My Vietnam tour, 1967-’68. Cpl. Larry Woolverton

I completed radio school back at Pendleton, went through Staging, which was supposed to prepare you for Vietnam, but didn’t, and I was ready to go.

     We weren’t sent to Vietnam as a unit.  The group of us that took off from Los Angeles that February in 1967 were replacements.  We flew aboard a Continental Airlines 707 with a civilian crew, complete with stewardesses.  I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to fly from L.A. to Okinawa, but I think it was about eighteen hours.  We stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii for an hour, or so to refuel, and were allowed to go into the terminal and get a Coke, or whatever.  Then back on the plane and we were off again.  So, I had been to Hawaii!  Wow!  It was warm. Nice terminal.

     We landed on Okinawa after dark, and were taken by bus to a Marine camp outside Naha.  Camp Hanson, I believe it was.  We were allowed to get some sleep, and the next morning we were assigned to working parties.  My detail cleaned the officer’s quarters.  Officers lived like royalty, compared to the enlisted men.  They had private rooms sort of like very nice motel rooms.

     I was on Okinawa for about a week.  We didn’t have a lot to do, and were usually set free early in the afternoons.  We could pretty much go anywhere we wanted to, as long as long as we didn’t leave the base, and I usually wound up at the Enlisted Men’s Club.  A couple of things stand out in my memory.  After four or five days there, I was broke.  I went to the club one night with thirty cents in my pocket.  I walked in, and to the left was a game room full of slot machines.  I figured thirty cents wasn’t much better than no money at all, so I sat down in front of a slot machine and put my dime in.  I intended to pull the handle three times and go back to the barracks.  On my third and last dime, I hit.  Ten dollars!  Couldn’t believe it! I was rich!  I went into the club restaurant and ordered a bowl of pork fried rice.  I had never had it before, probably never even heard of it, but it sounded good.  It was.  I’ve never had any fried rice that tasted as good as that first bowl did.  The Okinawans really knew how to wok it.

     The next day, being a rich man, I went to the PX and stocked up on cigarettes.  And every night, after work, I went to the club and had my bowl of fried rice. Life was good.

     We took off for Vietnam a couple of days later, and before long we landed at Danang.  I’m not sure what I expected, but Danang wasn’t a bad place.  It was huge, for one thing.  And secure.  We were put in transient quarters and before long, they started sending us off to wherever it was we were going. I was supposed to go to Phu Bai and report to CAC Headquarters, whatever that was.  I got on a C-130, flew up to Phu Bai and reported in.  There, they told me I would be going to a CAC Unit at a place called Khe Sanh.  The problem was, nobody knew where Khe Sanh was.  We looked all over the map and eventually found it up in the northwest part of the country in Quang Tri Province.  Little teeny place next to the DMZ and Laos.  The next problem was how to get there.  We found out that one C-123 flew into Khe Sanh each week and I could ride up on the next plane.  I had a few days to wait, so they sent me over to another transient barracks.  These were the hooches everyone remembers.  They were made of plywood with half screened walls and a tin roof.  There were thousands of them all over Vietnam.  I was issued my web gear and rifle.  My rifle.  A brand new M14 still sealed in the foil wrapper.  It was the only new M14 I had ever seen, and it was mine.  I spent about half a day cleaning it.  They also issued me two brand-new magazines.  Later on I scrounged ten more magazines.  I always carried twelve, figuring you could never have too much ammunition.

     A couple of days later, I climbed into a C-123 and took off for Khe Sanh.  When we got there, I looked out the window and found out why I was aboard a C-123 instead of a C-130.  The place was on a plateau, sort of, surrounded by mountains.  There was a little dirt air strip, a tower, and a few tents and bunkers.  The plane went into a shallow dive and, just before it crashed, leveled off and touched down in a cloud of dust.  The pilot immediately slammed on the brakes and reversed the props to get the thing stopped.  A C-130 would never have made it.  There was one reinforced company of Marines there, Bravo Company 1/9, I believe it was. I got off the plane and thought, “I want my Momma.”  I was told I wouldn’t be staying there, though.  Someone would pick me up in the morning and take me down to the village.  They put me in a tent and left me alone.

     Sure enough, the next morning, a lieutenant and a gunnery sergeant woke me up and told me to grab my gear.  Second Lieutenant Sermeus and Gunnery Sergeant :___.  We got in a jeep and headed for the village.  It was about four miles from the airstrip and it was about as far away from Muskogee, Oklahoma as I ever wanted to be.  Or could be.  It was on Route 9, an east to west highway.  The “highway” was about as wide as a city residential street, and had been built by the French, probably in the 1940's, when Vietnam was called French Indo-China.  It was in such disrepair, that it nearly shook the spot welds out of the jeep.  Actually, it wasn’t really a jeep.  Back then, the jeep all the services used, including the Marine Corps, was the M38, which was made by Willys in those days (I think).  The civilian version was the CJ5.  What we had was a Mighty Mite, which was made by American Motors.  It was a little smaller than a jeep and had an aluminum body and a four cylinder aluminum engine.  It also had four-wheel independent suspension, which isn’t such a good idea for an off-road vehicle.  If you’ve ever seen an old Volkswagen Beetle up on a lift, you’ve probably seen how the wheels tuck in once the vehicle is off the ground.  Well, that may be okay for the VW.  On the Mighty Mite though, if you bounce up in the air, the wheels would tuck in and when it hit the ground again it had a nasty tendency to flip over.  It was unique to the Marine Corps.
 
     The village was about eleven miles south of the DMZ and about three miles east of Laos.  It was a real National Geographic type place, populated by Vietnamese, of course, and some mountain people called Bru, who didn’t actually live in the village, but came there to trade.  They were little people, the Bru were, almost like pygmies.  It seemed like every one of them smoked a little clay pipe and chewed betel nuts.  They all had black teeth from chewing it.  At least the older folks did.  The younger ones had red teeth that later on would turn black.  Very attractive.
 
