By June of 1964, Delta Company, Third Reconnaissance Battalion, Third Marine Division, had been designated as the "Marine Raider Company (Provisional)." The Third Recon Battalion was in Camp Fuji for training exercises.
Camp Fuji was, literally, located on the slope of Mount Fujiama (Fuji), in ankle-deep, or deeper, volcanic "sand" or a type of granular dirt. The story passed from Marine to Marine was that Camp Fuji was a former World War II prisoner-of-war camp established by the Japanese for American POWs.
The battalion was living in squad tents, many of which had gaping holes in their roofs and were otherwise, in some cases, nearly unserviceable. But, you know the Marine Corps, we used them anyway. Each tent had a wooden floor foundation with 2x4 wooden vertical studs and rafters to form the shape of the dwelling. Six or seven men were assigned to each tent. In some of the worse tents, Marines would tape ponchos over the holes, or put a red duct tape over them, to keep out, not only the occasional rain, but also the almost continuous heavy fog, which drenched everything, in and out of the tents, each night. Even in a good tent the fog penetrated inside the tent.
Each tent had a single, Sixteen-slot rifle rack in the middle of the wooden deck for the squad's M-14s. Each morning, first thing, each Marine had to immediately wipe down his rifle to remove the heavy, rust-laden condensation and apply oil to preserve the metal parts. Off to the back a little ways most of the tents had a stove for heating that ran of fuel oil. Only, we weren't issued any fuel for them because some of them were unserviceable and were fire hazards. Even in June and July, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, Camp Fuji was chilly and the temperatures at night could get down into the forties. The dampness made it all the worse.
As the Raider Company, Delta Company was training in ambush and counter ambush platoon and company-size tactics. Most of Charlie Company's training time was devoted "aggressing" Delta Company. Sometimes Alpha and Charlie companies played aggressor to each other or to Delta. One feature about Camp Fuji that favored it over the NTA was that it also had a tank and artillery firing range. Reconners were given training by these organizations on forward observer skills--learning to call in artillery fire. However, in the training duels, Delta did not fare well against Charlie Company and failed to ever properly ambush or otherwise overcome their friendly rivals.
The U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Fuji bordered the small Japanese town of Takigahara, which, in turn, was near the larger town of Gotemba. There was no rail service to Takigahara so one wishing to visit Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, or any larger cities, was required to take a bus or taxi from Takigahara to Gotemba, where there was a rail station using only coal-fired locomotives. The train from Gotemba could take the traveler to a rail station on Japan's famed electric train system in Kozu. Most visitors to Mount Fuji went up the other side of the mountain where there were trams and other ski lift-type conveyances to ascend the nearly 10,000 foot mountain. A dirt road of packed volcanic ash called the "Gotemba trail" ran from the tourist station at the foot of the mountain past Camp Fuji to Takigahara. On the Gotemba trail, you literally went "up" the road, or "down" the road, since its elevation rapidly increased from Takigahara to the base of Fuji. It is not clear what type of training, other than an artillery and tank range, was available at Camp Fuji, Japan that could not be accomplished in the Northern Training Area (NTA) of Okinawa, near the home base of 3rd Recon, Camp Schwab. But nobody bothered much about the sense of orders, it was just accepted and everyone would try to made the most of it. Besides, it was fun to go someplace new.
In one incident on the Gotemba trail, Charlie Company, in a two-platoon size patrol, was supposed to travel up the road, with Delta Company laying in ambush in the brush and forest on both sides. Recon companies at this time had only two platoons. The third M-60, or "guns" platoon of the previous year had been dropped from the T/O. Although there were three platoons, the recon platoons were small compared to the infantry companies. So, the company often blended the three platoons into two teams which were still much smaller than a grunt platoon.
Even without the "gun" platoon, M-60s were still a part of the weapons T/O and the M-60s were assigned on an "as needed" basis. On this exercise, only the 1st Platoon had an M-60. Charlie Company would use one platoon out front to attempt to spring the ambush and have its other platoon serve as a reaction force when contact was made. The 1st Platoon of Charlie was to lead the way. A new lieutenant, Matthews, had taken over as Platoon Leader and had a fierce competitive spirit. Matthews did not want to cooperate with Delta's plans. The Gotemba trail was a public road and many tour buses regularly ran up and down the route each day, perhaps twenty or more round trips. The buses were virtually empty on the way to the foot of the mountain but were full on the way out. The tourists and pilgrims would climb or ride up Mount Fuji on the much more hospitable side and then slip and slide down the Gotemba side's steep slope in knee-deep volcanic ash.
