Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vietnam, 1966-67 - Part 1, Landing Force & DMZ

(Posted from Berkeley during Thanksgiving week)

I’ll write this as best I can and to the best of my recollection. Dates and those sorts of facts may be off, but the heart of what I’m writing will be accurate. I’m pasting in writing I’ve done at other times as well as a few things other people have written, and I won’t spend much effort on flow and structure, so if something seems to just appear, well, that’s probably about right. I took some of the photos, but most are captured from the internet. I was too busy fighting to be snapping pictures. There are three parts to this account. Photo: Charles Kemp at the DMZ

Summary: I started at MCRD San Diego, then Infantry Training Regiment & Machine Gun School; Camp Pendleton & las Pulgas for Special Landing Force training. On to Subic Bay & Olongapo in the Philippines (oh, how we partied, like doomed youth); first landing southern South Vietnam (1st casualties); second landing Deckhouse & Prairie for serious battles; Hill 55 & Dodge City (snipers daily, mines, weekly firefights more or less & a few battles); Dong Ha & Hill Fights (168 KIA, but it took awhile); also at Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Khe Sanh, though mostly I was in the boondocks around these places. If there was a sound track to this section it would be Sympathy for the Devil, maybe Gimme Shelter. We won every battle and beat back very attack, but America lost its will and lost the war. All told, 13 months in combat (well, you know, not every day) mostly in the province (Thua Thien) accounting for the greatest number of US casualties; Danang (in our last formation there were less than 40 men left of the original company of about 180 men - I guess we were doomed youth). The World. God. I'm alive.

Battalion Landing Team, C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment

When we finished Infantry Training Regiment and weapons schools we were sent to a holding company at Camp Pendleton. My mates Jeff and Mike Noumov and I were doing the light duty scam, inventing maladies serious enough to avoid PT and marching around like idiots but not serious enough to keep us confined to barracks. In the morning we’d hang out in the upstairs head, smoking, talking, watching the others doing PT and marching around like idiots. Then, after noon chow, we’d be free like everyone else to hang around the PX, eating pogie bait and drinking cokes.

After 3 or 4 weeks we were sent to Las Pulgas, a small satellite base of Camp Pendleton. We became the 1st of the newly reactivated 26th Marines. I was in C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. The 26th Marines were deactivated after heroic service on Iwo Jima and reactivated in 1966. Our Commanding Officer was Captain Kappleman – very tough, strong, together, distant – a classic Old Man.

We trained as a special landing force or battalion landing team – forced marches through the California scrub, war games, but nobody that I knew thought in terms of a game – it was serious stuff with live ammo, grenades and so on. We made landings on the Cali beaches, clambering down the ropes with all our gear and the landing craft bobbing up and down and somehow I don’t think anyone was badly hurt. We ran up the mountain (Sheep Shit) near the barracks, down and then back up again. We cleaned and re-cleaned our weapons and practiced and practiced in the ways Marines practice their craft.

For liberty we’d go to Oceanside, sometimes to the beach, usually drinking Red Mountain vin rosy we called it, cheap red jug wine. Sometimes we’d go to Mexico, eating tacos ricos with lots of cilantro and onion on the Tijuana streets, headed to the bars, the girls. When nobody had any money we’d scrape together enough to send someone to Oceanside to buy a couple of jugs of vin rosy and we’d sit on the roof of the barracks or in a deserted handball court and do some serious drinking.

At some point I got word that I’d been transferred to headquarters company to work in supply. I went straight to battalion and talked with the Sergeant Major, who, in typical Marine fashion asked me if I thought I knew better than the Marine Corps about where I should be sent. Of course I said, “No sir.” But then I started getting teary eyed and he told me to get out. When I got back to the company I learned that (1) I was in trouble for going outside the chain of command and (2) I was going to stay with C Company.

The battalion shipped out together on three ships, the carrier Iwo Jima and the Thomaston, and Vancouver. C Company was on the Vancouver, a landing platform dock (LPD). The aft half of the ship had a platform for helicopters to land and take off from and beneath that, there was a cavernous space where the amtracks (amphibious landing vehicles) were parked. When we made a landing, the stern of the ship would open and the amtracks would drive down a ramp and into the water.

We stopped at Pearl Harbor for several days. On the way in to the harbor we were mustered on deck to stand in formation and saluting as we passed the Pearl Harbor Memorial which was set over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona.

We had some good liberty in Honolulu. I remember eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant; spending time at a taxi-dance hall where you paid a dollar to dance with a girl; seeing the first transgender person (“female impersonator”) I’d ever seen; and partying in a bar where we made the bartender lock the door so one of the guys could take his trousers off because the tattoo he’d just gotten was hurting (on one buttock a devil shoveling coals into his ass and flames coming out on the other buttock). Somewhere in all this we saw Holcomb hit someone so fast the other person couldn’t even get his hands up.

From Hawaii we went to the Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. From there we participated in some intense training exercises, including landings and forced marches through the jungles. The landings were interesting in that there were people near the beach who were trading us orange sodas and knives in exchange for ammunition. Now I understand we were playing a part in the Muslim insurgency in the southern PIs. Photo: USS Vancouver

From the troops’ perspective, the main thing that happened was liberty in Olongapo City, which was right outside the base. The way it worked was we would take landing boats from the ship to the base, where we’d sometimes stop off long enough to have something to eat, and then across the bridge from the base into Olongapo. Except for one long main street the entire city was off-limits to US personnel. On that street, however, was everything we could ever want: it was all bars, cafes, night clubs, and women everywhere. There were men along the way, selling whatever, and best of all, grilled “monkey meat” (really pork) on a stick. There was cold San Miguel beer, bands playing American hits, all your buddies, and women.

