13 May 2015
FORTY YEARS AGO TODAY
“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.