JEFFREY A THIBAULT - PFC
- DATE OF BIRTH:
- July 15, 1949
- DATE OF CASUALTY:
- June 15, 1968
- BRANCH OF SERVICE:
- South Vietnam
Jeffrey Allen Thibault was born on July 15, 1949. His home of record is Pitman, NJ. Jeffrey attended Pitman High School.
Thibault entered the US Marine Corps where he attained the rank of Private First Class (PFC/E2).
On June 15, 1968, Thibault was killed in action in Quang Tri Provence of South Vietnam. He was 21 years old.
July 15, 1949 - June 15, 1968
PFC, Marines Pitman, NJ
Jeff Thibault left Pitman High School as a junior in 1967, and entered the Marine Corps in November under the "buddy system" with David Dresh, who still lives in Pitman, NJ. He had excelled at football and basketball, following a long family tradition in athletics. Both his father and uncle were local stars of the thirties and forties. He became the third of five Pitman young men to give their lives in the Vietnam War.
David and Jeff were good friends before they joined the Corps. The Marines had an enlistment option that allowed individuals to stay together through boot camp and advanced training. The two thought it was a good idea. Over the next several months, they became much closer.
"Together, we experienced the enlightenment of boot camp, the pride of the Corps, the shortness of leave and the reality of going to Vietnam," Dresh recalls.
Jim Pensabene, also of Pitman, and a Vietnam veteran, remembers Jeff as being popular with the girls and fond of cars. "We were friends from the seventh grade through high school," he says. "He was handsome and he loved cars, like most other high school kids. Although I don't remember him being particularly fond of school."
Dresh recalls the Pitman of the sixties. "It was a small town where everyone knew each other," he says. "Although we weren't joined at the hip, Jeff and I had the same circle of friends and shared many interests. We liked hanging out, nice clothes, sports, dance clubs, cruising, and of course, girls. I think we were typical teenagers and we had a few adventures, both good and bad."
"Jeff had a very understanding grandfather who appreciated Jeff's free spiritedness," Dresh continues. "He would allow Jeff to borrow his 1965 Sport Fury, with the simple request that the car be returned clean and in one piece. Jeff was not seventeen yet, so one of the guys or myself would drive. We would all put in a dollar or two for gas, and at thirty-two cents a gallon, we could cruise all night."
"I think Jeff knew Vietnam was on the horizon," Pensabene adds. "Once I got there, I just wanted to come home. I am not so sure he could perceive the horror of it all. None of us could."
Especially Barry Weatherby, now living in Mount Ephraim, NJ. He knew Jeff as well as he knew the others from the Pitman and Mantua area who served in Vietnam. "We all hung out together at Alcyon Lake," he says. "There were many a good time had in the woods around there. The whole group was a bunch of fun loving, All-American guys. Of course, not many of them ever wanted to come over to my house."
Barry's father, Russell, owned the Weatherby Funeral Home in Pitman for twenty-five years. Barry and his brothers helped with the business as they grew up. When Barry was drafted into the Army in August of 1967, he almost immediately found himself being trained as a "Memorial Activities Specialist".
"Also known as Graves Registration," he adds. "Once Uncle Sam saw that my father operated a funeral home, it was 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am'."
After basic training at Fort Dix, and more mortuary training at Fort Lee, Virginia, Barry was sent to Vietnam in April of 1968, where he worked with civilian morticians at Da Nang Air Base. The experience in his father's business could not have prepared him for Vietnam.
"I can't know what the guys in the field went through," he says. "But I know there were many times I wished I wasn't where I was. You can't imagine how bad it was and what I had to get used to. Suffice it to say it was not a pleasant job."
Jeff Thibault's enthusiasm for the Marines and his eagerness to serve his country took him, with Dave Dresh, first to Parris Island, SC, and then to Camp Le Jejune, NC and Camp Pendleton, CA. And finally, in late April of 1968, they were sent to Vietnam.
"We went through everything together from boot camp until we were 'in-country'," Dresh says. "They split us up there. I went to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and Jeff went to 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. Our units operated in about the same area, but I never saw him again after that first day in Vietnam."
Del Candelaria, of Phoenix, Arizona, was an "old timer" when Jeff Thibault joined Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. The unit had defended Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive, and was now on its own offensive named "Operation Robin South". Candelaria was a squad leader with ten months experience.
"I had to look at the diary I kept," he says. "On May 1, 1968, I have an entry indicating a new squad member had joined us and I see that I couldn't spell his last name. It looks more like 'Thisbough' than anything else. I must confess, I do not recall what he looked like. I want to say he was pretty short and stocky, but I may be confusing him with one of the others. It's been thirty years."
Jeff was assigned to a fire team of the first platoon of Mike Company. His team leader was Richard Murphy, from Norwood, Massachusetts, a six-month veteran who took Jeff under his wing.
Del Candelaria recalls from his memory, and diary, a very tragic time in June of 1968. "On June 11th, we left Khe Sanh for an operation on a hill where many North Vietnamese had been spotted. The area we landed on was filled with tall elephant grass that was above our heads. The next day, after spotting some NVA, we came under fire and Kilo Company took most of the casualties. While this was going on, our jets were napalming a hill miles away. The plan was to burn the grass and then land us there to stop a large NVA force that was heading towards Laos. Later in the day, we were choppered to that area. The next three days were fairly uneventful."
"On the 14th of June, we spent the day on patrol climbing hills...we came back quite exhausted. That night was worrisome as the NVA kept probing our lines. I had been in Vietnam for 12 months and I remember telling the men in my team that I had a bad feeling... something was going to happen."
