24 May 2009


It happened again.

I am in St. Louis for my niece’s graduation from high school. Last night at dinner, a waiter wished us a “happy Memorial Day.” My brother-in-law who was awarded a Silver Star and was a POW and I both cringed. It is not a happy day—it is a day of solemn remembrance of our comrades who died on the field of honor.

So, this weekend, please remember in prayer the families of our honored dead.

I will be traveling home tomorrow, but Lucas, Zimmerman, Tews, Unfried, Wandrow, Phipps, and Chip will be with me all the way.

23 May 2009


We continued our stay at the bridge for another couple of uneventful weeks. Mike Koch went back to An Hoa as Executive Officer of Bravo Company and Dick Woods took over as Charlie 2. The bridge was our home. There were no more casualties, although we did medevac two Marines for head injuries.

There was always a close air support flight in the air, ready to respond to calls for CAS. Combat aircraft do not land with ordnance (bombs and rockets) attached to the plane. Therefore, if a flight was not called upon to attack during its two hour flight, it would be directed to a “free fire zone” to dump its ordnance. The Arizona was a free fire zone.

The A-4 had a 20 mm internal gun. After they dropped their bombs, they would shoot up the area. The easiest way for them to do that was to follow the river. The problem was that the spent brass still had to come to earth. Despite our repeated request that they fly along one side of the river or the other, they continued to fly right down the middle of the river. As they would fire, we could hear the spent brass splashing into the water.

The troops were terrified that they would be hit by falling brass. We would tell them to stand still, but there was always someone who would run. One night, two Marines ran into each other, forehead to forehead. They each then fell back and hit the asphalt. Each man was unconscious and had goose eggs on both the forehead and the back of the head. Within two days, they were back.

On May 13, my birthday, I got to the mess for a late breakfast. As I was eating alone, the Gunny came in for a cup of coffee. He brought me my mail, which included a number of cards. I explained that it was my birthday. He turned on his heel and walked off.

A couple of minutes later, he returned with a C-ration pecan nut roll into which he had stuck piece of lit time fuse. “Happy birthday, Lieutenant.” It was my most memorable birthday cake.

A few days later, we were alerted that the battalion would relieve 2/5 in the Arizona. That weekend, the Skipper’s jeep unexpectedly came down to the bridge. He, Neal, Woody and the Gunny were already aboard. He told me to wedge myself in, and we headed for the battalion CP. The new battalion commander, LtCol William E. Riley, Jr., USMC, had arranged for the officers and Staff NCOs to make MARS calls home. This was an an ominous sign, but typical of the Old Man'sleadership.

Fortunately, I remembered that Maryann was visiting my Mom that weekend.

The Military Affiliate Radio System was made up of ham radio operators in the States. The phone call would be patched into a shortwave station at An Hoa. The operator would then contact a ham operator in the States who would place a collect call to, e.g., my Mom’s house. I was able to speak to both Mom and Maryann.

We began to prepare mentally and logistically for our return to the bush.

22 May 2009


Our routine on the bridge during the day was simple. At intervals of about 40 meters along both sides of the roadway, the SeaBees had built small platforms that hung out over the river. It gave pedestrians a place to stand when trucks were crossing. We sand-bagged one on each side of the bridge and made them the observation post for day security.

For about 22 hours each day, the wind blew downstream (from the west), but from about 3pm to 5pm, it shifted 180 degrees. I have never learned why.

On April 30, the platoon sergeant had taken out the afternoon security patrol. I headed up to the compound for the Skipper’s daily meeting. While there, I got a radio message that one of my Marines had been lost in the river.

As we later determined, the death of Lance Corporal Ernie Tews occurred like this. He and another Marine were on watch on the upstream side of the bridge. Tews was a smoker, as were most of my Marines. Most of them carried engraved Zippo lighters that they had picked up after boot camp. Most also had a plastic cigarette box (think Tupperware) that would keep a standard pack of smokes and a lighter safe from rain.

Tews had placed his smokes on the sand bags around the OP. Suddenly, the wind picked up and blew the plastic box into the river 15 feet below.

“Oh, dammit. That’s my lucky lighter,” Tews told his shipmate. He walked across the bridge. “Here it comes. It’s floating.”

He took off his helmet and flak jacket and left his rifle in the OP. Then he stepped over the rail and dropped into the river.

The patrol was just crossing the bridge to continue up to the compound for supper. The tail-end Charlie (last man in the column) was a boot camp buddy of Tews’s.

“Hey, Tews, what the (universal adjective) are you doing in the river?”

Tews was swimming upstream and was about 20 feet from the ladder next to the diving board. “Had to get my lucky lighter.” He was laughing and not in distress.

The other Marine said, “I gotta catch up. See you later.”

He was running on up the bridge to catch the rest of his squad when 2 Seabees came running up and grabbed him. Pointing to the river, one said, “Is that guy really in trouble or is he just fooling around?”