     We drove through the village to our compound, which was on the east end of it.  Not much of a place.  There was an old building, also built by the French, that was about fifty feet long, facing Route 9.  It had four rooms, side by side.  It was made of stucco covered brick and had a red tile roof. The lieutenant had his office in the far left room.  All the rooms had French doors that opened onto a covered concrete front porch.  The building was also the District Headquarters, and the District Chief had his office in the room next to the lieutenant.  The next two rooms were empty at that time, I think.  About thirty feet back from the gate, there was a bunker with a Browning .30 caliber air cooled machine gun.

     Behind the building, there was a squad size tent which we lived in for the first couple of months.  We soon moved into bunkers, because it had become too dangerous to live in the tent.  About thirty feet behind the tent and maybe fifty feet to the right of it, there was another bunker.  It was pretty good sized and had two rooms.  One room was the radio room, which became my new home.  About fifty feet to the right of the bunker was a barbed wire fence running along the west side of the compound.  About ten feet on the other side of the fence was a Buddhist temple.  There was a path running between the fence and the temple.  As time went on, we learned to hate that temple.  About twenty feet behind the radio bunker, on the south side, there was another separate little compound that was used by the PF’s (Popular Forces).  On the other side of the compound there was a small storage building made out of stucco covered brick and red tile, like the headquarters building.  It was the east boundary of the compound.  The south side of the compound was only a concertina and barbed wire fence facing about fifty yards of open ground.  Beyond that, and wrapping around to the east side, was a coffee plantation owned by a Frenchman who lived about halfway between the village and the combat base.  And that was pretty much all there was.  I never actually stepped it off, but I guess the size of the compound was roughly two hundred feet wide and maybe a hundred and fifty feet deep.  There were fourteen of us Marines there, and about thirty PF’s back in their compound.  I was there from February-something 1967, until January 23, 1968.

     Except for our vehicles, there were only two other vehicles in Khe Sanh.  An old French truck, a Renault, I think, and a Vespa motor scooter.  The truck was owned by the French plantation owner and the Vespa was owned by a Catholic priest, also French, who lived in the village.  Until the French got there and built Route 9, I’ll bet the wheel was unknown in that part of the world.  There were no other roads anyway, only trails running off into the jungle.  They didn’t even have bicycles.

     For about thirty days, while we were building our compound, the only thing we had to eat was chili and rice. Three times a day.  And warm Kool-Aid.  For some reason, we had a hard time getting supplies from the combat base.  I guess they sort of forgot we were there.  Eventually though, we started getting C-Rations, then B-Rations and even fresh baked bread a couple of times a week.  B-Rations were large cans of vegetables, fruits and canned meats, and we could whip up some pretty decent meals with them.

     I saw my first violent death a couple of weeks after I got there.  There were some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers in our compound and a couple of them were cleaning a machine gun.  Apparently, they hadn’t checked to make sure it was unloaded.  There were two quick shots.  One of them had been standing in front of the gun and at least one of the shots hit him.  He had been stooped over, facing it, and the bullet went in just below his collar bone in the front and came out right by his tail bone in the rear.  They carried him over by the radio bunker and laid him down. He was still alive and his buddy was holding his hand and crying.  I called the combat base for a medevac, but it was no use, and everyone knew it.  Our corpsman put dressings on his wounds and gave him some morphine while we waited.  By the time the chopper got there and we loaded him onto it, he was in shock and as white as a sheet.  I doubt that he even made it to the base.

     We spent the next few weeks stringing barbed wire, putting up concertina wire and digging bunkers.  Until we got all the fencing up, and the bunkers built (two more), I didn’t sleep all that good at night.  Fortunately, the North Vietnamese didn’t know we were there yet, or didn’t care.  Nothing happened.

     Khe Sanh Combat base started building up about that time, and before long there was a full battalion up there. 3/26.  They brought in Seabees and lengthened the air strip so as to accommodate C-130's,  and put down pierced steel and aluminum planking on the runway.  The 13th Marines came in and set up.  They were an artillery battalion.  And before long, there were hooches and bunkers all over the place.

     I used to go into the combat base every week to pick up our code books.  They were called shackle sheets.  One sheet per day.  Seven sheets per book.  I rode up and back on our deuce and a half truck when we made our supply run.

     While I was on the base, I would walk over to battalion supply and visit Dennis Walle.  Remember him?  He was my neighbor back in Muskogee.  He was at Khe Sanh up until September or October of ‘67, I think.

     Remember that French coffee plantation owner?  Well, he had about ten elephants to work the plantation.  One day an Ontos was cruising down the road from the combat base.  An Ontos was a tracked vehicle with six 106mm recoilless rifles on it.  Three on each side.  A lot of fire power, but it wasn’t armor plated and the crew had to hang out of the thing to reload.  They were unique to the Marine Corps, too.  Anyway, one was going down the road and the crew spotted an elephant out in the field.  They stopped, turned, and blew it away.  By the way, that is the only “atrocity” I was aware of while I was in Vietnam.  We weren’t the trigger-happy, baby killing rapists the news media tried to make us out to be, but there were a few bad apples.  The Frenchman went storming up to the base and jumped Colonel Lounds, who was the 26th Marines regimental commander.  He was also the base commander.  The Frenchman was hot, too.  And with good reason.  Each one of those elephants cost about ten thousand dollars back then.  Probably about a hundred thousand in today’s dollars.  But it wasn’t just the money.  It took years to train one and they had to be brought in from India, or Thailand.  It was impossible to replace.  We heard rumors that the Ontos crew was court marshaled and had to pay for the elephant.  Or the Marine Corps did.  Those guys wouldn’t have had the money.

     Late in April, I was involved in my first big time fire fight.  We were out on patrol and were making our way up hill 861S, a mile and a half or so north of the village.  There were four of us Marines and about ten ARVN.  We got about halfway up the hill and all of a sudden bullets started flying, and it seemed like the whole North Vietnamese Army was up there shooting at us.  I got on my radio and told the lieutenant that there were maybe a gazillion gooks up there and they were awful mad.  He told us to come on home.  We scooted back down the hill and made our way back to our compound.  A PFC Lynch had worked his way up the hill a ways and was killed trying to cover us as we pulled back.  He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.  By the time we got back, artillery from the combat base was working the hill over and Bravo Company 1/9 was on the way.

     The rest of the day, all that night, and all the next day, we watched the fight from our compound.  There had been a full battalion of NVA on that hill, and Bravo Company got itself shot to pieces, and  2/3 was called in.  I didn’t know about 2/3 at the time.  I only found out in December 2009 from Ralph Jenkins, 2/3's 81mm platoon commander during the battle.  On their way up the hill they found piles of jammed and discarded M16s and bloody 782 gear and bandages.  Those Marines had just been issued M16s.  They were pieces of junk and some of those Marines died while trying to clear them.  I dreaded the day when they made me trade my M14 for one of those things.  The joke was that they were made by Mattel.  About dusk, a C-47 gun ship showed up.  It had a Gatling gun that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute.  It was the first time I had ever seen one, and it was awesome.  It was just getting dark, and from where we were it looked like a reddish orange water hose.  When you figure there was one tracer round in six, it became unbelievable.  Oh, something interesting.  At night, if everyone is using tracer rounds, it is easy to tell who’s who.  Our tracers were red.  Their’s were green.

     This was  the beginning of what came to be called the “hill fights”.  Not only did 861S get hit, so did 881, 950, all of them.  I forget how long it lasted, but several weeks, probably.  We were left pretty much left alone, though.  For the guys on those hills, though, it got to be a hand to hand situation.
   
     Not long after 861S, they did it.  They issued us M16s and I had to give up my M14.  I hated to do it.  We had confidence in the M14.  Shoot someone with an M14 and he’s down.  It doesn’t matter if you hit him in the shoulder or the head, he’s out of action. And it would shoot through a brick wall or a tree.  Shoot someone with an M16, and maybe he was down, maybe he wasn’t.  And was it going to jam on you, or not?  I never saw an M14 jam.  Later on we were issued the M16A1, which was a little better, I guess, but when it came right down to it, we were still shooting .22s.

     CAC stood for Combined Action Company.  What we did was work with the villagers.  We built a playground for the kids, with swings and a volley ball court.  Our corpsman set up a little dispensary in a room at the rear of the village school, and treated the villagers out of it.  We ran patrols all around Khe Sanh, and the corpsman would treat the villagers while the rest of us would look for any signs of enemy activity.  These were Bru villages, and there were maybe a dozen of them within a five mile radius of Khe Sanh.  They were small, maybe forty or fifty people per village.

     In May, a friend of mine wrote and told me that Perrelli had been killed.  I don’t know the details, except that he had been killed by a mortar round.  I hadn’t cried since I was a kid, I don’t think, but I did then.  I didn’t know anyone that didn’t like Perrelli.  I wrote a letter to his parents and to his girl, and they wrote back.  They still wanted me to come visit them, but I never did.  A long time later, I was in Washington and went to the Vietnam Memorial and found his name on the Wall.  I almost cried then, too.  Thanks to Lyndon Johnson, and especially to his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, more than 58,000 guys died over there for nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

     We lived for mail, and the service was really pretty good.  It usually took only about a week to receive a letter or package from home.  My parents would send me care packages sometimes (cigarettes, chocolate chip cookies, paper back books, newspapers), and once my mother sent a box of home made fried pies.  Peach.  She had wrapped each one in Saran Wrap and packed them in a box of puffed wheat.  They were in perfect condition when I got them, and tasted just like she had made them the day before.  She sent about twenty or twenty-five of them, and I made sure everyone got at least one.

     Along about this time, I was bitten by a rat.  Rats were everywhere in Vietnam, at least in Khe Sanh they were. And they were big, too.  About the size of a rabbit, or a cat, some of them.  We set traps for them in our bunkers and caught a dozen or so, almost every night.  In the mornings, we would put them outside the bunkers and the ARVN would come around and collect them.  They ate them.  Anyway, I was on the midnight to 8:00 am radio watch.  That was a boring time and I got a lot of reading done.  I was sitting on a stool reading “Hawaii”, by James A. Mitchner, I remember.  My hands were dangling down close to the ground, and I felt something tugging on my finger.  I looked down and there was a rat standing up on it’s hind legs, biting on my finger.  Bit completely through it.  I shook him off and grabbed my pistol.  I figured if I could kill it, they could maybe test to see if it had rabies.  I got him in my sights, and out of the corner of my eye I saw another one.  Then another.  I didn’t know which one was guilty, so I gave up.  The next morning I went in to the aid station at the combat base and started a series if rabies shots.  Eighteen of them.  One a day in the stomach.  The corpsman told me that farther south, they only had to take fourteen.  One good thing happened because of my rat bite.  We got a propane refrigerator.  The vaccine had to be refrigerated, and supply had a refrigerator they weren’t using.  I think we were supposed to return it, but once we got our hands on it we weren’t about to give it up.

     One day someone spotted a cobra in the middle of the compound.  It wasn’t very big, maybe three feet, or so.  Four or five guys grabbed their M16s and shot it to pieces.  I sort of felt sorry for the thing.  It was probably just taking a shortcut across our compound, not looking for any trouble.  It should have taken the long way around.  Speaking of cobras, I was in the village one time and some guy had a mongoose in a cage.  I don’t know what he was doing with it, but they were supposed to be quick enough to kill a cobra.  Odd looking creature.

     In October ‘67, I went on R&R.  I went by helicopter down to Danang, and had to wait around a few days for a slot to someplace to open up.  Usually, you put in a request to go on R&R to a particular place.  I had requested Bangkok and it had been approved.  However, Khe Sanh was fogged in and I was a day late getting out.  By the time I got to Danang, my spot had been filled and someone else was enjoying Bangkok.  Now when that happened, you were put on standby, and if someone else didn’t show up, you could take his spot.  A couple of times a day you had to go over to the air terminal and wait for something to become available.  Other than that, you were on your own.

