PFC Michael J. Kelly. It’s a name that’s haunted Marine veteran Doug Chamberlain of LaGrange, Wyoming, for the 50-plus years since he returned from Vietnam in 1969.
“What we were ordered to do was devastating to my troops and has been a lifelong psychological problem for me,” he said. “In the military, you never leave someone behind.”
In March 1968, during the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese, Doug and his company were on a search and destroy mission in the Go Noi Island area of South Vietnam. What they found on that mission was a dead Marine, left behind five weeks earlier by the battalion to which he was attached. First Lieutenant Chamberlain wanted to know why.
When Doug published a memoir of his military life in 2019, he took the book’s title from the order he was given that day: “Don’t rock the boat. This is an order … Bury him.”
With that order, Marine PFC Michael J. Kelly of Findlay, Ohio, was to be forgotten, Missing in Action, as it were. But for Doug Chamberlain, who retired as a U.S. Marine Corps Captain in 1969; he couldn’t forget — especially in light of the Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis, Latin for “Always Faithful”
It took several years for the rest of the story to come out. Originally, the Marine Corps claimed PFC Kelly’s records had been destroyed in a fire. It took the help of a few U.S. senators and their staffs, plus a forensics investigator, but the full story of the young soldier’s demise, and the ensuing cover-up, finally came to light.
“The parents of PFC Kelly are both deceased,” Doug wrote in his 2019 memoir. “However, I trust that the culmination of our investigation into his death, the handling of his remains, and the disclosure of the truth surrounding it will be of some solace to his son, his son’s mother, and to my men in Echo Company 2/7.”
Doug later had the opportunity to meet with the family of PFC Kelly. They were what he called “unbelievably gracious” as he asked forgiveness for “my part in the ordered burial that I consider was the ultimate dishonoring of a United States Marine.”
It was a long journey from where Doug grew up in eastern Wyoming to the rice paddies of Vietnam. Born in 1942, his mother Bernice Warner was from Banner County. His father was from just east of LaGrange, where Doug now lives.
After graduation from LaGrange High School in 1960, Doug attended the University of Wyoming as the Wyoming president of the FFA. He also played basketball.
After learning he would be redshirted from playing the next season, Doug transferred to John Brown University in Arkansas, where he earned his degree in education.
His next stop was a coaching and teaching job in Veteran, Wyoming. After less than a year of teaching, he was drafted into the Army.
“I always wanted to fly jets so I tried to go to the Air Force but they didn’t seem to be interested,” he said. “So I decided to go with the branch that had the shortest officer candidate school. That was the Marine Corps.”
After graduation as an officer, Doug found out the recruiting base had a basketball team, so tried out for the team and was picked.
When command asked him to stay a second year as a player, he agreed, although he didn’t have a lot of military responsibilities. But after his second year, the next stop was Vietnam.
“When I arrived in July of 1967, none of us knew the buildup had started for the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese,” Doug said. “I was kept around headquarters for a while to get some command experience I’d missed during my year of basketball.”
Mortality rate was high among officers, so when the only other officer in the battalion was killed, Doug was thrust into command of Echo Company.
“Thank goodness for the enlisted guys,” he said. “The staff non-commissioned officers kept us alive in my early days.”
He said that although the Tet Offensive in January 1968 was a victory for the Americans, it was also a turning point as far as public opinion was concerned. The country, led by the media, had turned against the Vietnam War.
By August 1968, Doug was transferred to Hawaii, where he was released from active duty the following year with the rank of captain.
Returning to Wyoming, Doug enrolled in law school at the university, but left after one semester to start a custom farming operation in LaGrange. And he went back to teaching and coaching basketball and track and field at his high school
Along the way, he also served 18 years in the Wyoming House of Representatives representing Goshen County, finishing as Speaker of the House.
Since his return home, Doug has struggled to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His time in combat and his guilt over Kelly left its mark. Complicating the matter was trying to work with the Veterans Administration to receive a disability classification. He discussed it in more detail in his memoir.
Another impetus that led to his memoir was a conversation with a former student, now a veterinarian in Torrington. After some reminiscing, the vet asked seriously, but not judgingly, why his teacher always seemed “mad and angry.”
That simple observation haunted Doug for months. But it also led to his memoir and his discussion of what was once called “battle fatigue.”
“Today, PTSD is being more identified for what it is, a mental health issue,” he said. “Veterans from the Vietnam era would withdraw and hide out, so many of them developed drug and alcohol addiction.”
Doug said he expects his book to be controversial as far as some people in the Marine Corps are concerned. But for many who served during that time, they’ll see it as a book that had to be written.
“I hope the book presents a picture of the Vietnam War from the perspective of someone who was there,” Doug said. “This is just the truth of how ugly war can be.”
Copies of “Don’t rock the boat. This is an order … Bury him.” are available online by going to marinedougchamberlain.com.