31 December 2008


We quickly settled into a routine. Because the ambush patrols were squad sized, after I had accompanied each of my two squads on a night roving ambush, I tended to remain in the rear with the platoon headquarters.

A roving ambush was interesting. Each squad would depart the lines after dark and move out along the road. The lead squad would move out a couple of clicks and set in at their first ambush site. The second squad would set up an ambush a few hundred meters beyond strongpoints A and B. After a couple of hours, each squad would move to a second position, and then to a third a couple of hours before daybreak. With my two good squad leaders, things went smoothly.

We lieutenants did what platoon commanders do. We inspected our troops before they left on patrols, we supervised the preparations for day activities. And we did the administrative stuff that never ends, not even in war time. I conducted a JAG Manual informal investigation into the loss of two compasses, a prerequisite to writing them off.

And we began to discover that war can be boring.

We got boxes of paperback books from Special Services. The troops devoured them and then passed them along. I once read an interview of a Continental stewardess who worked the flights to and from Vietnam. She said “They go in reading comic books; they come out reading newspapers and novels.” She was right.

Our newspaper was the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes. It was published daily and we usually got ten copies for the company as part of the mail and resupply. It was usually 20 to 24 pages, with about 10 to 12 pages of hard national and international news, an editorial page with columns from a wide variety of American newspapers, a financial page, the funny papers and several pages of sports, professional, college, and inter-service. It was the distributed all through the Pacific (Vietnam, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Taiwan, Thailand, and any other places at which there were American bases) and was “the newspaper” for a lot of Americans.

The first headline I saw announced the escape from captivity of Major Nick Rowe. Rowe had been a POW for over 5 years and was one of only 34 Americans to escape from Vietnamese captivity during the war. His superb book, Five Years To Freedom, is a testimonial to the men who were POWs and, among other things, revealed that the “anti-war” movement in the United States was actively working with the Communists and against our troops. His carefully crafted cover story (that he was a Purdue ROTC grad and civil engineer) was finally defeated when the VC received information from the States revealing that he was a West Point graduate and a Green Beret. At that point, he realized that he was a marked man and made his desperate and successful escape.

He remained on active duty and was on a long-standing communist target list. In 1987, Colonel Rowe was assigned as the chief of the Army division of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG), providing counter-insurgency training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In February 1989, he had acquired intelligence information which indicated that the communists were planning a major terrorist act. He warned Washington that a high-profile figure was about to be murdered and that he himself was second or third on the assassination list. On the morning of April 21, 1989, as he was being driven to work his vehicle was ambushed and he was killed.

Another officer captured with him, Captain Rocky Versace, was executed by the VC as a propaganda show for the villagers in the area. He was awarded the Medal of Honor

Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at: Norfolk, Virginia
Born:Honolulu, Hawaii
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy's exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versace’s extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.

There were convoys of military vehicles intermingled with small busses jammed full of humanity and motor scooters with four or five people riding. At strongpoint Delta, a daily security patrol scouted the western approaches to An Hoa. Strongpoint Charlie sent out a fire team ambush, augmented by Popular Forces residents of the villages in the area.

We were settling into a routine. The only real danger seemed to be from booby-traps.

Once the road opened for the day, the flow of traffic on the MSR was busy.

Every morning, the platoon that manned strongpoints Alpha and Bravo provided a squad sized patrol to provide flank security for the morning road sweep. A couple of tanks and a two-and-a-half ton truck would arrive at the top of the hill. The squad assigned to accompany the sweep would link up with them and the sweep would begin.

An engineer team with a mine sweeper would walk the road ahead of the lead tank. The two fire team security patrols would move out to about 100 meters off the road. Because the engineer team leader was in charge, the SOP devised by 1st Engineer Battalion had to be followed. The engineers seemed to believe that if they could not see the flank security, there was none. They demanded that the troops move no less than 75 meters nor more than 100 meters from the road.

We all begged, pleaded, screamed and cursed this stupid policy, but Regiment backed upthe engineers. The problem was that the VC were not stupid. They soon figured it out—plant the booby traps in the 25 meter-wide zone.

The booby traps were mostly dud hand grenades and mortar rounds rigged to explode when a trip wire was pulled. Some were pressure devices, triggered when stepped upon. After Mike Koch took mover Second Platoon, we even found a bear trap. (Fortunately, the Marine stepped into the trap in a wet paddy. The trap sank and the muck slowed the spring action. Instead of a broken ankle, all he got were some bruises and one hell of a sea story.)

Our Marines became very good at spotting the traps, but the odds were on the VC’s side. We might discover 6 traps, which would be disposed of by the engineers, but the seventh one would get someone.

We were fortunate. We had well over 60 casualties during our time at the Base camp. All but four were due to mines or booby traps. And of those, only two Marines were killed. But they were always there.

About two weeks into my tour, the Skipper called us in and had us draw slips of paper from a helmet. I “won.” Division had started a school for small unit leaders. Charlie Company had a quota of one. Now, six months later, I would have jumped at a week in Da Nang, but I was just getting to know my platoon, and I sure didn’t want this trip.

I went anyway.

29 December 2008


The primary mission of the Marine rifle company and platoon is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or to repel his assault by fire and close combat. FMFM 6-4 at 1102.a.

I finally went to sleep at about 0400. At 0600, my radio operator woke me. “It’s the 6, sir.”

The Skipper told me to rejoin the rest of the company as soon as possible. We retrieved our claymores and saddled up. I placed myself behind the first fire team, and we set off in a column to link up with Charlie Company.

Combat formations of a platoon consisted of a column, a wedge, vee, echelon left or right, and line. Each had advantages and disadvantages, mainly limitations on fire, e.g., a column can lay down good fire to the flanks, but is limited in its ability to fire to the front. In standard tactics, a column would look like a staggered column of twos. In Vietnam, because of limitations imposed by terrain and the need to prevent multiple casualties from mines and booby traps, we usually used a single column, with a five to 10 meter interval between individuals. Thus my under-strength platoon formed a column of 200 meters (2 football fields) or more. The company in column could stretch for over a kilometer.

Our usual formation in the bush during monsoons and the rice growing season was a column, following narrow dikes which separated the individual rice paddies and which held the water necessary to allow the rice to grow. Paddies were nasty—deep muck, with several inches to a foot of water, smelling of the human and animal waste used as fertilizer. The dikes were dry, but if we found one that showed no signs of recent human traffic, we stayed away. It was probably booby-trapped.

The company was about 1.4 kilometers to our west, but following paddy dikes doubled the distance. We linked up in about two hours.

The movies always seem to show formations standing shoulder to shoulder and rushing from one place to another. The first is a result of a need to show people on the screen. The second is to get movement. In combat, separation was our friend and speed could kill. The troops were hardened by their daily routine, but they were tired. Thus, unless the mission required otherwise, we moved deliberately but not necessarily rapidly.

We took over a sector of the company perimeter which expanded slightly. Both first and third platoons had patrols out that morning, and I took out a squad-sized patrol that afternoon.

That evening, the Skipper advised us that the next morning, we would move to the outskirts of An Hoa, to a place called “Charlie Base Camp,” from which we would come under the operational control of 5th Marines. Our mission would be road security for the MSR.

That night, we were repeatedly probed in the first and third platoon sectors. At about 0200, as the Skipper checked lines, he told me that a reconnaissance team from 1st Reconnaissance Battalion had our previous night’s position under observation. Just before they called a large artillery fire mission on the target, they spotted between 300 and 400 North Vietnamese soldiers (NVA) on top of the hill. If they had come a night earlier, we would probably have been overrun. Such are the vagaries of war.

At first light, we secured our lines. First platoon had killed at least one NVA. Staff Sergeant Beyer and I went over to take a look. I was leery; how would I react to a dead man? Not badly, it turned out. He was sprawled in a heap, still clutching the grenade he planned to throw at us in his hand. He was an ashen grey and did not look human. Later on, I would not have given it much thought—he’s dead and I’m alive and that’s pretty much how I want things to be.

The word was passed that we would move out at 0900. I went back to the second platoon and informed the squad leaders. We would bring up the rear, so the rest of the company would move out a little before us.

It was at this time that I broke (for the first, but not the last, time) one of Captain Wilson’s rules. “When we are ready to move, we move.”

As he was slipping on his pack, Sergeant McGroary flung his arms as he settled it on his back. I heard him mutter the universal adjective and drop to his knees.
Staff Sergeant Beyer asked, “You OK, Mac?”

“No, dammit. I lost my wedding ring. If I go home without it, my old lady will kill me.” He had lost so much weight that the ring simply flew off his finger. The rest of Mac’s squad was crawling around, looking for the ring.

My radio operator said, “Skipper wants to know if we’re ready to move?”

“Tell him no. We’ll be a couple of minutes.”

The handset was shoved toward me. “Pray tell, Mr. Why am I standing around, waiting for Charlie 2?”

One of Mac’s Marines cried out, “Hey, Mac? Is this it?”

I thought How many wedding rings were lost in this village today? “It’s OK, Six. We found it. Ready to move.” He never even asked what “it” was; the column moved.

We followed the paddies south for about 4 clicks until we came to a village that was on the north side of the MSR. Moving through the ville was spooky, especially when it became apparent that everyone had figured out who the officers were. If a six year old could do it, I was pretty sure that a 25 year old sniper would have no problem at all.