     Remember Barry Whitten?  He was at Danang.  He was a wireman.  I forget what outfit he was with, but after I had made my checks at the terminal, I would go over and visit him.  I ran into Robert Gaddy in the terminal at Danang, too.  He was also a Marine.  We had pretty much lost contact with each other after I had moved to the east side of town.  Anyway, he was going on R&R to see his wife in Hawaii.  We only had about an hour before his flight left, but it was good to vist with someone else from back home.  I went to the big PX at Monkey Mountain and had my Zippo lighter engraved with Snoopy and the places I had been.

     Finally, two slots opened up for Singapore and I stuck up my hand.  By that time I would have gone practically anywhere, just to get out of Vietnam for a while.

     Singapore. Beautiful place.  One of the cleanest cities I have ever been in, and one of the safest.  There was virtually no crime.  You could go anywhere in the city, anytime, day or night, and feel perfectly safe.  The population was about ninety per cent Chinese and ten per cent Indian, with a few thousand loud Australians thrown in.

     We landed and went into the terminal building.  While we waited in the airport lounge for hotel assignments, hostesses came around with trays of rolled up wash cloths to wash our faces with.  They had been moistened in water and frozen.  It was a nice touch, since you were hot and sweaty by the time you walked from the plane to the terminal.

     After the hotel assignments had been taken care of, we went outside and got on buses and made the rounds, dropping people off at their hotels.  I stayed at the Shellford, and like all the R&R hotels, it was a regular hotel that had been leased to the military.  No civilian guests.  After I got to my room and had a hot shower (an unbelievable luxury),  I went down to one of the hotels shops and bought a couple of sets of civilian clothes.  Back to my room to change, and I felt pretty much like a regular human being again.  Down to the hotel restaurant for dinner.  Sirloin steak, baked potato, salad, rolls, and milk.  Real steak, Real potato. Real milk.  It had been over nine months since I’d had any of those things.  Milk.  First time I’d had milk of any kind, except for the recombined (powdered) milk for those few days in Danang.  Up at Khe Sanh, all we had was warm Kool Aid, or warm water.  We didn’t even get recombined milk.

     That night, I went to the hotel nightclub.  I met a pretty little Chinese girl (not hard to do, the place was crowded with them) and she was with me for the five days I was in Singapore.  She had a sports car, a dark blue MGA, and she took me all over the city.  One night, late, we went down to the harbor.  There is a wide sidewalk called Queen Elizabeth Walk paved with beautifully colored tile work all along the harbor.  She parked the car and before we could get out, a bum looking guy, who had been sitting on the curb, jumped up and ran over and opened my door.  I thought, “Oh, no.”  But the girl didn’t seem concerned at all.  As I got out of the car, he ran around to the other side and opened the door for her.  She explained that this was the way he made his living and I was supposed to tip him.  I pulled out some money (play money it looked like) and started to give it to him, but she said it was too much and asked me for some change.  I gave her some more play money and she gave it to him.  He thanked us and took his spot on the curb again.

     We walked along the sidewalk and looked out over the harbor.  Do you remember the old song, “Harbor Lights”?  It could have been written for that place.  We stopped along the way and I bought us some fried-something on a stick and some fruit juice.  I was beginning to fall in love with Singapore.  From Vietnam to this.  From hell to heaven.  Beautiful city, beautiful girl, sports car.  It was going to be hard getting back on that plane.

     One day, we went to The Tiger Balm Gardens.  Acres of gardens filled with statues of animals from Chinese mythology.  Very beautiful and exotic.

     One evening we went to an expensive Chinese restaurant.  Real Chinese.  It was in sort of an upscale shopping center, above a Mercedes-Benz showroom.  We were the only ones in the place who spoke English.  The menu was in Chinese, of course, so she ordered for both of us.  I have no idea what we ate, but it was good.

     One afternoon we went to a movie.  An American movie.  “The Great Escape”, with Steve McQueen.  It was dubbed in Chinese with the English translation scrolling along at the bottom of the screen.  Hard to follow, because by the time I finished reading what was being said, the action had moved on and I had a hard time keeping up.

     One more thing about Singapore, then I’ll go back to Vietnam.  If there is a traffic accident, whether two cars collide, or someone gets hit by a car, no one is allowed to help the victim until the police get there.  Even after the police get there, the medical team has to wait until they figure out what happened.

     Day five, and I had to leave.  The bus came to pick us up around noon, and man, it was hard to force myself onto it.  My girl stayed with me until I got onto the bus.  Then we headed to the airport.  Let me tell you, there were some long faces on that bus.  We got to the airport, got on the plane and left.

     Back in Vietnam, I hung around Danang for a couple of days before I went back up to Khe Sanh.  I was in a funny position of no one knowing, really, where I was, or when I was supposed to be back and I took advantage of it.  I visited Barry and went to the big PX at Monkey Mountain and just goofed off, really.

     The rest of my time in Vietnam was relatively uneventful, up until Tet ‘68 and the beginning of what now is known as the siege of Khe Sanh.  There were times, usually around midnight, or very early in the morning, when someone would fire a few shots into our compound.  It usually didn’t amount to much, but occasionally we would be shooting back and forth until nearly daylight, when the enemy would take off.  They knew we could call in air strikes and they didn’t want to hang around for that.  We would run patrols the mornings after, but never caught up to them.  We would have listening posts out at night, of course (which I hated), and sometimes ambushes (hated them, too), but they were rarely successful.

     I don’t remember exactly when this happened, but I’ll never forget it.  Late one night, we had a sergeant that came down with a bad malaria attack.  Really bad.  He was carried into the lieutenant’s office and laid on a table.  He was delirious, and burning up with fever.  It took six of us to hold him down.  Three of us laid across his legs, one across his body, and a man on each arm.  And he still almost threw us off.  The corpsman put a stick in his mouth to keep him from breaking his teeth, or biting his tongue off, and started bathing him with alcohol to try and get his temperature down.  There wasn’t much else we could do for him until the next morning.  The corpsman took his temperature with a rectal thermometer and sometimes it was over 105 degrees.  It would come down a little and then go back up.  And he was moaning in agony.  We held him down all night.  I couldn’t believe the strength he had.  I had never seen a malaria attack before, and I had no idea it was that terrible.  Tens of thousands of people die from it every year, though, they say.  Anyway, from then on, I always made sure I took the big pink malaria tablet the corpsman handed out every Sunday.  When it was light enough, I called for a medevac, and he was taken to the combat base aid station.  Then he was sent to a hospital ship, U.S.S. Sanctuary.  About a month later, he came back, good as new.  We had been worried that he might have had brain damage, because of the high temperature, but he didn’t seem any dumber than usual.

