JungleVet's Diary: Part 1. "The Beginning"

April 26, 1968 - Travel to the Republic of Vietnam

I kept a diary, one page a day. It began on April 26th 1968. We left Japan at 0400 (4 a.m.) and flew to Da Nang, in Vietnam. It took about 3 hours. There wasn't much in the way of conversation heard on the plane. The returning vets seemed to block everyone else out and we new guys were silent because of our aprehension.

From the air, the country looks like it sits on the blue Mediterranean Sea, until you start seeing the bomb craters pock-marking the landscape like acne. Then we were on the ground. The hatch was opened like an oven door and we were overwhelmed by the tropic heat as we left the commercial airliner (That's how we got there and came home) on the tarmac. The stewardess stood in the hatchway and cried for us. I didn't understand it then, but I sure did later.

The most memorable things were the smells. The sour tang of rotten garbage blended with wood smoke and human excrement pervaded the inhabited places. And the heat was, how to describe it?, to exist in a sauna, always perspiring, clothes sticking and chaffing. We never wore underwear because in three hours we would get a diaper rash from the chaffing. The jungle was a refuge, we could hide there, the smells were natural and sometimes it was cooler, but, it was always dangerous.

The shock of arrival struck me when I saw the veteran troops coming in from the field with their rifles, worn and bleached boots and ragged uniforms. By late afternoon I was with the unit with which I would stay for the next 13 months. Thirteen months seemed then to be an insurmountable amount of time as I lay there in the darkness of my first night. On that cot I could hear the far off sound of gunfire and artillery, I was exhausted from the travel and the newness and finally a light sleep washed over me and took me to dreamland.

April 27 - May 7, 1968 1st Recon Battalion Area, Camp Reasoner, Da Nang, RVN

The first week I had to acclimatize myself to the heat and terrain, a 5 mile run every day helped. Meeting the men who I would come to love as brothers, their rough and tough camaraderie and the comfort of the rigid and now familiar structure of Marine Corps life helped to ease my apprehensions.

For the few days we were back in our rear area waiting for the next patrol, I stood perimeter watch at night and had training during the day. One of the Staff Sergeants who taught us was a man named Keddy. He taught us how to react in an ambush and survive it. Well, while we were waiting on the LZ for a helicopter to take us out on my first observation post patrol, another one came in with the remnants of a patrol which had been hit by an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) ambush. Keddy had been on "point" (the first man in the file walking through the jungle) and on a jungle trail when the ambush was sprung. Keddy did not survive. I touched his name on the Vietnam Memorial the last time I was in Washington D.C.

Now, back to the beginning May of 1968 and the area around Da Nang in the Republic of South Vietnam. Our next "patrol" was actually not a patrol, but what we called an OP (Observation Post). We had taken over the highest mountain tops around Da Nang and cleared and leveled them off to allow us to land helicopters and build bunkers on them. From these we had an unobstructed view of the valley approaches to Da Nang and worked hard to restrict the flow of enemy personnel and materiel through the area.

So, we packed enough food, water and radio batteries for a seven to ten day stay and went and sat on our landing zone (LZ Finch) on the hot asphalt, waiting for a ride to a mountain top called Dong Den, northwest of the city of Da Nang.

May 8 - 14, 1968 Observation Post - Dong Den

We wasted one whole day waiting on that stinking hot LZ and never got to fly up to Dong Den. The next day we didn't get out until after noon. But the mountain top was worth the wait. We were about 3,000 feet up in the air, some clouds scudding along BELOW us and a wonderful view, but it was just as hot there as it was on that damned asphalt.

The mountain top was a razor back ridge line, only some 30 feet wide with a sheer drop on 3 sides. Barbed wire was strung from the ground to neck high all around the "hill" as we called it. At the south end was a flat spot, just big enough to set down a helicopter; then the ground rose to a peak where the main communications bunker was located, it held the radio relay station. Past that, the ground sloped down to the North end which terminated in a knob of a hill with a defense bunker on it. That's where I got stationed.

