Now that I had graduated from college, a Marine school, and an Army school, it was time for the Mother of all Senior Trips. I flew commercial across the country to San Francisco in April 1966. I was wearing summer khakis and found S.F. to be quite chilly that time of the year. A Boeing 707 chartered from a commercial air carrier flew us to Okinawa, with a refueling stop in Guam. The seating was arranged for the maximum number of passengers and every single seat was full. There were no movies, no peanuts, and no fun. When we got to Okinawa, I’m sure we got shots for every disease known to man plus a couple more. We were given a gammagoblin shot with a large needle in the butt. The word was if you didn’t want a sore bottom, don’t sit down for the next few hours. For medicinal purposes only, I went to the O Club and drank standing up that evening. It worked.
After a couple of days it was on to Vietnam. I flew in a C124 Globemaster cargo plane for most of a day. It had web seats and lots of noise and vibration. (That model of aircraft was so old, it was out of service by the time I came back for my second tour!) I always seemed to get ships and planes that were past their expiration date.
On April 7th, my mother’s birthday, I landed in Danang, the 2nd largest city in South Vietnam. When I walked down the plane’s cargo ramp and stepped onto the tarmac it was hot and dusty. Red Laterite dust was blowing across the airfield. I was to become well acquainted with Laterite during my tour. When it’s dry, the fine dust gets into everything; eyes, ears, nose, mechanical items, rifles, etc. When it’s the rainy season it turns to sticky mud that will pull your boot off your foot if your laces are not tied.
Here I was 12 time zones away from Florida, in the middle of a war. I was an eager student to learn all I could so I could do my job and stay alive. It was depressing, because a lot of the first officers I met were short in country, due to rotate out in a month or two. The USMC had put overseas rotations on a 13-month basis for years. When I finished my first month, what a bummer; I had to repeat that month a year later. In late 1966 or early 1967, a ruckus arose over how long we were serving in Vietnam. The Secretary of Defense came out on TV and said no one had to do more than a 12 month tour. WRONG! My first tour I spent 13 months and 1 week in country. With travel time I was gone 13 and a half months. I wasn’t the only one to be on the receiving end of the transportation foul-ups in the early days of the war. As with any business, the DOD got better with experience and my 2nd tour was 12 months as promised.
My artillery unit was E battery, 2nd Battalion 12th marines, but I was attached to “Hog” company (as we fondly called it) 2nd battalion, 9th marines, south of Danang, as an artillery forward observer (FO). It was my job to call in artillery fire and adjust it onto the target(s), without blowing my fellow Marines or myself to kingdom come. When I first arrived in country, I spent a few days in the rear where I was issued combat gear and given a rough orientation as to how things worked, while getting acclimatized. The term “in the rear” was a misnomer. There were headquarters areas where there were lots of troops around, but no place was safe from rocket or mortar fire.
In Vietnam, it was an education in the realities of the world. Suddenly all of the things I had taken for granted weren’t there. Things like my favorite brand of toothpaste, deodorant, a cold coke, clean ice (no diarrhea-causing bugs or ground-up glass in it) were suddenly either out of reach or hard to find. When the US military PX first opened in Danang, even though there weren’t any women allowed in a combat zone, it only had two items available, one of which was sanitary napkins. Duh? During the war the PX in-country and in the States sold cigarettes for $1 a carton and a case of beer for less than 10 cents a can. Many teenagers developed a smoking habit and a drinking habit in the military. Years later the military finally woke up to the problems they were causing with these cheap readily available health destroyers. For instance, Navy ships are now non-smoking areas.
In 1966 there were frequent Coups in the Republic of South Vietnam. One occurred shortly after I arrived. A South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Colonel wanted to take his unit to Danang to get himself a good position in the new government, so he abandoned his fortified position and took off for glory. The fort he left behind was full of recoilless rifles, Bouncing Betty anti-personnel mines, mortars, and M-79’s with plenty of ammo for all of them. F-4’s were sent to bomb it, trying too late, to deny the VC (Viet Cong) access to all of those goodies.
