Wednesday, November 25, 2009

VN 66-67, Part 3: Psyops and the Hill Fights

So in (I think) March I went to Danang, to the weird world of the rear, where you couldn’t carry a loaded weapon! Where people saluted, wore rank, urinated inside! But it was the greatest thing (except for the unloaded weapon part, which made me a little nervous). There was this little psychological operations (psyops) base somewhere in Danang and a few miles away from that was an old hotel – very, basic – where we stayed, two racks to a room, ceiling fan. Mind-boggling when you think about it. Needless to say, we had some good parties there.

We were in the hotel at least 3 days a month. The rest of the time we were on operations or staying in a hooch in Dong Ha or Phu Bai. We had to go to Danang every month to get paid. That shouldn’t take more than 2 days, if that, but we squeezed all the extra time we could. Being in Phu Bai between operations and under no control at all from our nervous English major Michigan State Army lieutenant meant that we had a lot of freedom. I went to Quang Tri, a really neat provincial town, several times and also to Hue. It’s hard to believe I was walking alone around the deserted palaces and forbidden city with just a .45. But I had great confidence and paid attention – still … I walked along a street, trees, everything green, colonial buildings all along both sides – an image that was to stay with me the rest of my life. Photo: At Con Thien

The main thing we did was hump big, powerful loudspeakers to wherever, haul them up in trees and play tapes that were supposed to affect the enemy psychologically. We had some Buddhist funeral music, nostalgic love songs, and verbal harangues – all designed to get the other guys to surrender – and if they did, they were supposed to be met with “chieu hoi” (i.e., open arms). We also had some Rolling Stones. It was fun to play the funeral music and propaganda and then Paint it Black, Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows, and so on. The troops dug it and the officers always got agitated.
CK at the rear - hanging out with Hermanson at his recon unit

The way it worked mainly was that the Marines on TAD to the Army psyops unit would be sent on big operations with Marine units. We were also sent to Marine “civic action platoons” which were about 15 men living in or next to a village. Potentially it was fairly dangerous duty for the troops who stayed in these places, though I don’t know of any those units being overrun. With the civic action units I remember …

Going on a night patrol out of one of those units, except we only went about 200 meters to an elevated railroad track and laid around for several hours drinking warm tiger piss beer (333 brand).

The men in a unit taking me to see a Marine who’d “gone native” – living in an isolated ville in a little hooch with his Vietnamese wife.

Hearing a gunshot and running toward it and finding a woman and her daughter moaning and crying with the husband dead on the floor, killed by VC for supporting the government.

Staying in an old stucco school that served as barracks for the unit.

Accompanying medical and dental units to villes as part of convincing the people to support the government. At the time, in the rural villes (20-100 families) people lived in traditional peasant houses, chickens and pigs around, water buffalo if the family had money and I’d be there, in the richness of the smells of food and people and all. Someone would bring a generator and there’d be a movie and the people sitting there watching, entranced, wondering if someone was going to toss a grenade into crowd. Map: Lang Vei - see below

I liked Vietnam a lot. Beautiful, green, rich, dangerous. I liked when I would go to Danang and walk the streets, getting coffee at a stand under the huge trees in the wide median with soup, coffee, noodle, bread stands selling food and bicycles, motos, cyclos, trucks passing.

And there was the DMZ and the Hill Fights.

I spent a few days at Lang Vei, at the Special Forces unit 8 klicks west of Khe Sanh (a few months later Lang Vei was overrun). I went on patrol with the SF troops and thought on patrol and back at their camp that they were not squared away, for example they walked too close together (Marines call it “cluster-fucking”) on patrol and depended too much on ARVN and tribal fighters. They had a room with a refrigerator and cold cokes and beer. I was in there having a coke (aahhhh) and an American woman walked in! I was stunned. She was an older woman with a toothy grin, pretty nice, and said her name was Martha Ray. Of course I had no idea who she was. She had a drink and we talked a little and she left to walk around talking to the troops. She flew out on a helicopter in the afternoon. At night I slept in a bunker where a lot of supplies were stored and a lot of rats lived. That’s the only time I know of that rats have ever run across my body. Photo: Hill Fights

We were based mostly out of Dong Ha, in a hooch behind the aid station with Danny, my mate from Houston and some others. Later we moved away from the aid station to a hooch next to a trench (a good thing) and near an air force NCO club in a shack, which we burgled for liquor at the first opportunity (so a very good thing). Photo: Air strip at Khe Sanh - you can barely see the German shephard

We were in the Hill Fights (the “First Battle of Khe Sanh”) with 1/9 and 3/3. Though what I was sent there to do was a joke (the loudspeaker doo-dah), I fought with the 1/9 and 3/3 Marines and that was no joke. I was (slightly) wounded up there – the 2nd time and this one I reported. It was just a piece of shrapnel in my wrist. Here is a post from my journal:

It's a challenge to talk about being in the Corps - it's really easy to say the wrong thing, something gross or inappropriate. Someone saw the Purple Heart license plates yesterday and a conversation ensued that included the idea of a million dollar wound (which I did not have) and ended with something that was maybe a little out of place ... I came in on a helicopter with another man to link up with 1/9 on an operation at the DMZ. 1/9 (1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment) which may have been the same unit we'd replaced in Dodge City - where I was told they got their name, the walking Dead. When the helicopter came in to where they were in those dry hills the LZ was getting hit with mortars. I didn't know what was happening and it was a complete surprise when the chopper was about 10 feet off the ground and the crew chief put his boot in my back and pushed me out, followed by a rain of ammo, C-rations, etc. and there were a lot of mortars coming in and I made it to a little hole that was full of Marines. When I dove in on top of them some lieutenant was telling me to get the hell out and I was just burrowing into the pile. I was in on an operation in the Hill Fights and I wasn't actually part of a unit with a job to do. And that's how it came to be that I could take photographs. What I said to two students was ...

I was at the DMZ once and there was this guy with a true million dollar wound and he was lying on the ground waiting to be put on a chopper out of there and he says "Hey man, take my picture." So I took a photograph of him lying there, covered in blood, grinning, shooting me the finger.

I was telling it as humorous and I'm not sure they got the joke. I guess you had to be there. Photo: at the Hill Fights

What I saw of the Hill Fights was something like when we landed at the DMZ 8 months earlier. With 1/9 we battled through the same sere hills and misty forests further in, being mortared and running down and killing the mortar teams. 1/9 was a hard-charging, bad luck battalion. They fought well and hard and destroyed all opponents, but took really a lot of casualties. They were good guys, machine gun teams always welcoming me to a fighting hole, happy for me to stand watch with them (“as long as you don’t turn them mfing speakers on”).

That one series of battles (above) was pretty horrific. We were after them, fighting through the hills and they were ready, except it was too much for them and they broke.

I don’t know if it’s anywhere close to accepted definitions, but to me a firefight has always been a fairly short and brisk exchange of fire. A battle to me is protracted, with any number of firefights or maybe just a protracted firefight, and usually some kind of ordnance.

I went on a river operation, on the Cua Viet River near Dong Ha. There were 4 or 5 Vietnamese boats with a couple of .30 cal machine guns (!!!) mounted on each boat. It was interesting, a little worrisome, and in the end, uneventful. Then when it was over we were taken to the Vietnamese commander’s home where we were treated to a huge feast at a long table outside their home. I don’t remember what we had except there were countless little bowls and many things were pretty fishy and it was good. It was a supreme time, relaxed, beautiful, friendly.

I was with 3/3 in a more jungley area than when with 1/9. I came in on a helicopter at dusk on a dark, misty day and they told me, go over there. Stay out of the way. They’d been fighting all day and so I was just hanging near the CP and it was later and I rolled up in my plastic near where some other Marines were sleeping and slept all night. In the morning I realized I was sleeping among 3/3’s KIA. I found some C-rats, notably a cinnamon roll (they came in cans) and I’d just gotten the can open when some Marines came over to carry the corpses, so I lent a hand and we were lifting a dead man up to the back of a tracked vehicle with twin .20 cal AA cannon and I had the cinnamon roll in my mouth and as we were lifting him up (men on the back of the vehicle pulling him up and men below pushing and I was below) and he was tilted and water and blood were running out of the poncho he was wrapped in and down my uplifted arm and even down my side. I couldn’t eat any more of the cinnamon roll. Photo: Near Danang

So we had bodies on the back of the vehicles and were moving to a place where helicopters could come in to bring ammo and take out casualties. The vents on the back of the vehicles were too hot and they started to burn the ponchos and bodies and you know, how can it be? Is this shit really happening?

I was flying out of an operation, in a chopper with a lot of weapons and several bodies. We were flying low, coming up on any enemy too fast for them to hit us except they did, bullets banging into the chopper and it started spinning except the pilot flared it some and though we slammed hard into the ground, it wasn’t a disaster – except for the fact that we had just been shot down by people who were undoubtedly headed our way from not very far away. We set up some guns and in just a few minutes the bullets and another chopper got there. My impression was that they were going to leave the bodies, but I wasn’t going back without them so in the end we dragged the bodies to the other chopper and got out of there (calling in arty on the downed chopper).