Deckhouse Operations, the DMZ

Here is a brief history (Wikipedia) of the ship at that time:

During the first week in July, Vancouver embarked tracked landing vehicles (LVTs) and Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/26 (1st Battalion, 26th Marines) in preparation for her second Seventh Fleet assignment. On 9 July, she put to sea and after a two-day stop at Pearl Harbor from 14 July to 16 July, arrived at Subic Bay on 28 July. There, she became a unit of the newly constituted Seventh Fleet Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), Task Group (TG) 76.5—a self-contained mobile amphibious assault team made up of a Special Landing Force (SLF), marines and support units, and the ships which served as their transportation and mobile bases. In a series of training exercises held in the Philippines, the Navy-Marine Corps teammates honed their skills for an almost instant response to any need for amphibious support or reinforcement in the Seventh Fleet's zone of operations.

Between 16 August and 29 August, Vancouver participated in her first combat action during Operation Deckhouse III which consisted of two landings at a point some 60 miles (100 km) east of Saigon. The first phase, from 16 August to 20 August, saw BLT 1/26 move ashore in both waterborne and airborne modes against minor opposition and later destroy a fortified Viet-Cong-held village. During the second set of landings, 22 August to 29 August, the marines sent ashore changed operational control from the ARG to the authorities ashore to assist in Operation Toledo a search-and-destroy mission to deprive the enemy of valuable caches of arms and supplies. At the conclusion of "Deckhouse III," Vancouver returned to Subic Bay for ten days of upkeep.

Departing the Philippines on 12 September, the ship began her second amphibious assault, Operation Deckhouse IV, on 15 September in the vicinity of the Cua Viet River in Quang Tri province just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The landings constituted a seaward arm of the larger Operation Prairie being conducted by American and South Vietnamese forces ashore to destroy North Vietnamese Army fortifications, bunkers, and supply caches in the area and to stem intensified infiltration across the DMZ. During their ten days ashore, the marines of the SLF encountered heavy resistance and accounted for 254 of the enemy killed before they reembarked on 25 September. At the conclusion of the operation, Vancouver disembarked her portion of BLT 1/26 troops at Danang.

(End Vancouver history)

We started out down south with a couple of relatively uneventful operations. I remember making the first landings in the amtracks - armored tracked vehicles also known as LVTs. They were basically steel boxes with benches running along the long walls and double benches down the center. The entire front was a door that opened down so that it was like a short bridge from the inside to the beach. Actually, they often opened up in the water so that we stepped off the door into one or three or whatever feet of water – not a small issue for someone in a flack jacket and carrying a full pack, machine gun (23.5 pounds unloaded), and 200 + linked rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.

We rode from the ship to the beach sitting on the benches so jammed together that our knees interlocked. When the vomiting started, it was bad, because there was nowhere to vomit except in one’s own lap and on the other men. A few men vomited in their helmets, a mistake never made twice. But the really bad part was that the tracks rode down low in the water and water spilled inside so the first thought was that if it sank, it would go straight to the bottom and we would all die trapped inside. The second thought was that if the thing got to the beach, if the enemy was shooting and sighted in on the track, the bullets would ricochet and fragment inside. How could they miss?

We neither sank nor caught more than a little harassing fire. The next issue was whether to oil the gun enough that it wouldn’t rust from the salt water (which takes place with amazing quickness or to have it dry enough that sand wouldn’t clog the works (which happened if there was enough oil to prevent rust. There was no good answer.

The first night in VN we were down south in the forest. Went on-line in the dark and just kind of hunkered down. Didn’t sleep much that night! In the morning realized there were Marines maybe 50 feet right in front of us. Glad we didn’t fire.

The first time I was shot at (bullets make a very loud Pop! when they go past close) there was instant full realization of an important truth of war. There is no turning back. No half measures. The other guys mean to kill you and death is forever. I didn’t really start with any moral questions and I knew I would pull the trigger. (In WW II apparently many men did not actually shoot at the enemy – they needed a serious ass-kicking.) But everything became instantly crystal clear that day. Kill them or they kill me. We were walking on a trail in the woods (not the deep rain forest) and someone fired straight up the trail. I went off the trail and my arm went right through a log full of ants. They were biters for sure and got me moving pretty brisk. That time was no big deal. Nobody hit that I recall. Later in the operation three of our men were killed.

When it was over we were on the beach waiting to be ferried back to the ship. The Navy had brought us some C-Rats and warm beer (Carling Black Label) in partially rusted cans. I gave my two cans to someone else. Some of the men who drank ended up vomiting once we were in the landing craft headed back to the ship. I’m not sure if it at this time (maybe earlier?) that one of the men (L----- from New Orleans) made a spectacle of himself threatening suicide and putting the muzzle of his rifle in his mouth. Someone saying, “Pull the trigger, L----- you chicken-shit mother-fucker.” That was the last we saw of that coward.

***
I pasted the following on D/1/26 from a 26th Marines site (khesanhvets.org). I'm using what someone else wrote to try to put what I'm writing into context. There's not much context in combat - it's just the battle you're in and not much else.

August 16-29, 1966
BLT 1/26 makes its first combat landings in Vietnam during Deckhouse III, Parts I and II. The area of operations is The Vung Tau Peninsula, 60 miles southeast of Saigon. The landings are made in conjunction with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Australian units. The target area is the coastal lowland of Binh Tuy and Phuoc provinces, generally an uncultivated plain covered with one and two canopy jungle and swamps. The rifle companies operate over widely separated areas, relying on small unit patrolling to adequately search the area. The enemy forces targeted are the Headquarters VC 5th Division, 274 and 275 Main-Force Regiments, which are seeking to avoid engagement. General Westmoreland visits the CP for BLT 1/26.

Deckhouse III, Phase I, is the first combat landing in Vietnam for BLT 1/26. The 1/26 Battalion CP is located at grid YS 829714. There is no significant contact on this landing during the sweep of this plantation territory.

Deckhouse III, Phase 2, Operation Toledo, is the second combat landing in Vietnam for BLT 1/26 (August 22 to 29). The 1/26 Battalion CP is located at grid YS 645700. The operation locates and then attacks a VC base camp and bunker complex. The VC do not stand and fight; instead, they abandon the base prior to the Marine attack. However, the results of the sweep are good, as tons of rice are captured along with ammunition and other supplies.