On the south side of the MSR, across the road from the ville, was a camp of about six or eight buildings. It had been a construction camp, erected by a German company that was doing construction in the area in the early 1960s. When the war got hot, they went home. It would be our home for the next two months.

The company headquarters and the 60 mm mortar section of the weapons platoon would set up in the camp, which had a shower, a messhall, and a large, heavily sandbagged building that would serve as the command post and the fire support coordination center. There was also a section of 81 mm mortars in the compound and part of the battalion 106 mm recoilless rifle platoon. The compound was surrounded by a series of sandbagged fighting holes and barbed wire. (Note the dashing Lieutenant of Marines. I was issued that green T shirt on Christmas eve 1968 and wore it until June 15, 1969. Towards the end it was a bit ripe and ragged, but as a bullet repeller, it was perfect. )

To the east and slightly up hill, the MSR ran between two old French compounds. They were surrounded by earthen berms and moats. One platoon would man those two strongpoints, Alpha and Bravo. It would provide the security for the morning road sweep by engineers.

To the west, about a click, was strongpoint Charlie. About 400 meters south of the road was a German Hospital, essentially a missionary medical center. There were nurses, but we never saw them! Finally, about 1500 meters further west was strongpoint Delta, the base water supply point and a 4.2 inch mortar battery. Another platoon would man those two strongpoints. Delta may have had slightly better accommodations—and electricity—but I referred Charlie. The four-deuce battery fired all day and all night!

The third platoon would man a series of six observation posts, stretching some 3 clicks east and north along the MSR to a mid-point between An Hoa and Phu Loc (6). When the road closed for the day (usually 1700), that platoon would return to the base camp, get its mail and a hot meal, and then send out two squad-sized ambushes to prevent the bad guys from mining the road. At first light, it would once again man the OPs.

The platoons would swap at Noon on the fourth day.

Second Platoon drew the ambushes/Ops, to commence that afternoon. The platoon sergeant took the OPS out to get them set in. I stayed in with the Skipper and with Lieutenant Dick Rollins, our artillery Forward Observer (FO) to plan supporting fires for the ambush patrols that night. The idea was to have a series of fires pre-planned for certain readily identifiable terrain features. The battery would then fire on those points, recording the data needed to put a round on target. The target would be assigned an identification number, such as DC 101. If a fire mission was needed near that point, it could be adjusted, starting with DC 101 and then "right ___ meters, add ___meters."

The troops came back at 1700 and I briefed on the two ambushes for the night, one about 1200 meters out and the other about 3000 meters out. I accompanied the far ambush.

Leaving the lines and moving in the night was new, exhilarating, and unnerving. I was finally practicing the craft for which I had trained so long.

27 December 2008


I will not apologize for the mild profanity that follows. It uses a word without which a rifle company in combat could not function. Ordinarily, I have referred to it as the "universal adjective." In the instance noted below, however, you just have to use the word to catch the emotion the Gunny was expressing for all of us. Read on. And if you won't, well, go.....ah, you get my drift.

My first night in the bush started with a brand new personal habit, and then added a couple of Charlie Company traditions.

I stayed awake until 0400, listening to the occasional chatter on the company tactical net and checking lines. I finally stretched out at 0400, and slept until the Gunny held reveille. With the exception of two nights that I can remember, that was my routine until I left the bush in mid-June 1969. My theory was that no one was going to attack after 0400, because as soon as it was light, the attackers would be exposed to our air cover.

The Skipper had several standing orders, including (1) no personal radios and (2) no dogs. More about the second one later. The Gunny carried the only transistor radio, so that we could get news from AFVN Radio.

The station signed on at 0600 with a wake-up call. [Listen, if you can—the printed page doesn’t do it justice. This was not Adrian Cronauer; rather it was one of his successors, (one of whom was Pat Sajak, starting in March or April 1969.)]

The Charlie Company tradition was that the Gunny would fire up the transistor, volume set at max, as soon as the morning DJ opened with
“Gooooooooooood morning, Vietnam.”

The Gunny responded, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck you, Vietnam.”

Charlie 3 was in the habit of replying with, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck you, Gunny.” And the day began.

For the next four months, that was reveille. (During one firefight, we suddenly heard the Gunny’s call. Charlie 3 responded. The VC/NVA stopped firing and left. Go figure!)

Next, we were buzzed by a flight of OV-10 observation planes confirming our position. That, too, was a morning routine.

Back to AFVN for a minute. At some point in the day, Chris Noel (oh, that voice) hosted her music show Chris was as close to being "the Vietnam War pin up," as could be, along with Ann Margaret.

She was just another up and coming "B" film actress, along with Annette, Sharon Tate, and others until 1965, when she toured a VA hospital. As a result, she auditioned for the Armed Forces Network (AFN) and started hosting A Date With Chris. She was revered for frequently flying to remote areas to put on USO shows in areas considered too risky for Bob Hope and the other big stars.

Vietnam veterans would become her mission in life after the war. Her first husband, a Green Beret captain (they married in Vietnam) was a PTSD sufferer and killed himself during the Christmas holiday season of 1969. In the 1970s she, too, began to suffer from PTSD. In the 1990's, she began working on the issue of shelters for homeless veterans in Florida.

Ask any Vietnam vet, "Have you ever heard of Chris Noel?" Watch his face. She is one of us, and we are proud to have her in our company.

Same for Ann Margaret. She still refers to Vietnam vets, many of whom she entertained via the USO and VA and military hospital visits, as "my gentlemen." She's our lady, too, God bless her.

Second platoon was assigned to conduct the morning local security patrol, which gave me an opportunity to get a feel for the terrain and the local area. The heat and humidity was oppressive. (I was coming from Illinois where the temperatures were in the 20’s.)

We were about a click (1 km) south of the Song Thu Bon. My patrol moved to the river, up the river for another click or so, into a series of villages or "villes" (Phu Nhuan (1), (2), (8) and (3)), back east into My Loc (2) at the base of the hill, and up to the top.

[The numbering system came from our maps. The Phu Nhuans, for instance, constituted a hamlet that covered about 10 to 12 square kilometers, most of which was rice paddy and tree line. There were about 10 distinguishable groupings of hooches which were numbered for reference. If anyone has access to maps, look at the Dai Loc Map sheet Vietnam 1:50,000, Sheet 6640IV, Series L7014. The Alamo is the hill at 914514.]

All during my patrol, I heard the explosions of 81mm mortar rounds near the company position. I learned later that our 81 mm mortar forward observer was registering preplanned fires for the night.

We returned at about 1500 and I briefed the Skipper. He informed me that the rest of the Company was going to move west about a click to Phu Nhuan (2), leaving Charlie 2 at the Alamo for one more night. At about 1800, the company saddled up and moved out. I immediately tightened our perimeter and had the troops dig in deeper. All stayed quiet.

And then it started. Incoming grenades and reports of people moving about to our front. I told Staff Sergeant Beyer to get on the horn to Charlie 6 just a second or two after he got on the horn to the 6. He called for 81mm mortar fire from Phu Loc(6). We got a battery-3, meaning each of the 8 tubes fired three rounds. The first 24 rounds came crashing in and sounded pretty close to me.

“Too close, Sergeant Beyer, too close,” came the cry from our lines.

I looked at Beyer. “What do you think?” I asked.

“Aw, hell, sir. If they can talk, it can’t be too damn close. [Into the radio handset] Repeat.” Within seconds another 24 rounds rained in. He then adjusted the impact area about 100 meters south, and called for a “Repeat.”

We had no casualties and the rest of the night was quiet.

26 December 2008


The northbound convoy left An Hoa at about 1500. There were some supplies that were going to be dropped off at the Alamo, and a couple of Marines from Charlie Company were also along for the ride.

About an hour later, we reached the intersection of the trail that led from the MSR (Main Supply Route) up to the Alamo. There was a working party, waiting. The four of us headed on up the trail, each carrying a case of C-rations that had been part of the re-supply load on the convoy. The fact that we were officers really meant nothing—if we were going to eat the chow, or drink the water, or use the radio batteries, we could help carry it as long as we were headed that way.

In today’s society in which 90% or more of the populace has never served in uniform, there is a serious misconception about the relationship between the officer and the enlisted man. Many of our civilian brothers and sisters assume that officers treat enlisted men with disdain, or that the troops are there to serve the officers. Not so.

General John A. Lejeune, issued Marine Corps Order No. 29 in 1920, (incorporated into the Marine Corps Manual (1921)) which states, “Young Marines respond quickly and readily to the exhibition of qualities of leadership on the part of their officers. … The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar. In fact, it should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son. …”

I had 20 sons to meet.

We dropped our load at the point designated by the Gunny who nodded approvingly as he saw us carrying our share. We reported to the Skipper who briefed us that we would be staying in place for the night. He had his radio operator advise the platoon sergeants to report to the CP.

About that time, a young Lance Corporal came over a little rise and said, “Excuse me, Skipper. That ville you wanted to blow away before sunset? The airplanes are here to do it.”

The Skipper said, “Thanks, Auggie. Come on gentlemen, you ought to see this.”

The Lance Corporal was our 1-4 (“Stationbreak one-four, Charlie”) or air liaison.
He and his radio operator made contact with a flight of A-1 Skyraiders, a WWII vintage propeller driven aircraft capable of carrying sixteen 500 pound bombs. Referred to as “the Spad”, it was great for close air support. We spent the next twenty minutes watching the air strike on a village in which one of the company’s ambush patrols had spotted a number of armed men.

