Two days after graduating from Poynette High School in 1960, Doug Birkett was off to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corp.
He enlisted out of Poynette and eventually was sent off to Vietnam as a member of an infantry unit within the grouping of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines and Third Battalion, Ninth Marines.
The recruiter in Poynette thought that Birkett was running away from something, although Birkett didn’t find out that fact until much later.
“I knew the postmaster real well, and when I came back one time on leave, the postmaster said, ‘That recruiter came and talked to me quite a bit about you.’ He said, ‘(The recruiter) thought you were running from somebody or something because you wanted to get out of there, and get out of there now.’”
But that wasn’t the case for Birkett.
“I figured if I was going to do it, I might as well just get it over with,” he said of joining the military.
Birkett grew up in Hazel Green as one of nine children — he had five brothers and three sisters. His mother died while he was very young, and his dad worked in the local mines. Birkett currently lives just outside of Dane.
For training, Birkett was sent to Camp Pendleton — a Marine Corps Base Camp in southern California.
Then sometime around 1961, Birkett’s unit would be sent to southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
“There wasn’t anything going on then, but shortly afterward there was,” Birkett said.
There was a simple thought in his mind while aboard the helicopter carrier heading to southeast Asia.
“Staying alive,” Birkett said. “Whatever it takes. We had, what I would consider, a mostly good outfit. There were some screwups, but I think they realized they better not screw up too much, because there’s a lot of guys behind us that ain’t going to be screwing up.”
Birkett’s unit was based in Okinawa, Japan, and spent time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, among other locations.
“We didn’t get into anything real serious, nothing that we couldn’t handle,” Birkett said.
He recalls an interaction with a fellow soldier that could have gotten them in hot water. The other soldier’s name was Wirth, and he was from northern Wisconsin, Birkett said.
“Him and I were at an ammo dump in Thailand. I was on one side, he was on the other,” Birkett said. “All of a sudden he started hollering like mad, ‘Hey Doug, you gotta get over here. Hurry up and get over here.’ So I get over there and what he’s got is one of the farmers over there who had a work animal that was an elephant. (Wirth) wanted me to get over there so I could help him shoot the elephant. I said, ‘We shoot that elephant, we may not make it out of here.’”
After his time in the service, Birkett was given a book that detailed the actions of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines and the Third Battalion, Ninth Marines during their time in southeast Asia from 1961-62. The book includes photos of all the ranks of soldiers as well as numerous pictures over the course of those two years.
“I didn’t consider it bad,” Birkett said of his time overseas. “There were times you were unhappy with it, but those are the breaks of being in the service.”
“Life in the service was as easy or as hard as you made it,” Birkett added.
Surviving basic training
Birkett had a simple way of thinking throughout his basic training and overall military service.
“You learn there (training) that if you do what you’re told, it ain’t going to hurt you,” Birkett said. “I think that comes from when as a kid, when dad said we’re going to do it this way, we did it that way.”
As an infantryman, a lot of time was spent at the shooting range. It was one part of being in the military that Birkett liked, and he became real good with a rifle in his hand.
“If someone was going to furnish me ammo, I’ll sit there and shoot all day,” Birkett said. “I loved to shoot. I became a fairly decent shot, where at 600 yards, you wouldn’t want me pointed in your direction.”
During training, some problems among the soldiers arose, however. With it being the early 1960s, there was some racial tension between soldiers.
“We had pretty good people with us, except that was about the start of black and white problems,” Birkett said. “In my outfit, we had a huge Black guy, and he knew he was big, and he would pick on anybody that he could.”
Birkett saw the particular soldier’s ire firsthand one day, and Birkett decided to put a stop to it real quick. He coincidently shared a bunk with that other soldier, with Birkett on the top bunk.
“He went to bed and I could hear him sleeping. I slid out of bed and laid my machete across his neck,” Birkett said. “I said, ‘You know, I got a decision to make right now, whether to let you wake up or not. If there is another day like today, you may not wake up next time.’ My god, he straightened out a bit.”
Life after service and Badger Honor Flight
After getting out of the military in the early ‘60s, Birkett eventually joined the Madison Fire Department, working out of the No. 10 station, located in the Maple Bluff neighborhood.
Birkett — and five others – later became the first class of recruits in the department’s history, being installed on Jan. 9, 1966. He said he was “pretty proud” of being part of the fire department. He eventually became a driver for the No. 10 station, and drove for about 10 years.
Birkett also had the privilege of being selected for the Sept. 7, 2019 Badger Honor Flight out of Dane County Regional Airport.
While at a garage sale in Waunakee years before the flight — wearing something that indicated he’s a veteran — Birkett was asked by a stranger if he considered going on one of the flights.
“I said, ‘What in the devil is the Honor Flight?’”
“A couple years later, I then get something in the mail that said I was chosen,” Birkett continued. “It was very interesting, not only for the Honor Flight itself, but for going and getting home.”
He said when departing, the airport was packed with people saying goodbye, including some of his family. When he came back, there was even more families there.
It’s something that Birkett believes all veterans need to experience.
“It shows that people do care,” Birkett said.