Lee, Frank, SSgt

TAVSC/Combat Camera
 Service Photo 
 Service Details
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Current Service Status
USMC Veteran
Current/Last Rank
Staff Sergeant
Current/Last Primary MOS
4691-Visual Information Chief
Current/Last MOSGroup
TAVSC/Combat Camera
Previously Held MOS
4681-Motion Picture Film Editor
4671-Combat Photographer/Motion Media
Primary Unit
1967-1967, L Co, 3rd Bn, 4th Marine Regiment (3/4)
Service Years
1964 - 1968

Staff Sergeant


 Ribbon Bar
Rifle ExpertPistol Sharpshooter


 Official Badges 

 Unofficial Badges 

US Marines Corps Honorable Discharge

 Military Association Memberships
USMC Combat Correspondents Association
  1998, USMC Combat Correspondents Association [Verified]1

 Additional Information
What are you doing now:
U.S, Food & Drug Administration. Los Angeles District
Other Comments:
Not Specified
 Countries Deployed To or Visited

 Enlisted/Officer Basic Training
  1964, Boot Camp (San Diego, CA), G/ 280
 Unit Assignments/ Advancement Schools
USMC (United States Marine Corps)MCB Camp Pendleton2nd Bn, 4th Marine Regiment (2/4), 4th Marine Regiment3rd Recon Bn
3rd Marine DivisionIII MAF1st Bn, 9th Marine Regiment (1/9)3rd Bn, 4th Marine Regiment (3/4), 4th Marine Regiment
  1965-1965, 4631, US Army Signal School (Staff)
  1965-1966, 4681, Motion Picture Production Unit, MCB Camp Pendleton
  1966-1967, 4671, H&SCo, 2nd Bn, 4th Marine Regiment (2/4)
  1967-1967, 4671, A Co, 3rd Recon Bn
  1967-1967, 4671, Combat Camera Unit, HQ Bn
  1967-1967, 4671, III MAF
  1967-1967, 4671, D Co, 1st Bn, 9th Marine Regiment (1/9)
  1967-1967, L Co, 3rd Bn, 4th Marine Regiment (3/4)
 Combat and Non-Combat Operations
  1967-1967 Vietnam War
  1967-1967 Con Thien Combat Base
  1967-1967 Vietnam War/Counteroffensive Phase II Campaign (1966-67)/Operation Chinook II
  1967-1967 Vietnam War/Counteroffensive Phase II Campaign (1966-67)/Operation Prairie II
  1967-1967 Vietnam War/Counteroffensive Phase III Campaign (1967-68)1
  1967-1967 Vietnam War/Counteroffensive Phase III Campaign (1967-68)3
 Military Association Memberships
USMC Combat Correspondents Association
  1998, USMC Combat Correspondents Association [Verified]1

 Remembrance Profiles - 3 Marines Remembered
 Photo Album   (More...

Reflections on SSgt Lee's US Marine Corps Service
 Reflections On My Service
My father died two months after I turned 13 years old, at a time when I needed him the most as I entered into my teens. He was my anchor who guided me -- pounded into me the importance of honesty, integrity, academics, patience and humility, teachings upheld by
SSgt Frank Lee - Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Marine Corps.
centuries-old Confucius philosophy now being handed down to a first generation Chinese American more interested in playing football. With Dad gone I was cast adrift in a sea of emptiness without any sense of direction or of my future. This pall hung over me when I moved to Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, I tested the academic waters at a local community college and immediately realized that I was not ready for college. As August waned my friends went off to Stanford, Berkeley and the Ivy League schools, (my high school was academically ranked #2 in L.A. Beverly Hills High was first) while I remained behind taking an oath to be in the Marine Corps. I remember clearly when the Gunny suggested I extend my three year enlistment to four. "What's another year?" he asked. I agreed. "Yes, what's another year?" What a difference one year made!

Joining the Marine Corps was unquestionably the best decision I made. The Corps gave me the compass I so desperately needed. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as I, however. My mother asked how could I go out and kill Asians, to which I responded that ethnicity was not the issue, but the calling of my country. My sister also tried in vain to discourage me from joining but to no avail. I had made my decision and for once I felt it was the right one. The Marine Corps became my mentor and challenged me to go where I had never gone before, emotionally and physically. It gave me the confidence to know that I could excel when others thought less. And while in Vietnam I grew up and saw in the mirror not the boy of 13, but of a transformed man.

"Why did I join the Marine Corps?" The Marine Corps was a pillar of stability for me. It instilled the values my father wanted me to learn. The Marine Corps completed his mission.

I qualified in three occupational areas: graphic arts, electronics and photography, and chose the latter thinking that would ease my Mother's fears about going into combat, "I'll just be taking pictures of generals, Mom." That was furthest from the truth, I soon discovered. Photography put me right in the
SSgt Frank Lee - Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
crosshairs of combat.

