12 January 2009


I flew into An Hoa from Da Nang on Saturday afternoon, January 11.

The “Small Unit Leadership” class was valuable only because I met a couple of lieutenants who were at the end of their tours and picked their brains at every opportunity. But now, after a week away from my platoon, I was anxious to get back.

The last run out to Charlie Base Camp had already departed, so I spent the night at the Company Office. Finally, at about 1100 on Sunday, January 12, the Skipper’s driver came in with supply requests and paperwork. By 1230, we were on our way out.

As we came into the compound, there was obvious uproar. A rifle squad was hopping onto a tank, led by my platoon sergeant. It tore off up the road toward the OPs.

I found Mike Koch in the Combat Operations Center. “OP 6 just got hit. You got casualties!”

My heart fell. I ran out to the road, looking to join the next vehicle out. The Gunny grabbed my arm. “You need to stay here, sir. Byers has things under control, and you are not read into the situation.”

I turned to see the Skipper nodding. “Stand fast, Mac. There is nothing you can do out there.”

The Company Tac radio operator (his radio was tuned to the company tactical net or frequency, the one connecting the Skipper to the platoons) said, “Two KIAs and two WIAs, Skipper. They’ve got a doctor and a couple of corpsmen on the convoy and they’re bringing them on in. The reaction force will cover the OP.”

About that time, the convoy appeared at the top of the hill. In the lead jeep, I could see a couple of people bent over a stretcher that was rigged across the rear seat. We ran to the vehicle which was moving slowly to avoid jostling the wounded Marine. When I got to him, I could see that he had a gunshot wound to the chest. The corpsmen had started a couple of IVs and the doctor was working to mitigate the sucking chest wound.

The Marine, Lance Corporal Brown, reached out and took my hand. “Good to see you back, Lieutenant. You be careful out there, Sir. It can be dangerous.”

It was at that moment that I learned my most valuable lesson as an officer of Marines. The United States Marine rifleman is God’s most gallant and most magnificent creation. It has been 40 years and I still tear up when I recall that moment.

Brown survived and was evacuated to the States. We have never met again, but I think of him often. The two Marines who were killed were Private First Class Don Lucas, USMC (he of the Santa hat on Christmas Eve) and Private First Class Rich Zimmerman, USMC. I think of them every day, along with others you will meet later.

I’ll not mention the last name, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

The details of the firefight were put together over the next couple of hours.

OP 6, was the furthest out from the CP. It had been established by the company from 3/5 that we had relieved. It was a wide spot in the road, with a small embankment where the road graders had dug out a turn-around. The folks from 3/5 had allowed it to become a dump, which we were trying to clean up, but the VC booby-trapped the trash pile almost every night. When the engineers blew the booby trap in place, all trash was once again scattered.

The OP was manned by a fire team (four Marines). They were supposed to be at 50% alert, two awake and two asleep, but had agreed among themselves that they would go one and three. This, in and of itself, did not affect their safety.

Lucas and Zimmerman had rigged a poncho “hooch,” stringing a couple of rubber ponchos as a sun shield, but open on all four sides. Brown and the other man, a private, were “up, ” but Brown was also asleep. They were located about 10 to 15 meters south of Lucas and Zimmerman.

OP 5, some 800 meters south (it was at the left end of that long low ridge about halfway up the photo and just in from the left--slanting toward the road) was also a fire team sized OP, although our reduced strength meant that it was a three-man post. OP 5 was alerted to the situation when they heard explosions at OP 6, followed by rifle and automatic weapons fire. They spotted about 10 to 20 Vietnamese, armed with rifles and grenades, moving close to OP 6. One Marine was prone and firing his rifle.

OP 5 immediately opened up with an M-60 machine gun. At about that time, an unscheduled convoy came around a turn in the road, saw what was happening, and added to the fire in support of OP 6 from the M-48 tank (90 mm main gun and .50 cal machine gun), and additional .50 cal machine guns from the trucks in the convoy. The VC withdrew back into a tree line which got a working over from artillery.

The reaction force arrived and scoured the tree line to no avail, although they found several heavy blood trails indicating that the VC had dragged their dead and wounded away with them. As the reaction force arrived, Brown was still firing into the tree line, despite his serious wounds. The other man had a small shrapnel wound in his heel. Lucas and Zimmerman had been killed by a grenade which appeared to have landed on the poncho hooch. They probably never knew what happened.

All casualties were evacuated to An Hoa.

That night, the Platoon Sergeant and I took out the ambushes. The troops were rattled and needed some bucking up. As we were getting ready to move out, the two squad leaders asked me, “When is [the other man] gonna be back, sir? He’s a real good man in the bush and we need to get him back ASAP.”

I was touched by their concern, which was expressed repeatedly over the next several days. Although his wounds were minor, he never came back to the bush. The Company was tasked with transferring a man to Da Nang as part of the G-4 shop’s permanent working party, and the First Sergeant sent him there.

About 5 months later, the new Company Tac radio operator (who had been my radio operator in 2d Platoon) looked me up. He had just learned that the other man had deserted and was caught dealing drugs in Dog Patch, a slum area in Da Nang. He was tried by court-martial, convicted, and given brig time and a Bad Conduct Discharge. The Radio Operator related “the rest of the story.”

When OP 5 heard the explosion, they saw the other man running down the road toward them. It appears that he saw the VC coming and just bugged out without warning Brown, Lucas or Zimmerman. The explosion aroused Brown who, although wounded, returned fire and held out until the machine gun fire from OP 5 and the arrival of the convoy repulsed the attack.

The other man was a product of LBJ’s “Project 100,000,” a “Great Society” scheme that drastically lowered enlistment standards and allowed people who were otherwise mentally unqualified to serve to be drafted and to enlist. This man was drafted, tested and scored in Mental Group IV-A, (IQ about 70). His draft board had told him that if he “volunteered” to be drafted into the Marine Corps, he could earn his GED and learn a trade. One can imagine his disappointment to find himself a rifleman in an organization that was almost entirely volunteers. He had a reputation as a complainer and a “no load.” So much for the Great Society.

Now, I want to be clear. He was by no means representative of the vast majority of draftees. Most were excellent soldiers and Marines. As I noted, his squad leader was a draftee and a superb Marine. Instead, he was the result of a misguided “social policy” that saw the armed forces as a jobs program, not the practitioner of the serious business that it actually is.

The concerns for the other man’s return expressed on the night of January 12 suddenly became clear. Had the man returned to the platoon, he would soon have had a very serious accident, probably involving a grenade. I doubt that he would have survived.

War is a deadly serious business. Survival requires that every man be able to depend on the men to his left and his right. There were very few drug problems in units in the bush (Oliver Stone notwithstanding). Soldiers and Marines realized that one drug-incapacitated man could expose them all to danger through simple intoxication. They could not tolerate that and policed the problem themselves. And one who ran away on his sleeping shipmates could never be trusted and never forgiven.

I can assure you that 40 years after the fact, the other man is still a subject of discussion at our reunions.

I hope he gets a seat close to the fire, between LBJ and RS McNamara.

No comments: