15 May 2015
We boarded trucks at Camp Schwab at about 0300 on on 14 May and were taken to Kadena AFB, (located in the middle of Okinawa). There we boarded C-130s and took off for Utapao Royal Thai AFB at about 0500. We were crammed in and nobody got any rest on the trip. Our flight landed about Noon local time. I reported to the Battalion XO and the S-4 pointed out an empty hangar where we could billet the troops out of the sun. The USAF had grudgingly agreed that Marines needed the shade more than a couple of beat up old U-2 spy planes! (It was the first time I ever saw one up close. Of course, I was old enough to remember when the Soviets shot one down in 1959 and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.)
The CO was already out on a flight to recon Koh Tang. When he returned later that afternoon, he sent for me and asked “How many first class swimmers do you have in Fox Company?”
Pulling out my notebook, I replied “43, Sir, counting all the officers.”
He nodded. It turns out that there was a question about how we were going to retake the ship which was anchored just off the end of the island. Someone realized that the flight decks of the destroyers we had in the area were too small for the UH-53 helicopters the Air Force was using. One proposal was for me and my ”foxy sharks” to load our weapons, flak jackets, helmets, gas masks, and other gear into cargo nets and to then board the choppers. The nets would be dropped on the destroyer and then the bird would hover alongside while the Navy put whaleboats in the water. We would then jump from the choppers into the sea, be picked up by the whaleboats, and hoisted back aboard the ship. The next morning, we would pull alongside Mayaguez, board her and recapture her. (Fortunately, a platoon from 1/4 was able to get to a ship that could then rendezvous with a destroyer and be transferred feet dry. But it would have been a helluva good story!)
At about 2100, we had a briefing for the next day’s operation. I could tell it was going to be one of those!
First, we had no maps. Koh Tang was so insignificant that no one had ever mapped it. We did have some pictures that Captain Jim Davis (CO, Golf Company) had taken with his personal camera out of the side window of some sort of Beechcraft airplane that the USAF flew past the island with Jim, the Colonel, and the S-3 on board. Jim’s pictures were developed, a grid system was superimposed over them, and they were then classified and issued to us as “maps.”
Intelligence, such as it was, indicated that there was an enemy force of 20-40 guerillas on the island. We were also told that Koh Tang had no permanent residents, but fishermen from the mainland of Cambodia often sailed out a couple of hundred miles to the island for several weeks at a time. They would set up temporary camps and then fish on out into the ocean. They would return to Koh Tang to salt and dry their daily catches and would not return to the mainland until the end of the fishing season.
The plan was for Company G, reinforced with the Battalion CP group (S-3, Air Officer, and communicators) to fly out in 11 Air Force H-53 aircraft. They would land on narrow beaches on each side of a narrow neck that ran between a jungled hill and a mangrove swamp and capture the island so the enemy forces could not fire on the ship during the boarding and recovery. Because the trip from Utapao to the island took two hours one-way, the most basic precept of amphibious warfare—the rapid build-up of combat power ashore—was being knowingly set aside. I'll have more to say about that later.
The helicopters would return to Utapao, refuel, and take Echo Company in on the second wave. Fox Company would go in on the third wave in the afternoon, followed by Hotel Company under the command of Captain John Gutter.
When it came time for Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, the Battalion Commander, to give us his commander’s guidance, it was typical of that most excellent and precise officer. Randy Austin was another of those men who other men will happily follow into the Valley of the Shadow of Death for the simple pleasure of being there in the company of such a warrior, intellectual, leader, and what we in the Mid-West have always referred to as “a good man.” We trusted "the Old Man," and he trusted us. He was a Marine’s Marine.
“Look,” he said. “I know this looks tricky. Get your people ready, but remember this. We do not know who is on that island. Keep control of your people. Be aggressive, but use your heads. We will get the crew and the ship back, but I do not want to go in there and shoot up a bunch of itinerant fishermen. I will not have a My Lai in my battalion.”
We left to make sure that our troops were cared for, bedded down, and ready for the morrow. It was late Wednesday night and I had not slept since early Tuesday morning. The First Sergeant, the Gunny, the XO and I sat down to begin our planning for the operation.
13 May 2015
“Hey, Skipper. Happy Birthday. The fuckin’ gooks stole one of our ships!”
That was my First Sergeant’s birthday greeting to me forty years ago today. He had come out to the field with the mail and a birthday cake for my 29th Birthday.
I was Commanding Officer, Fox Company, Ninth Marines in the field for training in Okinawa. It was a big day for me and for the Battalion. We had just gotten back about 180 Marines from 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and it was the first time in months that the whole battalion was in the field together.
One- Four had been the amphibious ready group off the coast of South Vietnam for several months. Its tour kept getting extended even as it was forced to send Marines home to the States at the completion of their 13 month tours. The solution was to raid 2/9 for people to maintain 1/4’s strength. Saigon fell on 30 April and our troops had come back the week before. I got about 90 back and Golf Company got the other 90. Naturally, Jim Davis and I were delighted to finally be close to full strength.
And now, this! The Khmer Rouge had seized SS Mayaguez, a US flagged container ship in the Gulf of Siam. At 2100, the whole battalion was called back to Camp Schwab and by 0300, we were en route to Utapao Royal Thai Air Force Base.
My single clearest memory is what happened as we prepared to leave the field. Because we expected to be out for the entire week, I had a couple of pallets of C-Rations and another couple of pallets of rifle, machinegun and anti-tank rocket ammo staged with my command post. I knew if we just left it, it would be gone in hours.
My Company Gunny, Gunnery Sergeant David Ankrom, USMC, had the solution. As he called the Company to fall in to get on the trucks to go back to Schwab, he ordered, “All 17 year olds fall out and report to the Skipper.” Seven Marines did just that.
They were all new joins who had been with us for about a week. Marines under the age of 18 were not deployable to a combat area.
The Gunny had the platoon sergeants getting their Marines on the trucks. “Here you go, Skipper.”
“All right, three of you are PFC’s,” I said. “Who is senior? What are your dates of rank?” Now this is a question that a PFC is rarely asked, but we quickly determined that one was a week “senior” to his shipmates. “Fine. You are in command. Take charge of this ammo and chow until they send a truck out to take it back to Schwab.”
“Aye, aye, Sir." He formed three reliefs of his guard, and as I got in my jeep with the Gunny, I could hear him telling his Marines just what he expected. “Aw right. You two start flanking your posts. The rest of you, hit the rack. YOU (pointing to one of the sentries) wake me up at 2300 so I can check posts!”
One of them came over to me. “Sir, I turn 18 day after tomorrow. Can’t I come to the war with the rest of the Company?” The Gunny pulled him aside and had a quiet conversation with him, patted him on the ass, and sent him back to “his unit.”
He was smiling and shaking his head as he climbed in the back seat of the jeep. “Got us some good ones, we did, eh, Skipper?”
Oh Jesus, supreme squad leader whose fire team leaders were The Rock and the Sons of Thunder, how you have blessed us with men such as these.
That’s a birthday, you just don’t forget.
11 May 2015
I have been a Republican since I was 18. I heard Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech and decided that here was a man and a philosophy that meant something more than the evil lies and empty promises of Lyndon Baines Johnson, may he still be enjoying a seat close to the fire. My Mom, a “yellow-dog” Democrat warned me. “Oh, Michael,” she said. “If you vote for that man, you’ll end up in Vietnam.” (Of course, it was 1964, so I could not yet vote. The 26th Amendment was not adopted and ratified until 1971. Still, she was right. I would have voted for Barry Goldwater—and I did end up in Vietnam.)
On 27 October 1964, I saw and heard “The Speech.” From that point on, I was a Goldwater-Reagan Republican. I voted for Richard Nixon both times. He got us out of the quagmire that Lyndon Johnson had gotten us into by pandering to the left wing of his party. He thought he could impose his so-called Great Society on our Nation by fighting a war against communism on the cheap. Only Nixon could get us out by insisting that we do so honorably. Undercut by the Democratic Party and a communist-influenced “peace movement,” it took him four years to do so—and then the Congress, under the overwhelming control of the Democratic Party—reneged on the very conditions the United States had set and promises the United States had made in the Paris Peace Treaty.
