At the DMZ – with 1/9, “The Walking Dead”
This post (a repost of part of my first web page, 2007) marks the transition from blogspot to my own web address (ckjournal.com). Thanks David!
To Dwight Laws, KIA 10/30/66 inside the company perimeter near Hill 55
To Lurch Donohue, KIA 3/1/67 in a deserted ville near Route 4
To Jerry Georges, KIA 3/23/67 at the Hill 55 bridge
They were good men. We were young. They could have lived a long time.
Photo: me, Mike Noumov, Jeff Wiseman at the rear on Hill 55 on my return (bearing gifts) from R&R. Over and over again we were playing the Byrds album with Turn! Turn! Turn! on it – “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep; a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” Do you think that wasn’t blowing our minds? (4 of the first 5 photos are mine; the rest by someone else; all are taken at places/battles I was in.)
Here is the whole story of how Donohue was killed. For the first 10 or so years after I came home, there was never a day that I didn’t run this through my mind at least once – like some kind of video. I gave my compulsive rumination a name: How Donohue Got It. Then in 1978 I spent a week in a retreat with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Stephen Levine, and others. That was the first time I told this aloud. The second time was with my brother, Jeff (who identified Donohue’s body back at battalion). I seldom think of this now.
We were on patrol north of the bend in Route 4, the dirt road that went by C Company’s
My gun at the DMZ. Ready to rock.
position. There were no civilians left in this area (where 1/9 got its name, The Walking Dead) – a ghostly overgrown area of deserted villes, fields, and woods. Donohue was my A-gunner. We were digging in the first night of the patrol and he wasn’t doing his part of the digging. I asked him what was going on and he had trouble answering, but finally said he wasn’t going to make it. He was really sad. I said something like, “Bullshit, man – we’ve been here too long to not make it.” I dug us in and gave him a smoke (though I don’t remember that he smoked – I’m not sure about this – maybe I just wish I’d given him a cigarette). But he was inconsolable. He knew.
Operation Prairie. Real shit, man.
Charles Kemp during Operation Deckhouse. Later that day we had several tanks blown away.
The next day we saddled up and I gave him my machine-gun. Not too much greater love than to give up your gun for another man – because my gun was my hope, my friend, my ticket home. I loved that gun; and I was pretty good with it. Please allow me to introduce myself … We moved out, into a deserted ville. I was walking left flank point and came to a hedgerow of bamboo with a closed gate the only way through. Going through that gate was death – no question about it, there was a mine somewhere with the gate. I was crouched down, trying to figure out a way to stay on line and not be killed when there was a powerful explosion off to my right and someone started yelling, “Corpsman up! Corpsman up!” In a heartbeat I knew Donohue was the explosion.
I took off up the trail to the right and there was a man standing frozen in the trail still shouting for a corpsman and my recollection is that I ran literally up and over him (though how could that be?) and there was Donohue. He was on the ground with both legs blown off. I was beside him and saw that one stump was left with shattered bone sticking out and his guts were spilled out of where the other one had been. He was still alive! He was moaning and moving around a little. I was on my knees beside him and we were receiving fire by then. I was struggling with whether to go ahead and finish him off, because he was definitely going to die and even if he didn’t die, what was the use of going on like that. Then life went out of him. I’m grateful I didn’t kill him. I joined in on the firefight and then
At the Hill Fights (“the first battle of Khe Sanh”)
it was quiet; and then I had to find my gun as it wasn’t by the body. I remember walking through the bushes and trees looking for the gun and there were little pink/grey gobbets of Donohue everywhere and on my face and hands too. The smell. I found one of his feet before I found my gun. The foot was heavy and the gun was out of commission. For some reason this whole deal was the last straw – just too much. I mean, what for?
OR in bunker at Khe Sanh
I pretty much lost hope after that. We had been in the field for about eight months: out on patrol 3-4 days, back to company for a day, out for a night ambush, another day in, and back out on patrol 3-4 days – week after week, month after month and every day, at least one casualty. I realized there were hardly any of the original men left. By then it was a company of mostly fucking new guys and there was nobody I wanted to even talk to.
I was also having weird thoughts. Like maybe I could just walk out of the perimeter a couple of klicks to a ville we’d been through a few times where a one-legged girl lived (lotta one-legged people in them parts) and I could take her an adjustable crutch so she wouldn’t have to walk in the bent and twisted way she walked with her too-short stick of a crutch. A time to heal. Or maybe I could slip out and maybe run across a VC or two and instead of killing each other we could sit down in a clearing somewhere and drink a bottle of whiskey together and have some smokes and talk about our girlfriends. You know, have a good time. Be normal. A time to laugh. These sounded like really good ideas to me and I was thinking about them a lot – all the time. Now I realize that I’ve spent much of the past 40 years taking a crutch to that girl – and I have miles to go before I sleep.
A few weeks after Donohue was killed we were out on a night ambush and ran into another patrol from our company. The word had not been passed that we were going to meet. I was on point and when I saw the first man in the dark – like about 10 feet away, man – I started shooting. I shot the point man of the other patrol in the leg, hip, and chest (lucky for him I was carrying an M-14 instead of the 60); and the man behind me shot him in the chest with a grenade launcher. I remember watching one of my rounds (tracer) hit him and fly off at an angle – which was pretty far out. We were so close that the M-79 round didn’t spin enough to arm, hence didn’t explode and ended up lodged in his neck. Incredibly, he lived. There was an article in Stars and Stripes about the surgery to remove the M-79 round. I don’t remember the name of the man I shot, except that we called him the Red-Headed Mexican and he was a good guy. I remember (before I shot him) him going crazy in Dodge City (Thuy Bo) and charging a VC position right after Zamora was killed. Three helicopters shot down right there that day. 13 KIA and 66 WIA that operation. Keep on rockin in the free world. And now I know his name because a few weeks ago I read a copy of the article about the incident! Raymond Escalera. The article said I shot him only once. There was an investigation and not long after I was transferred out of 1/26.
Sometimes, in a dream
Thank you Jeff. To everything, Turn! Turn! Turn! there is a season, Turn! Turn! Turn! And a time to every purpose under heaven, Turn! Turn! Turn!
A gunner (like me) at Khe Sanh. Cleaning his weapon. Goddam, good gun, good smokes.
I started at MCRD San Diego, then Infantry Training Regiment & Machine Gun School; Camp Pendleton & las Pulgas for Special Landing Force training. On to Subic Bay & Olongapo (oh, how we partied, like doomed youth) in the Philippines; first landing southern South Vietnam (1st casualties); second landing Deckhouse & Prairie for serious battles (photo from Operation Prairie – yeah, man, it’s real); Hill 55 & Dodge City (snipers, mines, occasional firefights & some battles – see above); Dong Ha & Hill Fights (168 KIA, but it took awhile); also at Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Khe Sanh, though not for long in these last three. If there was a sound track to this section it would be Sympathy for the Devil, maybe Gimme Shelter. We won every battle and beat back very attack, but America lost its will and lost the war. Nice work, so-called “greatest generation.” All told, 13 months
A beautiful sight
in combat (well, you know, not every day) in the two provinces (Quang Nam & Quang Tri) accounting for 25% of the US KIA (I think there are 20 or more provinces in VN); Danang, The World. God. I’m alive.