89-year-old Marine vet Richard Caret of Madera shares his experiences

The Fresno BeeFebruary 16, 2014 

Recalling 30 years of experiences in the Marine Corps, Richard Caret of Madera said, "War is hell."

Yet amazingly, the 89-year-old volunteered for three: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He also was flown to Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban missile crisis, where he set up missiles.

"All those things you went through — did that really help us in our world?" asked his wife, Patti, last week.

"I can't say it did or it didn't," Caret says modestly. "You know, things change all the time."

Every war was different, he said, but some things stayed the same.

"You fight it and hope to heck the other guy is not a very good gunner."

Caret retired as a captain, but described his title as "missile man." He repaired the weapons in Korea and Vietnam. As an 18-year-old in WWII, he was in artillery.

He saw a lot of bloodshed in that war, where he fought in the Pacific at Funafuti and Tarawa.

"Tarawa was really the worst one of all. We lost about 2,400 men there in less than two hours."

He still remembers the sound of bombs zipping through coconut trees, and waking up to Japanese fighters storming his foxhole.

Why volunteer for more wars? Caret had a "plush job" stationed in Charleston, S.C., when he decided to go to Korea.

"I thought of my friends that had been over there."

Caret can't remember how old he was during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, but does remember this: "I know I was the oldest one there in Vietnam," he said with a smile. "I probably was in Korea, too."

Friend and fellow Marine in Vietnam, Bob Boardman, said he liked to call Caret "Dad" — but only when he was standing at least an arm's-length away.

When soldiers were going through hard times in Vietnam, Caret was always there for them, Boardman said.

"Dick would always sit down with the troops and listen to them and anything that was said to him was kept in confidence … they knew they could always trust him," Boardman said.

"And you could always count on his troops. He was one of those hands-on guys, always checking and making sure things were right. He set a good example for us other guys ... He was the old man that everybody looked up to."

Caret's uniform, which he still fits into, is heavy with 16 medals — but missing one, which he never will collect.

He declined a Purple Heart for being hit in the face from the blast of an explosion in WWII, he said. It would have been published in the newspaper, and his mother was an avid newspaper reader. He didn't want her to worry.

Caret grew up in Maine as the son of a dairy farmer. He and his four brothers joined different branches of the military and all were sent overseas during WWII. The brothers made it home safe, but have since died.

What kept Caret alive through all those wars?

"Probably my mother's prayers ... I can't figure out why they never did hit me — they fired at me enough times. But I'm just lucky, I guess."

But war still took its toll, in other ways. Caret came down with bladder cancer, which he beat. He believes it was caused by Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant dropped during Vietnam.

While fighting there, one time he ran up a hill and found a dead Marine.

"It's pretty hard on you."

What did he learn from all the fighting? "You learn to trust in God a lot, if you didn't. You pray."

"You ever been real scared?" he says to describe the feeling of bullets whizzing by. "Well, take that and multiply it."

But not every experience was scary. Some inspired him.

Caret recalled one Army soldier in Vietnam who volunteered to fly a helicopter when its pilot was drunk — risking his life to pick up a wounded Marine in the jungle. The wounded man, who was shot and had a huge hole in his leg, would have died, Caret said. But thanks to that soldier, he lived.

"There's always some good parts."

Caret also liked being stationed in Japan after WWII.

"I made some good friends in Japan ... I really enjoyed that tour there. The Japanese people were real friendly towards us. They had no animosity for what we did to them."

Caret said this of the Cuban missile crisis: "We came so close to going to war with Russia, it's almost unbelievable that we didn't. I was there in Guantanamo Bay at the time, setting up missiles."

For more than 30 years, Caret has lived in Madera, where he moved after retiring from the Marines. Before that, he was stationed in Fresno for several years.

At 89, Caret remains strong. He does push-ups and pull-ups every day — and, his wife added, he still has all his teeth.

"He's a one of a kind," added Boardman. "He served the Marine Corps and our country as good as you could possibly think. If you think of a career military Marine, you would think of guys like Dick Caret."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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