Back on the ship we went back to Subic Bay for one of the ships to get maintenance. It was like magic to us – instead of Vietnam we were going back Olongapo! Unfortunately, I had almost no money. So, when J——– said he’d pay me to break his finger it was just a matter of how much. I think in the end I got $7 and some change and he put his trigger finger over a step on one of the steel ladders and I hit it with a small iron bar. At first he thought I hadn’t hit him hard enough and then he saw his finger, which was wrecked and so he was gone too. Good riddance to another coward + Olongapo here I come. We’re all winners here. I was actually in a relationship with a girl, Delia, and so it was all pretty intense. Then we were headed back to Vietnam.
We landed unopposed near Danang and got to a base there. My only memory of the base was going to a head and this peasant woman came in and squatted next to me and did her business and I was at a loss because I’d rather do my eliminations in private (tough luck being in the Corps), and next to a woman was even less private than I was used to. She left, so it was cool.
Photo: Near our company position close to Hill 55 – photo taken in 2005. Hard to believe walking here with ambushes, mines, etc. happening
Ordinarily at a forward Marine base (like at Hill 55), they have shitters and pissers, with former being like an outhouse and the latter being tubes (maybe rocket tubes) sunk into the ground with a screen over the opening. Periodically they’d move them. They would move the shitter to another place and pour gas or whatever in the hole full of feces and set it ablaze. I never had to do that. For the pisser it was just dig a new hole, put the tube in, and fill in the old hole.
Our understanding was that we were going to be guarding Danang and I had this picture of comfy little block houses set along a trench line surrounding the city and at least several days a week I would go into Danang and I’d have like a little room somewhere in a cool neighborhood and of course a girlfriend. Maybe I’d gotten this idea from The Quiet American or maybe I’d made it up on my own.
We had an uneventful ride to Hill 55 and there we were. From Wikipedia: “Hill 55 was a hill in Vietnam that was used during the Vietnam war as a base of operations for the United States Marine Corps. It has been described as “the most notorious area in I Corps. In the Indochina War, two battalions of the French forces were wiped out on Hill 55. Famous Marine sniper Major Jim Land operated a sniper school on the hill.”
C company moved off the hill to our new home – some mounds of dirt and vegetation surrounded by untended padi (padi = rice field). We were taking this area over from 1/9 (the “Walking Dead” – and this was where they got their name) so there were positions already dug. My recollection is that this was when I realized just how many casualties we’d taken, though I don’t know why it would have taken so long for me to understand. Photo: My gun
My gun was at post 1, which was closest the dirt road that curved around part of our perimeter. The post included a sandbagged position with ~4 foot high sandbagged walls and thatched roof where we hung out, stood watch, heated C-Rations, smoked, and whatnot. Off that there was a place to sleep – sandbagged walls 2-3 feet high and a plastic sheet roof, Part of the time we slept on the ground and later we had cots, I think. That’s the Marine Corps way: away from the rear, pay little attention to fortifications. We were there to fight.
Our first patrol in our AOR we hit a main force VC unit and were in a huge fire-fight and were basically outgunned. I remember Holcomb backing away, firing his M14 tilted so that it tracked sideways recoiling on auto. I was on my knees laying down an excellent field of fire – like about 12” off the ground at the highest. Holcomb’s buddy, the man who had the devil shoveling coals into his ass, stepped on a mine that blew his legs off. He sat up and looked at the stumps and groaned and fell over dead.
Yeah, it was a fierce area and we took the fight to the VC. They put a lot of mines out and harassed us with sniper fire. We hunted them and killed them when we found them. Photo: A beautiful sight
The basic plan was patrol for ~3 days/nights. Back in for a night off – still standing watch, but with less frequency than the 2 on, 2 off on patrol. Out for night ambush. Back in for a night. Patrol for ~3 days/nights. Back …
The ambushes were my favorite part because —–, my assistant gunner was pretty nervous about everything and he’d always take liquor on these ambushes. He was a heavy drinker, so he could drink and function. He’d sit awake all night sipping his whiskey and I’d sleep, secure in his anxiety. He’d wake me up now and then, whispering, “I think I hear something.” I’d lie there, listening, watching, and finally going back to sleep.