When we returned to the CP, our platoon sergeants were waiting for us. By now, the sun was very low in the sky.

Staff Sergeant Gary Beyer led me to the Second Platoon section of the lines, and briefly took me to each hole to introduce me to our Marines. We then returned to the platoon CP, a fighting hole I would share with Staff Sergeant Beyer and our radio operator.

By now it was dark. We pulled out our poncho liners and prepared for the night. Staff Sergeant Beyer began to give me a run down on the platoon’s situation. We had 21 enlisted Marines and a corpsman. The squad leaders were Sergeant Mac McGroary and Corporal Jerome Thornton. Beyer attested that they were good NCO’s—he had been their Drill Instructor at Parris Island. Surprisingly, both were draftees. (During the Vietnam War—as with Korea and WWII, there were some months in which the Corps had to take draftees. While it was not a completely desirable situation – the Marine Corps was an “all volunteer” force long before 1973—the few draftees I had were good Marines, a compliment to the training they received at Parris Island and San Diego.

About 2130, there was a sudden explosion from our lines. In a flash, Beyer was gone, heading up to check the situation. Two Marines had been wounded when someone threw a grenade at our lines.

The Skipper called me on the radio and asked if I could adjust a 60mm mortar fire mission in response. I replied that I could.

In a few seconds, I heard the mortar fire, and watched for the explosion. And there it was, out in front of our lines. And I had no clue as to where it was supposed to be.

“Charlie 2, this is 6. Adjust?”

“Roger, right…..” My mind was racing. I had had no real opportunity to orient myself and sure did not want to direct the fires into our lines.

“Well, dammit, how far right?”

“Right one village!”

The Gunny came sliding into my hole. “OK, Lieutenant, let’s just calm down, OK?”

He took the handset and quickly adjusted the fires to where he wanted them. As he left, he patted me on the shoulder. “It’s OK, sir. In a day or so, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.”

And who’s the father and who’s the son, here?, I thought.

Staff Sergeant Beyer returned a few minutes later. Both men were injured, but not seriously. They would be medevac-ed at first light.

The rest of the night was quiet.

My prayers that night were of thanksgiving that my Marines were OK and for men such as the Gunny and Staff Sergeant Beyer.

25 December 2008


At 1000, the Company prepared to move out, to be replaced by Delta Company. The CP group and the two rifle platoons at the compound moved by a loose column down to the ferry landing, where Charlie 1 was waiting. After crossing the river, the column was reformed and moved up through Phu Loc (6) and on down the road to the Alamo, a barren rise which was hollowed out on top, to be used as a company patrol base. En route, we passed Delta.

As we moved into the Alamo, we spotted a dead tree branch, festooned with C-ration cans stuck in a hole in the middle of the hill. Beneath the tree was a box of radio batteries with a tag that read “Merry Christmas from Delta Company to Charlie Company.”

The Company set in and patrols went out to the west and north. Despite our pleas, the Skipper ordered us to catch the afternoon convoy back to An Hoa. We would rejoin the company on the 26th.

The ride in was uneventful, and we retired to the BOQ area. Several of the guys from 2/5 and 3/5 were there and we exchanged notes preparatory to moving out the next day. We learned that 2/5 was in the Arizona and 3/5 was operating back in the mountains of Base Area 112, along with 1/3 and 3/3, all as part of Operation Taylor Common.

At 1800, the cease fire ended with a literal bang as every artillery unit at An Hoa resumed firing.

I wrote a short letter home and hit the rack. The vacation was over. Time to go to work.

24 December 2008


The convoy formed up in front of the S-4 tent at about 0930. The convoy commander, a Staff Sergeant, briefed all of the passengers on what was expected if we were ambushed. Besides the five officers (the four of us from Charlie, plus Chip Pilkington who was linking up with Delta at “The Alamo”), there were about 20 enlisted Marines.

We pulled out, led by a tank. The trucks picked up a 40 meter interval, and, as we cleared the west gate, we all “locked and loaded.” That is, we inserted a magazine into the rifle and chambered a round. All eyes were outboard.

The ride to Phu Lac (6) was uneventful, taking about 45 minutes to traverse the 10 road miles or so. We entered Phu Lac (6) from the south, through a barbed wire gate, up a sunken road at the western end of the hill, and up to the top. Delta Battery, 2/11 was on the west side of the road. 1/5’s CP and area was on the east side, stretching perhaps 150 meters. The north side was steep and ran down to the Song Thu Bon. A burned out high rise bridge ran from the east side of the hill, but the road had been re-routed to exit the hill to the northwest and down to the location of the new bridge under construction by the Seabees.

All of the buildings on the hill were sand bagged and most were dug into the ground. There were radio antennas everywhere. The only colors were green, grey, and dusty red.

We walked to the Battalion command post where we met Captain Wilson, our new Skipper. He in turn introduced us to our Battalion Commander. The next time I laid eyes on that man was in late April when we came back to the bridge. It was a small unit war.

The Skipper took us in tow and we jammed into his jeep for the ride down to the ferry landing. The Seabees were in the process of sinking the piles that would support a new, lower “high water” bridge.” In other words, it would be strong enough to withstand the flow of the monsoon floods, even if it was under water. The construction equipment, including cranes and a pile driver, were on floating causeway sections. There was also a smaller raft-like platform with some heavy-duty outboard engines that acted as a ferry. It could accommodate a tank and a jeep, or three deuce and a halfs (two-and-one-half ton cargo trucks).

The Skipper drove on with the tank and across we went. He drove up a slight grade for about 300 meters to a small encampment. It was surrounded by earthen berms that stood about 10 feet high. Inside the compound were 4 strong-back tents surrounded by sand bags and ammo boxes full of dirt. There was one per platoon (2, 3, Weapons/Headquarters—1st was dug in down by the bridge) and one that served as a mess hall. There was also a bunker that was the command post.

In we went to meet the XO and the Company Gunny. The XO had been the only lieutenant in the Company and with our arrival, he was returning to An Hoa. We met the SNCOs who had been commanding the other platoons and the Skipper briefed us on our near future.

We were to return to An Hoa the next day (in order to meet a Division requirement about five days of indoctrination before going to the bush—it was a sop to our Moms. Hopefully, no one would be killed in the first five days, and in-country indoctrination sounds so much better than working parties.)

After about an hour, he announced our assignments. Hartman to 1st Platoon, McCarty to 2d Platoon, Pompper to 3d Herd, and Koch to Weapons. No sooner had he done that than the Gunny stuck his head in the door. “Skipper, you better get out here to see this. It’s Charlie 2.” I groaned, mentally. My platoon? Already?

“All right, gents,” said the Skipper. “Let us see what we have.”

There they were, the 20 Marines of 2d Platoon—my Platoon. The size was worrisome. The T/O size of a rifle was 45 Marines, 2 Corpsmen, and one officer. If reinforced with elements of the Weapons Platoon, as we had been briefed, I should have had 57 Marines, 2 Corpsmen and me. And I had 14. The rest of the Company was not much better off.

As the Skipper straightened out from his climb through the bunker door, they started to sing. Jingle Bells. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And the ever poignant Silent Night.

How strange, to see these young carolers, clad in dirty utilities, dusty flak jackets, helmets, loaded rifles carefully pointed sky-ward, smiling and singing at the top of their lungs. One, PFC Don Lucas, had added a red Santa hat to the top of his helmet.

The Skipper thanked them, shook each man’s hand, and returned to the CP. We talked for another 5 minutes or so, and then he turned to his mail that had arrived with the convoy. The Gunny spoke.

“Sir, may I speak to the Lieutenants?”

“Sure, Gunny.”

“Alone, sir?”


He led us outside, up onto the western berm that overlooked the eastern Arizona Territory, and bade us take a seat. He commenced one of the hallmark Marine Corps leadership lessons I have ever heard. Across the river, Delta Battery and the 81 mm Mortar Platoon kept up a heavy rate of fire.

“Gentlemen. I am Gunnery Sergeant Elsmore, the Company Gunnery Sergeant. You don’t have to listen to me for you are officers and I am only a Gunnery Sergeant. In the coming days, I may offer you advice about things I have learned in my 17 years in the Corps, but you don’t have to listen to me for you are officers and I am only a Gunnery Sergeant. There may even be times when I may pull you aside for a brief chat if I see something that worries me. But, still, you don’t have to listen to me for you are officers and I am only a Gunnery Sergeant. “

[Pause, wistful sigh]

“You know, Mr. Burke [our classmate, now fighting to save his leg] didn’t listen to me."

We, however, were all ears! (In fact, the Gunny was exercising a little poetic license. Jim's radio operator tripped a big box mine. The radio operator was killed and Jim took a huge hunk of shrapnel through his leg. There is no "listening" in the world that will prevent that.)

At exactly 1800, the guns went silent. (Guns, as in artillery pieces. No poetry required.) The Christmas cease-fire had begun. Even after only a day, the silence was eerie.

Through the night, and contrary to orders from Division, the sky as far away as could be seen was filled with red and green pop-up flares.

The Prince of Peace felt very far away, and yet He was right there with us, of that we had no doubt. A Christmas eve I’ll never forget.

391 to go.

After-thought. Marines are a strange breed of cat. Brutally polite to old women and kids, your average generous American teenager when less fortunate little kids are around, and possessed of a poetic sense of humor that is marvelous to behold. They always have been.

