18 April 2009

AYE, AYE, SIR

The next night we set up in a ville further west, along the cobble-stone highway, near the grenade factory. We had added some new Marines during our stay at the railroad cut, and my platoon was nearing 35 Marines (including attached weapons), almost enough to form a third squad.

The following morning, the Skipper ordered me to take a squad-sized patrol north across the river and check out the southern edge of Goi Noi Island. I thought You want me to go where with only a squad? I said, “Aye, aye, Sir.”

I alerted my first squad and we prepared to move out. Just then, Doc came up.“Sir, one of the new guys needs to get out of here.” He pointed to a skinny Marine at the end of the squad column. “He hasn’t kept a thing down for five days, he is losing weight, and I’m worried that he is dehydrated.”

What the hell?

Doc continued. “The dumb little shit wants to be a hero. Didn’t tell his squad leader and nearly passed out on watch last night. The other guy on watch with him told me this morning.”

Just what I needed ten minutes before a patrol. I motioned to Doc to follow and ran off to brief the Skipper. When I returned to the patrol, the squad leader brought the man to me.

“OK. You need to go back to An Hoa to get this fixed. Stay with the Company Corpsman and we’ll get you out of here today.”

“No way, Sir. I’m OK. I gotta stay with the squad.” I respected that, but he was weaving as he stood in front of me.

“Look, you’re no good to us sick. I promise that as soon as they clear up what ever bug you have, you’ll be right back with us. Now report to the Company Corpsman up at the CP.”

He hung his head. “Aye, aye, sir.”

We saddled up and moved out. There were thirteen of us. We had good concealment—scrub brush and grass--for the first 200 meters. The river was at low water—almost no water—but there was about 300 meters of sand bar to cross. I sent a fire team across to secure the north bank and then rushed the rest across on line.

The north side was covered in elephant grass, twelve feet tall, thick, with razor sharp blades. We forced our way into it. It was so thick that I had to navigate by compass. There were two men in front of me. The point man would force the grass down and stand on it. Number two would join him and stomp it down. The dust was thick, there was nary a breath of air, and we were quickly drenched in sweat. (Doc estimated that the ambient temperature was near 130 degrees F.) The dust began to cake on us and we looked like we had been greased and rolled in dirty flour. About 20 minutes passed as we moved slowly forward.

Suddenly, the point man broke into a cleared area. It was an old trail created by a tank or amtrac, about 15 feet wide. The grass wall on the far side looked to be as thick as ever.

This kind of clearing is a “danger area,” subjecting the unit that is crossing it to ambush. He signaled “danger area.”

I signaled back for him to check it out, and as I did so, he pointed up. A bird had been flushed on the other side. I extended my left arm to point to the grenadier to show him where I wanted him.

At this point, I weighed about 130 pounds. My Mom had given me a Bulova Acutron watch for graduation and commissioning. It was a heavy, thick watch with a leather strap. Because of the accumulated sweat, the leather had stiffened and forced the watch to stand up just a bit off my wrist. As I looked along my left arm, I felt a tug and the watch exploded. I could see the little pieces, springs, gears, and pieces of glass float through the air in slow motion. Time itself slowed down.

The point man opened up and I realized that we were under fire. I turned to face the front and hit the deck as the M-60 machine gunner flopped down next to me on my right. He was about three feet behind me, so that the muzzle of his machine gun was parallel to and about 18 inches from my right ear. He fired a burst of 5 or 6 rounds. It felt as if someone had jammed a hot needle into my right ear.

“I looked back and said, “Knock that(universal adjective) shit off. Move up a little.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.” He fired another burst. It didn’t hurt as much, but I really couldn’t hear by this time. All firing stopped.

The engagement seemed to have lasted for 20 minutes, but it was closer to 60 seconds. The point fire team rushed across the trail. One stuck his head from the grass and waved us across.

There was a fringe of grass, perhaps two feet thick, and then a beaten down area about ten by 25 meters, with trails leading to the north, west and south. The point fire team members were set in at the corners. One VC body, complete with AK-47, was crumpled face down at the southwest corner. The squad leader pointed to two more bodies, with AKs, at the north end of the patch. “The woman has a brief case, Sir.”

I started to move in that direction. Over my shoulder, I told my radio operator, “Gibby, make sure that gook is dead.” I pointed to the lone figure.

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

I took about three steps and a shot rang out. We all hit the deck. I looked around. Gibby was standing over the dead VC.

“What the (universal adjective) did you just do?”

“Made sure he’s dead, Sir.”

Damn! Doc rushed over. “Where’d you shoot him?”

“Back of the head.”

Doc felt around, shook his head, then turned the VC over. There was not a mark on his head, although he had been hit in the back by several rounds. He was graveyard dead.

I said “Show me what you did, Gibby?”

He pointed his rifle at the man’s head, muzzle about 18 inches away. I noticed that he was trembling hard—as were many of us. He was shaking so hard that he had missed from 18 inches!

Years later, when I was teaching law of war at TBS, I used this anecdote to remind lieutenants that they must be clear in their orders, especially in the heat of combat. Gibson had planned to do exactly what I told him to do. Fortunately for us, there were no "war correspondents" or TV "journalists" with us to take those 4 seconds out of context and quickly spread them around the globe just to make a corporate buck.

We reported in by radio, checked out the bodies, grabbed the brief case and rifles, and prepared to head back to the company. But the day was not yet over.

I heard the squad leader say “Oh, (universal adjective). What the (universal adjective) is that dumb (universal gerund) doing here?”

It was the Marine we had planned to evacuate. He had tagged along and was now hysterical. I was not pleased. We could have lost him and never known what happened. I grabbed him and cold-cocked him. In retrospect, that was not a good idea, because under one of the unwritten rules of patrolling, I now had the privilege of carrying him. (Rule of patrolling: "If you make a prisoner unable to walk, you get to carry him.") He wasn't technically a prisoner, but the intent of the rule was plainly applicable. Fortunately, he didn’t weigh very much. We formed up and returned uneventfully to the company.

I briefed the Skipper on the day’s events. We later learned that we had killed a VC tax collector. Her brief case contained “tax rolls” and identified a lot of the local VC infrastructure.

“OK, Mac, well done. Clean ’em up and get some rest. I’ve got something for you to do tonight.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

After thought: The skinny kid was evacuated, diagnosed with a serious allergy to C-rations, and transferred to Okinawa. I suffered some hearing loss and tinitis that plagues me to this day. I can get cheap license plates from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and you tax payers have given me a really nice set of hearing aids, for which I thank you. My kids complain about their deaf father and do not seem to appreciate the source of that deafness. I hope they never do.

3 comments:

Rev Dave said...

I know how loud a .308 hunting rifle is, I can't imagine the equivalent of that going off right by your ear 5 or 6 times in a second or so. Ouch.

I keep telling Kim that my hearing loss is from too much shooting and running heavy equipment (tractors, etc.) in my younger days. And, for some reason, the damage is in precisely the tones/registers where her voice lies.

I don't think she believes me. Of course, my dad telling us that selective deafness is the key to marital bliss may have made her a little suspicious.

How does SWMBO handle your hearing loss?

Rev Kim said...

Wow.

Mac said...

Dave: My Kim (SWMBO) is pretty gracious about it. Jumper Girl (12 and one-half and knows it!!!!!) gives me a hard time. The hearing loss is in the high frequencies, so I lose more of womens' and childrens'conversations than anything else. In fact, the ringing from the tinitus is in exactly one of the frequencies of an audiology hearing tester. That's a fun time as the audiologist waits for me to push the button.

I may be a terrorist according to Secretary Napolitano, but at least I'm a deaf terrorist.