Retired Grosse Pointe Public School System teacher Rufus  McGaugh served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam conflict.

Retired Grosse Pointe Public School System teacher Rufus McGaugh served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam conflict.

Photo provided by Rufus McGaugh


Vietnam veteran shares war experiences with high school students

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 30, 2019

 When giving his slide presentation April 23, veteran McGaugh told the students that helicopters dropped supplies and picked up sick, wounded or  dead service members.

When giving his slide presentation April 23, veteran McGaugh told the students that helicopters dropped supplies and picked up sick, wounded or dead service members.

Photo provided by Rufus McGaugh

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Monsoons, human waste, scorching temperatures and the enemy.

Those were among the elements Rufus McGaugh endured when — barely out of his teens — he was in the middle of combat as the Vietnam War raged on overseas.

On April 23, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran shared his story with students in MaShanta Ashmon’s 10th and 11th grade U.S. history classes at Grosse Pointe South High School. McGaugh presented slides to three different classes that detailed his stint in the war through photographs.

McGaugh’s presentation covered his time in the Vietnamese lowland rice paddy fields, where he spend about a third of his tour of duty, and also the Que Son mountains and the jungles near Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

“It’s wonderful to have someone who is part of our community bring history to life for my students,” Ashmon said. “I’m honored to know him.”

McGaugh served in the 5th Marine Regiment from 1969 to 1971. While many young men were drafted at the time, McGaugh enlisted in the Marines and volunteered for Vietnam, giving up a student deferment.

“I enlisted in 1968 when I was 19, but actually did not get into the Marines until 1969,” he said.

Although trained as a rifleman, McGaugh served as a machine-gunner. During his first year, the young Marine was stationed in California. By the next year, he was in Vietnam.

“My goal was to come home alive,” he said.

McGaugh’s presentation covered the politics, geography, history, climate and culture of the war. The students learned about time patrols, search-and-destroy missions, ambushes and night attacks.

Going to Vietnam was McGaugh’s first time traveling to another country.

“I’m seeing people living in shacks with no indoor plumbing,” he said.

McGaugh’s troop was a part of numerous search-and-destroy missions, and he also was involved in many patrols and night ambushes. There were moments he and his comrades walked through human waste that was mixed in with the rice paddies.

According to McGaugh, night ambushes were “the worst.” The veteran described them as having 12 or 13 U.S. Marines “deep in enemy territory surrounded by countless enemies, and we were waiting to ambush any who came our way. Everything is dangerous no matter where you go.

“In this war, we had to search for the enemy and destroy them. Ninety percent of the South Vietnamese people hated our guts,” he said. “When you looked at them, you could see the hatred in their faces.”

During his year in the Asian country, McGaugh said he took only nine showers. He also talked about napalm being used as a weapon.

“Napalm is a firebomb,” McGaugh told the students. “It’s a horrible weapon. It will burn all the way through your body.”

And some days, the temperature was unbearable.

“The heat was so bad — well over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit),” McGaugh recalled.

McGaugh’s slides included snapshots of helicopters that would fly in and out with various supplies. They also performed evacuations.

“This is how we got our sick and wounded and dead out,” he said.

“Zippo warfare,” McGaugh said, was when soldiers took out their Zippo lighters “and set every hooch or house in the village on fire.” McGaugh, however, refused to participate in the act.

“I never did it,” he said.

When overseas, comedian Bob Hope’s USO show, which included an appearance from Miss Universe, left an impression. During the conflict, McGaugh was shot three times before getting off a helicopter that was on a mission to rescue a five-man Marine recon team in 1970.

“I was in the Que Son Valley and the enemy that day was probably a combination of the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Despite being wounded, I got off the chopper and fought; not heroics, just loyalty to my buddies who needed me,” he said. “My more serious wounds were to the left knee, leg and hip. I was also hit in the face with shrapnel on the right side. That ripped apart my right cheek.”

Upon returning home with his battle scars, McGaugh endured surgeries on the leg and face.

McGaugh’s name might be familiar to many in the community. For 36 years, he taught English and social studies in the Grosse Pointe Public School System. He retired in 2010, but he still visits schools on a regular basis to talk about his military service.

McGaugh also gives talks on his travel experiences. As of 2017, McGaugh said, he completed a journey of visiting the world’s approximately 252 countries and territories. He chronicled his quest in the book “Longitude and Latitude, with Attitude: One Man’s Quest to See the Entire World,” available for purchase at amazon.com.