23 March 2010


And the rains came. The fall rainy season kicked in and the Seabees learned that their low water bridge at Liberty Bridge worked. It was under water, but it easily withstood the flow and force of the water.

At the end of September, the XO called me to his office. “One Company can’t spare an officer to be its pay officer this month, so I’m sending you.”

Actually, they had a regular complement of officers, but they had a new CO who was unsure of himself and needed the “security blanket” of having all his officers in the bush. Well, great. Let’s give the bastards one more shot at the kid! “Aye, aye, Sir.”

I’m sure the platoon commanders were disappointed, too. Being pay officer once every three or four months was a little respite because invariably, between the 20th of the month when the payroll was distributed and the 30th (payday), somebody was going to be medevac-ed to Danang.

The pay process worked like this in the ancient times before direct deposit: On the 20th, an 80 column payroll was published in disbursing. The payroll was an alphabetical listing of the Company, with rank, service number, and the amount of money that the Government owed the Marine. In the Company office, they would draw three columns on the roll: “cash,” “check,” and “ride.” It would be sent to the field for review by each Marine.

The individual Marine would then annotate his desires. Most would let most or all of their pay “ride” on the payroll, i.e., they would not draw anything. The next most frequent entry was for “check” in some amount that the Marine would send home. A lot of Marines were the principal source of income to their families. In my first two months in country, I drew checks to pay off my college loans; thereafter, I let the money ride. Finally, some would ask for small amounts of cash.

The payroll was sent back to Disbursing to prepare for payday.

On the 30th, the Pay Officer would select one of his Marines to be his body guard. For a platoon commander in the bush, he would go to An Hoa on the 29th, giving his “body guard” a night in the rear where he could get a shower and a couple of hot meals. After picking up the payroll, checks, blank envelopes, and counting and signing for the cash, it was off to the LZ.

In the field, Marines were paid and signed for their cash. Those who had asked for checks endorsed them and were given envelopes so they could send the check home. The Pay Officer would carry the envelopes back and mail them from the Company office. (Congress had granted us a franking privilege, so there was no need to worry about stamps.)

After all Marines were paid in the field, the Pay officer and bodyguard would fly to Danang to pay troops who had been hospitalized between the 20th and the 30th. I would always go to 1st Medical Battalion and 1st Hospital Company first. They were close to the Division CP and the LZ at 11th Motor Transport Battalion which was also the site of 5th Marines (Rear). We would then hitch a ride to the Naval Support Activity Hospital, down near Marble Mountain, arriving late enough in the day to pay and then be “stranded” when the roads closed for the night. NSA had beds with sheets, hot showers, and mess facilities similar to back in the World.

This time, however, I was starting from An Hoa. And it rained. Then, at about 1600,
Pottenger called. “A hole in the weather just opened up. Get to the LZ.”

At the same time, my 4 Chief popped in. “I’m headed to the LZ with a working party. A hole in the weather just opened up and we’ve gotta resupply the battalion in the next hour or two.”

I got to the Z just in time to catch the resupply bird headed to the Company. There were four or five troops reporting to or returning to the Company and me, along with a helicopter full of supplies. We took off and then hovered while the Shore Party people hooked an external net to the chopper. Then we were off.

We landed 15 minutes later. I reported to the Company Commander, a 1st Lieutenant, and the Gunny promptly started rotating the platoons up to be paid. It was sunny and everyone was enjoying a respite from the rain. The CO, who was playing his role to the hilt, insisted that I, as a REMF, walk out to an observation post located about 200 meters from the lines to pay those troops "for the experience." I did, but when I returned, I pulled the SOB aside and reminded him that I had been in country for ten and one-half months to his three weeks and that I was senior to him. (He had been sent to Camp Lejeune from TBS for “seasoning,” but once in country, he was senior enough to get a company.) This last remark was particularly stinging; the maxim that "Seniority between lieutenants is like virtue among whores" usually led to a live and let live attitude.

After that, I went down to 3d Platoon and spent the night with them because I knew the platoon commander from embark school. It started to rain again about midnight.

Rain in an Asian monsoon is unlike anything we have in the States. When I was in the Philippines a couple of years later, the rain started on July 6 and stopped on August 24. And I mean it—it did not ever stop raining in that 50 day period. The volume changed, but the precipitation was constant.

In our little part of Vietnam, it rained. Streams rose, the hill on which we were located became an island, fighting holes were swimming pools.

The next morning, I checked with the CO to see if there was any chance that we would get a bird that day. While I was there, the CO ordered one of his platoon commanders to send out an OP to the same location as the day before.

I pulled him aside. “You sure you want to do that? Don’t get into a pattern.”

“Look. Lieutenant,” he replied. “I had a platoon for eight months at Camp Lejeune. I think I can run this company without your help.”

Fine with me, Jack. I returned to the Third Herd. It rained all day. The Old Man decided that everyone should stay in place. Moving in the rain is miserable. Just sitting in it is miserable, squared and cubed.

The next morning, the CO sent the OP to the same spot. I objected and was told to get the [universal modifier] out of the CP. Ten minutes later, the troops moving into the OP tripped a booby trap, killing one Marine and wounding another. Although all administrative flights were grounded, medevacs still flew.

The Gunny came down and blew off steam, and the platoon commander needed some consoling. And it rained.

On the fourth day, we began to run out of chow, and by the sixth day, we were completely out.
Whenever I am out in rain or snow these days and I hear people complain about “how miserable it will probably be,”, I smile. The Marine Corps spent 20 years teaching me how to be wet and miserable, and even now when the time comes, I can be wet, cold, tired, hungry and just [universal modifier] miserable without even thinking about it. The eight day stint in October 1969 was the laboratory session for the course entitled “Being Wet And Miserable 101.”

Finally, on the 8th day, the decision was made for us to walk out.

As we were preparing to move, the platoon commander's radio operator found an old bottle of ketchup buried in the bottom of his haversack. It was half full and looked pretty groady.

He poured it into a canteen cup and topped the cup off with rain water. Someone twisted off a pinch of C-4 plastic explosive, touched a match to it, and held the cup over the low blue flame. In 30 seconds the mixture was boiling. The platoon CP group then each enjoyed a swallow of the lousiest best tomato soup I have ever eaten.

It took us four hours to wade about 5 clicks , through waist-to neck deep water until we hit the MSR. I got leeches for the only time in country. Finally, we reached the road.

Joy of Joys, there were trucks waiting and within an hour of getting to the road, we were back in An Hoa.

I had been on the radio with my 4 Chief and we had dry clothing, including socks, waiting for all four companies.

I still had two chores. I reported to the XO that the Company Commander was a stupid SOB who had killed one of his Marines because of his own ego. The XO nodded. (I later learned that the Gunny had talked to the First Sergeant who talked to the Sergeant Major. I understand that the adjectives used by the Sergeant Major made mine sound like a Mother Goose rhyme.)

I then returned the payroll to Disbursing. Then I looked up the Company’s First Sergeant.

“Uh, First Sergeant, when I paid PFC [the KIA], he endorsed his check to his Mom and gave it to me to mail. He’s probably already home, maybe even buried. What do I do with the check?”

“Lieutenant, I’d send it on home. Put a note in it to explain to the Mom.”

So, a few days later, a grieving Mother got one last check in the mail. I wrote how he had told me how glad he was to be able to help his Mom and his six brothers and sisters. “He told me how much he loves you and his family. I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am for your loss. Just know that he told me how proud he was to be your Son. And we are proud that he was, and always will be, one of our Marines.”

Every word I wrote was true. I pray that it helped.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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