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Pause from college provided gruesome education in war

After completing his sophomore year at Buffalo State College, Larry J. Hunley decided to take a leave of absence. He wanted to experience life beyond the city’s East Side.

The 20-year-old enlisted in the Marine Corps, which was more than willing to provide him with a change – though Hunley says it hadn’t occurred to him that he might wind up in the Vietnam War.

“School was kind of boring. I basically had a 'C' average, and after growing up on the East Side, I wanted other experiences,” he said.

At boot camp, he scored high on tests and was given the chance to become an officer, but decided against it because it would have required him to extend his enlistment by a year.

But during advanced infantry training, his test scores opened the door to another opportunity that he embraced: special training for assignment with a 40-member Marine detachment aboard the USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser naval gunship.

With pride, he described the firepower of that boat that was also home to about 1,700 sailors:

“There was nothing but gun turrets on it. There were three turrets, and each had three 8-inch barrels that fired bombs weighing 260 pounds. We also had six turrets that had two 5-inch barrels each and they fired 50-pound bombs.”

His work on the ship, loading the 50-pound shells, began in September 1972.

“Our job was to provide naval support to the ground troops. Our missions were conducted off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea,” he said.

The work came at a steady pace, five hours loading and firing the bombs and five hours off for rest.

When the bombs ran out, a supply ship would pull alongside the vessel and rearm it.

“We would load bombs from sunrise to sunset,” Hunley said. “The 260-pound bombs were sent over on a cable, and the 50-pound bombs were in crates lowered onto our deck by helicopters.”

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Larry J. Hunley, 65
Hometown and residence: Buffalo
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Corporal
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service:  December 1971 – December 1973
Most prominent honors: Naval Unit Commendation, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Service Medal
Specialty: Infantry

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But not all of the Marines were involved in the ship’s main task of firing on the enemy.

A crew headed by the captain in charge of the detachment flew a medevac helicopter, shuttling Marines wounded in ground battles to the ship’s sick bay. Seeing the arrivals drove home the horrors of war for Hunley.

“They were badly injured and some had lost limbs,” he said of witnessing Marines being rushed to sick bay.

But at 1 a.m. Oct. 1, 1972, the war's toll was even more immediate when a catastrophic event occurred aboard the ship during a firing mission.

“A bomb got stuck in an eight-inch barrel and went off in turret two. Twenty people died, some from smoke inhalation and others were burned to death. Approximately 30 to 35 were injured. It could have been more catastrophic if the fire had reached the magazines. It was just a ship with turrets and bombs,” he said.

When the explosion occurred, Hunley was not with the rest of the Marines; he was sleeping alone because of an initiation that more senior Marines had imposed on him since he was a new arrival.

Marine Corps veteran Larry J. Hunley served aboard the USS Newport News during the Vietnam War. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“I was sleeping and woke up when I heard the explosion. I tried to run up to the deck but couldn’t get any further than the hatch because of the chaos and black smoke. I ran back down and met our captain and my squad leader. They gave me a gas mask and I’m sure they were wearing masks. They had already been in formation and realized I was missing.”

The memory of the sailors who died remains fresh.

“Later, when I was in formation with the rest of the platoon at our general quarters station, which was right by turret two, we watched as they brought out the bodies. I can still see the smoke coming off the bodies as they were bringing them out. The smell of dead flesh is something you never forget.”

His faith in God and daily Bible readings, he said, sustained him then and throughout his tour of duty.

Several days later, after the ship had been repaired in the Philippines, the crew was again off the coast of Vietnam.

“We went right back on the gun line and continued bombing operations until we returned home to Norfolk, Virginia, on Christmas Eve 1972,” Hunley said of the deployment’s conclusion. “We described coming home as ‘back to the world.’ What we had been through was just too hard to understand.”

But he was certain of one thing: His military experiences had motivated him to return with enthusiasm to Buffalo State College and earn his degree.

“What I really learned from the military was that I really wanted to help others,” he said.

In 1975, he became a middle school and high school teacher for the Buffalo Public Schools. Years later, he accepted an appointment as principal of LaSalle Senior High School in Niagara Falls.

After eight years, he returned to teaching in Buffalo and in 1999 was appointed assistant principal at Kensington High School. He retired in 2006 as the assistant principal at Seneca Vocational High School.

When asked if he reflects on his war experiences, he answered the question by saying he sometimes thinks about students he taught who later joined the military.

“Two of them died in the Iraq War. I think that sometimes when you are young, you don’t know what will happen. I am a perfect example, but I was fortunate to come back from war.”

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