Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with a Marine veteran from Milton.
MILTON — There was no time to adjust for Steve Byers. There was no time to get acclimated to military life, much less warfare. Still a teen, Byers enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school and found himself in the Vietnam War just months later.
“In 1963-64 the peace talks were going on,” said Byers, a Milton High grad. “I thought I’d never have to go.”
Basic training at Camp Lejeune whipped him into shape, though. It’s something he was thankful for by the time he ended up in the Central Highlands, about 19 miles southeast of Da Nang in Quang Nam Province.
“I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” he said. “It was the Marine Corps. (Training) was the way it should have been.”
Byers was a combat engineer with the 9th Engineers, Delta Company, 1st platoon, stationed on Hill 63 or LZ (landing zone) Baldy.
“Delta Company was nicknamed ‘Dying Delta.’” remembered Byers. “That really sends waves through you.”
The 9th Engineer Battalion was activated in November 1965 and deactivated in October 1970. Four companies consisted of nearly 800 Marines in the region.
Byers landed in country in mid to late 1969. His first day in country he found himself face to face with the reality he was in a warzone.
“I remember the shooting,” said Byers, reflecting somberly on his time overseas. “I was sitting in a hooch, thinking, ‘You’re just a young 18 year old.’”
Being a private, Byers soon found himself on patrols scouring for mines and booby traps.
“My first job was a mine sweep,” said Byers. “I had to drag a pole with a hook on it. I was about 50 to 70 yards in front of the platoon trying to find wires. We cleared minefields, cleared roads.”
It was intense work.
While awake at night, he thought a lot about his future and quickly realized he’d make the best of his opportunities upon returning home. He realized he wanted to work with cars.
He didn’t always have a lot of time to think. Patrols included eight- to 13-mile walks daily. Marines had to remain sharp.
The 9th Engineers worked with groups of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), or the South Vietnamese, training the soldiers to escape the dangers of the area.
Marines in the area had to deal with Viet Cong (VC) as well as North Vietnamese regulars (NVA). The VC would launch ambushes from time to time, mostly at night under the cover of darkness.
LZ Baldy was surrounded by concertina wire and Byers and Delta Company were charged with a section of its perimeter. Guard duty and patrols were part of the routine when the Marines weren’t out scouring the countryside for mines and booby traps.
“You didn’t walk on rice paddy mounds,” said Byers. “It’s a great place for mines. We taught the ARVN to check for mines. They didn’t have a clue what was going on. They need us and needed our support.”
Dangerous work kept the mind sharp. Byers knew he didn’t want to return home missing a limb.
Toward the end of his year, Byers switched to demolition man.
“We’d blow up just about anything we found,” he said. “We cleared out minefields. To find that stuff, we had to probe for it.”
The Vietnamese villagers would interact with the American soldiers, Byers remembered. Let your guard down and the young children would take C-rations and anything else they could get their hands on. Vietnamese women would tote coolers filled with sodas on their bikes or scooters and attempt to sell their goods to the soldiers.
“They could make anything out of almost anything,” he said. “You could see the troubled people. The kids would pull on you, wanting things.”
It wasn’t unusual to see dead Vietnamese along the roadway, Byers said. Small-arms fire, likely from VC guerillas, would pop up and the Marines would call in airstrikes against suspected positions.
“They’d shoot off flares all the time,” he said. “When the shooting took place, you just had to be on guard.”
Needless to say, the fighting men formed bonds. Byers still wonders about some he served with to this day. Guys from certain areas, states even, would bond during basic training and overseas as well.
“I made a lot of good friends,” he said.
Cellulitis took Byers out of the field for 21 days, sending him to a hospital in Danang. He had injured his knuckle on a nail while working. Soon, his arm flared up and it was off to the hospital.
He arrived in Vietnam a private and rose to the rank of corporal. He re-enlisted and served a total of 18 months before getting an early out.
Glad to be home, Byers arrived back in Milton to see a banner his mother and sister had placed on the side of the house welcoming him home.
Beyond that, there was little recognition for a man returning from service to his country.
“Nobody shook my hand,” remembered Byers. “I didn’t talk about it.”
Post-Vietnam, Byers went on to enjoy a successful racing and business career. He established Byers Built Engines in Milton, which has produced engines for a slew of winning drivers and Byers himself set numerous NHRA drag racing records in the 1970s as a driver. Today the business is still going strong with Steve and son, Mike.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.