20 February 2009


Life on the OPs was actually pretty slow, which was not a bad thing. The troops had been awake all night on ambushes and needed to get some rest. The trick was making sure that security was maintained.

After January 12, OP 6 was manned by a fire team, the Platoon Commander and his radio operator, and a two-man 106mm recoilless rifle team. That meant that the fire team and the radio operator could get some sleep during the day. Because of the rotation schedule, I could put 20 Marines from the platoon on the OP for all or part of a day, and that helped them get some rest to prepare for the sleepless nights on the ambushes.

The traffic on the road was interesting. After the road opened at about 1000, there were usually two convoys each day—one to An Hoa in the late morning and one to Da Nang at about 1530. Accompanying each convoy was a gaggle of VW minibuses (usually with the sides open), all sorts of European vans and cars, and lots of mini-bikes. All were crammed to the rooftops with people and baggage. It was not uncommon to see people riding on top of the cars and vans. Other than watching the movement, we had nothing to do with the convoys. The Vietnamese and their vehicles were inspected at the start of the trip and they maintained a steady speed over the road.

There was also foot traffic along the road,too,and that gave us something to do. We checked ID cards and inspected anything being carried by the people or in their carts drawn by water buffalos. If there were young women walking on the road, the troops tended to try to talk to them, but for the most part, the pedestrians were old men, old women and children in some mix or another.

A word about slang: As in other wars, there was lots of it in use in my war. It was not politically correct, nor was it particularly kind. The slang was a mysterious mixture of pidgin Vietnamese, French, and plain old-fashioned American. The French part came from the long colonial contact between the Vietnamese and the French.

All Vietnamese were “gooks.” Men were “papa-sans,” women were “mama-sans,” and any child under about 12 was a “baby-san.” South Vietnamese troops were “Arvins,” from the acronym ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam). Regional Forces troops—a sort of national Guard—were referred to as “Ruff Puffs.” Popular Forces, a sort of local militia or home guard were PF’s.

Viet cong (communist guerillas) were “Charlie,” from the phonetic “Victor Charlie” for VC. North Vietnamese soldiers were “NVA” (North Vietnamese Army). They were sometimes called “Mr. Charles,” a respectful differentiation from the less competent Charlies.

We learned a few phrases in Vietnamese.

“Di di mau” meant get going fast, and any time a unit was getting ready to move, it was said to be getting ready to “di di on outta here.”

“Dung lai” meant stop.

“Lai day” was “come here.”

A doctor or corpsman was a “bac si.”

"Dai uy" was a Captain and "Thi uy" was 2d Lieutenant.

Beyond that, few Marines bothered to learn any Vietnamese, because the only conversations they could expect to have with a Vietnamese would need only those words.

The slang for the pole used by many peasants to carry loads across the shoulder was “idiot stick.”

A kilometer was a “click.” (All measurements were metric.)

“Willie Peter” or “Wilson Picket” stood for WP—white phosphorous which was used in artillery and mortar marking rounds.

“Beau coup” was, naturally, many.

“The World” was the United States, as in “When I get back to The World, the first thing I am going to do is. . .”

A “Freedom Bird” was the airplane that would take you back to the World.

“Number one” was good and “number ten” was bad.

A “Bravo November Golf” was a brand new guy, also often referred to as “FNG.”

Marines in the rear were “pogues” or “REMFs” (Rear Echelon ……).

And the racial undercurrent was always present. Marines often described themselves as “chuck dudes” (white) or “splib dudes” (black). No one ever explained that to me, it just was.

And if anyone said about any particular event, occurrence or interaction, “It don’t mean nothing’,” you can bet that something really troubling and important just happened. (If you ever see the next to last episode of China Beach, you will understand. It was, by the way, one of only two episodes of that otherwise unremarkable program that was worth a damn. The other was when people upon whom the characters were based actually narrated an episode.)

A report might come in that “We got a couple of old mama-sans coming down the road, about half a click out, carrying idiot sticks, so we’re gonna stop ’em short of the OP and check ’em out.”

The actual conversation might be something like this. “OK, mamsa san, dung lai. Cam cuc?” Then, after the inspection, you might hear “OK, mama san. Didi. Didi mau.”

The first time I took part in such an inspection, the old woman looked to be about 70. She had two bundles tied to each end of the pole over her shoulder and was leaning forward under it as she trotted down the road. When stopped, she dropped the pole and produced her ID. The parcels were vegetables and rice. When I tried to pick up the pole, I almost fell over—it weighed at least 70 pounds.
She and my Marines chuckled. She stooped, slipped the pole over her shoulder, stood and leaned forward and resumed her trot on down the road. I suspect I was the topic of conversation over her dinner that night!

Days just blended into one another. We knew it was Sunday when Doc came around to make sure we took our orange malaria prophylaxis tablets. They were true “horse pills,” and tended to give some Marines intestinal problems for a day or two. Thus, we had to line up the troops and watch them swallow just to make sure they were not spitting them out.

It was a time for getting to know my Marines and for honing the skills I had learned at TBS. In particular, I worked at land navigation and calling and adjusting supporting arms. We burned up a lot of Willie Pete. I made sure that every Marine in my platoon could adjust mortars, call for a medevac, and give a zone brief. Doc taught us how to start an iv.

By this time, I had begun losing classmates. In 1/5, Roy Phillips was killed in Bravo Company. Bob Christian was KIA in the First Marines. One day, I received a letter from Tom Peachey.

Dear Mac,
Pat Oates is dead. He was killed in action in the A Shau during Operation Dewey Canyon. I know you guys were close and wanted you to know.

I was stunned. I was even more stunned a week or so later to receive a letter from Pat in hospital. Years later, when Peaches, Oates and I were Inspector-Instructors in 2/24, Tom explained: “Man, when they put him on that medevac, he was gray. I figured there was no way he was going to live.”

Pat did survive and remained on active duty right up to the time of his death from a heart attack on 26 June 1992, his 52d birthday. There will be many more Oates stories later.

One afternoon, as we watched a C-130 circle to land at An Hoa, a stream of tracers shot up from the foothills and one wing was suddenly engulfed in flames. The crew landed the plane and the fire was extinguished, but it was unflyable.

The NVA began to mortar An Hoa unmercifully, trying to finish off that plane. A few days later, as I sat at OP 6, two lowboy trailers came by in the convoy. One carried an entire wing and the other had two engines and propellers. For the next two nights, you could hear metal being hammered as the Air Force replaced the damaged wing. And the mortars just kept coming.

Finally, word was received that at 1000 the next day, the airplane would leave An Hoa. Folks were delighted, right up to 0930 when a mortar round finally found the other wing! A few days later, another convoy brought another wing and engines.

Finally, after about two weeks, the airplane was flown back to Da Nang. The sigh of relief was audible, even out at the Ops. The mortar attacks waned, too.

We continued to take casualties during the mine sweeps. The most memorable was when a Marine from Charlie 2 stepped on a bear trap. Fortunately, it was hidden in a wet paddy. When the Marine stepped on it, it sank into the muck which slowed the jaws of the trap. He escaped with a bruised ankle.

Operation Taylor Common continued back in the mountains. Second and Third Battalions, Fifth Marines were in the thick of things, along with the Third Marines. The Commanding Officer, Third Marines and his Sergeant Major were KIA when their chopper was shot down. Casualties were constant. I began to see the names of classmates in the KIA section of the Marine Corps Gazette.

For those of us rice paddy Marines around An Hoa, the tempo was slower. That would soon change.

No comments: