Loyd Served with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion,5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Survived by his mother, Rose V Jones of Minneapolis,MN. Father was deceased, Laverne Jones.
Burial: Fort Snelling National Cemetery Minneapolis Hennepin County Minnesota, USA Plot: Section J Site 2121
Loyd E Jones - Unit in Vietnam
September 3rd, 1968
Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam
CPL. Ricky Jerome Almanza
Ricky, you always took care of your men first and only then would you take care of yourself. You led by example and with a quiet, calm way that reassured those around you. You were conscientious and did a good job. Although seriously wounded, you continued to help a wounded Marine and pulled him to a safer position. It was an honor to have served with you, and you will not be forgotten..
Also Killed In Action on 3 Sept. 1968
SSGT GEORGE JOHN BELANCIN Length of service 12 years His tour began on June 15, 1968 Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 In QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM HOSTILE, GROUND CASUALTY GUN, SMALL ARMS FIRE Panel 45W - Line 30
LCpl. Larry Dale Coats M Co. 3/5 Born on Aug. 1, 1948 From TWIN FALLS, IDAHO Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 in QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM Non-Hostile, died of illness/injury GROUND CASUALTY MALARIA Panel 45W - - Line 31
PFC. PAUL EDWARD HYLAND Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 In QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM HOSTILE, GROUND CASUALTY OTHER EXPLOSIVE DEVICE Panel 45W - Line 32
Ricky Almanza, Joe Walters, Jim Quinn, Cpl. Payne, (Marine kneeling, Unidentified)
CPL. RICKY JEROME ALMANZA
Born on Oct.16, 1947 From MOLINE, ILLINOIS Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 in QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM HOSTILE, GROUND CASUALTY GUN, SMALL ARMS FIRE
Panel 45W - - Line 30
PFC. TIMOTHY EDWARD SHANOWER Born on June 11, 1948 From PERRYSBURG, OHIO Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 in QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM Panel 45W - - Line 34
Best of the Best
He was the best and the brightest of our generation. Being in his presence, you swore he belonged more in a Chemistry Lab at Ohio State University, then as a Marine with Viet-Nam looming in his future. As a recruit at MCRD, San Diego, he began to shine. First carrying the guideiron of Platoon 135, then as Platoon Honorman.
Later he became Series Honorman, being the best out of 320 Marines. But Tim would have come out on top if it were 320,000. As the rest of us grow older, that kid of 20 that was struck down in '68, will forever be out in front of us carrying the guideiron of Platoon 135 to the echoing cadence of our DI’s.~Lonie Addis
Letter from Tim's sister
Here's the pictures to add to Tim's Memorial page. I had a nice talk with Larry Walters and his son (Larry was there when Tim was killed). My brothers and I will be meeting them in the near future. Thanks so much, Debbie Siegel
Tim, Debbie and his buddy, "Ray"
om and Pop upon Tim's arrival at home from Boot Camp
PFC. TIMOTHY EDWARD SHANOWER
Click to enlarge photos...
Poem Tim's mother had saved with his pictures
I WATCHED HIM GO
I had long known it had to come and I was proud. But still, I am His Mother and still He is my Son, my little Son- mothers are like that. This morning He said "goodbye";
I watched His tall, strong figure swinging down the road. Once He turned and smiled, His lovely, loving smile, and waved - then He was gone.
Of course, I shall see Him, I hope to follow Him before too long.
But, Ah, how empty this small house is now He is gone, - how lonely! not to see Him, care for Him, hear His kind, warm voice!
No more the quiet talks of evenings when after supper, we would sit and He would tell me wonderful things. Since Joseph died, - dear Joseph! He has been my comfort
God, I understand, I know, and I am glad. Forgive my mother's longing! forgive me that I feel the sword within my heart!
-Mary Willis Shelburne
HN Russell L. Wright III
Awarded the Bronze Star
HN Russell L. Wright III Born on July 9, 1947 From RICHMOND, VIRGINIA Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 in QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM Panel 45W - - Line 34
You Are Missed, My Friend
My name is Gerald Wells, former Marine 1960-1969. I was discharged 26 March 1969 as E-6 Staff Sgt. I first met Russell when he was a civilian in 1966. He was a hip young man dating a 16-year-old girl who was to become my sister-in-law the last day of 1967. I had just return from WestPac as an 0846 artillery forward observer attached to 1-1, 1-3, and 1-9. My unit was A-1-12.
Over the course of the next 15 months or so, I got to know Russell and his mother and father. He often talked about joining the Corps, and I tried to talk him out of it. I was sure he would end up in Nam as a 0311. At some point in time he broke up with Michele, my soon to be sister-in-law, and I did not see him until Christmas Eve night 1967. I turned into a parking lot of a Catholic church driving my 1965 Triumph Spitfire (red), and there was Russell. He recognized my car, and I was so glad he did for it would be the last time I ever saw him.
I was with my girlfriend who I would elope with and marry 6 days later. We were delighted to see Russell. He told me he had taken my advice and not joined the Corps, but had joined the Navy and they were making him a Corpsman. He was in training at Quantico, Va. In civilian life he had trained to be a mortician. He was a darn ditty bopper who played a mean sax, and I always found it hard to believe this guy was learning to be a mortician.
It was a cold evening, and we chatted a few minutes, and he went into Christmas Mass, and we drove off somewhere. Less than 10 days later, I was married and on a Med. cruise attached to 3/8. It seems to me that sometime in March my wife Jackie wrote me with the dreadful news that Russell had been killed in Vietnam. I had lost so many of my own friends there that I had served with, and now Russell.
I know later he was awarded the Bronze Star. His death has always haunted me. He didn't have to go, but like I had done and thousands before and after he went. Any information about Russell would be greatly appreciated by my wife and I. Thanks and good luck.
Semper Fi, Jerry Wells
I was in the fifth grade when Michael was killed September 3, 1968 in Mameluke Thrust Operation, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines...Quang Nam, South Vietnam...He was killed in small arms fire...For years and years, I never had a picture of him, and found this clipping from a family friend...only about a year ago. I found one story of the morning of Sept 3, 1968...I sure wish I could find some photo's or any kind of info on Michael...Thanks, Bessie
Michael Wilson's Obituary
A Total of 8 Marines KIA
PFC. MICHAEL DONVIAN WILSON
Born on Mar. 9, 1948 From LIMA, OHIO Casualty was on Sept. 3, 1968 in QUANG NAM, SOUTH VIETNAM HOSTILE, GROUND CASUALTY GUN, SMALL ARMS FIRE Panel 45W - - Line 35
Loyd Ellis Jones
Loyd Ellis Jones
Private First Class
M CO, 3RD BN, 5TH MARINES, 1ST MARDIV, III MAF United States Marine Corps
Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there; I did not die.
My name is Bill Lee... I was surfing on the North High School Reunion Site, and saw your 1st Recon stuff. Semper Fi, I was a 1371, Combat Engineer, and was embedded with the
5th Marine Regiment during my combat tour.
Oct 9, 67 - Oct 29, 68.
I was going to attend the reunion, even though I was expelled from North ,(misfit) but just got over committed and couldn't make it. I told Terry Tompkins to keep me in the loop, and I will attend the 50th, God Willing. Thank you for your service.
Bill Lee the photo is me 3/29/68
Bill Lee 1968 Click the photo for Bill's Minneapolis North High School Class of '66 webpage!
Minneapolis North High - Class of 1967
Minneapolis North High School - Class of 1967 Year Book Page 160
North High School
Class of 1966
Click the photo for more Info.
Loyd E Jones - Unit in Vietnam
Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
RVN, 1968 - 1969
(Going to Vietnam - up to arrival at first unit)
by Mike McFerrin
Mid-August, 1968. Realities begin to unfold on the bus to Travis Air Force Base to catch a flight. Final destination: War in Vietnam.
As with all other Marines in that time period, I had known since my first day in the Corps that Vietnam service was inescapable. And I had already seen that more than one tour could also be unavoidable sometimes. I had gone to 5th Recon Battalion at Camp Pendleton in late November of 1967 instead of Vietnam because I was still only 17. By late January, 1968, there were five of us in Bravo Company that were not 18 years old yet. The remainder of Bravo Company were Marines who had already served a tour in Vietnam and were finishing their time in the service there. The Tet Offensive came and there was a major mount-out at Camp Pendleton of several units including Bravo Company, 5th Recon. There was a six hour notice to pack a field transport pack and be ready to board cattle cars to El Toro for a flight directly to Vietnam.
The prevailing attitude about going to Vietnam was to get it over with as soon as possible since most Marines went there immediately after boot camp and initial training anyway. With that in mind, I had even attempted to board the bus to El Toro with Bravo Company. Nobody had said anything about age during the mount-out so I prepared to go and was actually boarding when a sharp-eyed admin sergeant saw me and jerked me off the second step. After numerous written requests to transfer to Vietnam at the earliest, orders came that would give me my 20 day leave, 7 days at Staging Battalion for final training, and have me in Vietnam about 1 week after my 18th birthday.
During the last days of the 20 day leave is when the reality first began to set in. Couldn't really party well because I couldn't get my mind off of where I was going. Then, during an administration process at Staging on exactly my 18th birthday, I was told that I was not going to Vietnam with the others. I would first be sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for a course in South Vietnamese. I tried to decline but was firmly placed with 92 other Marines to be sent to the school.
Now, after 3 months of constant Vietnamese schooling, we had graduated and were being bussed to Travis. Among the 93 Marines was one Viet vet, a Corporal with two fingers missing on one hand from wounds received in his first tour. Rodriguez had always been a source of information on the real Vietnam for all of us at school, but now the questions were becoming nonstop and, to us, he seemed very calm for a man about to endanger his life again. Stomachs were beginning to knot as we took this first leg of our trip to our destinies.
There should have been about a two hour wait at Travis. Our chartered Seaboard World Airlines flight was being repaired and the wait was estimated to be an additional 3 hours. There was another flight being boarded at Travis that caused an overcrowding in the terminal so the waiting Marines went outside and sat alongside of a wall on a walkway in the shade. As it turned out, the walkway was an exit area for arriving flights. We found out when a Medevac flight arrived from Vietnam and the legless and armless living body pieces were wheeled past us to waiting ambulance busses. The Marines, who had been growing quieter as the hour of departure from the U.S. came nearer, became stone silent as the stark visual scene screamed at them about what could happen to them. All 93 Marines had infantry or artillery functions which placed them in line for field positions in Vietnam where these kinds of wounds were sustained.
Late in the afternoon, the flight was postponed until the next morning for further repairs on the plane. The airlines put us up in a motel in Fairfield and bought us dinner. Through the 3 or 4 Marines who were 21, we bought the booze. It was obvious that the liquor was not for partying but for medicinal purposes.
I could hardly wait to get on the plane. I didn't feel good. We were flying the northern route. Seattle, Anchorage, Kyoto, and then to Okinawa for a 48 hour stopover before the final leg to Danang. I needed sleep. It was much better than being awake at this point. There were more delays but finally we were airborne. I slept right through Seattle and awoke as we touched down in Anchorage. We left Anchorage at about 5:30 in the morning and flew east, with over seven hours of spectacular sunrise to Kyoto. It was to be the last beauty I would be able to see and feel for many years.
In Okinawa, current news of the various places of the war was almost always available since it was where all Marines stopped for plane assignment before going to or from Vietnam. This particular year was the war's peak and much was happening. Due to "urgent manpower needs", our 48 hour stopover was reduced to 24 hours. The following morning after arrival at Kadena AFB we sat on the tarmac awaiting our flight to Danang. It was delayed due to a rocket attack on Danang Airbase which had reduced the available runways while repairs were being made. To us new guys, it sounded like Danang had been overrun by enemy troops. Finally, that afternoon we were headed for Vietnam.
As the coast of Vietnam came into view, I could see lots of green and mountains. In fact, it looked like we were approaching a tropical paradise. But as we got closer, this mirage faded. The landscape was heavily scarred. This country looked like it had been bombed to death.
After taxiing to the deplaning point, the airplane door was opened. In an instant, the heat and humidity seeped in and began to suffocate. And the smell. Was that the stench of rotting death? Sweat poured off everybody. We could not deplane until the Marine NCO in charge came aboard. He made us wait until we were near dropping from heat exhaustion.
Here at the Danang airport was where the Marines that had been together for the last three months would end their relationship as classmates. About 12 of us were going to the 5th Marine Regiment. The rest were going to units all over the I Corps region. All of us were to stay in tents along one of the airstrips that night and would be transported to our units in the morning. This scared the crap out of us since we were already catching snippets of real information on the previous night's attack. This airbase was obviously a major target and if they could hit it then they couldn't be far away and we didn't even have rifles yet. We were now in the shit and knew it. If anything comes down here, there's going to be over 90 unarmed Marines trying to grab weapons that aren't theirs, even if the owner hasn't fallen in combat yet.
They began to take 12 marines at a time to the tent area and assigned tent space to them. Then they would come back and get 12 more. I was in the last set of 12 and there was no more room left in the tents. They trucked us a couple miles away to 11th Motors compound to spend the night and leave from there. We were relieved. We felt that we had gotten lucky to avoid staying the night at the airbase. And as it turned out, we were lucky though not as lucky as we thought. The airbase was rocketed that night but only two or three came in, landed far from the tent area and hadn't actually hit anything.
Early in the morning there were both helicopters and truck convoys leaving 11th Motors for various units throughout I Corps. A large number of those who had spent the night at the airbase were brought to 11th Motors for transport that morning. We heard the stories of the rocketing and the near panic that had set in with the first distant impact. All 12 of us and some 30 others were sent to the helipad for transport to An Hoa, the 5th Marine Regimental Headquarters and combat base. A CH-46 was used and it took three trips to get everybody to An Hoa.
I was on the second load out. I did not particularly like helicopters. My first helicopter ride in training had been an old 34. I was sitting on the pull down canvas seat directly across the helicopter from the open doorway. We were flying from the beach at San Onofre in Camp Pendleton up the valley to Camp Horno. A combat ready team does not wear seatbelts. The pilot went into a banking turn and my side of the helicopter rose as the other dropped. Enough that I went out of my seat facing the valley floor hundreds of feet below. As I began to fall across the helicopter, the crew chief who was sitting next to the open door facing me and had a mike to the pilot, yelled to the pilot and stuck his arm out, catching me as the pilot righted the craft. Now I could add being shot out of the sky to my list of fears of ways I might die in a helicopter.
The chopper kept a very tight spiral until a safe altitude had been achieved and then headed south towards An Hoa some thirty odd miles away. As we left Danang we saw much green area with lots of trees and shell holes. Then about 20 miles south of Danang the number of shell holes per square mile increased dramatically. And they looked newer. The door gunner began a constant scan and began to swing the barrel of the gun, prepared to fire in any direction.
An Hoa appeared as a dirt blotch on the southern end of a long valley full of rice paddies with a river bisecting it. There was an airstrip, two artillery units, and some tents and bunkers. The helicopter spiraled down and the door gunner sweated profusely. We took that as a good cue to break into a sweat ourselves. We landed next to the runway which was long enough to accommodate a C-130 cargo plane. We were divided there to go to various battalions. Three of us from language school and 18 others were sent to 3rd Battalion HQ which was a tent just off the airstrip area.
As it happened, 3/5 had not even been to An Hoa yet. They had been up north of Danang since before Tet. The Regiment was in the process of moving to the combat base but only security and the administrative portion had actually arrived. The rest were out on operations. We were split up equally at Battalion HQ, 7 to each of the three companies. All three of us from language school were sent to Mike Company. Chris Sipes, Eric Jorgensen, and I. It felt good to have these familiar faces with me as I entered the Unknown of Combat. This familiarity would turn out to be worthless in bush terms but I didn't know those things yet.
Mike Company office was a tent with a bunker next to it. There was a First Sergeant and a clerk. Our records were given to the clerk. We were sent to Supply for our gear. We put our duffel bags on a pallet in a tent and changed into our jungle fatigues. This was before camouflage in the Marine Corps. They were plain olive drab with leg pockets. The T-shirts were jungle green though and I heard that the boots had metal plates in the bottom. It felt good to have a rifle. I knew if a guy didn't have a rifle, he was newer than me. Then I noticed that all of us who had just arrived could be seen easily clear across the base. Our clothes were greener than everybody else's. And up close the leather part of our boots were blacker than anybody's.
We were to attend a one day indoctrination class here at the combat base and then be sent out to join the company in the field. We were told to stay close to a bunker during the night hours. And they were right. Within minutes after sunset, the mortars began.
This mortar attack became my first inkling of what combat was to be like. As I made a mad dash for the closest bunker, I found myself in a swarm of about 15 other frightened Marines heading for the same bunker that was designed to hold 6 people comfortably. If packed tight, maybe 10 to 12. The mortar rounds were being "walked" across the base. As they came closer to the area we were in, the fear increased and the Marines began elbowing and shoving to get to the bunker doorway that was only big enough for one man at a time to pass through. Though I was scared, I was not panicked to the point of participating in this fighting scramble to get in the bunker. I allowed the panicked Marines to shove past me rather than fight back.
Each Marine that made it into the doorway was immediately pressed into the bunker from the weight of those behind him. There were screams and yells from inside of the total darkness of the bunker as people were stepped on and crushed from the ever increasing weight of bodies. And to further complicate the situation, there was about 4 inches of water and mud in the bunker. The rounds were almost on top of us when a certain scream began to rise above the others. Somebody had his face shoved into this water and could not get out because of the weight. A Marine was starting to drown. This did not slow the rush in the least. I was one of the last to the bunker doorway. The next mortar round was sure to fall on or near the bunker. There was no more room and the scream about the Marine drowning was in front of me as I faced the doorway. There was more panic in the darkness of the bunker than there was from the screeching of the incoming mortar round. I turned and went to the side of the bunker and flattened out on the ground beside it as the mortar impacted about 10 feet away. Two more rounds fell near the bunker and then moved on across the base. The attack ceased within a couple of minutes. Nobody died in that bunker but almost.
I learned a couple of things in that attack. Panic can kill and being flat on the ground can save one's ass even from a very close explosion. And now the war was real for me. I was a target. The next two nights at An Hoa were the same but not quite, since no mortar round landed as close to me as the first night. My world of care and concern had now been reduced to the kill zone of a mortar round.
Late in the afternoon on the third day we stood on the helipad at An Hoa waiting for the helicopter that was to resupply the battalion. It would take all 21 of us to the bush. We would now face all of the other ways the enemy had to kill us. The mortar attacks at An Hoa had given us some preparation for what was to come. All 21 were scared but then we had been scared every night since arriving. The only difference was now we could remain scared 24 hours per day.
About 4 that afternoon the helicopters arrived. We were being choppered to Go Noi Island. It was not really an island but was a large tract of land that lay between two rivers that ran all the way to the ocean some 20 to 30 miles away. It was incredibly hot. Everybody was soaked with sweat. Added to this discomfort was the fact that all 21 of us were carrying gear that we did not need in packs that were arranged and sitting in a way that was not suitable. These lessons would be taught to us when we arrived at our home squads. And the fear of the Unknown. Would the LZ be hot? Would the helicopter be shot down?
Go Noi Island was flat as a pancake with knee high to over head high elephant grass every where except for a few islands of trees and shrubs that dotted the landscape of the interior and followed the river banks. The helicopter began to spiral down to what looked like the exact middle of a sea of grass. There were dots of olive drab running around in the grass, jumping on things that were starting to move from the helicopter's rotorwash. Nobody shot at us.
Upon debarking, it seemed like mass confusion on the ground. We could not tell who was who since nobody was wearing any rank insignia. People seemed to be scattered everywhere without any order. We soon learned that this was the battalion command post (CP) group. We were told that the CP was moving out immediately to join up with the companies somewhere. There were booby traps and gooks everywhere so be careful. This scared the crap out of us. And then to add to that they took the seven of us that were going to Mike Company and told us we would be walking flank for the column. Somehow I was put in charge. They pointed out to where the grass was over head high and told us to go out there and stay 30 to 50 meters out and parallel with the column and, again, to watch out for booby traps. Oh, my God! We were now in the bush. The real bush.
As we moved into the tall grass, we left the air behind. It was like an oven. Sweat was pouring off of us and getting into our eyes. We were taking baby steps as we tried to see through the stinging sweat and grass for a sign of anything that could be indicative of a booby trap. Then there was somebody yelling to me to keep the flank moving with the column which I couldn't see. After about an hour of this we broke through the grass to a small wooded area and there was Mike Company. The seven of us on the flank were dropped off there and the rest continued on to nearby wooded areas that contained the other two companies. At the company CP area, the captain introduced himself, the company gunnery sergeant, and the corpsman. Since third platoon had taken the most casualties in the last few days, three of us were sent there. Second platoon got 2. First platoon got 1 and 1 was assigned to be the new company radioman.
We sat around waiting for the platoon to send somebody up to get us. The corpsman was the only one who talked to us, trying to calm us as the stress of the unknown dangers was obvious in our faces. He told us that the company had been moving across Go Noi on search and destroy and that they had made contact with the enemy every day. We should listen to our squad leaders and try to learn as quickly as possible if we were to stay alive. He was very comforting in his calmness. We felt like he cared.
Soon somebody from third platoon arrived and took three of us to an area on the edge of the wooded ground. Here third platoon was responsible for a section of a perimeter that was being established by digging foxholes about 20 meters apart in an arc that connected with the foxholes of the 2 other platoons forming a rough circle. We met the lieutenant, platoon sergeant, platoon corpsman, and all three squad leaders. One of us to each squad. People seemed genuinely awed that I had been taught to read, write, and speak Vietnamese.
I was immediately assigned to help dig a foxhole. One of my squad was searching an enemy bunker nearby and tossed a wooden plank out the doorway. On it were the Vietnamese words for "Danger: Mine." I wanted to show I knew Vietnamese so I told the guy I was digging the foxhole with what it said. He looked at me and his eyes got real big and he ran over to the bunker yelling at the guy that was entering it. I was stunned since the reality of what I had told him didn't hit me until he ran over there. I got a lot of attention from my new fellow Marines. I knew something that could help them and they seemed to treat me a little better than the other new guys.
Before the sun went down, my squad leader gave me a class on nighttime perimeter defense. How to watch, what to watch, where to watch, how to sleep, how to hold my weapon while awake and asleep, how to prepare my grenades, when to use my grenades, and how to light and smoke a cigarette without being seen. So much to learn. But I was now at the end of the pipeline and it felt good to have a home and new friends. This seemed to help face the dangers ahead. Nothing happened that night and I felt like I was settling in. I would face this war with my fellow Marines.
What I didn't know yet was that although seven new guys had arrived that day in Mike Company, before twenty four hours had passed, there would be eight dead, which included the other five members of my squad, and 14 severely wounded leaving Mike Company. I hadn't yet learned what a "friend" was in Vietnam.
by Mike McFerrin
I had arrived in the bush late in the afternoon the day before. The night had been filled with fear of an attack. At least I had been. The company had only been expecting it. Nothing had happened that night.
I had already been "under fire," so to speak, at the combat base, An Hoa, every night since my arrival there. That is to say we had received a few rounds of incoming 82mm mortar rounds. To me, a new guy, this was under fire. I had now been in the bush some 15 hours without a problem. Only some 12 months and 3 weeks to go. May be I’d get lucky and not see anything.
The reality of the bush was about to become clear to me. One of the squads from one of the other platoons had gone on a short patrol that morning shortly after dawn. They had found and chased some 10 or 12 gooks into a treeline not too far away. The company commander had not allowed them to continue the pursuit. As the squad returned to the company, we were given orders to saddle up. The whole company would enter the treeline to go after the enemy soldiers.
Before 7:30 AM, we moved out in column. The column was maneuvered along the edge of a bushline some 300 meters away and parallel to the target treeline. We made a left face and were now facing the target in a row. The target was an "island" of trees in the middle of a huge area of grass ranging from six inches to knee high. To the right and left of the island were long tree lines about 200 meters away from each side. As we looked at the target it seemed to be about 100 meters wide and perhaps the same deep. It also appeared to contain some hootches somewhere in its interior. We couldn’t actually see any but there seemed to be an order about the trees, bushlines, and paths that we could see that indicated man had been there for a while.
The Captain decided that we would approach the island in a "wedge" formation and enter the treeline at a path that was almost at the midpoint of the island. My platoon got picked for the front of the wedge. My squad was picked for the front of the platoon. And sure as shit, my fireteam was picked for the very point. My fireteam leader decided to take the very point himself and I was a few steps back and to the left of him. We were to wait until we were about 100 meters from the target and begin "reconning" by fire as we approached. It all sounded just like the training formations at Camp Pendleton. Easy stuff.
We moved into the open area and started towards the target. At about 150 meters, our simple maneuver started falling apart. Out of the treeline to the left came one of the other companies in 3/5. We kept moving but it didn’t take a mental giant to see that their column and our wedge would collide at a point about 75 meters out from our target. We were finally halted while the eminent tacticians decided what to do. Their decision caused somewhat of a stir in the ranks because I could hear some mumblings about the stupidity of it. Neither the decision nor the mumblings made much of an impression on me that day as I was on my first field maneuvers in a war and was concentrating on all the things I was supposed to do such as distance and direction between myself and the other men, watching for enemy movement in the trees, etc.
The decision had been to have Mike Company stop its wedge formation assault on the treeline and allow the other company to cross in column between it and the target. I now see how ridiculous that decision was and why everybody groaned and mumbled. We were approaching this treeline as if there were a large number of enemy troops in there ready to fight us. But for a few moments we would pretend there was nobody in there and another Marine company would walk right across in front of this treeline as if they were just walking by minding their own business. This probably looked good on paper and surely the gooks, if they were in there, would honor this little time-out we called. I mean it would certainly be unsportsmanlike for them to wait for the column to get spread out directly in front of them with the wedge formation directly on the other side of that column then open up with Marines two deep in front of them.
Of course, that was exactly what happened. Due to the heat the Marines of Mike Company had sat down to wait for the other company to move across. I was a new guy so I had a helmet. Not all of the non-new guys wore helmets. Some wore bush hats of various types. I sat on my helmet wiping the sweat from my brow. All of a sudden, the air burst into whizzes and whines of bullets. The cracks of dozens of AK’s firing at once followed the bullets across the grassland. And behind that the screams of the wounded and dying.
I rolled off my helmet instantly and flattened on the ground. There was no cover anywhere. And none of us in Mike Company could return fire anyway since the other company was in front of us. Bullets were striking everywhere around me. I tried to crawl underneath my helmet. My terror was increasing as the realization that there was nowhere to go came over me.
Then I heard a yell from behind me to my left. They didn’t know my name yet so they called me "New Guy." Three Marines had found a small rise that offered some cover and on the other side of them one Marine had found a small shell hole that had room for another person. I raised my head just enough to see them as they told me to come over there. It was probably no more than ten to fifteen meters but the bullets were thick enough to walk on so it looked like a click or more to me. I said no to the requests that I come to their cover. No way.
Then as I turned my head back to the front and began lowering it back into the earth I saw an automatic burst of fire parting grass and striking dirt about fifteen meters in front of me and tracking directly to me. I paused only a second and rolled my left shoulder, leg and head to the right. Right where my head had been and right in front of where my face now was a bullet struck. Dirt was kicked into my right eye from the impact. One more round hit about where my kidney would have been. The burst ended with that round. I yelled over and asked if they still had room for me. They did but again I found it difficult to move. This seemed more impossible than dodging raindrops in the monsoon. I was trying to figure my odds of getting hit staying there versus moving to cover. There’s one for Einstein to figure.
As they coaxed me to come and I vacillated, a blood curdling scream and cries for help came from behind me to my right. I could not see who got hit but the sound was very close. In an instant I low crawled, no, I slithered, dragging my face in the dirt to the cover of the shell hole. The cries for help over to my right began to slow down. Then there was nothing.
To the front, the fast and furious cracking of AK fire began to slow. The screaming and yelling of the Marines seemed to get louder. I looked up and could only see two Marines out there and they were running back toward the treeline from where they had come. Then I could see some more Marines back in the treeline who had apparently made it to safety. But there were still people yelling for help down there. I quickly raised up a little higher for a quick glance. I could see five or six bodies laying in the grass in front of the island. The AK fire slowed to a burst every ten or twelve seconds. After about a minute of this, it seemed to stop completely. I was thinking the gooks must be dead or ran off.
