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.

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