By now my helmet had a picture of the Grim Reaper on one side and on the other, “morituri te salutamus” – Latin for we who are about to die salute you.
Mostly it was boring and hot. Talk, play solitare, read, smoke, sleep. Post 1 was kind of stuck out on a corner of the perimeter, so we were a little bit by ourselves, a good thing. Everyone who came to or left C Company’s position passed through Post 1, but the actual position was a few feet from where they went, so no problem there. All supplies came through Post 1 and so we did a lot of unloading and also skimmed some of the cream of what was coming in.
We had ended a patrol at Battalion one day and were laying around outside the crappy little mess hall they had up there. A visiting general happened on us and was talking to the lieutenant about the situation and the lieutenant started telling him about using civilians to walk point (them knowing exactly where all the mines were) and the general got pissed, so we were supposed to not do that anymore. Everybody play fair now.
I remember so little about specific patrols. It was hot, often raining. I carried my gun and 200 rounds, helmet, flack jacket, lightest possible load of C-Rats, 4 canteens water (2 more than most men), .45 & an extra clip, knife, cigarettes, sheet of plastic to sleep on, raincoat. I could almost always find banana tree leaves to sleep under, so really I was fairly comfortable.
Waking one morning to sit smoking
Watching the day begin through misty green
Slow, soft, green and mist
I could sit here for a thousand years.
I don’t remember being afraid. I was focused, intense, but not feeling afraid. People say all kinds of things, like, “There’s no atheists in foxholes.” Well I never thought about God. Why would anyone believe in a merciful loving God in a war? People say things like, “God’s in charge.” Oh yeah, sure. “God don’t give you nothin’ you can’t handle.” You don’t know much, do you. And people say things like, “Who wouldn’t be afraid?” or “Anyone with any intelligence would be afraid.” Whatever. I didn’t feel it. Later, sometimes I’d get the shakes.
Gunny Evans was beyond words. He had what seemed like supernatural powers – utterly fearless, able to see in the dark, needing no sleep, physically overpowering, and dangerous to everyone. Once at the DMZ I was on the right flank point in a balls-to-the-wall gunfight with an NVA machine gun emplacement when out of the woods to the left of the enemy gun came Gunny Evans, carrying a wounded Marine! How in hell did he get there? The other Gunny I had was Gunny White, who was weapons platoon commander for much of my time with C/1/26. Gunny White was loved as much as Gunny Evans was feared. Fearless, squared away, a true warrior, but not dangerous (to us, anyway). Both of these men would have given their lives in a heartbeat for me or any other Marine. Certainly they risked their lives on a regular basis for us – as we did for them.
About once a month I’d get up to battalion for a night. I’d stay in the C Company tent with Jeff and others. Cots, wood pallet floors, maybe I’d have a shower. Sometimes Gunny White would dig up some beer for us and we’d have a party. There were some 105s and 155s on the hill and when the arty would fire it would blow our candle out. They had some electric up there and there was a record player in the tent. Man, them guys had it made. But I was still glad I wasn’t back up there working in supply.
Day after day, week after week, month after month. It’s weird when you think about it – never a day without someone shooting at you, never a day when someone wasn’t wounded. One by one the old guys disappearing. Sometimes bad wounded, sometimes a 3rd wound, sometimes killed, a few lucky ones with malaria. If you count each wound or even each person wounded or killed and then FNGs (replacements) coming in and they were wounded at an even greater rate, you realize we took over 100% casualties.
Much of the countryside where we were was deserted. There were people living to the northeast of us and in the west where Dodge City was. Otherwise, deserted, ghostly. On patrol in the north we came across a partially intact temple. Sitting inside, dry, having a smoke, happy, comfortable. That’s a stellar memory. I’m writing a lot about smoking. We had C-Ration cigs, Lucky Strikes – “Toasted” – Salems, Winstons; and whenever someone went up to Hill 55 they’d bring back some cartons of Winys or Marlys or best of all, Viceroys. Cigarettes and war go together really well. Smoking cigarettes was about the best thing we did. That and being not dead.