     Christmas Eve, 1967.  Some of us attended midnight mass at the little Catholic church in the village.  All of us were homesick, and even though most of us weren’t Catholic, the service made Christmas feel a little more familiar.  It was a candlelight service, of course, but then, without electricity in Khe Sanh, all their services were.  But it was nice, even if I couldn’t understand a word of it.  We left our weapons at the door and dreamed about Christmas at home.

     Up until January 20, 1968, not much happened.  We ran the usual patrols and ambushes, had the occasional shooting matches some nights, but that’s about it.  We were starting to hear rumors about several divisions of NVA heading toward Khe Sanh, though.  Recon teams from the combat base were coming in all shot up, and we started plotting what we could find out on a map.  It was hard to tell what was going to happen, but we were a little worried about it, since we were pretty much on our own and so far away from any help.

     I had radio watch the morning of January 20, from midnight until 8:00 am.  At 5:00, I came out of the bunker and walked over to wake up the lieutenant.  I would usually wake him up, and after he got dressed we would walk over to the mess hooch and have a cup of coffee.  That morning wasn’t any different.  I waited until he got dressed and we headed for the hooch.  It was maybe forty feet away.  We were about halfway there when the generator outside the hooch blew up.  We stopped and looked at each other, both of us said [expletive deleted]!!, and we turned and ran for the radio bunker.

     By the time we got to the bunker, mortar rounds were landing all over the compound.  The lieutenant grabbed the radio and called the combat base and told them we were under attack.  By the way, his name was Stamper.  Lieutenant Stamper.  I don’t remember his first name.  He was what was called a mustang.  Worked his way up through the ranks.

     About that time, the hills and the combat base started getting hit, too.  Hills 861N and 861S, Hill 881, all the hills surrounding the Khe Sanh combat base.  We were the first to get hit, though.

     We had a bad feeling about all this.  Usually, this was the time of day that the enemy would break off contact, not begin it.  Something was fishy.  It was nearly daylight and the NVA didn’t usually hang around because of the air support we could call in on them.

     The mortar attack lasted about half an hour, and I don’t know how many rounds they dropped in on us.  Then, a few minutes later, they started rushing our wire.  Dozens and dozens of them.  We had three machine guns at that time.  The .30 caliber out front by the gate, another .30 caliber in another bunker in the back of the compound, and an M60.  We had gotten the second .30 caliber from the Special Forces unit at Lang Vei, a few miles west of us down Route 9.  They could get anything, it seemed like.  And they were good guys, too.  In addition to the machine gun, they sometimes gave us clothing, food, ammunition for the gun, whatever.  The Marine Corps treated us like red-headed step children, it seemed like.  That generator, for instance.  It took us nearly a year to get that thing.  We had only had it a few weeks.

     Remember I said we hated that Buddhist temple next door?  Here’s why.  The NVA put about thirty men in there.  It had concrete walls and was as tough as any fort.  We tossed hand grenades back and forth at each other, and we blasted it with our M79 grenade launcher, but we finally had to call an artillery mission in on it.  That was a scary thing, because we were almost calling it in on ourselves.  The walls and roof were finally blown in, and we could see it was full of bodies.

     Directly across the road from the front gate was a little “café” we called Howard Johnson’s.  It was just a dirt floored shack owned by an old Vietnamese woman, but she had an old propane refrigerator, and it was the only place in the village where you could sometimes get a cold Coke.  I don’t know how she got the Cokes, or the propane, but she usually had them.  She charged a dollar for a Coke (this was when you could get a Coke for a dime anywhere in the world).  She must have made a small fortune off of us, because when we came in off a patrol, we almost always stopped in.  Anyway, the gooks got in the ditch between HoJo’s and the road and started shooting their AK-47s at us and throwing hand grenades.  We shot back with our .22s and threw grenades back at them.

     The gooks (they were NVA.  We didn’t have much of a problem with the VC.  They were mainly farther south) would rush the wire, and we would shoot them off of it.  Then they would pull back and mortar us for another half hour, or so.  It went on and on like that, all day.  Mortars, ground attack.  Mortars, ground attack.  During one of these ground attacks, I was in a trench outside the radio bunker looking out toward Route 9.  A hand grenade blew up a few yards in front of me, and the next thing I remember is trying to get up off the bottom of the trench.  I tried to push myself up with my right arm, but it wouldn’t hold me up.  I looked down and saw that my right hand was all torn up and bloody.  A piece of shrapnel had hit me between my first and second fingers and had gone in halfway to my wrist.  I think a gook over by that Buddhist temple threw it.  I went back into the radio bunker, where the corpsman was, and he cleaned it and put a bandage on it.  I had the luck of the Irish that day.  Remember the joke about the Irishman who was walking along and stepped in a cow pie?  “This must be me lucky day!” he said, “I could have been wearing me Sunday shoes.”  That’s kind of the way I felt.  I had been aiming my rifle out towards the road, and if that piece of shrapnel had been a couple of inches to the left, my story would end right here.  It would have gone in through my right eye.

     I couldn’t use my rifle, so I sat on the radio for most of the rest of the day.  We called in artillery and air support, mostly on the coffee plantation behind us.  That seemed to be where most of them were coming from, and we didn’t really want to call them in on the village if we didn’t have to.  Four Marine Phantoms showed up and worked the plantation over and every time one of them would come in to drop his bombs, we could hear what sounded like a .50 caliber machine gun shooting at him.  It was a couple of hundred yards away, we guessed.  Well, one of the F4's got hit and started trailing smoke.  He made it to the combat base and landed on the airstrip.  The crew was okay, we heard later.  The Marine Phantoms were relieved by four Air Force Phantoms, and they lost one of theirs to that .50 caliber, too.  Their crew had to bail out, but they made their way to the combat base.  They were okay, too.