In war-time, they are involved in life-or-death situations constantly. They inflict death on others and see it inflicted on shipmates in the worst possible ways. When boiled down to basics, the Marine Rifleman is God’s noblest and most magnificent creation and He honored me beyond comprehension by allowing me the privilege of leading them.

In wartime,the philosopher-poet emerges from their souls, along with a wry gallows humor. My radio operator once opined, ""Ya know, Lieutenant, this war's gonna turn out a whole generation of people who will go to a backyard barbeque and if somebody drops an ice cube, he'll pick it up, put it in his mouth without even checking it, and won't give a damn if anybody's looking."

Consider the chalky inscription that appeared on the rubble of the Beirut Airport on that grim Sunday in October 1983: “They Came In Peace.” And I suspect that recruits today still learn that WWII ditty, Take Down Your Blue Star Mother. The civilian can never fully understand that humor—it’s a you-had-to-be-there thing.

Here is a Christmas poem from that memorable Christmas 1968.

Christmas Eve Sitrep
5th Marines TAOR

(Translations available upon request)

Oh, there's strange things done 'neath the Vietnam sun
But the one that really jacked my jaws
Was the night 'neath the moon, when the third platoon
Gunned down Ol’ Santa Claus.

We’re the Marines, winter nights we’ve seen,
From Wake to the frozen Chosin,
Our lines were tight, pre-planned fires were right
And ready to be called real close in.

We had 81s and naval guns.
60 mortars were ready to crack.
We had an Ontos or so, and an arty FO'
With H&Is back to back.

T’was a Silent Night, and nary a light
broke the Arizona’s black mantle,
Except for a flare, o’er Hill 200’s air—
Recon’s Christmas candle.

No Yuletide logs, in paddy bogs,
But the ceasefire was holding well.
‘Course after Tet, you could pretty well bet
Uncle Ho just might still raise some hell.

Then I froze where I stood, 'cause out of the wood,
Eight horses came charging along.
This may sound corny, but those mustangs looked horny,
“My God,” I thought, “cavalry Cong.”

They were coming our way pulling a . . . sleigh?
Damn, you never know what they will use.
Our LP’s twice clicked and our flares all were tripped,
And our claymores blew a fuse.

We let him get close, then I yelled, "Who goes?"
Like they do in the movie show.
The answer we got, believe it or not,
Was a hearty, "Ho, Ho, Ho".

Now these troops of mine had seen some time,
They'd done lots of things back-assward.
They may be thick, but I'll tell you a trick,
They knew that wasn't the password.

The "foo gas" roared, the 81s soared,
The ‘bloopers” sure raised hell.
A bright red flare flew through the air,
So we fired our FPL.

I'll give him guts, yep, that man was nuts,
Or I'm a no good liar,
But he dropped like a stone in our killing zone.
'Til I passed the word, "Cease fire".

I went out and took a real good look,
My memory started to race;
My mind plays games when it comes to names,
But I never forget a face.

He was dressed all in red, and he looked well fed,
Older than most I'd seen.
He looked right weird with that long white beard,
And stumps where his legs had been.

He hadn't quite died when I reached his side,
But the end was clearly in sight,
I knelt down low and he said real slow,
"Merry Christmas, and to all a good night."

So, I picked up the hook and with a voice that shook,
Said, "Gimme the six, rikki-tick."
"Skipper", I said, "Hang onto your head,
Well…we just sorta greased Saint Nick."

Now the Skipper's cool, he's nobody's fool,
Right off he knew the word.
If this got out, there'd be no doubt,
We’d have no “Freedom Bird.”

"Just get him up here and we'll play it by ear,
Make sure he's got a S-2 tag;
Bust up that the sleigh; drive those reindeer away,
And fer gosh sakes bury that bag."

Now back in the World, little kids are curled
in their beds awaiting first light.
Then their folks they’ll wake, and for the tree they’ll break
Expecting a glorious sight.

Instead, by and by, those kids will cry,
“Huh, nothing's under the tree!”
'Cause, the word just came back, from the FMFPAC,
That Santa has gone VC.

Oh, there's strange things done 'neath the Vietnam sun
But the one that really jacked my jaws
Was the night 'neath the moon, when the third platoon
Gunned down Ol’ Santa Claus.

The following songs, although never sung in Vietnam, were favorites of Oscar Company, Basic Class 12-68. The wives hated them!

Wet Christmas

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas,
With swamps and rice instead of snow.
Where an M-16 glistens,
And VC ears are missin,’
And body bags are lined up in the snow.

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas,
With every spot report I write.
May the days be merry and bright,
And may all your casualties be light.

Way Down Upon The Song Thu Bon River(Remember: we had used the An Hoa map sheet in our map-reading classes.)

Way down upon the Song Thu Bon River,
Far, far away.
That’s where they shot me through the liver,
That’s where my leg will stay.
All the world is sad and dreary,
Here on the Repose.
Oh, Corpsman, how my chest grows weary
Breathing through all these holes!


In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

23 December 2008


We were up early on 23 December. A helicopter arrived by 0900. Marines leaving the chopper carried rifles and wore dirty scuffed-up flak jackets and had a tired, dirty, watchful look about them.

We hurried aboard, obviously new guys ("fng"s--you can probably figure that one out) because we were still wearing our “stateside” utilities and boots and had no weapons or gear other than our seabags. The flight to An Hoa took about 20 minutes, allowing us to observe the terrain (mountains to the north, west, and south; rice paddies, tree lines and rivers below). Soon, An Hoa came into view. There was a runway, many sandbagged bunkers, many more tents and tin-roofed buildings, and artillery, mortar, and rifle positions on the perimeter. It looked a lot like a mining town of the Old West.

We landed and a curious young Marine directed us to the Regimental CP, about 400 meters from the landing Zone (LZ). This time, the Adjutant knew we were coming, and our check-in was quick and smooth. Nine of us were assigned to 1/5 and directed across the street to its S-1 shop. Again, the adjutant was waiting for us. We were ushered in to meet the Executive Officer, a Major, who quickly scanned our OQRs.

“Anybody got any preferences?” he asked.

Mike Koch looked at Chip Hartman and then said, “Lieutenant Hartman and I would like Charlie Company, if possible, sir. A friend of ours is there.”

“Oh, who’s that?”

Mike named the officer.

“He was, but not any more. He’s on his way home. They think they can save his leg. Sorry.”

Welcome to the war. The XO informed us that the Battalion headquarters was at Phu Loc (6), a small ville on a rise on the south side of the Song Thu Bon River about 8 clicks (kilometers) northeast of An Hoa. Alpha, Bravo and Delta were in the bush in the area and Charlie was in a small compound north of the Song Thu Bon and about 1 click from the Battalion CP.

SeaBees were building a bridge across the river so that convoys could travel from Da Nang to An Hoa without the need of using a ferry. Charlie defended the northern end of that work.

Ultimately, Rob Montgomery and Jerry Ayers went to Alpha Company, Roy Phillips and Tom Pottenger went to Bravo, Mike Koch, Chip Hartman, Lyn Pompper and I went to Charlie, and Chip Pilkington went to Delta. Proving Major Flynn very prescient on that first day of TBS, of the 9, 3 were KIA (Phillips, Hartman, and Pilkington) and 2 others were wounded so badly that they were evacuated home (Pompper and Montgomery).

The four of us headed to Charlie Company’s office, a strong back tent (a general purpose tent fitted over a wood supporting frame), two rows behind the battalion headquarters. The First Sergeant greeted us, took our OQRs and Health Records, and had a Marine take us to supply to draw equipment.

At Supply, we surrendered our sea bags (less personal gear). We were each issued one set of camouflage utilities, a green tee shirt, a pair of jungle boots, a helmet, flak jacket, haversack, cartridge belt with belt suspender straps, poncho, poncho liner, rubber air mattress (“rubber lady”), first aid packet, a bottle of insect repellant (“bug juice”), four plastic canteens, a canteen cup, and a green towel. At the company armory, we added a .45 calibre pistol, two magazines (loaded), a magazine pouch, a compass and pouch, a strobe light, a flashlight, a gas mask, and a pencil flare gun with 5 flares. I already had the K-Bar fighting knife and .45 holster that my Dad carried in WWII. (My son, Moleson, now carries the K-bar as part of his life-support equipment. Good steel. Good man.)

We changed into our new clothes, placing the stateside utilities into our sea bags. The Sergeant in the armory told us that it was company policy that one of our two dogtags be worn on the lowest cross-lace of our right boot. He offered each of us an M-16 rifle, which we accepted. The standard (table of organization” or T/O) weapon of an officer is a pistol. It was also a signal to an observant enemy that the wearer was someone of interest—a radio operator, Corpsman, crew-served weapons team member, staff non-commissioned officer, or officer. The pistol was handy at night for checking lines—it was easy to snag a rifle in brush or vines—but it spent most of the time in my pack.) We also acquired 11 M-16 magazines of 18 rounds each. One was inserted in the weapon and the other 10 were carried in a used M-16 ammo bandolier, slung across the chest. I scrounged a 12th magazine and loaded it with tracers, something my Staff Platoon Commander had suggested at TBS. I carried it in the breast pocket of my flak jacket; it made marking targets a little easier.

Adding extra socks, shaving gear, cleaniung gear for weapons, and writing paper, we packed our packs and headed back to the company office. All total our equipment weighed about 35 pounds, plus 8 pounds of water. I weighed 172 pounds (oh, for those days), so my individual equipment weighed about 25% of my body weight. It never got lighter, because we added C-rations, a claymore mine with trip flare, and, usually an extra battery for the PRC-25 radio, increasing the load to about 50 pounds.