The screams for help were really loud now. My fireteam leader jumped up, turned and looked at us and said to drop our gear and follow him. My first order to follow in combat. I dropped my pack and jumped up to follow my fireteam leader. The other Marine in the shell hole with me yelled at me to not go and said something about me being sorry for doing that. It wasn’t registering because I was so scared and new that I was focused on what I had to do.
The fireteam leader said to follow him and I did. He began running out to the wounded Marines in front of the island. We had gotten about halfway there when my fireteam leader yells at me to zig zag. I said, "What? They’re all dead aren’t they?" He yelled, "NO!!!" I glanced behind me and saw that not a single other Marine had come with us. UH OH!!!! I almost shit my pants. This guy is a nut or a hero and I am the only one stupid enough to follow him out here. By now, we are almost three quarters of the way there and I want to stop my forward motion and run back. As I slow though, I get scared that I am starting to offer myself as an easier target and simultaneously I see four other Marines from the other company come running out of their treeline towards the wounded. Then there was a short burst of AK fire. Both my fireteam leader and I dove to the ground right where all the wounded Marines were.
My fireteam leader crawled up to a Marine who had been shot in the butt and/or thigh and yelled at me to come and help. The Marine was ashen faced and trembling severely. It was hard to tell if it was from the wound or the experience of being abandoned to die for the last five minutes or both. My fireteam leader pulled the guy’s poncho off his pack and told me to spread it out next to him while he took the guy’s battle dressing from his helmet and applied to the wounded area. We then rolled the guy onto the poncho and began to drag him towards the treeline. By this time other Marines from his company began to come out to help and two of them took over the front part of the poncho while my fireteam leader and I picked up the back end and we carried him all the way to safety. The wounded Marine was thanking us and promising us a bottle of booze each for saving him.
My fireteam leader and I went partially back out once more to help finish carrying one more. Then we went along the treeline until we were parallel to where our company was and dashed across the open to them. This time I dove behind the little rise with the three Marines behind it. I was amazed that we had pulled it off. I was sure that my fireteam leader at least would get a medal for this. I don’t think anybody would’ve gone out there if he hadn’t gone first.
We heard the order being yelled to pull back. All the way back past the bush line where we had started and into the trees. My fireteam leader and I were the first to respond since we had already been running all over the place. I only went a few steps back when I saw the dead Marine. It was my platoon sergeant. I yelled to my fireteam leader who recruited a couple of others to help pull his body back with us.
As we dropped his body at the makeshift LZ, my fireteam leader looked to me and told me I had first shot at anything I wanted from the platoon sergeant. I didn’t know what he meant. Then some of the other Marines began swarming around. One noticed that there was a K-Bar (knife) and told me that if I didn’t want it, he did. Now I understood. We were going to go through the dead platoon sergeant’s gear and take what we wanted. This seemed somehow unholy. I hesitated. I was told that K-Bars were non-issue gear and were prized possessions because of their usefulness in the bush. I might not ever get one if I didn’t take this one. I passed on participating in what seemed at that time to be a ghoulish practice. And yes, before 3 days had gone by, I couldn’t believe that I had been that much of a boot.
The Captain came over by my platoon and in a very gruff voice asked who that was that had run out to help the wounded from the other company. The other members of the platoon pointed us out before we could say anything. The Captain approached us and started yelling at us. Nobody had ordered us to go out there and who the hell did we think we were running off from our company to help another company, etc. I was dumbfounded. I guess I wasn’t just a dumb new guy following a hero but a dumb new guy following a fuck-up. Later I learned that the Captain had basically frozen during the incident as much from the shock of realizing that the entire situation had been caused by the stupidity of the maneuver he had ordered as from fear. I think he was compensating by striking out at us trying to make us look like idiots to everybody.
Medevacs were called in. Later I learned that there was an attempt to call in air support but that the delay in getting it was unacceptable since it would stall the operational plans. We would pick up where we left off. We would assault the treeline with our wedge formation. No guessing this time. They were in there. Oh, shit!
After the Medevacs left we reassembled into the wedge and were told to walk fast towards the treeline and to begin recon by fire immediately. I tried to put a wall of lead in front of me more in hopes of stopping any bullets headed at me than killing any enemy soldiers. There was no return fire yet. At about the halfway point, I had to change magazines. I think two bullets fired out of the new magazine and it jammed. Whoops! Here I am walking at almost full speed towards the enemy and I don’t have a weapon. I slowed then came to a full stop as I tried to unjam my weapon. This messed up the wedge so my squad leader ran up and gave me his M-16 while he cleared mine. I caught up to my place and began firing and this one jammed too. Shit! Still no return fire yet though. My squad leader ran up again with my now cleared M-16 and grabbed his to clear it.
We were now down to the last 100 meters and I think everybody started slowing down a bit expecting the worst. About 25 meters out from the edge of the island was a bamboo thicket with about a 3 meter radius and well over head high. This was in front of me so I began to sort of use it for cover as we approached. This was the only cover available if the shit hit the fan. As I neared it, I realized that I would have to step to one side or the other to get around it and I would no longer have it available for cover after I passed it. I walked right up to within two arms length of it not having made my mind up yet which way to go around it. I sort of hesitated and looked around to my left to make sure the rest of the wedge was with me.
As I swung my eyes, I saw something and quickly looked back at the bamboo thicket in front of me. Resting in between two of the large pieces of bamboo at about four inches above ground level was the end of a barrel. I squinted my eyes to peer through the slit and followed the barrel to the other end. Our eyes met and locked. My rifle was pointed off to the right of the bamboo thicket. His was pointed directly at my chest. I know I gasped. I’m sure I paled. But the locking of our eyes apparently scared him, too, because I saw his eyes get real big and he ducked his head way down into the hole he had dug in the middle of the bamboo thicket. At the same time he opened up with what I now believe was an RPD machine gun. When he ducked, the barrel dropped and two or three bullets went between my legs before he started swinging it to the left to get the other Marines that he could see.
All hell broke loose. All the gooks back in the trees and vegetation of the island opened up. They tore up the advancing wedge. As the machine gun barrel swung away from me I fell flat to the earth directly in front of the machine gun. I was trying to swing my M-16 back forward when the barrel swung back towards me. I cringed expecting the top of my head to be split open. It passed right on over me and killed several people on my right. He must think I’m dead. He did duck when he fired. As I listened to what was happening around me, I knew we were getting our ass kicked.
I rolled my eyes up to try and see in front of me. The grass was some eight to ten inches high and I could not see the slit in the bamboo where the gun was. And my rifle was still not pointed in that direction. I now know he probably couldn’t see me either because of the grass but it did not occur to me at that moment. My predicament began to sink in and terror began to grip me. Just then the corpsman ran up and knelt down next to a guy off to my right. I tried to yell but could only squeak, "Doc, he’s dead!," just as the machine gun opened up and put a couple of bursts into his chest. As he fell over the dead Marine he had come to help, I began to cry and my head spun as I prepared to die.
My first thought was of a Marine officer telling my parents that I had been killed. My second was that I had been killed in my first 24 hours in the bush which certainly didn’t speak well of me paying attention in my Marine training and might even be embarrassing to my parents. It certainly was to me. Then my life began playing itself to me as vividly as any 3-D movie I’ve ever seen. I was crying but not making any sound. Nor was I moving. I would rather live frozen stiff like this than die. Ants began to crawl on my head and face. Whenever they got close to my mouth I would try to bite them. I could see my home as I seemed to be floating at about mid-tree level around it. I saw my family and friends. And it just kept going.
The Marines began to pull back. They would call out the names of everybody who wasn’t moving back with them to see if there were any wounded who needed help. They were calling six names out that didn’t answer even after repeated efforts. The five dead on either side of me and mine. I wasn’t about to answer this roll call. Then they left. And I was alone with the dead Marines and live gooks.
They pulled all the way back past where they had been before. Almost 400 meters and totally out of sight. As far as I knew they had gone to An Hoa. Or Danang. Or even back to the World. It didn’t matter. Even if they knew I was alive, I was right in front of the machine gun that they still might not know is there. Even if they did, what could they do? I would be killed in the crossfire. I cried for my death at such a young age. What a harsh world. I began to pray. And I mean for real. I began to see the things I was allowed to see. Life was a natural event. Death was also. I began to feel as if I had been here before, dying on a battlefield. All of a sudden with a shock that convulsed my body, I understood. My tears stopped. My sorrow and self-pity evaporated in an instant. Whether it was here or in a hospital at 100 years old, I would experience Death. And it was not bad. I fully accepted my own mortality. The only measurement that would apply was how I had lived. I had been in front of that machine gun for over 45 minutes crying. I thanked God for letting me live long enough to arrive at this point.
I still believed that there was no feasible way for me to get out of this situation. I only knew that I would not lay there and die crying for myself. I decided that I could help my fellow Marines out if I could take this machine gun out. Then they at least stood a chance of recovering our bodies without another death. I remembered that I had been issued a little grenade pouch that holds three grenades and it was on my web belt on my right side. If I could get a grenade out and the pin pulled before he killed me then maybe the grenade blast would be enough to penetrate the bamboo and kill him too. I very slowly began moving my right arm back alongside my body. It must’ve taken two or three minutes. Finally I could feel the pouch and I unsnapped one of the pockets and the grenade rolled out next to me. I felt for it, grabbed it, and spent another two minutes moving it up to the top of my head. Now I needed my other hand to pull the pin. Finally the deed was done. The grenade was ready and I wasn’t dead yet. I decided it stood a better chance of getting him if it was right next to the bamboo.
With my arms extended over my head, my hand was only an arm’s length from the bamboo. I simply opened my hand and gave the grenade a little nudge. I fully expected it to kill both of us. I didn’t even cringe. I was ready to die. The blast was incredible. It took my helmet off and felt like it split the skin on my forehead open. I couldn’t hear but hadn’t seemed to die right off in the initial blast. I couldn’t feel any pain except the skin of my forehead. I wondered if the gook was dead yet. I was so stunned from the concussion I couldn’t be sure how bad I was wounded.
Mike Company was calling in choppers for the wounded and dead that they had gotten out and were also attempting to get two "stacks" of air (4 Phantom jets) to do the island in. I was so new that I did not know that this was pretty standard in these type of situations. I had no idea that they were going to drop napalm and high explosives on the place then strafe anything that was left. I am really glad that I did not know. Fortunately for me, there was a great deal of action somewhere else in I Corps that day and they were unable to get the standard rapid response.
But people in Mike Company heard my grenade go off and knew that somebody was still alive up there. A squad came back and attempted to move up. The machine gunner in the bamboo thicket opened up on them. I almost shit my pants since he was firing directly over my head. Shit! Not only did I not kill myself with the grenade, I didn’t even incapacitate the machine gunner. The thought crossed my mind that I was not very good at this. But I also decided that maybe I should try to get this asshole without killing myself. Again I reached back for a grenade from my pouch. I moved a little bit more confidently this time. I realized the grass must be hiding most of my movements. But when I began to move, a sniper up in a tree back on the island saw me and began firing. The bullets were single shot and began hitting three to six meters from me. This did not slow me down whatsoever by this point. I was right in front of a gun that could split my skull open. The sniper fired five rounds at me and I realized that the "plunging" fire angle that he had must be difficult and/or this son-of-a-bitch needed glasses. This time when I got the pin pulled I stretched my right arm out as far as I could and threw the grenade around the side of the bamboo thicket so that it provided some cover for me.
Right after the explosion, the Mike Company people again tried to move up and again he opened up on them. But now they knew that I was somewhere in front of the thicket and that I was targeting the thicket as the source of enemy fire. I heard a yell in the distance from the Marines who were trying to get back up to the area, "Hey! Keep your head down!" I wondered what idiot thought he had to holler that to me from a couple of hundred meters away. All of a sudden there was a whoosh and a short sound of sucking air and then a horrific explosion as a LAAW rocket fired from that distance made a direct hit on the thicket. The blast and the shrapnel all moved forward into the thicket but the pure concussion that reached back for me was incredibly strong. My entire body, in the prone position was lifted above the top of the grass and dropped back to the earth banging my chin very smartly. It was a hell of shot somebody had made. Since the Marines had actually witnessed my body come up above the grass they now knew that I was not just somewhere in front of the thicket, but was literally right in front of it. I heard the same voice yell, "Hey! Don’t worry! We won’t fire another one."
To show them that he was still there, the enemy gunner immediately fired a short burst towards the Marines. Christ!!! I had no idea how he was not being affected. Boot as I was, I was not aware of all the weird holes and side holes they dug inside of large rooted plants and trees that gave them such good protection. But the other Marines knew. Somewhere with one of the other companies on Go Noi were a tank and an amtrac. This was the one and only time that I ever saw either with the bush companies in the bush. The tank was sent up to get me.
I did not know there were tanks out with us. Until I began to hear and feel the rumble. The tank approached the island straight ahead about one hundred meters to my right. I heard the yelling of the Marines to tell me that they were sending a tank to get me out. I suddenly returned to the normal world. I was no longer alone waiting to die. I was elated momentarily. Then slowly the elation began to die down as I tried to figure out how this tank was going to "get me out." I couldn’t see any reasonable way. The elation dissipated but not the new found hope.
When the tank got to the same distance from the island that I was, it made a 90 degree left and came straight at me as if to drive between me and the bamboo thicket. Once it had made this turn, one of the crewman reached up and grabbed the 50 caliber machine gun mounted on top of the tank and began firing it as he swung it in a wide arc spraying the island from the top of the trees to the bushes on the ground. And the tank continued to come at me. I realized that the driver probably couldn’t even see me laying in the grass and the guy up on the 50 wasn’t looking at anything but the island. I was watching 52 tons of steel come at me and it wasn’t slowing down or turning.
From some two to three hundred meters back, I could hear Marines yelling, "Run! Run!" It was becoming clear that my options were limited. I watched as the tank rolled up on me. I was waiting for the last second to get as much tank cover as possible from the snipers back in the trees and hopefully the closer it got the more likely the gook in the thicket would have his head down. Just then the Marine up on the tank firing the 50 cal turned and looked at me and yelled at me to run behind the tank. In the blink of an eye, I did just that. The tank stopped right in front of the bamboo thicket as I got behind it.
From behind the tank, I yelled up to the Marine telling him that the gook was in the bamboo. He yelled back at me to run straight back to the company keeping the tank between me and the island. He turned the 50 cal almost straight down and fired into the thicket. I began to run. As I moved away from the tank I knew that I was presenting a target to the snipers in the trees and so did my feet because they moved like they never had before. The last grenade in my pouch flew out somewhere in the grass as well as several other unidentified items in my pockets. It didn’t matter what it was, I was not slowing or stopping for anything.
As I made my mad dash, I could see the heads of a couple of Marines as they yelled for me to come to where they were at. When I got close enough, I dove for them. As I slithered around in the dirt to bring my head up with the other Marines, I realized I was in the same shell hole that I had sought cover in early in the morning. But now it seemed like it was years ago. One of the Marines looked at me and asked if I was okay. I said that I was but asked, "Is it like this in Vietnam every day?" He responded with, "Nah. It only gets this bad two or three times a week." I lay there thinking of what had happened to me in front of that machine gun. I had been irrevocably changed. I had accepted my own mortality and was no longer afraid of it. And it was a good thing because it did not look like surviving 13 months of this at two to three times a week was a good bet.
The tank withdrew some 20 meters, swiveled its cannon around and blew the entire thicket away. Then it retreated to the CP area some 100 meters behind us in some trees. Shortly thereafter, the air support arrived. Four Phantom jets. First they dropped napalm on the island. This was my first view of an air strike. I was astounded. The flames rolled through and totally engulfed the island. Nothing could live through that and yet they did it again. And again. Four times they hit the island with napalm. Then four times they hit it with HE (high explosive) bombs that shook the earth and toppled the trees. Then, to my amazement, they began making passes to strafe the island. I asked one of the Marines what they were shooting at since I didn’t think anything could have even survived the napalm, much less the HE. He said, "Ol’ Mista Charles ain’t dead. He’s just sitting in one of his tunnels waiting for the jets to leave."
While the strafing runs were still going on, the Captain yelled to my Platoon Commander to get the platoon ready to go get the bodies. He yelled to another platoon to set up a base of fire to cover us. As the last strafing run was made, we were told to move out running zig zag and get the dead Marines. I was still of the mind that there were probably no live gooks though. The other platoon laid down a very heavy volume of fire as we moved up. They kept shifting the fire as we moved into its range. We did not receive any fire from the island.
I helped get the body of the corpsman who had been killed next to me. Four of us struggled to run with this body some 300 meters. It was an ass kicker. He had a large pack on and one of the squad leaders said to carry him back with it on because it contained medical supplies that we might need. We put the dead next to a clear area that was to be used for an LZ. I could not take my eyes off the corpsman. This was my first in several ways. The first that I watched as he was killed. The first person that I knew, even if only for a few hours, that I had seen killed. The first dead body that I had clearly seen. I studied his face. The bullet holes in his chest. I thought of him as a person. His family. I had a sick feeling in my stomach.
The choppers finally came and took the dead and wounded. It was 1530 hours. We had been at it for about 8 hours now. I had been extremely exposed to death twice so far. I had undergone a psychic and emotional upheaval of the greatest magnitude in front of the machine gun. I hadn’t eaten or drank anything since about 6 that morning. And it was over 100 degrees. I was totally wasted. My stomach was in such knots that I couldn’t put any food in it. But I began to drink water ferociously. The Platoon Commander came over to me and warned me to stop drinking like that. He also seemed aware of what I had been through because he asked me if I thought I was going to make it through the rest of the day. I assured him that I was capable of continuing. But when I said that, neither one of us knew what the end of the day was going to be. If I had known, I might have changed my response.
After about a half an hour of cooling off, the Captain passed the word that we were going to "take the island." This did not seem to be much since it had been napalmed, exploded, and strafed and we had been able to get the dead without being fired upon. They were dead or had made their didi out the back. This time even the veterans believed that. To be safe, we got on line as a company and moved towards the island firing as we went. There was absolutely no return fire as we moved all the way up to where the point of the wedge had been earlier at about 25 to 50 meters out from the tree and bush line that marked the edge of the island. As we moved into this last space, the elephant grass began to get taller. By the time we were 10 meters out it was over head high and so thick that you could only see just past your nose and so stifling that you had to struggle for a breath.
And the shit hit the fan. Again. The AK’s seemed like they were right next to us. We were blind in the grass. There were no targets visible. But we were not visible either. Everybody hit the deck where they were and began pumping out the fire. There was 3 or 4 minutes of sustained fire from both sides as each sought to put out a wall of lead to kill their invisible enemy. Then the fire slowed to an occasional pop or two from each side as each tried to assess the effect that their initial, long volley had. The Captain and Platoon Commanders were behind us and couldn’t actually see us anymore. They yelled a couple of times about charging through the grass. No one responded to that. It did not take a Field Marshal to figure out that the gooks were sitting back away from where the grass ended at the edge of the island. As soon as a Marine poked his head out, every gook would be firing at him before he could even take in the view to see what was there. And even if he ducked back in the grass, there was no cover and they would concentrate their fire on the spot until he was riddled. There were some wounded Marines but they were able to back out of the tall grass and get to cover.
For the rest of us, the order to charge was modified by us to mean to keep crawling forward until we could see the edge of the island. Then maybe we could spot targets and assess what to do. But this was not easy or simple because the volume of fire became sporadically heavy as we tried to suppress their fire so that each of us could crawl up a meter or two then be sure the rest of the line had moved up as close as possible to parallel with us. This basically had to be done by voice since most of us could not see each other either. To get off line now could be disastrous. Without sight, we had to be able to assume that a 180 degree arc in front of us was the enemy and the other 180 degrees behind us was friendlies.
Then the first call from one of the Marines that was a signal of incredible significance. He called for somebody to throw him some ammo. It was then that I, and everybody else I’m sure, looked at their own ammo supply. Shit! Out of the two bandoleers of ten magazines each, I had four left. At the rate that I was firing, they’d be gone in a couple of minutes. The squad leaders began calling to their squad members to get a count. The story was pretty much the same for all of third platoon at least. This meant that we would not be able to continue advancing the way we had. They ordered the squads to stop firing and hold their place where they were. If the enemy decided to assault us in the grass, we needed a straight line and ammo to be able to repulse them.
We couldn’t be more than 5 or 6 meters from the edge of the island. We tried to move up one by one another meter but every time the enemy heard the rustle of grass they poured out huge volumes of fire. And we were unable to respond and put their heads down. We tried several times to have many M-16’s firing single shots but it couldn’t even be heard over the din of the AK’s and RPD’s. This went on until darkness began to arrive. It was decided to hold the ground gained for the night. To do this, the squad leaders had us inch sideways into groups of two or three that were close enough to touch each other even if we couldn’t see each other. These groups were our positions for the night. As the sun set, it became incredibly dark in the sea of grass that we lay in the bottom of. All firing from either side stopped and dead quiet set in.
The word was passed that more ammo would be choppered out in the morning and to redistribute remaining ammo between Marines in each position to insure all had some. I had a little over one magazine left and a magazine and a half after redistribution. As it cooled down my hunger grew. I began opening cans in the dark not being able to see what I was getting and not caring. I ate 4 cans of whatever before I started guzzling water. My body was thankful.
As the food and water worked its way through me, I lay face down in the dirt and pondered the new world I had entered. Sometime late in the afternoon, I had passed the twenty four hour mark in the bush and was now in the second day. My first firefight had lasted since before 8 that morning to almost 9 that night and was, in fact, still not over but just in a timeout due to darkness. I was just a teenager yesterday. Now I felt like an old man. People had been killed and wounded all around me for hours now. I had escaped a sure death situation. But the words of the Marine earlier in the day about this happening like this 2 or 3 times a week rang in my head. How could I, or anybody for that matter, survive thirteen months of this? It didn’t seem like a very good bet. I became pretty well convinced that night that I would not finish my tour before becoming WIA or KIA. I wondered how the war could have been going on for three years now at this level and I had not heard how bad it really was.
I did not sleep much even though I was totally exhausted. There were 3 Marines in my position so we had it relatively good. A potential of 4 hours of sleep. But the fear of the enemy crawling through the grass and the visions of the dead Marines that kept floating through my head made that impossible for me at least. In reality, the night was uneventful but in my head everything that twitched from the ants to the sleeping Marines was a full frontal assault on my position that was about to take place. I was still determined to die fighting.
In the morning, the company CP group moved back to the area where the choppers could safely land and got a load of ammo that was sent in. They moved off to the right side of the island and approached the edge of the very tall elephant grass on their bellies from there. They began throwing boxes of M-16 rounds into the grass and adjusting their throws based on voice commands from those of us in the grass. There had not been a single shot fired yet by anybody but all the blood stained ground and grass was there to remind one of what would happen when it did begin. Once everybody had reloaded, we waited for the word to move forward.
It didn’t come right away and we could hear the officers talking behind us somewhere. It seems that the Captain had used his binoculars when they were back getting the ammo and had spotted what appeared to be a bunker just inside of the trees of the island. After conferring with the Platoon Commanders, the decision was made to focus on this one bunker rather than a company wide assault. If the one bunker could be taken then the company would be able to get into the trees on the island and inside the enemy perimeter. I guess that sounds pretty good tactically speaking. But then the orders to implement this were passed down and I almost shit my pants. The bunker was situated in dense vegetation that would only allow for a few men to assault it at once. The seven men closest to the area would be designated a "new" squad since the squads were pretty well decimated anyway and they would assault this bunker. Sure as shit, I was one of them. I couldn’t believe it. I was the only one of the seven who had been in front all of yesterday. What the hell?
We were told to inch our way sideways for about 10 meters. Then we were to inch our way forwards to the edge of the grass. No one was to open up unless the enemy did. I guess the idea was to not announce our intentions. This whole process started out very, very slow but speeded up a bit with the lack of fire. In about 20 minutes, I was able to see through the last blades of grass and spot the bunker. As it turned out, the available lane of approach was even narrower than thought so two of the seven were to stay back and fill in when somebody fell. Of course, I was not one of the two. It seemed like the Marine Corps was arranging this entire thing just to get me killed. Every time I escaped with my life, they came up with another reason to put me out front.
I heard some voices behind me and the Platoon Commander called to the squad leader to hold. They were bringing up the tank that had saved my life yesterday. I was told to keep moving to my right. I had one person on my right who had to move with me. The other 3 moved to the left. The tank pulled up between us. The Platoon Commander yelled to us that the tank was going to fire its cannon at the bunker and that he would give us the order to charge. This felt like a reprieve for sure. The tank lowered its cannon and fired. It was a deafening roar and explosion but it only scratched a little dirt on the bunker. The tank was ordered to fire 2 more times. It shook the shit out of the bunker but again there was no visible damage.
The tank backed up and we got on line and were told to charge. Oh God! Here I go again. Immediately the Marine on my right fell to the ground. I looked at him and his eyes were as big as plates. He said that his rifle was jammed and he’d catch up later. I knew that he had just chickened out and nobody was moving up to take his place. All I could think was the son-of-a-bitch was deserting me under fire since he was part of my cover fire as I was for him and the other guy next to me. There were now 4 of us assaulting the bunker. We only had about 25 meters to go. We yelled and screamed and laid down automatic bursts as we ran forward. Since I was a boot though, I wasn’t familiar with the enemy bunkers yet and had no idea that there were multiple entrances. I kept my fire focused on the only doorway that I could see and the gun slot in the front. I fired back and forth. We kept bullets pouring in and no one fired back. As we got right up to it one of the Marines leaped forward and threw a grenade in the slot and yelled at us to get down as he dove to the far side of the bunker.
He let out a scream simultaneous with the explosion. This scared the shit out of the other three of us since we thought that we were being assaulted from the other side of the bunker. We leaped on top of the bunker facing to the rear of it forming a hasty arc of defense to repel the assault. Off to the side we saw the Marine who had thrown the grenade rolling around on the ground. There were no gooks assaulting us. The Marine who had thrown the grenade had leaped in front of one of the exits to the bunker for cover and had caught a piece of shrapnel from his own grenade in the shoulder. As the situation became clear, we threw a couple of more grenades into the bunker and called to the rest of the company. They then flooded into the area moving some 50 meters or so beyond the bunker to set up a defensive line as we entered the bunker to clear it. Things were beginning to go in my favor as I did not have to enter the bunker first. There were 4 dead gooks and one severely wounded in there.
We spent some four more hours on the island securing and searching it. We took no more fire and found no more live gooks. Some 29 hours after my first firefight had begun it was over. The quiet and lack of "electricity" in the air was disconcerting. Everyone kept looking and waiting for something to happen but it didn’t. We then were ordered into a column to move out the back side of the island. No destination was given. Just follow the man in front of you. As we left the island, I was overwhelmed with awe at what was happening. After over 24 hours of combat and all of the spilled blood to take the island, we were all just walking away from it. I groped for comprehension of what this was about. I turned to fellow Marines and asked why we were just walking away from this. Why weren’t we leaving Marines behind to hold it?
"That’s the way it is in Nam. We don’t hold nothing here, man. We just roam around out here waiting to find Charles or waiting for him to find us. We kill some of him and he kills some of us then we go do it somewhere else."
I was totally stunned as I thought of all the horror that had transpired and the near sacrifice of my life. It boiled down to this. The only prize to be won was my own life. And it was the same for all of us Marines. At least the other side had the illusion (or maybe not so much of an illusion) of us as an invading army to motivate them. We didn’t even have that. If there had been any traces of the illusion of fighting for Freedom, Truth, Justice, the American Way, or any of that other John Wayne movie bullshit in me, it was completely erased as the island faded into the background behind the column.
The near death experience in front of the machine gun had transformed me emotionally and psychically. The realization of what was happening here did the same for my wisdom and political maturity. I was not who I had been nor could I ever be again.
Over the course of the next couple of years, I would come even closer to death many times. I would be in battles that surpassed this in length and ferocity. But none would ever match this first one for the totality of effect that it had on my life in total. All that I have ever done since then has had the stamp of that experience on it.