As a young Captain in the Spring of 1973, as the Watergate investigation began, my 200 Amphibious warfare School classmates and I—Captains and Majors of Marines—heard an impromptu lecture by our Commanding Officer about the meaning of our commissions. We had sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” We were not bound by some “Fuehrer oath” to blindly obey a particular President. (Calm down. I’m getting there.”) A year later, in late July 1974, there was a message on the morning message board addressed from the Secretary of Defense to all General Officers and all commanding officers of the Armed Forces, reminding us that orders come down a chain of command. If orders were received outside the chain of command, they were to be clarified back up the chain. Sub silentio, we were being cautioned that an order—hypothetically speaking—from the President to the 82d Airborne Division or the Second Marine Division to trot on up I-95 and arrest the Congress should not be taken at face value. As if we needed to be reminded!
For 50 years, man and boy, I have lived by my oath, as have my brother officers. Under Carter—who delayed the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran until he could extract a written promise from the Joint Chiefs that no Iranians would be hurt or killed in the attempt—and from the retired list, watching the President with the least respect or concern for the Constitution in my lifetime, Barrack Obama, I have been proud to be a Republican.
(Carter finally relented and sent in an under strength rescue attempt, without the promise, when he realized he was losing hope of a second term. Obama represents the worst part of a younger Democratic Party that thinks it is always entitled to get its own way and refuses to let the Constitution—with its messy checks and balances—stop them from changing a constitutional republic into an elitist oligarchy.)
So, I have been proud to be a Republican—until this weekend.
Why now, you may ask?
It is the Governor of Texas. He did it all on his own. He impugned the honor of every officer who has ever taken the oath of office by suggesting that they would simply roll over and play dead if the President attempted a coup d’etat.
Understand, I think that the President, and Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi would entertain such a pipe dream. They are so certain that they, alone, know what is best for the Nation, they could actually say to the People, “We’ll have to enact the bill [before we even read it] to know what it will do.”
You see, the Armed Forces are now beginning an annual exercise, Exercise Jade Helm 15. This year, it is set in the Southwest and will be conducted in parts of 10 States or so. They happen to be dry, dusty and mountainous States—which makes sense if you look at where in the world the greatest threat now faces us. 40 plus years ago, I participated in a couple of major exercises along the southeastern Atlantic Coast, from Virginia down through the Carolinas into Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The St. Helena Sound of South Carolina is a lovely place of salt marsh, elephant grass, and mosquito swarms in the daytime that necessitated face masks to protect us from drowning on inhaled insects. It was a whole lot like the places we thought we might have to fight in again. That is the whole idea of training!
Now, some wackos from the rabid right—the tin foil and colander hat brigade—have decided that Jade Helm is a plot to institute martial law in the Southwest, to seize lawfully possessed firearms from American citizens, and to lock up those who oppose the President’s unconstitutional immigration decrees. And they have convinced Governor Abbott that only he and the Texas Guard can save our Republic. Pah!
Mind you, I think he and the lunatic left of his Party would love to do it because “They know what is best.” But the looney left has one thing going for it, so far. They still know that any such attempt at a coup would be crushed by their own Secretary of Defense, an honorable man. And they know that such an attempt followed by a quick impeachment, trial for treason, and the resultant expenditure of 40 rounds of ammunition, ensures that it just remains in their personal fantasy lands.
The best defense against such actions is the oath of office taken by commissioned officers. And that is why I am ashamed by my Party. You see, on 28 April 2015, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas ordered the Texas State National Guard to monitor Exercise Jade Helm because a few morons of the ultra far right have taken to the internet to stir up the suspicion that their Fathers and Mothers, Sons and Daughters, Sisters and Brothers who have sworn to support and defend the Constitution can no longer be trusted to do so.
I hereby place my Party on notice: trust the President and the lunatic, Warren-Sanders wing of their Party only as far as you could toss them.
But, for the sake of God and Country, do not let a few idiots coerce you into besmirching the honor of the Officers of our Armed Forces. If you do, then a pox on both your houses!