Photo Information

Gregory "Greg" Lake, a Marine Vietnam veteran, stands in front of a painting in his home in Calistoga, California, June 22, 2015. Lake made the painting based on a night he endured combat in Vietnam and swam across a river under fire to save the lives of his Marines.

Photo by Sgt. Melissa Karnath

Gregory “Greg” Lake remembers Vietnam, Operation Starlite 50 years after

24 Aug 2015 | Sgt. Melissa Karnath The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

Gregory “Greg” Lake had a strong desire to become a Marine. He only had one more year left in his time in service; he expected to finish his last year at the Marine Barracks Treasure Island, California. Instead Lake arrived in Vietnam and within four days was fighting a skilled enemy.


During his time in Vietnam, Lake led 226 patrols as the point man, swam through a river under mortar fire for help and constantly took sniper fire from the enemy.  

Lake joined the Marine Corps right after high school in 1962 and reported to training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

“I was always short and so thin I may have looked anorexic, so I thought I’d join the Marines to bulk up. It was tough training, but I had signed up for it. I wasn’t going to complain.”

After recruit training, Lake reported to Infantry Training Regiment at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. He spent a year at Camp Pendleton, followed by a year overseas.

“We did jungle warfare training. I also took a combat intelligence course with a lot of officers. I finished first in the class, so I had map and compass reading down.”

After returning to Camp Pendleton from overseas, Lake spent another year in California. He was scheduled to go to a new duty station.

“President Johnson needed 50,000 combat troops in Vietnam, so I was assigned to a new unit.”

Lake was moved to Okinawa for training, and arrived in Vietnam in August 1965 with Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Maine Regiment.

“We arrived off the coast of Chu Lai, Vietnam Friday Aug. 13, 1965. I had joined the Marine Corps on a Friday the 13th; and now here I was in Vietnam on another Friday the 13th.”

The next day, Lake turned 21 years old. Four days later, Lake found himself taking sporadic sniper fire for four days during Operation Starlite.

“I had been in the Marine Corps for approximately three years already so at 21, I was one of the older guys in the unit. I knew this was going to be a long, long year with people shooting at me and trying to kill me.”

Lake did not face much heavy fighting during Operation Starlite.

“We did a lot of patrols through certain areas. There was a lot of quick, intense sniper fire. The fighters would shoot then retreat. The whole method behind that is if one person is killed or wounded, it takes two more Marines to carry the stretcher. So you take care of three people by shooting one.”

Lake became on edge and very tense, always on the lookout for the enemy.

“There is no way to describe to someone who has not been in combat what it is like having someone shooting at you. The rounds are coming by are so close you can feel the heat [from them]. To see someone next to you get shot, killed or wounded it is not like a game or the movies anymore.”

After the operation, Lake volunteered to be the point man for patrols.

“I was new and didn’t know these guys. I didn’t want them leading me into an ambush. My biggest concern was booby traps, and there were many, which made it difficult to get to our objective. I was very comfortable being the point man. I was very good at it.”

One day a lieutenant, who had recently arrived in the country after coaching baseball in Hawaii, wanted Lake and his Marines to conduct a patrol in an area where Marines had been attacked and had taken heavy casualties the day before. The lieutenant insisted that the Marines walk on top of an elevated railroad track through the area.

“I said we were not going to walk down the railroad tracks. We got into a slight argument. A lot of officers were being replaced at this time. People were not joining the service because they did not want to go to combat in Vietnam.”

Lake led his Marines into a village by a back way, instead of down the railroad tracks.

“The lieutenant walked out of one of the rice paddies with his baseball whistle and blew his whistle like a signal for all of the Marines to rally. The enemy opened fire. I was knocked down by small arms fire; luckily it must have been a small caliber weapon. The flak jacket took the impact but it knocked me down. The bullets were coming so close that mud was splattering in my face. Luckily I was not wounded.”

Afterwards, Lake spoke to the lieutenant and told him never to use the whistle again.

“On the way out of the village, I pointed to all the Marines not to step here there was a booby trap. He [the lieutenant] intentionally stepped in it, got wounded, got helicoptered out, thankfully away from us. We never saw him again.”

On another occasion, Lake was on a small island in a river near Chu Lai. A fire team of four Marines would stop boats that were coming in from the South China Sea and check them for ammunition and weapons.

“The first night we were there, we came under a full-scale attack with mortars and machine guns. The four of us were stuck on this island. A Marine was sent in a row boat with an outboard mortar out to get us. You put four Marines and a .50 caliber machine gun [that was our protection] in this little boat and we started to sink. I looked overhead and saw all the tracers and mortars.”

Lake gave an empty gas can to a Marine who couldn’t swim and told him to drape his body over it to use it for a floatation device.

“I had been on the swim team in high school. I stripped my gear and all my clothes. My biggest fear was coming out of the water naked as I could be mistaken for a Vietnamese and get shot by the Marines on accident. It was very frightening. I will never, never forget that night.”

Lake and all of his Marines escaped without mishap that night on the river.

On another occasion while on patrol, Lake came into a village.

“I came around a pathway and maybe 15-20 feet in front of me was a Vietnamese person with a rifle. I’m standing there with my M14. All the Marine Corps training said shoot him, but our eyes locked for a moment and we both backed up. I had a real epiphany about Vietnam at that moment and realized I was the bad guy. I was the invading military. From that day forward I still led all the patrols, but I never fired my rifle again.”

While in Vietnam, Lake grew increasingly upset and dissatisfied.

“The leadership kind of liked it that way so you were always on edge, ready for a fight, which was a good mindset for Vietnam.”

This mindset stayed with Lake even after he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1966.

“My original plan was to do 20 years. The war brought that to a screeching halt. I would not do it again. I was always very tense. People would tell me I radiated hatred. People didn’t like to be around me.”

Lake turned to alcohol regularly and drank heavily as he was trying to adapt to life after the Marine Corps.

“In the back of my mind I thought this has got to get better sometime down the road. I decided to change my behavior. It took me 40 years to get around to going to the Veterans Administration to file a PSTD claim. It changed my life.”

Fifty years after Operation Starlite and his deployment to Vietnam, Lake enjoys keeping in touch with the Marines he served with and attends reunions.

“The Marine Corps is the strongest brotherhood. I’m proud of it. Marines are the best.”

This story is part of an ongoing series of Marines who participated in Operation Starlite in Vietnam, 1965.