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!

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