What did change was my weight. When I left the bush 6 months later, I weighed 118 pounds—but it was a lean, tough, acclimated and tired 118.

We next went to the Battalion S-2 (Intelligence) shop to draw maps, and to receive a short briefing on security. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had used that map sheet in TBS.

We were given the latest “thrust points” for insertion on our maps. The 1:50,000 map had a grid of 1,000 by 1,000 meters superimposed over the topographic map. Obviously, it would be bad to broadcast that “I am setting up an ambush at grid coordinates 899471." We presumed that the enemy had captured some of our maps. A thrust point was a designated grid intersection (890470). The thrust points we received were “TV Show,” “Actress,” “Automobile,” and “Baseball Team.” Thus, using the grid coordinates above, I could report, “From St. Louis Cardinals, right point 9, up point 1.”

You were supposed to change the specific reference, that is, the next time you used that point, St. Louis Cardinals became Philadelphia Phillies. "Actress," however, was at a grid intersection that was centered between two very easily distinguished hill tops. For some reason, that one was always “Marilyn Monroe.”

We also learned the battalion “brevity code,” for use when transmitting in the clear.

Fire Team: “Backfield”
Squad: “Work Horse”
Platoon: “Battering Ram”
Ambush: “Headache”
Patrol: “Snake”
Road: “Redline”
River: “Blueline.”

Commanding Officer was "6", the XO was "5", platoons were 1-4. Squads were Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The Battalion call sign was "Stationbreak," and regiment was "Parker Pen." (I was soon to be "Stationbreak Charlie 2-actual. My squads were 2 alpha and 2 bravo.")

So "Stationbreak Charlie , a squad-sized ambush could be reported as “Am establishing work horse snake at Edsel right 1.7, up 2.2.”

We returned to the Company office and were shown to the “BOQ,” another tent with cots two rows away. After chow—the regimental mess hall was a large, well sand-bagged building with a sign (in scarlet and gold, naturally) that read “Breakfast 0600-0700, Dinner 1200-1300, Supper 1730-1830. Marines in from the field—anytime!”—we returned to the BOQ to clean our weapons, square away our gear, and get ready to move out to meet the Skipper.

The First Sergeant (always “First Sergeant,” never “Top,” an Army slang for Top Soldier. If called “Top,” First Sergeant Lee would glare and say, “A goddam top is a little kid’s toy, dammit.”) had advised us that we would catch the 1000 convoy to Phu Loc (6) the next morning.

Sleep came hard. There was the natural excitement, but An Hoa was also home to Echo and Fox Batteries, 2/11 Delta battery was at Phu Loc (6)), and a 175 mm and another 8 inch howitzer battery from Force troops. They fired constantly. The 175, in particular was loud because of the double report from its charge and from the round breaking the sound barrier just beyond the muzzle. BOOM-boom.

I wrote a quick letter home and one to Maryann, giving them my address. We had free mail, and jut wrote “Free” in place of the stamp. A benefit, plus the fact that as of 2345 on Saturday night, we were in a tax-free zone. The benefits just came rolling in. Just remember: TANSTAAFL.

My prayers were short and fervent. And I drifted off. 392 to go.

22 December 2008


At 0200, on 22 December, the other end of the air base came under mortar fire. As Churchill is reputed to have said, “There is no thrill like being shot at. . . .and missed!” As I was to quickly learn, the thrill wears away pretty quickly and it becomes a matter of dull repetition.

By 0800, we had had breakfast and were back at the reception center. Our shipmates who were assigned to 3d Marine Division (then located at Phu Bai, near Hue City) headed back to the flight line to catch a northbound C-130. I said my good-byes to Pat (next to whom I had sat all the way from St. Louis, 10,000 miles and a universe away), Tom Peachy, Mike McCormack and Jay Sims. Mike McCormick, Pat, And Peaches were all from 3d Platoon, Oscar Company. Jay was from November Company, but he and I had been in 3d Platoon, Echo Company at OCS in the summer of 1967.

It was the last time I saw Mike and Jay. They were both killed in action within the next three months.

Those assigned to the 26th Marines, the Special Landing Force, headed for. . .somewhere. The rest of us waited for trucks to take us to Hill 327, the site of the 1st Marine Division command post. We had a wait.

This was our introduction to the vagaries of war. There is a lot of boredom involved, intermingled with the occasional few minutes of sheer terror. For most of us, our lives since 1st Grade had been regimented. Calendars and daily training schedules broke down or lives into hourly segments. 9:00-10 am: Arithmetic, 10:00 -1100 am: Trigonometry, 12:00-1:00: Modern World Civilization, 1:00-2:00: Operation and Functioning of the M-60 Machine Gun. To now have a couple of free hours in the middle of the day was unsettling.

Finally, at about 1000, a truck arrived. About 20 of us boarded, and after the driver assured the rest that he would return, off we went. Leaving the air base and passing through “Dogpatch,” was a thrill. Now we were in Vietnam. The trip to Hill 327 (about 20 minutes) was uneventful. The streets were crowded with American and South Vietnamese military vehicles, over-crowded civilian vehicles, and many young Vietnamese women riding bicycles and motor-bikes.They looked exotic in their ao dais, a traditional (very!) tight-fitting brightly colored silk dress worn over black pantaloons. The skirt is usually split to the waist.

As we pulled into the Division CP compound, we saw a 1st Lt lounging against a post supporting the roof over the porch of the G-1 (personnel) shop. As the truck pulled closer, he turned, stuck his head in the door and yelled, “Colonel, sir, Christmas came early. There’s a truck with at least 20 lieutenants coming in.”

Then he saw Ted Lewis. They had been classmates at the Academy. Ted said, “So, you didn’t know we were coming? You’re happy to see us?”

“Oh, man, are we? We’ve got platoons being commanded by corporals.”

“Well, then, you’re really gonna love the next two trucks!” By Noon, we had been logged into the Division, had orders endorsed sending us to various regiments, and were dispersing.

About 20 of us were assigned to the 5th Marines. We were directed to head down to a landing zone near 5th Marines (Rear) where we should “catch the next chopper to An Hoa.”

And we waited. By nightfall, it was apparent that we were not going to An Hoa that night. The Officer-in-Charge of 5th Marines (rear) put us in a hooch to sleep, and scrounged some C-rations for Dinner. (In this way, we were also introduced to a world in which breakfast and dinner were the only two meals.

Still in Da Nang, we settled in for the night. At about 2245, we took a couple of mortar rounds. They were pretty far off; the shrapnel stuck to the wooden sides of the building, but did not penetrate.

Within 10 minutes, we were back in our racks and asleep. 393 to go.

21 December 2008


Civil War soldiers referred to being in combat as “seeing the elephant.” It meant that hearing about an elephant (or combat) just did not convey the real sense of the experience. Today we were about to see the elephant for ourselves.

We turned in our B-4 bags (suit cases) containing our service uniforms at 3d Force Service Regiment, receiving a receipt which was placed in our Officer Qualification Records (OQR)—our service record book. Our spare utilities (fatigues,” the army called them), skivvies, socks, spare boots, shaving gear,and a few personal items went into our sea bags (duffle bags) which we would take in-country.

At III MAF (rear), we were treated to the sight of a map of northern I Corps—which was 8 feet tall and about 20 feet wide, with East at the top of the map. US strength in South Vietnam was 530,000,(nearing its April 1969 high of 543,000), including nearly 81,000 Marines.

The Republic of Vietnam had created four “corps” areas (I, II, III, and IV Corps) throughout the country, each of which was a South Vietnamese political as well as military jurisdiction. Each corps commander thus acted as political and military chief of his region, and under him province chiefs conducted both civil and military administration and under the province chiefs in turn were district chiefs. Hue City and Da Nang in I Corps were autonomous cities, administered by mayors who reported directly to the national government in Saigon. I Corps (“Eye” Corps) covered 10,000 square miles. Because it bordered Laos on the west and North Viet Nam at the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) in the north, it was, in military parlance, “key terrain.”

Laos on the west was effectively under the control of the Pathet Lao (Laotian Communist Party). The North Vietnamese established numerous bases in this “neutral” country. Using this phony neutrality, they established the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vast network of dirt highways from which North Vietnamese troops could easily invade South Vietnam.

The terrain of this region ranged from coastal plains, dotted with small villages, rice paddies and frequent tree lines to rugged jungle-covered mountains along the western part of the country. The jungle was often “triple canopy,” meaning that there were actually three layers of trees. Where there were nearby mountains and jungle, the enemy gained a tactical advantage.

Most of the Vietnamese inhabitants of I Corps lived in the flatlands, either in the thousands of villages and hamlets interspersed among the rice fields or in the large cities of Hue and Danang. Concealed among the civilians were the enemy's political agents and guerrillas (“Viet Cong”), and from the populated areas the enemy drew recruits and supplies. After the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong had been effectively destroyed as a military force. Not that it mattered: a 70 year old mama-san or an 8 year old baby-san armed with an AK-47 or a grenade could kill you just as dead as a 30 year old NVA soldier.

Enemy strength in I Corps was estimated to be nearly 80,000, of which about 50,000 were North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. There were another 6,000 or so main force Viet Cong (VC), over 12,000 VC guerrillas, and about 11,000 supply and administrative personnel. It was thought that about half of these troops, some 42 infantry and 11 support battalions, were massed along or near the DMZ, in the TAOR of the 3d Marine Division.