Three C/1/26 Marines were killed on August 28, 1966 and they are the first combat deaths for 1/26 Marines. CK writing: Madden was one of the KIA. It was all pretty unreal.

Mid-September 1966
3/4 Marines attack the elaborate fortifications being constructed by 324B along a ridge near the razorback as part of Operation Prairie. Hills 400 and 484 are the Marines’ objectives in the battle for Mutter Ridge. In related actions, BLT 1/26 is OpCon to the 4th Marines and conducts Deckhouse IV/Prairie at the same time.

September 15, 1966
Deckhouse IV/Prairie starts when BLT 1/26 Marines makes its third combat landing as a reconnaissance in force sweep in the area north of Dong Ha. The target is the northwestern portion of the Gio Linh District, and the mission is to screen the northern approaches in support of Operation Prairie. During this operation, BLT 1/26 engages in a series of fights with units of the NVA 324B Division northeast of Con Thien.

September 17, 1966
In the early AM hours a large firefight starts not far away and continues for quite a while. The firing is from the Alpha Co. position as they are being attacked by NVA with heavy small arms fire and mortars. Delta Co. moves out in the morning in a westerly direction through rolling terrain towards the village of Gia Binh. This village is northeast of Con Thien (Hill 158), which is then an ARVN outpost. Photo: Mutter’s Ridge, Operation Prairie

At midday there is occasional gunfire in the distance. In the afternoon, the company goes through what is basically a large bamboo forest, which takes a while to traverse. The north end opens up on a small rice paddy the village on the other side was Gia Binh. The point of 2nd platoon sees NVA soldiers and heavy fire erupts. Delta Co. advances and the surprised NVA pulls back.

The 1st Platoon draws the point next, and Delta Co. moves out in a northerly direction along the cart path, which runs through Gia Binh. After a short advance, the NVA strikes back with heavy fire from fortified positions on both sides of the road (YD 146730). The company returns fire, and air strikes and artillery are called in. The company recovers casualties and pulls back to set up a LZ. Late in the afternoon, a medevac helicopter is shot down while trying to land. The company digs in for the night.

September 18, 1966
The physical setting is tough, with hedgerows limiting movement; the previous day's probe towards the center of the village revealed a series of trenches, tank traps, and fighting positions.

Late in the morning, the company makes heavy contact and receives automatic weapons fire from both sides of the road and the front (YD 146730). The enemy fights from prepared positions and the 2nd Platoon takes very heavy casualties. Several Marines are killed in the initial exchange of fire, including the 2nd Platoon Commander, 1stLt. Geoghegan. There is a lot of confusion on both sides, with the NVA calling out to each other and Marines doing the same. Delta Co is pinned down for quite a while; supporting arms, along with the eight-inch guns of the Navy cruiser St. Paul, are called in to cover its withdrawal.

September 20, 1966
Delta Co. receives early AM sniper fire. The company holds its position waiting for Charlie Co., accompanied by tanks, to approach from the west. One of the tanks hits an AT mine during this advance.

September 21, 1966
An attack by three companies is initiated against An Dinh. In the morning, Charlie Co. and the tanks attack from the west and meet strong resistance from automatic weapons and AT rockets. Air strikes and artillery are called and Delta Co. maneuvers to linkup with Charlie Co. on the left and Bravo Co. on the right. That afternoon, Companies B, C, & D, supported by tanks, attack the village from three directions. An Dinh is secured when the NVA force break contact at the end of the day and pull back to the north.

September 24, 1966
The Marines of BLT 1/26 reembark aboard the ships of the SLF. As September ends, the total NVA killed in Operation Prairie are 943. The number of NVA killed during the ten days of Deckhouse IV/Prairie fighting is 254.

BLT 1/26 casualties are 36 KIA and 200 WIA.

September 26, 1966
The battalion goes ashore at Da Nang to replace 1/9 at Hill 55 TAOR south of Da Nang. 1/26 is placed under the operational control of the 9th Marine regiment.

After completion of Operation Deckhouse IV/Prairie, the decision is made to strengthen the Marine presence on the DMZ. In October 1966, the Marines of 2/5 take over Con Thien from the ARVN.

End khesanhvets.org Hx.

The way I experienced the battles described above was as a series of battles and marches. My memories:

At the DMZ, Charlie Parker, my A gunner and I dug a huge fighting hole the first night (9/15). A few days later, after being mortared we were digging much smaller and narrower holes. The next day we moved out toward the sound of fighting. We went down into a swale and when we came up the other side we were facing an open area with the enemy dug in in the opposite tree line. I remember Jeff running out into the open area and firing his rocket at an enemy machine gun bunker. He lit it up and we were across the field into a trench line, fighting up and down the trenches. At some point I remember being on the deck with a heavy volume of fire coming in and just a few feet from me the 3rd platoon radio man was lying on his back. I was wondering how he could be doing that with so much incoming, but then realized he was dead, lying still, on his back with bullets snapping close above and his freckles and his pale skin. I had this instant and clear understanding of our bodies as clay. I knew he was gone and all that was left was the clay, the vessel. Photo: Mutters Ridge

We battled through the trenches and the next thing I remember was digging in somewhere near the battlefield. Where my squad was there were some old trenches with steel barbs sticking up out of the bottom. We took out the traps and there we were, set for the night. Sometime in the night while I was asleep (we were always 2 hours on watch, 2 off), we were hit with a very accurate mortar barrage. I thought I levitated really fast into the trench and was on my gun in zero seconds (that’s what it seemed like) and as soon as I was up, I saw a flash from the mortars being fired and I cut loose with a 200 round burst and though I could hear someone shouting for me to cease fire I knew I had them and cranked all 200 rounds into the enemy. That was the end of the mortar barrage. Later we realized that the NVA probably had our position registered for mortar fire. Photo: One guy resting, another enjoying something tasty

The next days were a blur to me – then and now. I remember …

Bullets zapping through banana trees and shreds of leaves falling.

Seeing men in a tree line and I opened fire only to later learn that they were Marines. I wounded two of them, but they survived.

