John and Marilyn Tharp were childhood friends before they became high school sweethearts. After he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, John was sent to Vietnam where he served as a radio operator for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines.
Carrying a radio on his back with an antenna that stretched up into the trees essentially made Tharp an easy target. Radio operators faced grim odds throughout the conflict, but despite his threatening role, John said he grew accustomed to the day in and day out operations.
“You kind of get used to it,” John said. “I was there for 13 months and I told my lieutenant that I wanted to stay.”
When his first tour of duty ended, John volunteered to stay in Vietnam because the bond he had developed with his comrades was unlike anything else he had experienced.
Back in Kansas, Marilyn followed the news closely to keep track of where John might be.
“I sat up all through the night different nights, watching tv to see if maybe I would see him,” Marilyn said.
The 1968 Tet Offensive was underway and the 3rd Marines were fighting North Vietnamese unites near the village of Dai Do, close to the Cua Viet River.
One of John’s friends, a fellow radio operator, was killed when a mortar round hit his foxhole. After fighting for two years, John was stateside. Late at night he rang the doorbell of Marilyn’s home, when she appeared, he asked her to marry him.
Shortly after they married, John trained at the Marine Corps Base Quantico and then was sent to Okinawa, Japan for 13 months.
“When I came back (from Okinawa), they scared the heck out of me because I was going to be an instructor,” John said.
John was selected to serve as an instructor at a communication center mans-course at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Public speaking was not in his skill set, in fact he found it nerve-racking. But despite his unease over being in the spotlight, John soon found himself giving a 55-minute presentation to pass the four-week course on instructional orientation. Then he began to train other marines on teletype communications.
Soon after that he received orders to return to Okinawa, leaving Marilyn behind with their young child. Marilyn said as a military wife, she often felt like a single parent because John was gone much of the time.
“This is before cell phones, before computers, before facetime,” Marilyn said. “If there was some emergency that came up that you wanted him to weigh in on, you’d write a letter and wait two weeks for a response.
Sometimes she received phone calls from John, but it was usually in the middle of the night- hardly a time to get into a conversation about challenging family issues.
“(Military wives) had to take on everything and then know how to step back when he returned and let him be the problem solver,” Marilyn said.
Eventually Marilyn was able to follow John to Asia. She took her two children to live in Japan while John was stationed on the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious command ship of the U.S. Navy. The USS Blue Ridge is the command ship/flagship of the Seventh Fleet. John lived on board and was working in the landing command and control center.
“I joined him in Korea and the kids came one time to Korea, then I joined him in Hong Kong and we went into China for a day trip and a couple ports in Japan,” Marilyn said.
Marilyn became the ombudsman, or communication link between the commanding officers of the USS Blue Ridge, and the family members of those military members serving on board. She gave support to other wives and mothers, helping them navigate that same “single parent” experience that she’d gone through.
“When the ship would come to port, I would meet with the captain of the ship before I would meet with John,” Marilyn said.
As ombudsman Marilyn often counseled families through times of hardship, including a death in the family or major illnesses. She also lead tour groups, often taking other wives on trips to meet their husbands at a particular port.
One time while she and the captain’s wife were waiting to meet their husbands, they stopped at a Noritake china factory and bought a few collections of crystal and china. She joked that their shopping spree “kind of sunk the ship a little bit.”
In addition to his travels throughout Eastern Asia, John also visited Australia, Iceland and England. His military service and his worldwide travels were such a source of pride for people in his hometown that they requested one of his military uniforms to display in the town’s museum. But John never obliged, saying he didn’t want to be glorified in any kind of way.
As permanent personnel on board the USS Blue Ridge, John said he “really got to know the navy side of the house.” He learned the “wing” side of the Marine Corps when he served at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort.
By the time he retired in 1991, John was recognized as a well-rounded marine who had worked on the ground, at sea and in the air.
John and Marilyn settled in Summerville when John became a deputy in the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. He also worked as a firearms instructor for the sheriff’s office for about seven years. He stayed in touch with his fellow marines by becoming the local commandant for the Marine Corps League Department of South Carolina, and then the state level commandant.
He currently serves as Secretary of Vietnam Vets Association and secretary for Fleet Reserve Association.
John and Marilyn have two children, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Living overseas taught them both to be more respectful and tolerant. John said his time in the marine corps showed him that when it comes to a conflict, everyone has their own viewpoint and the world is bigger than one’s own hometown.
“Be respectful to everybody because in a lot of these fights, everybody has a viewpoint and there’s two sides to every story,” John said.