" Vietnam Saga "
Author : John D. Messer
The life as a soldier is a very notable and respected duty . Our soldiers gave their lives and the ones that came home marked their souls with their lost comrades and friends . If you have ever noticed a soldiers bond between fellow soldiers is something most people do not share in a lifetime . It is something within , a great love for their country , families and beliefs .
Thank You for sharing Mr. Messer
Our hats are off to you !
The following narration is a chapter from the book "Guardians of the Eagles" in which I write about the most notable experiences of my twenty year military career. I graduated from Greene County Tech on May 25, 1956 and went in the Navy three days later. I had no idea, at that time, the United States Marines was considered a part of the Navy Department. Later, I would learn that because of this the Navy supplies Medical Department personnel to serve in combat with the Marines. This chapter is a true story of me and my fellow comrades in arms that were assigned as medics with the Marines in Vietnam. The language is not to offend anyone. It's as it was spoken. At times you may find it shocking. But to censor any part of it would take away from the true account of our experience. The complete book can be ordered from Barnes and Noble, or the Amazon.Com web site.
John D. Messer HMC/USN Retired
The Vietnam Saga
From all indications, nothing in the history of man has been studied more than the art of how to successfully wage war. The saying, War is the supreme contest among men, has been attributed to General George S. Patton. However, it seems the concept is universal. Although modern man professes to loathe war, there seems to be an instinct in us that craves blood and longs to hear the sounds and see the sights of battle. It would appear Homosapiens think there is something sacred in the idea of sacrificing ones life for a virtuous cause. Providing we believe that we are fighting against evil and injustice, it seems reasonable to think that God would receive us as one of His own. Our sins would surely be forgiven and we would be welcomed into heaven as saints. Its little wonder that political leaders often use this theme in promoting their causes.
As foolish as all this may seem to the intellectual, I must confess, even as a child, I found the idea of going into battle exhilarating. The wearing of the uniform, for me, was more than a job; it was a calling. I consider military service a noble and honorable thing. I hold no other profession in such high regard. We live in a world where others would surely enslave us if they could. For this reason, we owe our freedom and way of life to men who have been willing to lay down their lives on the field of battle. But we must keep in mind too, that there have been men who have died in vain for no rational reason that we can discern and, in some cases, their cause has been deemed an injustice. We should remember that war is the end result of a political situation that cant otherwise be resolved. The men who have fought our wars have had little to do with the decisions that led to their untimely deaths. I would ask you, are these men who gave their lives in so-called Unjust Wars any less heroic than their counterparts?
My lifetime desire to fight in a great campaign for the betterment of humanity has been frustrated by serving in a war that we ultimately lost and eventually was deemed a horrible mistake by most historians in todays civilized society.
In the coming pages, I will try to pay tribute to all the brave and courageous men who served with me in Vietnam. We believed we were in a life and death struggle for the survival of our country and way of life. Our efforts were lost in a world of confusion and we returned to a country that despised us and spit on us and called us baby killers. The majority of us have recovered and sought our own solace in this matter. Some are alcoholics; others have committed suicide; many have died or gone insane. None of us are as we once were. There have been volumes written about Vietnam. I can add nothing new to this unfortunate time in our history. But here is my story and what happened to me.
On the first day of June in 1966, I reported to the headquarters building in the Thirteen area aboard Camp Pendleton, California. Although I had been in the Navy for ten years and was a First Class Petty Officer, this was the beginning of a whole new way of life. I had come aboard Camp Pendleton almost every day for the past twenty-three months but today was much different. I was wearing the Marine Corps tropical khaki uniform with an E-6 navy-rating badge on my left arm.
I soon found the Detailing Office of the newly activated 5th Marine Division. A thirtysome-year-old Chief Petty Officer was sitting quietly at his desk in front of a big plastic TO (table of organization) chart. I handed him my records and noted his nametag read HMC Curry. He greeted me cordially and turned to the TO chart and studied it for a moment then turned back to me.
First and Second Battalion are up to compliment. Youll be the first corpsman in the Third, he commented dryly. Taking my service record, he turned to page 601-5 (Rev, 12-60) and stamped the following entry:
H&SCO, 3dBN Rlt26 FrsTps
FMFPac, MCB, CAMPEN, CA
Sea Duty Commenced: June, 66
He then handed me back my record, picked up a red colored grease pencil, walked to the chart and printed my name in a blank space.
Youll find them at Las Pulgas in the Forty-three area. Do you know where that is?
Not exactly, Chief.
Just follow Vandergrift and make the first right before the commissary then follow the road until you see a sign. You cant miss it.
Half an hour and ten miles later, I found myself in the office of Headquarters and Service Company of the Third Battalion, Twenty-sixth Marines. The First Sergeant had seen me enter but made no attempt to assist me.
I was to learn very quickly that wearing a marine uniform did not make me a marine nor did it give me automatic acceptance into their club. There is as much difference in the way the Marine Corps and the Navy relate to their men as there is between daylight and dark. There is an unbelievable bone-deep rivalry between the two services thats hard to overcome. The Marine Corps Boot Camp is a right of passage and, unless youve completed it, youre never going to be thought of as a marine. The most one can hope for is acceptance. That will come only with time by proving you can run as far, march as long, carry as much and be ready to move when you hear the words, corpsman up. At this point, I had done none of those things and the First Sergeant was intent on making sure I understood that. Until he acknowledged my presence, none of the other men dared say anything. After a two-hour wait, I became exasperated.
Who do I have to see to get checked in? I finally asked one of the young sergeants. He didnt answer me but looked at the First Sergeant. I turned my attention to him.
First Sergeant, could I pleased get checked in? I asked politely.
Ill be with you in a minute, he answered. Another hour passed before he came and took my record. Flipping though it hurriedly, he handed it back to me.
The Navy takes care of their own records, he informed me and gave me a look that indicated he thought there was a possibility I might be retarded.
So, where do I go? I asked feeling irritated with his attitude.
Youre the first one that has checked aboard. Just have a seat, Ill ask the S-1 when I have a chance, he said flippantly and walked away. I knew he was messing with me but there wasnt anything I could do about it.
At about 1100 hours, a Chief Corpsman walked in carrying his records. He was about my height but tended to the lean side. I noticed a Korean Combat Service Medal, with a Marine Corps emblem, in the middle of his three rows of campaign ribbons. I couldnt help but think he looked like a recruiting poster. He looked me up and down, smiled and stuck out his hand.
Chief Retzloff! Been here long?
Yes, sir, Chief, since about eight thirty this morning. They say were to take care of our own records. Im waiting to find out what building we are supposed to go to. He turned and looked at the First Sergeant.
First shirt, could I see you a minute? The First Sergeant looked in our direction and acknowledged he had heard him with a quick upward nod of his head but didnt move. The Chiefs face grew serious.
ID APPRECIATE IT IF YOUD GIVE ME A MINUTE OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME THERE, FIRST SERGEANT. WEVE BEEN ASSIGNED TO GIVE MEDICAL SUPPORT TO THIS BATTALION NOT TO COME HERE AND BE JERKED AROUND. NOW, if you dont know where were to be billeted at, I suggest you get on the phone and ask someone who does. The typewriters had stopped and you could have heard a pin drop. All eyes were on the First Sergeant. He walked over to where we were standing, taking in the Chiefs demeanor and uniform. His eyes found the Marine Corps emblem on the combat ribbon.
Sorry, Chief, I am waiting for S-1 to come back from a staff meeting. I have no idea at this point what building youll be billeted in. Why dont you go to lunch and maybe by 1300 Ill know something?
Ive got a better idea. What do you say you get your marines to bring me a desk up here by the door? I want to meet my men as they check in. I dont want to leave them standing around cooling their heels if there is nothing for them to do. One of the sergeants had been listening to the conversation. The First Sergeant looked at him and nodded his head slightly. The Sergeant stood up quickly and motioned to a Corporal sitting near by. They soon had a desk and chair at the front of the office and the Chief took his seat.
Corporal, give the health records weve been holding to the Chief, ordered the First Sergeant. In the commotion of moving the desk another corpsman had come into the building.
Over here, Doc, the Chief called. The new arrival walked over and handed the Chief his records. Ill see you boys back here in the morning at 0700, the Chief said as he accepted his record. We looked at each other rather surprised but didnt wait for him to say it again.
From that day on, I accepted the fact the marines were not there to baby us or to do us any special favors. We had a job to do and they expected us to do it. Being timid was not the Marine Corps way. If we were weak and allowed ourselves to be walked on, that was our problem. Once the Chief demonstrated he was going to take charge of his department and care for his men they gave him the respect he deserved. It was a lesson I was to never forget.
A couple of days later found us in a Quonset hut. The lust for blood was all around us and highly contagious. Everything we did and every oath we swore was with the idea that we would soon be in the business of killing the enemy. This was not a place for schoolboys or Sunday school teachers. The military values that had been instilled in me during boot camp and fostered on the Helena had awakened. I was fulfilling my destiny as a warrior and had never been happier. I was thrilled to be free from the rows and rows of tubes of blood with names that had no faces. Finally, I was liberated from the demand of tedious technical skills that consumed my life and drained my energy.
It was fascinating to watch a battalion being built from the ground up. Four men formed a fire team. Three fire teams and a leader, normally a sergeant E-5, made a squad. Four squads made a platoon. Four platoons made a company. Four letter companies, designated India, Kilo, Lima and Mike, and Headquarters and Service Company made up 3/26 (Third Battalion Twenty-sixth Marines). Formed respectively, in the same manner, were 1/26 and 2/26 with the letter companies having different designations, starting with Apha, Bravo, etc. The three Battalions made up the RLT (Regimental Landing Team).
Each Battalion was to form, train and prepare to go to Vietnam. The Table of Organization for medical personnel called for fifty-two hospital corpsmen and two doctors. Each letter company required eight hospital corpsmen with a second class petty officer (E-5) as the senior corpsman. The remaining twenty hospital corpsmen, along with myself, were attached to the Battalion Aid Station, which was part of the Headquarters and Service Company. Our primary mission was to give support to the letter companies.
Chief Retzloff initially assigned me to sickcall. At that point, we had not been assigned a doctor nor had we received any medical supplies. My duties consisted of treating minor problems and referring the more complicated cases to Regimental Aid where they would see a doctor. A week later we received on board our Battalion Surgeon. Not having any supplies, he was not a great deal more effective than I had been. A couple of days passed and the Chief called me into his office.
Messer, have you ever worked supply?
No, sir, I havent! He handed me a list of several items.
Well, theres not a billet for a laboratory technician in the grunts but I need a good supply man so youre it. See what you can do about getting some of those things. According to FLSG (Fleet Landing Support Group) we dont exist and there isnt any method for us to officially draw any gear. The Doctor is putting pressure on me to get him, at least, enough supplies to render basic first aid in case of an emergency. Go around to the different dispensaries here on base and see what you can do.
Ill take care of it, Chief. Then he reached in his desk and took out a long computer printout.
In a few days, were going to start receiving our mount out block. Here is a copy of everything well be issued. Its all going to have to be packed into 4.2 cubic boxes, weighed and tactically marked. The Battalion Cargo Officer will need to know the number of boxes and the other information in order to calculate the space well need when we go aboard ship. Also we have to be set up so we can break into an Alpha and Bravo command group. That means youll need to divide and pack everything into two separate blocks and maintain two sets of 508 cards. That way if, and when, the command splits, each group will have its own supplies and records. Im going to assign four men to help you. But for now, see what you can do about procuring whats on that list.
Gotcha, Chief. Over the next few days, I made the rounds to the different dispensaries. The corpsmen knew we were on our way to Vietnam and they could very well be joining us shortly. My shopping list was filled sooner than I had expected.
The Chief assigned HM2 Hays to give me a hand a couple of days later. He was an Afro-American from North Carolina and had been in the Navy for over sixteen years. He was one of those rare individuals who had learned to make being a minority work to his advantage. He never threatened anyone or refused an order but had a quiet mannerism and a ready smile. If things werent exactly as they shouldve been, he pointed it out in a way that made you wonder if he was keeping notes. HM2 Ely joined us next. He looked and talked like a Gary Cooper with red hair. He worked and played hard and was often sleep-deprived. Elys difficult efforts at staying awake seemed to delight Hays and he soon worked out a system where one of them was always missing. When I questioned them about their whereabouts they always seemed to have the right answer: Been to a dental appointment or Had to pick up emergency gear at some far off, unknown place, were their standard alibis.
Once the gear started arriving, we were assigned to work in a Butler Building about a mile from the BAS (Battalion Aid Station). The work was getting done and wed be deployed soon enough. I figured now was a good time for them to take some slack so I feigned just enough irritation to keep them on their toes. Along about the middle of June, a nineteen-year-old Afro-American by the name of Washington was assigned to work with us. Hays took him under his wing, and soon he was as corrupt and delightful as the other two.
Over the next month, the Battalion Aid Station came up to full complement. We had two chiefs, four first-class, six second-class, five third-class and five hospitalmen. The second chief assigned to us was junior to Chief Retzloff. Having two chiefs, with one assisting the other, is never an ideal situation. The junior chief, even though out-ranking fifty-two other corpsmen, actually was supervising fewer people than the senior corpsmen in the letter companies. Chief Volmer soon found his niche by putting himself in charge of our physical fitness program. This consisted mainly of getting as many men as possible together every afternoon at 1600 and running up and down in front of the Command Post. The Chief was making us the laughing stock of the Battalion and our fellow marine staff non-commissioned officers were having a field day laughing at us. I was disgusted and embarrassed by the whole affair. I knew this was going to make it harder for all of us to earn the marines respect.
Down the road heading south a few miles, in the 33 area known as Margarita, 2/26 was getting ready to deploy. The word came down one of the first-class had been hospitalized. He had been in charge of supply and the Chief in charge of the BAS wanted to see me. His name was Clifford Bassett. I knew him from my old Laboratory School days at Oaknoll. He had been shot in the head by a jealous husband and had almost died when I was a senior student. I was working in the Blood Bank when the ambulance brought him into the Emergency Room. I had drawn his blood for the cross-match, which ultimately was part of the team effort that saved his life. He was well aware of the roll I had played and never missed an opportunity to show me his appreciation. I made my way to the BAS at Margarita. The place was in total disarray and the corpsmen were packing everything not tied down into the familiar 4.2 cube boxes.
Where is Chief Basset? I asked.
On the loading dock, someone answered. I found my way out to the dock. The Chief was helping one of his men cover a four-foot-high pallet of medical equipment with a big, green tarp.
Hey, Chief Bassett.
Messer, you Ol Son-Of-A-Bitch. Go get your gear and come on down here man. I need you.
What the hell for?
To work supply for me, man. They told me you know this system from the ground up. Ive asked regiment to assign you to us if it wont put a hardship on you and your family. Its going to be up to you but if you do agree to it, youre it, dude. Hey, Oscar, heres Ol Mess. Hes going to go with us to shoot people in the head and shit. I looked up and saw Oscar Willis walking toward me. Big, pearly-white teeth smiled out of his handsome, ebony face. He grabbed my hand.
Damn! Good to see you man. I heard Ol Chief Volver has you guys running up and down in front of the Command Post trying to impress the CO. he laughed.
Im afraid you heard right.
That silly Son-Of-A-Bitch. I knew him when he was a third-class. He was crazy as a shit-house rat then and dont look like he be changed none.
We have a good Battalion here, man; the CO is great, a good Sergeant Major, a couple of good Battalion Surgeons and a great bunch of corpsmen. Youll be leaving a little sooner than you planned. But what the hell man, you got to go anyway, and thatll put you home that much quicker. Besides that, youll be with us. You know well take care of you. I looked at Chief Bassett and he gave me the same smile that, no doubt, contributed to getting him shot. These men were my friends and I felt comfortable with them. The next day I joined 2/26.
Shortly after I got to Vietnam, I wrote about the day of our departure as I remembered it at that time. I dont think I can improve on how I described it so here it is, word for word:
I dont think I will ever forget that morning of 27 July 1966, when the full impact that my departure to the war zone of Vietnam had finally arrived. I was leaving my loving wife Margaret and my six children for a thirteen-month-tour in a far off, unknown land. As I looked into their uncomprehending faces, the realization of how much I loved each one of them slammed into my heart like a bullet. I leaned over and kissed each one gently as they twisted and turned on Pegs skirt, each reacting differently in their own individual way. Peg struggled to hang on to baby Martha as she kicked and screamed. I stood erect and looked into Pegs eyes. The anguish and sorrow on her loving face was more than I could bear. I fought back the tears that welled up in my eyes. I kissed her quickly on the lips and walked hurriedly to the car that was waiting. I glanced back for one last look. Peg and the children standing there waving goodbye is forever burned into my memory. Peg retreated into the house to spare me the pain of seeing her cry. The tears streamed down my cheeks and dropped silently on the uniform that she had so lovingly pressed for me just a few moments before.
I was distraught with utter despair and an empty feeling of loneliness overwhelmed me. The trip to the base was like moving in another world, outside of consciousness.
I soon joined my comrades in arms. Eighteen hundred men with their own farewells fresh in their minds forced me to act much braver than I was feeling. New gear and freshly-cleaned weapons gleamed in the early morning sunlight. I occupied my mind with the task at hand. We broke camp, did last minute packing and prepared to load the waiting buses that were to haul us to the big, gray, warship in San Diego.
Having completed last minute details, I took refuge on the back loading dock to be alone for a few minutes and to collect my thoughts. The four letter companies commenced to assemble in formation a few meters from where I was sitting. They came together in the traditional no nonsense Marine Corps fashion. They moved and flowed as though they were liquid and quickly formed into a single entity. I became aware that I was looking at the pride of our nation and the Marine Corps. Men who were tough, cocky, well-trained, and could react instantly like a precision machine. The bark of the Sergeants voice cut through the morning air like a sharp knife and the letter companies commenced to move down the street like a beautiful, powerful animal, muscles rippling. I was caught up in the moment and my chest swelled with pride to be a part of such a glorious war machine. At that moment, I had the feeling that I was fulfilling my destiny. This was what I had been born to do and, though it could be my death, I was meant to be here. A few moments later, gear was loaded onto buses and I was caught up in the final preparation.
Upon arrival in San Diego, the bus pulled alongside the big naval vessel that wallowed, in and out, alongside of the pier. Gear and personnel came rolling out of the buses and off the trucks in all directions. Wooden footlockers bounced as though they were made from rubber and collected into a huge pile along with the officers and staff non-commissioned officers Val packs. We soon formed ranks in full seven-eighty-two (pack containing haversack, shelter half and entrenching tool) gear with helmets on and our TO (authorized) weapons at our side. The hot sun beat down on us as we waited for the Navy to invite us to come on aboard. We stood quietly listening to the jingling of the cranes and the cursing of the crew. They were reluctantly preparing to receive the bastards who would crowd them out of their living and work spaces, triple the length of the chow line and double their workload for the next thirty some days. Its little wonder we were unwelcome guests.
Hours later, we went tumbling into hot, humid troop berthing spaces far below deck. Body odor hung heavy in the air as we struggled to find the bunks that would be our homes for the next several weeks. The chain-suspended bunks creaked and groaned under the weight of the gear as it was dumped on top of them. We all rushed, trying to stake ourselves out a suitable claim. I finally ended up on a floating piece of canvas three bunks high on the inside; it had long since stopped fitting snugly into the holding stanchion and promised to plummet onto the deck at any minute.
That wasnt the most important thing at hand. The ship was to deploy the next morning. This was our last chance to call home, get a cold beer, or do whatever that would help us in dealing with our departure. It was something none of us were willing to miss out on. No time for showers, the hell with it, shake a leg, were out of here.
The Fifties music never sounded so good; steak and french-fries never tasted so sweet. We drank toasts and slapped each other on the back. Always, we assured ourselves that we would come home again to take up where we left off, even if we had to kick Old Satans ass himself. No doubt about it, the war would soon be over after we got there.
The next morning, I was awakened by the sound of the Boatswain Mates pipe and his loud voice, Now, set the special sea and anchor detail. I felt the ship jerk to life as she twisted and rolled and heard the sound of the strained steel as it creaked and moaned. I opened my eyes and looked around in the semi-darkness. The smell of body odor and stale alcohol hung in the lifeless air. The man on my right moaned. My head hurt and I felt nauseous. I closed my eyes and fell back to sleep. When I woke up, the lights were on and a few men were moving around on the deck. I lay quietly listening to them talk.
Somebody has shit or they have piped in an elephant fart?
What the fuck is this?