April 15th, H/2/9, along with an EOD (explosive ordnance detection) team, a section of mortars, and a new artillery observer was sent down Highway 1 to pick up and/or blow the remaining ordnance. It was my first day in the field and I was a green and inexperienced 2nd Lieutenant. I had an experienced sergeant as an assistant FO, who I probably drove crazy asking questions, trying to get up to speed as fast as possible while still staying in one piece. We settled in a dry rice patty for the night and he started digging a foxhole. I asked him if he thought one was needed and he told me he always dug one. I figured that if he thought it was prudent, then so should I. The next morning at 04:00 we started receiving those missing recoilless rifle (RR) rounds, mortars, and a lot more. Was I ever glad to have that foxhole as I heard the swishing sounds of numerous recoilless rounds going over my head.
Quoting from the After-Action Report (a tattered copy of which I still have): “At the beginning of attack, the 81mm section commenced firing and one gun having fired 4 rounds received a direct hit on the tube by a 57RR round. The 60mm mortar section received one 60 or 81mm mortar round in the gun pit. A total of 150 to 160 incoming 60 or 81mm mortar rounds were received, including 10 81mm WP (White Phosphorous) rounds, in the first 15 to 20 minutes of the attack. Upon commencement of artillery fire, the mortar and RR fire ceased. A total of 323 HE (high explosive artillery) rounds and 72 (artillery) illumination rounds were fired. USMC casualties were 7 KIA and 37 WIA.” One of the dead was a Platoon commander. He had gone through TBS with me, but was in B Company, so I didn’t meet him until I got to Vietnam. We shared a tent for a couple of days before we headed out to the ARVN fort. He was married just a month before leaving for Vietnam. What a waste!
It wasn’t till near the end of my tour that one of the marines that had been there that night told me that he had seen some of my artillery fire take out the VC mortar crew. I had been too busy, trying to fit all of me in that fox hole, while adjusting fire to notice that the incoming had been reduced to just small arms.
Here I was only nine days in country and wondering if I was going to make it for the next 12 months. We picked up those Bouncing Betties, the hard way, for the next few months. The antipersonnel mines were called Bouncing Betties because when you stepped on one it would bounce up waist-high and explode. The marine that stepped on it was always killed in a particularly vicious manner. Others nearby were usually wounded as well. Between boobie-traps, snipers, and an occasional mortaring we lost a hell of a lot of good people. (In Vietnam we called them booby traps, which was anything that was rigged to explode when tripped or stepped on. They were the ultimate expression of workplace violence! In Afghanistan and Iraq they became known as an Improvised Explosive Device or IED. Maybe the name was changed due to the Me-Too Movement?
When I wasn’t out on patrol from that forward position, I would stand watch in the company headquarters bunker, monitoring the radios. One day as I was sitting in the bunker, this big guy sticks his head in the door and says, “Hello, my name is Wayne.” Everyone knew who John Wayne, the most famous movie star at that time, was. I said welcome and shook his hand. His big paw swallowed up my hand. After all the war and cowboy movies he was in, on that tour of Vietnam was the only time he ever heard a shot fired in anger, when a sniper fired and missed his entourage.
While sitting in the bunker, I read Joseph Heller’s seminal satirical war novel “Catch 22”. As I read it I would look around the bunker and see living examples of the characters in the book. It didn’t take long to figure out the absurdity of war. It required a strong sense of humor to keep my sanity while all around me the world was going to hell in a handcart. The villagers would build bunkers next to their homes to protect them from shelling. We would come along and blow them up so the enemy couldn’t use them. Then we would come back later and try to win their hearts and minds. If that’s not a Catch 22 for the villagers, I don’t know what is. Later we solved this conundrum by uprooting the villagers from the land they had lived, farmed, and buried their ancestors on for generations, moving them to “safe areas” which is a euphemism for a refugee area. Then their villages were declared a free-fire zone, which is self-explanatory. When I returned for my second tour, I flew over numerous villages I had walked through in1966. All that was left were the hedgerows and the outline of the floors of the huts. The rice paddies and fields were all dried up and barren. Win their hearts and minds???