***
I saw a photograph today, taken at Khe Sanh – showed the Witch’s Tit – one of the (better shaped) mountains rising up above the base to the west and north. It wasn’t cold (as witches’ tits are reputed to be). It was hot, hot and extraordinarily dangerous (There’s no place in Iraq as dangerous as that place) – death in the mountains – when I hear, “these mist-covered mountains …” it sends chills through me. I was with 1/9 and we were in the hills around Con Thien northwest of Khe Sanh. But I hung out some at Khe Sanh and I was in them forests and mountains. Photo: Con Thien - thanks to Vets With A Mission

I was at Dong Ha and was wanting to go to Khe Sanh to hang out with Jeff and whoever was left of 1/26. I was at the airstrip (or was it Phu Bai?) looking for a plane or chopper into the base and someone told me that a C-123 starting to taxi away was going to Khe Sanh. So I ran up to the side door to get on and the guy pulled me up into the plane. Whew! It stunk of aviation fuel and that's exactly what it was full of in 55 gallon barrels and I'm flashing on the fact that there is always someone using a heavy AA machine gun to shoot at planes landing at Khe Sanh (guns set up to fire at planes coming in from either way). You know, it's not really a major deal for bullets to go through a plane - but if they hit a person or engine or something explosive or flammable, well that's bad and of course this whole plane was flammable. But we were already taking off - it ain't enough that I'm hiking around in these bleeding bloody hills literally from one gunfight to another and now I'm riding in a giant torch just waiting for a match. As I recall we did some pretty serious juking coming in - Hold On!

***
9th Marines history, Wikipedia: In April and May 1967, elements of the regiment defeated two NVA Regiments in the Hills north of Khe Sanh. In Operation Buffalo, elements of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines made contact north of Con Thien with regimental-size NVA forces in an engagement that lasted through May, accounting for over 1300 enemy dead.

***

Another random post: I was in and out of Dong Ha, the furthest north big base in South Vietnam. This was before Dong Ha was built up. From there we would go to places like Gio Linh and Khe Sanh and out in the hills to the Hill Fights. I’d been in the Hill Fights for several weeks with 1/9 and some of my gear was lost or damaged, like someone had bled all over my flak jacket and it stunk. So one evening I was going through the discarded gear outside the aid station, which consisted of several shacks with sand-bag walls and stretchers with wounded men lined up inside on something like saw horses. I was shuffling around in piles of bloody flak jackets, helmets, web gear, bayonets, ammo and so on and it was dark and misty and evil with the guys inside and the smells and the mud and I felt like a ghost or ghoul or something and was pretty freaked out. I found what I was looking for though.

Leaving
I remember coming home from VN in 1967. We flew from Danang to Okinawa, where we stayed for a couple of days. One night Carver and I were in a little house where there were some women. There were also 5 or 6 other Marines there - we were sitting in a circle passing a bottle around. I remember looking at the other men, every one of them rear-echelon types, sergeants and staff sergeants, some of them tanned or muscled up or chubby, and I was hating them. I hated them for being in the rear, for being jovial, for being muscled up, for being chubby, for being tanned, for being. One of them noticed me staring at him and said something, and I answered (I remember clearly), “Well, fuck you then.” In one of the great moments of my life I hit him in the face with everything I had, perfectly, and he went right through the wall. A melee followed and the Shore Patrol was there in what seemed like moments. Carver and I got away, but the next morning they lined all the VN returnees up to look at our hands to see who was involved. I slipped into the already-inspected group for a clean getaway. Photo: Marines doing what they do

We flew into California where we stood in our final formation. That was the saddest thing - 30-something men left from the 180 who started out in C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment 18 months before. The rest were dead, wounded badly enough that they were sent home, wounded three times (automatic go home), or (the truly lucky) sick with malaria and hence guard duty at Subic Bay, and so on.

I remember so clearly sitting in a huge mess hall (I think at Camp Pendleton) full of other men home from the war. Every time I was there I loaded my tray with a ton of food, then all I would eat was chocolate cake and glass after glass of cold milk. Unlike all other Marine Corps mess halls, this one had a juke box and the song they kept playing over and over was Groovin' by the Young Rascals "... couldn't get away too soon ... doing, anything we'd like to do ... all the happy people we could meet ... we'll keep on spending sunny days this way ... we're gonna talk and laugh our time away ..."Mostly it was all a blur.

What did we look like? The ones who weren't "in Vietnam" - but the ones who fought in Vietnam? We were the skinny ones, the pale ones, the nervous ones, the sick ones, the ones who didn’t want to look at you and who you didn’t want to look at.

War, Our Way of Life & Death
One night we went into L.A., drinking in a Filipino bar close to a freeway. At some point we were running across a bridge over the freeway, a couple of us running balanced on the handrail (it was a wide oval handrail) and a couple of the other guys stuffed into a grocery store basket rolling down the street. Somewhere along the way I was thinking, "At this stage of the game it doesn't make sense to be killed falling off a bridge onto an LA freeway." It was a good time.

Photo: Our Proud Heritage

I flew from California to Dallas Love Field. Nobody said anything to me - it seemed like nobody would look at me. There were already stories going around about people saying things to men coming home. I can't imagine anyone saying anything to me. How crazy would that have been? My father picked me up. I had nothing to say to him or anyone else.

3 comments:

Haiko said...

Just saw this, will read it all one day...
Found you via the travel guides.
Great stuff your website

john Smith said...

Something was sure about this, many people die and they even could have access to secure tabs in the hospitals and the same is happening right now, 50 years later, is really sad.

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