Goddamn! Some son-of-a-bitch has puked here.
Fucking air conditioner aint working.
Well die on this bucket of shit before we get to Vietnam.
When we boarded, E-6 and above had been directed to the SNCO berthing. In the melee that followed, we wandered around like sheep until we had found this berthing space. There were no lockers. Seabags were strapped to our individual bunks and footlockers littered the deck. I was the only corpsman in the compartment. I knew some of the marines on sight but didnt know anyone personally. I lay listening to them talk.
Did you know the USS Henrico landed troops at Normandy during the Second World War?
The hell you say!
Yeah, one of my uncles served as a crew member on here. I remember, as a kid, Mom had a photo of her hanging on the wall and right across the bow painted in big, white letters was PA 43.
Lifes weird as hell aint it, man?
Can be! I got up, showered and made my way to sickbay. There, I encountered Chief Bassett.
Whats up, Chief?
Not a hell of a lot. The Chief on here has agreed to let us use one of their storerooms to hold sick call for the marines. They dont want the grunts stinking up the place anyway. Itll give us something to do and a place to get together.
Come back up after chow and well see what they have in mind. Days passed and fifty of us corpsmen standing around in one small storeroom got to be more of a hassle than staying in the berthing compartment. My source of entertainment was reading anything I could get my hands on.
Doc, you oughta read this book when I get done with it.
Whats it about, Gunny?
Vietnam! Id venture a guess most of us dont know shit about that place, except what the damn government has told us and you can bet your ass most of thats propaganda.
I just know they have a communist government in the north that wants to take over the country.
Communist ass! What the hell does that mean? Four men were playing cards on top a footlocker and a couple of others were watching the action. They had been listening and were anxious to express their own opinions.
You know Ol Ho Chi Minh helped us whip the Japs. They say the US Government had made him a special OSS agent (US security agency that was replaced by the present day CIA).
Yeah, Ol Ho wanted Vietnam to be independent from the damn French after the war; even wrote Truman a letter. The Government wouldnt have it, of course, after us being allies with them during the big one.
Seems like were always kissing the Frenchs ass.
Yeah, or saving it.
Hell, the French plundered Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from way back in 1880.
The hell you say?
Shit, man! Why do you think they called that part of the world French Indochina?
Quick as the war was over they came steaming back in to reclaim their empire. They convinced us Ol Ho was a communist puppet for the USSR. According to this book, we even used US war ships to ferry some of Frances crack troops in there.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 put an end to that shit.
Yeah, them little nipper shits beat the fuck out of the goddamn French with bamboo poles. Everyone laughed.
French might be great lovers but they aint for shit when it comes to soldiering.
Did you know after the French pulled out they drew up an accord in Geneva guaranteeing Vietnam free elections to be held in 1956?
Yeah, but the US wouldnt sign it.
There was no way in hell we were going to let the damn communists take over that part of the world.
Ol Ho held his election anyway, and won.
Yeah, thats true, but the US had put Ol Ngo Dinh Diem as head of the anti-communist regime down there in Saigon. At our insistence, he refused to participate in the national election and held his own. They said they counted two hundred thousand more votes than there were people living in Saigon.
That figures, shouldve known wed be backing some sorry bastard like that.
Well, anyway, he declared South Vietnam to be an independent nation after the election and weve been backing the South ever since.
Its a damn good thing or the Russians would be running things there by now.
I dont know about all of that. Didnt do Ol Diem much good as it turned out. Did you know JFK gave the CIA the go ahead with a coup and they ended up killing the son-of-a-bitch?
What the hell did they do that for, man?
Ol Diems brother was head of the army and things werent going too good. Looked like the whole South Vietnamese Government was going belly up. The CIA picked out and backed a Buddhist to put in power so the majority wouldnt go communist. Ol Diem and his bunch were Catholics you know.
They said Kennedy didnt know they were going to kill him and he almost shit a brick when they told him.
Well, boys, none of it makes a damn bit of difference now. Johnson is committed to win this war even if it kills us.
And it probably will, at least some of us.
There goes that goddamn air conditioner again. Were going to die of heat exhaustion before we get to Vietnam.
Yeah, this is really great. I always wanted to die down in the hole of a fucking troop transport, in the middle of hell, going nowhere.
Well, they didnt promise you no rose garden.
Shut the fuck up, will you? Everyone laughed. I went back to my book. I was beginning to like these crazy bastards.
We had spent a couple days liberty in Pearl Harbor after a five-day voyage and had been at sea again for eight more. I was lethargic from sleeping so much, constipated from overeating, and bored beyond endurance. The constant speculation as to where we were going and what we would be doing was the topic of every conversation. I had read every magazine and book that I could beg, bum, borrow, or steal. The heat in the hole was stifling. Topside, hundreds of men lounged on the steel deck trying to escape the heat. They were constantly being herded from one area to another as the sailors painted, swabbed, scrubbed, accused, threatened and cursed the idle marines
I decided that I would go up to the supply room, where we were attempting to hold sickcall, and try to break the monotony. Half a dozen corpsmen were sitting, a few were standing, while others squatted in the little cubbyhole. A big six-foot, two hundred and twenty-pound HM1 by the name of Dan Hahn had become the unofficial leader of the group. Dan had a big resentment about being assigned to the Marine Corps and didnt make any bones about it when he was talking to the marines. He hadnt made a lot of points with them but had endeared himself to some of the more rebellious corpsmen. We had been in the same training company in FMF School and got along pretty well but I didnt share his antagonistic attitude toward the Marine Corps. He was hard to miss so he was the first man I saw on my approach. He was sitting on a wooden box with his elbows propped on his knees watching me as I drew near. He had taken his blouse off in the sweltering heat and big beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.
Hey John, you see the Chief? he asked.
No, is he looking for me?
He just got back from a staff meeting and it looks like the CO found out where were going.
Were relieving 3/3 in place just outside of Da Nang. They are sending in an advance party. As we were talking, Chief Bassett and HM1 Kirkpatrick walked up to the door. Kirkpatrick was the senior PO1 and was Chief Bassets assistant. He had been in the Navy longer than Bassett but had never made chief. That bothered him more than a little and he had kind of a chip on his shoulder. He figured hed been around long enough he didnt have to take BS from anyone and let everyone know it. I kind of liked him in spite of him being obnoxious and overbearing. It was obvious Chief Bassett depended on him for counseling and guidance and looked up to him like a big brother.
Chief Bassett looked from Dan to myself, We have to send in a PO1 on the advance party. I dont want to designate anyone if someone wants to volunteer. Dan, you or John interested?
Not me! Dan replied and looked at me expectantly. I was thinking about the hot compartment and the miserable living conditions that we would be suffering for the next few days on the Henrico.
What would be my responsibility? I asked.
Just get orientated to Service Record entries, where to draw supplies, and check out the areas sanitation conditions. Youll be flying in on a C-130 and 3/3 will send a six-by for you. There will be about fifty SNCO and Officers in all. Want to go, Mess? It sounded a lot easier than off loading with eighteen hundred green troops in Da Nang. The more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea.
Yeah, Ill go.
Okay, get your shit together. Youll be leaving as soon as we get into Okey.
The sound of the engines from the C-130 filled the cabin. Fifty, or so, of us sat motionless against the wall of the fuselage in green, cloth seats made from parachute rigging. Our seven-eighty-two gear lay at our feet. A huge pile of military equipment was tied down in front of us. The cool air from the overhead vents formed a misty vapor as it entered the hot cargo bay. We had all come from different units and sat as strangers among each other, staring up at the white cloud as it formed and dissolved into nothingness. I could read no emotion on the expressionless faces of the men around me. The smell of freshly-issued combat gear permeated my nostrils. The flak jacket I was wearing felt burdensome and the helmet on my lap, awkward. The plane droned on for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, a red light flashed over the door leading into the cockpit. A young Airman moved among us and gave an unintelligible order. We looked from one to the other. One man put on his helmet and we imitated him. The engines were cut back and we seemed to gain speed. I heard the sound of the tires hit the runway and felt a jolt; the reverberation at the increased sound from the motors made my ears pop. The vapor stopped and we watched as the huge tailgate at the back of the cargo bay slowly opened. I could hear forklifts running on the tarmac.
Us go, us go marines, get your asses off here, commanded the big six foot, three inch Marine Sergeant as he bounded onto the plane. He moved as lithe as a panther, with a sense of urgency. We unbuckled our seat belts and started gathering up our gear. Whos in charge here? asked the Sergeant.
I am, responded one of the Captains.
I gonna ax you not to bunch up here on de runway. The slopeheads blow this muderfucker away bout every udder night, shouted the Sergeant. We carried our gear off the plane into the darkness. The scream of a fighter jet deafened us as it streaked overhead so near the ground we ducked our heads. Sounds of artillery pounded in the distance.
3/3 is supposed to be sending a six-by for us, replied the Captain.
Aint nobody be coming fer ya tonight. The VC (Viet Cong) rules everything outside de wire by night; we rules everything by day. Dats de way it is Capn. Head ye men on down dat away a piece and you come to some empty hooches. Make ye-self to home. Tomor you can talk to the command post and they can giem a call fer ye.
Lets go. Dont worry about falling in formation, the Captain ordered and we headed south like lost children.
The night was hot and humid. The sound of thumping propellers from a helicopter passing overhead accompanied us on our labored march. The jets roared off the runway one after the other in rapid succession. In the distance, air illumination lit up the sky. I recognized the thump of a mortar as it came out of the tube, followed a few minutes later by the sound of semi-automatic weapons fire. We soon came to a long row of dark shadows shaped like huts. We found the opening and a half dozen of us pushed our way inside. Someone lit a cigarette lighter. I could see about ten empty cots scattered about. The Captain dumped his gear on top of the one nearest the door and turned towards us, Looks like all the tents in this row are empty so find yourself a cot. Lets try to stay in the confines of these first five. Well muster here in front of this tent at first light.
I lay on the cot in the darkness and listened to the sounds made by the activity of making war. I wondered if tonight would be the night the mortars would rain down. Someone lit a cigarette in the darkness. My thoughts flew quietly through space to my home at 522 Cockatoo Circle. There, I went inside and looked at all my children sleeping in their beds. I found Peg in the darkness and kissed her so gently she never knew I was there. Sometime early the next morning, I found myself back in Vietnam. Rousing from my dreams, I heard someone talking.
First Sergeant, see if you can find a place to shower and where the chow hall is located. Im going to find the CP (Command Post) and give a call out to 3/3, the Captain commented.
Aye, aye, sir responded the short, chubby, Irish-looking First Sergeant.
I had taken off my utilities the night before in an effort to beat the heat and laid them on top of my seven-eighty-two gear. I sat up on the edge of my cot and reached for my blouse; it felt wet. The man in front of me had lit a cigarette and sat watching me.
Damn humidity is something aint it? he asked.
Its unbelievable, I replied and slipped the damp blouse over my shoulders. We found the shower and the chow hall in short order and had collected back in the hooch by 0700. The Captain was nowhere to be seen. Finally, around 0800, he returned, looking a little irritated.
The Engineers have to mine sweep the roads before any traffic is allowed to travel, he informed us nervously. May as well relax; itll be at least 0900 before we get out of here.
As the sun climbed, so did the temperature. Our uniforms became soaked in perspiration as we lounged on the cots and waited. What seemed like hours later, the sound of a rapid moving vehicle approached our tent and came to a screeching stop. I looked toward the street and saw a young corporal bound out of a jeep and head toward the door. A few seconds later, a big six-by truck ground to a halt.
Is this 2/26 forward party? he asked.
Thats us, Corporal. Why two vehicles?
Division orders! Cant go anywhere outside a secured area with one. If youre by yourself, you have to wait and catch a ride. We had already started to gather up our gear.
Doc, youre with me in the jeep, the Captain ordered.
The young driver looked to be around twenty. I noticed his faded uniform was made out of a light weight, shiny material with huge pockets in front, both on the blouse and trousers, in a matter of days our whole Battalion would be issued these so called jungle utilities. The bronze chevrons on his collar, unlike ours, had long ago given up their black color. His unzipped flak jacket was faded from wear and hung limply around his shoulders. He had removed his helmet when he started talking to the Captain.
Okay, Captain! Have your men put on their helmets and button down their flak jackets. Were going to be going through Indian country. You can bet your ass the VC knows youre here. They may just try to get off a few rounds to let you know youre not welcome.
We didnt have to be told. We had heard the young corporal and had put on our helmets and were snapping closed the heavy vest. The First Sergeant climbed into the back of the jeep and I followed. The Captain then got into the seat opposite the driver. The young rifleman who had been riding shotgun climbed behind us and sat down on top of the back seat, cradling his M-14 in the crook of his arms. The driver had started the motor before we were completely seated and we roared off toward the entrance to the airfield. After a slight pause at the gate, we headed off in what I thought to be a southerly direction.
The gravel roadside was lined with short, slender-built men and women dressed in black pajamas and straw cone hats. Some were balancing a five-foot piece of lightweight wood across their shoulders with huge loads attached to each end. They bounced in rhythm with their burden, taking a step when the weight floated up. Half-naked kids stood along the road, hands extended. Making a sudden stop at a cross street we were surrounded by beggars.
DEE DEE MOTHERFUCKERS, yelled the rifleman, waving them away from the jeep. The driver ignored them, and we were off like a shot. Shortly, we entered a quarter-mile-long shantytown filled with lean-tos, booths, and small buildings. Most had been constructed from bamboo, thatch, and military packing crates that still bore the tactical markings. Laughing children darted in and out of the busy booths, bumping into the marines who milled about. I watched a young marine laugh and smile back at his waiting companions as he followed a young girl into one of the huts.
Everyone calls this Vil, Dogpatch, chuckled the driver.
Fits! smiled the Captain.
Soon, we came to another checkpoint that was joined on both sides of the guard shack by rolls of barbed wire. The sentry waved us through; the rifleman sitting behind us locked and loaded his weapon. The jeep driver accelerated and the big six-by followed close on our tail. Soon, we were exceeding sixty-five miles an hour.
Anytime you go outside the wire you can be hit. Daytime is usually pretty safe. The only real danger is hitting a mine, the driver explained. We nodded. The engineers sweep the roads every morning but you never know when the Dinks are gonna come back and re-mine. Notice, I stay in the middle of the road. The minesweepers have been known to miss a few on the edge. Another thing to be aware of, the VC retrieve five hundred pound bombs and bury them alongside the road; when someone passes by, they electrically detonate them. A convoy came down through here the other day. They saw some kids standing alongside the road with their hands over their ears. The point stopped but it was too late; they blew hell out of two six-bys. he continued.
Kill anyone? asked the Captain.
Driver and his shotgun. Lucky they werent loaded like we are. I heard an automatic weapon off in the distance. I stole a look at the driver; he hadnt flinched. I relaxed. We came to a bend in the road surrounded by heavy growth and the rifleman scooted down on the seat between the First Sergeant and me. Once around the curve, he resumed his previous seat.
On both sides of the road were rice paddies filled with stooped black forms crowned with straw colored cones. Big, gray, water buffalo, followed by workers dressed in black, pulled primitive plows through the wet, muddy fields. I noticed a small boy riding on the back of one of the giant animals, waving a small plant as if shooing away flies.
See that lone tree on the side of that hill up ahead? the rifleman asked.
Yeah, answered the First Sergeant.
Right below there is where 3/3s garrisoned. We came speeding up to the entrance of the encampment and made a sudden stop. The young marine standing post walked over to the jeep.
Any problems? he asked.
Nah, responded the driver.
Did you hear they hit CAC 13 last night?
No! Kill anyone?
The PFs (Popular Forces) blew some fuck away. They found him this morning and come to find out hed been cutting hair over at regiment.
Son-Of-A-Bitches are working among us during the day and trying to kill us at night. The rifleman cleared (removed live round from the barrel) his weapon. The six-by honked its horn behind us.
Move it, the driver of the big truck yelled. The driver dropped the jeep in low and we sped up the dirt road.
A city of GP (general-purpose) tents filled the camp, lining both sides of the road for a quarter of a mile, stretching up the incline of a small hill. The compound was a beehive of activity. Trucks, jeeps and six-bys were being gunned down the dusty roads. The ubiquitous noise of the generator that supplied electricity to the camp droned in the background. Half-naked men on both sides of the road were busy filling sandbags. One tent had the side rolled up and I could see men moving among tactical marked boxes. A squad of marines, armed to the teeth, with helmets and flak jackets came marching up the path toward us. A group of four or five dogs ran past them and headed in our direction.
BE CAREFUL, THEM MOTHERFUCKING VIET CONG DOGS, one of the young marines yelled. Laughter filled the air and the dogs barked as if they were in on the joke. I watched the marines as they neared the perimeter. The reckless swagger suddenly took on an air of dead seriousness. They spaced themselves well apart as they prepared to leave the safety of the camp. We past a mule (flat motorized vehicle for transporting small loads) hauling four marines with a stack of barrels cut in half. My eye followed their movement. The rifleman noted my curiosity.
Thats the shit fry, he laughed.
The ground is too sandy for regular four-hole latrines here in Vietnam, he said, pointing to a small, square building made out of plywood. The backside was up and a couple of marines were pulling out half barrels. We put about four inches of diesel in the bottom of the barrels so we can have a cookout, he joked, nodding his head toward a roaring fire under a pyramid stack of half barrels.
We had stopped in front of a small CP tent and the Captain went inside. As we sat waiting, I noticed, across the street, an open-air structure a little larger than a GP tent with a tin roof and a plywood floor. A rich aroma of meat frying floated through the hot, humid air. Twelve or so Vietnamese were hunkered down on the side of the hut scrubbing pots and pans. Their melodious chatter of bong, bong, bing, bing, bong, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball. They laughed among themselves and eyed us suspiciously. I watched, horrified, as they scooped up handfuls of dirt and used it to scrub the grease from the big GI pots and pans.
The Captain came back in a few minutes and walked over to the six-by.
Listen up! You men climb on down and standby here at the CP. Therell be a man from each respective department coming by for you in a few minutes, he informed us. I grabbed my gear and hopped down out of the jeep. A few minutes later, a PO1 Hospital Corpsman approached us. I recognized him by his navy insignia and the caduceus on his collar. I started gathering up my gear. He had spied my movement and came toward me.
HM1 Felts. Welcome to Nam, Doc, he said, reaching out his hand.
HM1 Messer, I responded and grabbed his hand. I felt elation at seeing a colleague. Even though I had never met Felts before, I felt like I had just been reunited with a family member. I had functioned almost in total silence the past twenty-four hours and it was nice to be able to talk to one of my own kind.
This way, he said and we headed north up the incline.
So, how long you been here, Felts?
Got here last December. Hundred twenty-one days and a wake up and Im out of here.
Been rough on you, huh?
Not that bad. Its tough to get used to but after awhile, its like anything else, you just do what you gotta do.
Been in the grunts the whole time?
Yeah, I came in country with 3/3 and I dont really want to leave until its time to rotate. Division says they try to transfer you out of the grunts after six months. But you know how it is with that damn bunch of political shitheads. They are too busy looking out for their own asses to give a damn about anyone else. Besides, I figure youre safer surrounded by twelve hundred grunts than you are anywhere else anyway. Its the nineteen-year-olds sitting out there on ambush who are paying the price. Weve lost a lot of kids and were losing more of them everyday.
The path to the BAS led us past a barrel sticking up out of the ground that was surrounded waist-high on three sides with material from an old tent. Two marines walked into the pyramid shaped area. The strong smell of urine radiated up from the ground.
That Urinol (barrel set over a rock bed to leech urine into the soil) needs to be relocated. I been kind of saving that for you guys since I knew youd be relieving us in a few days, Felts said, and smiled over at me. I nodded and smiled back as we continued up the incline. A short distance ahead, I saw a few men lined up outside of a tent where a jeep ambulance was parked. We passed the men and Felts led me up a couple of wooden steps into a hardback tent (tent with hardwood floors made out of plywood). The hot, lifeless air inside washed over me. A couple of corpsmen were busy treating marines in the front portion of the tent. Felts led me back to the right a few steps to a small corner where boxes of records were stacked. A couple of men sat at a long makeshift desk made out of packing crates typing on field typewriters. If they were aware we had entered, they didnt acknowledge it. Behind them, at a smaller desk, sat an older-looking, balding man with a slight paunch, reading a magazine. He looked so out of place, I couldnt help but wonder what he was doing there. No one was wearing a blouse so I was unsure of his rank, but assumed he was the ranking petty officer.