I found the Vietnamese villagers to be fascinating. Their culture was so different from anything I had ever observed. Due to the war there weren’t any military age men in the villages, only women, children, and old men. We never knew if this was because they had been seconded into the VC, were drafted into the army, or hiding from both. The women would carry two buckets, of rice, water, or whatever, hung on a section of bamboo on their shoulder. I got intrigued by how they could do that without it hurting their shoulder, after I tried it myself. When I touched a woman’s shoulder, it felt like bone. I never knew a callus could be that hard. I guess they start as girls and by the time they are adults the callus is fully developed. I felt sorry for the people because they were caught between the communists and the government forces/Americans. Whoever was in the village at the moment had the guns and wanted the villagers to be loyal to them. If they told us where the booby traps and mines were planted, the VC would come back later and kill them. If they didn’t and we tripped one we were severely aggravated with them. We solved that problem by using them as human minesweepers. They had to know where the explosives were so they could farm around them without getting hurt, since the VC didn’t want to cut off their food supply. We would gather up a half of a dozen villagers and march them in the direction we were headed. If they wouldn’t walk somewhere we knew it was booby-trapped. We probably saved a lot of legs, arms, and lives using this method. Disclaimer: No villagers were hurt during these operations. Can you imagine what the bleeding-heart liberal press would say about this, if it were done today?
Vietnam ‘s landscape for the most part is not tank friendly. As a result, we didn’t patrol with them often, but I do remember two different instances when we had tanks with us. One day we were walking down a dirt road with a couple of tanks when the one right behind me rolled over a mine and one of it’s treads was blown off. I had walked past that mine, but I was walking along the edge of the road and the tank was rolling down the middle. Lucky me! The second time I was riding on top of one when a marine sitting right behind me thought he saw something suspicious in the bushes and opened up on full auto with his M-16 without saying a word. I thought we were under fire, so I left that tank and jumped into a dry ditch beside the road in record time. Everyone got a good laugh out of that one.
If you aren’t interested in weapons you might want to skip these next two paragraphs. I was issued a .45 semiautomatic pistol as a side arm. I could draw a rifle if I wanted. I figured that if we got overrun, I would be too busy calling artillery on top of us to have time to use a rifle. That was the last option if overwhelming forces overran us. When I arrived in country the Army and Marines were carrying m-14’s which were designed for fighting on the plains of Europe. They were heavy and so was the 7.62mm ammunition. The Ninth Marines were the first Marine unit to get the lighter M-16. Not only was the rifle lighter, but so was the ammo, so an individual could carry more. When we first got them, we had some problems with them jamming. The point man on one of our patrols walked up on a VC and went to shoot him and nothing happened! Luckily the VC didn’t stick around and shoot the poor point man. I never carried an M-16. I did carry a 12-gauge shotgun for a while. I bought an M-2 automatic carbine from a Vietnamese soldier. It was light and easy to carry, but a bad idea. We could identify many calibers of weapons, including artillery by sound after being in country a couple of months. Since it was a favorite weapon of the VC and had a distinct pop to it when fired, I figured if I had to use it at night my fellow marines would think a VC had gotten into our position and shoot me! I traded it to a marine that had brought his own .45 to Vietnam. He had purchased it from the NRA. The Singer Sewing Machine Company made it during WW II.