We linked up with the rest of the battalion, lines of men sprawled exhausted in the dirt. There were some reporters there and one of them asked Buddero Craze a question and he answered, “Fuck you.” Several of us overheard an old reporter say something like, “I didn’t expect anything like this. Goddam, I was on Tarawa and this is just like it.” (I think he was exaggerating, but still, it was definitely balls-to-the-wall.)

The seams to my trousers split. Our utilities were greasy with dirt and sweat, but mine gave way all the way and I had to tie around the legs to keep them kind of on.

Carver and I (don’t know where Parker was) dug in along a tree line in a wet misty area, digging a primo slit trench just barely big enough for both of us to crouch in or for one, the man on watch, to make a cup of coffee or whatever and have a smoke while the other one racked it on the ground next to the hole. But we aren’t to the night just yet. We were resupplied by chopper and included was a “Sunday box” – a box full of random treats like candy, playing cards, shaving gear (like anyone was going to shave), and so on. My share was a little restaurant package of 2 saltine crackers and on the side package it said, Eating Out is Fun! Several of us reconned a few hundred meters to the front of our line and found a lot of NVA. We crept back toward our line, but somehow were spotted by I guess one of their recon patrols which opened fire and we fired back and then ran (there being many of them and 3 of us). Our guys were starting to shoot and one of the men in our patrol was racing along shouting, “WOOP WOOP WOOOOP WOOP WOOP WOOOOP” which got me started laughing and I was laughing my ass off and running so fast my feet were outrunning my body. Basically, we’d surprised them before they surprised us. Artillery did the rest of the work.

We fought our way through some pretty fierce action. For about a day (it seems) we were marching in a long column with fire fights raging now at the front, now the rear, now a flank. We finally broke out of that and linked up with a platoon of tanks, maybe 6? And we were finally out of it and everyone climbed on the tanks to ride the rest of the way into Dong Ha.

I was lying on the back of a tank, half asleep and it seemed like something flashed across my vision and in the tank behind us the driver’s head exploded and then we exploded and I was just laying there stunned and something hit me in the shoulder – it was a glancing blow from the cannon of tank behind us running into our tank and I was trying to get my gun to get off but the gun strap was pinned. Rockets and small arms fire were intense, but I got it loose. I was on the left side of the tank column and not much fire was coming in from that side. I went to the rear where we were also being attacked and put down some fire. We fought through that, but no more riding for the weary. I helped pull the driver up out of the tank. His head was gone from the jaw up – you could see his lower teeth.

We got into Dong Ha around dark and the tanks lagered and we crashed. In the morning I was awake and I could see men sleeping wherever they lay or fell down. All that was left of first squad weapons was asleep spooned together, all 3 of the men under one poncho.

I remember seeing someone go through the pockets of one of the dead men we’d hauled out and in the man’s chest pocket found a Bible with a hole through it left by the bullet that killed him. He looked at the Bible, showed it to a couple of other Marines, and threw it away, left it in the dirt with the blood of its owner.

36 KIA and 200 WIA in 9 days. For C Company it was about 10 (more) dead and 60 wounded. On the other side of things >250 NVA killed.

I don’t remember an excess of emotion over the casualties. We knew it would happen and it was sad, but we were hard men. Warriors. Later you feel it all, but not then.

VN 66-67 - Part 2: Hill 55, Dodge City

.
Back on the ship we went back to Subic Bay for one of the ships to get maintenance. It was like magic to us – instead of Vietnam we were going back Olongapo! Unfortunately, I had almost no money. So, when J-------- said he’d pay me to break his finger it was just a matter of how much. I think in the end I got $7 and some change and he put his trigger finger over a step on one of the steel ladders and I hit it with a small iron bar. At first he thought I hadn’t hit him hard enough and then he saw his finger, which was wrecked and so he was gone too. Good riddance to another coward + Olongapo here I come. We’re all winners here. I was actually in a relationship with a girl, Delia, and so it was all pretty intense. Then we were headed back to Vietnam.

We landed unopposed near Danang and got to a base there. My only memory of the base was going to a head and this peasant woman came in and squatted next to me and did her business and I was at a loss because I’d rather do my eliminations in private (tough luck being in the Corps), and next to a woman was even less private than I was used to. She left, so it was cool.

Photo: Near our company position close to Hill 55 - photo taken in 2005. Hard to believe walking here with ambushes, mines, etc. happening

Ordinarily at a forward Marine base (like at Hill 55), they have shitters and pissers, with former being like an outhouse and the latter being tubes (maybe rocket tubes) sunk into the ground with a screen over the opening. Periodically they’d move them. They would move the shitter to another place and pour gas or whatever in the hole full of feces and set it ablaze. I never had to do that. For the pisser it was just dig a new hole, put the tube in, and fill in the old hole.

Our understanding was that we were going to be guarding Danang and I had this picture of comfy little block houses set along a trench line surrounding the city and at least several days a week I would go into Danang and I’d have like a little room somewhere in a cool neighborhood and of course a girlfriend. Maybe I’d gotten this idea from The Quiet American or maybe I’d made it up on my own.

We had an uneventful ride to Hill 55 and there we were. From Wikipedia: “Hill 55 was a hill in Vietnam that was used during the Vietnam war as a base of operations for the United States Marine Corps. It has been described as "the most notorious area in I Corps. In the Indochina War, two battalions of the French forces were wiped out on Hill 55. Famous Marine sniper Major Jim Land operated a sniper school on the hill.”

C company moved off the hill to our new home – some mounds of dirt and vegetation surrounded by untended padi (padi = rice field). We were taking this area over from 1/9 (the “Walking Dead” – and this was where they got their name) so there were positions already dug. My recollection is that this was when I realized just how many casualties we’d taken, though I don’t know why it would have taken so long for me to understand. Photo: My gun

My gun was at post 1, which was closest the dirt road that curved around part of our perimeter. The post included a sandbagged position with ~4 foot high sandbagged walls and thatched roof where we hung out, stood watch, heated C-Rations, smoked, and whatnot. Off that there was a place to sleep – sandbagged walls 2-3 feet high and a plastic sheet roof, Part of the time we slept on the ground and later we had cots, I think. That’s the Marine Corps way: away from the rear, pay little attention to fortifications. We were there to fight.