Chief Carbum, this is HM1 Messer from 2/26s advance party, introduced Felts. The Chief seemed indifferent to the whole affair and glanced up briefly.
Get him settled in the staff tent, he commented dryly and turned back to his reading.
We found our way out the back of the BAS, walked about a hundred more feet up the incline and went inside another hardback tent. The sides had been rolled up and a hot, gentle breeze was blowing though the tent. We located a cot at the very back. This should be okay for you, commented Felts. I dropped my gear on the cot. Why dont you get yourself squared away and come on back up to the BAS. Its about time for chow. And dont pay any attention to Chief Carbum. He went Asiatic years ago. He married an Okinawan and has been in the Orient for the past nine years. I think hes been over here so long hes forgot how to act, but hes a harmless old fart, chuckled Felts.
I unpacked a few toilet items and took out some dirty clothes that I wanted to wash later on in the evening. I rummaged around in my seven-eighty-two gear and found my rubber lady (air mattress), inflated it, and covered it with my blanket. I heard small arms fire in the distance. I could see men just outside the tent and they werent scurrying around so I figured it was friendly fire, probably target practice I thought. I got as comfortable as was possible and hurried back down to the BAS.
I noticed a young HM3 in faded jungle utilities who seemed to be aimlessly wandering around. He had smiled warmly at me when I entered but we didnt speak. He seemed confident and had an air about him that was unusual. Curiosity motivated me to engage him in conversation.
Im HM1 Messer, I said and offered my hand.
HM3 Harris, he replied warmly and took my hand.
Been in country long, Harris?
Came in with 3/3 nine months ago.
I just pulled Harris in out of the field, interrupted Felts. I knew Felts had something he wanted to tell me so I waited. He just got his second Purple Heart and has been recommended for a Silver Star. I want him to live long enough to receive it, explained Felts. Harris smiled with an air of confidence but didnt say anything. Even though he was only an E-4, he was treated almost reverently. I was to learn he had earned that honor by putting the lives of others before his own in the heat of a deadly battle. Its a valor few men have and sets one well apart from his peers. Although he was young in years, it was obvious he had completed the right of passage to manhood.
Lost one of my best buddies on the last operation, he said quietly. I waited, hoping he would continue without me asking him what happened. He looked at me for a moment before continuing and I thought he was going to cry. He came in on a MEDEVAC under fire. We threw the wounded on the chopper and ran back to cover. I had my head down but I saw the chopper when it got a few feet off the ground. It banked right and then it just exploded in a ball of fire It was the most hopeless damn feeling, he said with an air of melancholy and his voice trailed off. I didnt pursue the subject any further.
At noon, Felts and I went to chow. On our way back, we stopped by supply and got me a couple of sets of jungle utilities and a pair of jungle boots. The top part of the boots was made from linen but a piece of metal was built into the rubber sole to protect from pungy sticks (sharp piece of bamboo hidden in the ground, usually covered with feces). It felt good to be dressed in a lightweight uniform like everyone else.
Besides being the Battalions Medical Department Representative with the forward group, Chief Bassett had directed me to learn where and how to requisition supplies, to get a copy of the combat entry from a page thirteen and to learn as much about sanitation as was possible. Felts made me a copy of the divisions supply requisition and of a page thirteen. Having that out of the way, our conversation turned to sanitation requirements.
Messer, Preventive Medicine will be coming around when your Battalion gets in country. They are going to be aggravating you about a whole bunch of shit that doesnt make a lot of sense.
Like how much oil to put in the barrels for the shit fry, relocating Urinols and things any damn fool would know. But the biggest pain in the ass is they are always harping about getting the slopes to work inside the screened-in garbage room and to get them physical examinations. Hell, Ive never seen the same people show up two days in a row since weve been here. The division has contracted to employ so many of the little fuckers and we cant even fire them.
I noticed they were using dirt for scouring the pots this morning.
Aint that some shit. I tried to talk to the motherfuckers through an interpreter and I thought I had it straightened out. I went back the next day and they were back at it.
You ever check them for tuberculosis or intestinal parasites?
Ill let you do that, Messer. You know they come with the camp and youre fresh with ideas. Im worn out with these assholes. Maybe youll have better luck. Listen, let me tell you whats really important. Teach your marines if they get dog bit not to shoot the goddamn thing in the head. The brain has to be examined for rabies. Unless we get a negative result, we have to give them the whole rabies series. Make damn sure your line corpsmen keep snakebite kits and know how to use them. Stay in touch with your senior corpsmen in the field and make sure they dont run out of malaria tablets. There are all kinds of pests here in country were not accustomed to seeing. You can bet your ass the first week youre going to be treating someone for a spider or snakebite. One kid had an anaphylactic shock from some kind of an insect and he damn near died. Your young corpsmen will have to be brought up to speed in a hurry. They are going to be treating a lot more maladies like that than they are bullet wounds.
How about food service?
Keep it simple. Train the stew burners to never, ever, keep any kind of leftovers in the field. If its not eaten, throw it out. If you can get them to go along with that, you wont have to worry. Nothing will take a battalion out of action faster than a good case of food poisoning. Marines arent stupid; they know when youre shitting them and when somethings serious. Hell, they dont want any problems anymore than you do.
Whats the venereal disease rate like?
Well, you know how it is. You get a company out in the field and the girls set up business alongside the road. We dont have any jurisdiction over them so we have to concentrate on educating the troops on prevention. We have a lot of gonorrhea; sometimes one hooker will infect a whole damn squad. Weve had a couple of cases weve had to transfer out of country. The corpsmen in the field are your best line of defense. Give them a lot of support. Dont just drop them out there and forget they exist.
Felts taught me a lot of things and I was grateful. I talked to as many of the younger men as I could and they, too, gave me a lot of great information. I was impressed with how mature some of them were. They had developed a jargon of their own and how well one used it was a good indication of how long they had been in country. I noticed that their swagger was sometimes directly related to how faded their utilities and chevrons were. The term, Yeah, hes hard. indicated that one was a good trooper and highly esteemed.
A young Afro-American who everyone called Ozzie stands out in my memory. My second day with 3/3, Ozzie came in out of the field to spend the night and pick up some supplies. He was highly respected by everyone and a great deal of joking was directed toward him. He was probably twenty or twenty-one, on the short side and tended to be stocky. It was obvious he loved being a corpsman and I was drawn to his enthusiasm. We all gathered out in front of the tent that evening for a bull session. Since I was the new man on the block, it was a great opportunity for them to educate me.
Problem here in Vietnam is we dont hold enough territory. Last figures I heard, we control about fifteen percent.
Yeah, thats about right, man.
The marines go patrolling down through the Vil kicking ass trying to get some old papason to tell them where the VC are. They get their info and go on back to camp. That night the VC come into the Vil and kill the old bastard for talking.
Would you tell the marines anything if it was going to get you and your family killed?
Why dont we just extend the perimeter? Hell, once they knew they were safe theyd be on our side.
Thats right! They dont give a damn whos in power. Shit, they dont even know what the word communist means.
Hell, a good corporal could do a better job than the generals we got running this damn war.
Shit, man, Johnson is running it from Washington.
One of them ass-kissing generals ought to tell him hes fucked up.
Dont make no damn sense to me.
Now, Ozzie, hes out there in one of them CAC units and that makes a little more sense. But hell, we only set up these units where we know its safe.
Whats a CAC unit?
You tell him, Oz.
Well, a squad of marines and one corpsman go into a friendly Vil and live with the locals. The marines help the PFs protect the Vil and the corpsman provides medical services. Its all part of Johnsons MEDCAP program.
Popular Forces, young men in the Vil not old enough for the regular army. They kind of act as a home guard.
And whats MEDCAP?
Medical Civil Action Program. All the battalions go out on MEDCAPS. Sometimes, its just for a few hours.
Youll be out there pretty soon too, man.
Not a hell of a lot you can do for some old blind fart with cataracts. Lots of tuberculosis, hepatitis, and parasitic infections. All the kids got some kind of creeping crud from poor hygiene. They live in it man, so what can you do? Sometimes you can treat them for a fresh cut or a burn and feel like youre doing something. But most of the time its just shit you cant do anything about.
If its hopeless and you dont know what to do, give them some cough syrup. They love the sweet taste.
Give em soap, man. They love that shit,
Make sure you cut the bar in half or theyll sell it on the black market.
Yeah, and another thing, dont ever do a MEDCAP in the same place more than twice. The VC are mixed right in with everyone else and if they think youll be coming back you can bet theyll booby trap your ass. A grenade went off near the perimeter followed by automatic weapon fire.
MOTHERFUCKER, someone yelled from off in the distance. Ozzie rolled his eyes and the others smiled.
Fucking grunts are all crazy.
Some of the corpsmen are just as bad or worse, trying to prove they are hard.
How about that corpsman from 2/3 that shot that old man because he was acting weird.
Yeah, come to find out he was just a fucking retard.
I knew the Doc that did that from FMF School. He always wanted to be bad.
Hell be bad when he gets out of Leavenworth in about twenty years.
Probably would have gotten away with it if he hadnt put the old man in that hooch and set it on fire.
The old mans family was happy. I hear the spooks gave them enough money to buy three water buffalo.
This a crazy mother fucking place, man. Ill be glad to get back to the world.
Me too, but I rather not go in a body bag.
You got that shit right.
I sensed that was everyones fear as they all nodded in agreement. I was beginning to realize this was indeed a crazy place. All the things these men knew from their experiences would have to be learned by the corpsmen in 2/26. I shuddered at the thought.
On a bright and early morning a few days later, 3/3 nailed the lids on their tactical boxes and stood by, ready to move out. About midmorning, big six-bys started arriving with men from 2/26. Their brand new gear and regular issue utilities were a sharp contrast to 3/3s weathered equipment and jungle uniforms. The men from 2/26 had barely cleared the vehicles before 3/3 commenced to load. I was out in front of the BAS when a big six-by came grinding up the incline. As it made its approach, faces started materializing. HM1 Willis smiled and waved over the top of the cab of the lead truck. From the look on his face, I thought he must have made a very anxious trip. The truck came to an abrupt stop and Chief Bassett and HM1 Kirkpatrick dumped their gear out the back of the truck and hopped down. Another big truck followed and more familiar faces appeared. I saw big Dan Hahn come down off the second truck. His face was red. He was carrying his gear slung over his shoulder like a book-bag with one hand and his helmet was in the other.
Stupid motherfuckers, he raved and threw his gear on the ground in a rage.
Dans a little upset; we took our first causality getting off the boat.
What happened, sniper? I asked.
No, one of the men from Echo Company didnt clear his weapon like he was supposed to. He tripped coming down the gangplank, knocked it off safety and blew the back of the head off of the marine in front of him.
Id like to see how the lying bastards explain that to his mother, HM1 Hahn ranted. The corpsmen from 3/3 were already climbing in the back of the trucks.
Good luck, Messer, Felts said and reached for my hand as he prepared to climb up on the back of the six-by.
Hey, thanks! I responded and grabbed his hand.
Your boy got all the information youll need, remarked Chief Carbum to Chief Bassett and reached to pull himself up in the truck. The old Chief tottered for a second, Felts gave him a little boost, and the old man pulled himself up. I couldnt help but think that was the most Id seen him move. I had to give him E for effort; he was trying like hell to fulfill his duties. Felts winked at me as he clamored up behind him. Once Chief Carbum was on solid footing, he pulled himself up with great dignity and walked toward the cab of the vehicle. The younger men made way for the old warrior. I smiled to myself and looked at Kirkpatrick. He shook his head from side to side and we walked up the steps and into the BAS.
All day long trucks arrived with men and gear. A lot of speculation about the VC knowing we were green troops and the possibility of us being hit the first night ran rampant through the camp. The line companies quickly took up positions in the already fortified bunkers that surrounded the camp. The medical supplies, health and service records arrived late in the morning and, by 1600, we were ready for business. Leaving a couple of HM3s in the BAS, we retired to the hooch for the evening. The messing facility wouldnt be up and running for a couple of days so we made ourselves content with C-rations. Twelve different rations came in each case and their contents varied. Ham and lima beans were the most unpopular because of the fat content and were referred to as ham and motherfuckers. Why that came to be, I have no idea, but it stuck.
By 1700, the engineers had the field showers functioning and word went out to the troops. The facility had been installed just a few meters up from where we were quartered. We had been the first to hit the showers and were lounging leisurely. Suddenly, a pop and a whoom, whoom, whoom sound came over our tent.
INCOMING, HIT THE DECK, someone yelled. We sprawled out on the floor. Another whoom, whoom, whoom. I had only been in country for nine days but I knew when a unit was hit that within two minutes there was some kind of return fire from artillery. I was beginning to wonder what was going on. I lifted my head and looked out the front of the tent. The Gunnery Sergeant from mortars was standing with a towel wrapped around his mid-section looking in at us. He caught my eye.
Whatcha pecker checkers doing in there? he asked.
Get down Gunny, were being hit, replied HM1 Willis. Another WHOOM, WHOOM, WHOOM, went over. You mean that? the Gunny asked incredulously and started to laugh. Thats the canister that comes off the air illumination were using to line up the mortars, you damn fools. We all looked at each other sheepishly and got up off the deck. The gunny shook his head and went on his way to the shower.
Give him something to talk about at the SNCO Club when he gets back to the States, commented Chief Bassett in a defensive tone. We all had a good laugh at ourselves that day and the battalion enjoyed ribbing us for several weeks.
That night the men on the line were nervous. Automatic weapon fire could be heard spasmodically. A couple of grenades went off and men yelled at one another in the pitch-black darkness. I held my hand up in front of me and couldnt even see an outline; it was that dark. The anxiety and restlessness of my comrades kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, we continued with straightening up and getting things in order. We curtained off one section and put a field stretcher on a couple of wooden horses to use as an examination table. Later in the afternoon, I set up the Field Laboratory to enable us to do simple blood counts, urinalysis and smears for gonorrhea. It was getting on toward 1700 when I heard a grenade go off. I didnt give it a lot of thought at first, as I knew the troops were overly excited. Then I heard someone running out the front door of the BAS. I had been cleaning the microscope and left it where it was and went to investigate. Only HM3 Hunter and myself remained in the BAS. We looked out the front door and saw several men clustered around a bunker.
Someone is hurt, said Hunter and took off running toward the cluster of people. Last thing we needed was a group of people massed in the same area in case of an attack. I stayed where I was. Suddenly, I saw HN Farmer running toward the BAS.
They blew Jones up with a mine, he cried as soon as he got within hearing distance.
The Gunny said get a couple of garbage bags from you. Were going to try to pick up the pieces of his body.
This old man feigned he was hurt and Jones ran out to him to help; he hit a mine and blew his ass to kingdom come. I had found the bags and handed them to him. I got to go, he exclaimed and ran out the door. A half-hour later, I saw HM1 Hahn coming up the incline with two marines carrying someone on a stretcher. It was an old Vietnamese man about sixty-five or seventy years old. They carried him into the BAS and placed him on the stretcher we had set up. The marines had tied his hands down.
S-3 is going to want to talk to this sorry motherfucker when the Doc gets done checking him over, one of the marines said and they left. Dans eyes blazed with anger and he paced up and down the tent. Suddenly, he took his pistol out, rushed over and jammed it against the old mans temple. The old man was talking out of his head and rolling his eyes. It was obvious he was either insane or retarded.
Im going to kill this son-of-a-bitch, Dan said and looked at me.
Dont do it, Dan. The old man is tied down and isnt a threat to anyone. Besides, I think hes nuts.
I dont give a fuck. He killed Jones and by-god hes gonna die.
Okay, go ahead and kill him if you want to. But, itll be murder; were not exactly in a fire fight here. His hands commenced to tremble. I wasnt sure if he was going to pull the trigger or not. Big tears rolled down his cheeks. He continued to hold the weapon against the old mans head.
Put the pistol away, Dan I pleaded. I heard someone coming into the BAS. It was Doctor Steineman. Dan turned and stomped out the back door. A couple of corpsmen joined the doctor in his examination. I followed Dan into the hooch. It was a sad night for us all. I think for the first time we realized that this was no game we were playing. Jones should never have left the confines of the compound without the area being secured first. It was a bitter lesson that wouldnt soon be forgotten.
I had joined 2/26 so near its departure date that I hadnt got to know the Medical Officers very well. Once we were in country, I worked in close proximity to them both. LT. Miller MC USNR spent most of his time just out the back door of the BAS painting. His ambition had been to become a surgeon but the draft had forced him to put that on hold for a while. He was somewhat withdrawn and seemed to prefer being alone.
LT. Ted Steineman MC USNR was another personality altogether. He had played professional football for the Green Bay Packers before deciding to become a doctor. Ted was athletic, competitive and friendly, and not the least bit intimidated by the Marine Officers in the Battalion. He was vibrant, extroverted and delighted in being with his corpsmen. He joined in the long evenings of beer drinking, tall tales and pinochle games that became a part of our daily routine. Almost everyone received care packages periodically, but Dr. Steineman received, almost daily, huge packs of kosher foods and pumpernickel bread that we consumed with utter gusto. During the day he worked diligently with the corpsmen at sickcall while Doctor Miller painted his seascapes.
I had gotten the Laboratory somewhat functional and managed to get out CBCs (complete blood counts) and urinalyses without a great deal of effort. This brought LT. Steineman and me into a close working relationship. He was enthusiastic about everything he did and everyone around him. He had a way of smiling when he talked that made you wonder if he was going to break into laughter at any minute.
One evening, Dr. Steineman showed up with a five-gallon container of popcorn, two or three pounds of salami and two loaves of his black, pumpernickel bread. The card game was well underway when the conversation turned to our Vietnamese friends working at the mess hall.
The Colonel asked me about the Vietnamese food service workers today, commented Dr. Steineman.
Yeah, what did he want to know?
Basically, if I thought it was safe for them to be handling food.
Well, I think we all know the answer to that.
John, youre in charge of sanitation. Why dont you check them out for TB and see what kind of intestinal parasites are causing their bellies to swell up?
Maybe I could get enough serum from Da Nang to do PPDs on them, I replied.
That would at least get rid of the ones with TB.
Doctor, why dont we just go ahead and worm them all? I asked. Hell. I know theyre all wormy.
Do we have any Tetarachlorethylene Hydrochloride in our mount out gear?
Yeah, Im pretty sure we do.
Okay, break it out and well do it first thing in the morning.
Done deal! I need to go into Da Nang tomorrow for some supplies. Ill run by Preventive Medicine and see if I can get enough serum so we can do the PPDs day after tomorrow.
Ill go with you, Messer. Got a couple of buddies in the Medical Battalion (Field Hospital) Ive been wanting to see.
Ill go along too, commented Chief Basset.
The following morning we sent for the Battalion Interpreter and had him accompany the thirteen Vietnamese workers to sickbay. There, according to their size and weight, I administered the proper dose of antihelmintic (class of drugs used to treat internal parasites). A short time later Doctor Steineman, Chief Bassett and I went to Da Nang. We had lunch, talked to old friends, drank a few beers, picked up a few supplies and in general had a modified holiday. We returned to the Battalion Compound around 1430.
What I saw when I entered the BAS shocked me. Sickbays deck was covered with Vietnamese lying on stretchers. The air was filled with a foul odor mixed with loud moans and groans. I heard someone gagging and then vomit.
Oh, no, this one has shit himself, one of the young corpsmen said. Kirkpatrick came walking out from behind the screen where the examination table was located. He gave me a disgusted look.
Messer, you sorry SOB. Why did you give them worm medication then leave? About an hour after you left they all got sick as dogs. They were puking and shitting worms all over this fucking compound. This aint anything now compared to what it was around noon. I really thought a couple of these poor bastards were going to die.
Damn, Kirk, I didnt know,
Thats the goddamn problem, you dont know shit, you dumb fuck. Next time you get a bright idea about giving someone medication you dont know anything about, I hope you go to the trouble of finding out what the side effects are. You can take over in here now and get this shit-house cleaned up.
One by one, I got them back on their feet and sent them home. The next day I went by the garbage shack where they were working. They all pointed at me and started chattering excitedly among themselves. Im sure they must have wondered why I would take them up to sickbay and give them something that made them sick. I wasnt going to try to explain it. I waved at them but they ignored me.
Over the next few days, we grappled desperately trying to understand what was happening around us.
Lost two more marines last night.
No one knows, they found them floating in the river this morning. Platoon Sergeant thinks they slipped off to the Vil and got bushwhacked.
Damn! Thats four men weve lost, all due to stupidity.
I know, Dan. I know.
Ten days later:
Hear about Master Sergeant Frankeny from communication?