By Mike McFerrin
Somewhere near Henderson Hill. Late 1968. Maybe October or November. Operation name not remembered but the Operation itself well remembered. Classic hammer and anvil, sweep and block, the rock and a hard place. Memorable because of two things. First the battleship New Jersey used its large guns as part of the sweep. Biggest craters I've ever seen. Second, the operation actually worked. Large numbers of NVA soldiers running right to us trying to get away from both the New Jersey's guns and a battalion of 5th Marines sweeping from Go Noi.
This was my first operation as a squad leader and I had been blessed with a squad of "new guys." Boots from head to toe. I believe I had six men in the squad which was not unusual at that time. Don't believe I ever saw a full strength squad in Mike Company. Six boots, myself, and my radioman who had come to the bush at the same time as I had. This was a test I was not eager to take.
I had, by necessity, become proficient at many disciplines in the bush but had never, ever done so for any other reason than to keep myself alive. Map and compass, fire support direction and control, ambushes, trail signs, tactics, first aid, camouflage, mine and booby trap detection, explosives ordinance disposal, enemy weapons and tactics, etc. were all a part of my still developing repertoire of skills that were being honed simply to allow me another hour or day or week of Life. Twenty four hours per day I was consumed by the perceived need to know all of these things to the Nth degree. I had actually become a bit of an annoyance to the platoon sergeant and platoon commander as I developed questions every few hours that I would hit them with at every possible opportunity including when they attempted to go relieve themselves. Now they were making me pay for it by making me a squad leader. I had enough trouble keeping myself alive. How was I going to keep anybody else alive?
We left the forward CP outside of An Hoa on the road to Liberty Bridge in the morning. Prior to moving out, I gave my "boot collection" a quick class on step 1, moving down the road in daylight. We followed the road north about halfway to Liberty Bridge than moved west off the road to some high ground and waited as the New Jersey and the guns from An Hoa began pounding the area on both sides of the river to the north that marked the southern edge of Go Noi. Extremely impressive display of firepower. Humongous explosions.
Now we were to move into positions on a piece of high ground that sat in the middle of the rice paddies with some 500 meters of clear, flat rice paddy to the north. Class for the boots on step 2, moving on rice paddy dikes and through ville areas. Stress on the mine and booby trap potential since that would be the most likely daylight threat to be encountered in that area. "Stay directly behind the man in front of you. Try to follow in his footsteps but do not get too close. Keep the gap at about 20 meters if the terrain allows it. Do not lose sight of that man. Do not, I say again, DO NOT touch or kick any thing you see laying on or near the trail."
As we moved through a piece of high ground towards our objective, we began seeing the first signs that we were entering the area of the bombardment. Large chunks of shrapnel. I mean pieces of shrapnel larger than an intact 155mm artillery round. And the smaller, arm length splinters of steel shrapnel. Trees shredded by this hailstorm of steel. The column stopped as the Captain attempted to get his bearings to our final destination. My squad and I were halted in an open area which made me feel uncomfortable but it was on a thin piece of high ground so the chances of an ambush from the rice paddy was remote. Nevertheless, I instructed my newbies on defense for the halt. Every other man face one side of the trail, the rest face the other side. Keep as low a profile as possible. Stay quiet. Do not step off the trail.
I noticed I was beginning to sound like an instructor at a stateside school. And now that we were 2 or 3 hours into this and nothing had happened yet, I noticed that the newbies were beginning to sort of give me the ho-hum kind of attention that a stateside instructor would get. Well, what the hell. I didn't want to do this anyway.
After about 10 minutes in this hold position, I noticed one of the newbies looking at one of the large chunks of shrapnel off to the side of the trail a meter or so. I watched incredulously as he took one step off the trail and moved his foot forward to nudge the shrapnel around to get a better look at the other side of it.
I was mad that this guy was trying to make me look like an idiot on my first operation as a squad leader so I yelled at him, "Hey, what the hell's the matter with you? What did I tell you?" He stopped without making contact with the shrapnel. I moved up and said, "Let me refresh your memory. Do not leave the trail. Do not touch or kick anything you see. I ain't doing any of this because I like you or being a squad leader. I just don't want to carry your fucking body to the LZ." Even as I spoke, I realized I was sounding like an asshole. The stress of this new job on top of trying to keep myself alive was getting to me.
I then noticed that the piece of shrapnel that he was about to kick had rust on the edges. The rest of the shrapnel in the clearing appeared to be new as if from the bombardment that morning. I realized that I have the opportunity to actually teach them something instead of yelling at them because I was pissed off about having to be a squad leader. I got the squad's attention and I explained to them about booby traps and what strategy is used in placing them to increase the probability that they will work. Then I pointed out to them the difference in the piece of shrapnel that he was about to kick. In addition to being an older piece of shrapnel then all others in sight, its lay on the ground was as if it just landed there instead of having been for the protracted length of time that it would require to get the rust. In my mind, I thought that this was because some other stupid son-of a-bitch had come along and kicked it before us. But to follow through with the lesson about looking for these small details that can save your life, I carefully approached the shrapnel and scraped away some ground beneath it to show them how to look for the booby trap. I knelt down and looked and, By God, it was booby trapped. It appeared to have a 60mm mortar round buried except for the tip which came up under the shrapnel and had a pin from the shrapnel inserted in the nose of the mortar round. One good nudge and the mortar round goes off and the old piece of shrapnel once again becomes deadly. I called each and every squad member over to have them kneel down and look. The one who had almost kicked it was pale faced.
Though I was actually surprised to see the booby trap myself, the circumstances that came down made me look like Chesty Puller to these boots who never again failed to heed my words. As the column moved out, the engineer stayed behind and blew the booby trap and my status as a booby trap "expert" in the platoon began. In reality, I was so scared of booby traps that I often would use the "expert" ploy to slow the column down while I checked out "likely" sites if I felt that we were moving too fast or carelessly. To me, this "slowdown" and turning the platoon or company's attention to booby traps in areas where they did exist was probably responsible for saving some lives.
We arrived at the piece of high ground that was to be our position. Three platoons strung out on line at the edge of the paddy facing north. The company CP stayed back in the center of the high ground and set up the 60mm mortars and to provide rear security. Within 10 minutes we saw a group of five NVA soldiers coming out of the trees into the paddy, making their didi from the north coming right at us. They did not know we were there. They got within a 100 meters of us and the whole company opened up on them. Then there were 3 more coming. This went on for the rest of the day. Like a turkey shoot. After each group of 2 to 7 were killed, somebody went out to search the bodies. It had an odd aura. It didn't feel right. They didn't stand a chance and I wondered about this slaughter. Without a doubt they had done the same to us before and would do so again if they had the chance but still I had never seen us with such an overwhelming advantage and exercising it to this degree. The bloodlust was building in the company as the day progressed.
Late in the afternoon, it was decided that we would set in there for the night. My platoon was selected to put out the ambush for local security and me and my newbies would get the job. Due to the volume of enemy troops in the area, I would be given a "reinforced" squad for ambush that night. That is, I would get a M-60 machine gun team to go with the squad. I was to find an ambush site somewhere to the north where the NVA was coming from. This was very limited since it was open paddy all the way to the river except for a small splinter of high ground just to the northeast of the high ground the company occupied.
Ambushes in the rice paddies are very dangerous and I would not even attempt it with these newbies. Quiet is difficult when laying in water and mud. And the only cover is a rice paddy dike which is linear. In the event that the enemy does not approach the way you would like him to, you are presented with a problem that requires good timing and familiarity with the local terrain to come out a winner (staying alive equals winning). The ambush must be sprung if they come along the dike that you are using for cover since they are going to walk right up on you anyway. This means that you have to have an avenue of escape planned in advance for both directions. The timing of the ambush must be based on the estimated size of the enemy force and the anticipated spread of their troops. You must maximize the confusion and dispersion of their troops so that coordinated, effective reaction to the ambush cannot be brought to bear on you for as long as possible. This buys the time to get to a secondary site as a unit. The ability to move and fight in concert with each other was not within this squad's capability----yet. And we did not have any knowledge whatsoever of this section of the An Hoa basin since this was our first time there. The splinter high ground would have to be the area for the night activities.
About an hour before dark and in between groups of NVA coming out of the trees to the north, the machine gun team leader and I ran across about 100 meters of paddy to the splinter high ground to check it out. The small splinter of high ground was about 150 meters long with the southern end being about 100 meters northeast of the northeastern end of the high ground that we were set in on. Rice paddy was everywhere else. The splinter was about 75 meters across with a slight rise in the middle of it. There was no vegetation except for a small garden at the southern end surrounded by a few bushes and bushes scattered along the edges.
We moved up to the rise in the center of the high ground so that we could see the other side. The bushes were a little taller along the far edge so we moved down there to look for ambush sites. As we got into the bushes we looked out the other side and saw a lone NVA soldier come out of the trees about 200 meters to the east on to a rice paddy dike headed right to us.
I was considering the options that seemed available under the circumstances when the gun team leader raised his weapon and began firing at the NVA. For the day and the circumstances this was not unusual. Only in my own head was there "other possibilities." I was uncomfortable with gunning down somebody, even an enemy soldier, when there were other options available. This was the first time that I had ever encountered such a situation and had never even considered ever being in such a position. I was new to this being in charge thing and even though I saw the weapon being raised and he had said something to let me know he was going to fire, I did not attempt to stop him. I was in a bit of a quandary with this circumstance.
He had tracer rounds in his rifle and it was easy to see where they were hitting. He was missing his target who had leaped off the dike and taken his own weapon off his shoulder. Once I saw the weapon come off his shoulder I raised my own and began firing also. The NVA then leaped to the other side of the dike but realized that neither side offered any cover from us since we were standing at the end of it and could fire to either side. He turned and began running back to the treeline but only got about five steps before I saw one of the tracer rounds pass through his upper body. He went down and stayed. We fired a few more times but he wasn't moving.
I looked at the gun team leader and said, "Want to go check him out?" In this context, it would mean to see if he was still alive and/or to recover any weapons and/or documents that might be on him. The body was about 150 meters out. Fairly close to the treeline on the other side.
His eyes got real big and he said, "No way. That treeline is probably full of gooks." Well, it didn't have to be "full" of gooks to put us in a world of shit if we got caught out in the open like the NVA soldier did. One hidden sniper could do us both. We moved on and continued scouting the splinter high ground.
It boiled down to a choice of two situations for me as the squad leader for the ambush that night. I didn't like either. The boots could not be trusted yet. Too many boots in one squad. They should have been dispersed better.
The far side of the splinter ground was probably the best place to put the ambush. We were likely to catch more small groups attempting to cross on the only dike from the east where we had seen the NVA soldier. And they were coming from the north also. Only one dike came in from there also. In both cases we would have the rise running lengthwise through the middle of the splinter behind us which would require rear security at an abnormal distance from the other positions to cover it. And with the many groups that were out there the possibility that one could get between us and the company perimeter was relatively greater than normal. This could cut us off from getting back in the company lines if the shit really hit the fan and the NVA regrouped and attacked in force.
Also, even if we hit a small group, procedure was to pull back to a secondary after the ambush and be prepared to hit again. The problem with this was that any secondary site would be up on the rise or back on the other side of it which would also expose us to fire from our own lines if they opened up on anything. I did not like the "ifs" with these boots.
The other possibility was to set the ambush around the garden on the side closest to the company lines on the other high ground. Some cover was offered with the bushes and one tree. The positions could cover from the western edge of the splinter to the rise in the center in sort of a horseshoe shape. With the radioman and myself in the back center of this horseshoe, I could direct fire and cover the rear which was rice paddy for about 75 meters to the company lines. This offered no secondary site but I did not want one with the boots. This was the safest for the situation.
I would have to personally go see each position on the company lines that we would be in front of before it got dark so that I could point to where we would be so that they did not shoot at anything. Grenades only if the shit hit the fan until we got back in. We would be running like hell and cussing. This was the "password" normally used to make a hasty entrance into the perimeter at night. Security questions like "What color were the winning team's catcher's shoe laces in the 4th game of the 1921 World Series?" were never used. Nobody but a native American can cuss in English at the same speed he is running. This was absolutely the safest and fastest way to get into the perimeter.
We chowed down just after dark and I gave the boots Class 3, Ambush Technique and Procedures. Thanks to the booby trap incident earlier and the obvious presence of the enemy, I had their complete attention. Then I drew a map of the place where we would be setting up. I would personally take each position to its spot. I would put the gun team up at the rise since this was the most likely avenue of approach. The gun team leader could handle himself well in a fight. It was around 10 that night when we saddled up and moved out.
I was not looking forward to this experience. Boot squad in an enemy saturated area. Couldn't get much worse for me. Yeah, it can. It began raining as soon as we gathered to leave the company perimeter. Sort of a mild rain but still wet. This was a double edged sword. Very difficult to fall asleep when its raining on you and you have no cover from it. Ponchos were not allowed on ambush with me. They make too much noise. But, on the other hand, the rain striking your head, body, the ground, the leaves, etc. serves to form sort of a "white noise" that hides the telltale foot "crunches" of an approaching enemy. Damn! I sure hope if the gooks come that they come at the machine gun position. It will be a "cluster fuck" no matter what trying to keep this crew together but at least I can count on the gun team to kick enough ass to buy some time to assess the situation and I won't have to worry about getting them to move appropriately regardless of what it is. The tension went up several notches as we left the company lines.
To me it seemed as they were already making too much noise. I did not like the level of it but knew it was probably my own paranoia and all I could do is make it worse by running around going "SHHH!." I got all positions set in well. They had good fields of fire and were mutually supporting except for the gun team. I intended to move forward if the ambush was sprung there to assist. I placed myself and the radioman in the center of the horseshoe with semi-cover from the only tree. I did not want to get too close to the tree since it would probably draw fire if the shit came down.
With the low cloud cover, it was pitch dark. Fields of fire aren't all that good if you can only see 6 inches in front of you. We were to run 50% watch, half up in each position and half down sleeping. This was not likely to work any way since it continued to rain. At about 2:30 in the morning, I was supposed to be down but was not doing well at getting any sleep. I had just found a way to lay that was comfortable and kept the rain from hitting me directly in the face. I finally started drifting off.
A hand shook me awake. The radioman was leaning over me telling me that they had a gook in front of one of the boot positions. I whispered, "How do you know?"
"One of them guys is right there," he says as he points behind me. I wasn't comprehending. I'm in the center of the perimeter of an ambush and I'm being woken by the radioman who is telling me that one of the boots has left his position and come back to the center. What the hell is going on? I rolled over and peered into the darkness and saw one of the boots laying flat on his belly about 2 meters away.
He starts whispering about the gook out in front of his position. This is not the way an ambush comes down. I crawled over to him and asked him why he had left his position to come back and tell me that. He responded that there is something weird about it. "Weird? Why don't you just kill him? You don't come back and request permission."
He wanted me to come up to his position and look at the gook. I couldn't believe this guy. But he was insistent that it was weird and I must see it. He was, without a doubt, very scared. I stifled my growing anger and left my radioman to keep the position covered as I went up to the boot's position. It was really dark. As I got to the position, the boot crawled up next to me and pointed into the darkness. About 5 meters away stood an NVA soldier holding an AK-47 in front of him at port arms. He had on the same uniform all of them had been wearing that day; gray short sleeve shirt, gray shorts, and Ho Chi Minh sandals. The boot whispered, "He ain't moved an inch since we saw him."
"Which way did he come from?" I asked. Response, "Nobody saw him come from anywhere. He was just there. This is weird, man. Why doesn't he move?" Another boot in the position was even more agitated and was rising up to panic. "What is that, man? What's going on?" One of the boots from the other position crawled over and was also appearing to rise to panic. They were like teenagers in a haunted house.
I had had problems and fears on my mind all day but this was not one of them. Yes, this was a bit eerie but against the background of war with fierce and violent death everywhere I was not shaken. I realized that to these boots who had not yet been baptized in a real firefight this was "scary." But I could not allow panic to even get started. I got up in each of their faces and gave my best rendition of a drill instructor. They were to resume their positions, ready some grenades, and wait for my commands. They were to move and act only on my command. I looked closely again at the NVA. What was going on here? I wasn't sure. Maybe it was a ghost. If it was, I knew it must be the NVA that we had shot in the rice paddy yesterday afternoon. In my heart, I knew we didn't have to kill him. We could have captured him by waiting in the bushes and letting him walk right into our arms. Is he now going to haunt us for this? If so, how long? Can a "ghost AK" shoot real bullets? This was not an area of expertise that I thought I would need to stay alive in the bush. I was sure that there wasn't even a chapter covering this in the Marine Corps Manual.
Well, ghost or not, this is a war. I was wary about opening up on this figure since it would give away the position. Maybe that's what it was all about. I had one of the boots get a grenade ready, back himself and the rest of his position up a little bit to get some clearance. I told him that I was going to alert the other positions then get close enough back to his position for him to see me signal to throw it at the gook. I alerted the positions and quickly filled in the gun team on what was going on. I don't think the same thought about this possible gook ghost crossed the gun team leader's mind as did mine.
I got back and signaled for the grenade to be thrown. The explosion shook the ground, lit up the night, and threw mud every where. As the mud plopped around, all eyes came back up, weapons at the ready to respond to any attack. There was nothing but the NVA still standing at port arms. "Heeeey, man!" and "Ohhhh, shit!" came from the boot positions. Before the panic could set in, I ordered another grenade to be thrown.
Repeat performance. No fire was received and the NVA didn't move. The gun team leader wanted to turn the M-60 around and blast the gook. The radio was going crazy with the Captain wanting a situation report. The radioman brought the radio to me saying the Captain wants it NOW. I yelled to the gun team leader, "Do NOT use the gun!" At this point, there was no return fire but we hadn't given away any exact positions yet. The last thing I wanted to do was give that gun position away, ghost or no ghost. I grabbed the handset from the radioman and called in, "Mike 6, this Mike 3 Charlie, we are in contact with unknown number. No sitrep available yet." He radioed back some questions but I begged off on knowing any answers yet. This was all certainly true.
I moved in between the boot positions and opened up with my M-16. I told the boot to throw another grenade. I hit the deck as it went off. When I looked up nothing was there. I moved forward a little bit trying to see a body. I couldn't see one. They didn't have time to pull that body back. It must be there. I stayed there with the boots for about five more minutes. Nothing heard or seen but the radioman was coming to me again. I had to tell the Captain something. Well, I guess I'll try the apparent truth. "Mike 6, this is Mike 3 Charlie, made contact with at least one armed NVA. No return fire received."
"3 Charlie, Do you have a confirmed?"
"6, not known at this time. We have compromised our positions and have no secondary to move to. Request permission to come back in."
"3 Charlie, that's a negative on your last. Just move your positions around and stay out there."
Sure. He's not out there. Not too hard to make somebody else take the risk. I began cussing under my breath. Boy, what a day this was turning out to be. I could still hear the boots murmuring in fear. I crawled up there and ordered them to shut their mouths. I guaranteed them that there was far worse than a ghost out there. And it would blow them into tiny pieces. I shifted their positions a few meters in one direction and ordered them to keep an eye on the spot where the NVA body probably was. I did not want this body dragged off. I went to the gun position and had them move a bit too because their voice volume may have helped somebody locate them. I returned to the boot positions and waited there for about 20 minutes to see if anything was going to happen. It appeared to be quiet. My radioman was scared being by himself in the center. He sort of pretended like the Captain was calling for me again to get me to go back there.
He whispered to me to ask if I thought it was a ghost. I told him that as long as his AK was a ghost too then I didn't care. It was the live gooks that I was worried about. Because of the positions we were in, the radioman was sort of watching to the front where the machine gun team was and I was watching the rear. It was so dark but we would all be on watch until first light. This didn't require a command. Nobody was going to sleep in this ambush site.
I laid in the mud with my mind going in circles trying to find an answer for this situation. Nothing quite fit. Since we had received no fire whatsoever, it seemed to belie any possible NVA trick. What's the point of tricking somebody if you don't use it to your military advantage? They weren't into parlor games with us for social reasons. And every Charlie within miles now knew where we were. Geez, I could hardly wait for first light.
Perhaps another 15 or 20 minutes went by and my mind began to slow down a bit. I was tired and cold. I tried to relax a bit. I laid on my side with my head propped on my hand watching the darkness to the rear without focus. I heard a long soft scrape of my radioman's leg moving as if he was changing positions. I started to turn my head on my hand to confirm this but the sound stopped so I didn't bother. Then it happened again but this time I heard rustling noises in the bushes up in front of him but off to the side of where the gun team was. This time I turned towards him and pulled my 16 around from the rear. He looked back towards me and all I could see was the white of his very, large eyes.
Rustling noises continued and seemed to multiply. The only thing that came to mind was a massing of enemy troops. My mind went into high gear trying to figure a way to deal with this imminent threat. Based on the position of the noise, only my position and the gun position could bring fire to bear on it...right now. If they charged it would be too late. They would be on my position in a few steps and in this darkness it would be impossible to deal with in any coherent way. It would be slash, kick, bite, and shoot everything that moved until I was dead or all of them were.
The boots' positions would be totally exposed since the fighting would be going on behind them. They would be afraid to shoot until it was too late. The gun team would more likely be able to defend itself but would not be able to render any aid to us in the darkness. Nobody would leave their position in this circumstance and they would more than likely shoot out of fear me or my radioman if we attempted to get to them.
This did not look good at all. It was me and my radioman to the death. And he was still so petrified that they were ghosts that he probably would not even take one out before he was killed. The dire straits that I was in was clear to me. I was determined that I was going to get at least several before they got me and if there were not enough of them, they were not going to get me at all.
I moved further to the side of my radioman and began moving up alongside of him so that we had space in between us and our weapons were on a straight line to reduce the possibility of shooting each other. I was going to tell him the "big plan" that I had come up with. Basically, it would have been, "Marine, we're in a World of Shit here. Stay flat on the ground. Blast them as they come at us. Then roll outwards from me a couple of times and repeat the process. I'll do the same. Do not get up unless you are in hand-to-hand for your life. Shoot anything standing up coming at either of us. May God and the Commandant have mercy on our souls."
But before I could get up to an even plane alongside and about a meter away from him, the rustle turned into a fast crunching of multiple footfalls picking up speed and coming directly at us. Then they were crashing through the bushes in front of us. This is it. The shit's come down. Hell has arrived. I snatched my 16 up into the firing position. I had already switched to full automatic. I looked for my first targets as I felt my mind and soul settle into the eerie calm that I, after my first firefight, found that could I enter into in these perilous situations. Regardless of the confusion and slaughter that was about to occur around me, I would keep my mind and body at peak performance levels. They were going to pay dearly for this attempt on my life.
My radioman had not readied himself yet and the thought occurred to me that he was still looking for the ghosts to attack and was on the verge of fleeing. I did not worry about it in the least since these ghosts would be on us before he could rise to his feet. He would be riddled with bullets or bayoneted before he could stand. The crashing through the bushes noise was now arriving at the last set of bushes. It sounded as they were going to break through almost directly in front of the radioman. I could see the vague darkness of the bushes in front of him and as the crashing through them began I expected to see them move as they parted to allow the NVA soldiers passage through. But they didn't seem to be moving even as the noise came from them. Each millisecond that elapsed with the steps coming closer and the bushes not parting became a jolt to my calm. I needed a target to appear. The jolts came faster and faster. What? The multiple footsteps were now right in front of us. They had cleared the bushes without moving them. My calm exploded into terror. The radioman let out a cry of terror. I rolled up on my side with my 16 still pointing at the pounding footfalls that were about to run right over me. The radioman did the same thing in the opposite direction from me. I still could see nothing. This was a ghost army for sure. What were they going to do to us?
The squeal from my radioman increased my heartrate another 100 beats per minute. He was providing sound effects for my terror. I did not know what position to be in,where to point my rifle, or which way to look. I know I began reaching for my knifewith one hand. I don't know what I thought it was going to do. It appeared the Marine Corps had failed to issue me crosses, silver bullets, wooden stakes, or even a clove of garlic.
As the footsteps came next to me, I cringed but then saw a flash of movement out of the lower corner of my eye. Finally, a target. Even as I turned my head down and back, I could hear more coming up on me. My eye caught the cause of the first flash of movement I had seen as it disappeared into the dark behind me and even as I tried to refocus there were 5 more on top of me. The radioman was now crescendoing in a bellow of fear as he too caught the movement.
But it was too late to do anything. The pig and her 5 piglets had completely overrun our position and were now headed to parts unknown. I could not help it. I gave away my position as I rolled in the mud attempting to stifle myself. It took the radioman a minute or so before he could utter a sound but then he too exploded in hysterical, muffled laughter.
The gun team and the other positions had heard everything but hadn't seen anything. Now they were hearing what sounded like laughter, but who was laughing? Worried voices looked for us. It took all the control I had to tell them that everything was okay. By this time, I am burying my face in the mud trying to quiet myself. Eventually, I was able to get to each position to tell them what happened. But for the next 2 hours or so until first light, either I or the radioman would break into giggling fits which then caused the other one to do the same which then caused the other positions to do the same. We had met the enemy and they were hams.
At first light, we went out to where the NVA soldier had been standing. There was one set of footprints in the mud. None coming up to them and none going away from them. Two grenade holes were right next to the footprints. No blood trails.
There was one possibility though. The footprints were about foot and a half in front of a two foot drop into the rice paddy on the western edge of the splinter. Could a body have been propped up there to scare us. By using sticks and vines they could have tied a body to a pole and tied the AK into its hands to make it appear as if it was holding it. I looked for signs of this. It still would have required some dragging to get it up there and get it back down. There was no indication of this. There weren't even any footprints in the paddy. Even if this had been the case, what was the point? Nobody had fired at us with anything.
I decided I would just make this an elusive NVA soldier in my spot report since I couldn't even explain this adequately to myself. The response to it was, "That was a hell of a lot of shooting with no body." More than you'll ever know, sir.
By Paul O'Connell
Brought back memories of my own sandbagging and the one I talk about in my letters that got a few marines on Go Noi Island fucked up. I remember sandbagging a few ambushes during Taylor Common. Allowed us to get a better night sleep, especially when we'd end up in a poncho hootch with 5 or 6 marines. Also, our body heat kept us warm during all those wet dreary nights. During Taylor Common, I was one of the low men on the totem pole, so I really had no say in the sandbagging, but went along with it and kept my mouth shut.
When I was a squad leader, one day we were up on Hill 196 which was just SW of An Hoa. I t overlooked the basin. A sqaud, some times a platoon would be sent up there to try and spot 122 rocket sites as they fired on An Hoa. On this given day, the word had been passed to have my sqaud go on patrol down into a ville along the river. I had the guys saddled up, but before they began to move, a few of them started to say why not just go over the side of the hill out of sight and just radio in our check points. I didn't want to. Or I did, but didn't want to get caught and didn't know who I could trust to keep their mouth shut. But it was hot, and the ville was down the bottom of the hill, and it looked like booby trap country and the guys in my sqaud kept saying they would keep their mouths shut, so we did just what they had suggested, we moved below the ridge out of sight and got a few hours sleep, ate a few cans of C-Rats, radioed in false Pos Reps and survived another day in Vietnam. And everyone practiced Semper Fi. They kept their mouths shut.
By Mike McFerrin
Sandbagging. Definition: Bush term meant to describe the act of avoiding the assigned ambush, patrol, listening post, observation post, etc. and usually the act is meant to be unknown to the powers-that-be that ordered the particular activity.
In the beginning I was not anything resembling a malingerer. I did intentionally try to stay in the background beginning with boot camp. Nobody in their right mind wanted to come to the attention of the DI for anything……….good or bad. This attention somehow always ended up with one in the push-up position on the knuckles. I never understood the reason for this kind of pain. How does crippling one’s hands make him a better Marine? But I did have a high threshold for pain. I could take it but preferred not to if I thought it could permanently damage me. Anyway, the less they noticed me the better.
After all my boot camp and ITR training I went to Recon. Not by choice but by whatever natural selection process was used by the Marine Corps at the time like maybe tossing the paperwork in the air and whichever pile it landed closest to was your assignment. Here is where I first engaged in "sandbagging" but not by personal choice. We all know how tough Recon Marines are. But at that time the entire company was made up of Marines who had done their tours in Nam and were waiting to get out of the service and 5 seventeen year olds waiting to turn eighteen and go to Nam. There was a full Recon training schedule in effect for the company but the prevailing attitude was far less than serious. Since I was one of the seventeen year olds, I simply did what the others said to do.
