Mark Williamson

Legionnaire of the Month

The individual we want to feature is no stranger to Garretson or Post 23. In fact, if Mark has not sold you any raffle tickets, give him a call as most likely he has some with your name on it. But that is not the reason we are featuring Mark. Perhaps like me, you have known Mark for many years but never heard his military story. We think it will be of interest and worth recording and sharing some of his experiences.

Mark was born at Sioux Valley Hospital on 11/7/1949 to Don and Helen. Mark was the youngest of 4 and grew up in Garretson. Before graduation he elected to join the Marines in a ‘delayed entrance program’. He graduated in 1968 and July 1st was sent to boot camp in San Diego. He then went to Camp Pendleton for more basic and advanced infantry training. His MOS was Basic Rifleman, so he knew where he would go next. In fact, there were so many troops going to Vietnam that he was ‘blue tagged’ for two weeks (on hold waiting till there was room on a plane). After getting notice, he had 12 hours to ship everything home he didn’t need and board a plane to Okinawa (by way of California, Hawaii, and Guam and eventually Da Nang. On Feb. 10th 1969 he was in Da Nang and assigned to the 14 Replacement Unit.

“We were designated to replace personnel from different units who finished their tour of duty or were killed or injured. I was assigned to the 1st Recon Battalion in Charlie Company. We would go out in small teams or squads (5 to 7) for the purpose of observing and radio back when we saw enemy activity. We did not try to engage the North Vietnamese but when we spotted them would call in air strikes. We would usually be out 7 to 10 days and return with about that many days at base before repeating the process again. We were inserted by chopper some distance from where we were to recon and would be extracted by chopper when we were had completed our task.” See photo 1 (Mark and members of team on 55 ft. aluminum ladder after an emergency extraction from a patrol).

“Sometimes we were also assigned to support and provide security for radio relay stations which were normally located on top of mountains. These were permanent stations which had been fortified. One of the stations that Charlie Company was responsible for providing security was called BaNa. At one time it had been a French resort with buildings and tennis court. For added protection they had built bunkers and dug trenches around the parameter. We would give them some relief or help guard the perimeter. One night while we were on guard duty we were outnumbered and overrun by NVA and VC guerrillas. We had to abandon the buildings and retreat to a section of trenches where we called in gunships and air support. We were able to hold out until morning when they left. This was about as ‘close a call as one wanted and without a precise air strike we would have been in a world of hurt.” See Photo 2 (before) 3 (after) the air strike.

“There was another time when we were sent in to do a ‘body recovery’ that was too close for comfort. The NVA had established a large base camp in a complex cave and had ambushed one of our recon patrols. The patrol was unable to retrieve a casualty and we were sent in to assist in recovering the body. We worked our way toward the coordinates of where the body should be and were so close we could smell them. We also knew they could smell us. They had moved the body from where it was left but we were able to find and retrieve it. While there we also destroyed much of their supplies of ammunition, rice, etc. stored in one of their many elaborate underground caves. We were normally dropped in and returned out by chopper. But this was too difficult and dangerous for a chopper to pick us up due to enemy troops in the area. So we quietly worked our way back about 20 miles on foot to a fire support base”

“One day I will never forget is August 7, 1969 we were on recon patrol in an area called ‘Sherwood Forest’. There was a lot of enemy activity in the area. Although we were trying to be as quiet as possible, we knew we were being followed. (By the way, Mark’s nick name over there was not Willie but ‘Phantom’.) I and another man were the last in our squad so we peeled off and dropped back to ambush who was following us. After we dispatched them we returned to our squad. Soon we could hear more sounds behind us. I was going up to the man ahead of me to tell him we were going to peel off again. There was a big rock in the middle of the trail and everyone was going to the right of this rock. The man I was going to tell was new to our team and for some reason went to the left of the rock. As I reached up to tap his shoulder there was a loud explosion. He had set off a booby trap and we were both hit by shrapnel. I had shrapnel in my shoulder, neck and the right side of my body. Although I was a bloody mess and bleeding all over, it was not life threatening. We worked our way further up where we could both be medivacked out. Within an hour we were picked up and taken to a Naval Hospital in Da Nang. After the shrapnel was removed and my wounds bandaged, I returned to my unit yet that same day. As I and others were ‘replacement troops’ we did not always get to know each other real well. All I remember is that he was a Navy Corpsman and this was only his first or second time in the bush. I don’t even know his name or if he lived but I doubt but I doubt that he was as fortunate as I was.” Mark noted an interesting fact; he was wounded on “Purple Heart Day August 7th. See Photo 4&5 (receiving Purple Heart then and now-47 years later).

“Another memorable moment occurred on May 14th 1969 when four Servicemen from Garretson were able to spend a few hours together at the Da Nang Air Base. Besides myself there were Harley Engelbrecht (Air Force) Jim Lee (Navy Seabees) and Rich Tvedt (Marines).”

Like some Vet’s Mark has many interesting photos that highlight his experiences. Some are not pretty and cannot be shared here. Others are awesome and show just how beautiful some areas of Vietnam are. We don’t have room to show many but here are a couple that we’d like to share. (Photo 5 Mark did not shoot this tiger but someone in his company did. Photo 6 shows Mark in a typical area with tall grass and mountains in background).

“All Marines were assigned to Vietnam for 13 months. I was told that if I was willing to add 6 more months, I could get 30 days leave and be home over Christmas. This sounded really good, so I added the additional duty time. On Christmas Eve I boarded a plane in Okinawa and was in Japan for Christmas Day. With the various time changes gained, I was still able to be home by Christmas Eve (not many of us celebrate Christmas twice the same year). “

When I ask Mark if he had any advice for young folks considering the military Mark said: “Now there are many good educational benefits in a lot of careers that are transferable to civilian life. The benefits are very good. It would definitely be worth considering”.

Mark completed his last 18 months tour of duty at Barstow, CA as a rifle/pistol range instructor. He was discharged Oct 30, 1970 as a Sgt. E 5. He worked in the Garretson area until taking a job with the VA. Mark has 3 daughters (Molly and Maggie in Lincoln, NE and Jenny in Olivet SD and has 9 grandchildren. In June of 1996 he married Sandra Engebretson and have continued to make their home in Garretson. In June of 2000 Mark retired from the VA and has remained busy with his many volunteer activities. He has held every officer position at Post 23 and currently is Sgt. at Arms. He has received numerous awards including Legionnaire of Year twice. He was also Dist. and State Legionnaire of Year in 2005. He currently is Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Dept of the Dakotas (includes SD and ND Chapters). The entire list of Mark’s activities to promote legislation for Vets is too long to mention here.

Mark, on behalf of Post 23, our Community, State and Nation, we thank you for your dedicated service and sacrifices.


Respectfully,

Marty Luebke

PS I’m certain there would be other stories of interest and worth sharing (you don’t have to be wounded or receive a purple heart to qualify) If you have or know of someone who may have a story that might be of interest, give me a call. Thanks