In the 1st Marine Division TAOR, south and west of Da Nang, enemy strength was estimated to be 15 to 20 combat and 4 support battalions, comprising at least two North Vietnamese Divisions. Intelligence had identified at least five NVA regiments in the area: 21st, 36th, 38th, 90th and 141st. [When LBJ unilaterally ended Operation Rolling Thunder (bombing of North Vietnam) on 31 October 1968, he made the resupply of North Vietnamese units much easier, and their strength was growing.]

Operation Meade River (20 Nov-9 Dec), fought in the “Dodge City” area around Hill 55 (7th Marines combat base and command post) and on Go Noi Island, had just been completed. Fighting against two NVA regiments, US casualties in the three week op were 107 killed-in-action (KIA) and 385 wounded-in-action (WIA) out of over 5,000 Marines involved. NVA/VC casualties were estimated to have been 841 KIA and 182 prisoners of war were captured.

Operation Taylor Common had commenced on 7 December in the area in and around the An Hoa basin (5th Marines combat base and command post), the “Arizona Territory,” and on west into the mountains all the way to Laos (referred to as Base Area 112). We now knew as much as Congressman on a junket.

We had the afternoon “off.” At 1800, busses arrived at the Officer’s Club to take us to Kadena for our flight to Da Nang.

The flight was surreal. We boarded a Continental Airlines 727, complete with stewardesses, for the flight. Most of us slept, leaving the stewardesses with little to do. One of my classmates (who was KIA in February) played poker with three of them, won over $500, and then gave it to them for a “Christmas Party” back in the States. We were going to have little use for money in the near future. (I went in-country with $50 in my pocket. I still had $20 of that seven months later.)

As we neared Da Nang, we got a scare. Someone noticed two flares in the sky, one near Da Nang Air Force Base, and one up near Red Beach, a linear separation of perhaps 5 to 10 miles. At TBS, we had been assured that we had better learn to operate in the dark, because “you’ll never get a flare mission unless “Luke” (aka “Luke the Gook”) is already in your wire. So, here we were, 140 warriors about to be dropped into a huge fire fight with nary a weapon between us!

It turns out that we were victims of hyperbole: we didn’t call for flares out in the bushm for a whole lot of reasons including preserving night vision and the danger of pinpointing our positions. Da Nang was peaceful.

We landed at about 2300 (11 pm) to find that no one knew we were coming!

The plane was unloaded and we began milling around, finding our identical sea bags. Finally, a Gunnery Sergeant drove up in a jeep. He hopped out, clipboard in hand, and shouted “Who’s in charge of this [universal adjective] mob?”

Ted Lewis(a 1st Lieutenant because after graduating from Annapolis with the Class of 1967, he had a Rhodes Scholarship) was the “Senior Officer” entrusted with our travel orders.

“Right here, Gunny.”

“Oh, begging the Lieutenant’s pardon, sir.” He flashed his light across the mob, which set off a light show of sparkles from nearly 300 gold bars on our collars.

“Jesus [universal adjective] Christ! How many f . . . ., er , how many lieutenants do we have hers, sir?” The sounds of our chuckles was increasing.

“There are 138 of us, Gunny,” Ted replied.

“Well, Godalmightydamn! (pause) All right, gentlemen, as your platoon sergeants taught you in OCS, the quickest and most efficient way to move a large body of troops is to march ‘em. Fall In!!!”

Hell, we sure knew how to do that. We were soon in three ranks, dressed (aligned from side to side) and covered (aligned from front to back).

“Pick up your gear. Right, Face. Forward, March.” He marched us to the transient reception center where they found bunks for all of us.

It was mid-night. My first day “in-country” was over. Only 394 to go.

Before I went to sleep, I prayed, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by, “Dear God. Please don’t let me screw up and get some innocent Marine killed or wounded. I’d like to go home in one piece if that is Your will, but please watch out for my Marines. Please bless Mom, Mary and Chris (my siblings), and Maryann. And, of course, God bless Chesty Puller.”

19 December 2008


For me, in 1968, this day never really happened. We left California on the 18th and arrived in Wake on the 20th, thanks to the International Date Line. (I suppose one could say that we got 50 minutes of the 19th in Hawaii, but I’m rounding down to the nearest 12 hours because it makes a better sea story.)

After we left Wake, we remained in daylight, landing at Kadena Air Force Base at about 1100 on Friday, December 20. The Marine Liaison at Kadena was surprised to receive a draft of Marines so close to Christmas, but soon scrounged a number of busses to take us to Third Marine Amphibious Force (Rear) (III MAF) at Camp Hansen.

For most of us, this was an introduction to the Orient and foreign travel. (My sole exposure up to that time was a family vacation in Bermuda in 1959 and the trip to Canada in 1967.) As we drove up the island, the sights and sounds were interesting.

At III MAF (Rear)—so named because the Force Headquarters was in Vietnam—we were again received with some surprise. Our record books were collected and at 1400, we were briefed on our anticipated schedule. We were told that there were no scheduled flights into Vietnam until after Christmas, and that we should check in at 0730, 1200and 1800 daily. The Billeting Officer assigned us to rooms in the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) and gave us the schedule for the dining room at the BOQ.

Pat and I managed to get adjoining rooms and headed to the BOQ to get settled in. Because we had not eaten since breakfast on the plane, we headed to the Commissioned Officers Mess to see if we could find a gedunk (snack bar). As we were entering, two lieutenants in Summer Service Alphas (the most complete service uniform, it was khaki in color and consisted of a belted blouse and trousers (a suit, if you will), with a khaki-colored long-sleeve shirt and a khaki field scarf (tie). And these two were wearing the fouragerre, indicating that they were assigned to the Fifth Marines.

It was pretty impressive. From the conversation we overheard, they were heading out on R&R, which meant that they were at the mid-point of their tour of duty.

We found the gedunk (along with a large number of our classmates), and killed time until our 1800 meeting.

When we got there, less than half our detachment was present. A number of our adventurous brethren, adopting the theory that they could be a little lax with schedules (“What are they gonna do? Shave my head and send me to Vietnam?”), had headed for town.

At the meeting, it was clear that someone had finally awakened and discovered that they were in possession of 138 infantry lieutenants. We were told that there would be a flight leaving at 1800 the next day, and they began calling the roll to fill the flight. I was number 6 and Pat was 14. (Our erstwhile brethren who missed the meeting also went in country the next night, about 20 minutes after we did.)

We were told to report back the following morning to put into storage any uniforms and baggage that we were not taking in country. We were warned to take with us one set of Summer Service Charlies (short sleeved khaki shirt, khaki trousers, cover, and shoes for use if we did not come back through Oki on R&R). We would also get any needed shots and would receive a briefing on the current situation in country at the headquarters of the Special Landing Force . We were then dismissed for the night.

As we walked toward the BOQ, Pat said, “Let’s go to the chapel. It should be quiet and I need some time there.”

It was quiet, but surely not empty! A whole lot of us felt a need to have a very personal talk with God that night.

When we got back to the Q, I wondered if I would be able to sleep. No problem. It was one of the last times since then that I really got a good night’s sleep.

18 December 2008


Today is all about memories.

It has arrived—the 40th Anniversary of my departure for war. There were times I never expected to live to see it—or to see the next morning, for that matter. There are times when it seems to me to be a dream, and others when it seems as if it happened only yesterday.

I think that one joy of Division reunions is that, for a few short hours, we are once again 19 or 20 or 21. Each of us carries with him in a special place in his heart the memory of shipmates who will always be 19 or 20 or 21, who gave all of their tomorrows for our todays.

On ANZAC Day, at every formation and memorial service, the Aussies always recite a verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem For The Fallen, written in 1914.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

December 18, 1968

My leave sped by. When I got home from Quantico, there was a letter waiting from my draft board noting that I was “apparently no longer attending college” and offering me “the opportunity” to show cause why I was not eligible for induction.

I donned my uniform and drove over to the Selective Service Office in Edwardsville, our County seat. As I walked in, a nice, older lady looked up and smiled. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant. May I help you?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Are y’all going to draft me, because if you are, I need to let my Commanding General know that I may be a little late in getting to the war.”

She laughed and took the letter. “I think we should just take that and clear that up right now, Sir. When do you report?”

“I leave on December 18.”

She came around the counter and gave me a big hug. “God bless you, son. I’ll be praying for you.”

I wasn’t drafted.

At Thanksgiving, Maryann and I were formally engaged. We had met in February, dated steadily at school until I graduated. We had Labor Day together in Chicago, when, a week after the Democratic Party “Days of Rage” Convention, I made the mistake of wearing my Dress Whites into a restaurant in The Loop. She came to Quantico for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and then we had several weekends together before I left.

It was a whirl-wind romance that, looking back, was doomed to failure, although the collapse took another 15 years to start and 20 years to happen. We were kids who did not know one another.

I came down with a fierce chest cold, complete with hacking cough. Mom was frantic. “The Viet Cong will hear him and it will be all over!”

She finally called my pediatrician, Dr. Ben Berman, who told her “Tell him to come up to the back door and I’ll give him a prescription for some cough medicine.”

I came through the office/waiting room, to the amazed stares of moms with their little ones, and was ushered back to Dr. Berman’s office. We talked and he gave me the prescription. He told me, “This is cruelly hard on your Mother, so be patient with her.”

