10 April 2009

EASTER SUNDAY 1969

The next night we harbored in a ville further east. Third Platoon had both squads on the line. (Our routine was for one platoon to send out two ambushes, one to send out one, keeping the other in the perimeter, and the third to have both squads in the line. We were too small to have the normal three squads per platoon.) Moreover, we were not moving that night.

My routine was to be up on radio watch and checking lines until about 0400. I would then go to sleep for a couple of hours, fairly safe in my assumption that the bad guys would not start something so close to daylight—when the airplanes could see them.

At about 1930 on this particular night, I came down with a terrible migraine headache. Doc said, “Let me give you something to help get rid of it.”

“Naw, thanks, Doc, but I need to be up to check lines.”

My Platoon Sergeant chimed in. “Take the damn’d stuff, Sir. We’ll make sure you wake up to go out on the lines.”

“Well….” I paused to throw up. “What is that stuff?”

“Darvon, Sir. It’ll fix you right up. Take two.”

The next thing I remember is morning. My sheepish Platoon Sergeant said, “Hell, Lieutenant, we knew you needed a night off. Everything was copacetic. Course, we were a little worried when they hit us with those mortars and you didn’t wake up, but nothing came of it.” He grinned.

I was shaken to have slept through a mortar attack, but they had rolled me into my hole. And the headache was gone.

On Easter Saturday, which happened to be my sister’s birthday, I had both squads out on the night ambush. The briefed plan was for me to link up both squad sized ambushes at about 0300 and move to a ville located on a deep, fast-moving stream.
At about 0400, Mike Koch would bring out Second Platoon, link up with my right flank squad and take our cordon on around to the stream bank about 200 meters north. At first light, we began to collapse the cordon.

As I moved along the river bank in the gray, foggy dawn, I saw Mike approaching. We stood on the bank of the river, shrouded in fog and unwilling to break the silence. Finally, as if on cue, we each stuck out a hand and, as we shook, said “Happy Easter.”

The search of the ville was uneventful.

As we set in for the day, my radio operator said, “Six wants you and the platoon sergeant at his CP. He says, ‘bring your canteen cups.’”

I found Levi who, having set in our last hole, was talking to the squad leaders. “Rifle inspection in one hour. Get going.”

“C’mon. Skipper wants us. And grab a cup.”

We headed up a trail to the center of the ville, to the hooch the Captain had selected for his CP. Mike and Chip and their platoon sergeants came in from different directions. The Gunny was finishing up organizing the CP group.

“Well, gentlemen, Here we are.” He reached into his pack and pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch. “My wife sent me this. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This will do.”

He poured a splash into each of our cups. After our cups were “charged,” he toasted the day. “Happy Easter.”

“Happy Easter, sir.”

In my life, I have sipped and enjoyed some mighty fine scotch—single malts that cost per bottle close to my monthly pay as a second lieutenant. None ever tasted better than that Johnny Walker Red, drunk from an aluminum canteen cup, in a dank, smelly hooch on a damp, foggy Easter morning with those men.

Levi and I returned to the platoon sector and began our daily routine. One squad was pulled off the line and began to clean weapons. Levi cleaned his weapon with them. This involved field stripping the rife or machine gun or pistol, cleaning and lightly oiling it, removing ammo from each magazine and inspecting it for dents and corrosion, and cleaning and reassembling the magazines. I would then inspect each man’s weapon.

Doc was standing by to issue the daily vitamin and the Sunday malaria pill to each Marine and to make sure the pills were swallowed. That squad would then move to the lines and the other would come back and go through the same routine.

I followed this practice for the entire time I was a rifle platoon commander. The M-16 has a weird locking system that can be a bitch to clean. I was bound and determined that no Marine of mine would be killed or wounded because his rifle jammed. The troops didn’t like it, because it cut into their time to sleep, but it is the platoon commander’s job to think further than the next 40 winks.

About a year before the Second Gulf War, my next door neighbor’s son, Corporal of Marines Josh Piccoli, a fire team leader in the Seventh Marines, was home on leave. We sat around my kitchen table, drinking coffee. He was considering shipping over (reenlisting) and his Dad, a Vietnam vet, asked me to talk to him. We swapped sea stories, and I mentioned my fixation on cleaning weapons. He nodded and agreed when I mentioned that the troops were less than enthused with my inspections.

When he came home from the capture of Bagdad, with all of his Marines alive, he stopped by to thank me.

“For what,” I asked?

“We cleaned weapons every day. When my troops bitched, I told them that if it was good enough for you Marines in Vietnam, it was good enough for me. And nobody’s rifle jammed—even in the sand and crap we were in!”

* * * * *

At about 1600, the Skipper called us together. We had received orders to make a significant move to the south. We were assigned to enter a government-controlled valley about 2 clicks east and 7 clicks south, across a ridgeline. Our mission was to provide security for the rice harvest.

The NVA in the mountains around the An Hoa and Que Son valleys were short on supply. They frequently came into villages to take rice and other foodstuffs for their units. During the rice harvest, each day, the farmers were to bring the day’s harvest to a central collection point. It would be loaded onto trucks and driven east to the coastal city of Hoi An for storage and safekeeping. We would provide security throughout the day and night.

The plan was to move out at1700 that night, with Second in the lead, followed by CP, First, and then Third as the tail-end Charlie. The Skipper planned to be over the ridge and ready to move into position at first light.