NO! Now what?
Blown away this morning by a Bouncing Betty.
He was in the field with some young troops. He was showing them how he learned to jerk the radio wire to blow the booby traps on his first tour. The slopes got smart. They put one where it would blow when he jerked the wire and then another, off to the side about six feet. Hed blown one and they went out to check on it. He stepped on a trip wire and it bounced up about four feet and went off. Killed him dead and wounded a couple of others.
Did you hear what happened in Golf Company yesterday?
No, havent heard anything.
Little kid, about eight years old, delivered the laundry to the troops on line. They started going through it and found a grenade on the bottom with the pin pulled.
No, they grabbed it before it went off.
This aint no regular war, man. Guerrilla shit! They dont have the equipment, aircraft or support to fight a conventional war this far south. They just pick us off one at a time.
Yeah, demoralize us.
They got North Vietnamese regular up along the DMZ around Dong Ha.
Ninth Marines getting the shit kicked out of them up there.
I heard well be moving up there next?
Yeah, theyre just waiting for us to get a little of this green wore off.
One of the most interesting things about being in combat is the way different men react to situations. There are those who seem like ideal military men under garrison conditions, but in combat prove to be useless or, at times, even a burden. On the other hand, there are those who seem always to be problem children, or in trouble, under normal conditions but become your best troops when they are in the field. Predicting how men will react is an iffy business. A good sense of humor and an optimistic attitude has little to do with military bearing but it can be more valuable than gold to those who share in the combatants daily life. A funny occurrence can not only lighten the day, but also be therapeutic for weeks to come as the story is told and retold and embellished.
We had several probes on the north side of the camp and upon investigation discovered underground bunkers only a few meters outside our perimeter. This made us all a little nervous and the slightest provocation would send us scurrying to our bunkers. One evening, in late August, as we were preparing to turn in, a grenade went off followed by several rounds of automatic weapon fire. It persisted and another grenade detonated. The alarm went through the camp and we took to our bunkers, or at least most of us did. It was pitch black and our greatest fear was wed be overrun. Weapons inside the camp were to be kept cleared until it was absolutely certain there was a need to lock and load. Corpsmen are considered non-combatants in accordance with the Geneva Convention and only carry side arms. I would have to say, under normal conditions, they are of very little danger to anyone other than themselves. A fire team from Kilo Company had piled into the bunker on our right. In front, and a little to the right of us, was a supply tent. As we sat staring off into the darkness, we heard footsteps.
Halt, who goes there, one of the marines from Kilo Company challenged.
No one answered and things became very quiet. After a moment, the sound of someone moving could be heard again.
Advance and be recognized, the marine challenged. Still no answer! I could see a silhouette against the background of the supply tent. KLAK, KLAK, KLAK, KLAK went the sound of the M-14S as the bolts slid back and the rounds were chambered into the barrel.
Hold it, muderfucker, youse en Garrison! Its me, Sergeant Graham over here woking in supply. I cant be running and jumping in no goddamn hole every time some crazy muderfucker thinks he be hearing sompin. I gots work to do over here.
You best identify yourself next time youre challenged asshole or theyll be shipping your ass home in a bodybag, came the reply. Laughter rang out and floated through the darkness. Maybe, it was the relief that we werent being overrun or perhaps we thought it poetic justice that someone who took the danger so lightly was put in his place. For whatever reason, it was hysterical to us. Thereafter when someone became overly excited about something he would be chided with, Hold it, muderfucker, youse en Garrison.
Chief Bassett probably should never have been returned to full duty after the shooting incident and most certainly not assigned to an Infantry battalion in Vietnam. Headaches plagued him from the plastic plate that replaced part of his cranium. To wear a helmet was sheer torture. I shouldnt have been shocked when one day I went into the hooch and he was packing his gear. Kirkpatrick was sitting on the end of his cot a few feet away.
Hey, Chief, going somewhere? I asked. He didnt answer.
Hes being transferred to Medical Battalion, volunteered Kirkpatrick. His voice was a little shaky and he looked like someone had just told him his best friend had died. Several of the corpsmen had already been transferred to other units that had been hit hard and I felt like a child whose family was breaking up. I sat down in the silence and watched him pack. I was so overwhelmed I hadnt noticed a new Chief, a few cots up from me, arranging his gear. He struggled trying to assemble his recently issued seven-eighty-two gear into a pack. I needed to direct my thoughts away from the moment.
Let me help you with that, Chief, I offered.
Thanks! Last time I rolled up a shelter half like this was in Korea.
Chief Bassett had collected his gear. He walked to the door and set it down, then turned and went to where Kirkapatrick was sitting. Kirk stood up quickly, almost formal, and grabbed his hand. The emotion that flooded the hooch was so overpowering, I had to turn away to hold back the tears. I busied myself with the new Chiefs gear.
See you, Mess, Chief Bassett called as he picked up his gear and headed out the door. I couldnt speak but nodded my head. Chief Bassett was loved by all of the corpsmen and it was going to be a tough job for someone to replace him. This new Chief was going to need all the help he could get.
Sorry, Chief, Im HM1 Messer.
HMC Clements. You all come here together?
Yeah we did, Chief.
Well, you know, its good to break things up sometimes. Otherwise you get clicks going and the new men coming in dont get treated fairly.
Kirk was watching our new boss and I could see he wasnt impressed. Chief Clements was a big man, well over six-foot and weighing around two-twenty. His wrists were as big around as my ankles. His powerful jaws were set in rigid determination. His front teeth were spaced wide apart causing him to spit when he spoke in his heavy Southern accent.
Yeah, Ive kind of made it a career of breaking up clicks. You might say its a hobby of mine, he said.
I dont think we have a click here, Chief, its just weve all been together a long time. I explained. He had taken his dress uniform out of his Val pack and hung it up on a nail behind his cot. I saw he had four rows of campaign ribbons, one of which was a Silver Star.
You know I was in Korea and learned a couple of things I hope I can put to use. Im not out to get anyone. Its just that I have an understanding of how things are under combat conditions. You know the guys below E-5, here in the BAS, sooner or later are going to end up in a line company. They sweat it out until the time comes and then they find out that the fear was worse than the reality of being there. My policy will be to assign them there right away and not let them hang around in the BAS and get soft. If they survive the first six months, Ill pull them in and they can enjoy the rest of their tour. Theyll be motivated more to help the men in the field, too, because theyve been there.
I agree with your line of thinking Chief, but that would have been hard for us to do as we all came here at the same time. I see you were awarded the Silver Star, Chief.
Well, Im no hero, Messer. I was with an outfit in Korea when the Chinese overran us. It looked like we were all goners. I ran and jumped on the back of a jeep where the machine gunner had been killed and took over his position; I just started mowing them down. They said I killed seventeen. It was more an act of self defense than heroism. He had finished stowing his gear and apparently that was all the explanation I was going to get for the moment. I knew it would be awhile before the men would warm to Chief Clements. But I had the feeling that wasnt going to bother him too much.
Come on, lets go get some chow, Chief, I invited and we strolled toward the messing facility.
Over the next couple of weeks, I got to know Chief Clements and came to appreciate his personality. He was a great storyteller and had lived a very colorful life. He seemed to enjoy telling me his tales as much as I loved hearing them. We often worked together on the supply records and laughed as much of the day away as was possible. It was in those first few days of Chief Clements arrival when HM1 Hahn came rushing into the hooch where we were busy making out requisitions.
Chief, one of the Staff Sergeants in Golf Company hit HM3 Maas in the mouth with his helmet. The Chiefs mouth went in a straight line and his eyes narrowed.
Where is Maas?
The Doctor is working on him right now.
Send him up here as quick as he gets fixed up, Dan left. The Chief became quiet and pensive and I waited for him to break the silence.
John, did I ever tell you about the time I had my picture in Life magazine during the Korean Conflict?
No, Chief you havent.
Yeah, well, we were way up in the mountains sloshing around on a seek and destroy operation. I was always lugging all this heavy ass medical gear around on my back. One day this damn Zipperhead came along with this old donkey. I asked him if he was for sale. He said, Sure, for five dollars US. I bought him on the spot. He was one sorry ass looking old burro but it didnt matter. I rigged up a pack for the Ol Boy, and for awhile he carried my gear. Some reporter from Life heard about it and came up there and took our picture.
No, full page photo of me and that old mule came out the next month in one of their weekly issues. We were kind of famous for awhile.
What happened to him, Chief?
Got hit by a mortar one night. I saw HM1 Hahn and HM3 Maas coming toward the hooch. Id have to wait to hear the rest of the story.
Maas came in first and HM1 Hahn followed a few steps behind him. His mouth was swollen and he had a couple of stitches in his lip. Maas was a blond-headed, blue-eyed kid about five foot, ten inches and weighed around a hundred and fifty pounds.
Want to see me, Chief? he asked.
Sit down, Maas. Id like to talk to you a few minutes, the Chief replied. Maas sat down on the cot opposite the Chief. He took his helmet off and set it down between his feet. HM1 Hahn sat down in the chair next to where I was sitting.
So, what the hell happened out there, Maas? the Chief began.
It wasnt anything, Chief. Really, wasnt nothing. We sat in silence for a full moment. Chief Clements seemed to be studying Maas face. I just want to go back out to my company, Chief. The Chiefs face grew dark and the lines around his mouth hardened.
Why dont you humor me a little, Maas, and tell me what happened. Maas looked at HM1 Hahn and then back at the Chief.
Well, Chief, we were being transported from one position to another in the back of a six-by. I took my helmet off for a minute and the platoon Sergeant told me to put it on. I made a smart remark and didnt put it on fast enough to suit him, so he jerked it out of my hand and smacked me in the mouth with it. Thats all there was to it and, to tell you the truth, I think I probably deserved it.
Maas, you may think its alright for the marines to be knocking the shit out of you, but I sure as hell dont. If I let them get away with slapping you around, I wont be able to protect any of our corpsmen. Now, I want you to go get your gear and come on back up here to the BAS. Im going to assign someone else to Golf Company until I find out what went on out there.
But, Chief! Chief Clements cold stare stopped Maas in mid sentence. He gave HM1 Hahn a hopeless look. HM1 Hahn stood up.
Come on, Maas, lets go get your gear, he said.
The afternoon past into early evening. We were lounging in the hooch when the First Sergeant from Golf Company came to the door.
Chief Clements in here?
Yo, answered the Chief.
Could I talk to you a minute in private, Chief? The Chief reached for his soft cover and joined the First Sergeant. A few minutes later I heard loud voices. I recognized Chief Clements Southern accent.
YOU MAY RUN GOLF COMPANY, FIRST SERGEANT, BUT IM IN CHARGE OF THE HOSPITAL CORPSMEN IN THIS BATTALION. ILL TELL YOU WHO YOU CAN HAVE AND WHO YOU CANT. IF YOU THINK YOUR PLATOON SERGEANTS CAN BEAT MY CORPSMEN AROUND, YOU GOT ANOTHER THINK COMING. I WONT HAVE IT.
ILL GO SEE THE BATTALION COMMANDER IF I HAVE TO, CHIEF.
YOU GO SEE WHOEVER THE HELL YOU WANT TO. BUT I WANT YOU TO SEND THAT PLATOON SERGEANTS ASS UP HERE TO SEE ME. WEll SEE HOW HE DOES KNOCKING A MAN AROUND INSTEAD OF SOME KID. ILL KICK HIS MARINE ASS ALL OVER THIS FUCKING COMPOUND AND YOURS TOO BY-GOD IF YOU FUCK WITH ME.
COME ON DOWN TO THE COMPANY OFFICE WITH ME, CHIEF.
I feared for the Chief but I stayed in the hooch. We all looked at one another. He can take care of himself, commented Kirk. The loud voices trailed off into the night. Several hours later, the Chief stumbled into the hooch. Apparently, the Chief and the First Sergeant had solved their problem over a few beers. I heard him fumbling around in the dark for several minutes before he lay down.
The next morning Chief Clements sent for Maas.
Maas, you sure you want to go back to Golf Company?
Yes, sir, Chief.
Okay, get your gear and go on back down there. But remember, you work for me. And if they give you anymore shit, you let me know.
Will do, Chief.
One other thing. If youre told to do something, do it and keep your smart-ass trap SHUT. Got it?
The word buzzed through the Battalion about the run in between the Chief and First Sergeant. It seemed we had gained a whole new respectability. From that day on, no one in the Battalion questioned Chief Clements authority. Ironically, HM3 Maas was to later be recommended for a Bronze Star for heroic action under fire by the same Platoon Sergeant that hit him in the mouth.
In July of 1967, the Third Marine Division moved north to the Province of Quang Tri in an effort to stem the ever-increasing flow of the North Vietnamese Regular Army into the area. The American forces now exceeded five hundred thousand and, on average, American KIAs (Killed in Action) were exceeding over a hundred a week. We had relieved 3/3 in order for them to make the move north. We knew it was just a matter of time until we would be joining the rest of the Division.
In mid September, the word came down. We were to strike camp. We would be airlifted into the Phu Bai area via C-130s and our mount out gear would follow by truck. From there, we would receive further orders.
Upon our arrival at the air terminal in Phu Bai, the Battalion formed up in ranks in front of the control tower. As we stood waiting, a helicopter landed across the street in front of a large complex of tin top, plywood structures that were screened in. A closer look revealed drop linen clothes rolled up near the top of the screen that could be let down during foul weather. We saw a half dozen men running to the chopper. Four big jeep ambulances with red crosses painted on their sides sat next to the landing zone. Fifteen or so Vietnamese women, dressed in their black pajamas and straw-colored cone hats, were squatting just to the right of the opening of the first tent. The familiar sound of, Bink, bink, bonk, bonk, bink, floated through the air as the constant stream of rice flew into their mouths from the end of their chopsticks. They seemed to be oblivious to the helicopter.
Looks like Third Med. Battalion over there where the chopper landed.
Helicopters have sure changed how battlefield causalities are handled.
Yeah, the wounded go straight to the operating room in minutes.
During the Second World War, the wounded were transported by stretcher from the field, to the BAS, to Regimental Aid and then on to the Field Hospital.
Lot of them died from shock and the loss of blood that wouldve been saved today.
I wouldnt want to be part of a MEDEVAC crew. One minute youre sipping coffee and playing cards and the next you can be taking hostile fire in a LZ (landing zone).
See that chopper running over there? They keep them ready to go twenty-four hours a day.
I got a buddy in MEDBAT (Medical Battalion), he says the duty crew sleeps on there.
You have to be shitting me. How in the hell could you go to sleep?
I guess you get used to it. Some guys get off on that shit.
Maybe they have a death wish.
Who in the hell knows? But you gotta giveem credit. Theyre brave bastards.
Once all the C-130s had landed, the whole Battalion came together and we marched a couple of miles out onto the flat, desolate, treeless terrain.
Drop your traces and stand at ease, the Sergeant Major ordered. We dropped our seven-eighty-two gear and took a good look around at the area. It appeared Headquarters Area stretched about four or five miles in both directions. We could see newly-constructed, plywood structures clumped in different areas within the confines of the Garrison. A jeep appeared and the Battalion Commander was whisked off in the direction of what we thought to be the Commanding Generals Office. We were put at ease while we waited for his return.
What do you think the temperature is?
Jesus, has to be a hundred.
With this flak gear and helmet on were going to die.
We need to get out of the direct sun.
I dont see a bush big enough for a dog to piss on. An hour or so later, the jeep returned with our Battalion Commander. The Executive Officer and Sergeant Major surrounded him. A few minutes later the Sergeant Major called us to attention.
Now, listen up. We have our orders. Were going to be billeted here in Phu Bai for a few weeks as part of the palace guard that protects the perimeter. Within the confines of the compound, are the Airport Terminal, Medical Battalion, Seabees Construction Battalion, the Air Forces Top Security Compound and the Commanding General and his Headquarters Staff. Besides ourselves, the compound is protected by artillery and helicopter gun ships, plus we have the Navy and Air Force giving us air support. Looks like were in for some soft living so saddle up, were in for a little hike.
We marched west for half an hour and came into a complex of hooches that resembled the structures at the Medical Battalion. We settled in and drew C-rations for noon and evening meals. It would be a couple of days before our gear arrived and the stew burners could get the field kitchen up and running. The camp was almost modern, compared to what we had been used to, but there wasnt any fortification. The next three days were spent filling sandbags and building bunkers in front of the structures. The Medical Battalion was a short distance away and had a SNCO Club where hard liquor and cold beer were being served from noon until 2200. Life in Headquarters and Service Company of 2/26 was pretty plush for the moment. The line companies were dispatched to the perimeter and assigned various other tasks. CAC units were formed and sent into nearby villages that were dotted along Highway One, which ran south along the South China Sea Coast toward Da Nang. North of us, about thirteen miles, was Hue City. From there, it was about sixty miles to Dong Hoa, which was located near the border of North Vietnam. That was the Third Marine Divisions farthest outpost. Frequent exchanges of artillery barrages between the North and the South were a common occurrence.
Daily, intelligence reported that thousands of North Vietnamese troops were flowing into South Vietnam. The Third Marines were fighting fierce battles in places like Khe Sanh, Vinh Linh, and Le Thuy. Ground would be taken at tremendous sacrifice only to be abandoned a few days later. The philosophy that body count over terrain prevailed. The Bad Luck Ninth Marines, as we had now started to call them, were strung out along the DMZ (demarcation line, of 1954, that declared the area between the North and South as the demilitarized zone). Their thirst for replacements gobbled up our young troops. A good number of times, young marines who had been in 2/26s supply or support units would be sent to the Ninth Marines and, within a matter of days, sometimes hours, it would be reported they were killed in action.
One day, an old truck showed up with a young Vietnamese woman at the steering wheel and two young male helpers. They contracted to pick up the garbage every Thursday afternoon for salvage rights. We soon dubbed her with the dubious title, Garbage Girty and the Shit Truck. Over the next few weeks we became accustomed to seeing the old truck meandering up and down between the row of hooches picking up garbage.
September past into October and the weather began to cool. As we entered November, it became cloudy and overcast and the Monsoon rains commenced to fall. We werent engaged in the major battles that were being fought along the DMZ but were taking causalities on seek and destroy operations and from the eternal booby traps and land mines. As the weather worsened, enemy activity increased in the surrounding area.
I had become accustomed to the sounds of mortars as they were tossed back and forth between the VC and our troops. I knew the VC had no heavy artillery or aircraft in the area so our only real danger was mortars. My helmet and flak jacket were my constant companions and were never more than an arms reach away from me.
It was 0200 and we were fast asleep. I heard the mortar go out of the end of the tube with the distinct THUMP. I heard it as clearly as I wouldve had I been awake. I leaped from my cot, gathered my helmet and flak jacket all in one motion, and flew to the end of the hooch and out the door into the sandbag bunker, yelling as I went, IN COMING, IN COMING. I hit the bunker about the time the first mortar exploded. Sand and gravel hit the top of the tin roof, and within seconds ten men had piled in on top of me. The mortars were being spaced about a hundred meters apart and walked through the compound much like a giant would take steps. As they would move away from us, we relaxed. But as they were adjusted to walk back through the same area with only a minor adjustment of a few meters, much like you would walk up and down rows of corn, the tension and fear would return. Provided you kept your head down, unless you got a direct hit in your fighting hole, you would be safe. My mind was constantly calculating the location of the incoming rounds. WHOOM! I heard debris flying through the air. Someones scream pierced the darkness. I felt Kirkpatrick go tense and raise up. I pulled him back down.
Wait, you dont even know where he is. I said. He was peering over the top of the sandbags. The mortars moved away from us.
Damn, here they come again. This time closer and the sand and debris banged down on the roofs of the surrounding hooches. Then, I heard the artillery going to work. The choppers were up. I knew it was over. We had been under attack less than two minutes.
Sorry motherfuckers sure have a strange way of saying good morning.
Think those were 60 millimeters or 81s?
They were 81s! They got about a two mile range, which means theyre right outside the wire.
Little dinkey fucks can blow us away before we can get a fix on them.
They know it takes about two minutes, so by the time we react theyre back in their tunnels.
Artillery is sure blowing hell out of something.
In the morning light we assessed our damage and were amazed at the pinpoint accuracy with which the mortars had taken out some of the buildings where weapons and supplies had been stored. The thing that disturbed most of us, more than anything else, was our missing chow hall. The only thing that remained after the attack was the cement slab it had been built on. S-2 was taking a serious look at the Vietnamese that frequented our camp. Garbage Girty was definitely under suspicion as she was familiar with every aspect of our camp. The Battalion Commander thought it might be a better idea for the ARVNS (South Vietnamese Soldiers) to interrogate her rather than our marines. Her being a woman made for a potential public relations disaster and that was the one thing we didnt need.