As the 1st Platoon went up the road for over a mile, Matthews became more and more wary of what everyone knew was an ambush. Then some noise from up ahead tipped the patrol off that they were only a hundred meters or so from the mouth of the ambush. The buses had been passing though all morning, nearly empty. Matthews then stopped the patrol and revealed his plan. He sent a runner back to the 2nd Platoon to inform them that the 1st Platoon would attack the Delta ambush from the opposite direction. He told the 2nd Platoon to come up to the place where the 1st Platoon was then and wait for the 1st Platoon's attack. The runner was used instead of the PRC-10s to maintain radio silence. Besides, much of the time the "prick tens" didn't work.
Then Matthews waited for the next bus to come along. It was flagged down and the Japanese driver was asked to open the door. The bus had only a dozen or so Japanese riders, on their way up to the base camp. A quick collection was taken up of mixed green backs, MPC, and Yen, and given to the driver to take the Marines in full battle dress up the road through Delta Company's ambush. Military Pay Currency, or "funny money" was used to pay GIs to control black marketing in U.S. Dollars, or "green backs." The Marines asked the Japanese riders, who numbered about a dozen, through pigeon Japanese and arm-and-hand signals, to not give them away as they crouched low in the aisle between the seats. The Japanese were all into the game. Their only problem was controlling their giggling and trying not to look at the Marines. As the bus lumbered up through the next few hundred yards, members of the patrol could peek out and see the sloppily laid ambush. The bus drove on just past the line of sight from the back end of the ambush and the driver was signaled to let off the patrol. The 1st Platoon left the bus amid excited well wishes from the Japanese.
The patrol then went off the road and got into attack positions on the Delta ambushers. Now, a new problem arose. Local Japanese villagers would constantly do their own patrolling for the expended brass from the weapons of the Marines in the mock battles taking place in their nearby forests. Now, seeing Marines in battle dress departing the road, a few Japanese walking down the Gotemba trail hurried to catch up to the 1st Platoon. A deal was struck with them that they could have exclusive rights to all the brass if they joined forces with the platoon and kept down and quiet. The erstwhile Japanese "allies" crept into the woods with the counter ambushers.
Then, radio contact was made with the waiting 2nd Platoon, about four hundred meters down the road. The 2nd Platoon was told to make noise so as to alert the Delta ambush. As the 2nd Platoon, along with its own group of brass collectors, made its noisy way up the road, it masked the 1st Platoon's advance on the counter ambush. By this time the number of Japanese civilians in the area had grown to over a dozen. Both Charlie Company platoons (reinforced with Japanese) attacked. To the delight of Charlie Company, Delta Company was taken completely by surprise when the BFAs started reporting. Delta cried "foul" but there was no doubt that the ambush was sprung. "BFAs" or Blank Firing Adapters, were used with blank ammunition to allow automatic and semiautomatic functioning of the M-14s and the M-60. They created enough back pressure to work the gas-operated reloading mechanisms on the weapons during training. For weeks Charlie Company Marines would rub it in to their Delta friends on letting them slip through their fingers.
After the Bay of Tonkin float, in the NTA in Okinawa, Delta again failed to properly ambush Charlie Company, but that's another story for later. A few months later, Charlie Company was designated as the Marine Raider Company. The reasons were not made known to the snuffies but Charlie Company was convinced that it was the constant failure of Delta Company to pull off a successful ambush on Charlie Company. The stories about Okinawa and the NTA exercises come after the Bay of Tonkin expedition.