The marine artillery available to me came in three sizes. My battery was made up of six 105mm howitzers with a range of 7 miles. It was a workhorse of the army and marines since WW II. I sometimes had access to a battery of my favorite, the 8-inch self-propelled howitzers, and an extremely accurate weapon with a range of 10+ miles. (Note: When they retired the 8-inch, their gun barrels were initially used as the outer casing in the manufacture of the GBU-28 bunker buster bombs, which were used in the Iraq War.) The third piece was the 155mm howitzer with a range of 9 miles. The 155mm had been around since WW II. All three of these artillery pieces have since been retired by the US military, but are still in use in other countries. Artillery is very accurate azimuth-wise, but range is a different matter. If the maps were off, if a gunner made a mistake with how many bags of powder went in the chamber, or the weather was a factor, etc. it meant a difference in how far the round traveled. If the round fell short and you were on the gun-target line it meant you were in deep kimchee! If I were on the gun-target line, I would start further out with a smoke round and walk the rounds in closer before I called in high-explosive rounds.
In the fall, the 9th Marines were so beat up, we were moved up to Phu Bai, as air base security, to “have a break”. The area we had been covering south of Danang was nicknamed “The Bloody Bucket” by the Pentagon. It wasn’t large battles but constant sniping, booby traps, and occasional mortar attacks that were wearing down our ranks. Almost every time a platoon went out on patrol, they took casualties. In 1966 the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines was so depleted that we had 2nd Lieutenants, instead of Captains for company commanders and sergeant E-5″s, instead of Lieutenants as platoon leaders. In 1966 the 9th Marine regiment’s casualty rate was over 100%!
Our battalion was assigned airport security at Phu Bai, a small airfield south of Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam. It was a relatively quiet area which was welcomed by everyone except our “John Wayne want-a-be “, battalion commander. For the first time since I arrived in country, I actually slept in a hootch (South East Asia Hut). We started receiving Mustang (formally enlisted) 2nd Lt’s as platoon commanders. I guess they couldn’t turn them out fast enough back in Quantico. Unfortunately, they didn’t last any longer than the ones from Quantico did.
It rained for over 30 days nonstop and algae started growing on the ground between the huts. During the winter Monsoon rains, we would send our dirty clothes out for washing by the locals. They could only dry them in their huts with a wood fire going. They would come back damp and smelling of smoke. I decided that my sweaty, reasonably dry fatigues were preferable to damp smoky ones, so my laundry was only done if it was really muddy.
One does not normally equate cold weather with Vietnam. At Fort Sill, I stood in the snow calling in artillery at night. When I lay in the rain on a hill, with the wind blowing, trying to get some sleep, I shivered just as much as I had in Oklahoma. It was colder than a bill collector’s heart and we were so miserable that we would snuggle up with another marine to keep warm and no one made any comments about sexual prefaces.
During WW II the average soldier spent 40 days in combat in 4 years. In the Vietnam War, the average soldier/marine spent 240 days in combat in 1 year. Combat is days or weeks of drudging, mind-numbing, teeth-aching boredom interspersed with moments of shear shock and terror. We would go out on patrol and walk all day long, in the hot sun, presenting ourselves as targets to draw out the enemy so we could engage and kill him. Sometimes, it would get so boring that we would wish for some action just to spice things up a bit. It sounds crazy to want to get in a firefight, but that’s just how damn boring it was on patrol most of the time. It is said that you should be careful what you wish for.
One day in the rainy season we got pinned down in a rice patty right outside of a village by a sniper at 07:30 in the morning. We tried to move out of that rice paddy, but every time we tried, we would take fire. We couldn’t call in artillery or air support because the sniper was in a village full of “friendlies”, so we lay there in the misting/drizzling rain until 5:30 that afternoon. My assistant Forward Observer was raising cane after we got up and started moving. It seems he had diarrhea and had messed his rain suit and had to throw away the pants to it. We had a good laugh at his expense. On that patrol the weather was bad we ran out of C rations and went hungry for nearly two days until the choppers could get in to resupply us. I remember all I had to eat that day was a small can of fruit cocktail.
The longest I ever had to go without a bath was two weeks. We usually rotated back to the rear after a few days, but that time we were out for a while. Sometimes we would bath in a river. It was best not to spend too much time dwelling on what was entering the river upstream. You would think that everyone would have bad BO, but that’s not the case. We didn’t smell all that much, just a little bit like dirt. Maybe it was because we were sweating all the time and washing ourselves off, or maybe it was because our noses were numb to ourselves. It could also have been because we were eating C rations which weren’t spicy.
