My Tour of Duty in part … Up to Sandbox getting shot out of the bush.
December 1967—Reconnaissance Duty 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Recon Bn. —1968.
My transformation from stateside FMF Corpsman to field ready Recon Corpsman was about to get its finishing touches.
On any Vietnam era war Map, locate Da Nang, just below the 17th parallel line, half way up the map schematic. That was my first ‘In-Country’ experience, flying into and waiting for transportation to a processing center.
14 December ’67 – “My first Cartoon effort is shown, as I apply Uncle Sam’s postage to my letter from Okinawa, Japan! Darling, today is a wet one. I am barracks bound for the total morning—not much doing. No liberty off base, so the Base Exchange, movie house and club are open to me, while waiting to be packaged up and flown to Da Nang.”
“Yes, I’m still in Okinawa and probably will be for the rest of this week. Incidentally, I am writing this letter Monday, it would be delivered in the states, which is a day later or Tuesday over here! I am scouting around the exchange for some good buys for when I return here, next year, I can make some purchases then. Please send me a cost list of items that I write in this letter. 357 magnum pistol, a 45 caliber pistol, China dishes, and crystal, price them. I will try to pick some of these items up, as well as, everyday dishes, while I’m here.” (Peanuts cartoon come to mind as I practice drawing some cartoon character.)
“Well, the whole lot of us have gotten our shots, and clothing issues. Now we are waiting to be notified of further orders—maybe three or four more days yet. Friday, December 15, 1967, I was given a loading number 90, with which I get on the plane and go “south” to (RVN). I am sending this money order from this month’s check.”
“Hm3 Smith and I have become pretty tight, while we wandered about the base. He drew an earlier flight out for ‘Nam. I will be going later, at 1800 hrs this afternoon. By Sunday, I should have an address for you sometime after my arrival and assignment. So, in the meantime ….”
The plane made some maneuvers over the sea as it made its landing pass over the airstrip. At this point, I was wondering, ‘so, when do we get issued flack jackets, helmets, and rifles?’ As the plane taxied near the terminal, I was still asking myself this question.
The doors opened, the bright sunlight burst in and it took a little bit to adjust to coming from the dark to the light. Also, the heat filled the fuselage, as the cargo of humanity disembarked. I put my feet on the ground, looked about, and saw a terminal much like any I’d seen stateside! The roar of jet engines was deafening, as one made passage to the terminal building. My eyes took in the scene: the heat, blowing red dust, and sandbag reinforcements, along the exterior of the building, and milling about uniformed personnel were what greeted the observer. There were personnel coming in, like me, and there were personnel leaving for the flight stateside. I did notice the tail of a commercial aircraft – Western Airlines in the distance. I supposed that some personnel will be getting the ‘red carpet’ treatment on their way back to CONUS.
The flack jackets, helmets, and rifles were not necessary, huh!
16 December ’67 –“This is Saturday, Da Nang, South Vietnam. I have been waiting at the Air Force transient station since 0500hrs this morning – with many more personnel to be sorted out and dispatched to their various bases.”
“The sun is pretty hot right now. Much better the sun than the cold and rain of Okinawa. Tonight it will be cold; however, the thick of the wet season is at hand, they say, it had been raining a little bit of late here in Da Nang. The heat of the day must have dried up all of the water on the ground; its bone dry now. I just might get out of here tonight, if I am lucky. There are many in my group who are scheduled for some distant place, perhaps up north or further south. Still, there are those who cannot leave here because of a heavy attack on the base camp. Apparently, air support has been flying missions all morning for units on the perimeter of Da Nang. The noise of the jets taking off is very loud! This activity seems to be incessant.”
“I will try to continue with this little character throughout my diaries home. I have no address yet. I love you, forever. Paul”
As I continue this letter, with frequent interruptions, I am giving Lorette instructions as to how to get to the PX on the Naval Base, Kittery, ME.
“I have been moved over to a holding company, somewhere on this large Da Nang Base. For this week, I am going to orientation classes and being issued some gear. They are very short on boots, mess gear, and sleeping cots! It might be three weeks before I get some boots.
The camp is set-up like Camp Pickett was, only I am not in tents. I am in a ‘Hootch.’ The structure is essentially a two x four frames nailed together and capped with ripple tin roofing. The sidewalls are screen-type material with a windbreaker material to assist in retaining heat. Oddly enough, it’s cold here at this time of the season –rainy.”
The meals within the compound are same as they were on Vieques, with the same type of equipment, sort of a field mess. Frankly, the overall situation is not as bad as the news papers and T.V. play it up. I believe the News reporters are taking isolated cases and making them out to be the whole show here in Vietnam.
Many casualties are laid up because of ‘ignorance and irresponsible behavior! So says one of our briefing instructors.’
Da Nang, 19 December ’67 – “A large number of us ‘Nubbies’ are mustered in a large wooden structure, to be told that our assignments are going to be made today. Names were read off and various members of the group gathered to follow a Marine out the door and returned to the bivouac area to get their gear. The number of Corpsmen was about 30 or 40 half that number remains for assignment.
More NCO’s stood on the dais and read off more names, and those individuals followed that NCO out of the building to their assignment location. Two Marines came in and spoke to the ‘coordinator’ of this gathering. He gave way to their apparent need to make a request of all present. The Officer made his unit known and their combat responsibilities. He represented the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. They are continuing to fill their quota for personnel, as they prepare to expand their area of responsibility. He said their Battalion is stretched thin to meet their requested obligations. He continued, ‘you cannot be assigned to us, because of the nature of the work we do – it is dangerous. I am here to ask for volunteers, only.’ I was just talking to two of the younger HN’s before the Officer made his final statement about ‘dangerous.’
During his short presentation, I was making a survey of the young faces in the room, and I determined I was the oldest, most experienced, and well trained. I turned to the dais, raised my hand, and said, “I’ll go.” Following my action two more Corpsmen behind me made it known that they were volunteering too. I turned to them and said, ‘what are you doing, didn’t I tell you not to volunteer?’ They looked at me, with the expression on their faces, ‘you volunteered.’ We laughed about what we just did and moved out of the remaining group. I think four or five made the decision to join 3rd Recon.
We were instructed to get our gear, and report back to this site to be conducted to a truck and delivered to a staging area for Recon. I do not recall how long we waited for our Truck ride north to a place called Phu Bai. All these strange sounding names are puzzling to pronounce and even spell correctly.
We Corpsmen were loaded on trucks with our gear. Some of the young Marines, on the truck, were very jocular and coarse of speech, in yelling out to the native population. I didn’t see any useful purpose in that behavior. One individual took a small, flat can of C-Ration, showed it to a small group of kids, who then moved toward the truck. He then threw the can as hard as he could to bounce it off the head of one of the kids. I think I lost my speech code of decorum and said something derogatory to the young Marine for poor behavior. He yelled back, something about intercourse with my mother.
It was nearly a day-long trip on what is known as Route One. The trucks pulled through a gate and all personnel were off-loaded to an area that was well established. We moved through the area and I located the B.A.S. There the Chief Petty Officer in-charge took a ‘roll call’, and made an announcement, ‘any of you know medical and personnel records?’ Nobody offered a response, so I put my hand up and said, “I do.” He looked at me and said, ‘Good, step over here with me.’ He then read the remaining names and made assignments. A Corpsman, with whom I trained during my last Caribbean Cruise, was among the group awaiting assignment. I thought he was assigned to a northern combat base, Khe Sanh. He and several others moved off to a separate area to await transportation to this base, Khe Sanh. At this point, I didn’t even know where I was in the great scheme of war geography.
Following the dismissal of what remained of the group, he immediately took me inside the Battalion Aid Station, and set me to work, sorting through records of servicemen who had rotated back stateside, or evacuated wounded from the field. I was eventually assigned to a line company too, but my daily duty was medical records, for the better part of a week, until released.
At this point in my journey, through Vietnam, I am located at a Marine Combat base, Phu Bai, South Vietnam. The reader can view this location on the map to the left. From Okinawa, I was flown into country and landed at Da Nang, from Da Nang, I was transported, by truck to Phu Bai.
Following a week of behavior modification, for survival in this hostile environment, I was assigned to a line company, “Alpha,” of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. I volunteered for this duty because I didn’t believe the alternatives were much better. I spent nearly two years with line companies Stateside, and a few months with Headquarters Company and Regimental Headquarters. I was curious as to what my duties would be with a Reconnaissance Company. I did not inform my young bride of my ‘volunteering’ for this assignment. I did not want to increase her anxieties, at this juncture, of my assignment in Vietnam.
To get acquainted with my bunk mates was not made easy by their cheerful collective greeting, when I entered the E-5 “Hootch” (Hootch is a term describing a large CP tent draped over a two x four frame that is elevated off the ground by a plywood deck. Sand bags stacked about four feet high on all sides then surround this structure). I announced myself and took in glances and attitudes that took no notice. I asked for Sgt Joe Colleluore, which did get a response from one dark corner. I informed him that I was his team’s replacement Corpsman, to which he responded, “There is no such thing as a ‘replacement’ for a member of my team.” I ignored the remark and said that he was to see to it that I got the equipment that I needed for my duty with this company’s platoon. He became more cordial and we set out to get me combat ready.
The supply clerk did not have “bush” utility uniforms to fit me, nor did he have my boot size. I was issued a web belt, a Unit One (Corpsman’s medical kit), a sleeping bag, a blowup mattress, a shoulder harness, a back pack, several canteens, and ammo clip pouches. I don’t recall what else was issued to me at that time. We then went to the armorer’s stores and Joe introduced me to the Marine in charge. I was asked if I wanted a .45 pistol. I looked at Joe, and Joe offered, ‘DOC, we know what your duty is, but, when we are in the bush, it get’s kinda hairy. I would rather you took the M-16, and learn to love it, because there is more firepower from it than a .45! Besides, you might be able to hit something you aim at with the rifle than that Korean War piece.’ I looked at the armorer and he nodded to Joe and handed me the M-16 and a satchel full of clips.
Upon returning to the hootch, Sgt. Joe announced that I needed a boot size eleven … someone from the shadows tossed out a mildly worn pair of “jungle” boots. ‘Here ya go, ‘DOC’, I’m rotating soon and there is still some good rubber on these.’ I nodded my gratitude and I was directed to an empty rack. I put my gear down on the rack, retrieved my sea bag from near the door, and placed it near my designated place. Joe motioned for me to follow him.
Joe became less indifferent; he actually asked something about me, as a person, as we walked along between rows of hootch’s. However, in the midst of my story, he said, ‘don’t tell me TOO much ‘DOC,’ because I don’t want to get to know you too well. People are dying around here and it hurts sometimes when you know someone too well.’
We went to where the laundry pick-up was located, just outside of our perimeter. It was a shanty alongside of the road. There were several locals working in and around this shanty of about the size of a small single stall garage. Joe went up and paid for his laundry, which was sealed in a plastic bag, against the blowing, dry red dust. I looked the place over and there appeared to be a barbershop attached and a very small outdoor market on the backside. My eyes took in several sets of “bush” utility uniforms. I went over, examined them, and found a set nearly my size (the trousers were a little short, but the waist size was good and the jacket fit just fine)… I bought them, and a soft cover bush hat. Joe came over and informed me that I couldn’t give them “greenbacks,” so he advanced me something call, “MPC” (Military Pay Currency).
We went to the mail clerk’s office, and lastly, the NCO club for a team meeting. The NCO club was much like our sleeping quarters, in construction only; the sidewalls were rolled up for more light. All around the perimeter sandbags stacked just up to the mid-way to the window spaces. Screen material filled in the ‘window’ space. I was introduced to SSgt. ‘Ski (I don’t remember his given name) who greeted me warmly and seemed glad that I was on-board. He introduced me to the other team members and informed us, ‘we would be going out as soon as ‘DOC here gets done with his indoctrination classes, so hurry up ‘DOC’ and be a good student, because our asses depend on you.’
“Sandbox” was the code name for the Recon Team with whom I roamed the hills and fields of Vietnam. As do many, many like teams, we became close and lived day and night with each other, for the next three months or more, while we are in the bush.
“Today is a remarkable day for the ‘rainy’ season. I am finished for the morning, our introductory classes—to be continued after lunch.”