The EM Club at Camp Fuji
Camp Fuji was a rather primitive and an interesting place. Oddly, for a camp that held thousands of Marines for months at a time, there were very few "morale, welfare, and recreation" (MWR) opportunities. The base personnel jealously guarded their own limited facilities and barred FMF'ers from them. However, the so-called "diamond in a goat's ass" of recreation at Camp Fuji was "The Club," The EM club, that is. Nothing fancy there. It was a large, one-floor, barn-like building, rectangular in shape. On the outside it was conspicuous only for its stark appearance. It was about fifty yards long and about forty yards wide, with one, single, regular-size door for both entry and egress. In back there was a loading dock where trucks dumped off beer, cigarettes, potato chips and pretzels. That was the menu for the Enlisted Men's Club at Camp Fuji; beer and two types of snacks. There was no entry allowed through the loading docks, making for long ques of enlisted men waiting to get in or get out of the place. It did have large windows all around three sides but they had steel fencing fabric welded to them on the outside panes. It was an animal house intended for animals. It was a real fire trap but at that time that concern wasn't very high on anybody's list. The training schedule was rigorous and weekday liberty was rare. During the week, the only beer was at the club.
On the inside there was nothing any fancier than on the outside. It was a field Marine's essential, basic, required stuff. There were no chairs; all the better to keep grunts from throwing them. There were no tables, per se; all the better to keep grunts from throwing them. The GI cans were too large and heavy for the grunts to throw them. There were, however, picnic tables upon which small stool-like pods were welded. There must have been sixty or seventy of those picnic tables in the place. Interspersed strategically among the picnic tables were 55-gallon GI cans; affectionately known as "shit cans." Not surprisingly, the uniform of the day for this club was utilities--but they had to be clean, well, pretty much clean, anyway.
Once the ordeal of waiting in line to get in the club was suffered on any given night, one had to be in a group in order to land and keep a seat at one of the picnic tables. This was important because the lines for service at the bar that ran the length of the rear of the club were ten or fifteen minutes long. That was the extent of the "table service" at this club--serve yourself, if you can. One of the consequences of the long wait to buy beer is that just buying one or two beers weren't worth the wait. And, since you had to have buddies holding your seats, it was only common sense to buy beer by the case or half case. Unfortunately, this gave rise to another problem. If you were in a group of three or four, and you brought back a case of Black Label or Lucky Lager. If there were only three or four in the group, the beer would get warm before you could get past the first two or three. If you were hungry, you could buy pretzels when you bought the beer. Nobody waited in line just to buy pretzels.
Well, what kind of accommodations would you expect for a bunch of mostly teenage Marines living in tents? That is not to say, of course, that this did not make the Fuji Marines happy for some amount of time, for maybe an hour or so.
When in a Marine drinking hall, one thing should not be taken for granted. Singing Marines are not always happy Marines, or, more specifically, more tolerant Marines. There was a usual occurrence or ritual at the club when the troops were not in the field. The club would be crowded, not surprisingly, mostly with grunts. A platoon or company of infantry would take over a few tables and sit there drinking, smoking, and talking. Others, such as Recon, Tankers, and Artillerymen, would stay to themselves, or sometimes the different units would cluster together, bonding for self protection from the grunts. Drinkers from these smaller units often were entertained by the drunken antics of the grunts. Sooner or later, the grunts would start singing together by squad or platoon. Now this sometimes brought out funny and amusing songs or even nice ones, but the drunker they became, the worse the singing. It would not take long for another group of grunts to not-too-politely "object" to the noise, or the critics would just take the opportunity to insult the other group in a test of manhood, whether they liked the singing or not.
There was a week at Fuji that will long be remembered by those who experienced it. Noticing the nightly pattern of drinking, singing, drinking, insulting, drinking, and finally a fight breaking out among the grunts, one Reconner, lacking the satiation of his entertainment appetite, came up with something to amuse himself and his friends. Noticing that each night the grunts would bring larger and larger groups, probably because of being outnumbered in the smaller brawls the previous night, would then get in larger and larger groups to eventually fight. Also, probably as a result of the escalation of the fighting, the number of guards was being increased each night.
After having had to stand watch at the ammo dump, some few miles away from the main camp, he had found where the smoke, CN, and CS grenades were stored. This happened because of the unauthorized expenditure of a shotgun round on dark foggy night. While dutifully walking his post among the twenty or thirty ammo houses, he was startled by something darting out from around a corner. As he was rounding a corner, a dog leaped out and passed about a foot in front of him. It pissed him off so bad he blasted a round through the fog in the direction of the fleeing dog. Well, now there might be trouble. After each watch, the five rounds had to be counted and turned in. He now had only four rounds. Well, he was in an ammo dump after all; there must be a structure holding the 12 gauge ammo, so he started looking for a replacement round. Eventually he found them and helped himself to a few. However, along the way to the 12 gauge stuff, he had to search about five or six other ammo huts. He found the M-something TNT satchel charges, blasting caps, and the grenades. Figuring that no one would miss a few, at least not for a year or more, he appropriated a few on the "if come"; that is, if an opportunity should present itself that they might become useful.
