Remembering Quantico: Vietnam veteran-athletes reunite in La Jolla

(front) Tom Siggins and Dave Rumsey; (back from left) Claude Lott, Bill Clark, John Ball, Bill Reilly, George Levendis, Mike Manley, John Perry, Vic Zwolak, Frank Tomeo, Bob Dudley, Larry Rawson, Tom Bache, Jim Groark and Bill Caldwell.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

A gathering of Vietnam War veterans could, under some circumstances, be a somber or serious occasion. But at the Quantico Marine Athletes (QMA) reunion at the home of Tom Bache and Ann Kerr-Bache in La Jolla, May 1, it was handshakes, hugs and “how you doing?” — naturally alternating between friendly ribbing and bragging about one another’s accomplishments.

The reunions are held every year in different locations around the country for the veteran-athletes who served at the Quantico officer base during the Vietnam War.

Bache explained that in the Vietnam-era: “The Marine Corps had a large ‘varsity’ team program. These varsity teams were based at Quantico and competed against college teams in football, basketball, and track and field.”

As part of the process, military recruiters would ask about whether the recruits participated in athletics in college, their sport, stats or times, and where they went. Recruitment to Quantico typically meant a three-year commitment, wherein one year was committed to the athletic team, then a year overseas, then a chance to compete in athletics for another year.

“The recruiting value was especially important in the Vietnam-era when Marine Corps manpower increased from 170,000 in 1960 to a peak of more than 300,000 in 1968,” Bache continued. “But large-scale Marine involvement in Vietnam ended in June 1971, and Marine Corps manpower was reduced to 200,000 in 1972. As a result, the value of these teams decreased in the early 1970s, and all were terminated by 1972.”

But as the dozen or so veterans mingled at the reunion — many with their spouses — the sense of lingering brotherhood was palpable.

“We bonded because of those two big experiences in a young man’s life,” Bache said. “To be on a team, especially one where everyone is that good, is a bonding experience; and then to go to war is a different kind of bonding. What I saw in Vietnam, the things I saw people do for others, to protect their fellow Marine and do what they were asked to do, those were the best people I have ever seen. It was an emotional experience.”

Quantico Marine Athlete Tom Siggins (center) raises a glass to Larry Rawson while in conversation. Ashley Mackin-Solomon

During a speech to the group, Bache gave kudos to some of those in attendance. “Larry Rawson is the ubiquitous voice of track expertise on ESPN and other networks since 1980, and was an artillery forward observer in Vietnam,” he said. “Bob Dudley was a great sprinter and spent much of his life as a police officer in Cleveland. I suspect his speed surprised more than a few criminals.”

In mentioning a colleague who was an intelligence officer, a voice from the crowd yelled, “He was?!”

Bache responded: “I didn’t say an intelligent officer,” to laughs.

Others in attendance, including Bill Clark, qualified for or participated in the Olympics. As he explained: “The Olympics were in 1968 and that would have been my third year because I ran in 1966 and 1967 (and still needed to serve my one year overseas). I was improving each year, so they offered me a deal that if I extended my service by four years, I could try to make the Olympic team and then serve overseas.”

With others noting that Clark was “robbed” of the opportunity to participate in the Olympics, Clark continued: “I ran the international cross country meet in Tunisia. Then we went to Ethiopia. We were just starting to realize how good the Ethiopians were then … there was a race one day and I was the first American to finish and I think I placed 15th. We went on what we thought were hard training runs and little kids would run with us, just laughing.”

After that, he did his overseas tour in Okinawa as a supply officer and spent nine months there.

For William Caldwell, who also goes by Bill, athletics was always part of his life, and Quantico seemed a good way to incorporate with military service.

“There was a draft back then so some men tried to figure out how not to get called, some volunteered,” he said. “I figured I owed time to my country, but I wanted to do it my way. So I became an officer and went to Quantico. The big event was the Quantico relays, and I was there in 1966 with a lot of the people here. It was the biggest track meet east of the Mississippi. It was a big deal. Thousands of athletes and guests would attend. My dad flew out, which was a very big deal because he hated to fly.”

From there, he served in Vietnam for two years and commanded an artillery battery.

“My last four months, I was a general’s aid, which was interesting because I got to see the big picture,” Caldwell said. “In late January 1968, all hell broke loose in South Vietnam. It went from being fairly calm to artillery, rockets, everything. But I got to leave in February, came home and was stationed in San Diego, I even lived in La Jolla for a time.”

Tapping his wife, Judith, on the hand, Caldwell added: “We partied hard and worked hard … all before I met my wife.”

With the spouses catching up as joyfully as the veterans, Clark observed: “Reunions like this are just so much fun. These guys were not just Marines, they were athletes. Many of these guys are the best friends I have ever had. Marines are special people; they are all into serving their country, but also into having fun. This like a college reunion, but with more in common with these guys than with your college guys.”

Bache added: “No one I knew could relate to anything like this because they weren’t there. When I went to my first reunion, for the first time in my life, I was able to talk to someone about things who knows what I’m talking about. We respect each other because we shared this. When we talk to other people about it, the response is ‘oh, that’s so terrible’ or ‘that’s so great,’ whereas the people who were there know it was a job and we did it. It’s nice to talk to people who understand.”

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