Most patrols were from squad to platoon sized, anywhere from 10 to 30 men. One day during monsoon we went on a company sized operation toward Dodge City. As with so much else, time clouds my memory, so I’ll write what I remember. There was a huge and sustained volume of gun fire to my right. We started forward and engaged the enemy so that there was a broad front (in front of me and to the right). To my horror I discovered that the person I’d loaned the gun to the night before had put the piston in backwards, so what I had was a 23.5 pound single-shot rifle – an awkward one at that. So in the midst of a battle I had to take the gun apart to turn the piston around and the thing was, it took me a few minutes to figure things out and in the meantime there was this screaming and someone firing 100 round bursts – screaming and charging the enemy. He got into their position and killed several and then everyone else caught up with him. What had happened was that Zamora had been killed and the gunner (Ray Escalera, who had loved him) went a little crazy. Zamora was one of those world-class good guys – there was nobody more solid than he was. The battle raged on for awhile, who could even guess how long.
There were three helicopters shot down that day. I was close to one of them. I was hosing down the tree line while other guys ran to the chopper to see if they could get anyone out. They pulled one man out, still alive, but completely burned and they said his skin came off, but I always thought it was probably his flight suit. There were 13 KIA and 66 WIA in that that operation.
We’d been in water for several days and after the battle I made the mistake of taking my boots off (my feet were hurting and itching – with the itching driving me crazy) and my feet swelled up in just moments. I knew better than to do that, but the itching! There was no way I could have gotten my boots back on and I ended up crawling for quite a ways on the way away from the battle.
We were on a patrol and got word to stop and wait for helicopters to take us to another area to look for a missing (dead) Marine. What happened was some REMFs had gone on a patrol out of battalion. They’d been hit and somehow (because of inexperience) one of the Marines was separated from the others. The VC got him and tortured him to death, stabbing him 100s of times (“death by a 1000 cuts”) while he screamed in the night and every time the Mariners in that patrol tried to get to him they were driven back, taking more casualties and finally giving up.
So we got there and it didn’t take long to find him dead in padi water, right next to a dike, so completely white and stabbed so many times.
It never occured to me that I would write this. It was something to keep secret and inside me forever; something to take out now and then, turning it over in my mind like the treasure it is (to me, anyway). I told Jeff a few years ago, but he already knew about it, even though he was not on that patrol.
We were on a long patrol – past even Dodge City. It had been raining for several days or maybe several weeks. I had this raincoat that was far superior to a poncho (I doubt many people ever wore a poncho past their first gunfight with one of those awkward things in the way of everything – I loved my raincoat). We were 3-4 days out, in an area we’d not seen before. We came to a ville and moved around and through it. The plan was to round up everyone in the ville and search the place and people for weapons.
I came to a hooch with a bunker (all the hooches had bunkers in that neighborhood) and inside the bunker were several women and some children. The interesting thing was that one of the women was wet – even her hair, which told me pretty clearly that she had been doing something in a hurry before we got into the ville, i.e., she was most definitely VC. The other woman was holding a baby and the baby was crying, the thin, weak cry of a very sick baby. I was standing there looking at them and it was like I could see myself as they saw me. I was death – unshaven, dirty death. The only clean thing about me was my machine-gun and it was immaculate. The gun oiled, every round in the 200 round belt perfectly cleaned, inspected – all truly perfect. I was looking at them and they were looking at me.
I was thinking, screw this. I’m not going to jack with these people. So I just stayed there, watching them (I had decided not to force them out, but not wanting to be killed, would never have taken my eyes off them). So we’re there, they, no doubt wondering what is going to happen and me, just very comfortable with my decision. At some point I tossed a couple of cans of C-rat ham or whatever into the bunker. They probably thought I was tossing grenades – they never touched the cans.
