of it. Works real well." An improvised stove warmed his quarters, as described in a letter, 3 Febrary : "Up here in the mountains it gets pretty cold. We have a 50 gallon oil drum that is rigged up as a stove. We burn gasoline in it, and it works very well.... Down south at Marble Mtn. the weather is probably much better. I surely hope so, I will be going back there tomorrow."
During his final months in Vietnam, Marion shows a striking candor in reporting the war for his wife. Several letters discuss his maneuvers, including an admission of just how ordinary and commonplace the daily routine of waging the war had become. "We have a fairly Ďbig dealí coming up in the morning. I remember back when we first came over in May; this would cause a little excitement, but now for some reason, you just donít think about them anymore. It all seems so routine now that I donít give it a second thought. It somehow feels that this war is a natural state of affairs, and that Iím actually getting reconciled to it, not really caring whether it goes on or not.... I know one thing for sure.... Iíve seen the brand of communistic government these North Vietnamese want to set up. Itís a terrible way for people to have to live, and for that reason Iím willing to stay here and help these people find a decent life for themselves. I may not agree with the half-hearted effort we are making, but I will still feel that 5 more months isnít too much of a sacrifice, when you consider what these people are enduring. They have known nothing but war for 25 years" (13 December 1966).
A week later, in a letter of 21 December 1966, Sturkey reports on an engagement with hostile fire while flying in the vicinity of Gia Vue in Quang Ngai Province. "Itís way down south of where we usually operate - down below Chu Lai.... last night, three companies got heavily engaged 10 miles south of here, and we had to go down and support them. We finally got back around an hour after dark. This morning I ran a recon insert south of here. We took some fire before daylight and were able to see where it was coming from - for a change - So we called in fixed wing.... This place is getting pretty rotten down here. With so many troops up north, this area has really gone to pot. Our area down here is infested with V[iet] C[ong]. The hottest area around is right in our TAOR."
When Marion was not flying, board games, backgammon, and cards helped fill the hours of waiting. During the first week of January, he described the most coveted leisure activity of all, a week of R&R in Japan. After arrival at Camp Zama, located twenty-five miles southwest of Tokyo, Sturkey reported the luxury of a hot shower, his plans to shop for more stereo equipment, and his rental of clothing for the week in a letter of 2 January 67: "I hadnít realized how different it is up here - compared to Vietnam. I guess I didnít appreciate the change in the hospital, but coming here is just an entry into another world.... I went down with 2 other guys and rented a brown suit and a top coat for 5 days. I got a shirt and tie from the PX - socks too."
For his remaining months in Vietnam, the Marines planned to transfer Sturkey to a new squadron, HMM-262, based at Ky Ha. "You have probably heard of Chu Lai - well this is about 5 miles north of there. It is one of the three large helicopter bases in the northern part of Vietnam. I will send you my new address tomorrow. The living down there should be a little better than it is up here.... the monsoon season will end in about 2 weeks" ([21 January 1967]). A month later, however, a timetable for this transfer remained uncertain.
Discussion of a more significant reassignment dominates the final letters in the collection as Sturkey debated the possible locations of his next assignment upon his return to the United States. Although hoping for California, he reported an assignment to the Carolinas in one of the final letters of the collection dated 19 February: "Iíve finally gotten my orders back to the 2nd Wing on the east coast. That is either Cherry Point, N.C., New River, or Beaufort, S.C. - probably New River, since most of the helicopter activity is back there."
Although this collection includes no letters from his final weeks in Vietnam, according to his Defense Department Form 214 or "DD-214" which is preserved here, Sturkey received a promotion to the rank of captain while he was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in New River, North Carolina, in July 1967.
Photographs (1963 - 1968, 1998, and 2006), include various shots of Marion Sturkey in Vietnam and the United States: formal portraits in uniform and with his wife, Agnes Hubert Sturkey; candid shots with Vietnamese children in Dong Ha, May 1966; with fellow officers; views of H-46 helicopters in flight, on the ground, and landing in a bomb crater; photographs that Strukey shot through the windshield of his helicopter; and a 1998 image of Marion Sturkeyís return to the hill in Vietnam, located approximately eight miles from Dong Ha, where the bullet entered his foot in 1966.