Tews was about 40 feet down stream and struggling. One of the Bees jumped into the river and swam to Tews. The other took off his boots and then followed. By the time the second Bee got to where he had last seen Tews and his shipmate, they were both underwater. He surface dived, finally made contact with one man and pulled him up. It was the other SeaBee.

We sent out search patrols along the river until dark and resumed the next morning. He was finally found floating along the south bank about two miles down stream.

He was listed as a non-battle casualty (NBC) and his death has always bothered me because it seemed so purposeless. He was a good Marine, a fire team leader, and had a lot of potential. I have since learned that of the 58,000 names on the Wall in DC, some twenty percent, nearly 11,000, were NBCs, most of whom were from vehicle accidents and drowning.

It still haunts me.

07 May 2009


Despite the shock of Chip’s death, I had to move on. I had Marines to care for and lead. I just put the loss and the attendant emotion in a storage locker until I had time to deal with it. (I didn't know that it would take 40 years, and I didn't realize how the locked away stuff could fester in four decades. But that's another story.)

Life at the bridge was not bad. Our daily patrols into the villages west of us on the south bank of the river delivered results. One afternoon, as we entered the village, my radio operator said, “Hey, sir. There’s a new guy in town.”

We took the guy prisoner and learned later that he was the political officer of one of the NVA battalions operating in the Arizona. Another day, we shot and killed another tax collector.

On the Sunday after Chip’s death, we went ahead with his mess night. It was an opportunity to mourn, but otherwise, a bust. That same day, up in Danang, a working party was clearing grass and weeds that had grown through the barbed wire around the main ammunition supply point (ammo dump). Some genius decided that it would be easier to burn the grass out. From thirty miles away, we were entertained for the next 5 hours watching a light show of the first magnitude.

At about 2100, there was a spectacular explosion. A visible shock wave, like those you see in some of the films of the early A-tests, shot into the sky. We suspected that a whole lot of large bombs had gone off at once. (No, there were no nukes stored there.)

One of the benefits of being on the bridge was that I could sound swim call for my Marines at almost any time. They used the chance to get clean while also having some fun. The SeaBees had even built a diving board on the downstream side of the bridge, but I put it off limits except during organized company swim calls.

One disadvantage of being on the bridge came at night. The Arizona was a free fire zone. Airplanes do not like to land with unexpended ordnance on board—too much chance that a bomb or rocket will break free and destroy the airplane, pilot, and runway. So, before they went back to Marble Mountain, they would drop their stuff on the Arizona. When it came to 20mm cannons, they would use the river as a marker guide.

We would get the word that some pilot was cleared to fire. I would always ask that he be directed to avoid the middle of the river and to hold their fire until they had passed the bridge.

“Why,” you ask? Well, the brass from those rounds was ejected through a chute and fell straight to earth. As the pilot began to fire, we could hear the shell casings splashing down the river toward us. If one casing hit you, you were probably dead.

They invariably ignored us. I ordered everyone to freeze, and we never had a casualty due to a casing strike. I did medevac two Marines who ran from the sound, hit each other forehead-to-forehead, and then fell back to hit the backs of their heads on the roadway. Both were back with us in a couple of days—with some amusing nicknames.

We settled into new relationships. Mike Koch went to Bravo Company. Dick Wood came out to assume command of Second Platoon and Neal helped First Platoon heal.

But the dark cloud over us just kept getting cloudier.

02 May 2009


The surprise announcement by Justice Suter that he is retiring to New Hampshire has tongues wagging inside the Beltway. It’s the beginning of a new era for the Court we are told.

Well, there is no doubt that the President will appoint someone who will be a lot more liberal than would have President McCain, but that individual will be replacing a member of the liberal bloc—Suter, Ginsburg, Stevens, and Breyer. Many of us had presumed that the first vacancies would be Justices Ginsburg and Stevens, she because of her health and he because he is as old as the Rock of Ages (he turned 89 last week). Replacing any of those folks would have left the current balance in place.

The three youngest currently serving Justices are Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and the Chief, the eldest of whom is 60. So, barring some unforeseen departure by Justice Scalia or Justice Kennedy (the swing vote), the short-term make-up of the Court remains pretty much the same no matter who the President appoints.

But time, that rascal, marches on, and the youngster appointed by the President will be on the Court for a long time. Scalia just turned 73 in March and Kennedy hits that mark this Summer. Assuming that Ginsburg and Stevens do go in the next couple of years, the President will probably appoint additional young justices, and if Kennedy and/or Scalia depart, the bevy of new young justices will be re-writing the Constitution—finding previously unsuspected rights in a plethora of penumbrae-- for the next 30 years or more.

The new era is not here, but it is just over the horizon. Those of us who cherish the Founder’s concept of a federal republic in which the powers of the central government were intentionally limited cannot expect to see folks of that philosophy heading to the Court any time soon.