On one operation, I was assigned to a recon team that had the company clown in it. The company clown was a recently re-demoted Lance Corporal. He had just been fired from being the Colonel’s driver because he wrecked the jeep with the Colonel in it. They may have suspected or even knew that the Lance Corporal was high as a kite when he had the accident but he was immune from any serious discipline. Mulvihill was one of the Marine Corps’ genuine Vietnam heroes and had been all over the country, on TV, met with the President, etc. He was one of the 18 Marines in Gunny Howard’s recon platoon that had been trapped on a mountain top somewhere down by Chu Lai in 1966. They had been surrounded by five or six hundred NVA intent on wiping them out. They had killed nearly 300 of them before they were rescued. All 18 had been decorated with a Medal of Honor, several Navy Crosses and the rest with Silver Stars. Five were posthumous. The most decorated unit of the Vietnam War. The Marine Corps had a great deal of tolerance for Mulvihill’s antics and he knew it. He was always pushing the envelope.
When we were given our assignment as a recon team in the stateside operation, it entailed at least one night of sitting on some hill somewhere in the hinterlands of Camp Pendleton. This was simply not acceptable to Mulvihill. Miss a night at the EM Club? No way. So we went to the EM Club instead of the bush. Completely decked out for the operation. Every 3 or 4 hours, Mulvihill would send one of us or go himself to the top of the nearest hill and radio check with the CP which was on the LPH Princeton at sea somewhere between Pendleton and San Clemente Island. We slept in the barracks, ate at the mess hall, went to the snack bar and club for two days. No one told on us and Mulvihill had several answers for the questions about how difficult it had been to raise us on the radio during the operation. Radio problems, dead space, rogue squirrels chewing handset cords, etc. Not one staff or officer pursued any effort to discredit any of these well-and-not-so-well-spun tales though. I was young but not dumb. I knew that I was in an exceptional situation not likely to be repeated when I left this unit so I did not even begin to think that I could get away with something like this anywhere else in the Corps.
The first sandbagging incident that I engaged in while in Vietnam was similar in the sense that I did not make the decision to do it but just went along with it. But I would have made the same decision if it were up to me. We were in contact with an NVA unit all one afternoon. But the contact was light. Our sniper would ding at them. Their sniper would ding at us. Nothing heavy. In fact, I don’t think either sniper hit anybody. Just kept everybody’s head down. That was a bit difficult when darkness began to approach since somebody had to be digging the fighting hole. It was sort of a dance. Three quick swings with the E-tool then hit the deck while the opposing snipers fired one round each into the other’s perimeter. Jump back up and three more swings. There were several songs of the period that could have been used for cadence but I remember thinking of the Seven Dwarfs working at the mine and the Disney songs that went along with that.
A few minutes before dark fell, my squad leader was called up to the platoon CP. It was our squad’s turn for ambush that night. He went up to get the coordinates for the ambush. Upon returning, he got all of the squad behind some trees and sat down to give us the ambush plan. He was studying the map very closely and kept looking up trying to establish the physical location of the map coordinates. And I was right next to him doing the same thing as I read the map over his shoulder.
I saw the coordinates on the map as a point about halfway into the high ground across the paddy and I, too, began looking around me to see if I had made a mistake. The high ground across the paddy was where the NVA unit was set in. Obviously they would not give us permission to walk in their perimeter to set up an ambush. Likewise, I could not remember a time when the NVA had sent a patrol up to the gate at An Hoa requesting permission to enter the base to set up an ambush by the Mike Company area.
After a few minutes of double, triple, and quadruple checking, my squad leader and I went to the platoon CP to let the Lieutenant know there had been a mistake on the ambush coordinates. The Lieutenant quickly established that this was true and took us to the company CP to show the Captain. He, too, saw the mistake right away. He explained that the coordinates had come from battalion and said he would straighten out.
The Captain picked up the battalion radio and called in to explain the situation as we waited for the correct coordinates. We could hear some of the radio conversation coming across on the earpiece of the handset. It only took a few minutes for the Colonel to get on the radio and very sharply say that he had given those coordinates and expected his orders to be carried out. The Captain, as all of us with him, still believed that he hadn’t been made aware that the coordinates we had were inside the NVA perimeter so he told him. The response, in a very sharp tone, was something like, "I know where they are at Captain. Did you hear what I said?" The Captain blushed as he saw us looking at him still waiting for him to straighten this out. But he had been completely shut down by the Colonel.
Everybody began looking back and forth at each other not knowing exactly what to say. Finally, my squad leader broke the silence with, "This is not an ambush. This is suicide.
I am not taking my squad of 6 men on a frontal assault of some 100 gooks so that I can get in there to set up an ambush. We will all be dead 20 meters outside their lines. I’ve never even heard of this kind of shit."
To their credit, both the Captain and Lieutenant, turned even redder than they already were. The Captain said very softly, "Well, these were the orders that I just got as you heard." And then he just sort of let it trail off giving clear tacit admission that he agreed with everything that was just said by the squad leader. The squad leader did not catch this and started to renew his protest. The Lieutenant grabbed his arm and said, "Let’s go back to the platoon CP." Still the squad leader was trying to protest as both the Lieutenant and I got on either side of him to direct him back. I tried to whisper in his ear that every thing was actually okay but it wasn’t until we dragged him several meters away that the Lieutenant and I both were able to explain to him that the Captain had just given his "approval" to sandbag the ambush in the only way that he could as a good Marine officer.
That night my squad was dispersed throughout the other positions of third platoon. We did not go out at all. Just before first light, the squad leader ran out into the paddy and fired a green pop-up flare as if we were signaling to come back in. How the Captain handled any radio traffic from the Colonel through the night, I have no idea.
This was a very eye opening experience for all involved. And disturbing. For me, I now count it as an experience that I am positive saved many lives around me in later incidents. A battalion commander in the U.S. Marine Corps had knowingly issued an order that would only accomplish one thing….the deaths of all Marines involved. He literally had ordered a kamikaze maneuver without even a tactical gain as an excuse. The speculation as to the reasons he would do such a thing were: 1) In the overall picture of the operation there were mileposts that if achieved would allow for an "upgrade" of the operation. One of these mileposts was Marine KIA’s. The battalion was just short of having enough KIA’s to allow the expansion of the operation which would have looked much better in the Colonel’s record book. 2) Same premise as number 1, but it was to get more air power involved in the operation. 3) The Colonel did not like our Captain and this was his way of showing it. 4) The Colonel was simply psychologically and/or emotionally disturbed. The bottom line for all of us that witnessed this was not only could we not count on anybody in the upper command structure to be concerned with our welfare but we would have to watch our backs for their neglectful and purposeful murderous actions.
We really were lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean to those people.
The other interesting item about this particular incident that I considered was the fact that nothing else was ever said about the incident that I am aware of. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that the Colonel knew that we didn’t carry out his orders. He was not with our company but was close enough to hear the gun fire that should have killed us and, of course, should have received reports over the radio. If he called the Captain asking where we were or why hadn’t he heard any gun fire, I do not know. If he did, I am sure the Captain gave whatever answer he felt he had to. But there were no repercussions whatever on us, the Lieutenant, or the Captain. Well, if the Colonel had tried to pursue any kind of legal action, it is obvious that win or lose, he would have wound up in a position of having to explain to fellow officers about his order for the ambush to be inside of an enemy perimeter. That would certainly have been professionally embarrassing. I certainly noted all of this and was able to apply such things to my benefit later in the Marine Corps. Lawful order does not necessarily mean an order that anybody in their right mind would publicly try to justify.
I had now, as a follower, participated in sandbagging for fun and sandbagging to save lives. Now I moved up to be a leader. I was not a shirker of duty and did not see the fun side of sandbagging to be something I would engage in or let my men engage in. At least not in Vietnam. This was serious business and fun could be hazardous. But there was another type of circumstance that I had not yet seen. Personal comfort.
While on Operation Taylor Common in January of 1969, Mike Company was in the mountains. The canopy was at least single but sometimes double and triple overhead. There were many well traveled routes through here. One type was known as a "speed trail." It was an extra wide trail that could accommodate two way traffic and had usually been engineered to make it very easy to walk on and push or ride a bicycle on. That is it was smooth and had very few steep down or up grades. In the few places where the grades existed, the trail had been stepped or terraced to allow for easier movement. These trails were obviously used for the movement of quantities of troops and supplies. Ideal place to put a daytime ambush.
I was assigned to take a reinforced squad out from the company outpost to do just that one day. A machine gun team, a rifle squad, and lots of grenades and Claymore mines. The day was overcast and the distance was about 3 clicks. By the time we arrived, a medium drizzle had begun arriving on our heads after working its way through the canopy. Ordinarily, I would have sort of relished this assignment. Lots of firepower and a very likely chance to use it while having the advantage of surprise.
But as the other veteran members of the squad pointed out, due to the condition that the speed trail was kept in, travel on it during the rain was not recommended. The clean, smooth flat dirt became a smooth, flat trail with a quarter inch or so of mud on the top of it in the rain. It became very slippery especially on the gently sloping up and down grades. The NVA generally would pull off into the nearest rest area and wait for the rain to stop before proceeding. Well, we would wait too.
Being soaking wet in the mountains, even in Vietnam in the daytime, was no fun. Every thirty minutes or so, one of the ambush members would say something about sandbagging it but I did not want to give up the opportunity we might have out there because I was wet and cold. And besides, there was one who had never made an indication that he wanted to go in. The corpsman.
After about three hours, it was still raining and the thought of another 6 or 8 hours of this was not appealing. I notified the gun team leader that if we went another hour and it didn’t stop raining and there was no traffic on the trail, I would talk to the corpsman to get his cooperation and we would stage an ambush and head back in. Starting about twenty minutes later, the gun team leader would come over to me every ten minutes to see if the hour was up. By the time the hour was up every body was starting to make noise moving around trying to control the shivers they were getting.
The corpsman was a bit hesitant to say that he would go along with the plan to stage an ambush so that we could go back in. He was new both in the service and in Vietnam so was sure that this was an offense punishable by at least firing squad. I assured him that we were not shirking any duties since the trail was impassable in its condition. He finally reluctantly agreed.
I was now Director of Drama Production and assumed the position eagerly. The "NVA" would approach us from the front on the trail. We would blow our Claymore on these "gooks." Simultaneously, another column of "NVA" would approach up through the canyon off to the right of the ridge we were on. We would use M-16 fire and grenades on these. By this time, we should be getting radio traffic inquiring about our status. I would put off the first call saying we might still be in contact with the enemy. After a couple of minutes of occasional M-16 fire, I would radio in that we had made contact with 2 groups of NVA, one on the trail and one way down in the canyon. We were going to check for bodies, weapons, and documents. All went as planned.
After waiting 5 or 10 minutes, I reported the results of our search to SSgt. Blackman. I told him that the Claymore didn’t appear to have gotten anybody since we couldn’t even find a blood trail. We were pretty sure that we had gotten some in the canyon though since we had seen them fall but it was inaccessible from where we were at since it was about a 40 foot sheer drop. He very quickly retorted, "That’s a hell of a lot of shooting out there. You’d better have a body."
We all sort of looked at each other as the situation was so clear. SSgt. Blackman "knew" what we had done and nobody could figure it out. How the hell could he know? In my own head, I knew but didn’t say anything. Blackman was my mentor and had taught me a great deal. I knew that he knew that trail was impassable in the rain. We were not going to have a body. Well, maybe we could come up with a blood trail. Most of us had "jungle rot" sores on our arms and legs. Several of us scraped some of the scabbed-over, pus-filled sores on our legs open to get at our own blood. We took a large chunk of mud and pressed it against each sore until we had a visible "blood trail" on the mud.
I waited another 5 minutes and radioed that we had worked our way down in the canyon and found blood trails. Blackman radioed back to come in and bring proof. Geez, what a suspicious son-of-a-bitch. Everybody was simply amazed by the apparent psychic powers of SSgt. Blackman. And somewhat dreading his wrath.
As we moved into the perimeter, there was Blackman ordering us to the platoon CP. He demanded a detailed report which I gave. He had the look on his face that said, "You all are a bunch." Immediately after I had finished the tale of going into the canyon and finding the blood trails, I brought my hand forward to show him the glob of mud with the blood on it. And he, without a moment’s hesitation said, "All of you roll up you sleeves so I can see your arms." Just the stunned look on everybody’s face was enough to tell him that he was right. He began talking as he moved from one person to the other inspecting their arms. "Thought you could fool me, huh? You must think I’m stupid."
I was the only one still playing the role hanging on to the last thread of escape. He was checking arms and we had used legs. I did not know if he would keep checking but I kept playing, "What are you looking for? What’s this all about?" When he had found nothing on the arms, a puzzled look came across his face. He looked right at me and said that he knew what we had done but don’t ever do it again. For everybody in the squad, Blackman became as hard to lie to as their mother. Somehow he would always know. I certainly was impressed by his performance and did vow to myself that I would never let personal comfort be the reason that I sandbagged again.
Fun, survival, and personal comfort. All were reasons that sandbagging was alive and well in the Marine Corps and probably still is. I have only one Fun sandbag and one Personal Comfort sandbag to my credit. All of the rest fell into the Survival category. My last sandbagging incident epitomizes this category.
Outside of the An Hoa combat base on the road to Liberty Bridge were the two strongholds across the road from the ville with the CAP (joint Marine/South Vietnamese) unit. The CAP unit had a similar stronghold that they occupied during the hours of darkness. These strongholds were berms of earth formed by a grader piling up and packing earth up to some six foot high and six foot wide in a large circle with reinforced bunkers set in the berm every 10 or 20 meters. This circular structure had a cleared area some 50 meters wide all around it with concertina wire and trip flares. These strongholds were the size meant to be manned by at least a platoon.
Mike Company occupied the two strongholds sometime in the spring of 1969. I was given a reinforced squad that would be going on ambush that night. Our ambush area was to be in the treeline of a piece of high ground that was about 300 meters out across the paddy from the stronghold manned by the CAP unit. The high ground was actually between the CAP unit and An Hoa. This was some 5 or 6 hundred meters out from the actual lines of An Hoa to the northwest of the aid station. This seemed like a relatively safe place for an ambush since it was open paddy all around with An Hoa and the CAP unit on the other sides of that. I was sure it was going to be a boring night.
Right after dark came, we saddled up and moved out. I radioed the CAP unit that I was coming into their position. I came in and met with the Sergeant in charge to let him know where we would be and to work out the ifs, ands, and buts of any scenario that might require us to coordinate later that night. I didn’t get any more out of my mouth than to let the Sergeant know where I was headed when he stopped me and said I couldn’t go out where I was headed that night. I did not know exactly what this guy was up to but was going to assert myself because I didn’t like the way he had said what he did. I started to say something like I can go anywhere I want but again he cut me off.
This time he explained to me that he had intelligence reports that were rated as 95% accurate that his stronghold was going to get hit that night with a very large force of NVA. The treeline where I was going was the only place that they could assemble and accomplish this from. It would be suicide for me and my men to be in there. I asked him how come my command didn’t know about this. He said that his intelligence was from South Vietnamese sources that may or may not have filed anything through any Americans other than him since it didn’t concern them. He went on to detail that the attack was going to be a full effort to wipe out the CAP unit of some 42 South Vietnamese and Americans. This was expected to be an attack force of some 3 to 5 hundred NVA. It was obvious that he firmly believed what he was telling me.
I considered my options. I could radio the Company CO and pass this info on to him. I knew exactly how this particular CO would handle it. He would say that since he hadn’t heard this from his chain of command then it was not believable and would order me to proceed as he had instructed.
I could find another location to sandbag it at. This held its own dangers. The entire area around the An Hoa combat base was subject to H&I (harassment and interdiction) fire from artillery and mortars at An Hoa. Since I would not be in the location I was supposed to be, there was the possibility that this fire could get us.
Other locations within reasonable distance were extremely limited. If this attack did happen, almost any other location that was available was along a probable avenue of approach or escape for the same attack force. I did not seem to have a lot of options. If I believed this Sergeant and acted accordingly, there was not much I could do. If I didn’t believe him and proceeded, I would be in a world of shit if he turned out to be right.
Well, I had sandbagged before and I decided that trying to play the guessing game with this info was simply not worth all of these Marines’ lives so I would sandbag this one to be safe. I told the Sergeant about the predicament of finding a place to sandbag it. He instantly said there was no place and that we would have to stay in their stronghold. This presented a completely different picture for me to deal with. If they really did get hit as hard as they thought, we would still be in Big Trouble here.
If five hundred NVA came at this place, there was some 56 of us to defend it with 20 of those being South Vietnamese that none of us from Mike Company believed were worth their weight in pig shit. It was a very strong position from a defensive point of view but the overwhelming numbers and B-40 rocket propelled grenades would very soon eliminate that advantage. Of course, if I had to be anywhere out there that night, this was the best there was. And we could assist our fellow Marines at the CAP unit in trying to survive the night. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being offered a place to sleep at the Alamo. I questioned the Sergeant a bit about his access to supporting arms. Was anybody responsive when he needed it or would he get "slow" service? He was a very hearty guy who was confident in his unit’s ability to deal with the attack and being able to secure supporting arms if it was needed. Well, he was gutsy but it really didn’t matter as I could not abandon him under the circumstances. We would stay here and endure with them.
I gathered my Marines and explained to them that we would not be going out to the treeline that night and why. None of the Marines in that particular group had ever seen me sandbag before. It was a bit of a shock I suppose to have your Platoon Sergeant suddenly present as a shirker or maybe even a coward to some of them. I assured them that if the Sergeant of the CAP unit was right we would all be dead if we went out there and that also if he was right we were still in for a hell of a fight that night right where we were at. I got some questions about what would happen to us if the Captain found out we weren’t where we were supposed to be and why didn’t we inform the Captain. I assured them that I would take the full brunt of any punishment (whether I wanted to or not) for not being where we were supposed to be and that the Captain would not believe what the Sergeant had said and order us to go out anyway. The option available was to go out to the treeline and hope that 500 NVA didn’t come through that relatively small area. There was reluctant agreement from the few newer Marines and absolutely positive votes from the others.
I turned to the Sergeant of the CAP unit and asked him how he wanted me to disperse the men around his perimeter. He decided that he didn’t want my men on the perimeter to start with. Since we were not supposed to be there, he didn’t want any of my men to get killed or wounded if it could be helped. Well, I certainly agreed with that but did not think our fortunes would be so distinctly separated that night. There was a command bunker in the center of his stronghold and he wanted us in there. I did not like this. It was too small for all 14 of us and I did not want 14 of my men crammed into one small place that would be a target for any NVA that got in the perimeter. And we could not see what was going on which made us even more helpless. To better deal with the situation I had my men from a perimeter around the CP bunker. A perimeter within the perimeter. This gave us sight and mobility to fill in where needed and dispersed us so all could not be taken out with one big round. The Sergeant agree with it but did not want anybody moving unless on his command. I understood and agreed. At least while he was able to move and command.
The night started slow and I radioed in as if we had arrived at our ambush position. Then I started a series of radio checks every two hours. That is I got in the first of the radio checks two hours after "setting in" at our ambush when all hell broke loose. There was a trip flare set off in the wire around the stronghold which was immediately followed by an M-16 opening up and then everything went off. AK’s began firing in large numbers and there were several large explosions out front. I did not know if they were Claymores or the NVA blowing holes in the wire. It was, without a doubt, a large attack. I was very glad that I had listened to the Sergeant. Now I only had to live through the night.
The size and intensity of the assault momentarily stunned me but I knew what I had to do. I had to get my ass out of the CP bunker. This was not the place to be during an attack like this. Any NVA that penetrated the perimeter anywhere would be aiming for this place. I headed out the doorway colliding with several of my Marines trying to get in the bunker. I yelled over the battle sounds telling them to get back out of there. Their eyes told their fear. Again I yelled telling them that it wasn’t safe to be in the bunker and to return to their position on the inner perimeter and watch for penetrations by NVA. As I said this I looked around and began to realize the predicament. I had never encountered this problem before. There were some 20 South Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers (PF’s) on our perimeter. With all the explosions, tracer rounds, and now, parachute flares bobbing in the sky, the landscape and people took on an eerie, surrealistic appearance as all of the dancing shadows intermingled and increased the size of the force in the stronghold to ten times what it was. It was a double whammy. Which shadow forms were real bodies and which of those were the enemy?
Not only was there no letup in intensity but it continued to increase. This was beginning to look like the Alamo. I pulled my Marines back to the outside edges of the CP bunker so that we had sight and touch with each other. I kept my radioman in the doorway of the bunker. I cautioned all my men not to fire at anything but a direct assault on us or the bunker. One wrong move and we could all wind up killing each other in this scenario. My eyes were as peeled as they could get watching the direction from which the assault was coming and moving around the bunker checking all other sides for any sign of activity. After completing a check around the CP bunker I saw the Sergeant emerge from one of the line bunkers with his radioman following him. I yelled to him to see if he needed anybody moved up. He yelled back, "Not yet! I’ll let you know when!" The man was a hell of a Marine. He was maintaining extremely well. I was shaky as hell inside and this guy gave me some courage. There were very few Marines in command slots that performed this well and I was always thankful for their presence when the "stuff" hit the fan. He moved around checking his other bunkers.
We began to receive some supporting fire from An Hoa and it disrupted the intensity of the battle. There were slow downs in the AK fire. It was then that I witnessed something that I had never expected to see. A PF came out of his bunker and leaped up on the top of the berm in an upright position in full view of everybody, NVA included. He began firing his M-16 into the herd of NVA that was now in the prone position out in front. AK’s began firing back at him and he did not move. He kept spraying the area in front until his magazine was empty then came down, changed magazines and returned to the top of the berm. He was on his third magazine when the Sergeant came back around and saw him and ordered him to get down. We had all heard that the South Vietnamese were basic cowards who couldn’t be trusted. We had never been around them before and this display of John Wayne bravado in the midst of such an attack was stunning. Then it became like a dare or a game of "chicken" as others ran up the berm and stood upright to spray the NVA with fire until the Sergeant yelled at whoever.
The radioman was yelling at me to come over to the bunker door. The Captain had been trying to raise us on the radio for at least the last twenty minutes. I hadn’t even thought about it and the intensity of the battle was so great that the radioman didn’t bother. It was still going pretty good but the steam had been taken out of the initial push to get in the perimeter. They must’ve thought we were dead with all that was happening and we were supposed to be in the treeline in front of this place. I got on and whispered that I couldn’t talk because they were all around us. Had to do it three times before they could hear and understand me.
Now back to the battle. This was a sandbag that I would never forget. There was not 500 NVA out there but there was many. My guess was 200 to 250. This was not what one thought of when one talked of sandbagging. Tonight I had, without a doubt, done the right thing. I toured the bunkers on the perimeter with the Sergeant to see if we could be of any assistance. There were some wounded South Vietnamese but they weren’t bad and now every time a flare popped there were NVA running all over in front of everybody causing huge outbursts of fire from the perimeter. The wounded wanted to stay up there and get some of the easy pickings. It was simply amazing that there were not more casualties for the amount of firepower that actually got into the perimeter from rifles, mortars, and B-40’s.
The NVA regrouped and made at least two more half-hearted attempts over the next couple of hours before withdrawing at about 3:30 in the morning. We took a couple more wounded in the last attempt but otherwise were still intact when the sun rose. I had kept the Captain at bay all night with the whisper of "Can’t talk now." The sound level of the battle in the area where I was supposed to be was high enough to back up my claim quite well but was even more effective when I keyed the handset and they could hear it all around me over the radio also. We waited until about 5 minutes after first light and before heading back to Mike Company, I thanked the Sergeant of the CAP unit and gave him a "Well Done," or something like that. He would be a Marine that I would not forget.
Upon arriving back at the company I was truly struck with the concern that seemed to have been generated over us. When we hadn’t answered for so long, there had been an assumption that we were dead or captured. I was beginning to enjoy this but then this "care" started turning into questions like, "Just how did all of you escape all of that without a scratch?" I and my men chose to become very tired from being up all night surviving our horrible ordeal and retired to our positions to eat and rest a bit before the day’s patrol.
This became my final and best sandbag. I would later become an advisory team leader, similar to the Sergeant of the CAP unit, with teams of Marines and South Vietnamese. But I was responsible for all battle plans in that job so if I shut down an ambush or patrol it was no longer sandbagging but just "good sense." The Marine Corps really did operate on its own set of logic and physics. And you had to be in it to believe it.
DREAMS AND VISIONS
By Mike McFerrin
During the course of human experiences, there is always that which seems to fall outside of the "normal." That is, things that are not readily explainable because they don’t fall into the category of "acceptable" explanations but that which are heart and heads know the explanation for. Sometimes it takes a tour in the bush in Nam to know that these things are as common and natural as Life itself regardless of what the "civilized" society of ours will accept.
And for those who have done that tour or something similar, it is society itself that exists on the thinnest of veneers. And literally within minutes this veneer of civilization can breakdown and return us to that state of being animals that need all that nature has provided for us to live…..and die in this habitat.
It is about Death that I write now. That same horrible Specter of the Grim Reaper that frightens everybody for most of their life. The grinning skeleton reaching its long fingers of bone for your throat as the scream freezes there and your legs become like lead weights as you try to escape. The overpowering Darkness that is coming to steal your very breath. The End of All.
The following are three of the many stories that I could relate regarding the above. These are enough to illustrate what the Knowledge is that I am trying to communicate.
In 1966, I was a 16 year old living in Arizona. Only it didn’t seem like I was "living" much. I lived in the middle of the desert. A small mining camp some 50 miles from the nearest city. Even worse, it was 25 miles from the nearest road that went anywhere. There were some 350 people who lived in the camp and operated an open pit copper mine.
For the teenagers that lived there, our situation was certainly as bad as it could get. We considered ourselves poor and underprivileged. Our isolation from the rest of the world certainly put us behind our peers. We did not have street signs, police, or even telephones in any of the houses. There had been a single pay phone for the entire community to use that had gradually been expanded to 3 by the time I was 16. Television was finally in almost all of the homes but it took a 20 to 30 foot antenna to get any of the stations that had just recently been expanded to 3 also. We had a swimming pool for the community and a little ballpark and basketball court. And we played in the hundreds of square miles of desert all around us. It would be years before any of us could appreciate this unique childhood.
One of the peculiarities of the times that reminded us that we were actually a part of the rest of the world was a Titan Missile silo that was installed in the desert about 4 miles from our camp. This was a part of a ring of 18 missile sites around the Tucson area which was considered a target for the Russians because of the Air Force base there. This was an underground facility just off the road that went to our camp.
I had received my driver’s license that year and of course wanted to use the family car as much as possible. My parents didn’t mind too much around the camp but to go anywhere else was a distance and they were reluctant. But I would pester them enough that I got occasional permission to leave the camp. One Sunday, I went to Marana.
Marana was about twenty five miles away. It was a large farming area in the valley and it bordered the highway that ran from Tucson to Phoenix. It was where I went to school. The farming community had the school, a store, a cafï¿½, two bars, and 4 cotton gins.
I had a girl friend who lived right by the school and I spent Sunday afternoon with her. I was a big guy now because I could drive the car down to the valley to see her on weekends. Late in the day, I left for home. Before starting off across the desert, I stopped at the cafï¿½ and played the pinball machine. Three games for a quarter and I didn’t win any free ones. The sun was setting by the time I left.
It was very dark that night. The last 8 miles of road was "open range." This meant that there were no fences and cattle were free to roam across the road so you had to be careful. Not only would they pretty much destroy a car but then you would have to pay for the cow too. I was very watchful as I crossed this area. I kept my speed down and was staring ahead at the road and the sides of the road for any sign of cows.
About three miles into this final leg there was a small rise in the road. Just enough to take my headlights up off the immediate roadway for a second. When my lights came back down, there was a person standing in my side of the road. I wasn’t going at an excessive rate of speed so I had time to stop but not much. Living so far out in the middle of nowhere had given all of us certain habits that were not so prevalent in most areas of society. When you live at the end of a road that is twenty five miles from the nearest road that goes anywhere, you always stop for anybody on that road that may need help. One, there is not anybody ever on that road that you don’t know and two, the only help you’ll ever get on that road is from another resident.