The view to the North was tremendous, clear air straight ahead for about three miles, then a jungle covered ridge line of mountain. Between Dong Den and there, the valley dipped sharply to allow a river to run it's meandering course on it's way to the South China Sea which was to our right (East) with Da Nang nestling at its edge.

When night time came to Dong Den, the beauty of the sunsets were usually spectacular, playing upon the sea. Then the twinkling lights of the city would brighten the sudden blackness. My first night was long, but quiet. I had last watch, which meant I was up for the sunrise which outdistances the sunsets like a diamond outdoing a rhinestone. The river layed below like a silver ribbon on green-gray wrapping paper. The days were filled with cat naps, filling sandbags and reinforcing bunkers, test firing and cleaning weapons and of course CHOW! The C-rations are terrible, but when your hungry, you like them and even get to have favorites.

The routine of day and night finally began to gain some regularity. One night, there was a fog, which rolled in from the sea. On my second watch, I heard a sound that I could only describe as a large wounded animal, howling in agony. I aroused one of the "Old Salts" (veterans) and asked him what it was. He then pointed it out to me through the fog. There was a band of red light, like a laser, going from some point in the sky to a point on the ground, along with that sound I had heard. It was "Spooky, the Dragonship", he said. That's an old C-47, propeller driven airplane which has three electric gatling guns known as Vulcans mounted on the left side of the aircraft. They fly along with the left wing tipped toward the ground and fire the Vulcans. One out of every five rounds fired is a tracer (the red laser type light) and there are so many bullets headed for the ground that it looks like just one solid red line. Reportedly, a Spooky gunship can saturate an area on the ground equivalent to a foot ball field with one round every square foot in about five seconds. Awesome.

The next day and nights blurred together, but we did have a hard downpour just before sunset which cooled things down a bit. At night we started hearing noises at the edges of the barbed wire. Could be rats, might be VC. "Poncho", a Mexican American corporal who was with me in the defensive bunker, decided to walk up to the communications bunker at the top of the hill.

Well, off he went and I visually followed him as far as I could see him, then I was alone, on top of a mountain in a foreign land. An eternity seemed to pass before I saw movement on the trail and recognized Poncho coming back. About 100 feet from the bunker, he stopped and bent over slightly, seeming to look at something. All of a sudden, his M-16 cracked off a small burst of fire and he ran like hell back to the bunker.

The Lieutenant was already calling on the radio, wanting to know "Who the HELL is shooting at WHAT down there?". Poncho was laughing so hard that I got on the radio and told the Lieutenant that it was me, I thought I had heard something outside the wire.

So, the Lieutenant chewed a piece of my ass out and then got off the radio. When Poncho got control of himself, he told me that he had been walking back to the bunker when he noticed a bush that hadn't been there before. He bent over to see it better and it SNORTED at him and he fired. What he had encountered was the ubiquitous Rock Ape of Vietnam. I would come to learn that they were nearly everywhere, and quite fearless. That is what we had heard near the wire that night.

The next day, I was sitting on the roof of the bunker, during an off duty break, looking out to sea. I thought of the 11,000 miles which separated me from my family, but most of all from my girl Jan. Her deep green eyes, the color of jungle foliage was accented by her straw yellow hair, and I missed her terribly. I hadn't been in Vietnam a month yet, with 12 and a half to go, I was feeling the heartbreak of homesickness. But it didn't last long, they put me to work filling those infernal sandbags again.

As that night set, I had first watch, and again a fog rolled in from the sea. We were so totally enveloped that it was like being weightless in a cloud. There was no direction, no up or down, left or right and it seemed somehow that we and the mountain top were moving and not the creeping fog. It was truly an errie feeling.

I had two watches that night, the last one ending a 6 am and then I slept a very hard sleep. That is until 7:30 am when I was rousted out of the bunker to get my gear together because the "birds" (helicopters) were on the way to get us off Dong Den. Before I knew it, before I had time to say a proper good-bye to this new piece of real estate that I had called home for seven days, we were up, up and away. Back to the rear and the gear of our home base.

There were two letters on the shelf above my rack when we got back, one from my parents and the other was from Jan . . . all was right with the world, for a little while anyway.

Copyright 1995 by Robert Baird. All rights reserved.