Photos of a duck in a Vietnam War veterans magazine have led to the reunion this spring of two former Marines who served together in Vietnam – one of them from Princeton.
Gary Carlson, of Princeton, was a Marine stationed at a mountain-pass security post near Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1966, when a mallard duck became his military unit’s mascot. He was in the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.
Carlson remembered the duck when The Vietnam Veterans of America Veteran magazine out of Baltimore put out a call last fall for Vietnam War vets who had pets during their Vietnam duty. The magazine asked vets to submit photos and information about them.
The magazine ended up with plenty of responses, with Vietnam vets sending in photos and stories about animals, including monkeys, dogs, a goat and a large snake. As a result, the January-February 2013 edition of the The VVA Veteran carried a story by Mary Bruzzese called Fur, Fangs & Feathers.
Carlson, who belongs to the East Central Minnesota chapter of the VVA, sent four photos to the magazine, featuring a duck named Mildred who had become his Vietnam unit’s mascot. The duck had made enough of an impression on Carlson, now 66, that he went into detail about the mallard hen in one of his letters home from Vietnam.
It’s a “really friendly duck who would sit on your shoulder or sleep on your chest at night,” Carlson wrote home back in 1966. The duck also seemed to sing whenever a morning show would come on from a U.S. military radio station in Vietnam, Carlson wrote.
But today, Carlson is most excited about what the mallard recently brought about – re-establishing contact with George Schaeffer, a fellow Marine at Carlson’s duty station in Vietnam. The two had lost contact 47 years ago when Carlson and Schaeffer went separate ways at the Vietnam mountain pass in August 1966.
Carlson knew, during the time of the Vietnam War, that Schaeffer was from Illinois, but had no idea where he was now, which turned out to be Moline, Ill.
Carlson didn’t know, that is, until the Fur, Fangs & Feathers story came out. Carlson had submitted four photos and information to the magazine concerning the duck, and the magazine included two of the photos in the story.
Carlson was to be rewarded with something much more – a phone call on April 8 from a staffer at the magazine said someone who purported to have served with Carlson in Vietnam had contacted the magazine saying they recognized the duck. The caller had wondered if they could get in touch with Carlson.
Carlson at first responded that he would have to think about it. He wondered if the call to the magazine was a prank. As Carlson thought more about it, he assembled a list of nine people he had served with at the Vietnam mountain pass where the duck had been. Carlson placed Schaeffer at the top of the list.
“I was kind of excited,” Carlson remembered thinking before he called back to the magazine and after a short conversation learned that the caller had been Schaeffer. Carlson then agreed to having his contact information sent to Schaeffer.
Carlson emailed Schaeffer, and they later connected by phone.
“It was like going back in time,” Carlson said. The two talked for about 40 minutes over the phone.
Carlson learned that Schaeffer had later gone back for a second tour in Vietnam, while Carlson spent the last 1 1/2 years of his active duty as a guard at a U.S. Navy brig in San Diego.
Carlson described his duty in Vietnam as not too eventful as far as combat. He said his unit once went into an area in Vietnam that the U.S. military had described as having a lot of Viet Cong. Carlson said he heard firing in his direction once but didn’t see anything to shoot back at. Ironically, the five- to seven-day mission was called Operation Mallard.
Carlson has an old clipping from the Minneapolis Tribune noting that the operation resulted in 28 Viet Cong killed, 17 captured, 118 suspects identified and only light U.S. casualties.
Carlson’s work in Vietnam was security, sometimes to set up a perimeter around where an unmanned U.S. military drone had landed so that it could be retrieved with a helicopter.
Carlson got out of the service eight months shy of the four years of active duty he was contracted for. When a farming partner died from electrocution in the big dairy farm his father Clifford Carlson had in rural Princeton, Gary was needed back at the farm, so he was able to get an early separation from the military.
Gary Carlson’s brother Steve, four years younger, also served in Vietnam.
The duck’s appearance
The mountain pass that Carlson helped guard and check IDs at had a flow of civilians going back and forth between the coast of South Vietnam and inland. He said that he and fellow Marines would buy some things that these traveling Vietnamese would sometimes offer to sell, including ice-cold Coca-Cola they brought along with blocks of ice.
That must have been where the duck came from, Carlson said, noting that he wrote in his letter back home that his unit bought the duck. Once there, the duck was on its own quite a bit, and “had the run of the area,” Carlson added. In fact, one time when the duck was crossing the road at the pass, a two-star general arrived and Carlson’s unit stopped the general’s vehicle until the duck had made it across.
“To have a general stop for a duck was a noteworthy thing,” Carlson said. Carlson figures the duck was with the unit from April into May of 1966 and Carlson didn’t know what happened to it after that. During that time, his unit would sometimes share some of its C-rations with the duck if it wasn’t foraging.
The news of Schaeffer
When his photos were published, Carlson had hoped that the magazine’s next edition would have a letter to the editor from someone who recognized the duck, he said. Carlson said that when he didn’t see any such letters, he put the whole idea out of his mind of finding a reconnection with a fellow Vietnam veteran.
But then he got that previously mentioned phone call from the magazine.
Carlson, in recalling Schaeffer at the mountain pass in Vietnam, said Schaeffer was an outgoing person and became a very close friend during their six months serving together. Making contact again was a chance to catch up on each other’s lives since Vietnam and also a chance to talk about duty there. U.S. military service in Vietnam turned out to be not a good thing in the eyes of the general public and so Vietnam vets didn’t want to talk about it when they got home, Carlson said.
Carlson learned, after reconnecting with Schaeffer, that Schaeffer was retired, after first working for a railroad line for eight years and then finishing off his working years at an ammunition arsenal.
Carlson tried working back at his parents’ dairy farm for a time after Vietnam before deciding to go to college in 1976, where he earned a degree in elementary education. He taught at Lutheran elementary schools for 29 years, starting with Golden Valley, then East Grand Forks and finally at Crown, east of Zimmerman.
Carlson is married with grown children and says that he is now finding retirement not all that exciting and wonders if he should take up something more to do.
But the reconnection with his time in Vietnam nearly a half century ago did provide an uplift and another social contact.
“The duck reunited us after 47 years,” Carlson said. “It was nothing particular, just the photo that he recognized.”