As I came up on the person, I sort of scanned the road and the sides looking for the vehicle that this person belonged to so that I might know if it was a breakdown, a "cow" wreck, or maybe a multi-car wreck. I had not seen any car off the side of the road anywhere on the way there and I couldn’t see any in my quick scan so I focused on the figure as I steered over to the center of the road so that I could pull up next to the figure. This person seemed very tall as I got closer. I strained to see the face but couldn’t make it out. I pulled up with the figure next to the passenger door and was leaning across the seat to both roll down the window and looking up into the dark still trying to see who it was.
As my eyes struggled to focus on the figure, I began to feel cold. Then very cold. Simultaneously, my eyes focused and the figure I saw had no face nor anything else discernible about it. It was simply blackness that was darker than the night. I jumped back straight in the driver’s seat and as I gripped the wheel it turned to ice. Fear struck my heart like a lightning bolt as I floored the accelerator. I was almost in a panic as I first glanced in the rear view mirror and saw nothing then quickly glanced out the passenger side to assure myself that the figure was not running along side the car trying to get in. I kept accelerating until I was doing 75 mph on the little two lane blacktop road. After about a mile and a half, I was approaching a dip in the road and knew I had to slow down since it was the place where the most cow collisions happened. I was not worried about the cow or the car. I just did not want to be trying to outrun on foot whatever it was back there. I was shaken to say the least.
When I arrived at home, I tried to go right to my room but apparently it was written all over my face that something was wrong. I did not want to say but after about 10 minutes of coaxing from my parents, I broke down and told them what had happened. My dad thought somebody was down the road playing tricks that might cause somebody to have an accident. I knew that this was not the case. He drove down the road to investigate anyway. He saw nothing. It was not easy to sleep that night.
The next day I went to school. As the bus went down the road, I looked for the place where I had seen the "thing." As we got there. I scanned the desert for any sign of a vehicle that had driven off road in the area. There was none. I told nobody of my experience. Surely, I would be thought to be crazy.
When I returned home from school that afternoon, my parents wanted me to go down the road with them and show them where I had seen it. They wouldn’t tell me why. But they obviously had a reason and they were insistent. So we drove down the road and I showed them where it was. We turned around to go back and right after we passed the place where I had seen "it," they pointed to some tire tracks that went off the road. An Air Force truck had been driving up the road to the missile base that morning after I had gone to school and had run off the road and flipped over. The passenger was killed and the driver was injured badly. When asked what happened to cause the wreck, the driver had claimed that the steering wheel of his truck had been jerked so hard to the right that it came out of his hands. There was no road junk or hazard present that could have caused that and the driver was under suspicion but was sticking to his story.
As we rode back to the camp, the memory of the blackness of the figure and the ice cold that was generated by it flooded over me. And the understanding that I had seen Death itself. But why? What was the point if I did not have enough information to do anything about it? And what could I have done? Call the Air Force Base and tell them to not let their truck come up the road? Not likely anybody would have bought that.
It would be one of many childhood incidents that I had but it was the one that absolutely connected me to Death, or Death to me. I would just try to forget it. Like anybody can forget something like that.
Fast forward a couple of years. I am in Mike Company, 3/5, somewhere in the mountains in Vietnam. January 11, 1969. Time for a platoon size patrol through the mountains. I was not comfortable with this since we would be going a long distance for a platoon patrol. This would mean that the rest of the company would not be close enough to be available as a reasonable reaction force should we hit the crap. These long distance patrols were not done often but when they were and I was in the group going out, I was more alert than ever. Without the company close by (15 or 20 minutes max instead of the 2 to 4 hours that this would be) and being under the canopy which extremely limited any air support and medevacs, we would literally be on our own no matter what we ran into. These were the situations that complete unit wipeouts were made of. I did not want to be in one of those units.
My tour to date had been sort of fifty-fifty. The firs half had been very severe for me as far as combat was concerned and the latest half had been relatively easy compared to that. I knew as others did that this relative low level of combat could not and would not last forever. When and where it would return to the levels that we had become accustomed to was unknown but it was getting closer. It was in the air. And there were a lot of new guys in the company who had no idea what it was really like. The last couple of months had been real easy for us but the new guys did not know that. They were not as scared as they should be and many of us knew it.
I had a "problem" that became apparent within a couple of weeks in Vietnam. That is, it appears that I was cursed with certain "visions" that I never, ever told anybody about. These visions were a source of great anguish for me. These visions would simply occur without any known cause when I least expected them. I would look at one of my fellow Marines and he would "turn" dead right in front of me. I would not see this every single time that I looked at them but it only had to happen once to be accurate.
The first time it happened, I shook my head and looked away then looked back but he would "turn" again. I thought I was suffering from some kind of battle fatigue or stress. But then he was killed about a week later. Then there was another and it was a couple of days later he was killed. And I then knew what I was seeing. I did not "see" this with everybody who was killed but when I did see it there was no doubt about that person’s fate.
For all who have been in combat, it is not difficult to see my "problem" and the reason for my anguish. What do you do when you see this? Warn them? First, they have to believe you. That’s a big jump right there since there are all sorts of other thoughts about me that would run through their head and anybody else’s that they told first. Second, would warning them with no specifics do any good? I did not know why this was happening to me. What was I supposed to do? What could I do? It was a very terrible weight on me. But this patrol would be the beginning of a new understanding. A beginning of the curse becoming a blessing.
As we prepared for the patrol, the squad leaders came up to the platoon CP for the briefing. As we sort of stood around waiting for everybody to assemble, one of the radiomen was standing by me and he just said, sort of as an aside, that Slingerland had got up that morning and given his wallet type stuff to the squad leader with an address and asked him to send his personal stuff there if anything happened to him. The squad leader rejected that initially but Slingerland was insistent because he had a dream that he was going to be killed. I almost fell over. Slingerland was one of my "visions." I immediately began asking questions of the radioman. According to the radioman, Slingerland wasn’t fearful because of the dream. He just wanted to be sure his personal items got to who they should. I did not "know" when or how Slingerland was to meet his fate but I now worried whether I should attempt to talk to him. I could not do it. I was sickened by my knowledge.
I was so engrossed with my own fear for Slingerland, I did not even hear the patrol order. It did not matter to me. I would be traveling with tail-end squad no matter who it was. The patrol went out along the ridge for about an hour then we turned along another ridge. The trail was big and wide. Obviously well used. It began to go up and down as we moved from high points on the ridge down through the saddles then up to the next high points. I was moving down from one of these high points and the front end of the column was already over the next high point when the report of a machine gun that was not ours came from the front of the column. Marines hit the deck facing outboard but all screwed up. New guys. After quickly yelling to the ones I could see to get them turned around so that the firepower was balanced in each direction, I heard the call for tail-end Charlie to move up. This meant that we were to perform our job in these types of situations.
The front end must’ve been ambushed and we were to maneuver from the rear to overcome it. I got everybody to their feet though not easily since the fire could still be heard. I had them head past the other Marines straight down the trail since we had to get within sight of the area before I could select a maneuver that would work. I moved into the third man back slot as the squad moved forward. This was the squad control spot for me. As we topped the high point of the ridge I held up the squad and looked down the trail looking for the area. I could still see Marines laying off to either side of the trail but not the point. One of them told me that the point of the column was just around the next curve in the trail about 25 meters away from him. I sent the point man to the curve to wait for the others to move up alongside of him. This would give us the firepower to flank the probable ambush site around the corner. The firing of the machine gun stopped as we gathered for the flanking maneuver. The NVA picked up their machine gun and ran off into the underbrush. We got to their ambush site and were firing blindly into the forest. They had a very well camouflaged spot right on another corner of the trail that would have been difficult to see but would have automatically been noted as a good ambush site by anybody with some time in the bush. And there was Slingerland. The NVA had let him get completely on top of them in hopes of getting as many Marines around the corner and within their sights before opening up. He apparently never saw or suspected them there. The column was well spread out and Slingerland took many rounds in his torso which prevented the machine gunner from aiming in on anybody behind him for a few brief seconds while they were scrambling for cover so the NVA were unable to nail anybody else. Whether he willfully kept his body between the machine gun and the others for those few seconds is not known but it certainly happened.
I could only stare at his body as I gave the "all clear" to the Marines back down the trail. I now knew I was not alone in the premonitions. He had had the premonition of his own death and yet did not escape it. This was some relief for me. If he could do nothing, could I have done anything? At the earliest opportunity back at the company perimeter, I asked his squad leader if he had griped about having to walk point or asked to not walk point. He had not. I was more than a little amazed at this. Wouldn’t I have tried to get out of walking point on the day after such a dream? I felt sure that I would have. This was so puzzling.
A couple of months go by. March 6, 1969. Without a doubt, Mike Company did return to the heavy contacts with the enemy. In fact, on this day we were going to attempt an escape from this hill. Out of some 105 of us we had suffered over 60 dead and wounded over the last couple of weeks. Although mortar shrapnel accounted for a large percentage of the wounds, the last 3 days had been extremely close combat in which most of the KIA’s had been taken. We had to escape a ring of enemy soldiers that seemed to have gone from a "platoon to a company sized" unit to an even larger unknown number and were still becoming even bigger with the express purpose of annihilating us. We had to go down to the valley, cross it, and climb up the other side to Firebase Maxwell to escape. This was more than a full day’s walk without having to fight.
We had more dead and wounded than people able to carry them and fight. Kilo Company was sent from Maxwell to assist us in the escape. My platoon had taken the least number of casualties on the hill and we were selected to walk point to go out and meet Kilo at the bottom of the hill. It had been a very bad three days there and we knew we would be fighting to get to Kilo. We had had 24 hours per day of gunship, artillery, and Puff coverage up there. And since we were under the canopy and not visible, this "coverage" had accounted for some of our casualties. Friendly fire. One of the better euphemisms the powers-that-be ever came up with. Ranks right up there with "military intelligence."
The plans for all of this were made on the evening of March 5, 1969, which gave third platoon the whole night to think about it. Around my hole I had stacked dead Marines to keep the grenades out. Though I was in the platoon CP, we were covering a line position. The bodies had been there for three days and they included people that I knew. I had only slept when after some 56 hours straight of probe contacts on the third platoon lines I simply went unconscious. I believe I slept a little over an hour when I was awoken by a heavy blow to my head. I could barely get to consciousness. The platoon commander, myself, the corpsman, and the radioman had dug a hole large enough for four to sit in and three to sort of semi-lay in. I assumed that the corpsman had kicked me in the head so I cussed him out appropriately and went to sleep for another 45 minutes or so.
When the corpsman and I awoke at first light, I was totally numb on the right side of my body and I had a headache. Looking down, I saw a large aluminum canister some 3 feet long and 6 to 8 inches in diameter. It was a canister from a parachute flare from Puff. A "basketball" flare. It had crashed through the trees and hit the branch just above my head which slowed it enough to keep it from killing me when it had struck in the base of the skull. It wasn’t that corpsman with the kick of a mule after all.
The headache was still with me on the morning of March 6 as I prepared some of my great C-rat cocoa and coffee mixture. One packet of cocoa, two packets of coffee, 6 creamers, and 6 sugars blended into a ï¿½ full canteen cup of water then brought to a near boil over a thumbnail size of C-4. You had to be careful not to let any of that C-4 stick to your finger or thumb when you were making the ball lest it catch on fire when you were striking the match especially if it was a little wet and you were keeping you finger close to the head of it or lighting the ball itself or holding the canteen cup over the flame. One of those little idiosyncratic bush life items that can be used to trip up those many Vietnam "bush" veteran fakers that seem to be out there now. If you ask them how many times they burned their finger or thumb on C-4 and they don’t know what you are talking about or say something like, "I wasn’t in EOD," then you know for sure where this "bush vet" wasn’t at.
One of the men came by the hole since the fighting had lulled at sunup. He told me that Duntz had a dream. He hadn’t said anything else yet and I was already spilling some of my precious cocoa/coffee. Yes, I already knew Duntz’s fate and now again I have proof that another person has been foretold of his own death in the same manner as a couple of months ago…a dream. Same scenario. Got up that morning and told his squad leader about it and gave him his personal effects and addresses to mail it to. This time I casually asked as many questions as I could right then. Was he nervous or scared or forlorn or anything? No, in fact, he was very relaxed and matter-of-fact about it. Not visibly worried about it in the least. I became lost in my own thought and stopped asking questions and the Marine returned to his position.
My gut was tightening up on me. And then, I too, knew that today was the day he was going to die. I was in a struggle with myself again. Maybe I could stop it. I would keep an eye out for him. I cannot just let it happen. I must try or I will not be able to live with myself because for the first time I "know" when it is to happen and he has confirmed that himself. I was pulled out of myself by the call to go to the Company CP for the briefing. I did not hear much of it but didn’t need to. The ifs, ands, and buts were real limited. Some of us were going to die shortly and we all knew that. I was just praying that I could save Duntz somehow.
Staff Sergeant Blackman who was the acting platoon commander and I went back to the third platoon area. We went to the position next to the trail that we would be taking down the ridge line. Blackman looked around at our meager squads and sort of picked the order at random. He told Curtis that his squad would take point and then selected the next two as Curtis turned around to select his point man.
I was standing by the big tree right behind the position on the trail and my heart had fallen when Blackman had picked Curtis’ squad. That is where Duntz was. I looked in back of Curtis as he turned to look at his squad. I was trying to decide what he had before he could. Before either one of us could say anything, Duntz stepped forward and said, "I’ll take point." I felt a scream inside of me. NO! NO! NOT DUNTZ.
I quickly finished my scan of the squad so that I could do something. It had dwindled to a five man squad. The squad leader and his radioman. Neither could walk point of course. Pralicz, the M-79 man couldn’t walk point with that weapon. That left Weaver and Duntz. I stepped around the tree towards the squad with the aim to exercise my authority as platoon sergeant to change the point. I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for doing so as I moved toward Curtis. Curtis turned and looked at me as I walked towards him. I could not say anything because my mind was being flooded with the "vision" of Duntz being killed by rifle fire and I could "see" that it was on this trail and very close in time and geography and simultaneously my conscious mind was being hit with my responsibilities to the platoon as platoon sergeant and the hopelessness of my situation.
I could come up with something and have Weaver put on point instead of Duntz. But what would I have accomplished? Decided that Weaver is to die instead of Duntz? I did not "know" that Weaver was to die as I did with Duntz. But that was not a guarantee that he wouldn’t. And no matter who was up there on this day, it was likely that contact would be made and they would be in extreme danger as any point man would. My heart was aching as I looked up at Duntz getting his gear on to move out. He showed absolutely no sign of fear or anxiety. Even Curtis who had been told about the dream by Duntz appeared to be concerned and asked him if he was sure that he wanted to volunteer for point. Duntz very calmly said that he didn’t mind and walked out onto the trail.
I retreated to the big tree area as the other squads began to bunch up there waiting for the column to move out and the men to get spaced far enough apart for each to fall in line and start out of the perimeter. Blackman was issuing warning and caution orders to the point squad as they moved out. My head was spinning as I "felt" the moment drawing near and the hopelessness of all of us -- Duntz, I, and the rest of humanity – in trying to escape what is to be weighed me down.
I watched as the first squad moved out and disappeared around a corner about 30 meters down the trail. Then Blackman and his radioman. Then the next squad began to move out. I was getting ready to fall in to my place with the last squad when it happened. The sound of multiple AK’s firing. M-16’s returning fire almost instantaneously and the whoomp of the M-79 firing. Bullets and Marines moving for cover everywhere. I simply fell to the ground and scooted behind the tree I was standing next to. And from my mouth involuntarily and to myself came the words, "Duntz is dead." I was shocked back to reality with a sharp, "What did you say?" It was the machine gunner who had landed next to me behind the tree. I looked up at him but didn’t say anything. He said that he had heard me and "How did I know Duntz was dead?" I just shook my head and said something about the gooks always get somebody with an ambush but I could see he was still looking at me funny. The uncomfortable situation was alleviated by Blackman’s yell for me to get the tail-end Charlie up to the front.
The firing was still going on up there in both directions. We heard a Marine yell in pain. I called for the last squad to get up and one jumped up right away. It was Olguin. He had come to the bush with me and he was one of the better bush Marines in the platoon. He knew what had to be done and was surged with adrenaline. He, without any direction from me, ran off to the right side of the trail into the forest. I yelled for the rest of the squad to follow and went out there with him. I intended to get several on line off to the flank to move forward but Olguin began moving immediately. I told him to wait but he didn’t hear me and began moving forward immediately. I ran to catch up with him because I didn’t want him exposed by himself.
Two things happened when I ran up beside him. First, the rest of the squad saw me running as if charging and became scared of what looked like a stupid charge against an unknown size and unlocated enemy force and they stopped. Second, Olguin must’ve thought I was doing that also because he began to run himself but forward towards the enemy. Boy, did I mess this one up. We busted through the brush and we began to yell. As we neared what was probably the area I slowed and tried to get Olguin to slow because we were not in sight of the trail and did not know where the Marines were anymore than we knew where the enemy was. I moved back towards the trail so that I could see but I couldn’t stop Olguin. Fortunately he did not shoot any Marines nor they him. The ambush ran off as we both arrived at the trail some 10 or 15 meters apart and whether it was the return fire of the Marines pinned down on the trail or the yelling and screaming and sounds of breaking bushes or all of the above I do not know. Olguin came into the trail right where Duntz lay riddled by AK rounds and I came in right where Weaver was hiding behind a big tree with his forearm smashed from enemy fire. Behind me on the trail, Pralicz was also behind a tree and he was pumping out M-79 fire like crazy.
Olguin stayed with Weaver and I went back up the trail to the perimeter to get a poncho to carry the body with. As I passed the Marines laying off to either side of the trail, I kept my head down until I heard Blackman’s voice. He asked me what happened up there but I could only say, "Duntz is dead." For some reason, he did not believe this and retorted, "He is not!" I just repeated the words and turned to continue. I heard him sort of trying to say something again about him not being dead but did not turn or say anything more. It was like everything came to a standstill for a few minutes. I got a poncho in the perimeter and walked back down the trail. The ambush had been repulsed and there had been no fire for a minute or two but nobody had moved. Everybody was behind something as I walked up and back down the trail. It wasn’t until I started yelling for some help to carry the body that anybody stirred.
The day was not over for me but in my mind there was a strange sense of relief. That is, the months of mental anguish and torture that I had put myself through regarding these "visions" had ended to a certain degree. The day had brought realizations to me that I could not yet articulate to myself but that I knew were there. It would be several days before I could begin to unravel all of this. But gradually the pain and guilt would dissipate though it would be many years before I could rid myself of at least occasional twinges of guilt regarding my "knowledge" and inability to do anything with that to change things.
After returning from Vietnam there was a steep decline in my "visions" and shortly thereafter they ceased, or maybe just temporarily lulled. I do not know.
ANSWERS? MORE QUESTIONS? CONCLUSIONS?
It was days before I could apply any real thought to the incident with Duntz. But it has been a lifetime of trying to understand what this and all the incidents that I have experienced mean to me and to all of us. What the Vietnam experience did was bring me and my fellow Marines into gut wrenching contact with Death on a very extended, close, and daily basis. In this environment, it seems that the "other" senses were activated. Sort of like one’s hearing becoming more acute in the darkness. But what were these senses and what are their purpose? In no particular order, my own musings over the years:
1. WHO HAS THESE "SENSES?"
In the case of those who had the "dream" about their own deaths, there didn’t seem to be any common denominator other than they were human. Race, religion, education, geographic background, etc. did not seem to be a factor. And those who decided to tell somebody that I then talked to are the only ones I actually know about.
How many had the "dream" and didn’t tell anybody that I then talked to or didn’t tell anybody at all?
Was the "dream" the only method of acquiring this certain knowledge of one’s own death?
I am convinced that this is a "natural" capability that all human beings have. When Death is on the way the psychic and spiritual senses are alerted.
In my personal case of having the "sense" of other people’s deaths, I am the only one that I am aware of that experienced this. But I do not feel like a "freak." Given my own problem in dealing with it and my own silence about it until now, nobody would know except the trusted few if I had not written this.
Were there others like me?
I think that there probably were. They, too, have probably chosen to remain silent.
I am almost convinced that this capability is simply the same one that allows one to connect with one’s own Death that is either "amped" up a bit or is somehow able to pick up on others who have similar "psychic" or "spiritual" wavelengths. It would seem that if this is the case, I will definitely know when my time is near.
The other possibility that I have considered is that when conditions are right, I have access to a sort of "cosmic" pool of this information which passes to me based on what and who is around me. I have not ever voluntarily explored this possibility but have read about those who have learned how to go to this Knowledge for specific purposes.
In either case, it demonstrates to me that we are all more than what we can see with the two physical eyes.
2. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THESE "SENSES?"
My agony in the beginning in Vietnam was that I was given this knowledge but was personally not fit or able to intervene and save anybody’s life. Gradually, the question dawned on me, "Is there ANYTHING I can do to change the outcome of what I see?"
When Incident Three happened, I saw the choice I had clearly. I could send one man to his death to maybe save the other. That was not an acceptable method of "doing something " to intervene. It was then that I began looking at these visions as something other than "warnings" calling upon me to alter the circumstances to "save" a life. Who will escape Death anyway?
Of major importance in my silent search for answers was the commonality of Incident Two and Three. Not only did I see two other people who had the same knowledge that I did but I saw two other people who would seem to have even more motivation than I to "do something" to avoid the end result since it was their own deaths that they foresaw. Not only did neither one of these Marines attempt to do anything to alter the circumstances that could cause their death but one of them even volunteered to expose himself to additional danger. Neither Marine was "antsy" or scared at all. In fact, they were both extremely calm and unafraid. How can an 18 year old have a dream that transmits certain knowledge of his own death to him and act like that?
In my first firefight, I performed an act that I thought was going to kill me, and an NVA machine gunner. I was calm by the time I performed that act but I was also fully convinced that I was going to die there anyway. It was like I had fell off a cliff and was on my way to death and simply trying to do something that would help my fellow Marines before I expired. But at the first sign that there was any hope at all to wiggle out of the situation, I immediately changed my tactics. If I could live, they would have to find somebody else to play kamikaze. I absolutely did not want to die.
But these two did nothing nor seemed to fear what was to come. I am convinced that more than their deaths became known to them in the dreams they had. They saw more than I did in my "visions." Whatever it was, it completely overcame the survival instinct and, in addition, gave them a calm, serene acceptance of their fate. It is this that I wonder the most about. Maybe Death was not all it was cracked up to be. Maybe the knowledge of it coming was no more than a "cosmic" form of a train blowing its whistle to announce its arrival as it entered a station. And Death itself was simply one of the towns on the Train of Existence’s schedule of stops. Maybe my "visions" were just the posting of a schedule so to speak and were not a "call" for me to do "something." And how vain of me to even think that I had the ability or power to alter this schedule.
As many bush Marines know, the thought often expressed in the bush was that if you were going to die in Nam, it was better to get it right away so as to avoid all the humping and suffering that was the bush Marine’s existence. And more than once I can remember being in the middle of that humping and suffering as I looked upon a dead Marine and found myself wondering if he wasn’t sitting somewhere mourning me because I was still in the middle of it.
Though I still experiences twinges of anguish for these Marines who died so young with so many unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, I find that I spend more time wondering what stop their train is at now.
A WAY TO GET OUT OF THE BUSH
By Mike McFerrin
All bush Marines could tell you what was required to get out of the bush both temporarily and permanently. These were things that everybody heard and remembered… without looking like they were listening and learning. After 30 years, I may have the following wrong but it was something like this.
With 3 purple hearts that required at least 24 hours hospitalization each, you could get out of the bush, but not Nam.
With 2 48-hour hearts, you could get out of the bush but not Nam.
With 3 48-hour hearts, you could get out of Nam.
In the million dollar wound category:
If you could get any kind of wound that required any series of reconstructive surgery, you would probably get out of Nam but depending on the area wounded and the time you had left in the Corps you might be subject to being sent back.
If you could get a wound that left you partially affected for life in any kind of movement of your body, you could get out of Nam and the Corps and maybe get a pension too.
There may be other categories that I have forgotten since the need to know these is no longer in my life….and I still have a life. But these were not jokes when they seemed to or did represent the only way that one might survive the war. And the art of Self-Inflicted Wounding was taken to a higher level in the Vietnam War than our forefathers had done in previous conflicts. It was an ever present reality that I’m sure most if not all of us in the bush had to deal with at one time or another. Either contemplating it to one degree or another or being aware of somebody who was either contemplating or doing something about it.
For those who were not out there, my statement about everybody being aware of it one way or another may sound like an exaggeration. For those who carried the dead and mangled as well as just the mangled into the choppers to be flown off to wherever it was, the statement does not come close to telling of the fears that forcefully occupied your mind for days and weeks on end and their cumulative effect on your psyche. How does one seriously contemplate doing serious damage to oneself? Well, very seriously, of course, and very cautiously. None of the weapons available to us came with any instructions on use for self mutilation. This was an acquired skill that left very little room to practice in and even less in the final exams.
I’ll start with myself and my own thoughts since I know these better than any. To be honest, I actually considered very seriously causing damage to a leg. The worst part of this is I wasn’t in Vietnam. I was in the stateside Marine Corps at Recon. It had nothing to do with Vietnam. I just didn’t like the Marine Corps and I wanted to get back on the streets from where I had come and I was young enough to think about stepping in front of a car while on liberty. One going just fast enough to hurt one leg. I remember standing on a street corner in San Diego watching cars go by in the downtown area where they weren’t going too fast. I was trying to estimate the speed that would be necessary to damage one leg enough to get out of the Corps. After about a half hour of this, I came to and realized that not only did I not know how much damage was enough but I didn’t have the nerve either. Well, it was a good exercise in the sense that it put an end to all my daydreams about getting out of the Corps and back on the streets. I began to accept that I was going to do my time and started becoming a better Marine.
My first few months in Vietnam were very nasty. Mike Company was in the crap and had been all that summer of 1968. All survivors in the company were to one degree or another suffering from battle fatigue. The daily dead and wounded and associated violence took its toll. But I had not yet even considered a self inflicted wound. It wasn’t until one day when Mike Company got caught in some kind of weird firefight that I began to learn about it. If my memory serves me right, it was in the Arizona Territory on a very hot day. So far that day nothing had happened. But it had been every day before that so we were waiting for whatever to come down, expecting it. We took a break in a treeline and everybody sought shade, dropped their pack, and began drinking water. Just as the first sips of water arrived in the stomach, all hell broke loose. I remember it wasn’t even much of a shock. Just sort of, "Okay, here we go for today’s matinee of death and destruction."
I rolled from my sitting position leaning against my pack which was up against a tree to the prone position facing behind the tree where most of the fire seemed to be coming from. But then it seemed to change directions and come from the flank. In all the shrubs and trees, I couldn’t see anything and was waiting for people at the front of the column to give us a clue as to what was happening. Apparently they were as clueless as we were. It was almost like we were in the middle of a firefight between two other units but none could be seen and there were no identifiable M-16’s firing. Nobody from Mike Company was firing at anything but it was still a hell of a battle. And nobody seemed to be firing at us as a target. Bullets were flying everywhere but were not concentrated on anybody or anything and they were coming from two directions. Each person sort of adjusted themselves behind whatever was available to cover from those two directions and waited it out.
I looked out from behind the tree every couple of seconds just to assure myself that no NVA were attempting to rush the flank. One of these times that I looked out, I saw a Marine’s hand and forearm sticking up in the air from behind a log. My first impression was that it was somebody who had been hit and I looked over at a machine gunner behind the tree next to me and pointed up there. He looked and saw the hand and arm and started yelling asking if somebody was hit. The hand and arm quickly went down and a voice said "No. I’m okay." Then followed with a very soft, "So far, anyway." It was the platoon sergeant. It was then that it dawned on the machine gunner and I that he had been trying to "catch" a round.
This was my first knowledge of self-inflicted wounding in Vietnam and it was something to think about. The man who was attempting it was in a key leadership position in the bush. Vietnam made the squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon commanders the most important people in the prosecution of the war. Whether an operation was successful or not, whether the troops lived or died, whether the enemy was killed or stopped at any point were all under the total control of these three positions. Not only was it primarily a small unit action war but even in large unit actions the terrain managed to turn it back into a series of small unit actions.