Speaking of C rats, as we affectionately called them, the ones I ate in the beginning of my tour were left over from the Korean War, as was some of our ammunition. We worked out a good system for cuisine while out in the field. One of us would carry a couple of onions or a bottle of onion powder, someone would have garlic powder, and someone else would have a bottle of ketchup. With those condiments and mix and match of two or more different C rat meals, every meal was a feast. It’s important to remember what old William Shakespeare said about beauty lying in the eye of the beholder, since it applies to the taste buds as well. When a forward position would set up a chow hall of sorts and furnish you with powdered eggs and warm Kool-Aid for breakfast, C rats, with our special condiments, started to look down right delicious. Another “treat” was if we were working around any Vietnamese soldiers, since they would cook a big pot of rice and we would supply meat from our C rations to make sort of a casserole. One day we were set up in a village and a family invited me to share their evening meal. They had rice, a little meat (probably water buffalo), and a delicious green vegetable. I didn’t know what it was until years later I found out it was kai-lan, Chinese broccoli. I didn’t eat too much, because I knew they were poor and would have lost face if there wasn’t any food left over after the meal. I also gave them some C rats when I departed.
When we had been out in the field for several days, we would get a large box dropped off along with our C rats. The box contained a dozen or so cartons of cigarettes, candy (M&M’s since they didn’t melt in the heat) and a couple of 5-packs of cigars (which the company gunny and I would fight over). Each C ration meal had a 4-pack of cigarettes and a piece of lousy gum in it. I used to give my cigarettes away to the smokers. (You can see why it was so easy to get hooked on cigarettes.)
Water buffaloes (we called them water boos or just boos) are used as tractors to pull plows in the countryside. They are usually very docile and are mostly tended to by a young Vietnamese boy. I mention a Vietnamese because for some reason they didn’t like Americans one bit. I guess we smelled different. Sometimes we would come upon one loose in a field and he would charge us. We would have to put the animal down to avoid being run over or gored. A couple of bursts from an M-16 on full auto wouldn’t always do the trick, but an M-79 round would definitely suffice. The owner would be mad, but would have the benefit of receiving payment from the US for the dead animal as well as having it to carve up for many suppers to come. Let me take this opportunity to mention water buffalo meat. To me it tastes exactly like beef. The only way I could tell I was eating it was that it turned dark (almost black) when cooked.
You’ll note that there aren’t any pictures of combat or loading wounded onto medevac choppers. I was too busy ducking and/or calling in artillery fire when things were hot. As for the other, I never ever considered photographing casualties, they were my buddies and deserved some respect. (Although some were grinning as they left, if they thought they were going out of the country due to their wounds).
Thanksgiving was a big deal with the military. They went out of their way to fly a hot turkey dinner to the units in the field. We got the word to back up another company in a forward area up near the DMZ, so we moved into position the day before turkey day. The planning had been done ahead of time, so while we sat on a small hill, eating C rats, helicopters flew in and the company we were backing up had a hot turkey dinner, with all the fixings. That really hurt!
Leeches were a problem in the rainy season. Whenever we went through flooded rice paddies or lay on the ground in the rainy season we had to check to make sure none of the little buggers had attached themselves to us. You usually didn’t feel them until they had engorged themselves. They would start out as a thin worm-like creature that would work its way under our clothing. Once it was latched onto the skin it would gorge itself on blood until it was the size of a man’s thumb. There were several methods we used to get them off once they had attached themselves. The smokers would touch a lit cigarette to the leech. Another method was to spray it with the bug spray we carried in small plastic bottles to ward off mosquitoes. It would kill the leech. They hated salt so we could sprinkle some from a C ration package on them and they would let go. It was a mistake to try and pull them off once they were attached. Part of the leech would remain stuck in your skin and was extremely hard to remove. One marine in my outfit woke one morning, out in the field, to find one had crawled up his urethra and he couldn’t urinate. He had to be medevaced. I don’t even want to think about what was required to remove that little devil!
