Steve Larsen witnessed war from two sides during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
On the battlefields of Vietnam, Larsen twice was wounded and received Purple Heart awards, and participated in one of the deadliest battles of the war. Back home he saw the nation divide over the war and felt the coolness of the public upon his return.
“The World War II guys were heroes. Vietnam veterans were affected not as much by the war as the way it was when we came back — the way the country was back then,” said Larsen, who lives in Cullman County.
His journey to Vietnam started in 1966 when he was trained by the Marines to handle anti-tank weaponry, flamethrowers, recoilless rifles, rocket launchers, and demolition. The training turned into lifesaving skills when he stepped into the position of rifleman in June 1967.
“In Vietnam, you were always on the front line. There was never a day off. Every patrol was a firefight. We were further north. There were fewer traps and more soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army,” Larsen said.
War in Vietnam meant a lot of patrols, always anticipating the unexpected. The more familiar sights of war were also evident: flame-throwing tanks incinerating entire blocks of buildings, a fellow Marine wounded and patched up to fight again, and a Marine’s life lost in battle.
The great risk of engaging in war fell upon Larsen in October 1967 when a sniper’s shot caught him in a shoulder running point for his company in the Quang Tri area.
“I was swinging my gun back to check a spider hole (typically a round hole with camouflaged lid). The sniper was on a hill ahead. He was aiming for my head. The bullet went through my shoulder right where my head was before I turned, and it exited out the back,” Larsen said.
He was airlifted to Guam where he spent three months recovering. He returned to Vietnam in January of 1968.
Larsen’s return was marked by the most dramatic period of the Vietnam War: the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue City.
North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong launched their surprise offensive with thousands of soldiers and carefully planned attacks. American Army soldiers Marines were caught in deadly battles throughout South Vietnam, but few were more dangerous than the Battle for the Citadel, an important landmark that was overrun by forces from the north.
Army and Marine forces joined with South Vietnam’s army to retake Hue and the Citadel in a battle that lasted for weeks.
As Americans led the effort to oust the communist forces, Larsen recalls coming across civilians who had been executed or caught in deadly crossfires.
“In Hue City there were thousands caught in the crossfire. Thousands more were executed. Men, women and children. These were the things that were never reported,” Larsen said.
Larsen’s second Purple Heart came when sharpnel lodged in one of his hands. But even worse was the loss of Larsen’s lieutenant, Gordon Matthews.
“He was the type that was up-front, right there with us. We were attacking a building — I was four feet away,” Larsen remembered. “His death really affected a lot of people. When he was killed, it inspired us to do what we did. To finish the job.”
Larsen’s hand became infected several days later, and he was again evacuated to Guam. His stay was not as long the second time and he returned to combat.
While American troops were fighting off the Tet Offensive, citizens back home were shocked that North Vietnam was able to muster such an effort. Many believed that the war had been going in favor of the United States until that moment.
Larsen remembers the divide that occurred among the American public. Tet, the turmoil at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the May 4, 1970, shooting of students at Kent State University showed a nation clearly divided over the war, he added.
“Woodstock was just as much a protest. Even today there are protesters that go to soldiers’ funerals,” Larsen said.
He said that many of the bikers who arrive at the funerals to hold off protesters are Vietnam veterans.
While Larsen remembers the war and the unsettling times he encountered at home, he continues to value the many Americans who serve their country, emphasizing that support while they are in service and when they return to civilian life is important.
* Will Drake is a native of Cullman County and a student at University of Mobile.