19 March 2010


October was a busy month. One afternoon, Tom Pottenger walked into the S-4 bunker and said, “C’mon. You’re gonna want to see this.”

We walked out into the battalion street to see a large group of Marines milling around outside the H&S Company CP.

“What the…,” I muttered?

Pot grinned. “We’re being reinforced.”

As the 3d Marine Division was being pulled out of Vietnam in the “Vietnamization” process, Headquarters, Marine Corps had decided that only those Marines with more than 9 months in country would go to Okinawa. The rest would be sent south to build up the strength of the 1st Marine Division.

Second Battalion, Third Marines was sent to the 5th Marines, and each battalion received one company. As I recall, 1/5 received G/2/3.

This made sense. Bonding in combat is in my estimation one of the closest relationships ever to be developed, stronger than all but that of mother and child. Consider that a baby is helpless in a huge, dangerous world and must rely on one person above all for survival. In combat, one is again in a dangerous world and must rely on shipmates for survival. Just as removing from his mother a baby who has forged the bond is traumatic, so, too, is breaking the bonds forged in combat.

Read any of Steven Ambrose's books and one theme is that the vets in a unit were leery of bonding with new arrivals. They had already suffered the loss of buddies with whom the bond had been forged and many could not bear the thought of re-bonding and losing again. So the Marine Corps policy was sound; it ensured that these troops would know at least a few people in their new units.

At the same time, the leaders in 1/5 were facing a task of re-orienting the thinking of these new joins. Their identity was with the Third Marines. Fortunately, they were joining the most illustrious battalion in the most illustrious regiment in the pre-eminent Division in the Corps. They were "movin' up," even if it took us a while to convince them of that fact. (Many of them are members of the First Marine Division Association and attend our reunions. It is their right and privilege to do so. What is interesting is that few of them are also members of the Third Marine Division Association. They consider themselves--and they are--Marines of 1/5 and the 5th Marines, a fighting organization that accepts as its peers only Caesar's Legion in Gaul and Jackson's Brigade in the Valley.)

But again, I digress. When we got close, Tom called the group to attention. “I’m Lieutenant Pottenger, the S-1. I want all the officers to come with me. Whoever has the SRBs (service record books) of the troops, bring those, too. This is Lieutenant McCarty, the S-4. He’ll explain the drill for tonight.”

There was a small sandbagged bunker next to the H&S Company CP tent, a shelter in case of rocket or mortar attacks. I jumped up on it, and explained that we would get them to chow right away (it was about 1600) and then would billet them in GP tents for the night. I then asked, “Are there any questions?”

Every hand shot up. Damn!?!

“OK, Sergeant?”

“Yessir. We been humping the mountains up north against the NVA. We heard that down here in VC country, you run into booby traps. The NVA don’t use booby traps. Are there a lot of booby traps down here?”

Now there was an interesting question, in so many ways. The Third Marine Division had convinced itself that their war was the bad one--and it was a bad one, in the mountains with triple canopy against the NVA. But the idea that we were merely toying with a few guerillas rankled. Recall that we destroyed the 90th NVA Regiment in June.

“Well, Sergeant, the short answer is ‘yes.’ I don't know what line they have been feeding you in the Third Mar Div, but there are NVA here, too, and even they plant booby traps. My best advice is this: even if you have been in country five or six months, even if you are an NCO, this is something new. Listen to the Marines who have been here, even if they are junior to you or have been in country for a shorter time. If everyone in the column walks to the left of a tree, you walk to the left. Recently, 2/5 had a lieutenant that decided to walk to the right and now they’re short one lieutenant.”

“Another thing,” I continued. “If you enter a ville and look down a path and see a nice new flak jacket, or a helmet or a cartridge belt just laying there, leave it alone. Call for an engineer. A while back, 3/5 had a lieutenant who decided that he should save the taxpayers money and retrieve a flak jacket that was just sitting next to a well. He’s dead, the flak jacket was destroyed, and the taxpayers paid for his funeral. Use your heads, listen to the people who have been here, and you’ll be fine. OK?”

He nodded.

“OK, who’s next?” No one moved. It dawned on me that they had really been beat over the head with the threat of booby traps. A good thing, too, because the NVA and VC were masters of the trade.

By the next morning, they had been parsed out to the companies and they fit in just fine.

In 2005, we finally got a group of 1/5 Marines from the 1969 time period together at the reunion.

The guys from Tet '68 in Hue City had been the strong core of the members from the Vietnam era 'til then. They made us feel welcome, but that bonding thing was still strong. At the 1999 reunion banquet, I was sitting with them because no one from my time was present. At dinner, they were passing around a copy of the Life magazine photo of an amtrac bringing casualties out of Hue City. One Marine is cradling another in his arms, the wounded man smeared with blood and a battle dressing tied across his chest. Even in the photo, his skin was greying.

I remember that issue and that photo. It came out right after Mom had gotten the response to her letter to the President. I devoured the issue, seeing myself in every photo. Mom refused to look at it again.

At the reunion, they were pointing out Marines they knew. The man sitting next to me was identified as the one holding the casualty.

"Did he make it," I asked?

He paused, teared up, and then shook his head. "Nah. He died at the BAS (battalion aid station)." He paused. "Aw, Fuck!" This time, that one word was uttered as a prayer, and I believe that our loving and compassionate God, the Father of the Great Lion of Judah, received it as just that--nothing more or less.

He stood up and walked away. One of their Corpsmen, a question on his face, looked at me across the table. I nodded, and Doc took off to console his brother. I felt like a base intruder into a family still in mourning, a stranger, a distant cousin who was merely showing up for the wake.

Soon, we reached out to guys from "our year" and we now attend in in strength. It is easier when you are with family.

At dinner during one of "our" first reunions, we were trying to place each other. Suddenly, one guy looked at me.

“Hey, you’re that tall skinny lieutenant who talked to us about booby traps.”

After all those years, it was still all about those damned booby traps!

Semper Fi.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.


Reformed Catholic said...


I see you've taken my advice about copyright ;)

Good move !!

Mac said...

When RC talks, I listen! 8>)