“It seems that when ever I write you, my dear wife and lover, I want something different. Well, this is because each day that I am here, I learn something new. (I’m drinking a cold soda right now because somebody told me where to get one).”
“This time, I am asking for heavy plastic baggies of all sizes. There is no end to what items you want to keep dry over here, especially, when I go out to the bush. ‘Bush’ is a term for reconnaissance of a limited area to detect what’s going on in our absence. Anyway, I need a lot of those heavy plastic bags—some can be that self-seal kind for good water proofing. Also, I need a ‘special’ band to hold my glasses on my face. (Before I left Stateside, I worked very briefly in Optometry and discovered that my distance vision was diminished. So, I provided the Navy my refraction and requested sunglasses. I figured, these would serve me better than ordinary glasses. I did not require them for reading or any other use).”
“Once in awhile you can send me a box of Wolf Bros. ‘Crooks’ cigars. When you go to purchase them, go to a cigar store, as they may be fresher. Ask the man at the counter if they are fresh because you are sending them to a serviceman in Vietnam. Sometimes they will make a better sale. Oh, when you send packages, they must not weigh more than 5 lbs.”
“There is something else, Darling, write to Black’s Reader Service to re-direct my mail to your address instead of Rochester. The address is on the box of new books at your house now. Also, another book service I order from is, Classic Book Club; they need your address too. My mother is wondering why these books are showing up and whether she should send them back! I discovered these book services before I left Lejeune and subscribed to them rather than look for books, by chance, from street vendors.”
“My love to you, and all with whom you share this letter. PT”
Phu Bai, December 1967 – “Dear Lorette and Family,
“It was an exciting Christmas – one I wish to never experience again. The memory of it will always come to mind from year to year.”
“This New Years Eve, I will be in the ‘bush’ again, watching for those ‘little people’ moving about looking to do mischief. This time, I might be out five days; depending upon how successful the mission is going to be.”
“It has been raining the last two days. Now, it is a misty like rain, not a thunderous downpour, as you may know. It is a real light wet rain – cold too!”
“Cold Champagne would really taste good for a New Years Eve toast. However, next best thing around here … is a cold beer! I haven’t any idea what kind of celebration is planned for our location; I probably won’t be in camp to find out either.”
These illustrations break up any bad news that is offered in these letter ‘diaries.’ I have been drawing more lately too. A few Marines have noticed my decorations to my envelopes and wondered at my unrevealed talent. I drew a few cartoons for the boys and they enjoyed them. I continued to draw cartoons for Lorette and some on the letters I sent home to my folks and family, in Minnesota.
To help solve some questions my family and Lorette are asking, I decided to illustrate the gear I pack to the ‘bush’ each time I accompany my team to the ‘outback.’ Illustrated on page 214, is what I sent to Lorette with one of my last letters in December ’67.
“It looks like a lot, doesn’t it?! It’s not too bad for weight as long as one can get one’s pack balanced and the weight distributed. While in the “bush’, we take frequent breaks, covering the grids (predetermined four, hundred meter squares) we are assigned for that patrol.”
“Well, tomorrow is the day of work for me. I think I’ll go to the movie tonight. Therefore, I’ll send my New Year greeting to you and all, in this letter.” I’ll be in the ‘bush’ on New Years Eve, I drew this cartoon to match the earlier one I did with Snoopy celebrating the event to Charlie’s chagrin.
Phu Bai, December 27, 1967 – “Dear Lorette Darling, a very interesting happening occurred to me this Christmas time. As I claimed release from the week’s orientation classes, I was immediately put in as Senior Corpsman of Alpha Company. However, on the evening of 24 December –Christmas Eve—I was on a hill, in enemy territory, observing bomb blasts on several hundred V.C. (Viet Cong).”
“On Christmas Day, I was on that same hill, observing helicopters shooting up several numbers of some V.C. types, as they walked down a path my team was observing. That evening, was like the 4th of July with bombs bursting, red flares flashing and green, orange, and blue bursts. On the following day, December 26th, I observed a repeat of the preceding days show. This was our last day at this site of observation; my team accomplished its mission, and it was helo-lifted out to base camp – Phu Bai. We must have dropped millions of dollars of ordinance upon them. We still don’t know how much damage we did to them because we just left the area. Mission accomplished is to locate, observe, report large troop movements, and when possible destroy who we see.”
“That evening, following a debriefing, the team was released to get a hot meal of soup, and cold Milk. As an added pleasure, I got to take a lukewarm shower, followed by two cold beers!”
“I am very anxious for mail!” I realize that the few letters I’ve written did not include a permanent address, but I trust they reached you and my most recent posts will release that flood of correspondence from your pen. I am beginning to feel the pinch of your absence very acutely! There is a born newness in my love for you, Darling – maybe more need now, than desire. However, you still are my lover, no matter what the mind may claim …”
“I am anxious to receive news of the world – your world, my Love! Give my regards to all, please.”
“I hope your Christmas was a merry one!”
— I began to realize a very cruel reality, the one I am living, is incongruent with the one I knew I was living ‘in The World’ (CONUS). Recon is assigned to field problems that require finding and observing the ‘enemy’, without being detected. If contact is unavoidable, we are to utilize ‘big guns’, helicopter gunships, or fixed wing (jets), to kill all we see. If possible, we are to capture a prisoner for interrogation.
There are at least seven or eight men in a Recon team; sometimes there are more, but not more than 15 men; the smaller the number, the better to hide, but more vulnerable.
Our usual equipment is: two radios, a machine gun, shot gun (close order), a variety of ordinance (personal distribution), and a personal M-16 full-auto rifle, including me. The importance of putting out as much firepower is paramount when a team is discovered and assaulted.
If I have no mail, or moved to write a letter, I seek out the company of a few Marines with whom I could share a beer. Many Marines, are too young to drink, believe it or not, that ‘rule’ was still in effect in camp. I have to chuckle to myself at this decorum. Okay, that meant more beer for those of us who could drink. However, I was soon to learn that two beers are the limit! Intoxication was not tolerated nor was it going to be encouraged by unrestrained sales. The club operators are tasked to guard this code closely.
“Today I was surprised with the discovery that I had two letters!! Oh gee, I am so glad that I got them. Your daily accounts are marvelous! I am so glad that you wrote them in your usual style. In your accounts, you expressed a great deal of activity in Rochester. I am glad that you had a good time.”
(I had forgotten, during my staging in Okinawa, then relocation to Phu Bai, Lorette was making her way back to Exeter in a slow manner, as she was visiting my relatives!)
“I was tickled that you made these little news reports in your letter. I was bent over with laughter; I seldom get an opportunity to laugh around here.”
“I have been rising at 0630 hrs every morning lately. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d get back in shape.”
“The mailing address, for the books I asked you to correct, is for the Classics Club. The invoice, for the books, will come shortly. probably arrived later than usual, because they had them coming to Lejeune. They will eventually show up at your address in Exeter. My books that you receive, let me know, because some of those posted I may not be interested in keeping. They can be returned at the time the invoice arrives.”
“Please ask your dad to buy a bottle of Black Berry Brandy for me. To mail it, pack it in popcorn or cookies to get it here without breakage. These tropical nights are very cold, and damp. Need I say more?”
“Like a numby, I left my address book in my dress green trousers before leaving Okinawa. So, I need some addresses, Lorette, any from your address book will do fine. The folks that come to mind are those we visited recently, as we traveled across the country. I’d really like the Hayes’ address.”
“For Christmas – actually after Christmas – I received a bag of goodies from the Denver Red Cross and best of all, I received a little yellow handmade stocking with some hard candy, bubble gum, soft candy, and a pencil scribbled note from a little girl in Illinois! I was moved to write her, and her class a note in return, which I have done, ha, fun! I think the gesture was a class project.”
“I just had a hulluva fight with a little tin of hard candy. I eventually won that fight to finish this letter.”
“If I might make a suggestion, assuming that you might send cookies sometime, don’t send thin, brittle cookies because they do not arrive intact, but powdered! In this condition, they become discarded.” I got a box of cookies from one of my sisters, and the box showed signs of rough handling. There were multiple additional tapings to secure the box integrity. I opened the box to discover a few crumbs of cookie debris and a letter. Ha, ha, ha, it was a comical moment in anticipating something delicious. I had an audience awaiting the revelation of the content. I thought the box seem to be very light.”
“So, be advised I particularly like Oatmeal, Molasses, or Devil food Cookies. Rice Crispy bars are delicious too! Oh, Lipton soups, small 8 oz canned soups are very good. Any variety will do tomato, bean, Italian minestrone for example. Some French bread would be good with canned Spam. Yum-yum! Darling, I got to stop this line of thought, because I am getting feeble with hunger!”
“I know there is something else I should remember to write, but I can never recall it until I’m walking over to chow, or something. While I was walking to chow earlier, the blowing, sleety rain would have soaked me through if I wasn’t wearing my ‘rain-suit.’ The rain-suit is a lightweight, rubberized material with jacket and trousers. When I am in the ‘bush’, I wear it at night to keep body heat next to my body.”
“Incidental to that fracas over Christmas, Senator McCarthy can go to the ‘devil’ if he thinks stopping the bombing is going to bring the North to the Peace table anytime soon. These ‘little people’ are in for the long haul and for keeps! If we let these ‘bastards’ loose, teams, like mine, will be committing suicide taking to the ‘bush’ without heavy firepower backup. This past Christmas and New Years were supposed to have been ‘peaceful’ – like hell! One team was destroyed. Also, a few days ago five small village support units were destroyed! Why, it is because the peace-talkers, in the States, put the bite on us, to not fire unless we were fired upon first. Isn’t this a bunch of B.S.!”
“Ha, ha, ha, My little Darling … Donnez mon amour à vos familles, s’il vous plait? Ma Chérie, me rappelez a Dieu. Votre Petit Paul.”
Phu Bai, 03 January 1968 – “Ma Petite Femme, I spent a relatively quiet New Year’s Eve in the ‘bush.’ I greeted the New Year with some hot clam chowder soup (out of a can). During on of our night watches, while in Harbour-site, I scared the shit out of myself! My foxhole mate had just awakened me to assume my share of the watch. The night was pitch black! I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. As I was shaking the sleep from my head, my foxhole mate was giving me a sit-rep (situation report). I think I heard some of it, as he was rustling his poncho to wrap-up in against the chill of the night. I thought he told me there are bad guys moving in our area! I was straining to see into the black of the night, believing I was seeing movement to our immediate front. I was straining to see movement and to hear sounds of that movement. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry of spit. The more I stained the harder it was to see, less and less. My foxhole mate was continuing to make nesting noise until I finally found the words to tell him to keep quiet. He poked his head out of his poncho to inquire, ‘Why?’ I replied, ‘didn’t you tell me there are bad guys in our area?’ He retorted, ‘No, DOC, not our area but several clicks from here.’ I started to shake and realized that had I been unable to find the grenade I pulled off my harness. Rocking forward, I got my leg off my M-16. Had these items been more handy, there may have been a lively wake-up for my team members!”
“That was the one and only time I was scared spittless!”
“It was cold and wet throughout our two days stay. Our observation was relatively inactive, but under watchful eyes, we received an occasional harassment from the enemy. One Marine suffered superficial wounds from a grenade. We were extracted by armed helicopter. Also, the New Year brought death news and many tears to folks back home…Somewhere.”
“Not far from our own position, another Recon team was destroyed except for two men. The deadly firefight, that took out most of TARZAN on their insertion LZ (landing zone), we were in Harborsite (campsite) with another Recon Team, at the time of the firefight. We could hear the sounds of small arms from our location. SANDBOX PL (Patrol Leader) requested permission to go to their assistance. The request was denied. That night was a high alert night, with Claymores (large fragmentation mine—electronically triggered) out and two men per watch. Some movement was detected in the morning. PL asked for a gunship to scope out our area as we were surrounded by thick scrub trees and ‘elephant grass’. Not to long after the call, two gunships showed up and fired our RLZ (Recon Landing Zone). That was exciting, as branches and leaves came off around our perimeter, as rounds from the machine guns whacked through the trees and grass.