Seeing the situation at the club progressively worsening, he thought it would be fun to gas the club. He took only two others into his confidence, one of his squad brothers and one of the company corpsman. His buddythe squad was reserved about pulling it off but thought it was a good idea. The corpsman didn't think it was a good idea, he thought it was a great idea. The plan was laid out. They would go to the club that night early and get a table near the door. The fog the last few nights had been especially thick, with vision not more than twenty feet or so, less without a light. The time was around mid-July and the days and nights were warm. The plan was for him to hide a round plastic CS grenade (crowd control type) in his field jacket. The CS grenade was slightly larger than a baseball and was made of brown plastic with a black plastic plunder through which a small metal pin was placed. The black plunger was spring-loaded so that when the pin was pulled, it immediately plunged down and ignited the 8-second fuse. Then they would go into the club as usual, get a table and sit down for an hour or so, waiting for the grunts to begin their drunken party. At the optimum moment, he would gather up a bunch of empty beer cans, scoop the grenade from his field jacket into the bunch of empties, pull the pin while walking over to the GI can, and simply drop the entire load into the 55-gallon container. At the time his co-conspirators saw the cans and grenade drop, they would calmly walk over to the exit and walk out.
The small group from Charlie Company checked out to the club that evening a little early. The Reconner with the CS grenade wearing his field jacket as planned. However, when arriving at the club, he discovered that he was the only one there wearing a field jacket! Already a little nervous about pulling the stunt off, now it seemed that the odds were adding up against success. In addition, since the previous night's fight had seriously injured some of the guard company breaking it up, the entire duty guard turned out. The Officer of the Day was there, as was the Sergeant of the Guard, the Corporal of the Guard, and about a dozen watch standers. Whoa, this was going to be hairy, at least to get away with it.
The team of two Marines and the corpsman went in to the club right away. The line that they had hoped for to help cover their entry had not yet materialized since it was still early. But gazing over the Marines in the club, the Reconner realized that he was the only one in the entire club with a field jacket on. It was just too hot to wear a field jacket. He felt like everyone, from the Officer of the Day on down, were now viewing him suspiciously, or at least wondering why he had a field jacket on.
No sweat, there was a table not too near yet not too far from the door, perfect! The group saw a couple of Reconners from Alpha Company. There was a guy from Houston, Texas, name Head, who welcomed them to the "Recon table for the night." After about an hour, the grunts had crowded in and were early in their track to drunkenness. Guards were positioned in each of the three corners away from the Recon table. Things were looking good. Ah! The grunts were singing loudly and badly, the gods were with Recon.
A few preliminary scuffles broke out and quickly squelched by the guards. The Officer of the Day, the Sergeant of the Guard beside him, was standing by the one and only door.
More commotion from the far end of the beer hall. It was getting ripe for action. The three Charlie Reconners prepared themselves to execute the plan. The Reconner with the grenade was also from Texas and had formed a good friendship with Head, the Reconner from Alpha. Just at that time, Head finished the last of his beer and was heading back to buy some more. He offered to buy beer for anyone else, since he was already making the trip. Head had to be let in on the secret, it was only fair. Head was told, "Hey, don't buy a case, only buy one or two. We've got something planned."
Head had already had four or five beers and looked back, confused. "Do you want me to get you some more beer?" Head asked again. "Look, Head, don't buy anymore, we're gonna have to get out of here in a hurry in a couple of minutes. Don't waste your beer!" Head nodded and said, "Uh, okay," and left the table for the bar and bought a case of beer.
The commotion in the back was rising, the distraction would be more than sufficient to cover the prank. Head returned with four six-packs of beer. "Head, I told you not to get anymore beer, you've got to leave with us!" Head said, "That's okay, it's on me, my party." "No, Head, I mean were gonna have to get out of here in a couple of minutes!" Head said, "Okay, but I got enough to last more than that."
"No, no, Head, you can't stay, we can't stay. Leave your beer!" Head looked back through dreary eyes and replied, "Okay," and just sat there sipping a beer.
Right then, a major ruckus broke out. Some raucous singing, shouting, then tables being shoved across the floor. It looked like two entire platoons of grunts went at each other. Now was the time to strike. The Reconner with the grenade casually got up and picked up a cluster of empty beer cans and started to turn toward the shit can. Head look up and said, "Hey, were you going?"
"I told you not to get that fucking beer! Now get the hell out of here!"
Head said, "Okay," and kept on drinking his beer. "You sure you don't want a beer?"
All the attention of the Guard Company was directed at the all out brawl in the back of the club as the Reconner drew near to the GI can. Most of the guards were headed to the fight. Only the Officer of the Day and the Sergeant of the Guard were now at the exit. The corpsman and the other Charlie Reconner got up and walked slowly at an angle to the door, pretending to be casually interested in watching the fight as they went. The empties and the grenade were now being held over the GI can. A somewhat drunken Marine sitting at the table next to the GI can lazily shifted his gaze to the Reconner apparently dumping his empty beer cans into the trash.
He worked the pin out of the CS grenade as he dropped the entire cluster into the can and heard a loud "POP!" as the cans and grenade descended to hit the other empties in the bottom. The fuse assembly made a cap-pistol retort. It's echo was magnified by the half-empty GI can. The Marine sitting at the table next to the can snapped his head up, alertly, inquisitively. The Reconner turned and looked toward the back of the room as if wondering if that noise had come from there. Then, only a split second later, resisting the urge to race to the door, he casually walked away from the scene of the crime and joined his friends on their journey past the Sergeant of the guard. He was the first in line of the three. Head had been left behind at the table with his fresh case of beer. At last siting, he was hoisting a fresh beer, taking a long swig.
Then, just as the group reached the very threshold of the exit, a loud "BANG" went off from the GI can. At that moment, the yelling, shouting, cursing, banging of cans, singing, talking, all stopped in a moment of stone silence. It had sounded like a small pistol being shot. The Sergeant of the Guard threw his arm across the doorway and sternly ordered, "Hold it!" His arm was pressing against the Reconner's chest. The door was barred and it was only a matter of time before the gas would disperse. The corpsman, a man much larger than the grenade thrower, stood belly to back immediately behind him. The Reconner again feinted a look at where the noise was coming from. As he looked back into the room to fool the Sergeant, he saw grunts still in each other's clutches in a sort of freeze-frame from a film, only moving not even enough to call it slow motion. People standing, stooping, getting off the floor, some bleeding, all stupefied.
The corpsman pressed against the Reconner's back, shoving him against the Sergeant's arm. It didn't give way. Instead, if anything, it stiffened in a firm block to anyone trying to leave.
Then a shout reminiscent of a training exercise rang out, "Gas!" The corpsman gave a mighty shove, ejecting both he and the Reconner past the Sergeant of the Guard, inadvertently knocking the Officer of the Day aside. The three Reconners, along with a few behind them stumbled out the door opening, falling into the omniscient black volcanic ash. Hands and knees coated with the dark grey dust, they scrambled to their feet and ran a short distance away amid repeated shouts of "Gas, gas!" Agonizing between fleeing the scene back to the Charlie Company area and their curiosity about what was going on, they finally decided that the fun was not over and walked back to the club and peered into the prison-like windows.
The scene inside was pandemonium. The wavering lense-like column of tear gase wafted up from the GI can, spreading out in every direction. Marines, at same time holding their watering eyes and stumbling blindly around while cradling what cans of beer they could salvage, were searching for the door. Some started puking, some slipping in the effluent. By this time, the Sergeant of the Guard had lost all hope of stemming the torrent of drunken, stumbling, crying, cursing Marines flowing through the door. The three stood at the window, peering at the madness, trying not to laugh to obviously. People were angry. As dozens poured out the small doorway, they tumbled into others, knocking them down or themselves tripping over the fallen. A few fights broke out in front of the door. Most of the guards were still trapped inside the club. The Officer of the Day and the Sergeant of the Guard were the only ones trying to intervene in the fist fights. The situation, if it could be believed, was deteriorating.
