Lake Champlain Weekly – February 10, 2016
By Michael Langlois
On Wednesday, February 2, 1966, the North Country’s temperatures hovered near the mid-teens. That frigid morning, outside Plattsburgh City Hall, twenty-three fresh U.S. Marine Corps recruits gathered with family and friends. The get-together had been organized to offer cheerful support, but a palpable uneasy feeling permeated the small crowd.
The young men – dubbed the North Country Platoon – had a tight travel schedule. Be in Albany Thursday morning to take the military’s Oath of enlistment. From there, fly to Parris Island, S.C., for basic training.
Although the group was never officially recognized by the military or government, it’s formation bolstered local recruits joining the Vietnam War effort. The majority of the platoon members hailed from Clinton County, but Essex and Suffolk counties also contributed recruits. This year will mark the platoon’s 50th anniversary.
The North Country had supported the United States during wartime before. As early as the Korean War, Marine Corps recruiters throughout many upstate New York counties had urged young men to form their own “North Country Platoons.” What made the ’66 platoon stand apart was the sheer number of Selective Service-aged men to enlist at the same time. Regrettably, the platoon members would fall victim to an unpopular war where returning soldiers were vilified by a disillusioned American public.
Gus Angelos, 19, and Mike Jabout, 20, both of Plattsburgh, had spearheaded the platoon. The two men enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 3 and would spend the next month convincing their friends to join the “party.”
“We were all facing the draft,” recalled Gary Walker, one of the first to join. “We went in the marines because they had the best training. They were the best soldiers. It was either volunteer for the marines or get drafted into the army.”
The Clinton County USO was on-hand to offer moral support to the recruits and their families. Mayor Francis D. Steltzer gave a heart-warming farewell speech expressing the community’s appreciation to the brave volunteers. Platoon members gradually walked through the crowd reassuring parents, siblings, and sweethearts.
“Most people, especially the mothers, were a little distressed that their sons were going off to war,” said Walker.
As the military chartered bus pulled away from city hall, American losses in Vietnam totaled nearly 2,500. By the end of 1966, that number would exceed 6,000 servicemen killed.
The local media had made the platoon members’ minor North Country celebrities. Hometown WIRY radio personality, Tiny Hare, visited the platoon during basic training. He would conduct taped interviews with platoon members and return home airing them on local radio.
The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported February 21, on “Marine Corps Platoon 338” as they progressed through basic training. A photo showed four platoon members sitting on the edge of a swimming pool, their legs dangling in the water, preparing for “drown proof” training. On March 1, the newspaper published a Letter to the Editor by Walker and fellow platoon member Mike Conley. The two eighteen-year-old Plattsburgh natives, speaking for the entire platoon, thanked the community for their “warm friendliness that we received on our departure from Plattsburgh.”
The letter concluded, “Your kindness is deeply appreciated and we guarantee that wherever the “North Country men” shall go, we will always hold a deep sense of loyalty to the friendly people of Plattsburgh.”
On March 31, a contingent of North Country residents traveled to South Carolina to witness the platoon’s graduation from Parris Island. A photo was taken of the Marines holding a hometown sign that read, “Congratulations Platoon 338 “Q” Company.” The young men had departed the North Country as green recruits; they now faced Vietnam as a band of brothers.
The platoon relocated to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where they received eight weeks of secondary military training. The Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) is where the Marine Corps ensured that “Every Marine is, first and foremost, a Rifleman.” The group had remained a tight unit during initial military training, but the Marine Corps ended that indulgence after ITR.
“We went home for leave,” explained Walker. “When we returned (to duty), most of us went to different schools or for staging to Vietnam.”
Vietnam became a reality for almost all of the platoon members. Mike Norcross, Andy Phaneuf, Mike Conley, and Tom Goddeau, were assigned to 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, India Company. The 3/26 had been deactivated after WWII; its revival was a point of pride to the new infantrymen.
“It (the 3/26) was being formed as a completely new outfit,” explained Norcross. “The only other time the 3/26 had been activated was for Iwo Jima. There were very few people who ever served in the 26th marines.”
The four platoon members remained together until Goddeau and Conley transferred to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province. Tragedy struck on May 22, 1967, when Conley was wounded by a sniper’s bullet in Con Thien. Initially reported in good condition, he later died of his wounds May 31 at Da Nang Naval Hospital, South Vietnam.
A second devastating blow for the North Country Platoon came one month later. On June 30, Goddeau was killed by enemy fire as his company searched for the survivors of a downed Marine Corps helicopter. The patrol had been near Hill 174; located 7 kilometers west – southwest of Con Thien. He had received the Purple Heart in January after being wounded by shrapnel on December 21, 1966. Marine Pfc Gary J. Walker was assigned to escort Conley and Goddeau back home to their families in Plattsburgh.
“I brought them both back,” said Walker. “We flew from Dover, Delaware, to the Plattsburgh airport. I stood duty for the two days it took for the funeral.
“It was tough,” added Walker. “It was an honor. What really hurt was to see their mothers suffering.”
While stateside Walker noticed a distinct change in the nation’s attitude toward the Vietnam War. The U.S. bombing campaign of North Vietnam beginning in 1965 made the war increasingly unpopular with certain segments of the American public.
“The first time I saw live action (of the Vietnam War) on T.V., I was amazed,” recalled Walker. “We didn’t see cameramen running around. The media was very powerful.
“It was like we had done something wrong,” he added. “We didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
Reflecting on the North Country Platoon’s 50th anniversary, Walker holds a pragmatic view of the past.
“The North Country Platoon was a good experience to go into Vietnam because we relied on each other,” he explained. “We had common experiences even though we weren’t always together (in Vietnam). I wouldn’t want to do it alone.”
The Clinton County Veterans Service Agency is working with local veterans groups to coordinate a 2016 North Country Platoon reunion. At least acknowledging that the platoon existed is important says Walker.
“It’s going to be great to see a lot of them again,” he said. “It’s not good to bring back some of the memories. We don’t need to talk about what happened to us. We were tight. The relationships you make in combat are as about as tight as you can make with anybody.”