Ben Palermo remembers Vietnam, Operation Starlite 50 years after
By Sgt. Melissa Karnath, Defense Media Activity
SAN ANTONIO -- Benjamin "Ben" Palermo loved traveling the world and seeing new places as a Marine. Palermo never imagined that when he volunteered to go to Hawaii that he'd soon be experiencing combat in Vietnam. During Operation Starlite, he was fired at from every direction as he saw helicopters shot out of the sky. Fear stirred up inside him as he realized there was an enemy who wanted to kill him.
Palermo intended to enlist into the Navy but ended up joining the Marines. Palermo saw many places around the world as a Marine.
"After leaving my physical for enlisting in the Navy, I saw recruiters from the different service branches. The Marine recruiter yelled to me, 'you look like you want to be a Marine! Get over here! Let me see your documentation.' The Marine took my paperwork and stamped all of it with 'USMC.' That is how I joined the Marine Corps, and I'm proud to say that."
After completing recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, Palermo attended training at Camp Geiger in North Carolina with Infantry Training Regiment in 1963.
"I enjoyed the training; it was fabulous. I was assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for approximately 18 months. We went on a Mediterranean cruise while I was stationed there. Some of the countries I saw were Egypt, France, Italy, Iran and Spain.
After returning from the Mediterranean deployment, Palermo was offered the oppurtunity to change duty stations.
"Our first sergeant had us in formation and asked, 'who wants to go to Hawaii?' I had my hand way up in the sky. The first sergeant said to me, 'are you sure you want to go?' I answered; of course I wanted to go to Hawaii! No one else raised their hand, they knew something I didn't obviously."
Within weeks, Palermo found himself at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California for training before arriving in Hawaii with the 4th Marine Regiment.
"We were training in the mountains and I was wondering, 'why are we training?' Finally we got on a troop carrier and went to Hawaii. We weren't stationed there; we were just aboard ship there for about two weeks. I was able to explore Hawaii and it was fabulous. Then we went to Okinawa by ship in 1965. I was excited I was seeing the world. We trained there for about a month. I wondered, 'why are we training so much?"
One evening on Okinawa, our colonel pulled all the Marines of the 4th Marine Regiment together.
"The colonel said we were going to do a little police action. As he's talking, new gear is being issued. Brand new M14 rifles still wrapped were handed out, wow, brand new! Only my hands have touched my new rifle. I felt like a kid. I was excited. I heard the other Marines saying, 'we're going to war!'"
During May 1965, Palermo arrived with his Marine brothers in Vietnam.
"We landed in Vietnam from helicopters, and I thought 'what country is this again?' We were in outposts in the country and were being attacked by Viet Cong coming in from rice patties. That was a frightening experience. My sergeant was shot and stabbed by a VC, but he was able to kill the attacker in hand-to-hand combat. From that point on we realized that this was very serious. We realized that there is an enemy out there who wanted to kill us. It was scary."
Palermo and his Marines set up firing positions with sand bags to form a front line. The positions were approximately every 30-40 feet. They also went on a lot of patrols in the area.
"We were patrolling south of Chu Lai, and I had the rear guard with a buddy. We heard fire and realized we were being ambushed. After the shooting stopped, the colonel and the company commander had us walk by the dead VCs to see who we were fighting. I'll never forget looking at this dead VC with his brains scattered."
The Marines continued to patrol and a couple of hours later they were under fire again from a machine gun. There were approximately 240 Marines on the patrol and they fired back in the direction of the enemy fire.
"Another Marine and I had to go examine the site where the fire was coming from. We found the weapon, but we didn't see any VC. Then we saw what looked like pieces of meat, so we knew we had killed them."
Palermo didn't know what Operation Starlite was until it was happening during August 1965.
"Our colonel pulled the entire 4th Marine Regiment together and said we were going on an operation at 0500. I'll never forget his words. He said, 'we are going to be fighting an enemy that's had 20 plus years of fighting experience. They are called the Viet Cong, but you are Marines. You are better trained. You can deal with this. I expect all of you to come home."
The next morning Palermo boarded a helicopter with his Marines and landed in a command post of the enemy fighters on a ridge.
"As soon as we landed all we saw were explosions and heard weapons firing. I saw the VCs coming out of holes. I saw more of them coming. I thought, 'our guys were getting slaughtered.' I started shooting them. I saw helicopters taken down by mortars. It was a nightmare."
As Palermo crossed a field, he realized they were taking fire from all directions. The enemy fighters had holes and tunnels that ran under the field. The Marines were walking right over their enemy and didn't even realize it.
"We were being shot from every angle. We kept advancing. The enemy was everywhere. When we arrived at the village close by, the Marines figured out that the VC had tunnels that connected the village to the surrounding areas. It was scary. The VCs were skilled fighters. We lost a lot of people in H Company, a lot of people. It was sad. The VCs were about 4 foot, 11 inches, 130 pounds. Every VC that we killed or saw had muscles that do not exist in the biology box. Their legs had muscles like footballs and their arms were large. They were strong little suckers."
Operation Starlite lasted a total of three days for Palermo. He was in Vietnam for about 15 months and left during August 1966. He landed at Los Angeles International Airport directly from Vietnam.
"A woman at LAX saw us at the airport after we had just gotten back from Vietnam. She spit on us and called us baby killers. I went after her, and two Marines restrained me. That happened to a lot of Marines at airports and bus stations. We were so rejected that I had a very bitter taste toward America."
Palermo was then assigned to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
"My first sergeant asked me if I wanted to re-enlist. I asked, 'will I have to go back to Vietnam?' He answered that he couldn't guarantee it. I didn't re-enlist. I didn't want to go back to that kind of environment, so I got out."
When Palermo was discharged from the Marines, he went to work for a finance company in Manhattan. As he relfects about Operation Starlite, Palermo emphasizes how Marines are special.
"Operation Starlite was the first operation to give oppurtunity for both sides to learn who is who, who has what and what we were up against. I know that because of Starlite, the VC changed their tactics in doing battle with us; we weren't like the French. Marines particularly have a special brotherhood, a special bond. We stick together and look out for each other."
This story is part of an ongoing series of Marines who participated in Operation Starlite in Vietnam, 1965.