We were extracted later that day. One of the dead in TARZAN was a Corpsman (this Corpsman was one that volunteered with me to come over to Recon. He was married with two children), another was a sergeant, whose wife is due to have a baby; he bunked with me and a few other Sgts. I didn’t know any of these team members very well. The sergeant’s here, in my hootch, are getting the man’s gear together to send them home.”
“This is only the second time a team has been destroyed in the ‘bush’ from this battalion. Being only eight men in a team, there is little chance of them holding off a large enemy force, with superior firepower.”
“I think I may have told you that this battalion is moving north. Up where the enemy elements are even more numerous. In any event, the teams are fairly well supported, as I mentioned how I spent Christmas. This last team loss was a most unfortunate incident.”
“OK, don’t worry, Lover… I’m a tiger in the ‘bush’.”
— My first month and a half, In Country, has been a busy and bloody one. My eyes were opened and my resolve to survive this hellish fight has deepened with each foray into the ‘bush.’ I don’t intend to be a ‘hero.’ I do intend to do my duty, as best I am capable.
Phu Bai, January 1968 – “My Darling ‘Little Wife’, I found these quotes in a magazine, ‘… and then I asked her with my eyes to ask again, yes, and then she asked me would I, yes … and first I put my arms around him, yes, and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts, all perfumed, yes, and his heart was going like mad, and yes, I said, I will, yes.’ By James Joyce
“Very beautiful, and typifies our particular coincidence of love and marriage. The following also holds true … ‘We shall be one person.’ Pueblo Indian Yes, Darling, I am telling you I love you as deep as the deepest ocean … fresher than the lightest breeze … stronger than the hardest steel … and more lasting than life itself! Vous être une bonne amoure – je t’aime, ma petite femme!!”
“By candle-light, I continue my message … this week I am to enjoy a Sunday in garrison! Monday, my team returns to the ‘bush.’ I really don’t mind the ‘bush’ in spite of the danger. I suppose it’s the adventure and the challenge it presents to the individual! I have a growing interest in my artistic ability among my Marine associates. I have begun to make a little money! However, most of my work has been by request, thus, it has a tendency to be a bit lewd! Oh well, such is the appetites of most individuals over here … Pay-day, R&R, women, and the folks at home … the war, in that order.”
“Milk is always a shortage over here … gasp! Cold, it hits the spot!”
“Who is the slayer, who is the victim? Speak!” Sophocles
Phu Bai, 08 January 1968 – “I read your letter of January 02 again to reset my mind to any questions you might have in regards to my situation here. It rains lightly today, as my team and I prepare for an ‘Insertion’ maneuver. Today we are to report to the helo pad for lift off to the ‘bush.’ However, I got the word that our trip has been delayed until sometime tomorrow. It is not unusual for ‘Insertions’ to be postponed due to various snafu’s.”
“(To my brother in-law, Glenn this letter …) I don’t know what you remember of Okinawa, or if you spent anytime at all there, when you were with the Navy, when I was in transit, at Fort Hanson, I had one night liberty to go out side the gate to a little town for some relaxation. The preparations for Vietnam get a little intense at times.”
— Nobody has my address, so no mail is coming in to distract me from the busy activities of the day. Yeah, there are down times too, that weigh more upon my mind, because only my thoughts of the possibilities play with ones psychology. I’m trying to psych myself for this ‘adventure’ to keep my cool.
“On or about December 18, I was in Da Nang, RVN. It is a surprisingly well-established base with a very active receiving center, where personnel are coming in and/or going out. I presume this will be my exit point in about 12 months! Rains here off and on, so it is either really dusty or really wet. Just before I arrived, in Da Nang, it had rained but as I pad about, the sun is up and real hot, so the ground is pulverized to a fine red dust, that clings to everything. Not too long of a stay here, I was trucked up to a place called Phu Bai. I guess Recon was once well established in Da Nang, during ’66 and ’67. Phu Bai is the next jumping off site for Recon duties of the Northern climate. Oh, yeah, I am not with an Infantry unit per say. I volunteered for this duty assignment for personal reasons. As I stood in the large room from which assignments of personnel are made, I realized that I was one of the most experienced Corpsman of the lot who just arrived from Stateside!”
“Upon arriving Phu Bai, a week’s indoctrination followed before I was assigned to a Company for duty. It’s like starting all over again: first I am met with the challenges of military life, then school to learn my ‘trade’, then my first assignment, then the shock of Marine Corps duty and all that entailed, then this … this is not playing games, as I was doing last year. This is for keeps! After a short duty assignment in the Battalion Aid station, I was assigned to a Recon team. I am their ‘medical’ advisor on matters of health and wellbeing. If it comes to the life and death situations, I’m the one on the spot for determining survival or …”
“So, what does a Recon team do? Well, briefly, a team or teams are the eyes and ears of an Infantry Division. A Division has many parts and multiple attachments – Artillery, Air, Mobile units like personnel carriers, tanks, and general transportation of personnel and supply. It has the logistics, intelligence, Medical units beyond what I can do at the Battalion Aid station, and the layer of personnel goes on all the way up to the Generals and the President. I hope it is a well oiled machine when it comes to decisions where the bullets fly!”
“While a Recon Team is in the “bush,’ it is to secure detailed information on the lay of the land, human movement, the kind, the size of structures, type of structures, land elevations, rivers, roads, paths , (the fauna and flora) and the amount of traffic noted. As to human traffic, type, dress, direction of travel, their parcels or carts or whatever is associated with them, so note it. Of course, the number ONE reason we are out here is to note, fix (co-ordinates), any enemy movement, capture a prisoner, and/or kill all in the kill zone. I know this sounds pretty unsettling to read it, but I made my personal adjustments to this reality and continue to do so, as time passes. I have 11 more months of this life, so I am adjusting my psychology to preserve my sanity. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, that’s the tough part of war, I guess.”
“A team is well supported, in its efforts to sustain itself in the ‘bush.’ We have support artillery, fix-wing, chopper gunships, and infantry if the situation demands. The team is lightly armed for a fierce engagement, then escape and evasion becomes necessary while maintaining contact with these support units to get us out of ‘harms way.’ A team is to be inserted as covertly as possible, it moves frequently, and conceals its movement and observational stations for as long as possible to accomplish the mission it was tasked to do.”
“I am an appendage to this small fighting unit. I am absorbed as an armed member of this crew. My ‘medical’ use is secondary to my being just one of the riflemen. I have had experience in infantry with the 2nd Marine Division rifle companies. This is not new to me, or what I carry to the ‘bush.’ What is very different is hunting another human being! My psychology has been to believe I’m on a safari and hunting the most dangerous game in the world. Ha, it reminds me of a story I read in high school, by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game. (I had to check my author because I originally thought it was a story by Arthur Conon Doyle). Well, be that as it may, there is a similarity to that short story and my life right now. The twist that eventually enhanced the short story is the hunted became the hunter, as is my case too. I am the hunter and can become the hunted.”
“I am well outfitted for combat. There are limitations by virtue of the weight and the given assignment. Besides my own food packs, water, ammunition pouches, my medical Unit One, I may carry M-79 rounds (sort of a grenade launcher that looks like an oversized single shot shotgun), a belt of machine gun ammo, a Claymore mine, signal grenades, WP grenade, an assortment of hand grenades, and some rope. There is the other stuff for comfort, but that is kept to a minimum. If I’m dead none of the comfort stuff is any good! I wear no underwear to the ‘bush.’ I dry out quicker if I’m not layered. When it is time to set in for the night that is when I put on layers, because it is damn cold here at night. I put dry socks on at night and remove them in the morning before we start to move to another observation point. I don’t like wet feet. These boots are designed to drain water away from my feet, so I put my socks on at night only. The boots have a textured inner sole that is designed to shed water away from the foot sole. I started wearing my boots around base camp, without socks, to toughen up my feet for the long walks in the ‘bush’. Some guys wear sneakers or some other comfortable footwear in camp, but I decided to toughen the soles of my feet. I shared this exercise with my team members but nobody took up the cause.”
“My chosen weapon is the M-16 rifle. It is a lightweight tool with a little more recoil than a .22 rifle. It certainly does not have the recoil of an M-14! Some Marines prefer the M-14, but I am happy with what I have and am becoming proficient in its accuracy of hitting what I aim at. For my personal weapon I carry about 700 rounds.”
“The Team member with the machine gun (the M-60) does not carry an M-16. He has all the firepower he needs. Each team member carries a belt of ammunition for that tool. Occasionally, a member will bring a shotgun along, for close order fighting, sort of discouraging the pursuit in concealing cover by a frisky bad guy.”
“Firepower is key, when a team is discovered, or finds itself surrounded! The bad guys are as stealthy as our Recon teams. It has been noted that Recon teams have been dropped right in the midst of a heavily armed and angry bad guy camp site! Fighting to get out and get separation has been marginally successful at times. Before I joined this team, it was ambushed and lost a man. On New Years, the team was in the ‘bush,’ and took an enemy grenade in our midst! One man got shrapnel in his arm from that grenade. New Years Day, not far from our position, another team made contact and two Marines of eight survived that encounter. My team could hear the firefight, but we were denied our request to go to their aid! This was a bitter pill to swallow as some of those dead had close friends in my team. Close friendships, I have avoided, due to an admonition I received from a Marine who was part of my In-Country orientation. He made the case to ‘don’t get to know your bunkmates too well, as people are die’n around here.’ So, there are times I feel the loneliness even in a crowded tent. I keep my own council and take refuge in the mail I get from ‘home,’ and the few books I have acquired to pass the time while in camp.”
“Oh, I also apply my artistic talent toward ‘entertaining’ the troops. Only a man, who has been in situations like this appreciates the break from the hype of combat through some artistic illustrations. You see, the C-Rations come in a fairly good sized box and that box is contained in a sleeve of cardboard. I retain the sleeve and use both panels for my work surface. I get around $2 for a work of art and a little more for something more sophisticated. I’ve drawn cartoons and girlie calendars similar to a more famous artist whose work appears in Playboy magazines.”
“My Christmas Eve, and a few more days around that time, my team discovered several hundred bad guys in the open, moving through our area of responsibility. We must have expended a million dollars worth of ordinance during the time we decimated their numbers. The ‘peaceniks’ can go to hell with their speeches, placards and chants. They should see what I see! This so-called ‘liberation army’ is bull shit; they kill their own people in the name of making life better for the herd! Like all other despotic ‘rulers’, the innocence are the first to be sacrificed for the greater glory.”
— I made contact with a former Operations SSgt ‘Steve’ Blakewood, who managed some of the activity among the ‘Bush’ teams in the field during 1967-68. He will explain his duties and how information is utilized:
What exactly did you do as Rep for 3rd Marine Division in Phu Bai, Quang Tri and Dong Ha?
“I remember the call sign “Sandbox”. I was assigned as Plt Sgt 1st Plt, Alpha Co, late September to early December 1967. I went out with Albatross. Doc Sutherland was the team Corpsman”.
“Recon Reps were set up at division headquarters, and all relay stations in the Div AO (Air Observer). We maintained radio contact with all teams of 3rd Recon, while they were in the bush, plotting their locations on the tactical situation map, taking sit-reps at 30 minute intervals with all teams. The purpose being that the Div Commander could see their locations and coordinate with his subordinate commanders, in the present and future operations.”
“We also obtained additional support for the teams in contact: Naval Gun Fire, Fixed Wing, additional artillery support, Med-evac, Emergency Extractions, Choppers transport & Gunship types. This duty consists of various relay stations and net controls, all manned by 3rd Recon members, most of whom had some bush time training. We also monitored 3rd Force Recon Teams in the bush.”
“I personally worked at 3rd Mar Div COC in Phu Bai, Do ng Ha, and 3rd Recon COC (Command Operations Center) in Quang Tri. I worked adjacent to the Division’s Fixed Wing & Helicopter Direction Center Fraggers (assign flights), as well as, the Fire Support Control Center.”
“In 1968, net control was located in Dong Ha, but our 3rd Recon Bn COC was in Quang Tri. This, in itself, was a problem because we belonged to 3rd Recon Bn, assigned by S-3 & Bn Comm Officer (Recon Reps & Communicators). We stood one eight hour watch per day, unless a team was in contact. Then, the control person stays on watch until the team broke contact or was extracted. After the Recon team is out of danger or extracted the next watch takes over. We took a fair amount of incoming in Quang Tri and Dong Ha, while standing watches, especially when the ammo dump was hit several times, in Dong Ha. Some watches were quiet and on some all hell broke loose, when several Teams were in contact.”