Was this platoon sergeant a coward? Well, I had not been there long measured in time, but measured in exposure to combat, I had some considerable time in. This description of somebody in a war is difficult to contemplate once you have been exposed to war. Is this somebody who is afraid? Well, than this covers 99.9999% of all who are there no matter what they may say or do. Just in my own experience to that date, I could truthfully say that I had laid on a battlefield and cried like a baby, froze on a battlefield, sandbagged an ambush that was certain death, and been sick with the stench of death all around me. The other side to that coin was that I had also fought like Chesty Puller, taken extraordinary risks to save other Marines, taken other Marines’ places when they broke down and were unable to perform out of fear, and generally looked like John Wayne. The hero and the coward walk in the same man. And I already knew that I was simply typical. An average Marine in Vietnam. This platoon sergeant was no different. I had seen him perform his job very well. The time, place, circumstances, body chemistry at the moment, and the current condition of the psyche all seemed to be factors in determining a person’s performance at any given moment as well as their ability to cope with all that was happening. He had apparently reached the point of overload. I could not "look down" on him for he was me. He was simply another form of casualty that the Marines more than anybody had in Vietnam. The Army choppered their men out to the field to have battles then choppered them back to the rear to rest up for the next one. The Marines couldn’t afford all of those choppers so they just choppered us out and left us there. These protracted periods in the bush were a real weight on one’s mental stamina.
There does exist a type of person who does not appear to be afraid and performs so in combat. In two years, I personally saw two of them. Even at this point I had already seen one. The unfortunate side effect of this type of person is that it is clear that there is something "wrong" there. An imbalance of a sort. Both that I saw in Vietnam appeared to want to be a "hero" so bad that they were willing to risk their lives for that sole purpose and that desire had even warped their judgment as to what act actually would be heroic. The one that I had already witnessed had taken a very large risk to kill some NVA in a situation where it actually hadn’t made an iota of difference in anything. It saved no Marine’s life. It did not even shorten the battle one second. It was a totally worthless risk but it got him put up for a medal. Once you have witnessed this type of "hero," it is difficult to not keep your eye on them if they are anywhere near you. It is not awe that causes this. It is fear. This person has a set of values that places certain things in an order that is alien to most humans. Being viewed as a hero is more important than their own life or has so bent their view of reality that they can’t make proper judgments. The reality of this for those around them is clear. If they don’t care or can’t take care of their own life, what can you expect them to do with yours? And in both cases of this type of person that I saw in Vietnam, the end was the same. They were both killed in action and both managed to get other Marines killed with them. In neither case were they performing any act that was of any consequence whatsoever to any of their fellow Marines or to the battle at hand. I believe both were buried with several medals. Unfortunately, the Marines they managed to get killed with them didn’t even get this.
So in my first witness of an attempt to wound one’s self, I had enough experience under my belt to know that the word "coward" was something that a fellow bush vet would find hard to apply in this circumstance. It also stimulated thought about this as a way out of the bush for myself if I needed it. I wondered why I had not considered it before so I thought back over the several circumstances that came to mind that I did want to get out of there really bad. Well, it was pretty clear after that reflection to see why I had never thought of it before. Each and every time that I had an overwhelming desire to get out of the bush, I had been in very imminent danger of becoming severely wounded or killed. This was not a time that the thought of wounding and maybe severely wounding one’s self would come to mind. Excuse me, Mr. Charles, but your last few rounds didn’t actually hit me so let me take care of that for you. I just sort of filed the info away in my mind since it didn’t seem to have any pertinent application to me…..yet.
It had also crossed my mind that others might have attempted or even been successful at what I had witnessed. For obvious reasons, it would not be something that got around. Most people would not want anybody to know. I remember having a conversation with a couple of foxhole buddies a night or two after this incident with the platoon sergeant. They had been there at least a couple of months longer than I had and were definitely more knowledgeable about the wounds necessary to get out of the bush.
It seems that shooting one’s self in the right place in the foot could almost guarantee not only getting out of the bush but out of the Corps with a pension too. Limited foot movement and a permanent limp was pretty well assured. Small price to pay for having the rest of your life to live. The only but compelling thing against this was that it would be 100% guaranteed that it would be known that it was self inflicted. The chances of such a wound from such an angle occurring in combat was nonexistent unless you had multiple wounds upon your body that had been delivered at close range by an enemy and if so, why were you alive at all? Even claiming accidental discharge was no good because even that was prosecutable as at least negligence. It was speculated that up to life in prison or even a firing squad was possible punishment for such an act.
It seems that the weapon of choice for delivering a wound to get you out of the bush at least temporarily was the M-26 Grenade, Fragmentation. Apparently through multiple acts of self mutilation, this method had been refined to specific steps designed to incur a 48 hour Purple Heart without causing any permanent or too painful damage to one’s body. This meant that you would actually have to do this twice to get out of the bush and if you could successfully pull it off in the rear area at least once after that, you would be on your way back to the World. This seemed a bit daunting to me. I wasn’t even sure that I could do it to myself once. Three times just seemed impossible.
In this conversation I did hear about many suspected acts of self wounding in Mike Company during the last 3 or 4 months. There were many stories of less successful attempts. It seems that getting the 3 24 hour Purple Hearts used to be a favorite target. It would only get you out of the bush, but of course that is what the majority wanted to do especially when things were bad. And to guarantee that you wouldn’t damage yourself, the C-rat can opener, the John Wayne, was used to inflict the wound. During mortar attacks was the preferred time to apply this wound. One of the problems with this was getting a 24 hour hospitalization out of it. Flying you back to the aid station in An Hoa and getting a few stitches and sending you back out did not constitute hospitalization. Even flying you to 1st Med in Danang for stitches did not qualify you. To actually get a 24 hour hospitalization by using your can opener or even a knife required one hell of a Marine. You had to apply the sharp edge of whatever in prolonged and multiple attacks on yourself that would make most people pass out from the pain. Not exactly something that is within the range of actions for somebody who is trying to avoid such damage to his body in the first place.
It was a couple of months before I witnessed another situation that may have been the single most successful "self-inflicted" wounding that I know about. I say "may" because I cannot be sure that it wasn’t real. Mike Company was on an operation that took us very close to the Laotian border. One day we were on a mountain top building a fire support base and the next morning we were choppered into a valley that was supposed to have an old French highway running through it. The old French maps showed it as following along a river that ran through the valley, crossing back and forth across the river where ever it needed to. This particular portion of this operation started off weird and seemed to stay that way for the time we were in this area.
First, we waited for all chopper loads to arrive by sort of spreading out in this area of tall elephant grass along this river. This area of grass was about 300 meters along the length of the river and either end had dense tree areas that ran as far as one could see in either direction through the valley. This was obviously the only place within miles that choppers could set down along the river. While we were waiting for the last choppers to arrive, the Company CP group was wandering all around the area looking for the old French highway shown on the map. It couldn’t be found. Even after the last choppers arrived, we were on hold while they did some map resection to verify where we had landed. I remember not bothering because one did not need to do any resection in this case. Because we were in a clearing, we could see many peaks in the area and bends in the river from where we were at. One did not have to shoot any azimuths to see our coordinates on the map here. These maps were from surveys done prior to 1954 so although I too expected to see some remnant of the French highway, it was not entirely impossible that the jungle had already reclaimed it.
While this congregation of very important Company CP people were trying to confirm the obvious, the rest of us sort of sat around in the grass eating some C-rats, making coffee, smoking cigarettes, etc. Somebody from one of the platoons was having a problem with his weapon. After working on it for a few minutes, he got clearance to test fire it. He fired a couple of rounds into our side of the valley that ran along the river. For those looking, they knew he had some tracer rounds in his weapon when they saw them go into the grass up the side of the slope. Within a few seconds, you could see a small wisp of smoke curling up out of the grass where the round had hit. This soon became a small cloud of smoke and most people in the company turned to look at it when somebody said, "Hey, it looks like those tracer rounds started a fire." People only turned to look because nobody had ever seen a tracer round start a fire before. Just then a breeze came down through the valley and the little fire became a small wall of flame that shot down the hill almost to the river.
Upon reaching the river, it stopped any movement until it was a conflagration about 12 foot high then turned left and shot for us. The ones closest to it were screaming the loudest as they jumped up and ran away from it and towards the rest of us who were moving a little bit slower as we got up and looked at this wall moving towards us. It was sort of unbelievable. I guess each of us must have thought that it was just a small spurt in the fire that would stop quickly. But it did not stop. My platoon was going to be point anyway that morning and I heard the Captain yelling at my platoon commander to get the column moving NOW. I grabbed the Marine closest to me and told him he was point and to start moving down this overgrown trail we were on. I grabbed his squad leader to get him to get the rest of his squad moving when I saw the point man I had just put there at a stop as he tried to pull a branch overhanging the trail back so he could move past it without having to rub by it. Instead of trying to put an order to our column since there was no time, I told the squad leader to push everybody on the trail and down it as quick as he could. I ran to the point man grabbed him from behind telling him that there was no time for any of this and started pushing him in front of me down the trail. The wall of fire was picking up speed. The Marines were now at almost a full run trying to stay ahead of it and we were blocking the only possible way to stay ahead of it. The point man got the message after I shoved him through the next 10 or 20 meters of bushes until he was at almost a full run. He could hear the panic of the Marines behind him increasing also.
He had a little over a hundred meters to go to get to the start of the trees. The grass itself though ran another 50 meters or so into the trees before it stopped. The trees were all quite green so it was hoped that the grass fire would burn itself out before any trees could catch on fire. The point man was suddenly scared to death as he began to enter the trees. He started screaming as he was running so that I could hear him, "What if there are gooks in here?" And he slowed a bit again, I grabbed his shirt from behind and once again began pushing him in front of me as I yelled in his ear, "Shoot any that you see but do not slow down until I tell you!" He responded and moved forward on his own.
Just as we on the point made it out of the grass area, I stopped, moved to the side of the trail, and began to turn back to watch and be sure that we got all Marines past this point to probable safety. I didn’t even get turned around when I heard a scream and a choke mixed together trying to say something coming from the point. I hadn’t heard a weapon and the first flash I had was that he had hit some kind of non-explosive booby trap. I turned back to the front and ran towards him expecting to have to pull him off the trail so others could get by and I could treat whatever it was. But he was still running forward and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Then I heard the words, "Gas! Gas!" coming from him as I saw him run right into a big bush on a curve in the trail and get knocked down.
I remember sort of freezing up as I tried to assess this. I mean I had never even heard of this in the bush. Sure everybody had been issued gas masks when they got in country but I didn’t know anybody who had kept them for more than a week or two. None of the people who had been there for months had his gas mask and after seeing the war up close for a while it did not seem to be a war where gas was used much since it was so difficult to be sure that it only got the enemy and not you. Both the NVA and VC did not seem to be all that technically inclined anyway. They did just fine with old grenades and punji sticks. So most people did just what they saw others do after they realized that it was not much of a threat. They threw away the gas mask and used the pouch to carry extra food or something that had more value to a grunt than a gas mask. So I can’t even turn and yell to everybody to get their gas masks on. I don’t have one either and then I realize that I don’t even know what kind of gas it is. I sort of look back behind me and realize that turning the column around is not an option.
In this couple of seconds that I hesitated, the full impact of this situation slammed me very hard. I would have to keep moving through this gas trying to hold my breath for how long? And the enemy was probably in the area with gas masks on waiting to get us all in the kill zone anyway. And we had started the fire that drove ourselves right in here and cut off our escape. I had a flash of this being very bad as I took a deep breath and plunged forward to first get the point man who was still conscious. He was coughing and gagging as I hauled him to his feet. I told him to grab my shirt from behind, hold his breath, and follow me. I plunged forward but had to take a tiny breath and it hit me. But it was actually a relief. I instantly knew that it was tear gas. I was not going to die flopping on the ground with my skin being burned off or my brain being chicken fried. I yelled back that it was tear gas and to keep every body moving. Somehow this did not seem like it was the NVA. Tear gas? This had to be ours. Maybe they captured some of ours and were using it against us. No, I don’t think so because they don’t carry gas masks either. I continued forward until I thought that we might have cleared all Marines from the fire area. I was choking and crying from the gas and my eyes had watered up so that I could barely see.
My platoon commander moved down the trail around everybody to get to me. He said that we had cleared the fire area but we should go a little further just in case any of the trees started on fire. I asked him about all the gas and where it was coming from since we had moved through a couple hundred meters of it. Apparently he was the only one who knew anything about it. He pointed to a branch in front of me and told me to look very close at it. There was a very thin layer of dust on it. With his hand he nudged the branch slightly while I was looking at the dust and I got a face full of tear gas. He told me this was micro-pulverized tear gas crystals. It was probably spread throughout the valley by airplane to reduce its use by the NVA. This fine dust would activate or put off gas with air moving over it. Even the air movement caused by moving the branch was enough. The first question I had was why didn’t anybody tell us before they dropped us down here. His explanation was very simple, scary and probably true. He theorized that the Air Force had actually dispersed the crystals over this valley at the request of MACV several months ago when some recon team had spotted supplies coming in from Laos here. The fact that it had long ago been done and by another service just never made it to the Marine Corps when they planned this operation. And one could only wonder what else may have been dropped out here.
I bent down to scratch my ankle and saw a bulge in my boot near the top. Pulling it open I saw 5 or 6 leeches attached to my ankle. They must have been coming off the bushes and dropping in the top of my boot. I kept my pant legs rolled up to mid calf. This was going to require unlacing and probably removing my boot but the platoon commander said to get moving again so I had to put it off. I stayed on point because I was already there and they still wanted to move speedily to put some distance between the tail end of the column and the grass fire. It appeared to be burning out in the forested area but nobody wanted to take a chance.
I moved quickly but was processing the scene as far ahead as I could see looking for any telltale sign that would indicate an ambush or booby trap. With all the gas I felt relatively safe. After about 20 minutes the gas began to dissipate and in another 5 minutes I was free and clear of the gas. But now I had to maintain my speed to get the rear of the column clear and an ambush was more likely here. The entire company cleared the area without incident.
Without incident??? We had started a fire that attacked us and set over 100 men running for their lives straight into an area that we, the American forces had gassed. Choking, crying, stumbling, and running into bushes and trees, we had barely escaped the fire. If any NVA were watching from the surrounding high ground, we may actually may have scored some confirmed kills if any of them rolling on the ground with laughter had had a heart attack or accidentally rolled off a cliff. The Keystone Marines struck riotous laughter into the hearts of the enemy soldiers as they proceeded down the valley.
At our first stop I quickly pulled my right boot off and to my amazement I had 27 leeches attached to my foot and ankle. Every one had been small enough when it dropped in my boot that it was able to force its way through the threads of my sock to get to me. Now they were all swollen and interwoven in some cases through more than one thread hole. I started removing them with a cigarette at first but there were so many that I pulled out the trusty "bug juice." The blood flowed like from a faucet for about 5 minutes after removing them but I couldn’t wait. I put my sock back on immediately because I had to do my left foot also. 21 leeches there. I got all cleared and rebooted before the column was ready to move out but wound up with blood soaked socks and boots.
We continued moving down the forested trail along the river which of course turned out to be the old French Highway. This was clear once we saw the first of several old bridge remnants where the highway had crossed the river. The jungle became denser the further we went until it had a single canopy. We found an old, but not too old, NVA perimeter off the side of the trail away from the river. After checking it out, it was within a few minutes of being completely dark so we set in using the NVA holes. This was a double edged sword for us. True we didn’t have to dig our holes that night and that was a bit of physical relief. But also true was we knew for a fact that the NVA knew where each of these holes was even in the pitch black under the canopy. For the seasoned bush vets, this was something to worry about.
It got absolutely pitch dark that night. I was in a position just up and off the trail but with enough foliage that even if it had been daylight we would not have a view of the trail itself. Since you cannot see your hand in front of your face in this level of darkness, the turn at watch consists mainly of listening. The jungle at night is not exactly a library in the World. There are sounds but you become accustomed to those that require further attention. We were well aware that the enemy was also hindered by this same darkness.
Some time after midnight, I was just leaning over the foxhole to wake my relief when the doodoo hit the fan. All at once there was screaming, yelling, rifle fire, grenades, and a Claymore blowing on the far side of the perimeter. The darkness was streaked with the flashes and their rebound off the layer of leaves above. I immediately convulsed, jerking back from the foxhole and rolling away from it, yelling at the men in it to get out of the hole. Everything had happened so quickly and fiercely that I assumed we were under a full scale assault which would be aimed at the known positions. Since the best avenue to assault from was the trail down in front of my positions, I was fully expecting all hell to break loose any second and was appropriately sweating with fear. I moved on my belly towards another position yelling at them to abandon the hole, keep spread out and pass it on to the next position. Nothing had started yet on our side so I quickly added to not fire until they had a target. Don’t give away your position men. The other side of the perimeter was still firing and yelling but I could hear many Marine voices trying to figure out what was happening. After about 3 minutes of this everything stopped. We were still tensed to the max on my side.
I could hear Marines talking across the perimeter but couldn’t discern what they were saying. But the tones and levels indicated something wasn’t quite right. I mean I had never heard a conversation carried on like this in a firefight or even in a lull in a firefight before. What was up? Eventually the word was passed that everything was okay, There were no gooks or casualties. False alarm. Say what? Three minutes of all that I heard was not your average "mistake" that had no casualties. I was confused and knew something wasn’t right. I kept all my positions on 100% alert for another hour then lapsed back to 50%. I was really glad we had maintained fire discipline.
The next morning we got the word on what had come down. A certain Marine had "flipped out." He had blown his Claymore, fired his M-16 with one hand, and been throwing grenades that he had pulled the straightened pins out of with his teeth with his other hand. All the while he had been yelling about all the NVA charging his position. Of course he had scared the holy shit out of everybody around him who thought there was something out there. It took a while for even those close to him to realize that there was nothing firing back. And a little bit longer to figure out that there was nobody there. And then a little bit longer to get enough together to physically disarm him so he couldn’t hurt another Marine. I saw him sitting up in the Company CP awaiting a medevac chopper. He looked out of it but this particular Marine always looked sort of like that. He always wore these dark, hippy style glasses which made him look like he was hiding bloodshot eyes.
I had a problem with this though and I can remember thinking about it when I saw him that morning. Later, I would find that other people who had been there for a while also had suspicions about this incident. This particular Marine had been there since early summer of 1968. He had been through some very prolonged tough times with the company. Overall, he was considered very good in the bush. He had been put up for a Silver Star and deserved it from what I had heard. This of course does not mean he doesn’t have a limit as anybody else. The problem with the "limit" part is that the company had been at its slowest combat wise for the last 5 weeks. We had had maybe 4 or 5 contacts resulting in casualties in the last 5 weeks and all of them were hit and run ambushes of short duration. It was the slowest it had ever been since he had been there. For somebody of his proven bush worthiness, this was not a time that combat fatigue would strike.
Now, on the other hand, if you were a good bush Marine and you really wanted to get out of the bush, this was actually an excellent time to pull such an incident by design. No Marines were actually jeopardized by this action and he did not leave his fellow Marines in a lurch by leaving them in bad circumstances. He did scare the crap out of us but that’s all.
At this time in my Vietnam service, I had only witnessed one Marine who had been permanently medevacked out of the bush and Vietnam on a psychological. I was anxious to see the outcome of this one since I had the funny feeling that he was completely faking it. It was more than a couple of months before we went back to the combat base at An Hoa. He had not been sent back out in the meantime. When we got back we found him living in a bunker across from the Mike Company bunker. He was making regular trips to Danang to see the psychiatrist. He avoided talking to any of us as much as possible. He needed to be mentally "wounded" for a while for this to work.
Within a couple of months after that, he was gone. To the World, I assume, and as a real hero. Not only did he have his Silver Star for combat against the enemy but he had the undying envy of all who believed that he had successfully beat the Marine Corps system which was an action on an even higher plane of heroism.
There were two circumstances that usually needed to be in conjunction for the self inflicted wounds to occur. First, was the threat of imminent death or severe injury. One had to believe that either of these could happen. Second, was the opportunity to get a self inflicted wound with the surest minimum of damage to one’s self. There was, I’m sure, an ideal mix of these components but, in reality, there were different degrees of these two conditions that might exist simultaneously that, although not ideal, would cause some to go for it.
On Firebase Maxwell beginning in February, 1969, opportunity abounded while imminent threat was a real stretch. We were getting hit daily with 82mm mortars and also getting hit at night with ground troops. The ground troops that were hitting us were obviously boots. They were not very good compared to what we were used to. But the daily 82’s were certainly making money for the Purple Heart manufacturer. Lots of nicks and scratches from small shrapnel. Sort of the same size as a John Wayne opener would make with one small pull across the back of the hand. This did not get one any closer to getting out of the bush but it certainly gave one some color on their uniform and a tale to tell the grandchildren.
Personally, I was not interested in hurting myself at all. My view was still that the chances of making a complete tour in the bush were slim enough as it was without my trying to intercede with such acts. Up to this time I had not received even one piece of shrapnel from enemy fire. I had so far received only two severe concussion whomps from grenades, one of my own and one of theirs. Neither had done much more than knocked me silly. And I had a piece of very hot shrapnel from one of our own shape charges fall down the front of my shirt making me jump up and down screaming as I tried to get the hot metal out. Screamed so much that the corpsman told me he hoped I never got hit when he was out there without ear plugs.
But I had lots of close ones. My boot heel was nicked by snipers as I attempted to cross a 50 meter area by myself without the availability of any cover fire. I don’t know what the muzzle velocity of an AK is, but I was just a bit slower than that. My E-tool had been nicked by a machine gun when I was trapped on a trail in an ambush. I was playing dead and they were trying to make sure I wasn’t playing. But these were not even as close as some that I saw strike within an inch or less of me that hit the dirt or a tree. Then there were the big ones where huge chunks of shrapnel had embedded themselves in the paddy right next to me. Or the canisters from 155 illum rounds that sound like an asteroid crashing to earth that took out an entire tree right next to me. And the worst one was not even fired by anybody. While on ambush under the canopy in the mountains, it had rained all night. A tree of some 5 or 6 feet in radius and 70 or 80 feet tall had simply fell over and crashed to the earth within 6 inches of me. In fact, it fell in between two of us who were trying to sleep and had rolled just far enough apart for the monster tree to fit in between us. Each of us thought the other was underneath it. But no Purple Heart yet.
Firebase Maxwell was the top of a hill that had been blown to bits with a B-52 strike then leveled with a small dozer. An LZ, an ammo bunker, artillery emplacements and a fire direction control bunker had been made and Mike Company was now guarding this hilltop in positions strung around it on the side of the mountain. Third Platoon was the closest to where the NVA fired mortars from and from where the ground attacks came so we used more ammo than the others. One day I had to take a squad up to the ammo bunker to get ammo for the whole platoon. The bunker was right next to the LZ which had been zeroed in by the NVA mortar crews shortly after the firebase was made.
I took the five men into the ammo bunker with me and pulled 12 cans of ammo out for us to carry two each. As we got the ammo down and distributed, a resupply chopper began trying to come in with a cargo net full of food and plastic water bags. As soon as he descended to about 50 feet the mortars began coming in. The pop of the tube in the distance, the whistle of the incoming round, the short sucking air noise, and the explosion were all audible to us. The chopper pilots were real nervous about this LZ because they knew it was zeroed in. At the first explosion, he lifted back up and away without dropping his load as some 3 or 4 more rounds came in. We stayed in the bunker to wait this out since it was raining shrapnel and we had to cross the LZ to get back to our platoon area. Again the pilot attempted to come down and drop the net and again he backed away as more mortar rounds came in. On the third try, he came all the way down very fast and dropped the net and skedaddled before the next barrage hit. The net had been dropped so violently that some of the plastic water bags had burst.
I was in the doorway of the bunker with all five men behind me. I told every body to get ready as the chopper flew off. I waited for the barrage to impact and then waited another ten seconds or so listening for any pops in the distance. I heard none. I turned my head back and said, "Let’s go!" I lowered my head and upper body as I moved out of the bunker doorway to dash across the LZ. By the time I was into my second step I heard the whistle and got instantly sick with the stark knowledge that I had just messed up very badly. I had only a second or two for this thought to engulf me as I tried to hit the deck. My body never made it to the deck. The 82 round, traveling from my right front towards my left rear, impacted less than 10 feet in front of me. The blast blew me backwards in a complete flip and laid me out inside of the bunker behind me. I was conscious but not quite functioning right especially my hearing. I heard yells and screams around me so I attempted to get myself together to render aid. During the course of trying to get myself together, I was also trying to feel where I had been hit. It was not yet apparent and the yelling and screaming was turning into moaning and groaning so I began to triage. All five men with me were hit. All had been in the bunker still but it had not protected them from this one. Everybody was peppered with shrapnel but only one seemed that it might be serious since he had received all of his in the face and head.
I yelled out of the bunker for the company corpsman since he was the closest to the ammo bunker. He came up and we removed everybody to the company command bunker further from the LZ. There treatment began. Well, I was very busy getting the wounded to treatment but all the while I was sure that I must have taken shrapnel too. I just couldn’t feel it yet so it probably wasn’t very serious but enough to get a Heart. As the corpsman was treating everybody, I stood off to the side and commenced my effort to locate my own wounds. I looked up and down my front to see where any new tears or holes were in my fatigues. When none stood out, I pulled my shirt up for a closer look for the very minute holes that must be there. Couldn’t see them. Before it was all over, I was stripped naked with the corpsman trying to find even a red mark on me which he promised me I would get a Purple Heart for. Nothing was there. To myself and all five that had been with me, this was incredible. I had caught the full force of the impact and was the only one who was completely outside the bunker yet I didn’t get a scratch while all five behind me inside of the bunker got hit. I do remember thinking about how lucky I pretty much knew I had been up to that point but this one made me wonder if this was more than luck. If the Lord wanted it this way, who was I to argue? A couple of the Marines would have to be medevacked to An Hoa to have the shrapnel removed and stitches. The rest were taken care of on the spot and then helped me to get the ammo back to the platoon.
Even though I was unable to get a Purple Heart on Maxwell, many did. Though I have no direct or indirect knowledge of any specifics, I am still sure that some were "rat wounds," C-rat opener cuts. There was too much talk and jokes amongst the troops for some not to have taken advantage of the relatively unique situation. But within days, many would wish that they had used a machete instead of the can opener to inflict the wound and there would be those that would go beyond that in an attempt to escape the bush with their lives.
As the Tet season of 1969 arrived around February 23rd, the enemy numbers and activity jumped up into a different category of war. It became clear that they were turning this into a major effort to "get us." There were two fire support bases, about 2 to 3 miles apart, out on the western edges of this operation, Maxwell and Tomahawk. Mike Company 3/5 had Maxwell and Lima Company 3/5 had Tomahawk. Both companies experienced a dramatic increase as ground attacks came nightly in larger numbers and with great intensity as the NVA demonstrated its sincere desire to wipe us out. We appeared to be good targets in our isolation and small size. In our favor though was the good preparation of defenses on these hills, the rugged terrain around these hills, and the fact, already alluded to, that the quality of the NVA units in the area seemed to be far less than we had been used to facing. They were definitely at least boots and/or their third or fourth string guys. We were more than surviving their assaults, we were kicking their ass every time they tried. It was clear that what they lacked in skill, they could probably make up for in numbers but the terrain around Maxwell made it impossible for them to bring this power to bear on us though.
After about a week of this, our operation changed tempo. Kilo Company 3/5 was brought in to relieve us as security for Maxwell and Mike Company was sent out of Maxwell to go to the ridge across the valley where all the mortar fire had been coming from. We had to go down off the hill, cross the small valley, and go up the other side. For all Mike Company personnel who had been with the company long enough to remember the months on end of ferocious fighting that had been endured, this was a big "UH OH!" Now we would be out moving in unfamiliar territory without prepared defenses in an area where there many NVA trying to get us. We would be presenting the company to them on a silver platter out there. The fear began to build even before we left the perimeter.