In 1965 I started as a basic still photographer at Camp Pendleton. That position was short-lived; six months later I pestered and was transferred to motion picture production, an uncommon move for a lance corporal. Motion picture school followed at an Army training base in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. And by spring of 1965 I was back at Camp Pendleton as assistant cameraman. Later that summer I again changed my MOS and became an apprentice film editor, a very exclusive position usually reserved for E-5's and above. Apparently my SNCO saw a glow of talent in me and with a waiver by our CO, I was promoted to corporal and transferred to air conditioned comfort in an absolutely clean film editing room.

By the end of October the first group of combat photographers returned from Vietnam. I was on the manifest for November. Preparing for the deployment, I traded my camera for a field transport pack, M-14 and became a grunt once again. Little did I know how much this training would mean to me. In the middle of an ink black night a replacement company of Marines and I shuffled aboard a Continental flight to Okinawa, linking up with 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marines for our final destination: Vietnam.

Three weeks in-country and I was bored stiff sitting out the monsoon rains and Tet cease fire when I learned that a recon patrol was been assembled. I instantly volunteered. My Gunny and OIC were reluctant to let me go -- I still had not been in the bush much less go with an elite recon group. My unrelenting whining released me to Alpha Company, 3rd Recon. The recon Marines took special delight stripping me bare of my "stuff" and replacing my stuff with extra grenades, ammo and C-rats in socks. They even gave me a K-Bar which is used today as my letter opener.

Inclement weather delayed next day's helicopter lift off. The clouds broke the next morning and we were airborne. Half an hour later the aircraft settled onto a hillside surrounded by dense forest deposited the recon team. Since the Tet ceasefire was still in effect, we could only observe for enemy activity. In Marine parlance, "Snooping and Pooping." Well, we snooped until the VCs found us and opened fire. Rules of Engagement stipulated that you can't fire unless fired upon. . . well we quickly responded. Then we "pooped" into the bush like rabbits being chased by a fox. After distancing ourselves from the enemy, one recon Marine commented, " Sarge. did you see the bullets hitting around you?" I was so engrossed taking pictures, I forgot that someone was actually trying to kill me.

The recon mission was to last five days but bad weather grounded us at the LZ for two more days. By then our rations were depleted and we relied on a bag of dried shrimp I had brought along. I don't know how we were able to share it with the entire recon team. It was a biblical moment to say the least. This was my first combat engagement with more to come in the ensuing months. (Pictured: the Acosta brothers, Willie and Guy. Best point men of 3rd Recon).

As a combat cameraman I was like an ambulance chaser hunting for action -- the more the better. Two incidents, however, punctuated this pursuit: my first search and destroy operation, Chinook II which pulled me into a new reality called "war." The second: when our platoon was ambushed by the
SSgt Frank Lee - If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
NVA and I was wounded. Chinook II began rather inauspiciously. I was attached to Delta Co, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, "The Walking Dead," a moniker given to them for suffering the highest casualty rate of any Marine combat unit in Vietnam. Delta 1/9 was sweeping near the area where the French fell in 1954 at the Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Noted Yale scholar and author of "Street Without Joy," Bernard Falls returned to update his book. One evening the company commander called me to confirm two KIA's. Falls and my SNCO, Gunny Highland were killed by a landmine. Until then death was an abstract word. Now it was defined by violent gut-wrenching grief, numbness, confusion and disbelief. Our film spent, a Marine still photographer, Sgt. Blake and I hitched a ride back to camp. As the countryside passed by I realized that I was no longer an innocent bystander but now part of a war. And I had 10 more months to go.

(19 Purple Heart ribbons representing our unit KIA/WIA's were on a wall plaque at the 3rd MarDiv Photo office. As I was strapping on my gear I glanced and noticed one space left).

By spring 1967 North Vietnam intensified its presence near the DMZ. I was with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines on a Sparrow Hawk in the Quang Tri area when we were ambushed by elements of the 808th VC and 814th NVA Battalion. It was a classic ambush. Snipers pinned us in the open rice paddie, separating the squads. After a round hit me and another emptied my canteen of water, survival became a better option than filming, and I ran to the Marines inside a hooch. To my amazement I had the platoon's entire communication section. Two of the four Marines were radio operators; one a forward air observer and the other connected to battalion TAC.

With our backs to the Ben Hai River and the NVA enveloping us, no choice could be made but to call in an airstrike. The lieutenant, pinned down and wounded 25 meters in front of us, spotted. I relayed the ordinance drops, calling corrections to the FAO who guided the Hueys and F4 Phantoms. The initial pass didn't slow the enemy advancement; they were rapidly crossing the open field toward us. That's when I remember screaming at the lieutenant to keep his head down when the aircraft approached. We called the strike almost on top of us.

It was like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Seamless rows of napalm cooked off assaulting our senses. Heat from the napalm felt like a blast furnace. A cacophony of rotors thumping against the air, explosions, shrapnel and rounds snapping like insects in flight and screams filled the air. As the air attack subsided, nothing moved except for the distant flames and smoke. The village was aflame; the NVA were using the village as a shield were no longer a threat. For certain the final assault was thwarted. 2000 hours, guided by our calls in the dark, reinforcements from Kilo Company found us.