“I was on only 5 patrols during my time with 3rd Recon Bn, while in Phu Bai area, the five of which covered Phu Loc -CAP or CAC 5 (village resident Marine combat team location) walk-in/out; both sides of the river running southwest of Hue City, and the last on Co Bi Tan Than Ridge Line, west of Camp Evans.”
“My last two weeks in Dong Ha, my team made several trips by night, in trucks to Quang Tri, to pick up food for the seven of us, as 3rd Marines were on the move to Quang Tri from Phu Bai. We usually ate in their mess tent.”
“This is short and to the point without a lot of details.”
Phu Bai, 10 January 1968 – “Ma Petite Femme, I received your package yesterday, January 09. My team was supposed to go to the ‘bush’, but the visibility was poor for the helicopters. The 11th of January, we will try to get out. Our out-posts are necessary for defense of the Phu Bai area.”
“Lorette, Darling, your letter of the 2nd of January was absolutely wonderful. The women here wear a most interesting dress. I enclose a drawing of what I see about the villages and occasionally on base or along the road. A typical example of the dress is illustrated here. I think it looks beautiful. Maybe it’s the dress or the woman wearing it, I can’t be sure exactly, smile. I am going to look for one to buy for you, Darling. You are just a shade taller than these little women, but their might be a tailor shop around.
Already I note the gradual change in your correspondence, as the little body grows inside you. I am very pleased with the photograph of you and me – you’re very beautiful and radiant, my Dear Wife. I feel the pangs of separation more than ever now, my Love!”
“Incidentally, your primary gift is very aptly considered; however, I purchased one in Okinawa. Indeed, we are on the same wave-lengths of thought. I do appreciate the cool-aid, but no more, please. You see, when the mess hall runs out of milk, they put out the Kool-Aid to serve with our meals. It’s horrible! Thus, it ruins my taste for it. Powdered milk would be greatly appreciated, my Love!”
“I have considered buying a small tape recorder and ask you to do the same, at the AFB Exchange. So that we might be even more close than the printed word. Let me know what you think! I can get a small recorder for about $20.00 here at the exchange.”
“I saw a John Wayne movie last night! It was very good! It was called, ‘El Dorado.’ Amour tout les jours, ma Chérie, Paul”
“Incidentally, packages from home are not selfishly enjoyed. No, too many hungry eyes zero in on the recipient of a package, almost with a drooling stare. The proper etiquette is to invite those in the hootch to share in the booty, all the while, hoping that there will be something left for the recipient to eat.”
Phu Bai, 11 January 1968 – “It’s raining! It doesn’t always rain during the monsoon – everyday — but a good share of the time I’m wet. It’s very cold at night. So cold, my teeth chatter! I would say that it is colder than ‘hell’ over here at night!”
“So far, there are no ‘peaceful’ days. The so-called ‘Truce’, for the holidays, was all bullshit! I had canned lima beans and ham for dinner, and for New Year’s dinner, I had some hot clam chowder – out of a can. To heat anything, a short C-ration can is cut and vented to serve as my stove. Inside is placed a ‘heat-tab’ that once lit burns blue, heats the contents of whatever food I’m going eat warm or hot. This little ‘stove’ is what is left of the container, after it is empty of its contents – pound cake or cheese and crackers. With each C-ration is a small opener device. Also toilet paper, cocoa, coffee, sugar, salt and pepper are included in a box or bag. I use my mess kit spoon, fork, and knife when needed. Not all our rations are C-rations. The ‘Long-Range’ issued food pack is encased in a waterproof bag, with a plastic bag inside with freeze dried meal content. All of the same stuff, in a C-ration box, is in this packet too.”
“Today, my team was shot out of our ‘RLZ’ (Recon Landing Zone), and no one was injured or wounded.”
“Lorette, I hope you are feeling much better, now that you are home, and going to the OB clinic at the Naval Hospital? You suggested that the due date is sometime in August. I believe my termination of active duty will be somewhere around December 13, 1968! Yippii!!”
“I found out that Australia is on the R&R list. Most married men arrange to meet their wives in Hawaii. I don’t expect you would fly that far in your present state. I don’t expect I’ll get a ‘free’ trip to Australia anytime in the future, so I think I’ll opt for this opportunity. I may try for June or July, if possible. I know of G.I.’s that have flown to Hawaii and then hopped a flight to the Mainland, and home to where ever they live, and spent their R&R time with their whole family. That is a very big risk and takes a bigger paycheck than mine to try that stunt.”
— I am going to share with you my conversation with a Marine who accomplished this daring feat:
“John A. Cavanaugh
“John, I read your name among those listed in the Alpha Company Association roster. Thus, the occasion of this letter is to reach out and touch you and yours once more.”
“Perhaps you recall, with some mischievous pleasure, the time you had planned to use the Hawaii R&R as a long shot trip HOME to New Jersey, and an up-close and personal visit with your ‘Honey’. You might ask, ‘why do I still remember this event so well?’ It is as though it happened yesterday, John, as you well know, there was seldom any real light hearted relief from the every-day cloud of deadly confrontation that clung to every RECON team member, as each mission was anticipated and completed. To me, your scheme to leave country and go home, smell the fragrance, and touch the female presence of your sweetheart cut me deeply, as I ached to do the same thing but didn’t have what it was going to take to accomplish what you did. It was like the exhilaration of the GREAT ESCAPE that lifted the spirits of those who celebrated your having accomplished it.”
“John, I want to, belatedly, introduce you to the young lady I had asked you to call, when you got into town. Well, we know that you were not able to make contact, but I still appreciate the effort today. This photo was taken around Easter ’68. We were married September ’67 and by November I was collecting my gear and we headed to debarkation California. I got In-Country December ’67 and assigned to 3rd RECON at Phu Bai, attached to company Alpha and then the terror began.”
Phu Bai, January 1968 – “I have located a tent with hundreds of books of all sorts. This tent has multiple tables with ‘stuff’ on them that has been sent by individuals, clubs, church societies, and service organizations. I found a few books by Michener. One in particular is titled, Tales of The South Pacific. ‘Seabee Luther Billis is an enlisted man who first appears in the story “Dry Rot.” He entertains Joe, the sailor who is stuck on a small atoll, and gets girls back in the United States to write letters to Joe.”
‘Dry Rot’ is one of many stories in the book; the stories are very entertaining to read, during downtime. They are a world away from what I’m living, and at the same time, a kindred connection with my brother Marines of WW II.
“There are cards and letters galore on a table from children from all over the country! They are addressed to any ‘soldier, or Marine. I picked up a few of them to read, and the messages are heartwarming. The other tables are covered with packages of wrapped goodies to eat as well as, toiletries of all sorts. I just happened upon this tent while wandering around the base on my time off.”
“I picked up a magazine, The Family of Man, MACO Magazine Corp. 757 Third Ave. N.Y., N.Y. 10017. This magazine is impressive. There are few words, mostly pictures, but those pictures say many things that the written word cannot reach.”
“Within your womb is the culmination of our love, understanding, and mature knowledge for it to justify its maddening cry of life … the universe resounds. The joyful cry ‘I AM.’ Seiriabin.”
“Sometime in August, with the little bundle nestled to your warm pulsating breast … I shall whisper to myself … ‘and shall not loveliness be loved forever?’ Euripides.”
“Following my eyeing the little ‘Tobin’, I may burst out in words as …’bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh …’ Genesis 2:22”
“As your life and maternal duties give pleasure to your husband’s house, and our children begging your attention, I may recite to myself … ‘She is a tree of life to them…’ Proverbs 5:18.”
“Well, I did it! I spent $440 today. I was wandering around with a few Marines and we happened upon a building that was pretty sturdy of concrete and paint. The floors were polished and had window glass that allowed light into the large room. I bought three suits, a sport coat, slacks, two sweaters, a dinner jacket, a blazer, and a top coat of top grade material … all silk lining of the trousers included and double stitching. This package will arrive sometime in October 1968! I wasn’t intending to make such a purchase, but it came upon me sudden like; and so, if I was to have a beautiful wife, very well groomed, I thought she was to have a well dressed husband! I know it seems like a lot of money, but tailored clothing is not available to me Stateside at these prices.”
“Before you use the movie camera again, I would suggest that you remove the filter. I think that is the frustrating element of our photography efforts. You did say that the folks were impressed by the evidence of our trip. Good! You show evidence of mixed emotions over your job. It’s good that you got it back. I hope that you get into a ‘cheerful’ routine because you sound better happy! You didn’t tell me how Dorrie looked in her Christmas present from us. Why not send me some snap shots of you and the family?”
“I like the tape recording idea! However, I would suggest that when you re-tape have background music playing during your pauses, between thoughts, instead of old news broadcasts. Soft music fills the silence much better for me. Be that as it may, I love you, my dear Lorette, and I am anxiously awaiting your warm voice! Votre Petit Paul.”
— I am going to post an ‘After Action Report’ for an incident that took place on a patrol – The Christmas Truce – peace on the front line! This report is the debriefing each team gives when it is extracted from their Recon LZ. It is not done in modern type. I realize that I have detailed this elsewhere in this document, but I believe the reader will appreciate how a Recon Team’s report appears when it is sent up-line to Division Headquarters.
Every Team is debriefed immediately after they touch down at the Battalion LZ. There is an individual that directs them to the COC and the Patrol Leader reports from his ‘Notebook’ into which he has entered observational material. Each Team member is then asked for his observational data too. “Just the Facts”
Note: I realize this bit of information may not be easily decipherable, to the average reader. I assume that war and warriors are debriefed in much the same way, following an engagement, a village sweep, an air assault, or a neighborhood walk-through. Observational information is vital to follow-up sneak-N-Peek, or a larger operation to be conducted in a given Recon area.
(What appears here is a subterranean dugout of a Vietnam hideout.)
Geography is not what it appears to be, from the air or scanning the ground from a high place. A crop of trees, or a ring of bushes can conceal a well prepared hiding place from which to attack or stow munitions or food.
The maps have a plastic overlay, which designates the insertion point and extraction point. The PL traces the course of the patrol path on the clear overlay to verify coverage of the designated area of observations and points of a harbour-site.
— I may have covered this patrol mission on previous pages above. My correspondence with family and friends discombobulates my train of thought and diary entries. So, if I’ve repeated this adventure it is perhaps to reveal it more clearly, as I force myself to make murky recollections more plain to the reader.
— I am not privy to the discussions or the radio traffic between the APL the PL and COC (“Air-minded”), so my recollections of details are now challenged by what appears in the report I posted above. That being the case, for a few hours during one day, on that hill, an Air Force O-2 Sky Master Cesena worked out for us, as we watched and directed his firepower. He left us at least once to refuel and reload his rocket launchers. On his first pass, to scope the area, he took fire and he returned fire with his M-16!
— He made some close air support observations for us during this contest with the bad guys. I don’t know why his action is not detailed in the final report.
— The most disappointing aspect of this whole exercise is the failure to allow us to complete a fire mission on the last large movement of NVA rapidly moving through our observational area. We easily had an hour of free fire to nail these violators of the ‘Truce.’ After the fact, later that evening, a bomber flew over and dropped five 500 pounders along our designated area. Then, the night was alit with starlight air busts. The canisters were whistling passed our camp site and crashing into the scrub brush and tall grass.
— As indicated in the above report, several twin blade choppers landed and disgorged an Infantry platoon to put eyes on the area of our attention for the past few days. I don’t know what they reported. After about an hour or more, they got back aboard their chariots and took off. We remained to view the quiet scene below until the PL requested we be immediately extracted, as he believed our location has been compromised. Within a few hours, our chariot arrived to lift us off and back to base camp Phu Bai. I was tired, dirty, hungry, and looking forward to decompress with some mail!