Now, moving a company was not a simple thing to do. In open country, we kept 5 to 10 meter intervals between men. With 120 men in the company, that meant that when my last man began to move, he was going to be 1200 meters (better than two-thirds of a mile) behind the point man.

We moved up onto an abandoned railroad right of way (the An Hoa spur) and headed east, passing through a cut that was about 100 meters long, and then exited onto open ground towards the right of way of the main north-south railway line. Of course, there were no rails and very few steel ties, but it was clear of tangled brush. It was also elevated, perhaps 12 feet above the surrounding paddies.
The plan was to move out about 500 meters beyond the cut and then drop down off the berm to a paddy dike and head south across a small valley to the next ridge line, some five clicks away.

Third Platoon had just started to move when the column halted. My radio operator told me, “Mister Koch says there’s movement in a tree line about 400 meters to his front. Second Platoon is going to recon by fire.” I ordered him to pass that word back along the line so that the troops would know the reason for the firing to our front.

Reconnaissance by fire is simply shooting into an area to see what happens. Almost immediately, I heard an M-60 machine gun crank off a couple of bursts.

The treeline “reconned” back.

Out on the berm, Second Platoon took cover. Dick Rollins slid down the forward edge of the berm with his map already open, ready to call artillery fire onto the treeline. One Marine froze and took a round through his left arm, through his chest, and out his right shoulder. He was dead before he hit the ground, or actually, before he hit Dick. So here is Lieutenant Rollins, calling for a Corpsman, wiping blood off his map, and passing his call for fire back to his battery, all the while under fire.

The tree line quickly erupted—a 155mm battery was shooting for us. Enemy fire stopped. No one else was hit. When the Skipper called for a medevac, he was told that for a “routine” medevac, there would be a wait of a couple of hours.

Medevacs came in three flavors: emergency, priority, and routine. An emergency medevac was just that. The Marine needed to be at the hospital within the “golden hour.” (I later read that for wounded who got to a hospital within that golden hour, 98% survived!)

Priority evacuation was for serious wounds, but those that were survivable with still a little delay. “Routines” were for non-life threatening wounds that nonetheless required hospitalization or to evacuate the dead. Also, wounded Vietnamese, no matter their condition, were always routine unless they were going out on a bird with a priority or emergency evacuation of a Marine.

Hard? Yes, but the number of available medevac aircraft made it necessary to limit the higher priorities to our people. Sin loi. (“Sorry about that.”)

The Skipper correctly decided that we did not need to sit in that exposed position for a couple of hours. Instead, we would wrap the casualty in his poncho and carry him with us until a chopper was available. Second Platoon kept the lead and we moved out.

Carrying a 140 pound body in a poncho in paddy country is clumsy and tiring. The body was slowly passed back through the line as the Marines carrying the poncho tired. By about 2230, the body was at the rear of First Platoon. At the foot of the ridge, we stopped briefly for a breather before making the climb. A commotion broke out somewhere in front of my platoon.

A Marine from First Platoon had panicked when it came his turn to carry the body. To quiet him, Chip grabbed him by the throat and bruised his larynx. We now had a priority medevac.

The Skipper called me up the column.

“OK, Mac. I am going to move on up the ridge with First and Second platoons. The medevac will be here in the next thirty minutes. Get the casualties out and then move up to join us. Challenge is ‘pepper’ and counter-sign is ‘walrus.’” I was impressed. That was the first time we had used a password, something that was a staple of war movies.

As the rest of the company began the climb, I moved Third Platoon into a nearby medium sized dry paddy and set up a perimeter. Watching the last of the company disappear into the darkness made for a very lonely feeling.

About 25 minutes later, the medevac chopper came up on our radio net for a zone brief. As he approached, we could hear him; he sounded different. We arranged the casualties for a quick load and staged them. I put my strobe light into my inverted helmet, making it less visible from the ground while allowing the chopper crew to see our location.

The helicopter was a CH-53,the newest addition to the Marine Corps helicopter inventory. It was the first time I had seen one up close and it was big. The pilot put on a landing light to find the LZ and settled into our midst. We quickly carried the two Marines up the ramp and then ran off as it began to lift off.

Levi and I were standing back-to-back in the middle of the LZ. The helicopter was about a quarter of a mile away when we saw a stream of green tracers float up into the sky, followed by a stream of red tracers from the bird’s door guns. I was yelling “All right, you sunsabitches. On your feet and saddle up so we can beat feet out of here.” Leaving a sleeping Marine behind was a nightmare that I did not want to experience.

Suddenly, one of my Marines, grabbed me and put his hand over my mouth. “Sssshhh, Lieutenant. They’ll know where we are.” I stopped, and then started to laugh.

“Son, if they didn’t see and hear that great big helicopter, I don’t think they’ll hear little ol’ me. Who the hell are you?”

“PFC Wandro, sir.” One of my new joins from the day before.

“Well, get yourself lined up and we’ll get out of here.” That was my first, but not the last, of my dealings with Jimmy Wandro, US Marine and one of America’s heroes.

We moved up the ridge, joining the company and setting in for the night. Although we were supposed to be in the valley below that night, the Skipper held us in place. The last thing we needed was broken legs from falling off a cliff.

We were at an altitude of perhaps 400 feet, situated on a narrow rocky ridge. The wind was actually cold. In the distance, we could see the lights of DaNang. It looked so peaceful.

And it was midnight. Easter Sunday was over.

3 comments:

Kevin said...

Brother, you need to compile and publish this. I'm serious.

jim_l said...

Ditto on Kevin's comment

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