"At about 5:45 AM, our area was hit with rockets, mortars and machine gun fire. Our company was in the most vulnerable position as three companies of NVA regulars hit us. By the time our gunships, artillery and jets responded, we had sustained a lot of wounded and killed. Our platoon, with rifle fire and grenades, was able to re-take the lines that were overrun in the initial assault."
The fierce fighting lessened as the artillery and air support took its toll on the enemy. The attack had been repelled and the enemy was on the run. Yet, many wounded Marines laid out in the open at the bottom of the hill. The Marine Corps takes great pride in never leaving a wounded or dead comrade on the battlefield.
"Later that morning," Candelaria continues. "One of my team members and I crawled down an open slope to retrieve a wounded Marine. I yelled for a corpsman who crawled down to meet us. About fifty or so yards away, Murphy and Thibault were going down the same slope to see if another Marine was alive or dead. I could not see either of them because a large hedge separated our views. Except for the sporadic and distant small arms fire and the cries of the wounded, it was fairly quiet."
"I then heard a sniper's rifle fire about five hundred yards in front of us. I heard Thibault yell, 'Oh, God. Murphy's been hit!' Then a second shot and Thibault yelled something like 'My arm, my arm!' At this time, the corpsman who was helping us said he was going to leave to go help Thibault and Murphy. He had to go back up the hill to get around the hedge. A third shot rang out and Thibault was no longer crying. As our corpsman got to the top of the hill, a fourth shot killed him. And a fifth shot killed another corpsman who showed up at about the same time. The sixth shot killed our radioman. I carried the wounded Marine back up the hill just as twenty or more 105mm howitzer rounds were fired in the area of the sniper. After that, we did not receive any more sniper fire."
Candelaria continued to carry the wounded to an evacuation area until he was called to help interview some prisoners. A horrible day was about to get worse. He had already lost half of his ten-man squad. During a break in the interrogation, he learned that another very close friend died earlier in the day.
"When I heard he had been killed, I ran up the hill to see if it were true," he says. "While I was crying and hugging his body, I saw some Marines lay two more body bags at the end of a long row...one was Murphy and the other, Thibault. It was a very sad day for me. We lost twenty Marines that day and then twenty-three more two days later."
Barry Weatherby continues his story. "I used to have friends stop in and see me when they came in from the field," he says. "I got ready for work one day and Sergeant Sinotti, from New Jersey, comes up to me and says, 'You're from Pitman, right?' And I said 'Yes, why?' He said, 'Do you know a guy named Thibault?' I said, 'Sure!' He said, 'He's here.' So I went outside and looked high and low for him. I couldn't find him so I figured he had to get back to his unit. I went back to work."
Barry pauses, his eyes glaze over and he takes a deep breath. "Jeff's name was on the first body bag I looked at. I sort of lost it. I went straight to the NCO club and got totally wasted."
He also got into some trouble. "I guess I got out of hand," he says. "They were going to charge me with dereliction of duty and insubordination until orders came through for me to escort Jeff's body home. They didn't believe I knew him."
Jeff's body had already been shipped home by the time Barry was able to leave Vietnam. He spent seventeen hours waiting for a flight, and finally met the casket at Dover Air Base in Delaware. He rode in the hearse from Dover to Weatherby Funeral Home.
At the graveside service at Hillcrest Cemetery in Hurffville, NJ, the Marine Corps Guard handed the folded American flag first to Barry, who in turn, gave it to Jeff's parents.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life," he recalls. "First, Steve Sickler was killed, then Bruce Sharp and Johnny Jervis. And now, I'm delivering Jeff's body and handing the flag over to his folks."
Barry has not visited any of the local gravesites. He does his healing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. He spends time reflecting on each name he knows; each life he shared. But then he steps back and takes in an even more personal perspective.
"I wonder, 'How many of these guys did I work on?' And they all seem like they're right there. It's a tough thing to describe."
Jim Pensabene wants Jeff Thibault to be remembered not only as a young man who served his country. "We are all in his debt for that," he says. "But, also as a man who joined the Marines, knowing that this branch of service was renowned for being in the midst of the action."
It has taken some years and a good bit of faith to heal Del Candelaria. He would like to visit Vietnam some day and bring back some dirt to sprinkle on the ground at the Wall. He also feels a strong presence as he places his hand on the names. There is a spiritual bond to both the living and dead that all Vietnam veterans share and cherish. He also has a vision.
"I believe that Jeff and the others are in heaven," he says. "I believe that when I die, these guys will be waiting at the gate for me and that Jeff will tell me, 'I want to introduce someone to you.' And he will introduce me to the sniper who also died that day. And we will all say to each other, 'We're so sorry. It was such a terrible time for all of us.'"
David Dresh, Vietnam veteran, Marine Corp buddy and friend, has a heavenly vision of his own.
"Jeff will always be a part of my history," he says. "I celebrate his memory by remembering our friendship before and during our enlistment in the Marines."
"When I visit Jeff's grave site, I do so because he is my friend and a guy I liked spending time with. Should I say Jeff was a good kid and a nice guy? Yes, he was. Do I miss him? Absolutely."
"I know Jeff is in heaven and when we next meet, I hope he has the keys to that Sport Fury so we can cruise to Mr. Abba's Diner. I'll let him drive. There, we will tell each other stories while we chow down on cheese steaks, fries, coconut custard pie, and cherry Cokes. Semper Fi, Jeffrey. Semper Fi."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
used with persmission of the author
Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.
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