The Big Hair (Harris) was off to the side and he put his weapon on the lieutenant and said something like, “Be careful, lieutenant.” Whew, what a relief. Then, the people in the bunker started coming out! The lieutenant walked off muttering threats. Harris smiled at me. “Yeah, man – fuckin’-A.” When the woman carrying the baby came out in the rain I stopped her and I took off my raincoat and gave it to her. She had no clue what that was about so I had to drape it over her. It was like the coat of a giant to her. Ridiculous.
I remember leaving the ville with all those people standing there in the rain and that sad-sack woman with her sick baby standing there with my raincoat dragging the ground.
Jeff articulated how things were. He said, and I agreed, that we were the only ones that mattered, the only ones who understood war. Tanks mattered too and of course the choppers and fast movers (except that the latter two went home at night to showers, racks, hot food, and all that good stuff – but that was just their good fortune and a reason to envy them, not a reason to downgrade them). We appreciated artillery, but they were in the rear most of the time, so they weren’t really the same as infantry and tanks. You could see that the pilots who flew C-130s into Khe Sanh were okay. Everyone else was just a rear echelon mother-fucker.
The fast movers were F4 phantom fighter bomber jets and they provided close air support, coming in extraordinarily close to the ground to put bombs and napalm right on target. If you weren’t close to where they were dropping their ordnance, you could actually see the pilots’ helmets as they screamed past and then the explosions with the earth shaking or crumping in a ball of flame. I was on an operation with an Army unit and saw the Air Force version of close air support – they stayed waaay up in the air and as a consequence dropped their ordnance kind of wherever. I’d appreciated the Marine pilots before and anyone could see they were taking some pretty serious risks, and after seeing the Air Force pilots, well, Semper Fidelis!
The helicopters were always right there, taking enormous chances to bring in ammunition and take out casualties. At that time, Marines mostly flew the older Sikorsky UH-34 vs. the Hueys. I – and everyone else – loved the men who flew them and the crew chiefs/door gunners. I never saw anything those guys wouldn’t fly into.
Here’s some interesting stuff on what was in the C-Rations we had in Vietnam. My favorites were beans & wieners, meatballs & beans, & boned chicken, though I ate a lot of eggs, water added with ham because I could tolerate it and people would just give it away, so I could use other stuff to trade for the coveted fruit cocktail, pears (mmmmmm, pears), and pecan roll. Sometimes you could get together some pears and pound cake for a true feast. Crackers with peanut butter were okay, but even I wouldn’t eat the “candy disc, chocolate” – or the ham & lima beans (“ham & mother-fuckers” as everyone called them). Beef steak (it was a steak, alright), ham, turkey loaf, beef/potatoes/gravy were okay if you were really hungry. I don’t remember meat loaf (lol – are you kidding me. How bad would that have been?) or spiced beef. The caraway cheese always irritated me – who eats caraway seeds? But I liked the pimento cheese. I loved the cocoa and jam & cookies. The bread was lame. I ate a lot of fruitcake because I was one of the only ones who would, so there was always plenty of it. I almost always had a bottle of Tabasco. (Writing this journal is sufficient unto itself, but if it turns out that someone reads this to me when I’m old, please read all the ingredients below – Thanks.)
Meat Choices (in small cans): Beef Steak, Ham and Eggs, Chopped Ham Slices, Turkey Loaf,
Meat Choices (in larger cans): Beans and Wieners, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Beefsteak & Potatoes & Gravy, Ham and Lima Beans (AKA ham & motherfuckers), Meatballs and Beans
Meat Choices (in small cans): Boned Chicken, Chicken and Noodles, Meat Loaf, Spiced Beef
… going back to the rear, leaving helmet, pack, flack jacket, webbing, weapons, ammo in a pile (weapon always handy – and never going more than about 30 feet from the weapon). It always felt so good taking it all off, so you were wearing just utilities, boots, etc.
My best friends were Jeff and Noumov. Hermanson and I were also very close. We were together from ITR on and though he went to recon, we still stayed in touch. Jeff and Noumov and I were together throughout, forming the nucleus of a kind of sub-culture in 1/26 – men with education or from middle-class (vs. working class or poor) backgrounds. In other ways we were classic Marine infantrymen: squared away, hard, strong, very aggressive, good shooters, disciplined when we needed to be, serious about partying. Jeff and I have stayed in touch and lived together from time to time since Vietnam. We went back to VN (along with my son, David) in 2005.