— Lorette and I began to record messages on tape, in early January. I suggested it last year, while I was on the Caribbean cruise. The whole system seemed expensive, at the time. Lorette and I bought identical systems to remain compatible for mailing tapes and listening to them. I recall one taping session; Joe came in the hootch singing the Marine Corps hymn. I invited him to say a few words to Lorette and then it occurred to me Joe tells a funny story about his father. Joe is from NY and of ‘mixed’ blood. His father is Italian and his mother is Irish! He told the story to Lorette, and it is captured on tape. I have not listened to it for many years. We have moved several times since Vietnam, I’m not sure where that valued tape might be.
— FEBRUARY – Quang Tri 1968 – Towards the end of January the remaining elements of 3rd Recon Bn, loaded up on trucks and moved up river to a place called Quang Tri. Let me provide a little history:
Quang Tri and Thua Thien, the northernmost provinces of the Republic of Vietnam, are more than 450 miles from Saigon, the capital. They are bordered on the north by the demilitarized zone, on the south by Quang Nam Province, on the east by the South China Sea, and on the west by the mountainous Laotian frontier.
Except for the narrow piedmont coastal plains, the terrain is dominated by hills and the Annamite Mountains. The highlands, characterized by steep slopes, sharp crests, and narrow valleys, are covered mainly by a dense broadleaf evergreen forest. Most of the peaks are from 4,000 to 7,000 feet high, but some rise above 8,000 feet. The narrow coastal plains flanking the highlands on the east are compartmented by rocky headlands and consist of belts of sand dunes and, in areas where the soil is suitable, rice fields.
From a military point of view, operations were most affected by the rugged, forested mountains and hills, and the seasonally flooded lowland plains with their dense pattern of agricultural features. It was in the canopied forest, steep rugged mountains, dense undergrowth, and jungle along the demilitarized zone at the Rock Pile, Khe Sanh, and A Shau that much of the heavy fighting was to take place.
Weather played a dominant role in operations-particularly during the Tet offensive and subsequent operations at Khe Sanh and A Shau. The northeastern coast of South Vietnam and the adjacent Laotian panhandle are under the prevailing influence of a monsoon climate characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons.
Transportation facilities in the region were poorly developed. Only one all-weather road, Route 9, connected the coast of Quang Tri province with the western mountains. In Thua Thien an extremely primitive road, Route 547, ran south and west from Hue into the A Shau Valley. The major north-south road was Highway 1, which ran north from the port of Da Nang in Quang Nam Province through the Hai Van Pass to Hue. From Hue the road continued north through the towns of Quang Tri and Dong Ha to Gio Linh, almost at the demilitarized zone, thence on into North Vietnam. North of the Hai Van Pass there were no all-weather ports. (Map 1).
The war in Vietnam was a fluid one with no front lines. The enemy was tough, versatile, tenacious, and cunning. He possessed strong entrenchments in the villages, mountain hideouts, and jungle redoubts. He was difficult to find and identify.
The composition of the U.S. military forces opposing the North Vietnamese was heterogeneous. The U.S. Marine Corps units were the first committed. As the enemy threat developed, U.S. Army artillery units were deployed north to reinforce the Marines. The artillery was followed by other tactical, combat support, and combat service support elements, including a chemical smoke generator company. These, like the artillery reinforcements, came under operational control of the commanding general of the III Marine Amphibious Force. The U.S. Navy provided logistical support for the marines from the sea as well as along the inland waterways. Air operations were undertaken by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Vietnamese Air Force while the Army and Marine Corps furnished helicopter units.
Okay, that is all the history I can stand to expose the reader to, at this time.
Phu Bai, February 1968 — Writing to my brother in-Law –
“Movement up to Quang Tri province and the Combat base, yet to be built, was a day long project. I was among the advanced party. This past week or two, I have been helping set up Battalion Aid Station. When not so engaged, I’m working with a dozen Marines digging a depression in the sandy soil and then filling sandbags to build a perimeter around the depression. This move to Quang Tri is an intermediate base camp along the coast of Vietnam, between Huế and Đông Hà. The Marines are consolidating their influence to the northern “I” corps of operation. I’m presuming that Recon is no longer operating out of Da Nang or Phu Bai.”
“This base camp shares real estate with an air strip the Seabees are building. Lately, the air strip has been getting 120 mm rocket hits from somewhere beyond our perimeter. The rockets whiz over our heads, on there way to the Seabee compound. Now and then there is small arms fire, not far from where we are located, but we have taken no casualties. However, the Seabees have had multiple casualties; they’ve really had it bad.”
“We have made much progress, in a few days, to build up our camp area. The CP is well established and the various platoons and squads have built sandbag fortifications for defense. Because our perimeter is lightly secured, the battalion has various teams designated, each day, as Rapid Action fire teams. If we should be assaulted, the designated team is first into action, while the rest form up in support.”
Quang Tri, February 1968 –“We have been in residence here for about a week, and a strange event occurred, I never thought I’d experience for real. Head Quarters Company got a new CO, from Stateside. He apparently assumed stateside uniform decorum could or should be enforced here, during this kind of work detail. He let it be known, he wanted proper uniforms worn at all times, unless so designated to be different. Some HQ personnel have been ‘In-Country’ a long time. They have been rotated from their former company areas to HQ for lighter duty before rotation back to CONUS. One dark, moonless night, my mates and I are sit’n on our sandbag wall, smoking cigarettes and tell’n stories. Bang! … Bang! We hear these muffled explosions within our perimeter, in the company area! The alarm goes off, the Reaction Team gathers to repulse an attack! The rest of us, lock and load our rifles and hunker down for a general order. Very soon, some shouting occurs and a call for ‘Corpsman Up’, so I start to move, through the dark toward the noise of activity, when someone meets me along the way to say, ‘it’s covered ‘DOC’, go back to your hole.’”
“Apparently, a Marine did not like the new uniform orders of the day, and fragged his CO, and two office personnel in the bunker with him. The culprit set off the alarm by exploding one grenade, and when all personnel went to their respective bunkers, he tossed in the second grenade that went off inside the bunker. All three were wounded by shrapnel. The CO was med-evaced out to Da Nang the others were tended locally. The Quick Reaction Team cornered the culprit in a cemetery near our perimeter, and took him into custody on suspicion of being complicit or the actual offender. I don’t know the final out come of that scenario, so I will not speculate. I have heard the scuttlebutt, which is always reliable (roll of eyes).”
“Another evening, without moonlite, the U.S.S. New Jersey pumped some heavy rounds over our heads. At first, one could here the muzzle blast in the distance, followed by a sound of whissssh, and a light red trail behind a glowing round on its way to wreck havoc somewhere in the hills some distance from us. One can assume the rocket location was found and the Navy is delivering some pay-back.”
— A light rain makes the ground around us sloppy, as foot traffic chews up the sandy soil. To provide facilities for urination, four or six inch diameter tubes are driven into the ground. These are about knee high to capture expelled urine. After 200 men use these things, the water table will only allow so much more liquid, before the soil is yellow with a frothy appearance.
— The solid waste is captured in 20 gallon drums, cut off at about two feet. They are slipped into a base compartment under a 2×4 ‘Out House.’ The structure is a miniature of our hootch’s and can seat four Marines, side by side. Fortunately, we don’t have to use catalogues, comic books, or newsprint for toilet paper! The “shitter” burn detail pulls the drums out, periodically, and burns the content with fuel assisted fire.
— Our showers are elevated about 8 feet on 2×4 supports for a full sized 20 gallon tank filled with water. The sun heats the water all day, so that when in use, the shower is refreshingly warm. Bring your own soap, shampoo, towel, and tooth brush you are good for that day. There is a stall-like barrier with a palette flooring of about 4×4 area to stand on so one’s feet are not in mud. The drain-off is adequate for multiple showers without forming a lake around the shower unit.
— There is always activity going on around the base camp as my Company gets settled into its new location. Once defensive positions are established, when not attending to their immediate defensive needs at their sleeping areas, strengthening the outer perimeter is an on-going job for various platoons. Two Sgt’s pictured here are busy at work building a sandbag perimeter around the CP tent cavity. Sgt Max O’Cannas, without the cover, took many photos of this endeavor. Note the CP tents in the background. They have yet to be sandbagged. There is a short grass covering a sandy soil all around the area. Foot traffic wears it down to nothing in a few days.
— On a daily basis, there are always teams, like the one below (top of page 234), waiting for choppers to convey them to their jumping off grid to Recon for bad guys and suspected hideouts and troop traffic. Some darken their faces and exposed flesh; all have been to the armorer for their ammunition and ordinances. The teams assemble at an area designated as the lift-off site, near the operation center of the Battalion. One can see the birthing area in the background. There are several teams ready in this area today, as the reader can see a group in the background awaiting their turn for insertion. Some days, the available birds are occupied elsewhere, while the teams wait all day or are asked to stand-down. The picture to the right (below) is the armorer’s shed for disbursing of ordinance and ammunition.
Quang Tri, February 1968 – “Good morning, my Charming Petite Femme!”
“It isn’t an especially good morning here, in Quang Tri province, near Quang Tri city, on a military base 8 miles from Đông Hà, and just a few more miles from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)! How’s your morning? I am sending you this ‘bill’ I got in the post, from a book company I subscribed to, before leaving Camp Lejeune. It finally caught up to me and I am unable to satisfy the request to pay it without a post office from which to get a money order. So, I’m sending it on to you to resolve. The services of Post Office and Navy Exchange are a long way off from being established under these primitive conditions. The Battalion has been here two weeks now and we still don’t have lights or refrigeration! Ha, ha, the hardships of a warrior, eh?”
“That ‘little bundle’ is really put’n a strain on you, huh? Gee, Honey, can you ‘hack’ five more months? I love you, my Dear! I love you, with each passing phase of the growth within you. ‘I have returned to the womb, in a sense. I am nearer to you now, than ever before – take care, my Love. Endearingly, Paul”
Quang Tri, February 1968 – Mom and Dad, “for the past week or two, I have been helping setup the Battalion Aid station, and fortify the Recon Base camp near an air strip. The Battalion has move from a base in Phu Bai, a base south of here. Lately, the air strip near us has been taking a beating from 120mm rockets fired from a concealed height beyond our perimeter, in the hills that surround us. The Seabees are working through the mayhem while taking casualties. Now and then, along the perimeter, small arms fire is heard. On one evening, when skies were clear and the air warm, I watched an aircraft called, “Spooky,” work out over the air strip perimeter. Apparently, a large force of bad guys was assaulting the perimeter wire. Spooky is a Douglas AC-47D Spooky aka ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon.’ The name comes from the long trail of red tracers that light up the line of fire when guns are fired at a ground target.”
“The plane is pictured at the far left and in the picture on the right can be seen the red-yellow line of tracers impacting the ground in a circular red-yellow pattern near the middle of the photograph. It is harder to picture than it is to witness. It is awesome. Imagine.”
“The perimeter of the air field seems to draw more night activity than our perimeter. I guess taking on a bunch of Marines is just not tempting enough to try an assault. That’s Okay with me. The Seabees have been catching hell often, since we’ve been up here.” (These photos were not available for the letter detailed in 1968)
“Well, I haven’t had a beer or seen a movie since leaving Phu Bai; tough duty huh? There’s no refrigeration, or electricity … as yet. I suppose when I hear the roar of the huge generators the Seabees or Marine construction crews will begin to string some lights for us inside our CP tents. Civilization is breaking out around here as I got a nice warm shower, via a solar heated tank. The base will look much like Phu Bai in about three months.”
“Quang Tri (the base) is about 16 miles form the DMZ (demilitarized zone). Đông Hà, is about 8 miles north of here. That base gets rocket attacked from the other side of the DMZ. It has an air strip too.”
“Recently a Recon team, out of Khe Sanh fire base, was shot up pretty bad. So far, in January, this Battalion has lost 4 Corpsmen killed and 3 wounded. We just got 10 more Corpsmen that are new in this month of February. If the replacements keep coming, and there are fewer loses, in about 3 months I may be permanently assigned to Battalion Aid Station! There is one other 2nd Class Petty Officer in Battalion, who is due to rotate back to CONUS. When he goes, I’ll be senior Corpsman, and possibly out of ‘bush’ duty assignments.”
The remaining text of this letter details all the items that could possibly be sent in a ‘goodie’ box. There are so many, I hesitate to list them all.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to the ‘bush.’ Everybody is saying we won’t be out long because we’ll get shot out of our RLZ (Recon Landing Zone) or shortly after. If such is our fate, I’ll be back for a hot shower, and some smokes!”