As the corpsman attached a casualty card on me, I thought about the past six hours and how I eluded death when someone remarked that yesterday was St. Patrick's Day. For some it was their unluckiest day; others like me walked away with four leaf clovers.

The Purple Heart plaque was no longer on the wall. After I filled the last space it was retired. More photographers continued to be killed and wounded, however, before the Vietnam War ended. Note: more combat photographers were killed and wounded in Vietnam than in World War II. (Source: U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association).

It's hard to say which duty station was my favorite. The one place that left a strong impression on me was the Danang Press Center, the major urban staging area for civilian journalists going to Khe Sanh, Con Then, Quang Tri and the DMZ, the east-west line of demarcation from
SSgt Frank Lee - Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
Coming off Combat Operation
South to North Vietnam.

After five months with 3rd Marine Division Photo and getting myself wounded, I transferred to 3rd Marine Amphibious Force and reported to the press center. If I didn't know better the place was paradise. Like the emerging popularity of Playboy clubs at the time, the press center required membership to gain entrance. (Old Papa San with his aging M1 carbine slung over his shoulder was guardian at the gate). The magic card granted me the privilege to sit at a dining table, order off a menu and be served by Vietnamese hostesses, Mua and Than in their pretty ao dais. There was even a real bar to saunter up to and order a scotch or beer. The press center was undoubtedly the duty station of choice.

Because of the presence of civilian journalists, military discipline was more lax. Saluting was not required while in the compound nor could we comingle with civilians unless by invitation. Separate dining rooms and the liquor bars segregated us from them, but even that rule was ignored by some press members who we befriended. They simply tossed protocol out the window and joined us in the enlisted section.

The civilian press was assigned rooms around the compound and the Marines were billeted in quarters that were once a French brothel. The Ritz Carlton it was not but it was four stars to sleeping in muddy foxholes, rat infested bunkers in Khe Sanh or bivouacking under the heavy green jungle canopy with things that go bump in the dark. I especially appreciated having baby san cleaning my room and doing my laundry. For her attentive efforts I gave her cartons of cigarettes or other things from the PX which I knew she could trade for other pressing living needs.

Journalists were always at the compound either preparing to leave and link up with Marine combat units or returning from the field to file their news reports. When there's very little enemy activity or weather ground us to a standstill, everyone either stayed in their rooms or spent the time at the club drinking premium Chivas scotch, 25 cents a shot. We used to say, "God protected fools and drunks." We were fools going into the bush with only a camera, recorder or notebook and drunks we were after combat operations. The press center's well stocked bar had very good medicinal alcohol to anesthetize some horrific memories. The younger or seasoned freelance journalists on the other hand stayed in their rooms and went off to their own reality smoking weed. Even our commanding officer, Colonel Fields ignored their transgression as he walked by an open window.

The most memorable moment at the press center was inviting the III MAF commanding general?s boatswain mate and the general?s launch across the Danang River to the compound. That evening a USO band and go go girls staying at the center started an impromptu party. It didn't take much to get everyone into the mood when the women started dancing. The topper of the evening was a "cruise" on the general's boat with the dancers, press and drunken Marines stepping aboard. Thankfully the Marine sentries guarding a bridge didn't toss grenades down at us as they usually do to ward off possible VC infiltrators. They must have seen the two blonds dancing topside. . .

SSgt Frank Lee - What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
Los Angeles Toys for Tots Board of Directors
First and foremost the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association (USMCCCA), the first public affairs department established by the Marine Corps to promote the interests of the Corps. Today, USMCCCA is a nationally recognized entity whose membership include major Hollywood film producers, directors, news and photo journalists, novelists, recipients of the Pulitzer prize, Academy Award and Emmy.

The Combat Correspondents Association was established in 1947 by then major Bill Hendricks, a reserve Marine Corps officer who was second to Mr. Warner of Warner Brothers studio, Hollywood. As Christmas was approaching that year, Major Hendrick's wife, Diane knitted toy dolls to distribute to the underprivileged children. This toy gifting soon gained popularity and became to be known as the "Toys for Tots" program. Toys for Tots has evolved to become one of the highest profiled children's charities. Today it is a national Foundation reaching out to all corners of the United States. I was privileged to serve on the boards of our local and national chapters.

No question my time in the Marine Corps made a dramatic impact on your life and helped define my career. The plus side is the immense personal motivation and can-do attitude I gained as I approached life's challenges. Nothing could or would stop me as I pursued my goals. After leaving the Marine Corps I suddenly found myself paddling my boat along; no longer did I have the team as when in the Corps to rely on. Passing that shock, I settled into self-determination to progress and survive. Perhaps I was too positive and took on everything placed in front of me. Never declining a challenge can be as devastating as failing. That I quickly learned. One had to choose one's battles.

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