We only made it down into the little valley between Maxwell and the other ridge by dark. We had been hit once shortly after leaving the perimeter. An NVA had fired on us with an American M-79. This caused quite a bit of confusion for a while. The distinctive sound of an M-79 firing had not often been heard firing at us. After a short exchange of fire, the fight was over. It was clear that this was some kind of small patrol that the NVA had out around Maxwell just to keep an eye on us. And they did. They now knew we were coming to them.
It was so close to dark when we set in, I didn’t even have time to get an accurate idea of the company perimeter. I only knew where the last position in each platoon on either side of us was located. I was real uncomfortable with this. Things can get real messy in the night when you don’t know where your guys are. The good part of where we set in was that it was sort of in the middle of a real brushy part of the forest and we were not near any trail. We had spent the last couple of hours cutting our way through as opposed to following a trail. This made it almost impossible for the NVA to get anywhere close to us in force without us knowing and seriously hindered any assault. I took the squad leaders with me as I moved along the area that would be our responsibility. Due to the density of the brush, I went thin on the number of men per position because I needed more positions to insure that there were no large gaps in the lines with that much cover in them. As I got towards the end of our area, I had one area that was relatively clear of brush where a steep gully cut into the terrain. I had to indent the lines a bit at this point to cover the gully but could save on number of positions by a couple. This left some extra men for these last positions. I had the squad leaders assign their men to the positions. I went back to the gully position which wound up with 5 men in it and to the ones on either side of it to make sure they all knew where each other was at since this was indented and the brush prevented visual contact between the positions. All things considered, I was sure that we would fare very well that night.
It was some time after midnight when an explosion and some M-16 fire brought everybody to full alert. It was my platoon and I was already sliding on my belly through the forest trying to get to the positions involved. The incident only lasted a few seconds and then all stopped except for the call of "Corpsman up!" I was almost to the gully position when the call came from there. Because the canopy was broken right around the gully I could see the area in the moon and star light. I stood up and moved to the position. There were a couple of guys rolling around moaning and groaning. The senior man in the position turned and looked at me as I came up. Seeing that he saw me, I didn’t bother asking anything since he had been around for a while and knew the questions. But he didn’t say a word. There was sort of a pregnant pause as I waited for him to say something but simultaneously I took in the scene of this position. Whatever had come down, they certainly didn’t feel in any danger now. In fact, outside of the obviously wounded men, it would be difficult to tell that just seconds before this position had been under fire.
Finally, with no information forthcoming from anybody in the position and the oddity of the layout starting to sink in, I asked, "What happened?" The immediate response was, "A gook threw a grenade." I waited a couple of seconds to see if the obvious rest of the information was coming. None was coming. That was the entire response. My sense that something wasn’t right immediately escalated into full blown suspicion when I had to ask how many were there, where did they come from, where did they go, etc. They pointed down into the gully and said he had been down there and threw the grenade up at them. Well, from where they were pointing and where the grenade hole was down in front of them was only about 10 meters. I wondered if the NVA was just real weak or had the explosive rolled back down the hill before detonating. I also wondered how the NVA had made it to where they said he was at since the gully slanted down to the front of the other Marine position that wasn’t visible to these guys.
This was the second time they had used the word grenade since I arrived at their position.. All of these men in this position had been in Vietnam for a while. They were using the word grenade for what the enemy had thrown. This was either a Freudian slip or they had reason to believe it was a "grenade" which usually implied one of ours, an M-26 or M-33, as opposed to one of theirs which was usually called a "Chicom." Chicom was a short form of Chinese Communist which somehow became the term for the homemade grenades they used almost exclusively. The Chicom was usually made with explosives and glass or nails packed into a section of a soda or beer can with a friction fuse stuck in one end. These were dangerous but far less so than ours. There almost always was a weak point in the tin around the explosives which tended to give way in the blast creating a shape charge effect where the majority of the force and shrapnel was directed out this weak point. If the weak point was not facing you, chances were you would not get hit with anything no matter how close you were. They also occasionally carried ours that they had captured and even some old "pineapple" grenades from World War II but rarely. So I asked them how they knew it was a grenade. Did they see it? No, they hadn’t seen it There was a pause as they too realized they had been using the "wrong" term. Then one of them spoke up that they thought it was a grenade because the blast was so big that they all had been wounded from it. I was taken aback since I didn’t know that all five had been hit. I had thought only the two moaners had caught some shrapnel.
Now my suspicion was confirmed for me just by the way they were acting and I was going to make them uncomfortable at least. "How the hell did all five of you in a defensive position get hit from one grenade that landed 10 meters away on the side of a gully?" No answer. I told one of them to start bandaging the moaners and evaluate the wounds and began asking everybody where they were hit. All five had been hit from behind. Heels, calves, back of thighs and buttocks were hit. "And not one of you son-of-a-bitches was looking forward from your position when this gook sneaked up here?" No response. They knew that I knew. The only thing they were wondering was what was I going to do about it. I know they had considered it beforehand and probably expected me to sort of just go along. I was the Platoon Sergeant but, to them, I was one of the troops because I was only 18 years old and they knew that I had no problem telling it "like it is" to the staff and officers or doing whatever I thought was right to save lives even if it meant being "disobedient."
At this moment though, they were unsure of what I was going to do. And so was I. This was the first time that I was actually in this position so I needed some time to consider all. I first went to the other position that the "NVA" would have had to go by to get to where they said he was. The position hadn’t heard or seen anything until the explosion and I was fairly certain that they had not been warned which was sort of dangerous since the grenade could have gotten some of them through the brush. Because it was dark when they set in and the line was indented at their position, the culprits did not fully understand the lay of the terrain or their story wouldn’t have been so weak and they would not have endangered the other position as they did. It was the peril that they subjected the other Marines to that pissed me off. Their poor planning and execution was just an embarrassment.
I knew the reasons they had done it. What we were doing as a company by moving out "into the open" was surely going to put us into something heavy and everybody knew it. The fun and games and easy Hearts days of being on the fire support base were over and we were headed into some real action. I did not "want" to do what we were doing but I was a Marine with fellow Marines to consider. If I could stop the whole company from going out, I would have. But their acts seemed selfish to me. "I’m getting my ass out of here and the hell with the rest of you." It was sort of mitigated by the fact that they chose a time that was better than it could have been. We weren’t actually engaged with the enemy where this caused severe hardship on the rest of us and I felt sure that they had considered that.
I returned to the gully position. The corpsman had been working on them and we had two requiring a medevac to the hospital that would wait until morning and two that needed to go to An Hoa only for a brief stay. Of the two requiring hospitalization, one of them was more severe than I’m sure he had been looking for. His heel tendon was pretty screwed up and, in fact, may have qualified for the million dollar wound category since it could be permanent. He might have to hobble around for the rest of his life but in return, he would have "a rest of his life" and maybe a monthly pension besides. I had the positions rearranged so that the wounded Marines were spread out amongst the others but didn’t say a word to them, leaving them to wonder all night if I was going to hustle up a court martial and a firing squad.
When I returned to the platoon CP, I was questioned by the Platoon Commander but I did not say anything. I did have the distinct impression that he sensed something wasn’t right but decided to leave it to me and not get involved. My decision to let the circumstance ride without saying anything did not leave me comfortable but I was sure that I would have other things to take my mind off of it. I could not in good conscience turn these men in. They were my fellow Marines. By this time in my Vietnam experience, my fellow Marines were the only reason worth doing anything for. The war itself did not have any of the characteristics that gave one the feeling that it was a righteous necessity to save the world, or the USA or even Vietnam itself and the command structure of the Marine Corps had a demonstrated lack of care or concern for its own troops so who could say that these men must risk their lives. Even my own personal ethic of not deserting my fellow Marine was not valid to force compliance. I may not have liked what they did but that was because they made my job harder by reducing the platoon’s capability to defend itself and, in a way, ducked out on their fellow Marine but turning them in was not an option since I did not feel that there was anybody I could turn them in to who truly had any moral authority. The next morning we sent the medevacs off before moving out.
The platoon was certainly buzzing about what had happened but only briefly because we did begin to enter a very bad period by the afternoon. While climbing up the ridge opposite Maxwell looking for the NVA we found them. Third platoon was on point and because we knew they were on the ridge somewhere we had flanks out for just the point platoon. This was no easy task. One squad took a trail up the ridge with the Company CP and Mortars following. One reinforced squad off each side of the trail about 30 meters where there was no trail. I had taken the right flank. The undergrowth was so dense that we had to perform large zigs and zags to get up the hill. I had to keep telling the center to hold so we could get caught back up with them. A little past noon and a little over halfway up the ridge, the Marines on the trail were ambushed. At precisely this time, the right flank and I were in a huge tangle of vines and brush on a very steep section. Not exactly terrain fit for a speedy assault forward. And on top of this, the steep angles and gullies had a weird effect on the sound of the weapons firing. I could have sworn it was a 50 caliber machine gun firing at the Marines and others also thought it was something big. This tended to keep us looking to use some kind of big and hard cover as we tried to move up. By the time we got anywhere close to where we could be effective, it was over. There was one WIA but it was a major problem. It was the dog handler and his scout dog was not friendly or muzzled. No one could get near the wounded handler. It took four Marines to get the dog so that somebody could get the muzzle off the handler’s belt and onto the dog so that the corpsman could render aid.
We moved the entire company up to the plateau just below the highest point of the ridge and called for a medevac. The dog handler began to die and there was furious CPR being administered to try and keep him going. We set up a hasty perimeter to cover the medevac. There was no way to get the man out except by lowering a sling through the trees. This meant the chopper would have to hover for an extended period at a height the left it extremely vulnerable to fire from a wide area. I am sure that the man was dead before he cleared the trees. The chopper began taking fire so it left without taking the dog.
It was late in the afternoon by this time so it was decided to set in where we were at. A squad was sent out to go up to the high point of the ridge some 100 meters more up the trail to check it out while the rest of us dug in. I had just finished setting my platoon in and had returned to where the platoon CP would be when an intense firefight broke out. The squad patrol had made contact and in a big way. The heavy firing continued for some ten minutes as the radio crackled with queries from commanders but no answers came. The rest of that squad’s platoon assembled a team to go out to find out what was happening and they began moving out during the first lull.
It seems that an estimated platoon to company sized enemy force occupied the high point of the ridge in well prepared and camouflaged bunkers. The terrain and undergrowth had been used well to funnel the Marines into an inescapable kill zone in front of one of the bunkers. There were three dead Marines and some wounded as well as one who became psychologically wounded. The radioman had been directly behind the three who were killed and the enemy machine gun had spared no rounds in trying to get him. He had taken cover behind a tree barely wide enough to cover him. The enemy gunner had sliced both of the Marine’s shirt sleeves as well as nearly cutting the tree down. This had been what most of the ten minutes of fire had been about since the others were killed in the initial burst and this is why there were no responses from the squad on the radio. The other Marines had been able to move back and he was sort of left to become the personal target for the all of the NVA up there. The rescue effort from the others in his platoon laid down enough fire to get somebody up to grab his leg and pull him back to safety.
Though he had not actually been hit, the experience had taken him past what he could endure psychologically and he was incapable of functioning any more. This was NOT a faked syndrome. This man had come to Mike Company with me the previous year. Because of this, he was disarmed and put in my position for me to watch over. I felt very dumped on by this. My heart went out to this Marine for his experience was very similar to one of my own and I did know and like him. He was a quivering mess when he was brought to my position. I wanted to do something for him but even with my own similar experience I did not know what to do. He had totally lost his mental strength and was unable to recover it. But I was Platoon Sergeant and had more than enough responsibility to deal with under the circumstances. I was concerned that his requirements would conflict with the platoon’s but this was not the time or place to voice this.
The rescue effort had saved all the survivors of the decimated squad but continued to try and recover the dead. One body was recovered and the effort was temporarily abandoned while the rescue team returned to the perimeter for more ammo and a better plan. Due to darkness, the next effort was postponed to the following morning. But the darkness did not stop the contact. We began to get probed almost all around the lines. Since we were on a thin ridge, two sides dropped steeply down into gullies. Though not impassable, these approaches were not probable. Most probes came around to the backside of our perimeter on the ridge and approached or branched off from there trying to get to the edges along the ravines. This was all defended by third platoon so we were getting hit pretty regular all night. We never knew for sure if it was a probe, a feint, or an all-out assault each time it happened so we were ready for anything. I spent the entire night moving from one position to another. We had all night flares being dropped from Puff and Spooky kept laying down fire all around us. A strobe light in the center of our perimeter was used to keep the fire away from us. It was very busy and noisy. There was a lull after the sun came up but it did not last long.
Shortly after first light, the arty from Maxwell began to zero in the top of the ridge where the NVA perimeter was. A chopper was called to get the wounded and the dog out. And then the probes started again in the daylight. They were able to get very close to our positions because of the dense forest and underbrush.
I was walking down a slight slope to one of the positions when an NVA jumped out from behind a tree not more than 10 meters in front of the position with his AK raised and ready to fire and at me is what it looked like. I was in midstep and just leaned to my left to complete it by going behind the tree directly in back of the fighting hole I was heading to. The AK burst brought a long moan out of the hole in front of me. I stuck my 16 out to the right and sprayed the area in front of the fighting hole while the next position over did the same. I stuck my head out from behind the tree on the left side to see the occupant of the hole holding his head and rocking back and forth in a sitting position. The NVA was nowhere in sight at that instant so I jumped into the hole with the wounded Marine. I kept my eye and 16 on the brush and trees to the front as I quizzed the Marine on where he was hit. He said he had been hit in the head and when he pulled his hand away from the right side of his head, I looked over and could see a small dab of blood on his hand. I was very concerned since it was a head wound and entrance wounds did not always bleed a lot.
We were by ourselves though in the position. His hole mates had apparently gone moving around the perimeter for one reason or another. This was not uncommon in daylight hours when set in but we very seldom got hit in the daytime while set in like this. I called for a man from the next position over to come and stand guard while I checked the wounded Marine and called for a corpsman. When I parted his hair on the side of his head I could see a small hole. Small in radius and small in depth. Not much bigger than a pin prick. I told him that it didn’t look like he had been hit by a bullet and that it wasn’t very bad. He immediately disagreed with my medical evaluation saying that it hurt like hell. He reached around to pull his helmet out of the way from where he was trying to sit. As he picked up the helmet we both saw the right side of it at the same time. There was an AK round stuck in the side of the helmet at perhaps a 30 degree angle. He turned it over and there was the intact point of the round sticking out of the other side of the helmet liner perhaps an eighth of an inch. He could only utter a Gomer Pyle type of "Golly Gee." He requested and got permission to send the helmet home "as is" for a personal souvenir. He first drew a circle around the area and wrote "Mr. Lucky" on the helmet.
I finished checking my positions and went back to the platoon CP. The platoon that had the patrol yesterday was getting ready to go back out to try and recover the other two bodies. First the arty from Maxwell was going to pound the high point of the ridge. The chopper was still on the way. I was talking to the Platoon Commander about me going back around to insure that at least two people were always in every position even in the daylight and that one of them was always on watch just like it was night. I couldn’t have been there for more than 10 minutes when there was an explosion that sounded like it came from the very same position I had just come from. I jumped and darted through the trees staying low with my rifle at the complete ready this time. As I arrived at the position, I could see all was well there. There was the bandaged head looking out over the edge of his hole just waiting for that NVA to pop out again. He told me that the explosion had come from the next position over.
I sort of three legged over as I stayed low on the slanted terrain using my legs and one hand to keep my balance while the other kept the 16 traversing back and forth. As I got through the brush I could see that there was only one Marine in the hole and I knew I had to get this line security back in order before we had gooks in the perimeter. The Marine was writhing in pain as he pointed down the slope to some brush saying that a gook had thrown a Chicom from down there. Since I had heard no 16 fire, I fired three or four short bursts into the area to discourage anybody from popping out. I asked him where he was hit and he pointed to his backside. The buttocks and backs of his thighs were peppered with shrapnel and there were a couple of larger holes about the size of a 50 cent piece.
Well, it had only been 24 hours since I last saw wounds like this so it didn’t take a whole lot of figuring. Less than 15 minutes before, the hole next to him had been fired on by an NVA less than ten meters away. I would not believe for a second that this Marine, alone in the hole next to him, was facing away from those same bushes a few minutes later. I was instantly pissed off and told him that I knew there was no gook out there. He very meekly said, "Well, you don’t really know because you weren’t here." Then without even taking a breath, "They’ll put me on that chopper coming, won’t they?" I snapped very hard at him, "Yeah, I do know what you did. You want on that chopper, you stupid son-of-a-bitch? You want out of here? I’ll make sure you get on that chopper." I called for the corpsman and yelled to the nearest squad leader to pass the word for everybody to return to their positions. As his hole mates and the corpsman arrived, I stomped back to the platoon CP.
Well, this shit had to stop. I mean there wouldn’t be a third platoon within a week at this rate. My anger was more than a little apparent when I got up to the CP. The Platoon Commander questioned me a bit but knew when I told him of the wounds what I was thinking and he felt I was probably right even though I never said it. His response was, "Let’s just get the bastard out of here," indicating that he didn’t want to pursue any discipline or charges. We were in the middle of a war. What kind of effort and energy would have to be expended to deal with this in that manner and how successful would that be? Nobody was going to get any fingerprints off that grenade now.
Even though the Platoon Commander’s response indicated how he wanted to deal with it, the feasibility of getting him out was not that good and I knew it. I went back to the "wounded" man’s position. The corpsman had picked out what shrapnel he could and was cleaning and bandaging the wounds. The two larger holes were causing severe pain and I wasn’t feeling real sorry about that. I let the Marine know that he was getting on the chopper that was coming. He looked relieved. I looked at around at his buddies and could tell that he had warned them of what he was going to do and that’s why they hadn’t been in the position. It was also obvious that he had told them I hadn’t been fooled. I couldn’t stand waiting any longer so I cut loose on him, "Yeah, it’s coming and will hover above the trees and wench you up on a sling while every gook within a mile takes shots at your ass. But you’re getting on it anyway." This was apparently the first that he had thought of that even though yesterday’s afternoon medevac from this same place had encountered that. His look of relief turned sour. I sort of took a perverse joy in that.
The word was passed that the chopper was near. I told him to get his shit together and move over to the center of the ridge where the sling would come down. He was scared to death. The decision was to get the dog up first because of the problems it caused without a handler. The dog went up first and the chopper started taking fire before it got the dog in. I couldn’t help myself. I yelled to the Marine, "You’re next!" He had gone pale. He was stammering about maybe taking the next one. I told him that there was no "next one." But I knew what was going to happen anyway. As soon as the dog got inside, the chopper took off. The fire had increased to a very high volume. Even though the fire was coming up through the trees, there must have been 20 or 30 firing at it.
Well, my little goad about there not being another chopper actually turned out to be true. The Marine spent 3 days in pain up on that ridge with us and in combat day and night, then had to hobble all the way back to Maxwell under fire to get a chopper out that was under fire. To me he had paid for his mistake and provided an excellent example for others who may have been thinking of doing the same. I am sure that there were no more self inflicted wounds on that operation.
The lesson I learned was that this type of effort to get one’s self out of the bush could become contagious under the right circumstances. I noted that for future reference. I had not changed my "understanding" of the reasoning used to validate this act. I simply increased my understanding to include the fact that this act could be an extreme danger to others if not carefully thought out and, if allowed to run rampant during difficult times, could completely breakdown the commitment of unit members to each other and the necessary cohesion to give one the maximum possibility of survival that one gets when the unit is functioning as such.
These thoughts were a long way from the thoughts I had when I was considering jumping into traffic in San Diego just to get out of the Marine Corps. But the distance I had traveled since then was great. I had gone from understanding and empathizing with the mentality of needing to get out of the bush to just accepting it and not "turning anybody in" or bringing charges against them to believing that it had to be curtailed in combat or imminent combat conditions to save the unit itself. The experience gave me the insight to see the situations coming well in advance which allowed me to create deterrents to such actions before they ever got that far again.
I wanted to go home alive and well as much as anybody else and the "every man for himself" attitude surfacing and even growing in the unit, after I witnessed it, was the complete breakdown and destruction of the single greatest asset that we had to achieving that successful rotation back to the World for the maximum amount of us….the coordinated effort and loyalty of fellow Marines.
After all of the John Wayne sounding bullshit above, let me reiterate that I was not and am not a "Lifer" in the Corps nor was I ever a flag waving Red Neck. It was the experience itself that taught me what I know. I do not look down on those who may have provided their own ticket out of the bush and/or Nam. I still can remember wishing I had the guts to do myself because I wanted out of the situation I was in so bad. Stark, gut wrenching, asshole flexing fear is no stranger to me. Given the right circumstances, I know that I might also go that route. I at least know that I cannot say that I would never.
Several years ago while doing some research on a battle that I had participated in, I had the opportunity to talk to somebody who had wrote his own ticket both out of the bush and out of Nam. To me this was always a definitive part of the Vietnam War. It was a measurement of the failures not of those who did such but of those who ran the war. The cumulative effect of leaving Marines out in the bush for months on end, staff and officers exposure time being less than 50% of the troops, the complete lack of a goal to win, etc., etc. I was curious and sort of still had a bit of the view that these people actually had more guts than I. I attempted to get this person to relate to me how he had dealt with all the fear and uncertainty of the act and worked himself up to it. First, I had to remind this person that I was fully aware of what had actually happened since he attempted to provide a different story when I asked him about it. It only took him a few seconds to remember that I did know. I was assuring him that many people wanted to do this, me included but didn’t have the guts to and I was only interested in how he had been able to overcome all that many could not. It was as positive as I could make it.
As soon as he remembered that I knew, he went quiet for a few seconds as I was explaining what I was interested in. But he wasn’t hearing a word that I was saying. There was sort of a long moan and yell mixed together as he shouted that he knew that "we all" thought he was a coward. The sounds from him deteriorated into almost a sob as he continued, "You don’t understand. I wanted to live."
At the first sounds from him I had stopped talking and as all the pent up pain and torture that he had put himself through for some 20 odd years spilled out in those sounds and words, I felt like the biggest jerk in the world. I made a feeble effort to tell him some of the things I have written about here but he only heard what he had been telling himself over the years. He refused to discuss anything about it with me and hung up.
Should the person referred to here read this, you have my sincerest apology. I had not even considered what may have been in your mind all of this time. I was a bumbling, insensitive fool for not doing so. And please believe all that has been written here because you have unnecessarily punished yourself. Believe that all that were in the same places and circumstances as you absolutely do understand the act and I know of nobody who has been in such situations who would call you a "coward." For all of us who have laid there shaking and quivering, crying, pissing or shitting our pants, calling for our mothers, etc., I urge you to rid yourself of this false view and unwarranted self torture. Talk to other bush Marines. You deserve better than you have allowed yourself.
The severity of our Vietnam service has given many months, years and even decades of such self examination experiences to most of us. Little by little each has found a way to resolve his issues. This forum is certainly a cross section of the learning and healing process that has brought at least veterans of one unit this far in Life. We owe it to ourselves and the world to impart as much of the truths about the experience as possible as all of the bush veterans of all wars always have. The Final Truth being that in war there are no winners. And one day the cumulative effect of all our voices from all sides in all wars may make a reality of the 60s poster that said, "Wouldn’t It Be Nice If They Gave A War And Nobody Came?"
THE MARINE WAR: III MAF IN VIETNAM, 1965-1971
Jack Shulimson, U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center
In this paper, I will try to describe the role of the Marine Corps in Vietnam from the perspective of its main combat component in the war, the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF). While my interpretation is my own, these remarks are based largely upon the Marine Corps official volumes of the war.
Prior to 1965, contingency plans for Southeast Asia called for the insertion of Marines in the event of an attack on South Vietnam. After the Gulf of Tonkin crisis in August 1964, U.S. commanders activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB).(1)
By early 1965, sensing victory nearly in their grasp, the Communists directed attacks against U.S. advisors. In February 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a series of retaliatory American air strikes against North Vietnam.
As the air war escalated, on 22 February 1965, U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (ComUSMACV), asked for two U.S. Marine battalions to protect the Da Nang base in South Vietnam's I Corps. By the end of the month, the Johnson administration agreed to the request. Finally, on 7 March 1965, the U.S. Joint Chiefs sent the long awaited signal to land the MEB.(2)
The following day, 8 March, the first wave of Marine Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/9 at Da Nang. On the beach waiting for the Marines was a host of welcoming South Vietnamese dignitaries and local schoolgirls who bedecked the 9th MEB commander, Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, with a garland of flowers. Indeed one of the famous newsphotographs of the war shows a dour General Karch with a lei around his neck. Karch later stated "When you have a son in Vietnam and he gets killed, you don't want a smiling general with flowers around his neck . . . ."(3) By the end of March 1965, the 9th MEB numbered nearly 5,000 Marines at Da Nang, including two infantry battalions, two helicopter squadrons, and supporting units.
Notwithstanding the Marine buildup, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam remained limited. According to the landing directive: "The U.S. Marine force will not, repeat will not, engage in day to day actions against the Viet Cong."(4)
These constrictive conditions lasted for only a brief period. In April, the President agreed to reinforce and to permit the Marines to engage Communist insurgents. By early May 1965, the Marines had established two additional enclaves, one in Chu Lai, 57 miles south of, and at Phu Bai, 30 miles north of Da Nang.
By this time, the 9th MEB had become the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF). It consisted of both the 3d Marine Division and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). In midsummer 1965, in discussions with General Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara agreed to deploy additional U.S. troops both Marine and Army to South Vietnam. In August 1965, the first elements of the 1st Marine Division arrived at Chu Lai eventually followed by the division headquarters.
As the war expanded, command arrangements, like the American commitment, evolved over time without any master plan. Still by the end of 1965, the United States had established the outlines of the complex command structure which, with minor modifications, it would fight the remainder of the war. III MAF headed since June by Major General Lewis W. Walt reported to USMACV (Westmoreland). General Westmoreland exercised this authority through the U.S. chain of command. Formally MACV was a unified command directly subordinate to the U.S. Pacific Command under Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp in Hawaii, but Washington often "cut out Sharp."(5)
De facto functional and geographic divisions characterized the employment of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam. The Navy conducted the maritime anti-infiltration Market Time operations, and shared the air campaign against North Vietnam with the Air Force. Two U.S. Army Field Forces, Vietnam, under MACV, were responsible for the American ground war in South Vietnam except for I Corps. In I Corps, often referred to as "Marine land," III MAF had authority over all U.S. ground tactical units there. The commander of the U.S. Air Force Second Air Division, later the Seventh Air Force, as Westmoreland's Deputy for Air, coordinated the U.S. air war in South Vietnam and provided air support to U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces.
