25 January 2009


After January 12, things quieted down. We continued the four-day shifts: on the road, as road sweep security at Strong Points A and B, and security patrolling at Strong Points C and D. The only difference was that OP6 was now manned by a fire team, reinforced with a 106 mm recoilless rifle, and the platoon commander and his radio operator were at the OP all day.

One afternoon a few days after I returned from Da Nang, we were at Alpha and Bravo. I got a message to report to the Skipper “on the double.” I hustled down to the COC (combat operations center).

The Skipper handed me a map. “There’s a recon team that has managed to get itself surrounded. They’ve got a prisoner and Division wants them out now. Saddle up your platoon and get ready to fly out to secure a landing zone for this team.”

I grabbed a radio handset and told the Platoon Sergeant to get the troops ready to move out.

As I looked at the map, I saw that it was all mountains, although there was an old French road depicted entering one small valley. The Skipper pointed out where we were to be inserted—a hill above the old road. It was in the middle of the map sheet.

I took out my map and began to try to marry up the edges. “Don’t bother trying, Mac,” said the Skipper. “There is a whole other map sheet between ours and where you’re going.”

Wow. Each map sheet was about 16 miles wide. We were about 7 miles from the western edge of our map and the objective was about 9 miles from the eastern edge of its sheet. We were going to be a long way from home—about 30 miles west, towards the Laotian border. By this time, with the loss of the two casualties at the Alamo and the four on January 12, my platoon was down to 13 Marines, a Corpsman, the Platoon Sergeant and myself.

“Uh, how do we get out, sir?”

“Well, they’ll try to get another chopper out tomorrow morning. But you may have to do some pretty hard humping. Take plenty of water.”

At that point, there is nothing left to say, except “Aye,aye, sir.”

A few minutes later, a message came in that the mission was cancelled. The recon team had been extracted safely. I never found out if the Skipper was kidding about the walk.

A word about recon. The motto of First Reconnaissance Battalion is “Swift, Silent, Deadly.” They performed some pretty hairy missions, going back into the mountains in teams of 6 to 8 Marines. Their sister unit, First Force Reconnaissance Company conducted deep reconnaissance. There were rumors about missions into Laos (and by Third Force, up north, into the DMZ or even into North Vietnam). They were looking for the enemy, but they did not want to make contact—for obvious reasons. Prisoner snatches—intentional efforts to grab NVA personnel and bring them back for interrogation—were particularly dangerous. Teams were known to simply disappear. These were gutsy folks.

That being said, they would oft times over-react. As a result, in the rest of the Division, they were frequently referred to as “Swift, Silent, Surrounded.” Never to their faces, mind you.

There were fun times, too. One Sunday, the road was closed due to bridge work. The Ops were in, so the Skipper arranged for a Company field day. The Mess Hall sent out grills and cooked up steaks and the first vegetables we had seen in a while. There were competitions ranging from a grenade toss for distance, to machine gun exercises, to mortar competition. Squads competed in a relay to field strip and reassemble a rifle.

There were weight lifting and weight pulling competitions and wrestling matches and “jungle rules” volleyball tournament. (I have been banned from a number of Church League volleyball teams because I cannot get the hang of their sissy rules. I mean, if there are no tooth gouges on the ball and no blood, where’s the competition?)

A few days later, we were relieved by First Platoon on the road. The turn-over came at Noon so that we could get settled in at our new positions during daylight. As Charlie Two moved down the road towards the base camp, we heard an explosion in the distance, followed by a towering column of smoke.

A working party from Third Platoon had been clearing grass and trash from the strings of barbed wire surrounding Strongpoint Alpha as well as repairing or replacing wire where needed. They had started at the clear path to the drawbridge and then worked their way almost completely around the strongpoint. When called to prepare to move to Strongpoints Charlie and Delta, they retraced their steps back around Alpha to the path.

At that point, a newly joined Marine (“FNG” in our parlance), saw that he had left a pair of wire gloves where he had been working, about 5 meters from the path. Rather than retrace his route again, he entered the area from the opposite direction. As he bent to pick up the gloves, he triggered an old French “bouncing betty” mine that hit him in the torso before it exploded. The only fortunate part of this tragedy was that his posture protected all other nearby Marines.

We had not been advised that there were any minefields in the area. Needless to say, the Marines who had been working on wire maintenance were all scared silly. The wire was put off limits.

Of all the casualties we suffered, it seems to me that the saddest are the non-hostile deaths. Marines who are closing with the enemy to destroy him know that there will be casualties. But a death by drowning or malaria or a mine-field accident just seems so pointless.

Right after the initial invasion of Iraq, the Philadelphia Inquirer began periodically running photos of all US Service members who had been killed in Iraq. It did not differentiate between killed in action and non-hostile deaths, but did list the cause of death.

I ran the count on one such display and found that approximately 20% of the deaths were non-hostile (illness—a lot of heart attacks, traffic accidents, drowning, etc.). I wondered about the breakdown in Vietnam, so I checked with Dr. Edwin Moise, one of the sponsors of the web-site, History of the Vietnam War 101. Dr. Ed is a professor of history at Clemson University in South Carolina and a frequently published author on the Vietnam War.

While some of us who drop by the “living room of our little boarding house,” as Bob Warren calls the site, often disagree with Dr. Ed, he is a respected and legitimate scholar. His response was that approximately the same percentage was applicable to the Vietnam War.

Which brings me to the Two Rules of Combat:

Rule One: Young men will die.

Rule Two: There is not one damned thing you can do to change Rule One.

Which really sucks, but there it is.

1 comment:

Reformed Catholic said...

Great memoirs ...

BTW ... when I was in the Air Force, I was a Special Weapons type. We played volleyball in our steel toed combat boots on a cement driveway that ran around my building. We played 'bomb dump' rules, which allowed kicks & gouges.