08 July 2009

LEAVING HEARTH AND HOME

The night was quiet and uneventful. The next morning, we moved out to establish a company patrol base. It was the first time since Monday (four days and four centuries ago) that we had not been in a battalion position.

We headed back to “The Hot Dog,” a small hill so named because of its shape on the map. Like the shepherds of the ancient days, we had plenty of time to look at our surroundings. The ancients looked at the night sky. We looked at the ground—physically and on our maps. Shapes leaped out and we named the ground: “Battleship” and “Rock Pile” and “The Hot Dog.”

Charlie 3 drew the night ambush, with a late afternoon patrol en route. Our patrol intentionally took us through the impact area of the Arc Light. It was unbelievable.

Imagine if you will the Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Great Blue Ox had gone to Vietnam. The ground looked as if Paul and Babe had pulled some gigantic plow through a field 900 meters wide by nearly 3 clicks long. Trees were mangled and reduced to kindling. What was left of one village revealed that the hooches had been interconnected by a tunnel system. We found body parts and pieces of AK-47s and a couple of RPD machine guns. We also found a couple of caches of B-40 rocket launchers and rounds, all of which revealed that the NVA had been using the ville as a base or supply depot.

We proceeded on to our night ambush site and set in for what was another uneventful evening. What was left of the 90th NVA Regiment and its VC cadre had apparently withdrawn back into the mountains to lick its wounds. At first light, we moved to a new position about 800 meters from the Hot Dog and secured it for the rest of the company.

From our position, we watched a CH-46 fly to the Hot Dog to resupply the Company. A couple of hours later, the Company moved to our new position. After we linked up, Frank called me to the CP.

“Your relief is in.” He signaled another officer who was in the CP and introduced us. “Take today to snap him in. You’ll go back to An Hoa on tomorrow’s resupply bird.”

I knew that Jerry Ayers had gone back to Regiment to the 3 Shop (Operations) the day before, meaning that I was the last of our class that had reported in December who was still commanding a platoon. I guess the powers that be decided I need a little extra time to get it straight!

My relief was an officer who had done a year in the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina before coming to Vietnam. He was eager to take over, and I was cautious about putting my Marines into unknown hands. Throughout the day, I learned that one of his favorite expressions was a variant of “That’s not the way we did it at Camp Lejeune.”

Another quiet night ensued. I told Frank that I would lead Charlie 3 on the morning security patrol, taking the new guy for an orientation. He agreed, but told me to get back by 1030.

We headed out at our usual pace. The troops picked up an interval of 10 to 20 meters between men, and set a slow, cautious pace. Before each checkpoint, I would examine the area through binoculars and then usually, work the area over with a 60mm mortar fire mission.

When I offered to let him adjust one of the mortar fire missions, my relief was hesitant. “Doesn’t the FO (artillery forward observer) do that,” he asked?

I was amazed and a little unsettled--I had called and adjusted about 250 artillery and mortar fire missions and air strikes in the past six months. How would this guy think that he could just let the FO, who was in the Company CP, try to call a fire mission for a patrol several hundred or several thousand meters away. And what would he think when a Lance Corporal squad leader called a fire mission?

[At Camp Lejeune the next year, I discovered the basis for his assumption. In an exercise, I began to call for an artillery fire mission. Our FO from the 10th Marines was aghast.

"What do you think you are doing," he asked? "I'm the FO, I'm the graduate of the Artillery School (at Fort Sill, Oklahoma). If you haven't been through Fort Sill, how can you possibly call and adjust artillery fire?"

He was a second lieutenant who, because of President Nixon's "vietnamization" wind down, would never make it to Vietnam. He seemed to think that calling and adjusting artillery was some arcane practice known only to those admitted to the Guild and taught the magic words and phrases. Naturally, the First Lieutenant infantry officers who were commanding rifle platoons (many of whom had commanded rifle companies) in combat were amused at such presumption. We soon put these poor clowns in their place.]

Back on patrol, I simply told my relief that it was all his now--artillery and mortar support, air, medevacs, the whole megilla-- and had him call every fire mission for the rest of the patrol. Part of his hesitance, I discovered, was that he was having a hard time reading the map. As I mentioned before, the Arizona was really flat, and figuring where you were could be dicey. We worked on that, too.

Once we reached each checkpoint, I would stop to take a hard look at our route to the next check point. That gave me an opportunity to let half the platoon get a nap of 20 minutes or so. My relief was getting antsy because our pace was "too slow," definitely not the way things were done at Camp Lejeune. Finally, I pulled him aside.

“Listen up, jack! Two nights ago, this company was up to its ass in gooks. They may still be out here, and if they are, they don’t like us very much. There is nothing at the next checkpoint that requires us to get there in record time. Do it right and we get a prize—we accomplish our assigned mission and everybody gets back to the company in one piece. Oh, and by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, we are not in Camp [universal modifier] Lejeune. Now just calm down, listen and learn, and everything will be OK. Got it?”

He nodded and we had a nice quiet patrol from there on out.

When we got back to the CP, we reported to the Skipper for a quick change of command.

“OK, XO," Frank grinned, "grab your trash and get ready to go. The resupply bird should be here in about half an hour.” It was the first time that I realized that I was now the second-in-command for real. My mind returned briefly to a hot Company Street at Camp Upshur, three years and a lifetime ago. I was actually that exalted personage--the XO.

I hurried down to Third Herd. Gibby had my pack made up. I went from Marine to Marine to say goodbye and to wish them luck. I pulled Levi and Henson aside to ask them to take good care of the new Lieutenant. Bob Henson just smiled, handed me a last cup of C-rat coffee, and we shook hands.

Levi chuckled. “Yessir, I heard your little chat. Don’t worry, Sir. If I could train your sorry ass, I guess I can train anybody.” He grinned and we shook hands.

At least I knew that I was leaving Charlie 3 in the hands of two solid Marines. Bob was nearly 20 and Levi was nearly 21. Dear God, we thank You for men such as these.

The resupply bird whop-whop-whopped in, dropped the net and then settled to ground. I hustled up to the CP and said goodbye to Frank. Violating one of the rules of the bush, we exchanged salutes and then I grabbed my gear and ran for the bird, still wet and muddy from the patrol.

As we lifted off, I noticed how small a company perimeter really was. I felt as if I was leaving my family and our little home.

5 comments:

Reformed Catholic said...

Mac,

I hope you'll follow up with how Charlie 3 made out with the new LT.

BTW ... I'm glad to see that you're doing better health-wise, since it seems you're posting more, and I'm assuming its a good thing ;)

R.C.

Mac said...

He was WIA and evacuated home a few days later--doing something (I've forgotten the details) the way they did it in Camp Lejeune. A "Mr. Darwin goes to Vietnam" sort of thing.

The next platoon commander listened and learned.

GM Roper said...

Mac, this is a Terrific blog. Mustang, a very old and dear friend sent me over here. I'm glad he did. You are on my blogroll by this morning's light.

GM Roper

Leslie said...

I very much enjoyed reading your narrative of experiences. I shall return for more. :)

Reformed Catholic said...

Mac said: doing something (I've forgotten the details) the way they did it in Camp Lejeune.

Hmmm ... kinda gives an analogy for those who have never done it that way before in the church, always shooting themselves in the foot !!