“Well, folks, I’ve got to be ready to head for the bunker soon, so I’ve got to put out my candle and get my gear together while I have some light. Bye now! Love, Paul – Your heavy footed American Freedom Fighter, in Vietnam.”
Quang Tri, February 1968 – “Hi all, having shortly returned from a five day patrol, I can honestly say I’m bushed! My team didn’t see any suspicious movement this trip – how to see South Vietnam by foot, join the Navy and walk with the Marine Corps! When out looking for bad guys, on patrol, the team eats two meals a day with ‘C-Rations’ or a ‘Long Range’ packet meal, every second day of rest. Who was it that assured me by ‘joining the Navy, I’ll never sleep in a foxhole.” I believe it was a member of my family, now reading this letter, ha!”
“I haven’t exactly been living it easy, since my unit moved up here to Quang Tri. Just today, I can write this letter by the light of electric power! I got a hot shower just a few minutes ago. It is a curious rigging of American ingenuity: a long fire hose attached to a ‘water buffalo’ (a large tank on wheels, filled with water), which is spouted through a straight piece of pipe with holes punched at intervals.”
“I turned my laundry in just before going out on patrol, to get it washed, and it’s lost! There is a Vietnamese shop outside the gate to provide some trinkets, hair cuts and laundry. The laundry has a curious odor, during the rainy season. The drying agent happens to be burning cow dung. Okay, that covers aftershave or some other American scent that might tip off an ambush. No American toiletry scent is to be worn to the ‘bush.’ It is not often the laundry gets screwed up, but lately seems to be troublesome. The base police closed the most active one due to prostitution and selling distilled liquor, both are contraband. This just happened to the laundry service I turned my stuff into! What the hell!”
Quang Tri, February 08, 1968 – “Wow, I made my first contact with the ‘bad guys’, this morning, close up and personal!
“The team was inserted by chopper and after touch down, we scramble away from the insertion site to separate ourselves from the advertised location by two choppers circling the RLZ.”
“From the RLZ we walk for a few hundred yards, while weaving our trail, so that any chance observance of our RLZ insertion may be concealed. . We stopped for a short pause, in lunch mode, to put some calories in our bodies. The ground is damp, the grass is long tugging at one’s clothes, dragging on one’s boots, and the humidity is a killer of energy and strength.”
“Continuing our course through some open ground, we began to ascend a gentle hill, with long grass. About the time we were thinking of setting up a campsite, a radio message alerted us to a Marine 81 mortar platoon, with Infantry support in our grid. PL made contact to parley and then we made sure they knew where we were and their watch was notified. It was a quiet night and not too cold.”
— The following morning, we are ambulating along the side of another hill, two hundred yards or so, from the mortar platoon, we spotted four men in ponchos, with small fire arms, down the hill from us, near a small creek bed. There are small trees or scrubs along the creek, partially concealing the group. They did not seem to know that they were so close to the Marine mortar platoon. PL radioed the mortar platoon to determine if there is any of there personnel out this far. The response was, ‘that’s a negative.’
— The distance to the suspicious foursome was about 100 yards, plus or minus, and the machine gunner opened up. The rest of us fired a few rounds following the tracer rounds of the machine gun. We can’t be sure of hitting our target, as they faded into the brush. We descended the slope of the hill toward the creek to investigate the area. We found neither blood trail nor artifacts of the visitors.
— We ascended the hill toward its crest, through the tall grass. As we moved increasingly to the crest, we noted a trench-like ditch that followed the line of the hill just below the crest, concealed by the tall grass. Moving along the crest of the hill a sudden movement ahead of us produced a yell from our point man and an automatic burst from his M-16! The signal for ‘hit the dirt’ was given and all froze in place. The PL (Patrol Leader) asked for a ‘sit-rep’ from the point. In the meanwhile, the ‘Tail-End-Charlie’ (TEC) came running up to close up the perimeter of our team Harbour-site.
— Short verbal remarks between the point and TEC revealed the possibility of more bad guys concealed. I lifted my torso up to see over the tall grass, which drew a command from PL, ‘DOC,’ stay down until I tell you to move.’ I smiled to myself and nodded in agreement. As was detailed to the PL later, the (TEC) lay down along the edge of the trench, and peeked over the edge, looking up toward the crouching point-man. He was moving toward the edge of the trench too. As the Tail-end looked in a single shot was fired, in his direction. When he tipped out of the line of sight, he dropped the muzzle of the shotgun in the trench and pulled the triggers. ‘BLAM!’ The point-man jumped up and gave a burst from his M-16 into the trench as the second bad guy raised his arm to fire his pistol. At this time, I heard a rustling of the tall grass to my left. It sounded like someone was running through the grass. I assumed we were going to be enveloped. I rose up on my elbows and put a burst into the area, to my left waist high. PL shouted a command to desist and asked, ‘what are you shooting at?’ I told him what I heard and he repeated his former admonition to ‘stay down until I tell you to move, alright?’
— There were voices at the edge of the trench and then PL called me up to him. I looked into the trench and saw two men, in khaki shirts, shorts, boot-like footwear, and helmets lying at opposite directions – chewed up by the shotgun blast and the burst from the M-16. PL asked me to get down there and see if either of them is alive.
— The first guy I reached for had his head cavitated by the shotgun blast. Half his head, all of its contents was gone. I pulled him free of the second man. I asked one of my team mates to jump down and help me pull the second man up on the edge of the trench. When the body of the bad guy was lifted up on the edge of the trench, red frothy foam is exhaled from his mouth and nose in a grunting effort to breath. This indicated to me that this man was drowning in his own blood. As I examined his torso I noted multiple puncture wounds from the shotgun blast, and a ragged penetrating wound under his left arm. He was still attempting to breathe through short gurgling gasps. These are the death throes of his last attempt at breathing.
— PL comes to me and tells me to get him ready for transfer. I look up at PL to announce that ‘this man is dead.’ He tells me to wrap him up and get him ready because the chopper is on the way. I explained to him that ‘my reputation is on the line here and this man is dead.’ He looks down at me, and says, ‘DOC.’ this man is our ticket out of here, so wrapped him up and get ready for the chopper.’ By the time I have a large battle dressing wrapped around his chest, the chopper is hovering overhead, dropping its tail down, rear door opens ready to receive the patient. I looked into the open rear door cavity, and saw a helmeted Corpsman, ready to help us haul the patient into the helicopter. Two of my teammates push the patient up onto the back door and he is dragged inside the helicopter. The chopper lifts off and we are left standing in the trench amidst the bloody carnage of the remaining corpse. I looked at PL shaking my head in disbelief, shrugging my shoulders at what we just did.
We mugged with the dead corpse for the cameraman, one of our team members, and then we briefly checked the area to determine the direction the first bad guy took to escape. Two bad guys got away during the shootout. The two in the trench were dressed in khaki type uniforms. Each had Chinese made pistols and assorted equipment. The APL and PL searched the dead guy and kept his satchel to bring back to base. The one med-evaced was searched too. We saw no traces of any other bad guys in the immediate area. It appears to me, we were ambushed! Our Point man took the initial action – We got our ‘shit’ together – two kills today. As I think back on the Chopper coming to relieve us of our patient, I have to admit ‘the operation was a success, but the patient died!’
Quang Tri, 15 February 1968 – “My Dearest Wife …
“I just returned from patrol up around Khe Sanh, I want to set down some amusing thoughts that I had while I was sitting in the ‘bush.’ Incidentally, it was damn cold out there too! I thought of how wonderfully warm and cheerful your household was at the time of my first visit about this time, two years ago.”
“I had some amusing images as I thought of your pregnancy. Your cups will runeth over! The more the merrier!” (I had to edit the thoughts due to content).
“Another thought I had, gazing out over the picturesque valley before me, was of San Francisco, I must have walked your little legs off! At that time, I really didn’t think about it, when we were trying to catch the bus to go to the Airport, you must have been nearly running to keep up with me – I really am sorry about that! I hope the pace of life for us is a bit more relaxed and not so frantic in the future! I love you, Lorette!”
“On this trip to the ‘bush’ there was no activity upon which to report. We saw no suspicious movement –none at all— as a matter of fact! We spent five days humping through tall ‘elephant’ grass, across rivers, through mountains, and thick – almost impossible –underbrush! I believe that I have lost about 15lbs. It’s almost lunchtime, I believe I shall close for now and go and get some of it.”
“Back again to finish up this letter. It is the first time I ever reflected upon you at length, while I was in the ‘bush.’ It makes me quite lonely; and antagonizes my patience with regards to this ‘war.’ All my deepest love for you, Darling, and to your mother, dad, Doris, and all who hear you read this letter. Paul”
— This same day, I also wrote a letter to my Aunt and Uncle, with whom I visited prior to my departure for Boot Camp, back in January of 1965. Their son, Willard, was in hospital at the time, recovering from an auto accident. Their younger son, Steve, is deployed somewhere ‘In-Country’ with the Air Force. I am responding to their letter and a ‘goodie box’ they sent to me.
— I wrote about the firefight my team survived on Feb. 8th. I thought, ‘what the hell’, the folks back home are getting a blow by blow from the news outlets! Besides, my Uncle is a hunter and fisherman, so he might take the images better than my Aunt. When I first began writing home, I was a little more careful, but lately not so much.
— I assumed they had all the details of the TET Offensive that murdered a bunch of civilians in the various cities and villages. “The psychology used by the NVA in motivating their young troopers is that the Americans are whom they are fighting. When these troops entered the cities to fight only Americans, they found they were also fighting members of their own race too. The effectiveness of the ARVN soldier is still debatable. Some are real good and some are a waste.”
— I attempted to give them some comfort as to what I thought Air Force duty would be like, if Steve was In-Country for duty: “…it’s not very likely that he will see any combat because Air Force doesn’t go into the ‘bush.’ He will probably enjoy movies, hot showers, good chow, cold milk, beer and sleep in a warm rack at night. For the Air Force it’s fairly good duty in Vietnam.” I could not know for sure, but guessing is just as good as knowing, when one reads how the News media is relating the Vietnam war, to the common folks.
— I related how well “Bill” treated us when Lorette and I visited him in San Francisco, before my deployment to Vietnam. “He couldn’t have enjoyed our company more than we enjoyed visiting him and San Francisco! He was an ideal host. We also talked over good times and old times too. It has been a long while since we got together. He has recovered well from his automobile accident! That was the last time I believe I saw him.” I closed my letter with some speculation that I might try to visit him before I fly back east next December. I told them of Lorette’s pregnancy and the happy home-coming with a baby in her arms!
— Camp Carroll, February 1968 – We hitched a ride on a truck to our RLZ along a road some distance from Camp. We disembarked, gathered up our gear and walked about a hundred yards or so off the road into rolling hills and short grass. There were some scrub trees some distance from our intended Harbour-site.
— The team deployed into a 360. Some of our members were breaking out some chow, as we set a longtime at Camp Carroll before it was decided we could not fly out to our RLZ. The option was to truck us part way and walk in from that point.
— I dropped my pack and before I broke out chow, there was a duty I had to perform first. I looked around for my patient and opened my Unit One for Penicillin, swabs and a syringe. I called out to my patient, a young Marine who needed to have me continue his medical treatment while we are in the ‘bush.’ This young man just returned from R&R in the Philippines. He acquired a ‘gift’ from one of the young ladies he consorted with and I am continuing his require treatment.
— I called to him to get ready, as I sauntered up the rise toward his shallow foxhole. I got up to him to offer my preparation, bending down toward him, when a loud crack whizzed over my head. He reached up and grabbed my jacket and pulled me down to my knees. The rest of the Harbour-site jumped to and all weapons were cocked and ready. The M-79 man launched a round in the direction of the muzzle sound. PL got on the horn and gave a sit-rip to be told we are in the wrong grid. We are to pack up and get back to the road ASAP! Under threat of further snipping, we gathered up our gear and at the quick retraced our trail back to the road.
— I don’t recall how long we waited but a truck arrived and took us back to Camp for a hot meal and to return to our base camp.