Our first patrol in our AOR we hit a main force VC unit and were in a huge fire-fight and were basically outgunned. I remember Holcomb backing away, firing his M14 tilted so that it tracked sideways recoiling on auto. I was on my knees laying down an excellent field of fire – like about 12” off the ground at the highest. Holcomb’s buddy, the man who had the devil shoveling coals into his ass, stepped on a mine that blew his legs off. He sat up and looked at the stumps and groaned and fell over dead.

Yeah, it was a fierce area and we took the fight to the VC. They put a lot of mines out and harassed us with sniper fire. We hunted them and killed them when we found them. Photo: A beautiful sight

The basic plan was patrol for ~3 days/nights. Back in for a night off – still standing watch, but with less frequency than the 2 on, 2 off on patrol. Out for night ambush. Back in for a night. Patrol for ~3 days/nights. Back …

The ambushes were my favorite part because -----, my assistant gunner was pretty nervous about everything and he’d always take liquor on these ambushes. He was a heavy drinker, so he could drink and function. He’d sit awake all night sipping his whiskey and I’d sleep, secure in his anxiety. He’d wake me up now and then, whispering, “I think I hear something.” I’d lie there, listening, watching, and finally going back to sleep.

By now my helmet had a picture of the Grim Reaper on one side and on the other, "morituri te salutamus" - Latin for we who are about to die salute you.

Mostly it was boring and hot. Talk, play solitare, read, smoke, sleep. Post 1 was kind of stuck out on a corner of the perimeter, so we were a little bit by ourselves, a good thing. Everyone who came to or left C Company’s position passed through Post 1, but the actual position was a few feet from where they went, so no problem there. All supplies came through Post 1 and so we did a lot of unloading and also skimmed some of the cream of what was coming in.

***
We had ended a patrol at Battalion one day and were laying around outside the crappy little mess hall they had up there. A visiting general happened on us and was talking to the lieutenant about the situation and the lieutenant started telling him about using civilians to walk point (them knowing exactly where all the mines were) and the general got pissed, so we were supposed to not do that anymore. Everybody play fair now.

I remember so little about specific patrols. It was hot, often raining. I carried my gun and 200 rounds, helmet, flack jacket, lightest possible load of C-Rats, 4 canteens water (2 more than most men), .45 & an extra clip, knife, cigarettes, sheet of plastic to sleep on, raincoat. I could almost always find banana tree leaves to sleep under, so really I was fairly comfortable.

Waking one morning to sit smoking
Watching the day begin through misty green
Slow, soft, green and mist
I could sit here for a thousand years.



Photo: Children near Dodge City

I don’t remember being afraid. I was focused, intense, but not feeling afraid. People say all kinds of things, like, “There’s no atheists in foxholes.” Well I never thought about God. Why would anyone believe in a merciful loving God in a war? People say things like, “God’s in charge.” Oh yeah, sure. “God don’t give you nothin’ you can’t handle.” You don’t know much, do you. And people say things like, “Who wouldn’t be afraid?” or “Anyone with any intelligence would be afraid.” Whatever. I didn’t feel it. Later, sometimes I’d get the shakes.

***
Gunny Evans was beyond words. He had what seemed like supernatural powers – utterly fearless, able to see in the dark, needing no sleep, physically overpowering, and dangerous to everyone. Once at the DMZ I was on the right flank point in a balls-to-the-wall gunfight with an NVA machine gun emplacement when out of the woods to the left of the enemy gun came Gunny Evans, carrying a wounded Marine! How in hell did he get there? The other Gunny I had was Gunny White, who was weapons platoon commander for much of my time with C/1/26. Gunny White was loved as much as Gunny Evans was feared. Fearless, squared away, a true warrior, but not dangerous (to us, anyway). Both of these men would have given their lives in a heartbeat for me or any other Marine. Certainly they risked their lives on a regular basis for us – as we did for them.

***
About once a month I’d get up to battalion for a night. I’d stay in the C Company tent with Jeff and others. Cots, wood pallet floors, maybe I’d have a shower. Sometimes Gunny White would dig up some beer for us and we’d have a party. There were some 105s and 155s on the hill and when the arty would fire it would blow our candle out. They had some electric up there and there was a record player in the tent. Man, them guys had it made. But I was still glad I wasn’t back up there working in supply.

Day after day, week after week, month after month. It’s weird when you think about it – never a day without someone shooting at you, never a day when someone wasn’t wounded. One by one the old guys disappearing. Sometimes bad wounded, sometimes a 3rd wound, sometimes killed, a few lucky ones with malaria. If you count each wound or even each person wounded or killed and then FNGs (replacements) coming in and they were wounded at an even greater rate, you realize we took over 100% casualties.

Much of the countryside where we were was deserted. There were people living to the northeast of us and in the west where Dodge City was. Otherwise, deserted, ghostly. On patrol in the north we came across a partially intact temple. Sitting inside, dry, having a smoke, happy, comfortable. That’s a stellar memory. I’m writing a lot about smoking. We had C-Ration cigs, Lucky Strikes – “Toasted” – Salems, Winstons; and whenever someone went up to Hill 55 they’d bring back some cartons of Winys or Marlys or best of all, Viceroys. Cigarettes and war go together really well. Smoking cigarettes was about the best thing we did. That and being not dead.

***
Most patrols were from squad to platoon sized, anywhere from 10 to 30 men. One day during monsoon we went on a company sized operation toward Dodge City. As with so much else, time clouds my memory, so I’ll write what I remember. There was a huge and sustained volume of gun fire to my right. We started forward and engaged the enemy so that there was a broad front (in front of me and to the right). To my horror I discovered that the person I’d loaned the gun to the night before had put the piston in backwards, so what I had was a 23.5 pound single-shot rifle – an awkward one at that. So in the midst of a battle I had to take the gun apart to turn the piston around and the thing was, it took me a few minutes to figure things out and in the meantime there was this screaming and someone firing 100 round bursts – screaming and charging the enemy. He got into their position and killed several and then everyone else caught up with him. What had happened was that Zamora had been killed and the gunner (Ray Escalera, who had loved him) went a little crazy. Zamora was one of those world-class good guys – there was nobody more solid than he was. The battle raged on for awhile, who could even guess how long.

