“The military experience was something that I looked at as a calling,” John White said. “So my intention all through school was to join the armed forces.”
The native Rochesterian enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in December 1965. Having graduated at the top of his class, White said he had the choice of where to serve.
"The war was raging in Vietnam, and if you're an officer in the Marine Corps in 1966, now, there was only one place to be,” White said. “So I volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“I'll tell you there's no greater honor than to serve with young United States Marines who are all fired up and ready to do their job and bring honor to the country,” he said.
A normal tour in Vietnam was 13 months, White said, but his would end much sooner.
He had been in country for about 3.5 months when he went out with the lead squad for a battalion-sized exercise. They encountered a very large unit of North Vietnamese soldiers.
“And so we literally became almost, not quite, but just about surrounded by North Vietnamese regulars,” White said. “And they far outpowered us, so we took very heavy fire.”
White said they weren’t able to get artillery in, but help came from four Navy pilots.
“The lead pilot for the squadron got me on the radio,” White recalled. “He says, ‘I'm here to help if you can throw some green smoke and let us know where you are.’ … So we gathered up our green smoke and threw that out there to let them know where we were, and then the most beautiful sight in the world is watching four Navy Skyhawks roll in and drop napalm and take fire superiority over a regiment of North Vietnamese.”
Remarkably, during all this, White was suffering from a very serious injury.
“I got what we call in the trade, I got stitched,” White said. “I got several rounds in me from a machine gun. … I was hit down in the left leg, up through the gut, into the chest.”
White was finally able to be flown out for treatment, and he would spend the next 14 months in a series of hospitals and surgeries. When he was healthy enough to return to duty, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina — for about three months. At that point, he got shipped out to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for six months, and then was stationed for another year at Camp Lejeune.
He came off active duty in 1970 and was fully discharged in 1973.
White said soldiers had to “literally condition” themselves to hate the enemy, and that lingered with him for a very long time. But that changed after an encounter he had during a Marine Corps reunion in Quantico.
“A whole group of us were having lunch in the mess hall … and a Marine captain came over and asked if he could sit down at the table,” White said.
On the captain’s shirt, White saw his last name: Pham.
“Obviously a Vietnamese, and he said, ‘I know you are all Vietnam vets. And I thank you and I honor you for that.’ ”
The captain told the group that his mother had been badly wounded in the war, and Marines got her to a medical facility, thus saving her life. She later came to America, where the captain was born.
As the group listened, the captain told them he had decided in high school that he was going to join the Marine Corps. White said he told them, “It was going to be my career for life in honor of what you guys did for my family.”
White said after he heard that, “All of my hate for the Vietnamese disappeared, just disappeared. And thank God for that.”