09 June 2009


From Laundryman Charlie 3 romeo oscar: Check out my message on 6 June.

I had gotten six new Marines the afternoon before. One squad got four and the other, two.

At about 0700, the Skipper came over. “How are you doing?” I think he was worried about me. I know now that in this time frame, my Mom was really concerned about the tone of my letters, especially after losing Phipps and Unfried. She once described them as "suicidal;" I think "resigned" is probably a closer description.

“I’m OK. What’s up?”

He pulled out his map. "The helicopter that was shot down yesterday is located here.” He pointed to a spot about 1500 meters to the southwest. “Bravo buried the .50 cals from the bird, and the 12.7 they captured, before they came in last night. Saddle up your platoon and go out and secure the bird. Bravo is sending us a Marine who can find the three machineguns. The air wing is sending out a team to recover the bird. Send the .50s back with them, but bring that 12.7 in. The Old Man wants to see it.”

A few minutes later, a Lance Corporal from Bravo showed up and we headed out. It took about 35 minutes to reach the downed helicopter. We immediately dug up the three machine guns and carried the .50s onto the bird. There were IV lines dangling from the overhead and bloody battle dressings littered the deck. An M-16 was in amongst the litter. Levi picked up the rifle. It was smeared with blood and there was a shell casing caught between the bolt and the forward edge of the ejection port. The man’s rifle had jammed.

Levi walked off the bird and cleared the weapon. When he inspected it, it was cruddy. He took the rifle around to our troops. “The next time you ladies (he actually used a very crude feminine descriptor) complain about cleaning your weapons every day, remember this. Damn. It’s nothing less than suicide!" He practically made the FNGs kiss the weapon, it was so far in their faces. "Goddamn plastic piece of [crud].”

A few years later, Leatherneck Magazine ran an article based on a letter that then-Representative James Symington of Missouri had written to his Dad, Senator Stuart Symington, when he was in boot camp. In describing the hard NCOs who were his DIs, he wrote a line that was the title of the article. "War," he wrote, "is the business of Sergeants." He was absolutely right. There are things that Sergeants can, and are expected to do, that officers cannot. Sergeant Levi was an excellent Sergeant.

Levi's final comment was telling. There was still a serious reservation on the part of many Marines about the M-16. This dated from McNamara's decision to force it on the DOD without a chromed barrel and receiver. Too many Marines knew Marines who had been in the fights for Hills 881 North and 881 South in 1967, when rifles jammed right and left and many Marine KIAs were found with their rifle disassembled and cleaning rods inserted into the barrels to clear jams. If properly cleaned and maintained, it was an adequate rifle, but the concern that it was a plastic toy--"Matty Mattel"--was always just under the surface.

We checked out the area for any enemy WIAs, but there were none. It was littered with NVA bodies and weapons, and we set about policing up the gear. Suddenly, one Marine called to me. "You gotta see this.”

In a deep fighting hole dug at the base of a tall tree we could see a body. He was wearing a holster. Someone was about to get the most sought-after war prize of all—a pistol. “Who found him,” I asked?

A Marine stepped forward. “All right, if the weapon is still there, it’s yours. Get him out of there.”

Marines are nothing if not born resourceful. The body was jammed into the bottom of the hole and no one wanted to have to get in there with the dead guy. I walked away. Finally, someone tossed a piece of line over a tree branch and looped a noose around the corpse’s neck. Then they hoisted him out. Luckily, I was able to stop the three photographers from taking pictures. It probably would not have looked good, although rigor mortis had set in and he was swinging at weird angles.

“Pull him aside and check for papers.” One man found a folded piece of paper in the guy’s pocket. When later translated, we realized that we had found either the Commanding Officer or the Political Officer of the 2d Battalion, 90th NVA Regiment. (The document was an appointing order addressed to the CO and cc’d to the Political Officer.) He had a Makarov pistol in really great shape and I had a very happy Marine.

We found about thirty NVA dead around the area. Levi organized a working party (mainly the FNGs) and buried them in a bomb crater. Then we settled in to wait for the recovery bird.

Within about 10 minutes after we arrived, a couple of civilians materialized and indicated that they needed “bac si” (doctor) at a hooch about 40 meters away. I sent a fire team to check it out again, and Doc went over to see what was what.

He came back about 20 minutes later. “There’s an old lady over there, Sir. She’s got a sucking chest wound and she’s in real bad shape. I patched her up, but we need to medevac her.”

I called the Skipper, but in a few minutes he called back to tell me that 2/5 had had a big dust up the night before and that we probably wouldn’t get a medevac for a routine casualty until late that afternoon. I told Doc.

Doc went over to check on her again and came back after another half an hour. “Sir, she won’t last until the afternoon. She’s in a lot of pain and is essentially choking to death on her own blood.”

“Dammit, Doc, I know. But we aren’t gonna get a medevac anytime soon.”

“Yessir, I know. Do you want me to do something for her?”

“Sure, Doc, make her as comfortable as possible.”

“Uh, no sir. I mean do you want me to do something for her?”