I nodded.

He continued, “You know, no matter how much you have thought about this, it will be unlike anything you can imagine, right?”

“Yessir.” I realized that I was now standing, not with the gruff old doctor of my youth, but with LtCol Benjamin B. Berman, Army of the United States, a battalion surgeon on Omaha Beach on that harsh June morning for which he was awarded the Silver Star Medal. You listen to men like him, those who have “seen the elephant.”

“Good. Be careful. I’ll see you when you get home.” He said some soft words in Hebrew, patted me on the back, shook my hand, and sent me on my way.

On the Sunday before I left, we worshipped at my Mom’s church. I saw some high school friends and stopped to talk with them, while Mom went on into the Sanctuary.

As I walked to join her, she was talking to a friend of hers, the mother of one of my high school classmates. I saw Mom’s face fall. Then the other lady turned, saw me, blushed and paled at the same time, and turned back to Mom. “Oh, Ruth, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”

I later learned that when she saw Mom, she rushed up and said, “Oh, Ruth, they have drafted my [son]. They wouldn’t extend his deferment while he worked on his Masters. Why would they do that? Why him? Send the stupid ones, not the intelligent ones like my [son].”

We both made it home safely. He was a mail clerk in an Army unit, back in the rear with the gear. But three other guys from our hometown were also in that unit. All three were KIA on the same day within yards of one another. I later heard that one was killed when he tried to pull another, who was already gone, out of an exposed position. Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Our Moms’ relationship was never the same.

And finally, that day was there.

It was a cold, sunny day. At Lambert Field St Louis International Airport, I met Pat Oates for the start of our journey. Rita was there with their daughter Elizabeth, who may not even have been walking. I remember her happy little smile as she sat in her stroller. (Liz, if your kids ever read this, sorry for giving away your age. For me, you and Steph will always be sitting at the card table in our house in Milwaukee with Michael and Matt that night when Matt went to sleep with his face in the spaghetti. At least I have embarrassed you all. Sorry Margaret, you weren’t around yet!)

My Mom and grandmother had brought me to the airport. There was a lot of silence and forced conversation. It was not a happy day. Finally, our flight to San Francisco was called away and it was a blessing.

From San Francisco, we caught a bus to Travis AFB. Within a few hours, Basic Class 12-68 was having a mini-reunion. Our flight was called away at about 2100, and off we went.

The flight itself was unremarkable. We were on a Pan Am jet so it was like any other commercial flight of that time. Pan Am and a couple of other airlines contracted with the Department of Defense to fly those routes.

Our first stop was in Honolulu. We landed at about midnight and were told that we would depart at 0230. A lot of the guys went looking for a bar. Pat and I just strolled around, ending up in a quiet area that had big pools and huge carp swimming in them. We just stood talking and throwing pebbles at the fish.

At about 0050, Pete Porello came dashing up. “Where the [universal adjective] have you guys been? We’re leaving and you are almost UA! [“UA”—unauthorized absence; awol] Not a good way to start things, gents!”

We all ran back and boarded the plane. The war could get back on schedule.

Our next stop was the next morning at Wake Island, where it was already December 20 thanks to the International Date Line.

Wake is a special place for Marines.

In January 1941, the United States Navy began to construct a military base on the atoll. On August 19, elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion arrived. Armed with six 5 inch and twelve twelve 3 inch cannon, plus heavy and light machine guns, the 449 officers and men of 1st Defense Battalion, under the command of Maj. James Deveraux, USMC, began to establish the island’s defenses.

Starting on 8 December and lasting until 23 December, the battalion reinforced with sailors and civilian construction workers, held out against overwhelming odds, repelling one amphibious assault, destroying 2 Japanese destroyers, one submarine, and 24 enemy aircraft. Finally, after fighting off numerous air attacks and a second amphibious assault in a 12 hour battle against a vastly superior Japanese landing force, Wake surrendered on the afternoon of 23 December 1941. Between 700 and 1000 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed in the attack, while American losses were 52 military and about 70 civilians.

One of the legends of the battle is that after the initial Japanese amphibious assault was repelled with heavy Japanese losses, the Defense Battalion commander, Major Deveraux was asked by his superiors if he needed anything. The newspapers back in the States reported that he said, "Send us more Japs.”

After he was released from a POW camp in 1945, Deveraux denied that any such message was sent. "As far as I know, it wasn't sent at all. None of us was that much of a damn fool. We already had more Japs than we could handle."

After our plane was refueled, we re-boarded and commenced our trip to Okinawa, having visited a shrine to the courage and valor of combat Marines.

It was now our responsibility to ensure that no one tarnished that reputation.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

17 December 2008


Well, not really—-St Crispin’s Day is 25 October, but it’s close enough for government work. . . .

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of my departure for war. It is for me my personal “feast of Crispian.” My thoughts today, as they have been at some point in every day for 40 years, are of Vietnam and the Marines and Corpsmen with whom I had the privilege and honor of serving in that place.

Recently, I went to our local “State Store” and found a bottle of Chilean wine. At sunset tonight, I stood on my deck, alone (there is never an Army officer around when you need one) and was “silent, over Chilean wine, in a place [in Pennsylvania], thinking of those days and those men.”

In his Agincourt speech in Henry V, set on the eve of battle, Shakespeare has Harry the King tell his men:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day!

And tonight, before Taps, I will re-read Red Reese’s moving memorial to PFC William Davis Martin, USMC, and then I will pray “God bless Gunny Winston. God continue to bless the Lucas and Zimmerman, Tews and Unfried, Phipps and Wandro, Buckner and Martin families, and especially Chip's family (2dLt Fred Andrew Hartman, Jr., USMCR, for whom my sons Frederick and Andy are named) and the families of all of our shipmates who laid down their lives on the altar of duty. God bless the Colonel’s Lady—Mrs. Griffis, who shared our beloved Joe with us for all those re-unions and could laugh with us when we laid him to rest in the hallowed hills of Arlington—where America buries its heroes—when he was late for his own funeral! God Bless Colonel Pat O’Toole and Major Bob Kerzic. God Bless our Skippers, Bob Wilson and Frank Satterfield. God Bless Mike Koch, Dick Rollins, Neil Meier, Mike Galyean, Rich Crawford, First Sergeant Lee, Gunny Elsmore, Staff Sergeant Beyer, David Thompson, Red Reese, Obie O’Brien, Darryl Levi, Bob Henson, Mike Tonkyn, “Frag” Felton, Doc Roger Teague (“Doc Love”)and all the other Marines and Corpsmen with whom I share the right to say ‘I am a Marine of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.’ God forgive me if I have forgotten to pray for any of those other men with whom I served and in whose shadow, I stand in awe. I know, merciful Father, that you will never forget them. God bless Charlie Company whenever it goes in harm’s way.

And, of course, God bless Chesty Puller.”

UPDATE: I have added links to the Medal of Honor citation (posthumous) of PFC Jimmy Phipps, the Navy Cross citation of Mike Tonkyn (my 2d Squad Leader) and PFC (later Sergeant) Samuel "Frags" Felton, and a photo of PFC Jimmy Wandro who received the Silver Star Medal(posthumously). And, yes, Wandro, Tonkyn and Felton did receive their decorations for heroic conduct on the same night--known to those of us who were there simply as "That Night." Although they were never more than 100 meters apart, each action was independent of the others. There was a dirty job to do and they did it and their nation ought to be eternally grateful. And yet more kids know Paris Hilton's name than Jimmy Phipps. (He would probably be OK with that--like most Marines, he appreciated eye candy, even if the brains were cotton candy.)

As James Mitchener's Task Force Commander asked at the end of The Bridges At Toko-ri, "Where do we find men such as these?

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

16 December 2008


Technical note: In US military parlance, regiments are referred to by their branch. Hence, the 9th and 23d Infantry, the 2d Engineers, and the 12th, 15th, and 17th Field Artillery are regiments of the Army. Likewise, the 5th Marines is a Marine regiment.

Today, we sometimes hear talking heads and news anchors speak incorrectly of e.g., the 3d Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) as “the 3d Infantry.” (Activated in November 1917 during World War I at Camp Greene, North Carolina, the 3d Infantry Division went into combat for the first time eight months later in France. At midnight on July 14, 1918, the Division earned lasting distinction while engaged with the enemy in the Aisne-Marne Offensive. The Division was protecting Paris at a position on the banks of the Marne River. When flanking French units retreated, the Division Commander, Major General Joseph Dickman, told our French allies "Nous Resterons La” (“We shall remain here"). The 3rd Infantry Division stood firm, repelling the enemy and earning the gallant title "Rock of the Marne".)

The 3d Infantry (The Old Guard), whose 1st Battalion guards the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, would be quite surprised to hear the 3d Infantry Division referred to as the “3d Infantry.”


In his classic book Fix Bayonets! Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., USMC, wrote of the Marines he knew, loved, and led in France in WWI. He was a lieutenant and Executive Officer of 49th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, an outfit that I also love; when the Marine Corps changed to alpha designations of companies between the wars, 49th Company became Company C, i.e., “Charlie” Company. In the summer of 1969, for a while, I was also XO, C/1/5.

Along with Fox Company, 9th Marines, Charlie Company, 5th Marines will always be “my company.” Charlie Company was my first combat unit, and Fox Company, my first rifle company command.

Those things are important—they stay with you and become part of who you are.