There were three helicopters shot down that day. I was close to one of them. I was hosing down the tree line while other guys ran to the chopper to see if they could get anyone out. They pulled one man out, still alive, but completely burned and they said his skin came off, but I always thought it was probably his flight suit. There were 13 KIA and 66 WIA in that that operation.

We’d been in water for several days and after the battle I made the mistake of taking my boots off (my feet were hurting and itching – with the itching driving me crazy) and my feet swelled up in just moments. I knew better than to do that, but the itching! There was no way I could have gotten my boots back on and I ended up crawling for quite a ways on the way away from the battle.

***

We were on a patrol and got word to stop and wait for helicopters to take us to another area to look for a missing (dead) Marine. What happened was some REMFs had gone on a patrol out of battalion. They’d been hit and somehow (because of inexperience) one of the Marines was separated from the others. The VC got him and tortured him to death, stabbing him 100s of times (“death by a 1000 cuts”) while he screamed in the night and every time the Mariners in that patrol tried to get to him they were driven back, taking more casualties and finally giving up.

So we got there and it didn’t take long to find him dead in padi water, right next to a dike, so completely white and stabbed so many times.

***
It never occured to me that I would write this. It was something to keep secret and inside me forever; something to take out now and then, turning it over in my mind like the treasure it is (to me, anyway). I told Jeff a few years ago, but he already knew about it, even though he was not on that patrol.

We were on a long patrol - past even Dodge City. It had been raining for several days or maybe several weeks. I had this raincoat that was far superior to a poncho (I doubt many people ever wore a poncho past their first gunfight with one of those awkward things in the way of everything - I loved my raincoat). We were 3-4 days out, in an area we'd not seen before. We came to a ville and moved around and through it. The plan was to round up everyone in the ville and search the place and people for weapons.

I came to a hooch with a bunker (all the hooches had bunkers in that neighborhood) and inside the bunker were several women and some children. The interesting thing was that one of the women was wet - even her hair, which told me pretty clearly that she had been doing something in a hurry before we got into the ville, i.e., she was most definitely VC. The other woman was holding a baby and the baby was crying, the thin, weak cry of a very sick baby. I was standing there looking at them and it was like I could see myself as they saw me. I was death - unshaven, dirty death. The only clean thing about me was my machine-gun and it was immaculate. The gun oiled, every round in the 200 round belt perfectly cleaned, inspected - all truly perfect. I was looking at them and they were looking at me.

I was thinking, screw this. I'm not going to jack with these people. So I just stayed there, watching them (I had decided not to force them out, but not wanting to be killed, would never have taken my eyes off them). So we're there, they, no doubt wondering what is going to happen and me, just very comfortable with my decision. At some point I tossed a couple of cans of C-rat ham or whatever into the bunker. They probably thought I was tossing grenades - they never touched the cans.
Then trouble. The lieutenant running the patrol came over and the conversation went something like this: "Get these people out of there." "There's a sick baby in there." "I don't give a shit. Get them out of there." "There's a sick baby in there." "I said, get them out, now." I was thinking, I guess I'm going to have to kill him, but he read my eyes and saw what I was thinking before I could act and he pointed his rifle in my direction (he always carried an M1 carbine, a silly weapon for which I had only contempt - but, an M1 pointed at someone trumps an M60 in the other direction, if you know what I mean) and there was nothing I could do because my weapon was already pointed pretty much down and to the left. Even though I was a lot better gunfight-wise than this guy, there was just no way I could get to him faster than he could get to me. "I'm giving you an order, Marine. Get those goddam mother-fucking people out of there right now." Then two things happened.

The Big Hair (Harris) was off to the side and he put his weapon on the lieutenant and said something like, "Be careful, lieutenant." Whew, what a relief. Then, the people in the bunker started coming out! The lieutenant walked off muttering threats. Harris smiled at me. "Yeah, man - fuckin'-A." When the woman carrying the baby came out in the rain I stopped her and I took off my raincoat and gave it to her. She had no clue what that was about so I had to drape it over her. It was like the coat of a giant to her. Ridiculous.

I remember leaving the ville with all those people standing there in the rain and that sad-sack woman with her sick baby standing there with my raincoat dragging the ground.
Redemption song. Making a choice. I chose Life.

***
We were set up in an ambush. I was lying in a dry padi, in the sun, for a day, a night, and into the next day. Someone opened up on some VC coming up the trail and there was a firefight and I jumped up and ran toward them. I remember running up a trail, firing and then being dizzy. From there we headed up to battalion. Along the way I was getting sick (dehydration and heatstroke) and for the first time ever, I fell out. I remember sitting against a tree trying to talk the others into leaving me behind, saying something like, "I'll come along later" (clear thinking there!). They poured water over me and someone carried my gun while I staggered along,
worthless.
***
Jeff articulated how things were. He said, and I agreed, that we were the only ones that mattered, the only ones who understood war. Tanks mattered too and of course the choppers and fast movers (except that the latter two went home at night to showers, racks, hot food, and all that good stuff – but that was just their good fortune and a reason to envy them, not a reason to downgrade them). We appreciated artillery, but they were in the rear most of the time, so they weren’t really the same as infantry and tanks. You could see that the pilots who flew C-130s into Khe Sanh were okay. Everyone else was just a rear echelon mother-fucker.

The fast movers were F4 phantom fighter bomber jets and they provided close air support, coming in extraordinarily close to the ground to put bombs and napalm right on target. If you weren’t close to where they were dropping their ordnance, you could actually see the pilots’ helmets as they screamed past and then the explosions with the earth shaking or crumping in a ball of flame. I was on an operation with an Army unit and saw the Air Force version of close air support – they stayed waaay up in the air and as a consequence dropped their ordnance kind of wherever. I’d appreciated the Marine pilots before and anyone could see they were taking some pretty serious risks, and after seeing the Air Force pilots, well, Semper Fidelis!

