LAKE BUTLER, Florida — Charles “Charlie” Darrow Fink never imagined that his good friend would be shot dead right next to him during a firefight in Vietnam during Operation Starlite. When Fink enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1964, the United States had increased its involvement in Vietnam. He realized that being deployed to a war was a very likely possibility. However, nothing was going to deter Fink from becoming a Marine.
After recruit training at Mairne Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, Fink reported to the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. While at ITR, Fink missed some important training due to illness.
“I got an upper respitory infection an spent time at the sick bay. I missed Amphibious Tractor training. During training we learned quick.”
During the summer of 1965, Fink arrived at Chu Lai, Vietnam where the Marines learned the Viet Cong were planning to attack their position. Operation Starlite, also known as the Battle of Van Tuong, was quickly devised to assault the Viet Cong first. Fink was with 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.
“The beach landing was the largest amphibious operation since Inchon in Korea. Just before my unit was supposed to debark from the ship, our squad was told we’d be in reserves, so we didn’t get to make the initial landing. We went in at about 8 p.m., August 18.”
Fink realized how important it is to never miss training as soon as he arrived in Vietnam.
“Everyone from my unit got on the AMTRAC it was loaded off the ship. As the AMTRAC made the way to the beach, I turned around and started facing the back, because I thought we were going to get off from the back end. Everyone else was facing forward, and I’m thinking ‘something isn’t right here.'”
Fink noticed a crack of light coming over his shoulder as the front of the AMTRAC rose up as it landed on the beach.
“I thought ‘I’m not going to be the last one off this puppy. I’m going to be the first one off of it.’ In Vietnam, you either learn fast or die.”
As Fink ran off the AMTRAC, he saw the beach was covered with dead Viet Cong.
“I ran as fast as I could to the tree line where I thought I was going to get cover. We were told going into Starlite, “If there are people not wearing Marine Corps green, shoot them.’ Landing on the beach, the first thing I saw was an old man dressed in all white with his bamboo straw hat and a cane. He was running away as fast as an old man could, which wasn’t real fast. I couldn’t shoot him, his cane was not a rifle.”
Fink and the Marines made their way across the beach to the jungle. While in the jungle, Fink’s unit caught up to the rest of the Marines who had made the initial assault.
“The Marines who were ahead of us were so shot up it was really, really bad. John Jamison, our grenadier and my best friend in the unit, and I scouted out where a machine gun was located. It was about 50 yards away from where we were.”
Fink saw the machine gun but Jemison didn’t see the weapon system since it was heavily camouflaged. Fink shot under the machine gun, which caused a big cloud of dust to rise up from the ground.
“Jemison fired a round that flew and landed right on the enemy’s head. Another enemy Vietnamese jumped on the gun. They saw us. The second gunner fired off rounds and caught John right here We were literally shoulder to shoulder when that happened. I got really angry.”
Fink shot the enemy Viet Cong who was firing the gun. The other fighters got up and ran and Fink shot them dead too.
“As soon as I fired my last round at the VCs there was an explosion that flipped me over onto my back. I looked down at my arm and there’s blood sqirting out of it. I had shrapnel in my face, shoulder and arm. My fire team leader came over to put a bandage on, and he was shot in the shoulder. I had to crawl over John’s body.”
Fink was evaculated for recovery, and moved to a naval ship.
“The Navy sent me to the hospital for two weeks and fed me ice cream. I came back to my unit. We were licking our wounds. We were shot up real bad. We couldn’t do anything.”
After his deployment, Fink was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina as the noncommissioned officer in charge of all the pools and aquatics training.
“I really loved being a Marine. I had applied for Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program and was going to attend college to get my degree. Then I got orders to go back to Vietnam. I had a wife and a daughter at this time. My daughter was about six months old. I started thinking about what happened in Vietnam. I thought a lot about Starlite. I thought about all the Marines who were injured and died in Vietnam. I just couldn’t do it. I felt my responsibility was to my wife and my daughter.”
When Fink ended his active duty service, he didn’t have much direction and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his future.
“I had post-traumatic stress disorder after I was discharged, but I didn’t know it. I thought it was totally normal to punch holes in walls. I finally went to the Veteran’s Administration; I was told I didn’t have any problems. I went home and kept punching holes in the wall.”
One day Fink broke his finger after he punched a wall with a stud behind it.
“My parents told me, ‘You obviously have problems from Vietnam. We’re going to pay for a private doctor.'”
After Fink visited with his new private doctor for about 10-15 mintues, the doctor told Fink to go back to the VA.
“I was waiting for the examiner , and my civlian doctor walked in. She took care of everything, and I started to get treatment. The VA did a good job for me. PTSD doesn’t go away, they teach you ways to deal with it.”
Fifty years after Operation Starlite, Fink still remembers his four and a half years as a Marine with a smile on his face.
“If you want to be the best you join the Marines. The Marine Corps is a brotherhood like no other. I am so proud of each and every one of the Marines. It makes me so proud to see the young Marines .”
This story is part of an ongoing series of Marines who participated in Operation Starlite in Vietnam, 1965.