A few days after the attack HM1 Kirkpatrick and I had gone to one of the forward line companies a few miles outside the wire to deliver some supplies and take a look at the camps sanitary conditions. We made our return trip that afternoon about 1600; a slow drizzle was falling. About five hundred meters out from the checkpoint, we saw a large number of people collected in the middle of the road.
What the hell is that up there? Kirkpatrick asked.
Somethings hanging out over the road thats tied to that old tree.
Damn! Its a naked woman; looks like shes dead. Seven or eight vehicles were honking for the people to move out of the road. We slowly made our approach.
Its Ol Garbage Girty.
They got a sign around her neck. We were directly opposite the grotesque site as our jeep moved slowly through the crowd.
Jesus H. Christ, theyve cut both of her tits off and stuck a bamboo pole up her ass. I saw an ARVN standing with two marines looking up at the sign.
WHAT DOES THE SIGN SAY? I yelled
I WAS AN INFORMER FOR THE VC, one of the marines called back.
Kirk and I sat in stone silence as the jeep plowed through the evening mist toward the BAS. Our sensibilities had been so shocked we were unable to speak.
Shortly after the Garbage Girty incident, one dreary afternoon, Kirk, Dan and I were in the BAS talking about the Medical Battalion personnel being lucky to have a nice, well-stocked SNCO Club. All the corpsmen in the division had a standing invitation to frequent the facility and it was a fun place to gather and tell war stories. Our problem, however, was a matter of transportation and timing. The Club opened at 1600, but in order to get there we needed a vehicle to get us past the three checkpoints between the two compounds. The jeep assigned to the BAS could only be used after-hours for emergencies. Doctor Steineman had overheard our conversation and sauntered over and joined us.
Hey, listen, you guys, the Captain in charge of transportation sleeps in my hooch. He told me I could have a jeep anytime I wanted it. Why dont I check one out and lets tool on over there this evening and get a couple of cool ones? We all agreed that would be a great idea and decided around six that evening would be a perfect time. Right on schedule, our favorite doctor came driving up. We all piled in and headed over to the Medical Battalion with the good physician driving and returning salutes to the marines at the checkpoints in a most military like manner. We found the Club, went inside and reveled in drink, singing of songs and telling of bawdy stories until 2200, at which time we were invited to leave. We proceeded to our jeep in the same festive spirit and commenced our noisy journey back to our Battalion Compound. Upon arrival, much to our surprise, LT. Ted Steineman MC/USNR wheeled the jeep in front of the chain that barred entry to the Motor T. Area and jumped out.
RUN EVERYONE, he laughed and dashed into the darkness. All this activity hadnt been wasted on the sentry posted in the area and he came hurrying toward us un-slinging his weapon.
Halt! he yelled. Well, it didnt take long for us to figure out what had happened and we took off in opposite directions. I reached the darkened hooch to find Kirk already lying on his cot covered up with a blanket. I followed his example and thirty seconds later Dan entered and leaped under his cover. In less than two minutes, a Marine Captain stepped into the hooch and snapped on the lights.
Turn the goddamn lights off, Chief Clements ordered. After a brief look, apparently to ensure all the bunks were full, the Captain turned the lights off and left. We lay listening to the foot steps disappear in the darkness. Once he was out of hearing range we started laughing.
That damn Ted. Hes going to get us all court-martialed, commented Dan dryly. For some reason we found that very hilarious and everyone in the hooch cracked up. We never found out what happened between the Captain and Doctor Steineman but it was rumored there were some very loud voices coming from their hooch later on that night.
The last week of November, one late afternoon, Chief Clements opened the front door of the hooch where I was making out requisitions.
John, come go with me, he ordered as a jeep came to an abrupt stop in front of the BAS. I grabbed my flak gear and helmet. Chief Clements had already climbed in the front seat and I piled over the top of him. A few seconds later a PC (personnel carrier) came roaring up with four riflemen in the back.
Ready! called the man behind the wheel in the PC.
Waiting! answered our driver.
What happened, Chief? I asked as the jeep hurtled forward.
One of our corpsmen in Hotel Company has been accidentally shot, he said and fell into thoughtful silence.
The next forty-five minutes we traveled at breakneck speed through the falling rain. Finally, off to my right, and up a small incline, I saw a large number of two man tents and a couple of CP (Command post) tents. A large group of men were gathered in front of the first CP tent. The low, gray, dark clouds and heavy fog hung over the camp like a dismal blanket. We came to a sudden halt and bailed out of the jeep. The Chief and I pushed our way through the crowd. The body lay on the ground in front of the tent rolled up in a poncho. A young HM3 was down on his knees rocking back and forth whining like a wounded animal.
I didnt mean to do it, I didnt mean to do it, he cried in a mournful wail over and over. The Chief knelt and did a quick examination of the corpse. The bullet had entered the temple on the left side, and exited on the right, taking with it a good portion of the brain and skull. Once the Chief saw the corpsman was dead, he pulled the young HM3 up and looked at the Company Commander.
Lets get him back to base camp, the Chief directed.
Fog has us socked in, already tried to get a chopper out. He wont fit in the Jeep? asked the Company Commander.
We need to keep the body laid out straight if we can.
How about the PC?
I hate to crowd him up in there with the men if we can avoid it. Do you have a six-by we can use? The Company Commander yelled at someone; unintelligible words floated through the air. A few minutes later the six-by appeared. I watched it stop and start backing toward where we were standing. As I stood listening to the mournful sound of the transmission grinding, I was overcome with a feeling of hopeless desperation. The vehicle stopped and four marines picked the body up and lifted it toward the truck. Blood ran out of the poncho and dripped into a small puddle of water under the tailgate of the truck. I watched as it turned to a brilliant pink. The young HM3 broke away from the Chief, ran, and threw himself back on his knees and started beating his head up and down on the ground.
Oh, God, no! Please, no, he prayed. The big six-by bounced over the rutty road leaving in its wake a trail of bright red blood. The Chief and I climbed back into the jeep. Our driver fell in behind the six-by and we traveled in a sorrowful silence.
The following morning the Chief had us fall in formation. Yesterday, we had a tragedy. One of our corpsmen from Hotel Company came off patrol and didnt clear his forty-five. He took the clip out but forgot to clear it. He went to clean his weapon and snapped the trigger. The round in the barrel went off and it was at such an angle, it killed the man sitting on the cot next to him. One life has been lost and another destroyed over a stupid mistake. I want to remind you that when you come into garrison youre to take that clip out and snap the weapon to make sure theres not a round in the chamber. And, like Ive said a thousand times, always assume your weapon is loaded. Never, ever point a weapon at anyone unless youre planning on using it. Okay, thats it. Lets get to work.
By the first week of December, the monsoon rains had flooded out the low lands. Many of the rivers that carried the run-off passed under the bridges on Highway One that came north from Da Nang. A good percentage of the supplies needed in the war effort were trucked north over this route and it was essential to keep it open. Once the rivers had crested, the water often ran either over the bridge or within a few feet of the surface. The VC would put depth charges on rafts, or in old boats, and float them down the river and in an attempt to take out the bridges. The fog and low hanging clouds very often prevented the helicopters from being able to patrol the rivers safely. It was determined 2/26 would build bunkers on each side of the bridges and man them with a fire team from the letter companies. In addition, they would make search and destroy patrols and set up ambushes in the surrounding area. In order to accomplish this, the Alpha Command group would move thirty miles south from Phu Bai and set up along Highway One to give tactical support. As always, the order to move came at the last minute when we least expected it.
Dan, I want you and John to pick out three good men and get ready to go with Doctor Steineman and the Alpha Command group on a forward operation a few miles out, ordered Chief Clements. The rain was pouring in torrents on top of the tin roof of BAS. I looked at Dan and I could see he was about as thrilled as I was about the upcoming ordeal.
Why us, Chief? There are three other First Class here in the BAS, Dan challenged.
Dan, I can send someone else in your place, but I want you to give this some thought. How would you feel if someone got themselves killed doing what I had asked you to do? My philosophy has always been not to ask for volunteers to do anything foolish. But, at the same time, I think everyone should do their duty when its their turn.
Im not sure that Chief Clements would have designated anyone else had Dan continued to protest. He had appealed to our sense of honor and fair play. We gave him the names of the three men we wanted to go with us and started gathering up our seven-eighty-two gear. The Chief looked down at the list.
Good choices, Ill go tell them in what high regard you hold them, he chuckled.
Jesus, John, its almost dark. How in the hell we going to decide what gear to take? asked Dan.
The mount out is set up to split into two command groups, but hell man, five of us cant go lugging fifty 4.2 cube boxes around. Theyd take up a whole six-by themselves, I answered. Two of the men we requested had joined us under the supply tent. They didnt look too happy. A few seconds later, Doctor Steineman came in with our last selectee. Lets just grab four Beach Bags and the Dispensatory Set and well make out a list of things we need when we get settled, I suggested.
Sounds good to me, answered Dan. We started pulling the gear off the pallets and putting it in a big pile next to our seven-eighty-two gear. I heard the big six-by pull up in front of the BAS.
I hope everyone knows Im scheduled to go to Hawaii on RR (relaxation and recreation) and meet Carol on the twenty-eighth of December. They may have to stop this war for a week but you can bet Im going, proclaimed our surgeon. I looked from him to Dan, and then at the three other men standing in the semi-darkness. They looked strange and out of place. Water streaked off their helmets and dripped down onto their ponchos. As I listened to the rain falling on the canvas the thought we were lost souls wondering in an unknown world entered my mind. The horn on the big six-by blared. We hesitated, dreading to leave the safety of the dry tent.
Lets go. someone yelled.
Aint this some shit, one of the men said and we started gathering up the gear and headed for the waiting truck.
The convoy journeyed through the early evening. Soon, we came to the first bridge and stopped. I looked out over the cab of the open-air truck. I could see marines standing in the rain on the other side. They were pointing up the river.
Hold up a minute! Somethings coming this way, one of them yelled. I saw what looked like a treetop and a couple of logs floating rapidly down the river. The marines opened fire on the floating mass. Twigs and pieces of wood flew into the air. It disappeared quietly under the bridge. We lurched forward and the big truck groaned and grumbled as we made our way on through the night. The next bridge, I didnt bother with the commotion but stayed seated in the bed of the truck trying to stay warm and dry. Two and a half-hours later, we ground to a stop.
A general-purpose tent weighs just less than five hundred pounds when its dry. I can only guess at the weight we struggled with in the darkness. Dan and I had both been squad leaders in Field Medical School and we had cursed the class on erecting a GP in the dark. Our past bitterness turned to gratitude as we struggled in the ink black night. Once the tent was up, we hauled our gear inside and erected our cots under the light of a Coleman lantern. The sound of the rain on the canvas gave us a feeling of accomplishment. The light from the sputtering Coleman danced on the foot-and-a half high weeds in our new home. Suddenly, the flap of our tent was pulled aside and the fiftish-looking Protestant Chaplain stuck his head in.
Would you corpsmen give my assistant a hand with our CP (Command Post Tent), he asked in a whiny tone and withdrew.
That fuck! Dont we have enough shit to do without coddling that old fart? Dan asked as we staggered through the darkness. I laughed out loud at his annoyance. It somehow made me feel better to think he was just a little more miserable than I was.
The morning light seeped under the edge of the GP tent. Hunger had awakened me. Dan was sitting on the edge of his cot with a look of disgust on his face. Seeing I was awake, he turned his attention to the front tent pole leaning at about a fifteen-degree angle.
Its a wonder the goddamn thing didnt fall on top of us, he commented.
Lets draw some rations and, after breakfast, well straighten it up.
Were going to have to figure out what kind of field latrine were going to use, John.
Well just dig a soakage pit and stick a shell casing in it for a urinal. I dont see worrying about trying to transport a urinol out here from Battalion. Well dig a six-foot hole and put the old standard four-holer over it for a shitter. We dont have that many people here in the command area anyway.
Sounds good to me. Lets get some chow. I opened the flap of the tent and we went outside. The rain had stopped and the sun was peering through a small hole in the cloud cover. From the hilltop where we had camped, we could look down on the South China Sea.
Jesus, what a beautiful country. Look at that, commented Dan. We stood transfixed, our eyes drinking in the natural beauty of the sea extending out to infinity.
Doc, pick up your Cs over here if you want to eat. Im not running a catering service, called out Gunny Sanchez. We walked over and started helping him unload the two dozen or so cartons of C-rations onto the ground. The Top Kick Stew Burner is going to be coming out today and set up a field mess so we can have B-rations (large bulk cans of foods). It wont be like home cooking but at least itll be hot, the Gunny informed us.
In a couple of days, we had pulled all the weeds in the tent and set up for sickcall. The items in the Beach Bags and the Dispensatory Set were designed for treating emergencies under combat conditions and inadequate for regular sickcall.
Dan, lets sit down and try to think of every conceivable condition we might treat out here. Then, well make a list of what we would need to treat it and one of us will go to Battalion and pick it up.
Great! You know, Ive been thinking. Were not going to have a field shower set up out here, commented Dan and walked over and picked up two field litters and stood them on end. Why dont we take the wood out of an ammo box and lay it across the top to hold these two together. Then well take a number ten can (about a gallon container) and punch holes in it and put on top. Then we can heat water in one of these five-gallon cans and take turns pouring for each other so we can shower. We can put it over there next to that big rock so we can stand on it to pour. The other corpsmen suddenly became interested. In a very short time, we had a pretty fair makeshift shower.
The following day, the Top showed up with his field kitchen. That evening, the big six-bys hauled us down the hill to the field galley where we feasted on hot pork and beans, canned Vienna Sausage and green Kool-Aide.
You know, I like the idea of junior men eating first in the field, I said to Dan as we made our way through the line in front of the officers.
They say its a tradition that goes back to Genghis Khan.
Really! Well, I dont know about that but if the Field Commander is the last to eat I have a pretty good idea the troops have a better chance of being fed.
The Battalion was strung up and down Highway One for several miles. The letter companies ran search and destroy missions and routinely sat on all-night ambushes. The Ninth Marines along the DMZ continued to be pounded and their need for replacements was like a plague to the whole Division. The line companies fell below complement and many times our young corpsmen would sit on all night ambushes with one squad and take a patrol with another squad the following morning. Nineteen and twenty-year-olds coming from the States oftentimes found themselves in the middle of horrendous conditions hours after they arrived in country. If there are any true heroes from the Vietnam War, it must surely be those young sailors and marines who served so valiantly.
A few days after we arrived, we were sitting inside the BAS playing cards. Suddenly, we heard several loud explosions. We had become accustomed to the sounds of war and normally paid them little heed. Then, I heard people running and yelling and the motor of the big six-bys come to life. We looked at each other and waited expectantly. Seconds later, the flap of the tent was jerked open.
Echo is being hit. Couple of you corpsmen come with us, ordered the Sergeant Major. Dan and I jumped up and both of us grabbed a Beach Bag and we bailed for the trucks. They werent waiting on anyone and were barreling down the hill. Dan had run ahead of me and jumped in the back of the last truck and reached back to catch my hand to pull me up. I got halfway up when my foot slipped and I fell backwards. The truck was going about twenty miles an hour by this time. I felt the impact of the road hit the back of my steel helmet, stunning me momentarily. Dan, thinking I was seriously hurt, jumped out of the truck and ran to my aid. The truck had accelerated and was traveling at high speed toward Echo Company.
YOU ALRIGHT? Dan asked when he saw I was able to move.
Yeah, Im okay, I said looking after the truck.
Goddamn, well have to hump it, he said and we took off down Highway One toward Echo Company, some mile and a half away. Suddenly, out from the side of the road came seven young Vietnamese males. Any South Vietnamese, armed with weapons, who wasnt in an ARVN uniform was considered to be VC. Where these men had come from, I wasnt sure. They looked toward the trucks in the distance and turned their attention to us. There was no doubt in my mind they were VC and were calculating the possibility of overpowering us. As they approached, I sensed danger and saw the anger in their faces.
Dan, these bastards are VC. I said.
Probably are, he answered. I dropped my Beach Bag and took out my forty-five and chambered a round. Dan did likewise.
Dont come any closer, Dan ordered when they were within a few feet of us and leveled his gun at the lead man and started pointing, indicating for them to go around. They walked a wide circle, talking aggressively and jeering at us.
We finished our hike to Echo Company. They had received over twenty-five rounds of sixty-millimeter mortars but had not taken any casualties. One mortar had landed just outside of their mess tent and blown it to smithereens. A young L/Cpl had been heating up B-rations inside the tent. He was white as a sheet and shaking from the adrenaline rush. He had missed being killed by a hair.
I tell you the truth, Doc. I dived in my hole just as the round hit, but before it exploded. Now, you explain that shit to me.
I cant, Red, but someone is looking out for your country ass, I said and walked over and took out my knife and pried a piece of shrapnel out of one of the field ranges. I could see the marines beating the bushes on the side of the hill about three thousand meters away. They didnt find anyone. Charley was long gone. Wasnt any doubt in my mind that Dan and I had past him on the road.
Christmas was just around the corner. One of our corpsmen had found a little scrub cedar growing on the side of the hill between our camp and the highway. He had cut it down and brought it into the tent. A fourth grade teacher in the middle of Wisconsin had gotten our address from somewhere and had her students send us Christmas cards with notes of gratitude for our sacrifices. We divided the cards up among ourselves and answered each one of them individually. When we finished addressing the envelopes we took some suture thread and tied the cards on our little tree. Several colorfully-wrapped gifts from home had arrived and, of course, Dr. Steinemans huge monthly package of goodies. They looked quite nice under our little tree. One of the men had received a tape of Christmas music and the familiar sounds floated through the tent. We were trying our best to celebrate Christmas in the traditional style.
It was around nine in the evening. We were playing cards and trying to amuse ourselves. Without any warning, the Battalion Commanders aide came rushing into our tent. This was not a good sign and we waited for the bad news.
One of our Aircraft saw some VC with Mortar Tubes hiking about twenty miles south of here. He circled around, came in low and discharged a whole payload of five hundred-pound bombs. He was off-center a little and they landed right in the middle of a Vil. The damn place is on fire and there are casualties everywhere. Were the closest unit that has a doctor. Division has ordered us to get down there without delay and give medical support. We started gathering up the Beach Bags and our Unit Ones (field first aid kits).
How many troops will be giving us support? Doctor Steienman asked.
One rifleman will be in the Colonels jeep with the driver and there will be a fire team in the PC with the rest of you.
Were going twenty miles into Indian Country to a bombed out village with one fire team? questioned Dan.
Were going to try to get you some air cover, the young marine officer answered as he turned and left the BAS. A vehicle had stopped in front of the tent and was waiting. We piled in as quickly as we could and took off down the road hell bent for leather. We soon approached a bridge over a river manned by the marines. The usual screaming and yelling took place and we were allowed to pass over after identifying ourselves.
After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled off to the side of the road. The PC was covered with a tarp and we hadnt been able to see the fire raging in the village. Once out of the vehicle and on the ground, we could see the flames licking the ink black sky about a quarter of a mile away. The sound of the mourning villagers floated across the rice field.
Where is the goddamn road leading in there? asked Dan.
Dont see one, answered the driver of the Command Jeep. We could hear him talking on the radio to Battalion. The radio crackled and we heard the Old Mans voice.
Dont be bullshitting around looking for a road. Theyll have to hump in. Got a MEDEVAC Chopper on its way. Tell the Doc the first thing hell need to do is to set up a LZ.
Cant believe this shit. We climbed over the dike and into knee deep water of the rice paddy and started the long hike to the Vil. Upon our approach, the heat from the burning two dozen, or so, thatch huts threatened to overwhelm us. The first hut we came to had rice three to four inches deep lying on the floor. Then I looked at the walls and realized the Vietnamese had packed the rice inside, probably to hide it from the VC. An old woman was sitting on a grass mat at an eight-inch high table inside the hut. Her hand was wrapped in a death grip around her teacup. A piece of shrapnel had hit her in the forehead. She was probably killed instantly and never knew what hit her. The Village Chief, or someone of importance, ran up and started trying to talk to Doctor Steineman. We formed a triage area and, with sign language, Doctor Steineman was able to communicate to him to bring all the injured to the area. Suddenly, a helicopter dropped air illumination and the night sky lit up like day. We were directly under the bright light and could be seen from a mile away. I felt eyes watching us. I had little doubt that we were being observed.