The helicopters were always right there, taking enormous chances to bring in ammunition and take out casualties. At that time, Marines mostly flew the older Sikorsky UH-34 vs. the Hueys. I – and everyone else – loved the men who flew them and the crew chiefs/door gunners. I never saw anything those guys wouldn’t fly into.

***
Here's some interesting stuff on what was in the C-Rations we had in Vietnam. My favorites were beans & wieners, meatballs & beans, & boned chicken, though I ate a lot of eggs, water added with ham because I could tolerate it and people would just give it away, so I could use other stuff to trade for the coveted fruit cocktail, pears (mmmmmm, pears), and pecan roll. Sometimes you could get together some pears and pound cake for a true feast. Crackers with peanut butter were okay, but even I wouldn't eat the "candy disc, chocolate" - or the ham & lima beans ("ham & mother-fuckers" as everyone called them). Beef steak (it was a steak, alright), ham, turkey loaf, beef/potatoes/gravy were okay if you were really hungry. I don't remember meat loaf (lol - are you kidding me. How bad would that have been?) or spiced beef. The caraway cheese always irritated me - who eats caraway seeds? But I liked the pimento cheese. I loved the cocoa and jam & cookies. The bread was lame. I ate a lot of fruitcake because I was one of the only ones who would, so there was always plenty of it. I almost always had a bottle of Tabasco. (Writing this journal is sufficient unto itself, but if it turns out that someone reads this to me when I'm old, please read all the ingredients below - Thanks.)

B-1 Units
Meat Choices (in small cans): Beef Steak, Ham and Eggs, Chopped Ham Slices, Turkey Loaf,
Fruit: Applesauce, Fruit Cocktail, Peaches, Pears
Crackers, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Candy Disc, Chocolate Cream Coconut, Accessory Pack*
B-2 Units
Meat Choices (in larger cans): Beans and Wieners, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Beefsteak & Potatoes & Gravy, Ham and Lima Beans (AKA ham & motherfuckers), Meatballs and Beans
Crackers, Processed Cheese Spread with either Caraway or Pimento
Fruit Cake, Pecan Roll, Pound Cake, Accessory Pack*
B-3 Units
Meat Choices (in small cans): Boned Chicken, Chicken and Noodles, Meat Loaf, Spiced Beef
Bread, Cookies, Cocoa Beverage Powder, Jam (Apple, Berry, Grape, Mixed Fruit, Strawberry, Accessory Pack*
The Accessory Pack had a plastic spoon, salt & pepper, instant coffee, sugar, creamer, 2 Chiclets, cigarettes - 4 smokes/pack like Winston, Marlboro, Lucky Strike (my favorite three), Salem, Pall Mall, Camel, Chesterfield, Kent (nasty things), Kool (Winnie the Penguin says, "Smoke Kooool!"), matches, & Toilet Paper. We all carried a "P-38" can opener and usually had heat tabs or C-4 to heat things.

***
… going back to the rear, leaving helmet, pack, flack jacket, webbing, weapons, ammo in a pile (weapon always handy – and never going more than about 30 feet from the weapon). It always felt so good taking it all off, so you were wearing just utilities, boots, etc.

***
My best friends were Jeff and Noumov. Hermanson and I were also very close. We were together from ITR on and though he went to recon, we still stayed in touch. Jeff and Noumov and I were together throughout, forming the nucleus of a kind of sub-culture in 1/26 – men with education or from middle-class (vs. working class or poor) backgrounds. In other ways we were classic Marine infantrymen: squared away, hard, strong, very aggressive, good shooters, disciplined when we needed to be, serious about partying. Jeff and I have stayed in touch and lived together from time to time since Vietnam. We went back to VN (along with my son, David) in 2005.

Deleted section on lessons from Korea – too violent.

***
We were on a patrol, I don’t remember where and it seems like it was a peaceful patrol. We stopped for an hour or so close to a farmer’s hooch on a little bit of a rise and it worked out that I was right in front of the hooch, sitting under a thatched awning, kind of like a small dirt-floored veranda. There was a little girl there, chopping vegetables and it seemed to me she was so tiny to be wielding that big knife, but she knew what she was doing and I was sitting there, enjoying the cool and just the whole scene and I was about as happy then as I was in all my time in Vietnam.

VN was and still is beautiful, green – it has a green all its own. I think at least some people could see it even then.
***
At Christmas Leslie sent me a little artificial Christmas tree, even though we were not really in a relationship anymore. She also wrote me regularly. I carried a photo of her that eventually faded just to a dark smudge where her eye was - but I could see her face clearly. And here we are, 43 years later, married.

***
The following is from my first web page – it was important to me to write it. It was dedicated
To Dwight Laws, KIA 10/30/66 inside the company perimeter near Hill 55
To Lurch Donohue, KIA 3/1/67 in a deserted ville near Route 4
To Jerry Georges, KIA 3/23/67 at the Hill 55 bridge
They were good men. We were young. They could have lived a long time.
3/2007

Photo: me, Mike Noumov, Jeff Wiseman at the rear on Hill 55 on my return (bearing gifts) from R&R. Over and over again we were playing the Byrds album with Turn! Turn! Turn! on it - "a time to be born, a time to die; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep; a time for peace, I swear it's not too late." Do you think that wasn't blowing our minds?

Here is the whole story of how Donohue was killed. For the first 10 or so years after I came home, there was never a day that I didn't run this through my mind at least once - like some kind of video. I gave my compulsive rumination a name: How Donohue Got It. Then in 1978 I spent a week in a retreat with Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, Stephen Levine, and others. That was the first time I told this aloud. The second time was with my brother, Jeff (who identified Donohue's body back at battalion). I seldom think of this now.