     Late in the day, a C-47 gun ship took up station and orbited right above us.  We had a gun ship above us off and on, all night.  When one would leave, we called in artillery, until another one showed up.

     That night, India Co. 3/26 tried to get to us. They got as far as the river that ran by the east end of the village, but couldn’t get across.  Finally they called and said they were pulling back.  They were taking too many casualties.  That’s when our spirits really dropped.  The Air Force Phantoms had told us that afternoon that they estimated there were about eight hundred gooks surrounding us.  That night a helicopter tried to resupply us with ammunition, but couldn’t do it.  They got above us and were going to lower it on a cable, but the fire was just too heavy.  We heard hits on the helicopter and lieutenant Stamper told them to get away before they went down.

     The next day, January 22, was pretty much like the day before.  Mortars, ground attack.  On and on.  We were relying on artillery more and more.  The machine guns and our M79 were completely out of ammunition and all we had were our M16s and a few hand grenades.  We were calling in artillery right up to the wire.  We called it in on HoJo’s, too.  A few years later, after I was out of the Marines and going to school at Northeastern State College, I found out that another high school friend of mine, Ray McGee, was with the 13th Marines up at the combat base.  He was firing support for us.  Never knew it.

     We were lucky enough to get another gun ship above us that night.  That, and the artillery is what saved us.  When the sun came up the next morning, January 23rd, they were gone.  All of them.  We (well, not me) went out and started gathering up all the weapons off the dead gooks.  I don’t know how many we collected, but a lot . At least a  hundred AK-47s and several light machine guns.

     We called for helicopters to come and get the wounded out.  We had several wounded, but no one got killed.  That was a true miracle.  We got on the helicopter and took off for the combat base and the aid station.  I spent the night at the aid station, which was at the west end of the air strip.  The next day, I got on a C130 and took off for Phu Bai.  I had to catch the plane on the fly, because it didn’t stop.  You had to jump on while it was still moving.  The C130s didn’t stop at Khe Sanh anymore.  They would touch down, roll their cargo out the back, turn around and take off again.  At the turn around, they were moving at a walking speed and that’s when the wounded were loaded aboard.  It was also the most dangerous time, because when they slowed down, they usually drew fire.  We were lucky, though, and didn’t get shelled.  As we took off, I looked out and saw a wrecked C130 that had been bulldozed off the runway.  We gained altitude and I never saw Khe Sanh again.  Or wanted to.  I left everything I had behind.  Clothes, pictures, letters, camera, tape recorder, an Omega watch I had bought in Singapore, everything.  All I took out of Khe Sanh was me.

     I can’t prove it, but I think I had the dubious distinction at that time of having been at Khe Sanh longer than any other American.  From mid-February 1967 until January 24, 1968.  Everyone that had been there when I arrived, and there weren’t very many, had rotated home long before. Or had been killed or wounded.  Everyone who was there when I left had come long after me.  I’m including everyone in the village and at the combat base.

     I stayed at the aid station in Phu Bai overnight.  They cleaned my wound and bandaged it back up again.  The next day, I flew down to Danang.  In the hospital there, they removed the shrapnel and asked me if I wanted to keep it.  I did.  I keep it in the box with my Purple Heart.

     I stayed in Danang for a couple of days, then they sent me to the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay.  Huge place.  Covered several square miles.  It was the largest port in South Vietnam, I believe.  I felt safe.  I was there for about a week, then I was sent to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands.  I was out of Vietnam.  I stayed at Clark for three days, and got to call home and talk to my Mom and Dad.  They had gotten a telegram from the Marine Corps telling them that I had been wounded in the hand and foot.  Typical Marine Corps screw up.

     At Clark, I got to move around the base a little.  They had a real nice enlisted club, and I would go over and try to shoot pool.  I had to shoot left handed, though, and gave it up.  They didn’t have any fried rice.

     I left the Philippines for Guam.  We landed at night and I was taken by bus to the U.S. Naval Hospital.  I was there until February 19, I think.  Not a bad place.  The hospital was air conditioned and it had a movie theater.  Terry Flick, my old room mate at OU was stationed on Guam.  He had joined the Navy shortly after I went into the Marines.  He came to see me nearly every day after he got off duty.  I think he was nearly as homesick as I was.  Strange how many friends from Muskogee I ran into over there.  Terry, Barry Whitten, Dennis Walle, Robert Gaddy.  And Ray McGee, even though I didn’t know it at the time was helping save my life at Khe Sanh.  It really is a small world.

     I was in Ward B of the hospital.  There were probably fifty or sixty of us in the ward.  Mostly Marines, but some Navy, and one civilian.  The civilian was a Guamanian boy about sixteen years old, who had been hurt in a motorcycle accident and was in a body cast.  Nice kid, everyone liked him.  Especially when his sister came to see him.  She was fourteen, but could have passed for eighteen.  And she was something else.  She wore mini-skirts and low-cut blouses every time she came to visit.  She drove us crazy and she knew it.  We appreciated her visits a whole lot more than her brother ever did.  Terry told me that Guamanian girls matured early, and by the time they were in their twenties, most of them started porking up.

     The chief nurse on the ward was a Navy lieutenant (same as a Marine captain), probably in her mid to late twenties.  She wasn’t bad looking, but she was as mean as a snake.  I don’t remember ever seeing her smile.  Terrible bedside manner.

     There was a black guy named James in the bed next to mine.  I don’t remember his last name.  He had been shot in the hip.  Terry and I used to put him in a wheelchair and push him down to the theater to watch movies.  The theater was about the size of the ones in malls today.  It had a concession stand and everything.  It took a while getting used to being able to buy a bag of popcorn and a soft drink, or a candy bar any time I wanted.  We watched Bonnie and Clyde once.  I don’t remember any of the others.

