14 October 2009


When last we revisited my little part of Vietnam in 1969, I had just been pulled out of the bush and sent back to An Hoa to become Executive Officer (XO) of Charlie Company. I settled in to the routine of life on the combat base. To the troops in the field, we were known as REMF’s: “rear echelon…., well, you get the picture. For the first time in months, I could shower daily—if you got to the shower point when it opened at 1900 (7pm) and if had been a sunny day, the water was hot while it came out of the above-ground storage tank.

The worst part of being in An Hoa was that it was a fixed target. We were rocketed or mortared nearly daily. You never left your bunker without a flak jacket, helmet, rifle, and gas mask. There were nights in the monsoon season when we went to the shower point buck naked, except for our flak jackets, helmets, rifles and knee waders. The mud was that deep.

I was assigned a couple of JAG Manual investigations into missing equipment and First Sergeant Lee kept up my reading assignments, including the Marine Corps Correspondence Manual, the Assignment, Classification and Testing Manual (ACTS Manual), and other administrative publications. In later years of my career, this early introduction to administrative procedures stood me in good stead.

After about 10 days, the Battalion XO informed me that I was being sent to Okinawa for 30 days to attend Embarkation School, after which, I would become the S-4 of the Battalion. I was stunned. The S-4 was a Captain’s billet. He is the staff officer responsible for logistics: communications, supply, motor transport, medical, and embarkation. But there it was.

I went to Danang on the 25th of June and caught a C-130 to Okinawa the next morning. As I was running for the chopper to Danang, it off-loaded a couple of Charlie Company troops coming in from the Arizonza.

“Everything OK with the Company,” I asked?

“Yessir, but Bravo 6 was KIA last night.” Damn! Captain Castagnetti. But by now, I had learned to compartmentalize death.

It was as if I had been teleported to a strange world. I had changed. The first shock was being required to turn in my weapon at the battalion armory. I had been armed with a loaded weapon never further than I could reach for over 7 months. I felt naked and exposed.

At Kadena AFB, I caught a shuttle bus to Camp Hansen, the pre-war home of the 9th Marines. We had passed through in December, but now I was not a transient. Schools Battalion checked me in and I was assigned a room in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ). For the next month or so, I would have a real bed, a desk, reading lamp, chair, and I would share a head with one other officer. I was livin’ in tall cotton!

The next morning, I heard someone in the shower. After he left the head, I showered with unlimited hot water (my 5th shower in 18 hours).

As I was dressing, there was a knock at the door. It turned out that my roommate was Tom Kerrigan, a classmate from TBS. We soon learned that Chris Rodatz and Pat Murphy from our class were also in Embark School.

That afternoon, when I returned to my room, I heard the toilet flush in the head. It flushed again…and again…and again…and……

“Hey, Tommy. You OK?”

The door opened. Tom flushed the commode again. “Oh, damn, Mac. Will you look at that?” As I said, a strange new world.

The school was interesting—sort of an accounting course: debit the beach and credit the ship. We learned the storage capacity and characteristics of various classes of amphibious shipping, how to prepare a detailed loading plan, and were introduced to the new computerized loading system with its 80 column pads and punch card decks. For those of you younger than 30, we were using the computer version of a slate board.

Friday nights were special. We usually went to the Iha Castle Hotel out in town for dinner. The Iha Castle was built by Continental and Pa Am airlines as billeting for their crews that were taking troops to and from Vietnam. The restaurant had a great surf and turf dinner on Friday for $2.50. The best part was the 40 foot salad bar. Every vegetable you can imagine--there were nights when I never got to the surf and turf.

We had Saturdays and Sundays off, but Kin Blue Beach was within walking distance and Kerrigan and I spent long hours there sunning. Since May, I had had a festering sore on my left ankle. Doc had prescribed Bacitracin, but the darn thing stayed ugly. There was no way to keep it clean. By July, it was a jellied white.

In Oki, I took a couple of showers a day, and the salt water soaks seemed to help. Finally, a little piece of shrapnel worked its way out of the sore and after that, it started to heal. By September, all I had was a scar.

On Monday morning, 17 July, we started our final exam. We had to prepare a complete loading plan for a ship, using the Operation Order as our guide. The instructors told us that we had until 1630 on Friday to finish, but we could turn our plans in whenever we were done. Kerrigan and I wanted to visit the southern tip of the island to see Suicide Cliffs, so we decided to work so as to have Friday off.

I worked from 0800 to about 2300 each day. By Thursday evening at 2100, I was almost done. Then I realized that I could not account for one 3 cubic foot box. It took me another 4 hours and a revision of my load to fix it. The problem with a two dimensional plan for loading a three dimensional ship is that, on paper, you can stack boxes higher than the overhead in the compartment in which they are stowed. That’s what I had done. At 0100, I went to bed.

At 0500, I got up and headed over to the Officers Club to watch a miracle happen. The Club was jammed. Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon. Then we all went back to bed.

The next week’s classes were pro forma. I was honor grad, the only officer to have a completely workable plan.

A few nights later, we were back at Kadena, anxious to get back to Vietnam before midnight on 31 July.

“Huh,” you say?

One small advantage to being in Vietnam was that Congress saw fit to make our pay exempt from Federal income taxation for any month or part of a month spent within the confines of the “combat zone.” By getting into Country before midnight on the 31st, even if by only 5 minutes, July’s pay was tax free. We made it by three hours.

The next morning, I got a ride to 5th Marines (Rear) at 11th Motor transport Battalion and caught a chopper ride back to An Hoa. From the LZ, I trudged back up to the 1/5 BOQ tent. As I started up the steps, the screen door opened and I damn near fainted. There stood Gino Castagnetti.

“What’s the matter, Mac,” he asked?

“You’re dead, Sir. They told me.”

“Sorry, young lieutenant, but it just ain’t so. C’mon in and take a load off.”

Ah, the fog of war. And I was back in the middle of it.

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