The Vietnamese rice farmers had a unique way of dealing with them. They would herd ducks into the paddies before they went in to plant the rice. The ducks would eat the leeches, the farmers would eat the ducks, and so goes the circle of life.
Communications between the troops and the folk’s back home was a lot cruder than it is today. There was no social media, email, etc. We had snail mail, which was free from Vietnam. We would be re-supplied in the field with C rats, batteries for our radios, etc. by helicopter. They would bring out the mail as well and we could send letters back with the chopper. If someone got a letter with a perfume fragrance, he would share it with his buddies. It was surreal to receive a sweet smelling letter out in the field. It didn’t last long because, without the invention of zip lock bags, we usually kept our letters in the webbing of our helmets where they could marinate with our sweaty heads. Sometimes when I had been in the field for several days I would tear off the top off of a C rat box and use it as a postcard. I would turn it over, write a few lines, and then write free in the upper right corner (instead of a stamp). When I was in Phu Bai I made use of a Ham radio station that was set up by the USO or some other civilian support outfit. They would contact a Ham radio operator in the town you wanted to call and that operator would dial your family’s phone number and contact you. Since it went over the Ham radio network you had to say “over” every time you finished speaking. “Hello, Honey it’s me, Over” or “Goodbye, I love you, Over,” leaves a lot to be desired. I only used it twice since it was so weird. Any Ham operator in the world, monitoring that frequency, could listen to your call, not to mention the radio operator sitting next to you in Vietnam.
One day, I went into the regimental headquarters to eat in the mess and sat down at a table next to one where Robert Mitchum, another famous actor, was eating. One of the marines in the Rifle Company wrote Nancy Sinatra a fan letter and she sent over a bunch of stickers of herself in a bikini. There was a lot of the company going into combat with Nancy’s picture stuck on the side of their helmets.
Speaking of helmets reminds of combat slogans written on marine helmets and flak jackets. One of the most common was “YEA THOU I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL BECAUSE I’M THE MEANEST MOTHER IN THE VALLEY.” Other ones were “KILL THEM ALL AND LET CHRIST SORT THEM OUT,” “KILL A COMMIE FOR CHRIST,” (kind of poetic) and “BOMB THEM BACK INTO THE STONE AGE.” My favorite was the back of a flak jacket inscribed as follows: “WE THE UNWILLING, LED BY THE UNQUALIFIED, TO KILL THE UNFORTUNATE, DIE FOR THE UNGRATEFUL.” Who says marines aren’t artistic and sensitive?
One thing I’ll never forget was the smell of the burning toilet pots. In the rear area, whoever was on the Company Gunny’s screw-up list would get the job of burning the contents of the half 55-gallon drums under each “seat” in the outhouse, with diesel fuel. It never seemed to fail that if I was entering or leaving the area, the wind would shift and we would drive through the smoke in an open jeep!
Our company was sent up in the hills to guard a bridge. We were there a couple of days when a group of young Montagnards came down the road and passed through our position. The Montagnard are indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. You can imagine what a welcome surprise this was for a bunch of horny young marines, since the women go topless. Needless to say, there were a lot of photos taken that morning. I’m sure that if the company commander had asked for security escorts for them, most of the company would have volunteered on the spot.
In October, we were sent to the DMZ, to follow an NVA path that was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Somebody thought that if we marched a battalion of Marines down the trail in the rainy season, we would make it unusable for the NVA. We followed it and accomplished the following, got lost, had a Mortar round drop on us, possibly our own H&I fire (3KIA and a dozen or so WIA, including me) and gave immersion foot to 60% of the battalion.