     The hospital was on a hill overlooking Anderson Air Force Base, and we could watch the B52s taking off for Vietnam.  It was a daily event.  It was the first time I had ever seen them.  They had bombed all around us at Khe Sanh, but they were too high to see.

     The big thing for servicemen overseas at that time was stereo equipment.  Everybody brought back elaborate stereo systems, it seems like.  Terry bought a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders for me at the PX.  A Sony, that he shipped home for my parents, and a Teac that he carried up to the hospital for me to use while I was there, then shipped it home for me just before I left Guam.  He went to a lot of trouble doing all that and I appreciated it.  I hope he knew that.

     There was a kid eight or ten beds from me who had lost both of his legs, just below the knees.  When they changed his bandages, they would just rip the old ones off, and I remember him screaming.  They didn’t seem to care.  I guess they had been doing things like so long that it didn’t affect them, anymore.  Or they were sadists.  It was hard for the rest of us to watch and listen to, though.

     There was a Marine gunnery sergeant that used to inspect us every day to make sure we shaved and didn’t need a hair cut.
 
     Believe it or not, there were still a couple of Japanese soldiers hiding out on Guam at that time.  I thought how funny it would have been if I got killed by some old Jap holdout still fighting World War Two.  Some time later they caught one and sent him back to Japan.  Bet he had a tough time fitting in.

     Finally, I left Guam on an Air Force C141.  It was the biggest plane I had ever seen.  It was fitted out to carry casualties, and had row after row of stretchers stacked four high.  I was ambulatory, so I got to ride in a seat.  The Marine Corps issued me a set of khakis and a pair of shoes at the hospital the day before.  I had been in hospital pajamas ever since I left Danang.  They also gave me a green cloth bag with a drawstring to keep my toilet articles in.  I still have it somewhere.

     We landed in Hawaii at Hickam Air Force Base.  It used to be called Hickam Field back in World War II, and my father had been stationed there right after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  There were still bullet scars on some of the buildings.

     We were there about four hours, and they had an awards ceremony and gave out decorations.  I was awarded my Purple Heart by General Walt.  He later became assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  There was a photographer taking pictures and a few months later, I received an 8 x 10 photo of him pinning the medal on me.

     Well, I had been to Hawaii again.  Nice airstrip!  It was still warm.

     We took off from Hickam and landed at Travis Air Force Base, outside of San Francisco, sometime after dark.  It seemed like every time I flew anywhere, it was always dark when I landed.  I was there a couple of days, I think.  I was in a semi-private room, by myself.  I went down to their mess hall for meals, and discovered one of the differences between the Air Force and the Marine Corps.  The place was like a very nice civilian restaurant.  You sat at a table for four, with a table cloth and silverware.  You were given a menu by a waiter, an Air Force enlisted man, who would take your order and serve you.  This was for enlisted men.  God only knows what their officers had going for them.  Playboy bunnies, maybe.  Who knew?

     It’s really not possible to describe Vietnam to anyone who wasn’t there and didn’t live through it.  The heat and humidity of the jungle in the summer, the wet cold of the winter.  The insects, rats, mosquitos, snakes and leeches.  Leeches were everywhere around Khe Sanh.  In the grass, the streams, the rivers.  Even in the trees.  When we were out on patrol, every time we stopped for a break, we checked each other for leeches.  They would cluster around the tops of our boots and get in our armpits and crotches.  One guy even got one on his eyelid, once.  The thing was, you couldn’t feel them.  They weren’t much bigger than a grain of rice when they got on you, but after they finished sucking your blood, they would be as big as your thumb.  You couldn’t pull them off, or they would leave their teeth in you and it would get infected.  You had to put salt or insect repellent on them to get them to drop off.  A cigarette worked, too.  Even then, they left open sores that took days to scab over.  I still have scars from those leeches, even after all these years.

     Khe Sanh, and the mountains surrounding it were beautiful, though.  Some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen.  If there hadn’t been a war going on, and you just went as a tourist, you would have enjoyed it, probably.  I would have, if I hadn’t had to wade the streams and rivers, and hack my way through elephant grass and vines, and climb up and down those hills.  Or worry about bumping into someone who wanted to kill me.

     Sometimes, someone will ask me if I ever have nightmares, or “flashbacks” like some veterans seem to have.  I don’t.  I had a few bad dreams right after I left Vietnam, but not many, and not too bad.  And I have the Marine Corps to thank for that, I believe.  If I had gotten out of the Marines right after I got back from Vietnam, I might have been bothered by some of the things that happened to me over there.  As it was, with the Marine Corps screwing with me for two more years, I didn’t have time to think about it that much.  Also, most of the guys I was with had similar experiences which probably helped.

     It was a life-altering experience, though.  I had never been much of a hunter, although I liked to go dove hunting with my uncle and cousins, and I used to go deer hunting with Barry Whitten, back during high school.  Years later, I started going dove hunting with them again, but I found I couldn’t kill anything anymore.  For a year or two, every time I would kill a dove, I would wonder why I was doing it.  I didn’t even eat them.  I just gave them to my uncle and cousin.  Eventually, I started missing them on purpose.  Finally, I stopped going all together.  I just can’t kill an animal.  I’m not anti-hunting, but I can’t do it.

     I think Vietnam changed me in another way, too.  I have always been angered and puzzled when people would abuse an animal, but I pretty much shrugged it off, I guess.  Now, though, I become absolutely enraged when I see or hear about it.  I have absolutely no use for people who will hurt an innocent animal.  No use whatsoever.  And if anyone ever hurt my dog…God help them. God help them.

     I left Travis for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.  Then, a couple of days later, on to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and their hospital.  I was there for about two months.  After a couple of weeks, I was allowed to go home on a ten day leave.  My parents met me at the airport in Tulsa, and we went home.  I was never so happy to see anyone in my life.January, 1967.

I completed radio school back at Pendleton, went through Staging, which was supposed to prepare you for Vietnam, but didn’t, and I was ready to go.

