19 April 2009

ROK MARINES AND THE DEATH MARCH

That afternoon, the Skipper ordered me to take my platoon back towards the river to secure the north side of the cobble-stone road. The rest of the company moved west about 500 meters and set up to the south of the road. I was ordered to move back to the railroad cut at first light to secure a landing zone for the ROK Marine Corps.

The Republic of Korea had sent a large contingent of troops to aid the South Vietnamese. The ROK Marines were the cream of the crop.

We set up our perimeter at about 1700. As we did so, we could see two OV-10’s circling about 1500 meters north of us. Suddenly, they began to dive and fire rockets at targets on the ground. The Skipper called to tell me that they had spotted about 30 NVA in one of the villes and had taken them under fire.

Just before sunset, we spotted two Vietnamese coming toward our lines. One was an old man and the other a middle-aged woman of perhaps 30. They were carrying a long bamboo pole over their shoulders with a parachute silk hammock bent onto the pole with parachute cord. The fire team that moved out to check them out reported that they had a wounded child in the hammock.

We searched them closely and then brought them into the perimeter. The child, a boy of seven or eight, had a large hole punched through his left leg, probably from shrapnel from the rockets fired by the OV-10s. Doc patched it up, but told me that the kid needed a hospital.

I called the Skipper and passed the word. “No choppers available tonight. Keep them and evacuate the kid tomorrow,” he replied.

We were really nervous, suspecting that mama-san and grandpa-san had led the NVA to our position. Grandpa-san really wanted to return to his village It took some persuading to get him to sit still. As courteously as possible, I let him know that if he set one foot out of our perimeter or made one sound, I would shoot him pretty well dead. After that, he was quiet as a mouse.

The baby-san was a real trooper. He never made a sound. The troops kept giving him C-rats and especially the cookies and candy, treating him like a little brother. My Marines were ferocious warriors and gentle giants, all wrapped in dirty camo. God bless ’em!

Mama-san was a pill. About once an hour, she would start to moan and wail. One of us, myself, the platoon sergeant or the guide, would whack her in the head and shut her up. To this day, I am pretty certain that she was trying to guide the NVA to our position.

At first light, we saddled up and headed east about 1,000 meters to secure the LZ. When we got in place, I left mama-san and baby-san with the platoon guide in the platoon command post and sent papa-san on his way back home.

The ROK Marines were landed in US Marine Corps helicopters. I was standing in the middle of the LZ as the first wave landed. Suddenly, I heard a voice calling “Carty, Carty.”

It was 1stLt Park, a TBS classmate. (We had 16 foreign military trainees in our class. Park, an ROK Marine officer, was one of the best.) I do not know who was more surprised to see the two of us together, acting as old friends do—his Marines or mine.

After our mini-reunion, he moved off to set in his company. Accompanied by a ROK machinegun team, I headed for my CP to get mama-san and baby-san. These guys were tough. The Gunner carried an M-1919 .30 cal machine gun, complete with T&E mechanism, gun pintel and platform, and tripod, in one hand and two cans of ammo in the other, while the A-gunner carried two cans in each hand! Hard dudes. When the two ROKS saw the woman and kid, they grinned, dropped their weapons and pulled out their knives, and headed toward mom and kid. Mom began to wail.

I put myself in between them while yelling for Gibby to get one of my gold bars out of my pack. (For obvious reasons, we did not wear rank insignia in the field, but we carried a set of bars in our packs in case we had to go to Da Nang or back to An Hoa.) I showed it to the ROKs who became very apologetic, bowing and saluting. The corporal offered me his knife. Mama-san wailed some more.

It dawned on me that the knife was a gesture of courtesy: they were my prisoners and it was my privilege to cut their throats. I smiled and returned the knife, showing them my Dad’s K-bar. They really yucked it up! Finally, I sent them on their way.

Mom did not shut up until we finally had her and the kid on the chopper headed for Da Nang.

I moved out to rejoin the company which had moved southwest along the ridge. When I linked up at about 1300, we were beat. We moved into position, but got only a few minutes to rest. Then the Skipper informed us that battalion wanted us to move about 8 clicks to the An Hoa-Phu Loc (6) road by dusk.

We were not used to moving with full kit during the day, and this was a hot one—well over 100 degrees F and high humidity. As we moved out, we almost immediately began to have people straggling and suffering heat ailments. It was 1400, the hottest part of the day, we were in double canopy (jungle) so the air was heavy and still, and we were soon short on water.

Finally, in Second Platoon, one Marine collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. It was Jerome Thornton, one of the squad leaders and a fine Marine. The Docs got his heart going and an emergency medevac came roaring in. We evacuated six Marines with serious heat ailments, five of whom rejoined us. Thornton “died” at least three more times on the medevac and was revived each time. He was evacuated home.

Did I mention that our Corpsmen were miracle workers? And they still are. Ask the crew of USS San Francisco.

Up the line, I could hear the Skipper shouting on the radio that there was no reason on God’s green earth to destroy his company with a forced march.

Battalion relented. We went into a perimeter for the night.

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