Once again, my luck held. When we set in for the night my radio operator plunked down near a small sapling. I told him that if we took in coming, a mortar round might hit the tree and we would be in real trouble. We moved across to the other side of the 1000-pound bomb crater where we had set up for the night. At about 11:00 a one-in-a-million shot occurred when one mortar round hit that tree and the three marines under it were killed. There was no place for a medevac chopper to land so they winched up three of the most seriously wounded in the rain and the rest of us wounded and the KIA’s had to wait till daylight to get flown out of there. I dug two small pieces of shrapnel out of my left knee with my pocketknife while I was waiting on a chopper ride. One of the eyelets on my left boot was damaged and I had a piece of shrapnel in my left hip, which is still there. After that, whenever we got incoming mortar fire, I would definitely get the heebie-jeebies.
The brass didn’t appreciate that 60% of 2/9 was on light duty, walking around in shower shoes letting the sores on their feet heal. They relieved the Battalion Commander, who was a good leader and replaced him with one that wasn’t. The new fellow was Gung Ho and didn’t seem to care that the hands were worn out from the constant sniping and mines, so he kept volunteering us for more exciting locales. You can imagine how happy that made us feel. It seemed he was more interested in his personal career, than the lives of his men.
Since I couldn’t return to the field until my wound healed, I went on a 6-day R&R to Bangkok, Thailand. A truly amazing city, it was like going to Disney World without the rides. If you ever go to Southeast Asia and can only make one destination, it should be Bangkok. They don’t call it the land of smiles for nothing. The people are super friendly, the sights amazing, and the food is fantastic.
A marine infantry battalion consists of four rifle companies. Usually one would be kept back at the battalion rear area for security and to stand by for insertion in case a platoon or company got into trouble. The duty standby company was called Bald Eagle. One platoon out of the Bald Eagle company was called Sparrow Hawk and usually was used to bailout a recon team that ran into a superior force and needed saving. It was very stressful to be called out because it meant someone was in a shit sandwich and we didn’t know if we were going in hot (under fire) or not. Usually the bad guys pulled back when they heard us coming, but we never knew what to expect.
One afternoon the company I was attached to, which was the Bald Eagle, was called out around 5:30. We were loaded up in trucks and hauled to a spot to start a night march. A Company of Marines had got into a bad one, on a hilltop, calling in artillery on themselves to keep from being overrun by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). We marched all-night and arrived at their location the next morning. That’s when I learned that I could sleep and march at the same time. On the way, our point man came upon the NVA pulling back from the battle area. They were apparently exhausted and didn’t want to fight and our man didn’t want to either, so we both went our separate ways. I have never seen anything like what we walked into that morning. Those guys had been through hell. We always respected our fallen fellow marines and covered them up with ponchos as soon as the shooting stopped. These fellows were just sitting in their foxholes with terrified stares “into the abyss”, with their dead fellow marines lying in the foxhole next to them. I have never seen people so shattered, so numb. They had the “1000-yard stare.” Actors sometimes try to portray that look, but don’t come close to the real thing. They can’t fake the dead eyes those marines had.
In the rainy season we were sent near the DMZ for some fun and games. We set up a battalion position on top of a hill. The road running up the hill turned to red mud and the 4-wheel drive trucks would start up the hill and end up sliding back down at a 45-degree angle. We would walk from our tent in combat boots and a towel to shower. We were lucky if our boots didn’t get sucked off our feet by the mud or we didn’t slip down in the goo. Our shower was a 55-gallon drum up on a wooden frame with some really cold water. The shower had some ponchos as siding, but the wind managed to get in and caress us as we took our cold shower. Shaving in cold water with a bar of soap and our lousy razor blades was a minor bloodletting. The weather conditions were so poor that the VC were smart enough to not come out and fight so the biggest problem we had was piddling around in the mud.
In order to find the enemy hiding in the jungle, General Electric created a device that could detect ammonia, a component of human sweat. There were two types. For various reasons the backpack version proved to be useless but the aircraft version saw widespread use on helicopters. However, the enemy caught on and began to place buckets of urine around the jungle to create decoys for the “people sniffers.” In the end, the device wasn’t even that great at picking up people, but it did detect recent cooking fires, which retained its usefulness
What’s not as well known is that we also used poop to our advantage. This is, again, the result of trying to track the movement of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We placed sensors along the supposed routes of the Trail but when discovered, these sensors were, of course, destroyed by the NVA. The US needed to place sensors that wouldn’t be detected or destroyed. The answer was poop — in the form of a poop-shaped radio beacon.