Quang Tri, 19 February 1968 – “My Dear wife … my team was scheduled for patrol but we never got out to our LZ. Bad weather held us up. Today, we may not get out because of a weather hold. However, three teams before us got as far as Camp Carroll. They no more than got on the ground, and the airfield was hit by enemy artillery, wounding one of the team members.”
“I lost one of my company Corpsman yesterday! He and two Marines were killed by a booby-trap. While I am waiting here on our LZ, I’m heating some water for my ‘Long Rang’ snack. Since I’m not going out, I might as well have something to eat while I’m waiting here. Huh?”
“I am anxiously awaiting your ‘goodie box’! I must say, they don’t seem to get here fast enough! Well babe we ARE going out now! Bye!”
“Hi, I’m in my hooch at 2000 hrs! My team didn’t get out after all, rain!”
“I just made $2.00; with pay-day coming up I’ll have lots of extra money with no place to spend it!”
“Sometime ago, about 21 January 1968, I was moved to write many clearly defined thoughts down in my note book. It was a very hot, clear day. I was atop a mountain over looking a plush, green valley, near Hue. ”
Quang Tri, February or early March 1968 –
— The events of this patrol are a little sketchy because I did not include them in any letter diaries that were saved. As I recall, Team Sandbox walked out of Camp Carroll toward a post on the DMZ. I remember looking across the ‘no man’s land’ for some significant reason to be here. Beyond my view are rocket launchers that pound Camp Carroll regularly. On my first visit to that base, I was impressed by the lack of many above ground structures. The bunkers contained all the precious men and material. It is also noted that the mess facility is protected by a deep cavity of steel and sandbags. On any given Sunday the mess provides blue berry pancakes for as long as they last; these are rare treat.
— This particular day we walked out of Camp Carroll to assume our post on the DMZ. The team spent a few days there observing and patrolling from a well established bunker site. A few of us reconnoitered the perimeter and found attached to a gate, a Chicom grenade. I looked at it and saw how simply it was affixed to the gate. I loosened the wire, held the trigger spoon in place and removed the grenade from the fence. I then screwed out the fuse, broke off a piece of wire, and reinserted it into the trigger mechanism to hold the spoon in a locked position. I put the fuse in my pack along with the grenade; a souvenir. Separated the two pieces can do no harm.
— After our three or four day stint, we walked back into Camp Carroll. When making this kind of maneuver, it is imperative the radio contact be accurately transmitted to the perimeter defense coordinator. As it happened, our coordinates were slightly off and we got a mortar round to our flank! Immediately PL got on the horn and corrected the entry point of our team. The all clear message was given.
— As the team walked through the perimeter, there seemed to be more activity at this location above ground than within the base proper. Walking along I notice a Marine who looked familiar to me. I intercept him, on his way somewhere, to discover he is a Corpsman with whom I served with in the 2nd Marines, Stateside! ‘Whitamore,’ I said, and he looked at me for recognition. I was painted up and sweating, so he didn’t recognize me until I told him my name.
— We “glad handed” each other and exchanged some details of our unit assignments. He then related that he’d been In-Country longer than I had, and was wounded at Khe Sanh a few months ago. A ‘Chicom’ grenade blew up in his face, while seeking shelter in a trench from an assault on the wire. He was on perimeter duty with his platoon at the time.
— The grenade blew up and the concussion knocked him on his back and senseless for a little. He was being pulled from the trench, by some Marines, when he discovered he was still in possession of his family jewels and his legs! He received shrapnel wounds to his foot, legs and burns to his chest and face. He was med-evaced out, and eventually sent to a hospital Stateside for recovery, and eventual re-instatement with his unit in Vietnam! He was shocked to get the reassignment notice, as he got his discharge to full duty!
— So, he’s just back In-Country a few days when I happen to meet him at Camp Carroll. At this point in our conversation my team members were yelling at me to get the lead out and catch up with them.
Quang Tri, 11 March 1968 – “My Dear Wife … your letters are wonderful, my Darling. To read your comments on the activity in your womb, the way you express them is warming my heart and a smile is on my lips!”
“Tomorrow, ‘Sandbox’ goes out to the ‘bush’ for five days. We are walking out of Cà Lu Combat Base (Cà Lu was the western terminus of Highway 9) – maybe you have read of it or heard of it on the news; maybe not? It’s quite a disapproving area towards Reconnaissance activity. It is not far from a combat base called, Khe Sanh.”
“I’ll get a photo of my most recent project creation! I painted a sign for Alpha Company CP, as a morale booster! You may enjoy it! Everyone is raving about it after it was posted by the Company Commander, Lt Petty. Of course, I got his permission first, before I invested my time and material in the project. It is my best work to date. Anybody who has a camera is memorializing this board along with themselves and bunkmates.”
“I have received a letter from sister Jeanne the other day! Jerry will be getting his degree in December, lucky guy!”
“Darling, when you prepare the next ‘goodie box’ please reduce the size of the canned goods, as small as possible. It makes lighter weight in my backpack, as I trail through the hills and dales of Vietnam. I love you, Darling. You are taking very good care of me over such a considerable distance. Your loving embrace is so immense and wonderful. I get little thrills of excitement as I think of holding you in my arms again. Je t’aime ma petite Chérie!” (Your heavy footed Freedom Fighter – Vietnam)
— The Recon Teams continue to work the “I” Corps sector from the DMZ south to Quang Tri and west and east, forming a ‘triangle,’ the ‘Iron Triangle.’ Shortly after the photo (above on this page) was taken, I got a ride over to the air strip to consult with an MD as to my hemorrhoids! For the past week I have been having bloody stools with a great deal of pain. The timing of getting a ‘second’ opinion, with a higher rank than my own, has been problematic. I learned that the Seabee’s had such an MD and I took myself over for his consultation.
— I was greeted by an equally ranked Petty Officer asking me my reason for my visit. I explained my situation and my duties. He brought in a young Lt (MD) and he had me strip and lay over a jackknifed table for examination. He then ordered a scrubbing of my affected area, told me one was infected and needed to be lanced. I thought of the Marine who came to BAS on Vieques and I began to sweat! He applied some local topical anesthetic reminding me that it will not take all the pain away.
— He was correct; it did not take all the pain away, maybe just a little. I was given instructions to take some antibiotics, soak my butt, in warm water twice a day, and drink more fluids and eat roughages! I almost laughed, as I gently pulled my trousers up to go back to my Recon nest. These instructions are for an operational area different than mine. I complied with the antibiotics and a couple of soaks, but that was all. I did drink a little more and inquired about fresh veggies. They are cooked. I ate less cheese and more crackers, when I could trade for them. I suppose I get dehydrated while I’m in the ‘bush’ without being challenged by it. I have water with all my meals! One more trip to the ‘bush’ and my ass was on fire.
Da Nang, 14 March 1968 – “My Dear Wife … (My stationery has ‘The American National Red Cross’ across the top) Surprise, you can’t imagine where I am, or what for!”
“I am at NSA – Naval Medical Receiving Center, Da Nang, RVN. I was med-evaced here for a hemorrhoidectomy! Ha, ha! Isn’t that something?! Remember when we were visiting my cousin, in California, before I left, I was having some minor difficulty then. Well, they are really bad now. It got so bad I couldn’t walk comfortably or sit!”
— (I must add an aside here to explain what I did before leaving the company area.) Joe, my PL introduced me to a fellow Marine whom he knew from shipboard duty. Jim was In-Country for Recon training and Joe is his trainer. I think this is Jim’s first patrol! I had a chance to get to know him a little bit here in the Sgt’s hooch. Well, when I found out I was going south for a few days, I spoke to Jim about carrying my Unit One with him on the up-coming patrol. He agreed and I spent a 15 minutes to explain what was in it and how to use a few things that may not be obvious. One item in particular was a Copper Sulfate sponge that needed water to activate. I told him what it was for and how to use it. I was confident Jim would do his best for his buddy, Joe, and the team.
“So, here I am for a next week or so. I won’t receive any mail from you until I get back to Quang Tri. Boo Ho! Oh, woman, these people have it great in comparison to the conditions under which I live. The meals are super compared to Quang Tri! I ‘sat’ in the PX for 3 hrs drinking cold sodas! Yummy!”
“I just thought of something, you will be through nursing that little bundle you are carrying; by the time I get home, won’t you? ‘tis a beautiful sight to behold, mother and a suckling child, (sigh). The Vietnamese women have short blouses and a sling to cradle the little ones to their breast. They lift the side of the short blouse for nursing, and the sling keeps baby close to the breast. They work right along doing whatever their day requires of them.”
“At last, last night I was cradled in soft white sheets on a six inch spring mattress. The whole night was delightful and not a peep from me or my environment. I’ll be able to get that blood type sub-group you requested while I’m in residence here, my little ‘Pumpkin.’”
“When you mentioned that I may expect to be coming home to a ‘new home,’ I began to realize a sense of loss! Not just for the ol’homestead, but the fact that I missed the first apartment you rented. Now, you are in a different apartment and across the street from your Aunt and Uncle’s! Nice move. You will tell me where I might find you, when I get to Exeter? I’ll be home in December and I’ll be all yours … Your Freedom Fighter, from Vietnam.”
Da Nang, 17 March 1968 – “Ma Petite Chérie … I just had a visit from two Corpsmen down from Quang Tri! They surprised me, as I was about to take my noon nourishment. They informed me that ‘Sandbox’ was hit with a booby-trap and small arms fire.”
“Sandbox’ was walking through ‘elephant’ grass and tripped a booby-trap. This action wounded 4 of my team members! My PL, Joe is on his way back to ‘the world,’ his wounds are very serious. The other injured team members are the APL, new guy to the ‘bush.’ That new guy is, Sgt Jim Wood, on his firs patrol, acting as ‘corpsman’ – he did very well, I’m told, with my instructions. The other injuries were minor.”
“Quang Tri Recon area was hit by several rockets. One of the Corpsman visiting me received a penetrating wound of the great toe!”
“I had a foreboding that something like this could happen. We’ve been very fortunate, as a Recon team, to have avoided some dire consequences from our work. I take this leave and shit happens! It would seem your prayers, Lorette, came with me and left ‘Sandbox’ unguarded. I feel some shock and sadness. My love to you, Lorette.”
NSA Da Nang, 20 March 1968 – “My Dear Petite Femme … Ce soir …The turmoil wounds my conscience as I think of my team torn up without me. Now I have wounds of more than conscience but wounds of Faith too.”
“Without the calamity of ‘bush’ life keeping my mind occupied, and my zero tolerance for inattentiveness, I have time to think here at NSA. A Corpsman came in to hand me a card that indicated when Mass and Eucharist would be celebrated! I am ashamed to confess that I haven’t seen a priest since I … can’t remember. I am not prepared to attend Mass nor Eucharist. As a matter of fact, I’m probably not prepared to die! Curious, how the conscience works to guide the feeble spirit gasping for Grace. I make good intentions and then procrastinate, then resolve to do better, and fail in my resolution. When I’m out there, in the ‘bush’, I’m cautious and indifferent to my circumstances. The whole mess gets confusing, at times, and then clarity arrives to make me cautious again and re-examining my thoughts about life and death. Both of these specter’s are always nudging one along one way or another. I must confess that there are times I believe I’m fatalistic in my approach to getting my mind set before a patrol. The battle goes on as the patrol reveals some challenge to life or limb.”
“I don’t pray, Lorette. I can’t find the words. If they are in my thoughts, they are not given voice, if I remember them at all. This is chaos, Lorette, I cannot find the words or the peace to pray when hunting another man. The goal of my existence, as a member of a Recon team, is obliterate the other man (the enemy). Compassion, I think is dangerous out here, beyond the white linen and polished floors. This place (NSA) is real for those that work here. Where I work, it’s hell, and one must find the grit to survive it.”
“Lorette, I live a sort of hypocrisy of Faith. It is difficult for me even to put pen to paper on the subject. I’m having difficulty because of my underlying doubt of the liturgical foundation of Faith. I do not question the philosophy of Christ however. I do struggle with the Papal instructional proclamations that have come down to the faithful, as infallible means of attaining grace, in the guise of the ‘true’ Christ. Much of this struggle has festered through my readings of history; whether they be ‘Reformation’, and its principles, or an analysis of the Crusades from the 10th and 12th Centuries, or from the Dark Ages.”
