It took over 50 years, but the mystery surrounding the tragic death of a young Pleasant Hill, Ill. man in the early days of the Vietnam War is finally answered. John Drew Campbell died on Nov. 22, 1965 as a result of drowning, when the Land Vehicle Amtrac (LVTE-P5) in which he was a passenger lost power and sank in the Cau de River during a monsoon. For decades, facts were sparse and records were limited. Some were told he never made it out of the vehicle. His family, when notified of his death, was told he died helping save other Marines.
John Drew joined the Marines soon after graduation from Pleasant Hill, Ill. High School in 1964. After training stateside and on Okinawa, he left for Vietnam, armed with only his military-issued gear and his Scriptures, as part of the first wave of Marines to land in Vietnam on Nov. 18, 1965.
John Drew belonged to the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, HQ Battery as a Radio Operator. On Nov. 22, he was attached to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division, as part of a forward operating team (FOB) tasked during a monsoon to transport 3rd Force Recon (3rd Platoon Delta Company and 2nd Platoon 1st Force) via LVT operated by 1st Amtrac Battalion from coordinates 8685 to Namo Bridge, a known hot spot for Vietcong activity.
According to records now declassified, shortly after transport of the other Marines to Namo Bridge at 1:49 p.m., his LVT B-36 lost power in the Cau de River. At 2:15 p.m., due to torrential rains, the B-36 filled with water and sank. At 3:54 p.m., a second LVT on scene to assist his LVT also sank. Radio reports indicated three men were in the water. At 4:02 p.m., three Marines were rescued. A late entry indicated Coast Guard cutter Golf picked up three of the Marines.
Six survived and nine perished. Of the men in the first LVT, three of the men who perished — John Drew Campbell, his friend Michael Beringer and Platoon Sgt. Moses Tabor — were found outside the LVT. John and Michael were taken to shore by Vietnamese fishermen the next morning when the waters calmed. There are rumors they named the beach after John. The bodies of six Marines were found in the sunken LVT B-36 on Dec. 16, 1965. Sgt. Tabor's body was found on the shore Dec. 21, 1965.
On the day of John Drew's death, Don Wilmot, a decorated war veteran with 38 air combat medals, was a Crew Chief and Door Gunner on HMM-361 UH-34 Helicopter Yankee November, stationed at Marble Mount, Vietnam near Da Nang. Wilmot's helo was on medivac standby because his helicopter was grounded for two days due to torrential weather.
That day, his unit received a call to rescue 15 Marines stranded in the Cau de River. There was limited visibility with swells 8-12 feet high. Wilmot confirmed John Drew as one of the Marines “bobbing in the water.” According to his family and his Marine Corps brothers, John Drew was an incredibly strong swimmer who even helped other Corps members train to pass their swim tests.
According to Wilmot, they saved six Marines by hovering overhead and lowering a sling to hoist the men. When Wilmot returned to rescue John Drew, he was three feet from his grasp and John Drew was pulled under the current.
“He was just out there so long... he could have grabbed that sling anytime for himself, but he didn't,” said Wilmot.
“Every rainy day reminds me of that,” Wilmot continued. “When you join the Marines, you are willing to give your life to it. John's sacrifice is the reason those men survived that day. His efforts and ours... we did manage to rescue six of the 15 that were in the bay. As a result, somewhere in the U.S.A. six Marines may still be alive raising families.”
John Drew was many things to countless people. He was a young man of only 19 years old and was the personification of joy and selflessness. In fact, according to personnel records of his meager military pay, he sent the majority home to his mother, Irma Campbell.
Words cannot begin — nor should they be able to encapsulate — who John Drew was or his actions that day. Was it a heroic decision? I don't believe John Drew made a conscious decision to save the other Marines or himself; I don't believe it ever crossed his mind to grab on to that sling before every other Marine was saved — it was not who he was.
His survival, if it meant another would perish, would be going against the very fabric of his being.
Now that is a Hero.
This research was conducted for John Drew's sister, Alyce Campbell Crownover, and the many family members, friends and Marine brothers who hold his memory dear. It is my great honor that my father, Col. David Anderson, and my mother, Gail Miller Anderson, chose to name me in remembrance of him.
Drew David Anderson