The relationship between III MAF and the U.S. Air Force component command in South Vietnam was more complex. When in March 1965, General Westmoreland informed CinCPac that he planned to place Marine fixed-wing units under the overall operational control of his Air Force component commander, Admiral Sharp overruled him. In no uncertain terms, in a message probably drafted for him by Marine Brigadier General Keith B. McCutcheon, who later became CG 1st MAW, Sharp told Westmoreland that he would exercise operational control of Marine aviation through III MAF.(6)
While III MAF was under the operational control of MACV, General Walt also reported directly through Marine channels to the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor H. ``Brute'' Krulak for administrative and logistic support. While not in the operational chain of command, General Krulak was not one to deny General Walt the benefit of his advice. Through the same Marine channels, Krulak was responsible to The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., in Washington, who also had his perceptions on the conduct of the war.(7)
From the Marine perspective, in Vietnam and in both Hawaii and Washington, the III MAF location in the densely populated rice- bowl area south of Da Nang necessitated a pacification strategy.(8)
On the other hand, General Westmoreland contended that the introduction of North Vietnamese units into the south created a new situation and wanted the Marines to engage them. He had doubts about the thrust of the Marine pacification campaign. According to a MACV analysis, the Marines were "stalled a short distance south of Da Nang," because the ARVN was unable to "fill in behind the Marines in their expanding enclaves." On the other hand, Westmoreland stated that he, "had no desire to deal so abruptly with General Walt . . . [to] precipitate an interservice imbroglio."(9)
General Walt also wanted to avoid any confrontation. His basic position was that he would engage the enemy's main force units, but first he wanted "to have good intelligence."(10)
Both Generals Krulak in Hawaii and General Greene in Washington supported General Walt. They voiced their concerns directly to General Westmoreland and through the command channels open to them. Although differing in minor details, the two Marine generals in essence advocated increased pressure upon North Vietnam and basically an "ink blot" strategy in South Vietnam, combining civic and military efforts. Generals Greene and Krulak would engage the Communist regulars for the most part only "when a clear opportunity exists to engage the VC Main Force or North Vietnamese units on terms favorable to ourselves."(11)
While the two Marine generals received a hearing of their views, they enjoyed little success in influencing the MACV strategy or overall U.S policy toward North Vietnam. According to Krulak, Secretary McNamara personally told him that the "ink blot" theory was "a good idea but too slow." (12)
Despite the differences over pacification and the big unit war between MACV and the Marines, General Westmoreland's directives were broad enough to include both approaches and in a sense paper over the real distinctions between the two. The Marines were to defend and secure their base areas; to conduct search and destroy missions against VC forces that posed an immediate threat and against distant enemy bases; to conduct clearing operations in contiguous areas; and finally, to execute contingency plans anywhere in Vietnam as directed by ComUSMACV.(13)
Working within these "all-encompassing" objectives, General Walt developed what he called his "balanced strategy." This consisted of a three-pronged effort employing search and destroy, counter-guerrilla and pacification operations. An integral part of his concept was the Combined Action program, in which III MAF assigned a squad of Marines to a Vietnamese Popular Forces platoon. The premise was that this integration of the Vietnamese militia with the Marines would create a bond of mutual interest between the Americans and local populace. Walt's initial plan called for III MAF to secure the entire I Corps coastal plain by the end of 1966, once it joined its two largest enclaves, Da Nang and Chu Lai.(14)
This soon proved too optimistic. In the Spring of 1966, an unforeseen internal South Vietnamese political crisis threw the situation in I Corps into chaos. Through a combination of tact and firmness, General Walt managed to keep Marine forces uninvolved. For the Marines, however, their pacification effort south of Da Nang had come to a complete standstill.(15)
Further in July, the North Vietnamese mounted their first offensive into South Vietnam directly through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In response, the 3d Marine Division deployed north to counter. General Westmoreland, moreover, feared that the North Vietnamese might circumvent the Marine defenses and attempt to open a corridor in the western border area, near the Special Forces base at Khe Sanh. III MAF reluctantly, at the suggestion of Westmoreland, sent a battalion to Khe Sanh "just to retain that little prestige of doing it on your own volition rather than doing it with a shoe in your tail."(16)
By the end of 1966, the two Marine divisions of III MAF were fighting two separate wars. In the north, the 3d Marine Division fought a more or less conventional campaign while the 1st Marine Division took over the counter-guerrilla operations in the populous south. Although by December 1966, III MAF numbered nearly 70,000 troops, one Marine general summed up the year's frustrations, " . . . too much real estate--do not have enough troops." (17)
A proposed anti-infiltration barrier to be established just south of the DMZ caused further difficulties. Although credited to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the concept of a defensive ``barrier'' had many authors. It received only serious consideration in the Spring of 1966 when McNamara raised the question with the Joint Chiefs. In August, a special study group of scientists reported that a unmanned air-supported barrier could be established in a year's time.(18)
Despite serious objections by other senior commanders, General Westmoreland was not all that opposed to the barrier. Despite doubts about an unmanned barrier, he himself, was thinking of building a manned ``strong point obstacle system." He saw the proposal as an opportunity to institute his own concept.(19)
The Marine command would be at the center of the project. Very early, General Walt made known his unhappiness, contending that a barrier defense ``should free Marine forces for operations elsewhere not freeze such forces in a barrier watching defensive role.''(20)
Having little choice, in April 1967, the 3d Marine Division began the erection of the strong point obstacle system (SPOS) along the DMZ. This was dubbed the ``McNamara Line,'' but just as easily could have been called the "Westmoreland line." (21)
Forced to fill the gap left in southern I Corps, in April as well, General Westmoreland reinforced the Marines with the Army's Task Force Oregon, later to become the Americal Division. The MACV commander also had requested an increase in his overall strength, planning to reinforce the Marines with at least two Army divisions. Fearful that these new numbers would necessitate a callup of the Reserves, Washington in the summer of 1967 cut Westmoreland's request nearly in half.(22)
With this northward deployment of Marine forces, northern I Corps became the focus of Marine concern with little prospect of relief. In April, the Marines had fought an extremely bloody battle with North Vietnamese regulars for the hills overlooking Khe Sanh. While there would be a lull in that sector, the North Vietnamese in the following months would place continuing pressure upon the 3d Marine Division's fixed positions.(23)
At about this time, the North Vietnamese Politbureau called for ``a decisive blow'' to ``force the U.S. to accept military defeat.''(24) In the fall of 1967, the Communist forces launched the first phase of their campaign. In a reverse of their usual tactics, the North Vietnamese mounted mass assaults lasting over a period of several days. During late September and early October, the Marine outpost at Con Thien in the eastern DMZ sector came under both infantry attack and artillery bombardment. While repulsed at Con Thien, the NVA continued their offensive through November in South Vietnam's II and III Corps.(25)
In the DMZ sector, construction of the Strong Point system under went modification. The 3d Marine Division had made limited progress. Faced with mounting casualties in November, General Westmoreland approved a major change to his original plans. In essence, the division was to halt all construction until ``after the tactical situation had stabilized.'' While some work on strong points continued, the situation never stabilized.(26)
Much evidence indicated that the enemy was on the move. Captured enemy documents spoke of major offensives throughout South Vietnam. One in particular mentioned a general offensive and general uprising and directed the coordination of military attacks ``with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities.''(27)
General Westmoreland, nevertheless, believed the enemy's more logical targets to be the DMZ and Khe Sanh. He thought the Communist objectives to be the seizure of the two northern provinces of South Vietnam and to make Khe Sanh the American Dien Bien Phu.(28)
With the Marines strung out along the DMZ in the north, Westmoreland deployed the 1st Air Cavalry Division to I Corps. In mid-January 1968, III MAF was in actuality a small field army, consisting of what amounted to two Army divisions, two reinforced Marine Divisions, a Marine aircraft wing, and supporting forces, numbering well over 100,000. (29)
As General Westmoreland reinforced III MAF in mid-January 1968, he began to have misgivings. General Westmoreland believed that Marine Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr., who had relieved General Walt, was "unduly complacent.''(30) Westmoreland worried about what he perceived as the Marine command's ``lack of followup in supervision,'' its employment of helicopters, and its generalship.(31)
In mid-January 1968, the MACV commander decided to establish a new forward headquarters to control the war in the northern two provinces under his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams.(32) Although both General Cushman at Da Nang and General Krulak in Hawaii had their suspicions about Westmoreland's motivations, the two outwardly acknowledged the validity of the MACV commander to have his forward headquarters where, he believed the decisive battle of the war was about to begin.(33)
On 20 January, the North Vietnamese had attacked the Khe Sanh hill outposts and subjected the main base to both ground and artillery assaults the following day. They, however, had neither the capability nor possibly the intention to mount a full out attack. Instead, the Communist forces launched over the Tet holidays an offensive unparalleled in the Vietnam War in its sweep and intensity. From 29-31 January, the Communist forces struck through the length and breadth of South Vietnam-- everywhere that is except at Khe Sanh.
In I Corps, the enemy hit all of the major population centers including Da Nang and Hue. U.S. and Vietnamese troops successfully repulsed all of these attacks except at Hue. It took 26 days of fierce, determined, house-to-house fighting for U.S. Marines and soldiers as well as ARVN troops to rid the city of the invaders.
At Da Nang, the delicate issue over command relations once more arose complicated by events near Khe Sanh. While the 1st Marine Division at Da Nang during Tet had thrown back with heavy losses the first enemy assaults, on 5-6 February, North Vietnamese battalions from the 2d NVA Division had penetrated the Da Nang perimeter.(34) At the same time, North Vietnamese troops overran the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei, south of Khe Sanh.
These two events led to a strange confrontation with General Westmoreland. Believing that III MAF should have relieved Lang Vei, General Westmoreland called a special meeting on 7 February, where he became even more upset as he learned about the situation at Da Nang.(35)
Apparently, however, General Cushman was unaware of Westmoreland's unhappiness. His view was that the purpose of the meeting was to obtain Westmoreland's approval for the reinforcement of Da Nang. In any event the Marines at Da Nang received the reinforcements. As far as Lang Vei, Cushman later related that he was "criticized because I didn't send the whole outfit from Khe Sanh down there [Lang Vei], but I decided . . . that it wasn't the thing to do." Intelligence indicated that the NVA would attempt to ambush any relief force.(36)
By the end of February and the beginning of March with the securing of the city of Hue, the enemy's countrywide Tet offensive had about spent its initial bolt. Still while the enemy offensive failed, public opinion polls in the United States revealed a continuing disillusionment upon the part of the American public. President Johnson also decided upon a change of course. On 31 March, President Johnson announced his decision not to stand for reelection, to restrict the bombing campaign over North Vietnam, and to authorize only a limited reinforcement of American troops to Vietnam.(37)
Notwithstanding the mood in Washington and ready to begin his counter-offensive, General Westmoreland altered again his command arrangements in I Corps. On 10 March, he disestablished his MACV (Forward) Headquarters. He replaced it with Provisional Corps whose commander, an Army lieutenant general, was directly subordinate to III MAF. At the same time, however, General Westmoreland designated the 7th Air Force commander, as "single manager for air" and gave him "mission direction" over Marine fixed-wing aircraft. Despite Marine Corps protests, Westmoreland's order prevailed. While obtaining major modifications to the ruling, Marine air in Vietnam would operate under the single manager system to the end of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.(38)
With the end of the enemy offensive, the allies planned to breakout from Khe Sanh. While North Vietnamese ground forces did not follow up on their Lang Vei attack, they incessantly probed the hill outposts and perimeter. Employing innovative air tactics, Marine and Air Force transport and helicopter pilots kept the base supplied. Finally on 14 April, the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division reinforced by a Marine regiment relieved the base. On 14 April, the 77 day "siege" of Khe Sanh was over.(39)
The North Vietnamese were far from defeated, however, and in early May launched their "mini-Tet offensive". Except for increased fighting in the capital city of Saigon, the North Vietnamese May offensive was largely limited to attacks by fire at allied bases and acts of terrorism in the hamlets and villages. In I Corps, the major attempt was to cut the supply lines in the DMZ sector which led to very bloody fighting, but the defeat again of the North Vietnamese forces.(40)
By mid-1968, the allied forces were on the offensive throughout I Corps. The closing out of the base at Khe Sanh in July 1968 permitted the 3d Marine Division under Major General Raymond G. Davis to launch a series of mobile firebase operations ranging the length and breadth of the northern border area. In one of its most impressive operations, Dewey Canyon, the division crossed the Laotian border in 1969 and destroyed an enemy supply bastion.(41)
From the outset of his Presidency in January 1969, Richard M. Nixon made as one of his chief aims the reduction of U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam. At his behest, the Joint Chiefs of Staff developed a plan for the removal of U.S. forces in six successive stages. The Marine Corps Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman remembered, "I felt, and I think that most Marines felt, that the time had come to get out of Vietnam." The first Marine redeployments started in mid-1969, and by the end of the year the entire 3d Marine Division had departed.
The end was in sight for the Marine or at least the III MAF involvement in Vietnam. By the end of March 1970, the number of Marines in III MAF numbered slightly more than 42,000, a reduction of over half since the fall of 1969. With the reduced number of Marines in I Corps, III MAF reversed roles with XXIV Corps and now became a subordinate component of that command. On 14 April, III MAF shifted its headquarters to Okinawa, leaving the 13,000 3d Marine Amphibious Brigade in Vietnam.(42) At the end of June, the 3d MAB also departed. For all practical purposes, the Vietnam War reverted to that of an advisory effort for the Marines, except for the temporary deployment of Marine aviation units in 1972. Finally in April 1975, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade would enter Saigon to evacuate the last Americans from the American Embassy to ships of the Seventh Fleet.
For the Marine Corps, like the nation at large and especially for the two Vietnams, the Communist "Tet Offensive" of 1968, including the Mini-Tets later in 1968, was the defining period of the war. While Tet was a military setback for the Communist forces with the decimation of their Viet Cong and many of their political cadre in the South, the American government, people, and military establishment realized that there was no quick solution to this war. Both the Americans and the North Vietnamese reassessed their strategy. After the last mini-Tet in the fall of 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong scaled down their large unit war, both out of weakness and the expectation that the Americans would eventually withdraw. On the other hand, the United States determined the limits of its commitment and began to turn over more of the war to the South Vietnamese.
For the Marine Corps, as for all the U.S. Services, the post Tet period was a "Time of Troubles" and was in part a motivating factor to be among the first to redeploy its units from Vietnam. By mid-1968, marijuana use had reached in the words of one Marine Corps historian, "epidemic" proportions.(43) Racial tension increased as young Blacks impatient with vestiges of discrimination forcibly protested. In an almost unprecedented occurrence in their history, Marines attempted to murder their own officers and noncommissioned officers using grenades in so- called fragging incidents. The 1st Marine Division reported 47 such cases in which resulted in one dead and 47 wounded.(44) While the Marine Command in Vietnam operated at a high level of operational effectiveness until its final departure in May of 1971, it too suffered from the stresses that the long unpopular war had imposed on both the American people and their Armed Forces. In a sense by being among the first to redeploy, the Marines escaped the worst aspects of the indiscipline and organizational breakdown that plagued the residual American forces in Vietnam.
Would the Marine Corps pacification approach have made a difference? This is one of the unanswered questions of the war. My suspicion is that it probably would not have, but might have resulted in fewer American casualties. In reality, the Marine Corps never had an opportunity to practice what it preached. For the most part, the 3d Marine Division in the thinly populated DMZ was engaged in a large unit border war. The 1st Marine Division through 1968 was spread too thin to pacify the large Da Nang and Phu Bai sectors. After 1968, however, according to American pacification statistics, the Da Nang sector began to show a diminishing of Communist strength and influence leading one III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Herman Nickerson, to boast in 1970 that the Viet Cong "had lost the people war." His successor, however, Lieutenant General McCutcheon was more skeptical and observed that despite "improved ratings in the Hamlet Evaluation system," most of the population was "apathetic" in relation to either the government forces or Communists and considered the American Vietnamization program as "an euphemism for U.S. withdrawal." (45) In the end, U.S. forces would leave and it would be up to the South Vietnamese to save their own country.
1. Jack Shulimson and Lt Col John J. Cahill, "U.S. Marines in Vietnam, Jan-Jun65" (unpublished Ms in MCHC).
2. Jack Shulimson and Major Charles M. Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, The Landing and the Buildup, (Washington, 1978) pp. 7-9, hereafter Shulimson and Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965.
3. Ibid., p. 12.
4. JCS msg to CinCPac, dtd 6Mar65 as cited in "Marine Combat Units Go to Da Nang," in Department of Defense, United States- Vietnam Relations 1965-1967, 12 Bks, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1971) Bk IV, Sec IV-C-4, p. 1.
5. Mil HistBr, Office of the Secretary, Joint Staff MACV, Command History, 1967, Adm Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, USN, CinCPac, and Gen William C. Westmoreland, USA, ComUSMACV, Report on the War in Vietnam (As of 30 Jun 1968) (Washington: GPO, 1968), pp. ii-iii, 79, 156, 291-4, hereafter Sharp and Westmoreland, Report on the War; Gen William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1976), passim, hereafter Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports; Dr. Wayne Thompson, Air Force History Support Office, Comments on 1968 draft chapter, dtd 23Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File, MCHC).
6. LtGen Keith B. McCutcheon, "Marine Aviation in Vietnam, 1962- 70," Naval Review 1971 (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1971), pp. 122-55, pp. 134-36, hereafter McCutcheon, "Marine Aviation in Vietnam, 1962-70;" Gen Keith B. McCutcheon intvw, Apr 1971, (Oral HistColl, MCHC) pp. 1-4, 6; Shulimson and Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, pp. 151-2; Jack Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, An Expanding War, 1966, (Washington: Hist&MusDiv, HQMC 1982), pp. 268-9, hereafter Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966.
7. For relations between MACV, FMFPac, CMC, and III MAF, see Shulimson and Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965; Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966; and Maj Gary F. Telfer, LtCol Lane Rogers, and Victor K. Fleming, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1967: Fighting the North Vietnamese Army, (Washington: Hist&MusDiv, HQMC, 1984), passim., hereafter Telfer, Rogers, and Fleming, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1967.
8. Quoted in Capt William D. Parker, U.S. Marine Corps Civic Action Efforts in Vietnam, April 1966-April 1967 (Washington, 1970), p. 2.
9. Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, p. 13; BGen William E. DePuy, ACS J-3 memo to Gen Westmoreland, dtd 15Nov65, Subj: The Situation in I Corps (Gen William E DePuy Papers, Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pa); Gen William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, N.Y., 1976), pp. 165-66.
10. Marine Bgen Edwin H. Simmons quoted in Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, p. 14. General Simmons as a colonel in 1965-1966 served as the III MAF G-3 or operations officer.
11. For examples of General Greene's views see: CMC, Memorandum For the Record, dtd 22Jul65, Subj: Record of Conference on Southeast Asia held at White House and CMC, Memorandum for the Record, dtd 7Nov66, Subj: I Corps Estimate ("Force Requirements and Long Range Estimates for I Corps, RVN" in Operations in Vietnam Binder, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., Papers, MCHC). For examples of General Krulak's views see: "A Strategic Appraisal" Dec65, Box 4 (LtGen Victor H. Krulak Papers, MCHC); CGFMFPac, Pacific Opns. See also Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, pp. 11-14; Krulak, First to Fight, An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1984), pp. 186 and 197-203, hereafter Krulak, First to Fight.
12. General Greene is quoted in Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, p. 14. See various CMC, Memorandum for the Record in Operations in Vietnam Binder, Greene Papers relative to his efforts via the Joint Chiefs and even the President to present the Marine Corps perspective. For General Krulak, see Krulak ltr to Hon Robert S. McNamara, dtd 11Nov65, Box 4, Krulak Papers and Krulak, First to Fight, p. 186. Interestingly enough, former Secretary McNamara makes no mention of this letter or these conversations with Krulak in his memoir, Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Time Books, Random House, Inc., 1995), passim.
13. ComUSMACV ltr to CGIIIMAF, dtd 21Nov65, Subj: Letter of Instruction, encl 2, III MAF ComdC, Nov65.
14. Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, p. 16.
15. Ibid., pp. 73-91.
16. Ibid., pp. 139-198.
17. Bgen Lowell E. English intvw by FMFPac, n.d. (No 402, OralHistColl, Hist&MusDiv, HQMC)
18. For this and following paragraphs on the barrier see Jack Shulimson, "The 3d Marine Division and the Barrier," MS, Chapter 2 of Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968. There were at least three barrier proposals before the American intervention in 1965.
19. ComUSMACV msg to DCPG, dtd 25Sep66, as quoted in Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, p. 316.
20. LtGen Lewis W. Walt ltr to LtGen H. W. Buse, Jr., dtd 29 Dec66, as quoted in Ibid., p. 318.
21. Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, pp. 314-18; Telfer, Rogers, Fleming, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1967, 86-94.
22. The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, The Senator Gravel Edition, 4 vols (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), vol 4., pp. 285-89 hereafter, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition; MACV ComdHist, 1967, pp. 143-49; Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, pp. 227-230; Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point, Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971), pp. 369-71, hereafter Johnson, The Vantage Point.
23. Capt Moyers S. Shore, II, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington, 1969), p. 17, hereafter Shore, The Battle for Khe Sanh.
24. War Experiences Recapitulation Committee of the High-Level Military Institute, The Anti-U.S. Resistance War for National Salvation, trans by Foreign Broadcast Information Service (Hanoi: People's Army Publishing Houses, 1980) [Joint Publications Research Service No. 80968, dtd 3Jun82], pp. 100-01. For speculation about North Vietnamese internal differences, see Pike, ``The Other Side;" P.J. Honey, ``The Offensive, Hanoi's Change of Strategy,'' clipping from China News Analysis, dtd 22Mar68 and V. Zorza, ``Hints from Hanoi,'' Clipping Washington Post, dtd 10Oct68 (A&S Files, Indochina Archives); Donald Oberdorfer, Tet! (Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1971), pp. 42-46, hereafter Oberdorfer, Tet!; Col Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet, (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1978), 163-7; MACV ComdHist 1967, p. 74.
25. CGFMFPac msgs to CGIIIMAF, dtd 23 and 27Sep67 (HQMC Msg File); MACV ComdHist, 1967, pp. 75, 98.
26. For a detailed look at the barrier see Shulimson, "The 3d Marine Division and the Barrier", draft chapter, "U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968" MS.
27. ``Dissemination of Order for the General Offensive and the General Uprising,'' Trans of enemy document, dtd 12Nov67 (A&S Files, Indochina Archives). See also MACV ComdHist, 1968, pp. 881-3.
28. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, p. 316.
29. III MAF ComdC, Jan 1968.
30. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, p. 342.
31. Bgen John R. Chaisson, Diary, entries for 26-28 Jan68 (Chaisson Papers). For relationship between Cushman and Westmoreland, see Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, p. 342; Cushman intvw, 82, passim.
32. Historical Summary, General Entry, 27Dec67-31Jan68, Entry for 22 Jan 68, History File, v. 28, Westmoreland Papers; Westmoreland msg to Wheeler, dtd 22Jan68 and Westmoreland msg to Sharp and Wheeler, dtd 26Jan68, Westmoreland Messages, Westmoreland Papers; John R. Chaisson, entries for 26-28 Jan68, Diary, Chaisson Papers; Cushman Intvw, Mar69, LtGen Robert E. Cushman debriefing at FMFPac, 31Mar69, Tape 4058 (Oral HistColl, MCHC), pp. 459-60 and 465-66, hereafter Cushman Intvw, Mar69.
33. CGFMFPac msg to CMC, dtd 27Jan68 and CGIIIMAF msg to CGFMFPac, dtd 27Jan68 (HQMC Msg File); Abrams msg to Cushman, dtd 31Jan68, Creighton B. Abrams Papers, CMH; MACV msg to III MAF, dtd 3Feb68 (III MAF Incoming Msgs); Cushman FMFPac debriefing; Maj Miles D. Waldron and Spec 5 Richard W. Beavers, XXIV Corps, "The Critical Year, 1968," pp. 4-5 (CMH); Pearson, LtGen Willard Pearson, USA, The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968, Vietnam Studies (Washington, D.C. Dept of the Army, 1975); Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, p. 345.
34. 1st MarDiv AAR Tet, pp. 36-7; LtGen Donn J. Robertson intvw, 1973-76 (Oral HistColl, MCHC), pp. 72-73, hereafter Robertson Intvw.
35. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, pp. 341-2; General Entry, Historical Summary, 1-29Feb68, Folder 29 (Westmoreland Papers, CMH).
36. Cushman Intvw, Nov82.
37. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, A History (New York, New York: Viking Press, 1983, pp. 564-66.
38. USMACV Letter of Instruction, Subj: Role and Missions of Provisional Corps, Vietnam, dtd 3Mar68 (PCV Folder); FMFPac MarOpsV, Mar68, p. 59; ComUSMACV ltr to CG III MAF, dtd 7Mar68, Subj: Single Management, Doc No. 14, HQMC DCS (Air) Single Manager Fldr, Jan68-15Aug70.
39. Shore, The Battle for Khe Sanh, passim.
40. Maj William H. Dabney, "The Battle of Dong Ha," ms, n.d.; Bgen William Weise intvw, 21Feb83 (Oral HistColl, MCHC), Bgen William Weise, "Memories of Dai Do," ms, 7Feb88 (MCHC).
41. For Operation Dewey Canyon, see Charles R. Smith, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, High Mobility and Standdown, 1969, Chapter
42. Graham A. Cosmas and LtCol Terrence P. Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, Vietnamization and Redeployment, 1970-1971 (Washington: Hist&Mus Div, HQMC, 1986), passim., hereafter Cosmas and Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-71.
43. LtCol Gary D. Solis, Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire (Washington: Hist & Mus Div, HQMC, 1989), p. 103.
44. Cosmas and Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-71, p. 364.
45. Generals Nickerson and McCutcheon are quoted in Cosmas and Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-71, p. 184.
Click the photo for more Info.
In March 1966, the 5th Marines began deploying to Vietnam and April, took part in their first operation near the Hai Van Pass. During 1966-67, the Regiment took part in Operations Nathan Hale, Union II and Swift, and engaged in counter-guerilla operations in the areas of Quang Nam, Quang Tin and Quang Nai Provinces; fighting several sharp battles in Happy Valley and the Que Son Mountains.
During the TET Offensive in 1968, the 5th Marines took part in the battle to clear Hue. By 1969 the war had become one of ambushes and small unit actions, with the emphasis on increasing the security of the population. After the 3rd Marine Division was withdrawn in 1969, the 5th Marines operated mainly in Quang Nam; taking part in the last offensive operation in the summer of 1970. The 5th Marine Regiment left Vietnam in February of 1971.
Loyd E Jones - Unit in Vietnam
Truoi River Bridge along Highway 1, Thua Thien Province between Danang, Phu Bai and Hue, early May 68. Picture by Jerry Lomax. Top: Ronnie Williams. 2nd Row: Left, Sam Cole, killed from gunshot wounds a week later, two fellows from a weapon's squad (if you know them, email us). Bottom: From Left, name not remembered, Willie Rivera, Correa, and name not remembered.
In Vietnam, there were more KIA in 1968 than any other year. Back in the United States, the country was being divided by the war, with racial injustice and prejudice, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A year earlier, Muhammad Ali refused induction. It was a difficult time on both sides of the Pacific. I believe I have come to terms with the war and have used this in a positive manner. I am proud to have served in Vietnam. There are very few Americans and very few servicemen who have served in a combat zone and realized this experience.
This is a poem I wrote yesterday, about the Vietnam War Soldiers.
I was only a baby in the middle of the war, but it still made an impact on my life. After viewing the Vietnam War Memorial website yesterday, I went home and felt inspired to write something, to let all of the veterans know how much I care. I hope you enjoy reading this.
DEDICATION TO THE SOLDIERS
Where do I begin to say
How very grateful I am
To all the sons and daughters
Who served in Vietnam
I wasn’t even born
When it started in 1961
A war that never seemed to end
Fourteen years from the time it had begun
As a child of the seventies
I didn’t know what the fighting was for
I’d hear my parents talk about it
But didn’t know it was a war
The innocence of childhood
Kept me protected from the news
And the protesters who voiced too loudly
That war wasn’t the thing to choose
I didn’t know that in another country
My cousins and uncles were in harm's way
Nor did I know that many sons and daughters
Wouldn’t make it back home to the USA
It wasn’t until I was older
And listening to a teacher tell the story
Of the soldiers who fought so hard
And served with all their might and glory
No one could really explain
Why this war had to be
Or why so many lost their lives
It doesn’t make sense to me
All I know is that I am honored
To say these servicemen gave their all
When our country said “We need you”
And duty came to call
The draft was put in place
And the young men stood in line
Not knowing where they were headed
Or when it would be their time
The war itself has been over for years
But you can still see the pain in their eyes
When they think about their friends who are gone
And they look toward the heavenly skies
I’m a mother of five sons
And I can’t imagine the pain
Of losing one of them to war
And never seeing them again
Those of you who made it back
You deserved so much more
And I want to tell you from the bottom of my heart
Just what I think you stand for
Because of you, I am still free
And other people in the world are too
You did what your President asked
And did what you were told to do
In a way, I owe you so much more
Than I can ever give
Because of you, my sons learn about honor
Because of you, so many innocent people still live
I honor you, I respect you
I believe in you and I care
I wish I could heal the wounds
That you endured over there.
I can’t change the past
Or bring back your dear friends
But I can try to make America understand
That the war in your hearts didn’t end
You still feel the sadness
And I’m sure you feel the pain
Knowing that you can’t turn back time
And bring your friends back again
All we can do is move forward
And remember those with pride
Who fought with you all those years ago
And served with dignity by your side
If ever there was a greater honor
To be seated on the thrones of Heaven
It is for our sons and daughters,
The proud, the brave and the never forgotten
Two Hundred and Seven….
•Dena Marie Boyd-McCaskell, Pierre, SD.
North High School
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