In 1978, my Commanding Officer invited me to join him at a function at which General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., then Commandant of the Marine Corps, was to be the guest of honor. As a Captain in 1943, Louis Wilson commanded Fox 2/9 in the invasion of Guam.

He led the attack on Fonte Hill (now Nimitz hill), up through 300 yards of machine gun and mortar fire, dislodging the Japanese troops there entrenched. In the course of the attack, he was shot through one lung. Through the night, he and his Marines hung on to repulse counter-attack after counter-attack. He ultimately lost the lung. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

A tall, spare Mississippian, he had cold blue eyes and was a no-nonsense Marine.
As we went through the reception line, General Wilson spied Col. Hart and greeted him. Col. Hart introduced me thusly:

“General, may I present one of my officers, Major Mac McCarty. The two of you have something in common.”

Locking those eyes on me, he asked “And what maht that be, Majuh?”

“Fox Company, sir.” He visibly softened.

“So you commanded Fox Company? When?”

“Yes, sir. 1975. Mayaguez recovery.”

Very softly, “Was it a good company, Majuh?

“Sir, it was the best God-damned rifle company in the Marine Corps!”

He reached out and punched me on the shoulder. “Well, it by-God better be. Nice to meet you, Majuh.”

Between 1943 and his death in 2005, I do not believe Louis H. Wilson ever stopped being “Fox-6.” The rest of us just had temporary care of “his” company. Since 1975, I have felt the same way about all my successors.

But let us return to Charlie 1/5.

Robert Leckie, himself a distinguished WWII Marine, has said of John Thomason that he almost single-handedly created the stylistic convention between WWI and WWII, still extant in some circles even today, that the word “Marine” is always spelled with a capital “M”.

The 4th Marine Brigade of WWI, made up of the 5th and 6th Marines, first saw combat in the Battle of Belleau Wood, in which they drove a superior entrenched German force out of three square miles of tangled brush and trees and rock-strewn hills and gullies of an old hunting preserve.

As the Marines marched up from Paris to commence the attack on 1 June 1918, they met a French unit in full retreat. A senior French officer retreating with his units down the Paris-Metz highway advised that the Marines join him in flight.

Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC replied, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!

Capt. Williams died on the field of honor in the ensuing battle.

(“Nous resterons la!” “Retreat, hell!” Both uttered by Americans to Frenchmen. There may just be something to the theory of national genetics.)

On 6 June, 1918, 26 years to the day before another little dust-up in France, 1/5 attacked across a wheat field ("the Wheat Field") west of Belleau Wood to seize, occupy, and defend the strategically important Hill 142.

While crossing the wheat field, 1/5 came under heavy machine gun fire. Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, one of only two Marines to receive two Medals of Honor, (he was nominated for a third for Belleau Wood, but received “only” the Navy Cross) was heard to shout to his Marines, “Come on you sons-of-bitches! Do you want to live forever?”

History reflects that not a Marine flinched as they followed the Gunny.

After a brutal month-long fight, the Germans were driven out. On the morning of 26 June, Major Maurice Shearer, USMC, signaled 2d Division headquarters, "Woods now entirely US Marine Corps."

The 4th Brigade was cited in dispatches by the French high command, and Belleau Wood was officially renamed by the French, “Bois de la Brigade Marine” (“Marine Brigade Wood”). The Brigade received two similar honors for Soisson and Mont Blanc Ridge. Thus, the Marines assigned today to the 5th and 6th Marines still wear a fourragère (designating a unit award, a fourragère is a braided red and green rope looped over the left shoulder and under the left arm), the colors representing the Croix de Guerre. (Col. Joe Griffis once suggested that 1/5 wear the "pogey rope" on our uniforms in the field in Vietnam. We finally talked him out of the idea—and it was tough to talk the Old Man out of anything once he had made up his mind—on the grounds that it made us an even more interesting target for souvenir hunting “tourists” from North Vietnam.)

German soldiers who fought at Belleau Wood later referred to the U.S. Marines, respectfully, as “Teufelhunden,” or Devil Dogs.

In 1941, when the First Marine Division was activated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it had three infantry regiments: the 1st, 5th and 7th Marines. It soon acquired a nickname of its own-- The Old Breed. Read on, and you will learn from whence that came.

So now, from Fix Bayonets! in the lovely formal writing of Col. John W. Thomason, USMC, a few words from our sponsor. (All emphasis added.)


They tell the tale of an American lady of notable good works, much esteemed by the French, who, at the end of June, 1918, visited one of the field hospitals behind Degoutte’s Sixth French Army. Degoutte was fighting on the face of the Marne salient, and the 2d American Division, then in action around the Bois de Belleau, northeast of Chateau Thierry, was under his orders. It happened that occasional casualties of the Marine Brigade of the 2d American Division, wounded toward the flank where Degoutte’s own horizon-blue infantry joined on, were picked up by French stretcher-bearers and evacuated to French hospitals. And this lady, looking down a long, crowded ward, saw on a pillow a face unlike the fiercely whiskered Gallic heads there displayed in rows. She went to it.

“Oh,” she said, “surely you are an American!”

“No, ma’am,” the casualty answered. “I’m a Marine.”

The men who marched up the Paris-Metz road to meet the Boche in the spring of 1918, the 5th and 6th Regiments of United States Marines, were gathered from various places. In the big war companies, 250 strong, you could find every sort of man, from every sort of calling. There were North-westerners with straw-colored hair that looked white against their tanned skins, and delicately spoken chaps with the stamp of the Eastern universities on them. There were large-boned fellows from Pacific-coast lumber camps, and tall, lean Southerners who swore amazingly in gentle drawling voices. There were husky farmers from the corn-belt, and youngsters who had sprung, as it were, to arms from the necktie counter.

And there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, and a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth. Their speech was flavored with navy words, and words culled from all the folk who live on the seas and the ports where our war-ships go. In easy hours their talk ran from the Tartar Wall beyond Peking to the Southern Islands down under Manila; from Portsmouth Navy Yard-New Hampshire and very cold-to obscure bush-whackings in the West Indies, where Cacao chiefs whimsically sanguinary, barefoot generals, with names like Charlemagne and Christophe, waged war according to the precepts of the French Revolution and the Cult of the Snake.

They drank the eau de vie of Haute-Marne, and reminisced on sake, and vino, and Bacardi Rum-strange drinks in strange cantinas at the far ends of the earth; and they spoke fondly of Milwaukee beer. Rifles were high and holy things to them, and they knew five-inch broadside guns. They talked patronizingly of the war, and were concerned about rations. They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers; collected from ship’s guards and shore stations all over the earth to form the 4th Brigade of Marines, the two rifle regiments detached from the Department of the Navy by order of the President for service with the American Expeditionary Forces. They were the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation; and they transmitted their temper and character and view-point to the high-hearted volunteer mass which filled the ranks of the Marine Brigade.

It is a pleasure to record that they found good company in the U. S. Army. The 2d Division (U.S. Regular was the official designation) was composed of the 9th and 23d Infantry, two old regiments with names from all of our wars on their battle-flags, the 2d Regiment of Engineers-and engineers are always good-and the 12th, 15th, and 17th Field Artillery. It was a division distinguished by the quality of dash and animated by an especial pride of service. It carried to a high degree esprit de corps, which some Frenchman has defined as esteeming your own corps and looking down on all the other corps. And although it paid heavily in casualties for the things it did-in five months about 100 per cent-the 2d Division never lost its professional character.

Seven years after, across the world from France, I met a major of the American General Staff, who was on the Paris-Metz road that last week in May, 1918, and saw the Marine Brigade. “They looked fine, coming in there,” he said. “Tall fellows, healthy and fit-they looked hard and competent. We watched you going in, through those little tired Frenchmen, and we all felt better. We knew something was going to happen” - and we were silent, over Chilean wine, in a place on the South Pacific, thinking of those days and those men.

There is no sight in all the pageant of war like young, trained men going up to battle. The columns look solid and businesslike. Each battalion is an entity, 1,200 men of one purpose. They go on like a river that flows very deep and strong. Uniforms are drab these days, but there are points of light on the helmets and the bayonets, and light in the quick, steady eyes and the brown young faces, greatly daring. There is no singing-veterans know, and they do not sing much-and there is no excitement at all; they are schooled crafts-men going up to impose their will, with the tools of their trade, on another lot of fellows; and there is nothing to make a fuss about. Battlefields are not salubrious places, and every file knows that a great many more are going in than will come out again-but that goes along with the job. And they have no illusions about the job.

There is nothing particularly glorious about sweaty fellows, laden with killing tools, going along to fight. And yet-such a column represents a great deal more than 28,000 individuals mustered into a division. All that is behind those men is in that column too: the old battles, long forgotten, that secured our nation-Brandywine and Trenton and Yorktown, San Jacinto and Chapultepec, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Antietam, El Caney; scores of skirmishes, far off, such as the Marines have nearly every year in which a man can be killed as dead as ever a chap in the Argonne; traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as regiments hand down forever; and the faith of men and the love of women; and that abstract thing called patriotism, which I never heard combat soldiers mention-all this passes into the forward zone, to the point of contact, where war is girt with horrors. Common men endure these horrors and overcome them, along with the insistent yearnings of the belly and the reasonable promptings of fear; and in this, I think, is glory.

And so, as did Thomason (although I would never presume to put myself in his class) I now write of my Marines in my war – “how they went up, and what they did there, and how some of them came out again.”

Semper Fidelis.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.