Dan, if we live through the night, well live forever, I commented.
This is some scary shit, man, he responded. A young Vietnamese man ran up to Dan with a two or three-year-old child and started screaming. The childs cheek was laid open to the bone with a three-inch laceration. Dan was tense and in no mood to be patient. He shoved the young man backwards, grabbing the baby away from him. The man yelled and lunged at Dan trying to retrieve the child. A group of Vietnamese surrounded us.
Dan, goddamn it, give him back the baby. Just treat the motherfuckers and lets get out of here. I pleaded.
The MEDEVAC arrived within the hour; the crew from the chopper piled off and had the injured on board in seconds.
YOU GUYS GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE, one of them yelled as the chopper lifted off. The tension in the Vil was growing. Dark, angry eyes watched us from the shadows.
Lets go, said Doctor Steineman and we headed for the lights of the jeep in the far distance. Upon arrival, we could hear the driver on the radio talking to a chopper in the air.
ROGER THAT, THERES ENEMY ACTIVITY THROUGHOUT THE AREA. YOURE PROBABLY GOING TO GET HIT ON THE WAY BACK. WERE GOING TO GIVE YOU AIR COVER TO THE BATTALION. WERE GOING TO WORK OUT A FEW OF THESE HEDGE ROWS static and then something I didnt understand.
ROGER OUT, said the driver.
That was the helicopter gun ship you hear overhead. Hes going to give us cover. Load up, ordered the driver.
The gun ship was a Huey Helicopter with a Gatling Gun that fairly rained down fire from the sky. The sound it made was a BUREEE, BUREEE rather than an explosion when it fired. Every third bullet was a tracer and it literally looked like a stream of fire from heaven. Of all our weapons, this may have been the most feared by small VC units.
The twenty miles back to Camp was made in an eerie silence. Each man was dealing with his fear and the possibility of an immediate death in his own way. For myself, I was thinking of my family and how tragic it would be for my children to grow up without a father. I was thinking of how Peg would react when she received the news. The jeep came up the incline and stopped in front of the BAS. We jumped out and ran inside. I shook myself from side to side just to make sure I was really safe. The big thirty-gallon GI can buried in the ground up to its lip was full of cold beer. There was a lot less of it the following morning.
A few days later, I found myself bending over a Vietnamese woman lying on the ground. I touched the side of her temple and moved the pieces of crushed bone. I could see part of her brain exposed.
Is she dead? the Battalion Commander asked.
Yes, sir, I replied.
Are you absolutely sure? What I really wanted to say was, Cant you see her fucking brain sticking out of her goddamn head? How fucking smart you got to be to know that shes dead? Even a dumb-ass mother fucking grunt like you should be able to figure that out, but I held my peace.
Im sure, sir. One of the six-bys had come barreling over the bridge that crossed the river near our camp. It hadnt swerved sufficiently to miss the old blue bus that was crowded with Vietnamese civilians, pigs and chickens that was waiting to cross. I thought it strange that there was only one casualty, considering the damage to the old bus. One old woman was desperately trying to hang on to a thirty-or-so-pound pig she had tied with an old piece of rope. His loud squealing as the old woman tugged at him, mixed with the clucking of the chickens, made the moment seem surreal.
Well MEDEVAC her to division and try to find out where shes from. Some compensation will have to be made to the family. Doc, you stay here until the chopper comes, ordered the Battalion Commander.
I was within a stones throw of the camp and had been left alone with the Vietnamese. After several moments, a middle-aged woman walked to where the body lay and gently covered her face with a white lace handkerchief. I was embarrassed that I hadnt thought to do that myself.
The chevrons on my collar had lost their paint and my tropical utilities were faded from the months of wear. I had learned to harden my heart and numb my brain with alcohol in an effort to maintain my sanity in the midst of the cruelty brought on by the war. I was becoming a different person and I didnt like the feeling. I reflected on some of the more disturbing events of the past couple of weeks. A few days earlier, Dan and I had gone to Battalion Headquarters in Phu Bai to pick up supplies. We had caught a ride with a big six-by whose crew was in the process of exchanging the old M-14 for the newer M-16. We had come upon a small Vil a few miles out where a CAC detail was stationed. I stood up to stretch my legs and looked down in the midst of the gathering. Propped up against a small building directly in front of me was a dead Vietnamese. He had been stripped naked and was propped up in a manner that his genitals were exposed in a grotesque manner. The driver was talking from the cab of the truck to one of the marines near the corpse.
Whats with the naked Zip?
ARVN killed his ugly ass last night.
What do you have him out there like that for?
Had quite a few probes on the perimeter past few days. We thought it would be a good idea if the VC see what will happen to them if they fuck with us.
I felt the presence of evil and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. The ARVNS killing Garbage Girty was one thing. But the idea that American Marines would have such little regard for another human being was incomprehensible to me. There was something inherently wrong here and I was ashamed. I was too meek and cowardly to voice my opposition. A few days before, one of the Staff Sergeants from the sniper section had come to the BAS.
Doc, I think I need to talk to someone.
Whats troubling you, Sarg?
I been in the mother fucking Bush too long.
How long you been out there, Sarg?
Ever since we got in country. He was built like a football player and his voice was quiet and controlled but beads of sweat stood out on his handsome, black face.
Sit down, Sarg. He took a seat.
Tell me whats going on.
You know I go out and live in the mother fucking trees and shit with my BAR (Browing Automatic Rifle). I take all the stuff I need with me and just make myself comfortable. I spend my days scanning the area with my scope. If I see someone who looks like a VC, I blow their ass away. The other day I was watching this Vietnamese come across the patty. A couple of six-bys were passing and all of a sudden he acts like hes hoeing rice. I zoomed in on him and his hoe was an AK-47. I dropped him right on the spot.
Damn! That has to be tough.
Doc, whats happening is, Im beginning to get off on this shit. I love that look of surprise on their face when that round hits them right between the eyes. It ain't normal what Im feeling, Doc. Something bad is happening to me.
Sarg, lets get you back to the Medical Battalion to talk to someone. The Sergeant hadnt returned. Maybe they admitted him or transferred him out of country. The noise of the chopper brought me back to the moment. The war was changing all of us. The thought crossed my mind maybe we should all get blown away. How could we ever go back and live a normal family life after all of this?
It was the evening of December 23rd. We were pretty pleased that the United States and North Vietnam had agreed to a cease-fire over the Christmas Holiday and the coming 1967 New Year. The sound of the bombs being dropped by the high flying B-52s had ceased. The Top Stew Burner had promised us turkey with all the trimmings on the 25th. The heavy monsoon rain beating down on the tent gave us a cozy feeling. We had broken up our card game around 2300. I had just dozed off. The sound of someone talking loud startled me awake; then I heard the motor of a jeep start. I didnt hear anything that really alarmed me so, after assuring myself all was well, I closed my eyes again.
Doc! someone yelled through the flap of the tent.
Yeah! I answered. The Sergeant Major pushed the flap of the tent aside and stuck his head in.
Strike your tent, were breaking camp, he said and immediately left.
What the hell? complained Dan and he sat up on the edge of his cot and lit the Coleman lantern. Doctor Steineman came into the tent.
3/26 took four hundred rounds of 180-millimeter mortars last night somewhere up near the DMZ. Weve been ordered to go give them support.
I thought they werent supposed to be any major troop movements, whined Dan, as he reached for his utilities.
The camp was alive in the darkness. We knew it was useless to offer any resistance, orders were orders. We got dressed and rolled up our seven-eighty-two gear with our personal items. Most of the medical gear was still packed in the tactical boxes. We quickly nailed the lids shut and closed the metal container that held the Dispensatory Set. We, then, carried it all outside and set it in front of the tent. I looked toward the sound of the throbbing engines of the big six-bys. I could see the rain falling in torrents in the headlight beams.
WELL TAKE IT DOWN LIKE IT WENT UP, yelled Dan and started kicking the pegs that held the guidelines down in the soft earth. We dropped the big, wet tent in the red clay and rolled it into a regulation fold. The normal four-hundred-and eighty-pound tent had at least doubled its weight. When our truck, arrived we attempted, in vain, to load it ourselves. No one else was having it any easier with their wet burdens. We joined forces, even the Chaplain helped and, little by little, we rolled the massive canvases on one of the six-bys.
We were already soaked to the bone and the rain pelted our faces as we climbed in the back of the open-air truck. We got as close as we could against the cab and hunkered down. My teeth chattered and my body shook as the truck lurched forward into the night. We huddled together under our ponchos trying to share each others body heat. Three hours later, we arrived at the Phu Bai Airport and were taken to the hangars where the Marine Helicopters were housed. We disembarked and fell into formation. At first light, we were to be airlifted. We waited silently in the driving, cold rain. Lights came on in the hooches where the Airwings crews worked. I could see them lighting their little Gook Stoves and placing them on their desks. The hangars rolling open were a welcome sight. I expected they would invite us in out of the cold rain. A half-hour past.
Fuckers dont want us dripping in there and rust out the grating, someone said. I looked at Dan. His face was purple and contorted with rage. My own anger was so great I think it must have served to keep me from going into complete hypothermia. Im still not crazy about the Airwing to this day.
The fog had the airfield completely cloaked. We stood waiting until 1400. Finally, the word came down that there was a possibility the choppers couldnt get up. They ordered us back on the trucks. Three hours later, we arrived somewhere on the other side of Hue City, right at dusk.
No time for a permanent camp. Were going to move off the road a few meters and I want you to dig yourselves a fighting hole, ordered the Battalion Commander. We hiked about a quarter of a mile and came to the crest of a little rise.
Spread out and dig in, someone yelled. We dropped our gear and retrieved our entrenching tools. Dan hit the ground with his.
This ground is as hard as hammered hell, he complained. I figured he was exaggerating and took a good swing.
Damn, I said, as my teeth jarred from hitting the hard earth. Doctor Steineman hit the earth a couple of times.
Im sleeping right here on top of the ground, he said and unfurled his rubber lady and sat down. John, did you pour the last bit of that scotch in your canteen? he asked.
Yes, sir, I answered and unscrewed the cap of my canteen and passed it to him. He took a couple of nice jolts and handed it to Dan.
Well, you damn fools can do what you want to. But Im digging me a hole, I informed my comrades and started to dig. The other corpsmen had started to shovel out spoonfuls of dirt from the hard earth.
Well share a hole, John, Dan said and walked over to where I was working. It was well after dark when we had the hole deep enough to where we could lie down and nothing vital would show above ground. Two inches of water had accumulated during our excavation. Dr. Steineman looked quite content on his rubber lady covered up with his poncho. I had an idea we were going to have company if the mortars started flying. We passed the canteen around one more time and Dan and I climbed in our hole.
We hadnt slept at all the previous night. I soon fell into a fitful sleep filled with nightmares. When I moved my legs, I could feel the water squishing between my thighs. It was a very long night and I was happy to see the break of dawn. It was Christmas day. One of the marine drivers had drained some oil from the crankcase of his big truck. He poured it on an old towel and set it on fire. We gathered around the flickering blaze.
Arent you glad you aint on some old rusty ass ship, Doc? one of the marines joked with Dan.
Youre about a dumb fuck, arent you? he answered dryly.
Lets move down range, came the order from the Battalion Commander. We packed up and humped down the hill a few hundred meters. Doctor Steineman was called away to a staff meeting. He returned within the hour and directed us where to set up the GP. We knew that if the choppers couldnt get in we might very well have our hands full if we started receiving casualties.
First, well dig fighting holes for ourselves. Then well put up the GP tent, he instructed us.
The ground was softer in the new area and we made good headway. In a short time, we had a hole about five feet long and two feet wide. Dan was down in the hole digging, and I had climbed out to give him room to work. The sun had peeped out and he had taken his shirt off. Suddenly, he looked up at me and threw his entrenching tool down and stood looking off in the distance. I thought he was going to cry.
Ive never been so disgusted in my life, he said. It struck me as comical and I had to suppress the urge to laugh.
Dont worry, Dan. Were going to get out of here, I reassured him with a smile. C-rations had been delivered and we took a rest to eat. Doctor Steineman had found the turkey ration.
Looks like Ill have Christmas dinner after all, he chuckled. The Shore Party had moved into the area with a couple of bulldozers. Doctor Steineman sat watching them work. Why dont we get one of them dozers over here and have them excavate the side of that hill over there. Well put the tent in it and will only have to fill enough sandbags to fortify the front. he suggested. We all agreed it was a great idea.
Dan made his way over to one of the drivers and a few minutes later we were putting up the tent well back inside the hill. It had started to rain again. Mail Call, someone yelled and came down the hill carrying several letters and a few packages. One of the packages was for me. I went into the tent and got my cot set up, sat down and opened my package. It was a pair of boxer shorts with a big red Santa Claus on the front with him driving his reindeer. At the top of his sleigh were two little silver bells. I was soaked to the bone; there wasnt one dry rag in my seven-eighty-two gear. I went to one of the blanket sets and took out a new blanket. It had been wrapped in waterproof canvas. The pungent smell of mothballs floated up to me. I held the heavy, wool garment to my nose and took a good whiff. I stripped down and put on my new shorts and rolled up in the blanket. A short time later I fell into a deep sleep. I kept my Santa shorts for many years. What Peg sent me as a gag, became one of my most memorable gifts.
The next morning I let my arm fall off the cot and felt it hit water. I opened one eye and looked down and saw a shower shoe floating by. Then I heard a swish, swish and looked toward the end of my cot where the sound had come from. Doctor Steineman had his utility pants legs rolled up to his knees and was wading through a foot and a half of water. We had neglected to put in drainage furrows around the tent.
Ive got to get someone out here to relieve me if Im going to make it out to Hawaii tomorrow, Doctor Stieneman informed no one in particular as he sloshed through the water gathering up his floating toilet articles. Frankly, I didnt think he had a snowball chance in hell of getting back to the Battalion area that day. I underestimated his resolve. I was surprised a short time later when I heard him on the field phone. YEAH, TODAY, he yelled into the receiver. Then he stopped and looked at me. John, you want me to get someone out to relieve you and Dan? he asked.
Hell, yes, I answered. There were other first class petty officers in the Battalion that hadnt been on a forward operation since we had arrived in country. I figured they were due. About four hours later, trucks arrived bearing the poor devils that were to relieve us. We helped them carry their gear into the muddy tent that we had just drained the water from. The look of shock on their faces at seeing what horrendous conditions they had come to was disconcerting to me. There wasnt anyway that we could make it any easier for them. Theyd have to make their own way.
Wed like to stay and help you guys but we have to go if were going to catch that truck out of here, explained Dan as we hoisted our seven-eighty-two-gear on our backs and headed for the six-by that sat idling a few meters away.
The trucks arrived in Phu Bai just as it was getting dark. We stopped and disembarked in front of the Command Post. Dan and I recovered our gear and started walking up between the rows of hooches toward the BAS.
Looks like smoke coming from our hooch, commented Dan. I looked, and sure enough, smoke was rolling out of a black stovepipe that was sticking up out of the roof.
I dont see any pipes coming from the others. I replied. We climbed up the three steps and entered the hooch. A warm toasty feeling permeated our living quarters. Chief Clements was sitting in a chair next to his cot reading the New Testament. Upon seeing us, he laid it on his cot.
Been expecting you, he said and pointed to two empty cots at the far end of the hooch. The flame from the oil burner twinkled and cast a shadow across the floor in the semidarkness. A couple of new men I hadnt met were watching us in silence. I dumped my gear on the cot.
How in the hell you get a stove? I asked turning back to the Chief.
Half of Hotel Company came down with trench foot. The doctor said we needed to bring them into Garrison and get them out of their wet boots. I was able to get a couple of these old oil burners from division so I decided to put us up one, the Chief explained.
S-4 about shit his pants when he saw the Chief up there sawing a hole in the roof. He came running over here and told him we werent authorized to alter these buildings, laughed Kirkpatrick as he started helping me unpack my wet utilities from my haversack.
I told him since the hole was already cut I couldnt do nothing about it, and I sure was sorry, but we may as well go ahead and put up a stove, grinned the Chief.
Silly fucking marines rather freeze than do anything that makes sense, commented Dan.
It was good to be warm and feel safe. We had missed the big turkey feed but New Years was coming and Dan and I were getting ready. We had made a hike to the Medical Battalion cutting through the back of the camp on the thirtieth.
John, we can follow this path and go to the big blow out at MEDBAT tomorrow night.
Yeah, great idea, Dan. You think we can find our way back in the dark?
Who gives a shit? Cant get lost here in Phu Bai anyway. The next evening found us in the packed club. Marines and corpsmen from every part of the division had managed, in one way or another, to get to the club. Men dressed in jungle utilities wearing their weapons jostled and joked with each other and told their war stories. The club had a strange custom, which I had never seen before, nor have I witnessed since.
LISTEN UP! LISTEN UP! one of the men in the forward part of the club called out and things quieted down. LETS DO A HYMN FOR SENIOR CHIEF WILLIAMS, he continued. He then held his glass up, pointing toward a ruddy looking old Chief sitting at the table with him. Everyone raised their glasses and, in unison, sang out, HIM, HIM, HIM, FUCK HIM, followed by loud boisterous laughing that could surely have been heard by the VC on the outskirts of the perimeter. The Chief didnt join in the toast but it must have been great fun for him as he gave a wide smile to all the participants. Apparently no one was exempt from this special honor as it was drank to almost everyone in the club that evening.
About eight, the party turned sour for Dan and didnt do much for me either. In the middle of the festivities, Dan looked around the crowded room at the different people in attendance.
You know how many of these sorry motherfuckers havent ever been outside the goddamn perimeter? he asked me. I took a good look around. A large number of people who worked in the Administration Section of the Division Surgeon's Office were in attendance.
Dont worry about it, Dan, I said and shrugged it off.
No, by-god. These sorry son-of-a-bitches will get their tickets punched for promotion and are going to be wearing the same campaign ribbons as the people who have served in the bush. You can bet your ass were going to have to listen to these sorry fucks tell about how they won the war the rest of our careers.
Probably, I laughed.
You know the same pricks that aint worth a fuck here in country are the same ones that are going to be getting disability for combat fatigue. The Chief who detailed corpsmen to the various units and worked out of the Division Surgeons Office was seated a few feet away. Dan had a special dislike for him. He kept eyeing him with hatred as we continued to drink.
I think Im just going to shoot that sorry motherfucker, he commented glaring at the Chief. Its the closest hes ever going to get to seeing combat, he raved. I knew he wasnt really serious, but I also knew the slightest thing could set him off. The memory of sleeping in a wet foxhole was too fresh in his mind.
Come on, Dan. Its getting close to lights out, I urged and, a short time later, we left the club and staggered drunkenly toward the compound. Arriving at the barbed wire that we had moved aside the day before, we found it had been put back into place. As we kicked it aside and cursed the sharp barbs, a young marine appeared in the darkness.
Halt, who goes there? he challenged.
Who in the fuck wants to know? answered Dan as we continued on our way.
Advance and be recognized, he ordered.
Youse en Garrison mudder fucker, youse en Garrison, laughed Dan hysterically and we kept walking.
Assholes, muttered the young marine.
A few days after the first of the year, I was under the supply fly tent (open-air tent) with the senior corpsman from Golf Company, getting him some things together to take out to the field. I looked up and saw Doctor Steineman walking toward me. He had completed his six months in the infantry and had been transferred to the Medical Battalion shortly after his return from R&R to Hawaii. He had a wide smile on his face and I was happy to see him. 2/26 had changed a lot from the first days of our arrival at Lone Tree Hill in Da Nang.
Get all the Vietnamese wormed yet, John? he joked and grabbed my hand.
Still working on it, I laughed.
John, theyve sent out a flyer to all the units looking for someone skilled in Bacteriology. The Divisions Preventive Medicine Section has a whole bacteriological laboratory and no one knows how to set it up. I talked to the officer in charge over there and I told him you had been the Senior Petty Officer in charge of the Bacteriology Department at Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital. He wants you to come over there this morning and talk to him and Senior Chief Middleman.
I tacked the lid back on the tactical box as I listened.
I think I may just be their man, I chuckled. Ted slapped me on the shoulder and smiled laughingly.
Ill tell them youre coming, he said.
I stood watching him walk back toward the Medical Battalion. He had come on foot to tell me. Destiny had tied the boy from Rural Arkansas and the Doctor, who would later teach Medicine at Harvard and do some of the countrys most important research, together for a short while. He and I would be the only two medical people from 2/26 who stayed in touch in the following years.
