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Vietnam tour an education for NWPB marketing executive

by Tad Thompson | February 17, 2009
Gordon Hunt had been in South Vietnam for eight months. Troops were to receive a rest-and-relaxation break every six months.

But war being what war is, Mr. Hunt's chance to break had not yet arrived.

It was 1968, and Mr. Hunt, who today is director of marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board in Orlando, FL, finally received word that a handful of slots had opened up.

"You usually got to choose [a site for R&R]," he said, but based in Quang Tri, "we'd been in the mountains in a monsoon for a month. It was nasty." Finally, there was a break in the clouds and a helicopter arrived to carry out dead and wounded U.S. Marines. There were also a few seats for R&R qualifiers.

"Lieutenant Hunt, you have to take it now," he was ordered.

"So I showered and put on a clean uniform and rushed to catch the helicopter," Mr. Hunt said.

The chopper made a 45-minute jaunt to Bangkok, Thailand.

"When we got into Bangkok, there was an entry hall where a hundred of us attended a briefing on what to do and what not to do. We were told about local sensitivities. These gorgeous Thai girls were handing out glasses of beer. I had not eaten anything and it was my first beer in 30 days at least. I remember saying, 'This is great,' and then a colonel saying to me, "Are you OK, lieutenant? I slowly fell off my chair. That's all I remember. I woke up in the 5th Army Field Hospital. A doc looked at my chart and said, 'As far as we can tell, you have malaria, gastroenteritis and acute symptoms of starvation. When was the last time you ate?' I couldn't remember a meal since four or five days ago. I remembered the beer."

At six feet, one inch tall, the lieutenant weighed 120 pounds, down 40 pounds since joining the Marines.

"After I was ambulatory, I took five days of R&R. I went out in Bangkok, and the Japanese national police team was playing soccer in the Pan Asian Games at that time."

Mr. Hunt had studied Japanese before graduating from Princeton in 1967, so he sat behind the Japanese bench and began enthusiastically cheering in Japanese.

"There were not a lot of people cheering for the Japanese, and the guys said, 'Come sit with us.' I hopped the fence and sat with the coaches. They won the game and the Pan Asian Games. We went out and got rip-roaring drunk. At some point in the evening, someone said 'Let's go get suits made!' We filled a half-dozen cabs at 0-dark-30 in the morning."

The Pan Asian champions and their American friend found a Chinese tailor's home in the streets of Bangkok. They pounded on the doors. Still in his pajamas, the tailor measured his unexpected clients.

"I don't know how I got there, but the next morning I woke up in my room and in my pocket I had five or six dollars and a receipt for $300 worth of shirts and suits. My salary then was like $300 a month. I sent a letter to my mom in Tulsa [Oklahoma] and said, 'I'm having a wonderful time in Bangkok. Life is good, and if a package comes with clothes, please let me know.' I thought I was scammed."

Back in Vietnam, he received a letter that those gorgeous Thai-silk suits and shirts had arrived in Tulsa.

"Shortly after that I got all shot up and was medivaced to the U.S." He was at the Great Lakes Navel Station for a couple of months and was anxious to try on his new silk civilian clothes when he returned to Tulsa.

"When I left for Vietnam, Nehru jackets were the height of fashion, and mine was iridescent silk." While he thought this was "superb," his then fashion- conscious teenaged sisters "said I could not wear it."

He also had a new pinstripe suit. "I could not get my arms through the sleeves. It was the same with my shirts. My trousers would not fit over my hips."

First wondering about the competence of his tailor, Mr. Hunt soon remembered he regained the 40 pounds from when he was in Bangkok. "My family laughs about that to this day. 'So, have you had any silk suits made?' I never got to wear them. It was a good lesson for me," he said. Before he was wounded in combat at Quang Tri, "I went almost a whole year thinking that I led a charmed life. They couldn't touch me. I never had a scratch. On the last day, I was set to become the executive officer. I set the company on a hilltop. I was coming back to the rear, and there was an ambush." Shrapnel hit him a couple of times and a shell went off and threw Mr. Hunt onto the helicopter as he approached it.

"I had two fingers blown off but the tops of my fingers were in a glove. When we got to the MASH unit, they said, 'We'll try to sew them on if you agree.' I had so much morphine, that was the least of my worries." He is "missing a couple of knuckles," but his fingers were attached by a Princeton-grad doctor at an angle "so I could still hold a beer can."

He added, "There was no history of attaching severed digits at the time." Two months of recovery time "was mainly to make my hand work." For about a year after that, whenever he shaved, he would feel metal fragments emerging from his face.

"Looking back, it was certainly interesting," he said of the Vietnam experience. "It was sort of a sabbatical in international studies. I give the Marine Corps full credit. Every time we heard a lecture, they said, 'Listen up. This could save your life.' There was not a single course we took that wasn't absolutely what you needed to know." He added that it was the most highly relevant education he ever received.

Before going to Vietnam, he was one of five who tested so high as to qualify to go for 36 months to a language school in Monterey, CA. But when the formal assignments came, he and his four most-talented mates were assigned to an artillery unit in Vietnam. A colonel explained, "The Marine Corps has determined that you learn languages so well that you will pick it up there. The bottom five are going to language school because they need it more."

Since the war, "I never really felt anything traumatic about it. My son just joined the Marines and is at Camp Jejune," he said Jan. 29.

Mr. Hunt attended graduate school at American University and eventually worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture in Lakeland to develop the Japanese market. Today, he noted, "there are 100 million Japanese eating more Florida grapefruit than 300 million Americans, and the Japanese are paying twice the price."

Now, working for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Mr. Hunt is looking forward to developing exports of fresh watermelon to Japan. Sea freight costs would be high for the heavy product, but international exchange rates would still favor those exporting from the West Coast.

Mr. Hunt has seen that "agriculture in general has a lot of veterans in it. I have run across fellow Vietnam vets in citrus and the watermelon business. I have board members who have been in Vietnam and we compare notes."