23 December 2008

AN HOA—5TH MARINES REGIMENTAL COMBAT BASE

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.

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