On the 24th of January, 1967, I checked into 3rd Medical Battalion. That same day Dan went to see the Chief in charge of detail at the Division Surgeons Office to demand he be transferred out of the infantry. A few days later, he was transferred to an Artillery Battery at Dong Ha within artillery range of North Vietnam. My life was about to change for the better and Dans for the worst. I wouldnt see him again until we boarded the same plane on our return trip back to the States.
The First Class in charge of personnel at the Medical Battalion was one of my old acquaintances from my Lab. School days by the name of Art Conger.
Damn, Messer, good to see you, he greeted and took my records. Turning to the field phone that set on the desk just behind him, he gave the lever a couple of turns. Goggins, can you come by and pickup one of our new First Class and get him set up over there in your hooch? he asked, hung up, then turned back to me. Youre going to love the hell out of this place after where youve been. No patrols, no operations, just finish your thirteen months and wait for your flight number, he smiled.
A First Class, about five-feet, six-inches shuffled into the office. He was of a slight build and his drooped over shoulders gave the impression that the weight of the cigarette in his mouth was pulling him forward. Ignoring Conger, he looked at me.
Ready? he asked flippantly like we could have been old friends or never met. I got the impression it wouldnt have made any difference to Goggins.
Yeah, I answered and I reached for my gear.
Let me give you a hand, he said and grabbed my seven-eighty-two gear and slung it over his back like it was a cotton blanket.
Thanks, Goggins, called out Conger as we were leaving.
See you at him singing tonight, he replied over his shoulder.
Goggins led me between a couple of wooden structures and on passed the chow hall to a row of five hooches. We went up the steps of the first one and I followed him back to an empty cot. There was a Vietnamese woman, about forty years old, sweeping the floor. She was wearing the standard black pajamas and white blouse. Her cone hat hung down the back of her neck, held in place with a white string chinstrap. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, chanted Goggins and the little woman smiled and slid across the floor away from him, seemingly never taking her feet off the floor. FUCKING ZIPPER HEAD, he teased as he dropped my gear on the cot. Thats Missy BOOM, one of the VCs forward observers and our house mouse. Youll know youve been in country too long when she starts looking good, he jokingly added.
Bonk, bonk, bink, bink, went our Missy BOOM.
FUCK YOU, replied Goggins.
VC come get you tonight, Missy BOOM threatened.
Here, I got this for you to sleep in; it gets cold as hell in here at night, commented Goggins as he rolled a heavy, fur lined sleeping bag out on my cot. I looked around and saw that all the occupants in my new home had one. I work in supply, explained Goggins.
Thanks, Goggins, I said. I was beginning to like him.
The Preventive Medicine Section did indeed have a Bacteriological Laboratory Kit. Unfortunately, it was still in a box somewhere back in Da Nang. But not to worry they were still in the process of moving and it would be coming up a little later. In the meanwhile, I would be working with HM1 Jake Jacobson and HM1 Andy Damian to build the countertops and shelving space for the coming laboratory. But, the priority for the moment was to build a storage shed for the many pesticides we were receiving on a daily basis. The three of us were the junior men in the Preventive Medicine Section and its only real work force. We also had mosquito control, which included cold fogging with Malathion out of the back of a big PC every evening, and rodent control.
Jake was about six-foot-four and thin as a rail. He was the nervous type and very intense. When he went somewhere, he walked very fast, leaning slightly forward, like he was in a hurry to take the next step; he talked pretty much the same way. When he tried to make a point, and it wasnt understood right away, he would start to stutter. Andy, on the other hand, was a calm Filipino who had been a Lieutenant in the Filipino Army some twenty-five years earlier during the Second World War. Andy was used to not being understood and spoke only when it was absolutely necessary. His quick smile and willingness to agree on almost anything more than compensated for any lack of communication skills he might have had. That is to say, with everyone except Jake. Jake, being senior to us in time in grade, felt we needed to match his tempo and get excited when he did, which was pretty much all the time. The calmer Andy would appear, the more upset Jake would become. He would then talk a little faster to try to make his point, which in turn caused him to stutter.
Finally after a month of arguing, cursing and fighting amongst ourselves, I had a laboratory. The kit had come down and I was surprised at how complete it was. In a very short time, I was equipped to identify most routine bacteriological pathogens and perform Ova and Parasite studies (examine feces for internal worms). And, oh, yes, Jake decided I would be assigned to rodent control within the compound. After all, he and Andy had commenced to do routine sanitary inspections in the confines of Division Headquarters and didnt have time for this very important function.
Now, John you got to put these twenty live rat traps out around the compound and run them every morning before the Vietnamese workers come on board. If you dont, theyll rob the damn things and kill the rats and take them home. They consider it a delicacy, Jake explained.
You have to be shitting me, I answered.
No, Im not. The problem is, the fleas jump off the dead rat onto people within a few minutes after they die. Thats how people get Plague.
Great! How in the hell do I keep from getting it?
We got this big metal box here thats air tight, he reached up on one of our recently-constructed shelves where we had stored the unpacked mount out gear and grabbed a big metal container, laid it on the floor and opened the lid.
We pour a bunch of Chloroform on an old rag and throw it in here with the rats. The fumes kill the rats and the fleas along with them. We then comb out the rats hair to recover the fleas so we can identify the species of the flea. The only one that carries the disease is Xenopsylla cheopis. Jake had gotten down on his knees to demonstrate how this combing procedure would be done. I gave Andy an incredulous look. He laughed silently as he watched the demonstration. I was thinking that maybe I should have stayed in 2/26. Jake was serious about doing his part in winning the war and taking a few rats and fleas out was one sure way of doing it.
Okay, so what do I use for bait? I asked, picking up one of the live traps. Jake took the trap out of my hand.
Peanut butter wrapped in a 4X4 inch gauze. Just tie it on this trigger right here, he said, flipping the wire-trigger that was hanging down. That afternoon, I put out my traps in strategic locations and my safari commenced. I was quite successful right away and, in no time at all, Jake was happily combing his dead rats in search of the dreaded Xenopsylla cheopis.
The Vietnamese rats must have been more intelligent than your average ol rat, as they would often outsmart me and steal my bait. I had prepared for these unfortunate losses in advance by making a large number of peanut butter baits to take with me to replace the stolen ones. Being moist, and not wanting them to dry out, I hit on the ingenious plan of carrying them in one of the brown cups that was used to collect stool specimens.
I had been attempting to do fecal studies for internal parasites on all the Vietnamese ladies that worked inside the compound for the past couple of weeks. I would dutifully perform the procedure and report my findings of whipworm, hookworm and roundworm to the Examining Center. I would, of course, then warn against worming them. Now, the ladies must have found it rather strange that an American Boxey (Vietnamese for doctor) somewhere had such an interest in their doo-doo. They were, of course, very familiar with the container that they had used to transport their excrement. Misey BOOM and her friends, of course, had no idea that I was the one who took such a personal interest in such things.
As fate would have it, one morning, I was late in running my traps. Around 1000, I had recovered a nice fat rat that I had managed to outsmart and went by the hooch to pick up a pack of cigarettes. Now, it was break time for Missy BOOM and her companions. When I entered, a half dozen of them were squatted down having a snack and, no doubt, discussing current events. I walked to my cot and set the trap on the floor and the container of bait on top of it. The chatter immediately picked up and the laughter began to roll. Now, the Vietnamese are very curious people and I could see right away they were trying to put together why I was carrying a box of doo doo around in one hand and a live trapped rat in the other. One of the bolder ladies came over to where I was opening my footlocker and flipped up the lid to my bait box. Seeing the little round balls of brown stuff she glanced over at the others and clapped her hand over her mouth; they all screamed with glee.
Dont fuck with that trap, I warned as she moved the lever up and down jabbering all the while to the others. I was busy and didnt think she would have the audacity to push the lever down to open the trap door. I was very mistaken. She had not only pushed it open but had locked it in that position. I looked down to see the rat cowering in the corner. I reached to close the door. Alas, too late, he darted out. GODDAM IT, the Boxey who trapped rats with doo doo screamed. The tent came alive with activity. The ladies grabbed their thatch brooms and they set off in hot pursuit of the escaped animal. Through the hooch they ran, beating the rodent in the head with their brooms. Cots went flying in one-direction, footlockers and blankets and rubber ladies in the other; around and around they went. I stood watching the action absolutely astonished. One of the ladies had hit him a good one upside the head and fractured his skull. His skull bone protruded on one side and his jawbone on the other and he had begun to bleed; the pursuit raged on. Finally, in his efforts to escape he ran back in the trap. I quickly closed the door; a cry of victory went up from the ladies. I grabbed my doo doo box and poor wounded rat and fled by the rear door, leaving the women in hysterical laughter. One of the Chiefs was passing the hooch and had stopped at hearing the commotion.
What the hell is going on in there? he asked.
You wouldnt believe it if I told you, Chief, I answered and kept walking.
There was a road that passed between our hooch and the grave registration tent. Helicopters brought in the dead and the wounded all hours of the day and night. The sound of the moving of the previous KIAs to be airlifted to the States, mixed with arrival of new casualties, were constant reminders that the war raged on. The Phu Bai Airport in front of the MEDBAT was a favorite target of the VCs Mortarmen when the fog had us socked in. Occasionally, they would drop a few rounds into Medical Battalion just to keep us rattled.
The philosophy that the lower ranks be put at greater risk might seem cruel, and perhaps it is, to those that have not studied the art of war. But the fact remains, the higher rank one has obtained, the more skill and experience that individual has in his or her field. This, obviously, makes them more valuable to their unit. If SNCO, Senior Petty Officers and Officers were put in harms way in the same numbers as junior troops, an Army at war would quickly lose its leaders. Chief Petty Officers that were required to send nineteen and twenty-year-olds to their deaths, while not taking any real risk of their own, often times became guilt ridden to the point of it influencing their judgment.
The Chief in charge of the MEDEVACS had taken it on himself to take turns with his corpsmen to fly into hot spots. He was well known in the MEDBAT for two reasons. One, when he came to the club he wore two bandoleers of ammunition; one strapped over each shoulder. The second, he was the brother of the then-well-known actor, Tab Hunter. On one occasion there was a firefight and a call for a MEDEVAC. The Chief took the flight and upon their arrival at the LZ, he left the chopper to retrieve a wounded man. In the process, he was killed. There is no question of his bravery, but the loss of his leadership to his unit was a great tragedy. I believe the advice, Dont do anything stupid to get yourself killed but always do your duty, given to me by Chief Clements was very sound, and I adhered to it.
The mortar attacks surrounding Phu Bai never lasted more than two minutes. I never jumped out of my hole and dashed off into the dark looking for someone who had started screaming, nor did I encourage others to do so. I felt it was better to wait until the mortars had stopped falling and the lights were on. I never saw anyone do anything during that short period of time that made a big enough impression on me that I changed my mind.
I dont have to tell you how tuned-in we were to the sound of mortars. Like everyone else, we had our share of pranksters and just damn fools. One old, gray headed Chief by the name of Sam McCain loved to wake us up at five thirty in the morning by throwing a baseball size rock on our tin roof a couple of times a week. All the cursing, pleading and threats only encouraged him. We finally formed a committee and went and complained to the senior man in his hooch. Two days later, WHAM in the middle of the night. That was the final straw. The next evening we went to the club and plotted our revenge. Ramondo, a big Filipino who was somewhat psychotic, red-headed Rogers, who loved a good fight, a big, overbearing Staff Sergeant from the Biological Detection Team, Goggins and myself made up the war council.
I think we ought to set their mother fucking hooch on fire, suggested Ramondo. We all laughed. Im serious, he responded, indignantly.
No, we cant destroy any government property or do anything they can use to bring charges against us, commented Rogers. We continued to drink and look for a suitable plan for revenge. With each drink, our ideas became more outlandish. It was 2130, only a half-hour to lights out when we finally hit on a strategy.
Listen, lets go get a trash can and fill it with rocks and when theyre sleeping good, well throw the whole shit and caboodle on their hut, suggested the Staff Sergeant.
Great idea, but why dont we pour about a ½ gallon of lighter fluid on top of the rocks and light them off before we throw em? asked Goggins.
HELL, YEAH, clamored Ramondo. It sounded good to me and in a short time we had gathered up several containers of lighter fluid, thirty or so baseball size rocks and put them in a regular desk size GI can. We stood poised between the club and the clubs storeroom. At 2230, we decided the time had come.
Ill pour in the fluid, volunteered Goggins and started pouring the cans of lighter fluid onto the rocks.
Ill light the motherfuckers, replied Ramondo and lit his lighter.
WHOOFFF! The can went, sending a flame of fire into the air three or four feet.
THERE YOU GO, shrilled Goggins and shoved the can in my hand. I grabbed it and ran about halfway to the enemys stronghold and let it fly, can and all. I darted between two hooches and was nearly to the other street when I heard it hit with an earth shattering, BANG! I looked back to see a stream of flaming stones rolling off the roof in every direction. The excess fluid was burning and six feet of flame cascaded to the earth. Men came flying out both ends of the hooch and dived into their fighting holes. They mustve thought Old Ho Chi Minh himself had arrived.
I quickly found my hooch and jumped into my sleeping bag. Lights had come on all along hooch row and a tremendous hue and cry went up. The men who had come under attack had by now figured out, more or less, what had happened. Had we been thinking straight, we would have gotten up and turned our lights on too. Our plan hadnt gone that far so we had to settle for pretending to be asleep. My heart was pumping adrenaline to my brain along with the alcohol as I lay and waited for what I knew was surely to come. The Ranking Petty Officer from the enemys camp soon appeared at our door.
Turn on the goddamn lights and get your asses out here, he yelled.
Goggins got up and snapped the lights on and pretended to be surprised. I got up out of my sleeping bag and sat on the edge of my cot. The Chief had stepped up on the first step and opened the door to our living quarters. I sprang to the door.
Dont come in here, Chief, I proclaimed and stationed myself firmly in the doorway with my hands on the 2 X 4 door facings. I was standing about three feet higher than he was. I was ready to kick him in the face if he took one more step. He hesitated. Ramondo grabbed his forty-five out of his footlocker, chambered a round and ran to my side.
Meanwhile, a huge crowd had gathered outside our door. In a few minutes, the OOD (Officer of the Day) appeared. He walked up the steps and I stood aside to let him in.
Whats going on in here? he asked and marched up the center of our berthing quarters.
No one answered. The seriousness of the situation had begun to dawn on us. Ramondo had put his pistol away and lay down without saying anything. The rest of us followed his example. The OOD turned off the lights. There will be a full log entry on this incident and you can explain it to the XO (Executive Officer), he said after a moment of silence. I heard the screen door slam shut as he walked down the steps. Back to your huts, he ordered the grumbling men in the street.
ASSHOLES, someone yelled over their shoulder as they strolled back to their hooch.
Thats just a taste of whats coming if you throw another fucking rock over here, McCann, called back Ramondo.
Fortunately for us, there had been an international incident in the Officers Club the night before and the XO was too busy to worry about something over in hooch row. Seems one of the Marine Corps Lieutenants took offense at an entertainment troop of three men and three ladies from Australia. He informed them that dancing around half naked with their lovers in front of a bunch of sex-starved combatants was nothing less than cruel. He suggested if they wanted to really do some good, they should fuck everybody in camp and let their boyfriends watch. A fight ensued in the Officers Club and the entertainers ended up having to be protected by a squad of marines.
McCanns throwing arm must have gone out, as he never threw another rock again until the morning he left for the States. Rest in peace, Sam. You had the last word after all.
Although I made light of identifying disease vectors a little earlier, one should not underestimate its importance to the mission of an Army in the field. General McArthur lost more men to malaria during the Second War World than he did to the Imperial Japanese Army. The flea that Jake was so conscientiously wanting to destroy was responsible for the plague in Europe during the fourteenth century. According to some reports, it killed more than eighty percent of the population in some areas. I was not unaware of these things, and although I found some of my tasks in Preventive Medicine mundane, I knew they were important.
I had the distinction of being the only man in the Third Medical Battalion who had the expertise to isolate, identify and do a drug susceptibility test on disease-producing pathogens. I had gained these skills through my suffering under the tutelage of LCDR Georgia Simpson and the awesome responsibility the pathologist had placed on me at Camp Pendleton. I was now reaping the rewards of my labor and enjoying the prestige from both enlisted and officer alike.
Although it was common knowledge Vietnam was endemic to Bubonic Plague, the American Forces had never been able to culture the organism. The big support activity in Da Nang was clamoring for someone to get them the live pathogen. Unbeknownst to me, our Commanding Officer had a keen interest in the Third Medical Battalion being the first to isolate the infamous Yersinia pestie. He had advised the Division Surgeons Office to put the word out to the surrounding CAC units if any of the local Vietnamese died with swelling in the groin area he was to be notified. It is little wonder, that one Saturday morning after a late Friday of binge drinking, he sent for me. Arriving at his private quarters with my flushed face and throbbing head, I knocked on the door.
Come in! he called.
Its me, sir, Messer from the Preventive Medicine section. You wanted to see me? He came to the door and looked at me.
Are you the HM1 that does the Bacteriology?
Yes, sir, I am.
A woman has died in a Village a few miles from here. It looks like she may have had Bubonic Plague. I want to go there and see if we can establish the cause of death. If she did die from plague, Id like to try to culture the organism. How could we do that? I was wondering if he was going to go personally.
Well, sir, if she has a bubo in the inguinal area we could just inject it with normal saline and aspirate it. If there are any live organisms present we should be able to recover them. Ill take a tube of Thioglycolate Enrichment Broth with us and we can inoculate the broth on site.
Do you think you can isolate the organism if she was infected?
Itll be a new experience for me, sir, but, I dont see why not.
How much equipment will we need to take with us?
Thirty cc's of saline, a 10cc syringe and a tube of media.
Is that all, you think?
Yes, sir, Ill do the rest in the Laboratory when we get back.
Very well! Go get what youll need and meet me in front of S-1 in a half hour.
When I got to S-1, a PC and jeep sat waiting with their drivers ready to go. In less than a minute, the Commanding Officer arrived in full flak gear wearing his pistol. He motioned me into the back of the jeep and we sped off to the perimeter and Highway One with the PC trailing close behind. A half-mile out, we came to a civilian truck that had run over a mine. The engine had been blown completely out of the vehicle. It had made a hole the size of a Volkswagen in the middle of the road and was still smoking. A squad of marines came rushing across the rice paddy toward us. They were being led by a Second Lieutenant the size of a giant. Upon seeing the eagle on the Commanding Officers collar, he walked over to the jeep and took his helmet off (Commissioned Officers werent saluted in the field for obvious reasons). I saw a string of human ears hanging off of his belt. He looked to me like he was having the time of his life. As the squad drew near, I couldnt help but notice how animated they all were. I knew from my own experience, that this kind of enthusiasm came from holding ones leader in very high regard. The whole squad had got my attention. I studied the big man to see if I could identify the quality about him that so motivated his men.
Lots of activity around here, sir. Maybe you should turn back, commented the Lieutenant.
Just going a few miles to one of the CAC units, explained the CO, indicating for the driver to proceed around the hole in the road.
Good luck, sir, the Lieutenant called after us as we sped away.
After a few minutes, I looked back at the squad. They had left the road and were halfway across the rice paddy. It looked to me like they were spaced a perfect hundred meters apart. The sight inspired me. I couldnt help but smile.
A few miles farther down the road, we came to a village with a corpsman and a marine waiting on the outskirts. The jeep came to a halt in front of them.
The body is in the fourth house up on the left, Captain explained the Corpsman and started walking alongside our jeep. As we approached, I noticed, unlike the other houses, it had a thatched roof. A good habitat for rodents, I thought to myself. Coming to a stop in front of the house, we all got together and went inside. Six or eight of the village women were gathered in the one-room house. A young woman in her early twenties was crying softly and one of the older women was comforting her. The corpse had been laid on a four-foot-high table in preparation for burial.
How long has she been dead? asked the CO.
Died early last evening, sir, answered the Corpsman. The CO then moved her pajamas down exposing the inguinal area and felt of her groin.
Yes, the lymph gland is swollen, he commented and looked at me. I took the syringe from the sterile package and filled it with 5cc of saline and passed it to him. He injected the swollen groin and aspirated a couple of ccs. I undid the tube, flamed the mouth of it with my cigarette lighter and held it over in front of him. He squirted the cloudy substance into the tube. Offering our condolences through an interpreter, and thanking them for their cooperation, we made our departure.