We were on patrol north of the bend in Route 4, the dirt road that went by C Company's position. There were no civilians left in this area (where 1/9 got its name, The Walking Dead) - a ghostly overgrown area of deserted villes, fields, and woods. Donohue was my A-gunner. We were digging in the first night of the patrol and he wasn't doing his part of the digging. I asked him what was going on and he had trouble answering, but finally said he wasn't going to make it. He was really sad. I said something like, "Bullshit, man - we've been here too long to not make it." I dug us in and gave him a smoke (though I don't remember that he smoked - I'm not sure about this - maybe I just wish I'd given him a cigarette). But he was inconsolable. He knew.
The next day we saddled up and I gave him my machine-gun. Not too much greater love than to give up your gun for another man - because my gun was my hope, my friend, my ticket home. I loved that gun; and I was pretty good with it. Please allow me to introduce myself ... We moved out, into a deserted ville. I was walking left flank point and came to a hedgerow of bamboo with a closed gate the only way through. Going through that gate was death - no question about it, there was a mine somewhere with the gate. I was crouched down, trying to figure out a way to stay on line and not be killed when there was a powerful explosion off to my right and someone started yelling, "Corpsman up! Corpsman up!" In a heartbeat I knew Donohue was the explosion.

I took off up the trail to the right and there was a man standing frozen in the trail still shouting for a corpsman and my recollection is that I ran literally up and over him (though how could that be?) and there was Donohue. He was on the ground with both legs blown off. I was beside him and saw that one stump was left with shattered bone sticking out and his guts were spilled out of where the other one had been. He was still alive! He was moaning and moving around a little. I was on my knees beside him and we were receiving fire by then. I was struggling with whether to go ahead and finish him off, because he was definitely going to die and even if he didn't die, what was the use of going on like that. Then life went out of him. I'm grateful I didn't kill him. I joined in on the firefight and then it was quiet; and then I had to find my gun as it wasn't by the body. I remember walking through the bushes and trees looking for the gun and there were little pink/grey gobbets of Donohue everywhere and on my face and hands too. The smell. I found one of his feet before I found my gun. The foot was heavy and the gun was out of commission. For some reason this whole deal was the last straw - just too much. I mean, what for?

I pretty much lost hope after that. We had been in the field for about eight months: out on patrol 3-4 days, back to company for a day, out for a night ambush, another day in, and back out on patrol 3-4 days - week after week, month after month and every day, at least one casualty. I realized there were hardly any of the original men left. By then it was a company of mostly fucking new guys and there was nobody I wanted to even talk to.
I was also having weird thoughts. Like maybe I could just walk out of the perimeter a couple of klicks to a ville we'd been through a few times where a one-legged girl lived (lotta one-legged people in them parts) and I could take her an adjustable crutch so she wouldn't have to walk in the bent and twisted way she walked with her too-short stick of a crutch. A time to heal. Or maybe I could slip out and maybe run across a VC or two and instead of killing each other we could sit down in a clearing somewhere and drink a bottle of whiskey together and have some smokes and talk about our girlfriends. You know, have a good time. Be normal. A time to laugh. These sounded like really good ideas to me and I was thinking about them a lot - all the time. Now I realize that I've spent much of the past 40 years taking a crutch to that girl - and I have miles to go before I sleep.

A few weeks after Donohue was killed we were out on a night ambush and ran into another patrol from our company. The word had not been passed that we were going to meet. I was on point and when I saw the first man in the dark - like about 10 feet away, man - I started shooting. I shot the point man of the other patrol in the leg, hip, and chest (lucky for him I was carrying an M-14 instead of the 60); and the man behind me shot him in the chest with a grenade launcher. I remember watching one of my rounds (tracer) hit him and fly off at an angle - which was pretty far out. We were so close that the M-79 round didn't spin enough to arm, hence didn't explode and ended up lodged in his neck. Incredibly, he lived. There was an article in Stars and Stripes about the surgery to remove the M-79 round. I don't remember the name of the man I shot, except that we called him the Red-Headed Mexican and he was a good guy. I remember (before I shot him) him going crazy in Dodge City (Thuy Bo) and charging a VC position right after Zamora was killed. Three helicopters shot down right there that day. 13 KIA and 66 WIA that operation. Keep on rockin' in the free world. And now I know his name because a few weeks ago I read a copy of the article about the incident! Raymond Escalera. The article said I shot him only once. There was an investigation and not long after I was transferred out of 1/26.

Thank you Jeff. To everything, Turn! Turn! Turn! there is a season, Turn! Turn! Turn! And a time to every purpose under heaven, Turn! Turn! Turn!
Sometimes, in a dream
You appear

Not long after I shot Escalera I was sent back to Hill 55 to be interviewed by a lawyer. He wanted me to say it was my fault. He was one of those cold-eyed types, but there I was, a true gunfighter, so he couldn’t very well put the evil eye on me.

Coincidentally, there was a call for a few Marines to be sent on temporary assigned duty (TAD) to an Army psychological operations unit. The call went through Jeff, back at battalion, and he arranged for me to be sent. Once again, Everyone is a Winner!

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.

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.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Moving through these trying times

I received this message the other day: Your words were very poignant, moving and pardon the slight selfishness, validating. I will remember them as I move through the rest of these trying times. I also hope to carry them with me as I go forward in life.

Then this evening, reading something by Eric Andersen, writing about Ginsberg, Dylan, others: Their lives and writings have sustained me and given me confidence. Their words are my treasures. They are the eyes of the jewel. I am lucky to have gotten to meet and know some of them. They are spirits who illuminated my path, who provided the lantern I carry within, in the hope that one day a light will shine for others, as these great souls have shown for me.

That’s not to compare myself with Dylan(!), but to say that all around are people who can sustain us, give us treasures, illuminate our paths and so help us to sustain others, give others treasures, illuminate … In other posts I’ve named some who have done this for me: Dan Foster, Leslie Kemp, Stephen Gaskin, Stephen Levine, Nora Avila, Lay Rith, and others. Photo: people who sustain me; also see 1st paragraph in this post for a person who helps sustain me.

I’ve started working on an account of my 13 months in Vietnam.