Chu Lai

Navy corpsmen serve as medics for U.S. Marines in combat. One of the two corpsmen I wrote about earlier told me that he was assigned to 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, based at Chu Lai. His reference to Chu Lai brought back memories.

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Chu Lai didn’t exist. It was created by the U.S. Marines in 1965 when they needed an air base. I first heard of it that same year.

I remember thinking the name was odd. It didn’t sound like Vietnamese. Vietnamese place names all have meaning. Ha Noi, for example, means “lake in the middle.” But Chu Lai didn’t seem to mean anything, and the Vietnamese pronounced both syllables of the name with a level tone, as if it were a foreign word.

I eventually found out that the name wasn’t Vietnamese at all. It was the Chinese rendering of the name of U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. I knew the term c’hu lái in Chinese (出來) meaning to appear or to arise. Turns out those were the characters used to transliterate General Krulak’s name.

As a primary Marine base, Chu Lai is familiar territory to Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine who is the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Its abandonment as South Vietnam falls is duly reported toward the end of the book.

Chu Lai still exists today. It is a seaport and industrial area with an international airport. I wonder how many Vietnamese living there know the origin and meaning of the city’s name.

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