On returning to the Laboratory, I put the inoculated tube of enrichment broth in the incubator. There was nothing more I could do but wait and hope. The following morning I hurried to the Bacteriological Department. The tube was cloudy with growth and bubbling with gas. I sub-cultured it onto a Blood Agar Plate and waited another twenty-four hours. Everyone in Preventive Medicine was excited about the possibility of us isolating the organism. We held our breath.
The following day was Monday. I got up at six in the morning and rushed to the Lab. I took the culture out of the incubator and removed the top. It was lit up like a Christmas Tree. I did a quick Gram Stain and took a look at it under the microscope. Id never seen Yersinia pestie before but it fit the description. I immediately notified the Preventive Medicine Officer. He, in turn, notified the CO. I was directed to pack the specimen for shipment immediately and it was flown to Da Nang that afternoon. I was famous for a few days and then it was forgotten. I have kept the Letter of Commendation to remind me that I did, indeed, have my fifteen minutes of fame. But, what I remember most about the whole incident, is that big, gregarious Lieutenant with all those ears dangling from his belt.
Horrible tragedies mixed with stupidity and things that were just downright funny were everyday occurrences. Some of the characters I served with during the Vietnam era are absolutely unforgettable. The main force of the Third Medical Battalion was in Phu Bai but there was a detachment in the encampment at Dong Ha along the DMZ. Preventive Medicine had detailed a team of Technicians to the area to support the on going operations. Different Chief Petty Officers headed up the team from time to time but the two First Class Petty Officers who were assigned to the team while I was there were Ed Durante and his sidekick Bernie Ellis. Ed had a New England accent that fairly twanged when he talked. He tended to the short side and although he wasnt heavy, looked like some of his ancestors might have donated some fat cells to his gene pool. He was blond-headed, blue-eyed and wore thick, navy-issue, black, horned rim glasses. Ed was a complete extrovert and his lifes mission, it seemed, was to look for humor in the midst of tragedy and to share it with others. Bernie Ellis was taller, thinner and an introvert. They seemed to be inseparable and I never saw one without the other. Ed would tell his humorous stories and Bernie would laugh as though he hadnt heard them all twenty times before. They would often catch an aircraft down to Phu Bai, stay overnight and get drunk. It was always a delight for me to see them and I would spend as much time with them as was possible.
One evening, we were at the club and Ed was in rare form and full of beer.
Now, that Herby Jackson, hes what you call a front line, behind the lines, kind of a Chief Petty Officer, dont you see. We all sat listening intently to the New England twang, waiting for Ed to tell us his perception of our notorious friend.
What that means is, you volunteer to go to the front. That gets you all kind of attention, dont you see. Now, you take all of your gear and a couple of schmucks like Bernie and me with you and when you get there, you immediately get on the next plane and head to the rear of the rear. For example, in Herbys case, hes supposed to be in Dong Ha but hes really in Da Nang, dont you see. Bernie laughed and shook his head from side to side.
Now, the Preventive Medicine Officer thinks hes out there risking his ass to save his, but the only thing Herby is risking is catching the clap, dont you see.
Tell em what he did to you, Ed, insisted Bernie. Ed pushed his glasses back on his nose, looked down for a moment to collect his thoughts, then moved up on the edge of his chair and told us the following tale.
Well, what happened was, one time this silly motherfucker tells me, Durante, we need to go to the Da Nang Naval Support Activity and get some supplies and drink a couple of beers. I thought it was a great idea so he didnt have to suggest it twice. Well, we gets down to Da Nang and caught a ride on the back of a big six-by with some grunt and right in the middle of downtown, Herby says to the driver, Let us off on the corner. We have to inspect that restaurant over there. Now, any damn fool knows were not authorized to inspect food service facilities in downtown Da Nang because everything is off limits to the marines. But this damn grunt, he dont give a shit what we do, so Herby and I bail out, dont you see. Were walking down this side street when suddenly, Herby grabs me by the arm and jumps into the lobby of this hotel, dragging me with him, dont you see.
Ed had stood up and was demonstrating how Herby had surprised him by jerking him into the lobby so unexpected. Were all down on the floor rolling around with laughter. This encourages Ed to go on and he became more animated with his tale.
Well, he rents us this suite and we go upstairs to this luxurious room decorated with some of the finest furniture Ive ever seen. The two double beds have canopies and are covered with magnificent French linens. Once we are inside, Herby takes a radio out of his AWOL bag, puts it on the bedside stand and plugs it in. He then takes a bottle of scotch out of his bag and sets it on the dresser. Well, that surprised me but when he pulls out a blue smoking jacket, hemmed in golden lace, you know, like the ones you get in Hong Kong, and laid it on the bed, I just about shit. I mean he came prepared for a party, dont you see. Before I can recover from my shock he says, Im going to take a shower, Ed, and looks me up and down like Im some kind of a shit and adds, You know, Ed, you really need to start trying to show some class. Just because were in this shit hole dont mean you cant have a little style.
Ed has us now and is giving a performance you couldnt pay to see in Las Vegas. We are literally doubling over with laughter as Ed continues with his yarn.
So we start drinking and Herby gets on the horn and asked if they can send him up a hooker. Now, mind you, I didnt have any money with me. I didnt want to ask for a loan. I wouldnt have been able to bear listening to him lecture me on the need to keep a few bucks on me at all times so I could show a little dash. So, anyway, I decided to make the best of it and started hammering the scotch, dont you see. Well, a little later, this really foxy broad shows up and Herby sends me out to wait in the hall. I stayed out there for what I thought was a respectful amount. But, finally, I did knock, and he yells, Not yet, Ed. This goes on a half a dozen times over a two-hour period. Now, Im really beginning to feel like hes just fucking me around, dont you see. Well, after awhile, I look in and they are both asleep. So I tip toe over to the dresser where Herbys wallet is and take out this big roll of bills that wouldve choked a horse. I then get down on my hands and knees and crawl over to the bed and reach up and shake Herbys girl.
Ed had gotten down on the floor and showed us how he crawled to the bed.
I heard her come awake so I say, Ill give you twenty-five dollars to come over to my bed. And right away she says, No, no, I have boyfriend go way. I waited a little while and counted Herbys money and then said, Ill give you fifty dollars to come to my bed. This time she didnt answer right away and I knew she was thinking about it. I waited for what seemed like a half-hour but finally, she did answer. No, no, I got boyfriend already. Now, I really want to get even with this, fuck, dont you see. So I say, Ill give you a hundred dollars. This time there was a short pause and I heard her moving around getting ready to get up. I guess Herby figured he was about to lose his girlfriend, as he says, Get the fuck outta here, Eddie.
Maybe it was the place or maybe you needed to know Herby Jackson. But it was one of the funniest stories I ever heard. We almost burst our guts laughing. The evening rolled on as we drank round after around and listened to Eds humorous way of looking at life.
Now, you guys know you have to be real smart, and do smart things, to get picked up for senior chief. Ill give you an example. We all nodded in agreement.
Everyone knows the Ninth Marines are getting the shit kicked out of them along the DMZ every goddamn day. I dont know anyone thats in one of those battalions that wouldnt kiss the Division Surgeon's ass in front of the flagpole for a transfer. But you can believe this shit or not. Theres a Senior Chief by the name of John Tuomala thats TRYING TO GET INTO ONE OF THE BATTALIONS. Says he wants his own battalion in combat. You go figure that shit. Hell probably be picked up for Master Chief as smart as he is, laughed Ed.
And so it went until the club closed and then to the hooch and on into the early morning. It was people like Ed and Herby who made our life tolerable. Although, I must admit, I wasnt happy when Herby stole a generator from the Seabees, manifested it on a C-130 and had it flown to one of his buddies in a grunt battalion. The Seabees were holding inventory for their rotation to the States when they discovered it missing. They tracked it to Preventive Medicine and threatened to hold up everyones flight date in the section if we didnt come up with it. I was glad they didnt stay mad when Herby gave it back. The Seabees seemed to be understanding about marines stealing from them. They had almost everything and the poor old marines hardly had anything. The VC had blown 2/3s generator away somewhere up around the DMZ and, according to Herby, the Seabees had two or three they didnt even need. Besides, I just borrowed it for a few weeks, he said.
Now that I think about it, Ol Herby was a regular Robin Hood and, from time to time he did, indeed, show a little style.
A couple of days later, a Senior Chief came in the back door of Preventive Medicine. I was pouring Media and Andy was working on a logbook. The Chief was in full battle dress. He wasnt a big man but he looked powerful with broad shoulders. His face was set in rigid determination. He stopped at the sink across from where we were working, turned on the faucet and filled his canteen. I waited for him to speak, but he never looked in our direction. He hesitated long enough to screw the cap back on his canteen and strolled on into the Preventive Medicine Office. Andy looked at me.
Senior Chief Tuomala, he remarked.
About a friendly shit, I replied. Andy laughed silently and returned to his work. I wouldnt see Senior Chief Tuomala for another two years.
A short time after that, I was going to chow around 1140 in the morning when I saw dozens of bodies stacked in front of Graves Registration. One of the young marines came out and was checking the name on a dog tag of one of the KIAs.
Whos been hit? I asked.
2/26 walked into an L shape ambush along the DMZ. Over four hundred WIAs and thirty nine KIAs, he answered. My heart jumped and I hurried to the triage area. Choppers were continuing to pour in. I looked for a familiar face among the wounded. The face of 2/26 had changed.
Mes, someone called in a high-pitched voice. I turned to see Hospitalman Farmer, one of the old original crewmembers, being carried into the ward. He had a bandage around his chest and his flak jacket and helmet were riding on the stretcher with him. I ran and grabbed the handle of the stretcher to free up the attendant and he ran back to triage.
What happened out there, Farmer? I asked. His voice trembled with excitement.
They shot the hell out of us and we couldnt figure out where it was coming from. The fighting was so close I dropped my flak jacket to work on someone, and then I was hit. Sometime during the melee one of the VC scooped up my flak jacket. I guess one of the marines must have blowed his ass away, as when I got on the MEDEVAC chopper this Dink had my flak gear on. Can you believe that shit, Mes?
Damn, thats close as it gets buddy. We had come to the ward and the Senior Corpsman directed us to a cot near the front entrance. He had taken the admission sheet and was reading it. I helped Farmer from the stretcher onto the cot.
Chest wound, commented the Senior Corpsman.
A month to go, and I get hit, complained Farmer.
Youre on your way to Yokosuka, Japan in a few hours and, if you got less than a month to do, you wont be coming back, commented the Senior Corpsman.
You did good, Farmer, I said and gave him a pat on his leg.
The wounded and the dead came in all afternoon. I went back to Preventive Medicine with a heavy heart. That evening, I went back to see Farmer but he was gone. I went to the prisoner of war ward to see the benefactor of his flak jacket. He was lying with a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his stomach. I looked into the dark eyes of a kid who appeared to be no more than seventeen years old. He was scared and in great pain. I went there to hate him, but instead, came away sickened at the senseless killing of kids on both sides.
The same men who could be heroes under fire could do unimaginable acts of debauchery when they were left idle. The influence of alcohol, mixed with boredom and lack of purpose, created a kind of insanity in the Medical Battalion. The Commanding General had issued an order that we were to consume only two beers a day. I sincerely tried to keep my consumption down to six a day through the week and twelve on Saturday and Sunday. When I think about it today, I realize that, within itself, was kind of an insanity.
In June, we had a cot come open and within a couple of days we received what I can only describe as a crazy man. I wont give his name out of respect for his family, but I sincerely believe he should have been locked up somewhere in a psychiatric ward. He was a hummer and hummed constantly both day and night. He had been assigned to one of the companies within the Battalion, but as far as I know, he never went to work and spent most days lying on his cot humming to himself. Occasionally, he would get up, growl like an angry bear, wander around and take care of his personal needs. His pinups were of a German Shepherd dog and Medusa (female from Greek legend with snakes for hair).
As time went on, I learned he had been the Chief in charge of the medical personnel in one of the battalions. The Battalion had been sent out of country to Okinawa to re-supply their mount out block. The Chief had spent his time on liberty getting drunk, instead of paying attention to business. When the Battalion came back to Vietnam all the medical gear was missing. That linked with the fact his wife had divorced him just before he was shipped out had apparently driven him over the edge.
He was a source of irritation to all of us with his constant complaining about us making too much noise for him to sleep. Never mind it was daytime, and he was driving us nuts with his infernal humming. The men who worked for Goggins were always looking for him for one thing or another. They would come into the hooch at various times of the day and ask his whereabouts. This did little to endear the Chief to Goggins, as this further disturbed his all-day siestas. Over a short period of time, the two came to detest each other. Its little wonder, that in our boredom, we contemplated daily how we might be able to add to the Chiefs misery.
One Saturday night, as we sat drinking, Goggins hit on an idea.
Do you guys remember that old joke about calling someone up and asking for someone three times and then the person calls and asks if anyone has left them a messages? Yes, we all remembered that. And from the idea Goggins had conceived we hatched out a plan. Messer, you go down to the hooch first and ask the Chief if he knows where I am. A couple of more beers and away I went to play my part.
Chief, do you know where Goggins is at?
NO, I DONT KNOW WHERE THAT SKINNY MOTHERFUCKER IS NOR DO I WANT TO. I went back to the club and gave my report of the Chiefs irate behavior. About fifteen minutes past and it was the Staff Sergeants turn. This was going to be fun so we all sneaked down to listen.
Chief, have you seen Goggins in the past half hour?
I HAVENT SEEN THE SON-OF-A-BITCH. NOW, LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE. Back to the club we went and laughed ourselves into a frenzy, thoroughly enjoying our new game. Two beers later, it was Romandos turn.
We were all crouched down behind the sandbags trying to be quiet. Romando let us all get settled down. He then entered the front screen door and let it bang shut. We heard the Chief grunt with annoyance.
Cheap, yu sea Goggins tonight?
GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, he screamed over and over as he sat up on the edge of his cot. It was so hysterical we had to rush back to the club in order to let go of our laughter lest the Chief suspect something.
Finally, it was time to send Goggins in for the kill. We took our positions up once again behind the sandbags. Goggins came quietly in the back door near where his cot was located and went over and unlocked his footlocker. The Chief sat morosely on his bunk, giving him the evil eye. Goggins turned and looked at the Chief. I think he would have liked to have forgotten the whole matter, but he knew we were all waiting and listening.
Anyone been looking for me, Chief? he asked, meekly. The Chief leaped off of his cot, rushed to his footlocker and grabbed his forty-five.
YOU CRAZY COCKSUCKER, he screamed jacking a round in the chamber. Goggins took one look at the Chief and took off out the back door like a bat out of hell. The Chief was dead on his tail waving his pistol in the air.
IM GOING TO KILL ALL YOU BASTARDS, he screamed. We all took off running in different directions. We figured he was just crazy enough he might do it. Finding ourselves a safe place, we laughed and sipped beer until around mid-night. Sneaking back to the hooch, we found the Chiefs cot empty. Later, we learned he had sought refuge in B Companys Administrative Office. The next morning I heard him come in the back door and go to his cot. URGGHH, URGGHH, he growled.
The Vietnam War was different than other wars. It was about body count and not taking territory. Time in country determined when you would go home and not when the war was over. The insanity of this philosophy will, no doubt, be discussed as long as the United States remains a nation and beyond. But, my war was coming to an end.
The government had contracted with civilian airlines to fly its military personnel out of Vietnam. Headquarters Third Marine Division counted the number of men who would be rotating home each month and issued each of them a number. If you were given number one, youd be the first man out and etc. The airlines would advise Headquarters how many seats were available each day and the date of your departure could be calculated by knowing your flight number.
It was the first day of August, 1967. My flight number was 1437. I would be leaving Phu Bai on the fourteenth of August. My tour of duty had started when the USS Henrico set sail with 2/26. I was jubilant from the day I received my number. I could finally let myself think about being with my family once again. Andys and my flight numbers were so close we would be leaving Phu Bai on the same plane to go to Da Nang to catch the big bird to the world. To say we had a short timers attitude, would be an understatement. Thirteen days and a wake up, dont start no long conversations with me, tell someone that gives a shit, was in our mouths day and night.
We had a not-so-subtle reminder that we hadnt quite made it when a planeload of homebound marines and corpsmen went down on a C-123 between Phu Bai and Da Nang. CPL Scott from Motor Transport had checked out the PC to me every morning for the past six months. He had escaped the heat of battle but the war claimed his life anyway. I had seen him the day before and we congratulated each other on having successfully completed our tours in the Nam. I just couldnt believe he was gone. They had not found the plane or the wreckage when I left Phu Bai. I dont know to this day if they ever did. The war had given me one last reminder of its cost in human tragedy.
On the night of the twelfth, Andy and I packed as we drank the evening away. The next morning we went to the airport across the street. Andy had filled his canteen with bourbon and would take a little sip when time and conditions permitted. As we waited in line, he continued to nip it along.
Hey, you! the Flight Attendant called to Andy. Andy ignored him and smiled his silent laugh. The Sergeant was not to be dismissed so easily and approached where we were waiting. You were warned not to show up drunk, he proclaimed loudly.
Whos drunk? asked Andy.
Let me see your canteen, ordered the Sergeant. I left Andy arguing with the Sergeant. I had no intention of missing my flight for Andy or anyone else. Andy caught up with me a few hours later. He had sobered considerably and Im happy to report he stayed that way the next twenty-four hours.
The Da Nang SNCO club was like old home week the night of the thirteenth. Kirkpatrick, Dan, Oscar Willis and half a dozen others sat with me as we sipped our beer and told war stories. I couldnt help but notice the wrinkles around Dans eyes. He tried to smile but the hard, sad look never left his face.
So, tell us about being in the Artillery, Dan, someone asked. He didnt answer right away. We all waited respectfully as he collected his thoughts.
The worst mistake of my life was leaving 2/26. They flew me in there on a chopper. We came in low and fast, taking rounds all the way. I knew then, I had stepped in shit. The marines were living in holes like ground hogs. We got hit every goddamn day I was there. One night they hit us so hard they blew the tires off the 105s. We were out there turning them by hand to return fire. I was so scared, I cried all night like a baby. The next day I sobbed like when I was a kid and had cried too long.
Damn, buddy, I commented. He looked at me and I felt guilty for having had it so good the past six months. Kirk picked up his drink in the embarrassed silence that followed. Then Dan chuckled. You want to hear something funny? he asked. We all waited. The next morning after the attack when they blew the tires off the General from Division came in on his chopper. He looked around and said, I can see you boys have got them on the run now, and someone asked, Hows that General? Look how far these rounds are spaced apart, he answered. Can you believe that shit? You couldnt take one step without putting your foot in a hole. It was like being a one legged man out there walking around. Theyll never get my ass back over here. Ho Chi Minh can have this fucking place as far as Im concerned. We ordered another round.
Well, unless they mortar our sorry asses tonight well be leaving this shit hole tomorrow.
Ill drink to that.
The next day we stood in formation watching the big orange and white Boeing 707 come in for a landing. Once it touched down, the hatch was opened and the ramp was lowered. A few minutes later, marines appeared in the door of the plane. The Marine Flight Attendant called us to attention and we started our march forward. A few meters from the plane we passed the men who were relieving us. Their green utilities looked liked they had just been issued. The black paint was still on their chevrons. A reverent silence encompassed us. We knew a lot of these men wouldnt be making the return trip home. We were the lucky ones. No one knew better than we did that this was nothing to jeer about. Thirteen months can be longer than a lifetime in a place like Vietnam. I felt only compassion for these warriors.
Soon, we were seated on the beautiful air-conditioned plane. We were a sorry looking lot in our faded clothes and colorless boots. Most of us were twenty pounds lighter than we were when we arrived. I looked around at the hard eyes and weather-beaten faces. Oscar Willis sat just across from where I was. He had a big smile on his ebony face as he shook his head up and down and repeated over and over, Yes, sir. Yes, sir. The pretty stewardesses in their mini skirts walked up and down the aisles joking with us. The plane lurched and moved forward, turned and taxied down the runway. The stewardesses working the forward part of the plane walked to the front, sat down on their little jump seats, fastened their seatbelts and smiled out at us. The sound in the cabin changed as the big plane lifted off and I knew we were airborne. Suddenly, without warning, a spontaneous yell went up and hats went flying from one end of the plane to the other. Yes, sir. Yes, sir, repeated Oscar as he looked out the window and down at the rice paddies.
We were finally going home. Little did we know that our sacrifices would be acknowledged with jeers, curses and accusations of being baby killers. The wounds inflicted on us by our countrymen would be a lot longer in healing then the ones we received from our enemies.