Aw, Christ on a crutch! And then I said something that I never thought I could say. “Give me a couple of minutes to think about it, Doc, OK?”

“Yessir.” All the CP group moved away from me, leaving me alone to make a decision. Ten minutes later, I called Doc over.

“Look, I know she’s hurting, but dammit, Doc, nobody made me God out here! You make her as comfortable as possible, but don’t do anything else, you understand? Nothing else!”

“Aye, aye, Sir.” He went back to be with her. She died about 2 hours later.

I spent the rest of the time until the helicopter recovery team arrived, thinking. How could it have taken me ten minutes to say “No”? The fact that I even considered any other response scared me. It was time for me to get out of here.

I often wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, I made the right decision. I think I did, but I wonder what that little old lady would have thought?

The recovery team arrived in the early afternoon. A group of mechanics, led by a Master Sergeant, quickly removed the six rotor blades and stowed them in the chopper. The .50s were also tied down and a sling was rigged.

As the crew was working, the Master Sergeant called me over. “Look at this, Lieutenant.”

There were only three bullet holes in the helicopter—one in the fairing around the forward rotor shaft, one in the fairing around the after shaft, and one evenly spaced between the other two. “There’s a governor on each shaft, Sir," he explained. "Lose one, and you can still fly. These bastards hit both, with only three rounds. Son of a bitch!”

Have I mentioned that war is fluky?

The recovery bird, a CH-53, landed to pick up the crew. One of my Marines held the donkey dick and hooked it up to the bird, jumping as the connection was made. (There is a tremendous build up in static electricity in a flying helicopter. If he had stood his ground, the discharge would have knocked him flying.)

We then saddled up and headed home.

In our absence, the perimeter had been expanded and the lines adjusted. Bravo had moved in between Alpha and Charlie Companies, along the west side of the hill. Bravo tied in with Charlie 1 on the south. Alpha had Bravo on its left and Charlie 3 on the right. Neal and I had the eastern side of the hill on a fairly straight front. Charlie 2 became battalion reserve. I got my people dug in, sighted weapons and prepared for the night.

There was an old trench that ran from the rice paddy to the north straight up into our position, between my lines and the concrete bunker. It ended just south of the point where my two squads linked up.

That concerned me, because the lines had been marked during our absence, and that trench ran right between my platoon and Alpha Company's right flank platoon. There is a maxim in tactics that you never split responsibility for an avenue of approach, i.e., an easy way into a position. For the sake of clarity, someone unit must know that it has sole responsibility for that avenue.

I moved along my lines,telling off my Marines into their prospective positions, marking positions for machine guns (which would be emplaced after dark so the enemy did not see their locations). I started with our connection with Charlie 1 on my right and moved to the link up with Alpha Company. Mike Tonkyn’s squad, Charlie 3 Bravo, had that portion of our lines. His nearest and left-most position was about 20 meters from the trench. I told him to have his Marines hold off digging in and then took him with me in search of the Alpha Company platoon commander.

It was the guy who had lost his people in the paddy on Sunday (two days or two years ago, depending). He was sitting under a tree, reading Stars and Stripes.

“I’m Lieutenant McCarty. My platoon is on your right flank. Let’s walk, eh?”

“Well, what do you want?” He didn’t move. Arrogant little .......

“We need to check lines so we can make sure we have everything covered.”

“I’m waiting for my Captain to do that. Come back later,” he said dismissively. (I wish I had.)

“Look, Sport, we’ve had a long couple of days. Before my guys dig in, I want to make sure I won’t have to shift lines and make them do it all over again. Now get off your ass and let’s go.” Tonkyn was doing his best to disappear while the officers hashed things out.

The lieutenant grumbled and got up. We walked over to the trench. There was a fighting hole right next to it with an M-16 in the hole. “Is this one of yours,” I asked?

“Yeah, it’s mine.”

Well, Lance Corporal Tonkyn’s first position is that one over there.” I pointed to three Marines about 20 meters away. There was a clear area between the trench and the Alpha company position. “Do you want me to move them closer?”

“Nah. I think we’re OK. You can run along now.” Snotty little brat.

The next day, I learned that about 20 minutes later, near dark, Captain Torrey checked lines and was assured by that lieutenant that he was covering the trench. The Captain asked “And where is your position?”

“This is my hole,” the lieutenant replied, pointing to the hole right next to the trench. I suspect that he had chosen that position because the ground was relatively soft and made for easy digging.

“No. No. You cannot be on the far right flank of your lines. You need to be centered so you can control the fires of your entire platoon. Move your position and rearrange your lines.”

The idiot did move his position, but decided that he did not want to inconvenience his troops (who, we later learned, hated the SOB), so he just left the hole vacant and the trench unprotected. Within days, he was relieved of his platoon, sent back to Regiment to be the Civil Affairs Officer (a sort of liaison with the local Vietnamese military and political establishment) and then to Danang to be a Special Services Officer running part of the Freedom Hill PX. But that’s in the future.

All around me, I could hear my troops digging in. I went over to help Gibby get our hole ready for the night for the night.

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