Vietnam War Vets

The war in Vietnam was a polarizing event for a generation of Americans and their nation. As the public conscience grappled with the meaning of an increasingly unpopular war, thousands of young men and women made their way to Southeast Asia to serve. Gaels Russ Harrison '76, Garth Flint '63, Richard Walton '62, C.J. "Kit" Ruona '63 and Rear Admiral George Huchting '62 share their stories.

Russ Harrison '76

By Ginny Prior

Russ Harrison and tankRuss Harrison, right, with two other Marine Corps Lieutenants in front of his tank after it had hit a land mine.

Every November 10th, Russ Harrison goes out for a burger and beer with his son. It’s the Birthday of the Marine Corps, a branch in which both of them served. But these men also honor each other. "There’s a big bond between us because of our military service," says Harrison. That bond stretches to a third generation, too.

Operation Arizona, 1966A picture taken by a combat photographer during Operation Arizona, June 1966, which involved more than 1500 Marines and lasted more than a month. Harrison is visible on the top of the tank, having just fired a round (the ring of smoke) at an enemy position. It was the first shot he fired in combat in Vietnam.

Russ’s father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II — a strong, purposeful guy Russ looked up to. When the Vietnam War called him to follow in his father’s footsteps, he trained as a Marine Officer – a position that almost cost him his life when he was shot twice in one day during the Tet Offensive. "A North Vietnamese Army unit was approaching Da Nang and my platoon was responsible to react. We found ourselves in combat with a very large unit and I was the first one shot." Harrison lost five men in his platoon and a dozen more were wounded by enemy soldiers just 10 to 15 yards away. He says it was terrifying, but his men were able to repel the attack and push the enemy back.

It’s no stretch to say that an angel was watching over Harrison during that battle. His high school sweetheart, whom he’d married right out of college at USC, was at home with their baby, a son who’d been born just five weeks before he shipped out. Buoyed by letters and audiotapes, Harrison says they never spoke of the danger.

Seven years after leaving Vietnam, Harrison enrolled in the MBA program at Saint Mary’s College. He brought with him a level of leadership and maturity that helped his course work immensely.

Russ Harrison at base camp.Russ Harrison getting back to base camp, dirty and tired, after a four-week Marine combat operation in Vietnam.

In turn, his time at Saint Mary’s taught him a valuable lesson about corporate leaders. "There are people in today’s business world who believe that financial success makes them a good leader,” he says. “In my experience, when an organization has cohesiveness, mutual support and purpose – you've most likely found authentic leadership. Coming back to Saint Mary’s helped me understand this and gave me a crucial framework to use what I'd already learned about leadership and teaming."

Harrison continues to use his leadership skills as a longtime member of the SMC Board of Regents and, more recently, the Board of Trustees. Two of his four sons earned their teaching credential at Saint Mary’s. The strong family bonds are something to celebrate – not just on November 10th, but everyday.

Garth Flint '63

By Ginny Prior

Garth Flint '63Garth Flint on the deck of the USS Coral Sea and in plane.

Author Tom Wolfe likened it to a skillet – the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea – 60 feet above the roiling waves and pitching like a “big wallowing monster.”

Garth Flint, a radar intercept officer, and his F-4B pilot, John Dowd, catapulted into the sky from this steel, gray behemoth the day they were shot down by “Charlie” – aka the Viet Cong. Their story, "Jousting with Sam and Charlie," is chronicled in Wolfe’s book Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine. It details the danger and adventure of flying fighter jets over North Vietnam, dodging MIGs (Russian fighter jets) and SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles).

F4 in flight on a fighter escort mission over North Vietnam.F4 in flight on a fighter escort mission over North Vietnam.

Flint says the night he and Dowd were shot down, the weather was deteriorating. “We landed in the water amongst all these islands and we didn’t know where we were – or where the enemy was.” Luckily, the two men were rescued within an hour, and were back in the air the next day. But Flint says other Navy airmen from the Coral Sea weren’t as fortunate. “We lost 22 aviators during that cruise. They were all shot down. Some were killed, the rest became POW’s. We were the only two that returned home with the carrier.”

Flint credits his faith with getting him through the dark days of the Vietnam War, and says he and Dowd —both Catholics — even attended daily mass on the ship.

Lt. (j.g.) Garth K. Flint and Lt. John Dowd, of VF-161, warm up after being rescued from the icy waters of the Tonkin Gulf. Their F-4 Phantom was shot down while on a routine weather reconnaissance mission.Lt. (j.g.) Garth K. Flint and Lt. John Dowd, of VF-161, warm up after being rescued from the icy waters of the Tonkin Gulf. Their F-4 Phantom was shot down while on a routine weather reconnaissance mission.

Looking back, he used many of the lessons he learned at Saint Mary’s. “I became very aware of my spirituality, thanks to the [Christian] Brothers,” says Flint, who cites Seminar (the Great Books program) with teaching him critical thinking and rugby with promoting perseverance and loyalty in lifelong friendships. “The camaraderie on the rugby team was very similar to that of a fighter squadron’s. To this day, I am in contact with members of my fighter squadron and also my rugby teammates.”

In many ways, Flint has come full circle back to Saint Mary’s. He not only serves on the Board of Trustees, he chairs the fundraising committee – using his leadership and team building skills for an honorable cause.

Richard Walton '62: The Guy Flying is in Charge

By Ginny Prior

It was an ugly day over the Gulf of Tonkin. The sky was threatening, visibility poor and turbulence severe as Navy pilot Dick Walton flew with his reconnaissance crew off the coast of Hanoi.