“Many times I’ve thought to seek discussions of these plaguing problems, but have feigned too little knowledge of either side of the argument to gain a great deal from such an interview. So, I put it off with intentions to study more thoroughly the background of the religious principles with which I grapple.”
“You are aware of the occasions when we have talked, not too deeply or at length, whereby I am actually feeling you out as to your steadfastness in Faith. I hold you in great appreciation for your patience and ability to defend your undoubted Faith. It pleases me that you are so assured of your Faith. I also admire your intelligence in defensive arguments for it. You seem so intently joyous in all things, so that the little things that I do to add to your joy, are dearly accepted.”
“However, I still am not certain of my approach to alleviating dark doubts because my present station is not conducive to serious contemplation. I am only writing this to unburden my mind once again to you, so that I can again retreat into indifference. This is evasion, yes, but there is no other tactic clear to me at this moment. In fact, you are my uncompromising conscience, theoretically. In cases like this, I hope to turn to you to antagonize indifferences of this nature.”
“Only in antagonizing my indifferences do I presumably gain momentum to seek the lighted end of the dark halls of my doubt ridden conscience. You are my only ‘friend’ and companion to whom I shall seek succor to stabilize this mental frustration of mine. Sometime soon, you and I will sit together and talk … at length, and then I will go to another, more profound in these matters, to correct my Church and liturgical aversions.”
“Undoubtedly, the foregoing may not be too clear, but then, I am not always certain of the ‘why’ of my unrest; I just know that it’s there.”
“Darling, I long to hold and caress you, for an hour or two. I pause, almost daily, and mentally hold votre petite figure round, and whisper-touch your warm lips. Oh, the days of long-suffering, may they tread swiftly to their end.”
“Darling, in speaking of days of long-suffering, perhaps we should consider once again the question that I presented in an earlier letter; what will I do before school starts for me? There are nearly eight months before classes begin, that must not be unproductive. Can you possibly endure 17 months without me; including the 12 months that separate us now. The option is open to extend 6 months here, in Vietnam.”
“This is a most difficult decision to make without your truly honest sanction. What advantage there is for us is to increase our allowances in my pay over the next year of service, if I should extend my time here. A 30-day leave allotment granting an open extension, continuance for 6 months the 10% interest, your allotment continuance and the 6 months extension delays to my separation of June 1969. During the 6 months extension, I would be operating in the BAS, more than likely – relatively sure. Darling, I am thinking of you and the child, when I consider the eight months before school starts. However, if you see some other way, no matter what it is – within reason – and you can not accept the separation, then I will do what I can to get something going during the months before classes begin in the fall…”
My endearing Love to you. Love.”
— Da Nang, March 1968 – I am cleared to return to my combat base from NSA. I don’t recall what conveyance I used to get back up to Quang Tri. My recollections are blank as to what course was open to me with ‘Sandbox’ reduced in personnel and the PL and APL med-evaced and wounded. I presume there were replacements. I was no longer used for ‘bush’ duty. I was still on recovery detail from NSA. I believe that the Chief Petty Officer called me over to the BAS to tell me he was rotating back Stateside and I was now attached to BAS for the duration. I remember going into the Alpha Company CP to inform Lt Petty, the CO, of the decision to remove me from Company duties. He gently chided me about getting a Corpsman, like me, trained only to lose me to BN!
THE LAST PATROL OF “SANDBOX”
— I talked to a few people who generalized what happened to ‘Sandbox’ and Joe. (Note: It wasn’t until I made contact with Jim, the APL, in 2002(?), and ‘Captain’ Petty, the CO) that I got the picture cleared up on the ‘bush’ action in March 1968.
— I got hooked up with members of my former team through a venture to a web site, The Few. It was a Marine site that catered to Vietnam veterans. The FMF Corpsman who contacted me, provided a contact who could help me with names and addresses. Through this individual, I was able to locate Joe, Petty and Jim.
— I made a phone call to Jim and renewed acquaintance, and discussed the patrol incident. Jim tells it his way as I may paraphrase what I remember … ‘we were making our way along after crossing a body of water. At that time, or shortly after that, the booby-trap was triggered. The bad guys must have observed our insertion, and just waited us out.’
— ‘The Point must have missed the trip-wire as well as the primary radioman. Joe caught the wire, somehow, and it blew up, igniting his signal canister taped to harness. Shrapnel peppered his legs and the phosphorus in the canister sprayed his face, neck and chest. I (Jim) raced forward to do what I can to attend to my ‘corpsman’ duties. In the meantime, the bad guys on the hill were harassing us with small arms fire, as we retuned fire. I got to Joe and saw what had happened to him. I remembered what you told me about phosphorus burning and what to do to recognize it. I got the Unit One opened and wet down the sponge, you told me about, and spread it over the affected areas and began to pick off the offending material. I used my fingers, DOC, because I didn’t think of using my K-bar. My fingers got burned during this operation. Joe told me to look at his legs because he feels a lot of pain. I got as much of the phosphorus off Joe, and then I looked at his legs and saw a lot of blood coming from his foot and ankle. I pulled his boot off and applied a large dressing. I wrapped it as tight as I could around his ankle and a portion of his foot.’
— ‘We were compromised where we were so we requested a chopper to med-evac Joe immediately. A gunship showed up and hammered the area from where we were drawing fire. The grass caught on fire at that point and two team members and I hauled Joe to the chopper landing to get him out. My hands were burning pretty good so I went with Joe and instructed the remaining team to call for extraction.’
— ‘The chopper set down at Delta Med and Joe and I were taken to the triage area. They stripped Joe, began working on him, and moved me to an adjacent cot. I heard the Corpsman say that Joe had lost a lot of blood and that his ankle was still actively bleeding. The doctor came over and told the Corpsman to pull Joe’s penis out and put a catheter in him. Intravenous catheters were started to replace blood and fluids. Lt Petty arrived to see what was happening to his boys, as Joe was protesting the planned procedure directed by the doctor. They told Joe he will need the catheter to help save his life.’
— I was able to locate Joe’s address and phone number from a Marine web master of Alpha Company Recon – Vietnam era. I called Joe. His bride, Dot, answered to inquire who was calling. I told her ‘Paul Tobin.’ She turned to Joe and said, ‘a Paul Tobin wants to talk to you.’ I could hear Joe in the background, ‘I don’t know any Paul Tobin?’ I then told her to tell him this is ‘DOC Tobin from Vietnam.’ She repeated what I said and I heard Joe exclaim, ‘DOC Tobin!’ I don’t think my first name was known to anyone. We had a very nice conversation and promised to e-mail each other to close the gap of time.
— Following correspondence with Joe, he relates the following, as he remembers it (around March 09, 2002):
“I would now like to tell you that I have no problem talking about our experiences in Viet Nam. I recently, along with some other VFW members, went to schools to talk about the war. I believe it does a lot of good to get it out of your system.
Now, about my eventful day, back on March 14th 1968, the patrol was supposed to start a few days before we actually were inserted. It had been real foggy on the 13th that was one of the reasons we didn’t leave until the 14th.”
“That morning we got all our gear together, and boarded the Choppers for the insertion. When we arrived at our RLZ the grass was long and somewhat concealed our movement. We walked for some distance and arrived at a pond that we needed to cross. I believe we had around 7 to 9 men in the team for that patrol. We all had to cross in canoes, and needless to say, we had to make a couple trips to get everyone over this body of water.”
“After we all got to the other side, we assembled and I had everyone check their gear to make sure they still had everything.”
“I called in for a time check, which by the way was 11:00 A.M., I gave my coordinates at this time too.”
“I told the point man to move out, as we moved forward, I stepped off to follow and that is when I stepped on the mine.”
“I can remember being thrown about 15 to 20 feet. Both my legs had arterial bleeding, the right one being more damaged than the left.”
“My clothes and web gear were on fire, from a phosphorous grenade that I had attached to my shoulder harness. It burned my face and arms up pretty good, but they cleared up reasonably well. I got the radioman over by me and I called for the med-evac, they knew where we were because we had just given them our location.”
“I was out of the field and in the Đông Hà field hospital, within 20 min., from calling in our position. As you know, Woody was our acting corpsman for that patrol and I am very grateful to him, while waiting for the chopper to get us from the field. I believe he kept me alive when I could have very easily been killed. He kept shaking me and tapping my face so as I wouldn’t close my eyes and pass out.”
“From the Field on I don’t remember too much, ‘til they got me to the hospital. I recall them saying that I had lost a lot of blood from the arterial bleeding. They thought they might have to take the right leg off, but thank GOD they didn’t.”
“They got the bleeding stopped, somehow, I don’t remember.”
“I remember the doctors taking me in a room with a big tub and placing me in it. It had some solution that made the shrapnel light up so that they could pick it out of my wounds. When they finished debriding (I guess that is how you spell it HA HA}, they cleaned me up the best they could and put me on the ward with the rest of the guys needing watching.”
“I stayed there for a few days, and then they sent me to the 45th/49th Army General hospital in Tachakawa, Japan, which was just outside Tokyo. I spent about a month there getting antibiotics to fight against any infections I might have acquired, and they changed the dressings on the wounds 3 times a day.”
“I left Japan in April, just before Easter. I flew back on a medical transport, what a ride ha, ha! My final stop was ST.ALBANS NAVAL HOSPITAL in Queens, N. Y. about an hour away from my home.”
“I got here on Easter weekend! That Sunday my Father, brothers, and sisters came to see me. I was in pretty sad shape. I was bedridden unable to walk, and unable to do anything for myself, a very disturbing time in my life.”
“The following Thursday, I got my skin graft operation which, thank GOD, took the first time they did it. A doctor Pollack did the operation, he went on to Oklahoma University to teach plastic surgery, maybe you might have heard of him, being you are in the business.”
“After that, it was a matter of recovering, and to teach myself how to walk again. I was doing fairly well, walking and getting around pretty good. I was getting ready to be moved up state, closer to home at the Veterans Hospital, when I developed a blood clot in my left lung, which prevented me from being transported to the V. A.”
“The clot developed in my right leg and traveled up my right side, passing through my heart, stopping it for about three seconds, and then lodged in my left lung. A couple months more I had to spend at St. Albans, but was eventually sent up to the V. A. where I finished my recovery.”
— Joe was eventually rehydrated with blood and fluids and med-evaced to Japan, then to Stateside. Jim recovered to return to duty and complete his tour.
— My correspondence with ‘Captain’ Petty revealed the following:
(1st Lt Petty) >>>>(small image inset)
“Joe was a favorite of mine; an inspirational and courageous leader.”
“Funny guy too–he used to do rain dances out on the LZ if it looked like the insertion time would be too late in the afternoon—hoping for a postponement until the next day”.
“I remember standing next to the stretcher Joe was on up at Delta Med in Đông Hà. God only knows how many holes he had in his legs and forearms. He had detonated some sort of booby trap. Joe’s face was also badly burnt as the day/night flare taped to the sheath of his K-bar had ignited. There were 4 units of blood and 1 of saline solution flowing into Joe at the same time. His blood pressure and volume was so low that the morphine he had been given in the bush wasn’t effective. Joe was in agony. All I could do was stand by him and rub the top of his head. They changed the stretcher twice because both times they had become soaked with blood. The Drs just kept wrapping ace wraps around his legs to slow the bleeding. Finally the bleeding slowed and the morphine began to take effect.”
“In spite of the seriousness of the situation, I still smile when I remember what happened next. One Dr. instructed a Corpsman to insert a catheter in Joe’s penis to make sure the kidneys hadn’t been damaged. Hearing that, Joe sat straight up on that stretcher and said, “Oh no you don’t!” Well, they did, but only over one angry Marine’s protests. Hey, a Marine can only tolerate so much ya know! We heard that Joe lost one of his feet but never anything else.”
“Losing Joe to such terrible wounds was a blow to Alpha Company. That was one of those times when I just had to seek out a quiet, private place and cry. I hope you’ve found him. I loved that Marine. Semper Fi, Jim”
— Shortly after this correspondence, I was able to report to ‘Captain’ Petty Joe was going to correspond with him very soon. ‘Captain’ Petty was 1st Lieutenant Petty at the time he was CO of Alpha Company. He made the next grade following his assignment to Stateside.