     We weren’t sent to Vietnam as a unit.  The group of us that took off from Los Angeles that February in 1967 were replacements.  We flew aboard a Continental Airlines 707 with a civilian crew, complete with stewardesses.  I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to fly from L.A. to Okinawa, but I think it was about eighteen hours.  We stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii for an hour, or so to refuel, and were allowed to go into the terminal and get a Coke, or whatever.  Then back on the plane and we were off again.  So, I had been to Hawaii!  Wow!  It was warm. Nice terminal.

     We landed on Okinawa after dark, and were taken by bus to a Marine camp outside Naha.  Camp Hanson, I believe it was.  We were allowed to get some sleep, and the next morning we were assigned to working parties.  My detail cleaned the officer’s quarters.  Officers lived like royalty, compared to the enlisted men.  They had private rooms sort of like very nice motel rooms.

     I was on Okinawa for about a week.  We didn’t have a lot to do, and were usually set free early in the afternoons.  We could pretty much go anywhere we wanted to, as long as long as we didn’t leave the base, and I usually wound up at the Enlisted Men’s Club.  A couple of things stand out in my memory.  After four or five days there, I was broke.  I went to the club one night with thirty cents in my pocket.  I walked in, and to the left was a game room full of slot machines.  I figured thirty cents wasn’t much better than no money at all, so I sat down in front of a slot machine and put my dime in.  I intended to pull the handle three times and go back to the barracks.  On my third and last dime, I hit.  Ten dollars!  Couldn’t believe it! I was rich!  I went into the club restaurant and ordered a bowl of pork fried rice.  I had never had it before, probably never even heard of it, but it sounded good.  It was.  I’ve never had any fried rice that tasted as good as that first bowl did.  The Okinawans really knew how to wok it.

     The next day, being a rich man, I went to the PX and stocked up on cigarettes.  And every night, after work, I went to the club and had my bowl of fried rice. Life was good.

     We took off for Vietnam a couple of days later, and before long we landed at Danang.  I’m not sure what I expected, but Danang wasn’t a bad place.  It was huge, for one thing.  And secure.  We were put in transient quarters and before long, they started sending us off to wherever it was we were going. I was supposed to go to Phu Bai and report to CAC Headquarters, whatever that was.  I got on a C-130, flew up to Phu Bai and reported in.  There, they told me I would be going to a CAC Unit at a place called Khe Sanh.  The problem was, nobody knew where Khe Sanh was.  We looked all over the map and eventually found it up in the northwest part of the country in Quang Tri Province.  Little teeny place next to the DMZ and Laos.  The next problem was how to get there.  We found out that one C-123 flew into Khe Sanh each week and I could ride up on the next plane.  I had a few days to wait, so they sent me over to another transient barracks.  These were the hooches everyone remembers.  They were made of plywood with half screened walls and a tin roof.  There were thousands of them all over Vietnam.  I was issued my web gear and rifle.  My rifle.  A brand new M14 still sealed in the foil wrapper.  It was the only new M14 I had ever seen, and it was mine.  I spent about half a day cleaning it.  They also issued me two brand-new magazines.  Later on I scrounged  a few more magazines, figuring you could never have too much ammunition.

     A couple of days later, I climbed into a C-123 and took off for Khe Sanh.  When we got there, I looked out the window and found out why I was aboard a C-123 instead of a C-130.  The place was on a plateau, sort of, surrounded by mountains.  There was a little dirt air strip, a tower, and a few tents and bunkers.  The plane went into a shallow dive and, just before it crashed, leveled off and touched down in a cloud of dust.  The pilot immediately slammed on the brakes and reversed the props to get the thing stopped.  A C-130 would never have made it.  There was one reinforced company of Marines there, Bravo Company 1/9, I believe it was. I got off the plane and thought, “I want my Momma.”  I was told I wouldn’t be staying there, though.  Someone would pick me up in the morning and take me down to the village.  They put me in a tent and left me alone.

     Sure enough, the next morning, a lieutenant and a gunnery sergeant woke me up and told me to grab my gear.  Second Lieutenant Sermeus and Gunnery Sergeant :___.  We got in a jeep and headed for the village.  It was about four miles from the airstrip and it was about as far away from Muskogee, Oklahoma as I ever wanted to be.  Or could be.  It was on Route 9, an east to west highway.  The “highway” was about as wide as a city residential street, and had been built by the French, probably in the 1940's, when Vietnam was called French Indo-China.  It was in such disrepair, that it nearly shook the spot welds out of the jeep.  Actually, it wasn’t really a jeep.  Back then, the jeep all the services used, including the Marine Corps, was the M38, which was made by Willys in those days (I think).  The civilian version was the CJ5.  What we had was a Mighty Mite, which was made by American Motors.  It was a little smaller than a jeep and had an aluminum body and a four cylinder aluminum engine.  It also had four-wheel independent suspension, which isn’t such a good idea for an off-road vehicle.  If you’ve ever seen an old Volkswagen Beetle up on a lift, you’ve probably seen how the wheels tuck in once the vehicle is off the ground.  Well, that may be okay for the VW.  On the Mighty Mite though, if you bounce up in the air, the wheels would tuck in and when it hit the ground again it had a nasty tendency to flip over.  It was unique to the Marine Corps.
 
     The village was about eleven miles south of the DMZ and about three miles east of Laos.  It was a real National Geographic type place, populated by Vietnamese, of course, and some mountain people called Bru, who didn’t actually live in the village, but came there to trade.  They were little people, the Bru were, almost like pygmies.  It seemed like every one of them smoked a little clay pipe and chewed betel nuts.  They all had black teeth from chewing it.  At least the older folks did.  The younger ones had red teeth that later on would turn black.  Very attractive.
 
     We drove through the village to our compound, which was on the east end of it.  Not much of a place.  There was an old building, also built by the French, that was about fifty feet long, facing Route 9.  It had four rooms, side by side.  It was made of stucco covered brick and had a red tile roof. The lieutenant had his office

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