27 March 2010


And with the stroke of a pen, I became a short-timer. I do not believe that anyone who has not served in a war with set “tours of duty,” such as Vietnam and the current unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan, can understand the fixation that one develops on the calendar. When I first went to the bush in December 1968, I listed the months on my helmet cover.

Thereafter, on the last day of the month, when the midnight time check was called, I would have a personal ceremony of checking off that month.

Troops carried short-timer calendars for their last 100 days, usually in the shapely shape of a well endowed young lady. There were numbered segments within the outline, one to be colored in each day. I will leave to your imagination the placement of the last three spots.

Counting the days was also a routine, although no one really started until the last 30 days. There were rules. You did not count the day you were in and the final day was “a wake up.” Therefore, on 17 November, I could say “I’ve got 30 and a wake up.” When you got into single digits, you were “so short, you could sit on the edge of a dime and dangle your legs.”

At the same time, the final 30 days was one of the two most dangerous times in country. The first 30 days, you were so green that you were a danger to yourself and others. The last 30 days, there was the danger of getting a “short-timer mentality.” In other words, there was a tendency to loosen up, to think Hey, I’ve got this knocked.

For that reason, at least in 1/5, we tried to send Marines back to the rear when they hit 30 days. They would stand lines and work in working parties. There was still the danger of rockets and mortars, but it was not as dangerous as the bush. Most of the time.

We had a Marine who extended his tour of duty for six months. This is not as strange as it sounds. If an enlisted Marine returned to the States with less than 6 months remaining on his enlistment, the Marine Corps had begun to offer early discharges, thus avoiding the cost of moving a Marine to a new duty station and then moving him again on discharge.

A lot of Marines who would have gotten to CONUS with 11 months left on their enlistment would extend so that on return, they could be discharged. To sweeten the pot, the Corps offered a Marine who extended a “free” 30 day leave (not charged against his leave balance) anywhere in the world, a choice of a new Military Occupational Specialty, and promotion.

One of our Corporals who had joined the battalion in Hue City during Tet 1968 extended. He was an 0311 (rifleman)and had completed his 13 month tour without a scratch, a real accomplishment for a veteran of Tet. He took his 30 days in the States and then returned to the battalion as a Sergeant with an 01 MOS (clerical). He was assigned to Headquarters & Service Company.

Shortly after his return, while serving as Sergeant of the Guard in our defense sector, he was wounded by shrapnel from an 82mm mortar. He was in the hospital for three days. About a week later, he was once again wounded by shrapnel, but this time his wounds did not require hospitalization. He was awarded a Purple Heart for each wound.

Another policy in effect was for wounds received in action. If a Marine received two Purple Hearts that required hospitalization in excess of 48 hours, he was immediately shipped out of country. Likewise, three Purple Hearts, whether requiring hospitalization or not, were a ticket out.

Finally, at 1145 on 15 May 1969, nine NVA 122 mm rockets landed in the battalion street. Miraculously, there was no one in the street at the time, but the area was peppered with shrapnel. (When I came in from the bush in June, in the BOQ tent, someone had circled every shrapnel hole and dated it. There were 57 holes labeled “15 May.” There were two tents between the street and the BOQ!)

As soon as the first rocket hit, everyone in the various company offices along the street headed for the sandbagged bunkers built at each end of the tents. All through An Hoa, Marines took cover. . . except for a bunch of crazy young motor transport Marines who fired up their mechanical mules and raced towards the impact area, looking for casualties.

The M274 4x4 "Mechanical Mule" was a half-ton utility vehicle used by the Army and Marine Corps all through the Vietnam War. It had a flat rectangular bed, surrounded by a raised rail. It was powered by 4 cylinder, 4 cycle engine started with a pull cord (like a lawn mower motor) and had a top speed of about 20 mph. It weighed about 900 pounds, and could carry 1000 pounds, hence the name.

On 15 May, as the Marines of H&S Company climbed out of their bunker, they found the Sergeant slumped over his typewriter. There was a shrapnel entry wound in the back of his head that exited through the right temple. Initially, they thought he was dead, but one Marine who rushed to him realized that he was still breathing. Another Marine took off his sweaty T-shirt, and they wrapped the Sergeant’s head.

About that time, a mule pulled up, and a couple of the clerks carried the Sergeant out to the Mule. Off they went, bouncing down the street, headed for the LZ. A couple of Corpsmen were triaging wounded in the Zone, and they immediately put the Sergeant on a Huey and off he went to NSA Hospital in Danang.

Eight weeks later, the Sergeant walked out of Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, a little unsteady on his feet, and exhibiting the signs of a serious head injury. But he knew his family and could speak, and function.

He should have been dead from the impact. When that didn’t kill him, the wound should have become infected from the T-shirt. Some men, God just isn’t ready for them when the world would assume He is!

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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