The Air Force dropped these sensors from the air and they would detect movement along the trail during the night, relaying the signal via radio. Since they looked like disgusting poop, the VC and NVA would often just leave them alone, thus ensuring we would be able to listen along the trail
When troop movement was noted along a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (actually a series of various trails) a B52 bombing raid (called Arc Lights) would occur. The B52’s were based out of Guam and flew so high we couldn’t hear them. They were outfitted to carry 30,000 pounds of 500 and 1000 pound bombs. When they started bombing it sounded like rolling thunder. At night it looked like lightning flashes in the far distance. While working up near the DMZ I got to observe several Arc Lights. Sometimes we would find NVA bodies in the jungle that appeared to be healthy and didn’t have any marks on them. We assumed they had died from the concussion of the bombs.
When we walked through the countryside we tried to stay on the paths that the villagers used as much as possible. The dirt was packed down and it was fairly easy to see if a booby trap or mine had been placed in the path, disturbing the ground. One of the last patrols I was on I walked by an anti personnel mine. It was planted right at the edge of the path and the company gunnery Sergeant stepped on it and blew a chunk out his backside. He was the second man behind me. Once again my luck was holding.
Another time we stopped to rest in a former village. I sat down on the edge of what had been the floor of a hut. All that remained were the four round wooden corner posts. I took off my helmet and leaned against one of the posts. I heard a loud crack as we took sniper fire. After all of the excitement was over, I went back to where my pack was and noticed a hole in the post. I sat back down and measured where I had been sitting and the bullet hole in the post. It was 6 inches above where my head had been. The bugger was shooting at yours truly. If he had been a better shot, I wouldn’t be writing this memoir and some of you readers wouldn’t be around to read it. My luck held once more.
One of the most impressive weapons we ever called in was “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” The Douglas AC-47 Spooky (nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) was the first in a series of fixed wing gunships developed by the Air Force during the war. The AC-47 was a United States Air Force C-47, (the military version of the DC-3) that had been modified by mounting three 7.62 mm General Electric miniguns to fire through two rear window openings and the side cargo door, all on the left (pilot’s) side of the aircraft, to provide close air support for ground troops. It could orbit the target for hours, providing suppressing fire over an elliptical area approximately 52 yd (47.5 m) in diameter, placing a round every 2.4 yd (2.2 m) during a three-second burst. The aircraft also carried flares it could drop to illuminate the battleground. When it fired a burst, Puff sounded like a large animal roaring. Every fifth round was a tracer so you can imagine the light show it put on for us. When the three miniguns fired the aircraft was pushed sideways by the recoil. When we were taking incoming it was a welcome site to have Puff show up and light up the night.
A doctor who served at the Med Station in Phu Bai at this time, wrote a book (“Journal of a Plague Year: 12, 20, & 5” by John A. Parrish) describing what life was like around there. He describes when, in November 1967, after a Huey crash, they brought in the bodies of a Marine General and his pilots. The co pilot was Tony, my best friend and college roommate.
After a few more near misses, but no hits, I departed in May 1967. Things were starting to get ugly back home with protests against the war. We were told not to wear our uniforms into a bar because it would likely start a fight. We were spit on and called baby killers. The most ridiculous part of it all was that most of the men in uniform hadn’t volunteered for anything. They were drafted! The print and TV media were leading no-know-nothings to protest much like social media does today. The uninformed mob berating the unwilling for unflinching in the unpopular execution of their unwavering duty. (I’ll get off my soapbox now because I’m out of un’s). It was a complete 180 degrees from the way the military and veterans are treated today. I was so surprised and very pleased when the troops came home from the First Gulf War and they were thrown a ticker-tape parade.