At six-foot, five inches, Homer Hunter is hard to miss. The big man from Stony Bottom is a familiar face around Pocahontas County. He plays guitar and is well-known for his performances with old-time and bluegrass music groups. If people don’t know Hunter from church, concerts or around town, then they’ve probably heard his voice on local radio, where he hosts a radio show every now and then.
It seems like everybody knows the strapping guitar player and what a humble and decent fellow he is. But only a few know that Homer was part of an amazing endeavor while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. It wasn’t a secret combat mission – but a project that affected thousands of lives. Hunter and a small group of fellow Marines discovered a humanitarian crisis – by accident – and took action to help refugees help themselves.
Hunter was a corporal in the Third Marine Division, the first U.S. division to land in Vietnam. After coming ashore in 1965, there was no base for the Marines to occupy, so they set up a
tent city and scratched out a headquarters on muddy mountain slopes outside of Danang Air Base. Hunter was assigned to a small headquarters unit of about a dozen Marines who managed ammunition and other supplies for the division. He set up a cot underneath a tent flap at the unit’s command post, where he would sleep for more than a year.
Part of Hunter’s duties involved traveling into Danang to get supplies for his unit. On one such trip, Corporal Hunter was accompanied by his unit officer, Lieutenant Dean, and another young Marine, Sergeant Rusnak.
“We went to Danang to get some supplies for our unit,” said Hunter. “Lieutenant Dean liked to drive. He wasn’t supposed to drive, but he liked to drive. So, he was driving and we got lost. I told them, ‘Boys, we’re lost. We are not on the right road.’ I have a pretty good sense of direction. We didn’t know where we were at.”
A mishap on the muddy backroad would lead to a chance encounter with some local residents.
“There was a bridge across a little creek,” said Hunter. “We come across a little bridge and a civilian oil truck had got stuck in the mud. We slid up and knocked a valve off that truck.”
When the Marines stopped to help the truck driver, a crowd of local villagers gathered around, fascinated by the tall Americans – especially towering Corporal Hunter.
“We got out and there was nobody there but that truck driver,” said Hunter. “Then, all of a sudden, all of these people showed up. They looked like farmers or whoever – women, children, men. They were all jabbering and looking at us, because we were the first Marines they had ever seen. We were trying to talk and they couldn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t know any Vietnamese.”
As Lieutenant Dean stooped over to speak to one of the villagers, a cross on a chain fell out of his fatigue shirt. One of the children noticed the cross and scampered away.
“He kind of jabbered and took off up the road,” said Hunter. “I said, ‘You know, that’s strange. Where is he going? We better get ready and get some kind of a defense set up here.’”
Twenty minutes later, the youngster returned.
“It took him about 20 minutes and he came back with a Catholic priest,” said Hunter. “He saw that the lieutenant had the same cross as that priest and he knew that priest could speak English.”
The priest greeted the Marines and said his name was Father Roy, a Catholic missionary. The priest translated for the Marines and explained to the worried truck driver that the Americans would get his truck fixed. The young troops asked Father Roy what he was doing in the Vietnamese countryside.
“I asked him, ‘Do you have a church nearby?’” recalled Hunter. “He said, ‘No, I’m at a refugee camp with 5,000 refugees – and they are starving.’”
Thousands of refugees had flooded into the camp from north of Danang, where fighting between communist invaders and the South Vietnamese army had intensified. As the communists expanded their war of terror in the south, the refugee population would continue to soar.
Concerned with Father Roy’s dilemma, but keenly aware of their own plight on an unsecure road, miles from their base, the three Marines got back into their Jeep and departed.
“We talked to Father Roy for awhile, but we wanted to find our way home,” said Hunter. “We were driving along, finding our way back to base, and Lieutenant Dean came up with this idea – that those refugees could do our laundry. We were washing our own clothes back at base and that is hard to do. So we went to the camp, got dirty laundry and went back. We told Father Roy what we had in mind and he was tickled to death.”
The priest realized the enormous potential of a laundry service for a newly arrived Marine division. The service could generate income to support the camp and help the refugees survive. But the project got off to a rocky start.
“The first load of laundry we picked up – they had washed it by beating it on rocks with sticks,” said Hunter. “It was the rainy season and they had tried to dry it in a big bamboo shelter with a wood fire, and it stunk. The clothing, you couldn’t wear it.”
Hunter and his Marine buddies helped Father Roy upgrade the camp’s laundry operation.
“We went to the air base and we picked up wash tubs, washboards, soap powder, and we taught the people how to do laundry,” said Hunter. “Then we had a couple stoves made at the unit from some drums, where they could put heat in there without having the smoke in there.”
The supplies and training were all the industrious Vietnamese needed. Within a few months, Father Roy was managing a business with more than 2,000 paying customers and his camp had money to buy food and clothing for its ever growing refugee population.
“Pretty soon, everybody was taking their laundry there,” said Hunter. “Within a 10 to 12-mile radius, we had five units that were putting their laundry in there.”
Hunter and his buddies worked hard themselves to make the project a success. For months, they picked up and delivered laundry for units on the Marine Compound. But Father Roy’s business outgrew that arrangement.
“We were hauling that laundry and it was working us silly,” said Hunter. “We had work to do at the office and we were dragging that laundry.”
Once again, the resourceful Marines came up with a solution.
“A couple of the guys went to Saigon and bought two, little, three-wheel trucks,” said Hunter. “They brought them back and the people at the camp started hauling the laundry. By the time I left there, they had five trucks.”
Father Roy – a lone missionary when he met the Marines – received some church support because of the laundry’s success.
“When it started, it was just that Catholic priest,” said Hunter. “But he had some help come in later because the laundry got so big. And the camp kept growing. The refugees kept coming and the camp was food and protection. We had bases pretty close around there.”
Hunter is proud to have taken part in the project.
“We were feeding 5,000 people and buying them clothes,” he said. “In 11 months or whatever it took, we were feeding 5,000 people. To me, that is one of the most humane things I’ve ever done in my life. I helped start that laundry and I worked night and day on that thing. I did my work, plus the laundry work. We did a Christian thing, a wonderful thing.”
The chain of events that led to the start of the refugee laundry is almost incredible. If Lieutenant Dean hadn’t broken Marine rules by driving the Jeep; if the young officer hadn’t taken a wrong turn; if the lost Marines hadn’t bumped into the oil truck on a muddy back road; if an observant child hadn’t seen the cross dangling from a Marine’s neck; and if the Americans had not cared about the plight of the refugees, the project never would have happened. But it did happen and the outcome was a tremendous humanitarian success. Still, the full ramifications will never be known.
How many lives were saved by the refugee camp becoming self-sufficient? How many children got food and decent clothes? How many were able to get an education? How many refugee families survived and made their way to the United States or some other country? How many remained in Vietnam, under a different regime, but with memories of a few Americans who cared?
Many years after his service in Vietnam, Hunter tried to locate his friends from Danang, but had no luck. He hopes to make contact with Father Roy someday.