“We were the only airplane in the sky, thanks to a typhoon,” remembers Walton. He requested permission to land.

"We’re getting beat to hell. We would like to return to base."

"Negative," said the voice at the other end. "Admiral wants you to stay up."

It was then that Walton drew on a lesson he'd learned in his ethics class at Saint Mary's College. He was responsible for the safety of his men. "There comes a time, it doesn't matter who is telling you what. The guy flying is in charge." He made the decision to land the plane.

Richard WaltonRichard Walton.

Walton flew 272 spy missions during the Vietnam War. He received 13 Air Medals and a Purple Heart while helping carry a wounded fellow Navy man to hospital during a barrage of enemy rocket fire. He credits Saint Mary’s with teaching him leadership and critical thinking skills.

"I really believe that one of the main purposes of a college education is to teach you how to think. Whatever situation you go into, there are ways to handle it that give you a good outcome and ways that give you a bad outcome. You have to be able to differentiate between the two."

Adaptability has always been one of Walton’s strong suits. At age of 11, he joined the renowned Bob Mitchell Boys’ Choir in Hollywood, singing backup for some of the biggest celebrities of the 1950s, including Bing Crosby and Liberace.

At Saint Mary’s, his reputation preceded him. Classmate Ted Tsukahara called him a "tall, good looking crooner who could really sing a love song."

After graduating with a degree in Psychology in 1962, Walton looked into graduate school and then decided to enlist in the Navy.

"There were times in the military when life was hard," Walton admits. But he says he found strength in remembering the good times. "Everything that’s ever happened to me in my life, that I thought was good, has stayed inside me. I’ve always been able to call on it to get me through."

C.J. "Kit" Ruona '63

By Ginny Prior

C.J. C.J. "Kit" Ruona.

It was late in the summer of 1963 when C.J. "Kit" Ruona received the call to service. He and a classmate, Tom Sheridan, were working at a coffee roasting plant in Brooklyn, when his mother phoned to pass on a message. “Mom told me that my favorite uncle – Sam – wanted to know if I was as fit as I thought," he says. Ruona "beat feet home," passed his physical and was sworn into the United States Air Force on the same day he received his draft notice.

C.J. C.J. "Kit" Ruona holding his son Matthew on his first birthday.

"I was going to join the service whether there had been a draft or not," he reflects. "I felt it was a very noble calling and I knew that if I didn’t serve I would later deeply regret having others go and fight in a war for me, when I was perfectly capable of going."

Over the course of the next five years, Ruona would earn the rank of captain, as well as the Vietnam Service Medal. He would also marry his college sweetheart while home on leave.

Ruona flew 100 B-52 combat missions over Vietnam, including an especially tense flight that was aborted shortly after it began. "We lost a couple of engines on takeoff with a full load of bombs and fuel coming out of Guam,” he says, “and the pilot saved us by jettisoning fuel and climbing high enough to drop the ordnance before flying the crippled bomber back to base."

C.J. C.J. "Kit" Ruona.

The Vietnam War forced boys, barely out of their teens, to become men. "It’s amazing how young we were," says Ruona. "You mature very quickly in those circumstances." But he says two things about Saint Mary’s College prepared him to lead – basketball and the Brothers. "Having played athletics at a high level prepared me well – gave me confidence. The Brothers gave me moral and spiritual guidance."

In a letter to his classmates entitled "Reflections of an aging Gael", Ruona remembers leaving campus after graduation and taking one last look at Moraga from his '51 Chevy. “In that rear view mirror was the Moraga Barn, Freddie’s Pizza, Saga food…the Rheem Bowling Alley. In the windshield was a different world for each of us – we simply could not see it."

Rear Admiral George Huchting '62

By Ginny Prior

Rear Admiral George Huchting in 1996 with Pamela Harriman, United States Ambassador to France at the time.Rear Admiral George Huchting in 1996 with Pamela Harriman, United States Ambassador to France at the time.

George Huchting remembers the road trip like it was yesterday – piling into his Corvair with classmate Wayne Dance and driving cross-country for basic training. The year was 1962 and young men across America were answering the call to fight in an escalating Vietnam War.

"We drove from California to Mississippi and down to New Orleans and met a few of the other guys there," he recalls. "We partied in New Orleans that day and night and then I left them in Pensacola, Florida and went on to Jacksonville and Newport, Road Island for Naval officer candidate school."

As fate would have it, the young Lasallian-educated man spent most of his wartime on coastal patrol with a Vietnamese Captain – a Catholic from Hanoi who fled south. "He was a very educated guy – had gone to the French Naval Academy and spoke five or six languages. The guy was wonderful," says Huchting.

The two men patrolled the northern sections of South Vietnam, looking for smugglers and other suspicious activity. When they went ashore to the little villages, they never took a gun. "We knew there were Viet Cong in these villages, but they ran away to keep a low profile. They didn’t want to mess with us and we didn’t mess with them."

Rear Admiral George Huchting.Rear Admiral George Huchting.

Now retired after 36 years in the Navy, Huchting humbly looks back on his service in Vietnam. He says he had it "relatively comfortable" compared to the guys who got "down and dirty". Those guys were the real heroes, he says. But when it comes to his own mental toughness, Huchting credits Saint Mary’s College. Courses like Aristotelian Logic taught him perspective. "It taught you how to think – to sort out the garbage of what people get emotional about from the basics."

Even today, Huchting thinks about the principles he learned at Saint Mary's and from his family – those of hard work and responsibility. He sees his service to the U.S. as an honor but is concerned that people today have no "sweat equity" in their homeland. "The country has to figure out how to get citizens to contribute. Otherwise there’s no skin in the game," he reflects.