Deleted section on lessons from Korea – too violent.
We were on a patrol, I don’t remember where and it seems like it was a peaceful patrol. We stopped for an hour or so close to a farmer’s hooch on a little bit of a rise and it worked out that I was right in front of the hooch, sitting under a thatched awning, kind of like a small dirt-floored veranda. There was a little girl there, chopping vegetables and it seemed to me she was so tiny to be wielding that big knife, but she knew what she was doing and I was sitting there, enjoying the cool and just the whole scene and I was about as happy then as I was in all my time in Vietnam.
VN was and still is beautiful, green – it has a green all its own. I think at least some people could see it even then.
At Christmas Leslie sent me a little artificial Christmas tree, even though we were not really in a relationship anymore. She also wrote me regularly. I carried a photo of her that eventually faded just to a dark smudge where her eye was – but I could see her face clearly. And here we are, 43 years later, married.
The following is from my first web page – it was important to me to write it. It was dedicated
To 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.
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 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.
I took off up the trail to the right and there was a man standing frozen in the trail still shouting for a corpsman and my recollection is that I ran literally up and over him (though how could that be?) and there was Donohue. He was on the ground with both legs blown off. I was beside him and saw that one stump was left with shattered bone sticking out and his guts were spilled out of where the other one had been. He was still alive! He was moaning and moving around a little. I was on my knees beside him and we were receiving fire by then. I was struggling with whether to go ahead and finish him off, because he was definitely going to die and even if he didn’t die, what was the use of going on like that. Then life went out of him. I’m grateful I didn’t kill him. I joined in on the firefight and then it was quiet; and then I had to find my gun as it wasn’t by the body. I remember walking through the bushes and trees looking for the gun and there were little pink/grey gobbets of Donohue everywhere and on my face and hands too. The smell. I found one of his feet before I found my gun. The foot was heavy and the gun was out of commission. For some reason this whole deal was the last straw – just too much. I mean, what for?
I pretty much lost hope after that. We had been in the field for about eight months: out on patrol 3-4 days, back to company for a day, out for a night ambush, another day in, and back out on patrol 3-4 days – week after week, month after month and every day, at least one casualty. I realized there were hardly any of the original men left. By then it was a company of mostly fucking new guys and there was nobody I wanted to even talk to.
A few weeks after Donohue was killed we were out on a night ambush and ran into another patrol from our company. The word had not been passed that we were going to meet. I was on point and when I saw the first man in the dark – like about 10 feet away, man – I started shooting. I shot the point man of the other patrol in the leg, hip, and chest (lucky for him I was carrying an M-14 instead of the 60); and the man behind me shot him in the chest with a grenade launcher. I remember watching one of my rounds (tracer) hit him and fly off at an angle – which was pretty far out. We were so close that the M-79 round didn’t spin enough to arm, hence didn’t explode and ended up lodged in his neck. Incredibly, he lived. There was an article in Stars and Stripes about the surgery to remove the M-79 round. I don’t remember the name of the man I shot, except that we called him the Red-Headed Mexican and he was a good guy. I remember (before I shot him) him going crazy in Dodge City (Thuy Bo) and charging a VC position right after Zamora was killed. Three helicopters shot down right there that day. 13 KIA and 66 WIA that operation. Keep on rockin’ in the free world. And now I know his name because a few weeks ago I read a copy of the article about the incident! Raymond Escalera. The article said I shot him only once. There was an investigation and not long after I was transferred out of 1/26.
Thank you Jeff. To everything, Turn! Turn! Turn! there is a season, Turn! Turn! Turn! And a time to every purpose under heaven, Turn! Turn! Turn!
Coincidentally, there was a call for a few Marines to be sent on temporary assigned duty (TAD) to an Army psychological operations unit. The call went through Jeff, back at battalion, and he arranged for me to be sent. Once again, Everyone is a Winner!