‘America’s Finest Generation’

SAN DIEGO -- Three long time San Diego residents, generals in the Marine Corps, all have strong reactions when asked about the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Retired Marine major general Larry Livingston of Bonsall chokes back tears.

“This [expletive] war,” says retired Marine major general Matthew Caulfield from Oceanside.

“We should never fight a war like we fought the Vietnam War,” says retired Marine brigadier general and SDSU alum Mike Neil from Mission Beach.

These San Diegans fought on the front lines, in crucial battles.

Caulfield was part of the attack on Con Thien and was interviewed after an hours long grenade fight.

During a different battle, the siege at Khe Sanh, Caulfield had to stop an enemy attack by bombing his own men.

“We’re being overrun, nothing but hysterics,” says Caulfield as he recalls the moments leading up to making that difficult decision, one he says he has no regrets making because it ultimately stopped the North Vietnamese from overtaking a crucial position.

Neil took out a machine gun nest, earning a Navy Cross for that, and confiscated loads of enemy weapons.

Livingston helped take back the city of Quang Tri from communists.

“When I was there, it was all fighting...we took incoming fire right away,” says Livingston recalling the key battle for which he served as a military advisor to South Vietnamese troops.

However amid the violence, there were brief moments of peace.

“It was like National Geographic, houses on stilts, even tigers and elephants out there...it was just an incredibly beautiful place,” says Caulfield describing Khe Sanh before the siege.

It was also a place of unexpected friendship.

“I became very close to a Vietnamese boy...I did not know his real name...I bought him his first pair of shoes,” says Neil who fondly recalls the father-son like relationship.

The boy was nicknamed GTO because he knew all the lyrics to the song.

Decades later, Neil tracked down his long lost friend in Vietnam and the two shared an emotional reunion.  They still keep in touch and GTO has even visited San Diego, taking a picture by Neil’s plaque on Mount Soledad.

After Vietnam, all three marines went on to have successful careers.

General Caulfield became a military assistant to President Reagan.

General Neil took command of Camp Pendleton during the Gulf War.  In his civilian life, he started his own law firm in Downtown San Diego.  He even co-owned a bar for years.

General Livingston helped recapture Kuwait during Desert Storm before retiring to his avocado ranch in Bonsall.

Three wise men, war heroes from San Diego, all proud to have served in Vietnam.

“We had leaders who knew what they were doing,” says Livingston.

“Once you serve like that together, you’re friends forever,” says Caulfield.

And Neil says proudly, “World War II might have been the greatest generation but the finest generation fought in Vietnam.”