Enough fun for the time being, now to escape. The trio half ran and half rapid-walked back through the volcanic dust trails between the tents of the 3rd Marines and 11th Engineers. Upon reaching the Charlie Company Area, they approached from the rears of their tents, each having sworn never to brag or say nary a word about the incident. Climbing in through the rear of his squad's tent, curiously coming in under the rear flap, the culprit kept giggling. Weaver, a muscular black who looked like Mr. Clean with his shaven head, said, "What the fuck you been up too, Jones, you pulled some shit, didn't you." However, true to his oath, he resisted the repeated demands from his team mates about what was going on. About thirty minutes later, the Duty NCO came by and said that the Officer of the Day wanted to know if anything unusual had taken place in the company area. Nothing was said. At least until nearly a year later.
The day was hot. It was Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam, and a number of Marines had snapped their ponchos together in a rough approximation of a Bedouin tent, set up on sticks gathered from nearby clumps of brush. Shelter halves were laid out as a floor over the endless sands of the area. Some of Charlie Company, 3rd Recon, was hosting some buddies from Alpha Company to listen to the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay Heavyweight title fight. The Armed Forces Radio Network was attempting to bring the fight live to the troops in Vietnam. It was full of static and drifting in and out terribly. The AFRN announcer would come in on the worst of the problems and assure the listeners that everything possible was being done to restore the broadcast. These frequent spells gave way to ordinary GI conversation in the intervening minutes between announcements.
The conversation drifted here and there, as the group's older members reminisced about Subic Bay, different mount outs, Okinawa, times at the Kadena AFB EM club, and then to Camp Fuji. Lance Corporal Head was laying on the shade of the ponchos, taking in the hospitality of his Charlie Company hosts, next to a certain other Lance Corporal. Arguments over who beat who in training exercises between the competing companies were argued until someone brought up the subject of the Camp Fuji EM Club.
Someone said, "Yeah, you remember that night the club was gassed?" Head responded, "Oh, Yeah, I was there that night. Another Reconner from Charlie joins in, "Yeah, I was there, too."
Head: "Yeah, someone said the Officer of the Day or Sergeant of the Guard threw a tear-gas grenade to clear the club out because of all the fighting every night."
Charlie guy: "Nah, it wasn't the Guards that did it."
"How do you know?"
"I did it."
"Ah, bullshit. How can you say that?"
"Well, Head, don't you remember who was sitting across from you? Who'd you share your table with that night?
Head: "Oh, yeah, you guys came over. It was you! Goddamit, I lost a whole case of beer because of that!
"Hey, man, I tried to tell you! I told you not to buy anymore beer. You just kept on saying, 'okay, man, okay, man,' and kept right on buying that beer. I tried to tell you to leave with us and you just sat there, drunker 'n shit, saying, 'okay, okay.'"
"Wow, I always wondered what happened. Shit, so it was you all the time!"
PFC Matranga interrupted, "I'm tired of hearing you old farts from the 'old Recon' telling all these sea stories. Fuck you. Shut up and listen to the fight."
The AFRN announcer came back on, shouting, "He's down, he's not getting up. Clay is dancing around the ring. He won't go to a neutral corner!"
Head says, "Shit, so it was you. Damn."
Thorny hill CN ambush between Alpha and Charlie at Fuji
Around the Camp Fuji training area were a variety of areas having vastly different vegetation. There were beautiful pine and hardwood forests and there were large areas of low-lying hills with near impenetrable thorn bushes. Well, one night Charlie Company is sent to a thorn-covered hill to be the aggressor for an attack by Alpha Company. The place was a natural fortress. There are only two paths in or out through the thorn bushes. There are fighting positions left there from previous training exercises by both Japanese and Marines, so there was minimal work to do to square them away. A path wound around the top of the small hill, linking all the fighting holes.
So, that morning, Charlie Company takes up residence in the thorn hill. H&S Company also puts up a couple of tents to house Doc Blanchard and his squire, Oliver, the battalion brass. A comm tent was also erected to house the safety net; i.e., the radio net for emergencies and administrative communications. The radio operator assigned to be the NCO in charge of comms is this Corporal who had formerly been in the Israeli Army. He was a nice guy and everybody liked and respected him. We were in awe of his Israeli Army background and that he was a combat veteran.
Well, this was also after a certain Reconner had appropriated a number of nauseous CN grenades from a too-long watch at the Fuji ammo dump. One of the teams had in their possession a CN grenade, one of those that had both tear gas and vomiting gas released at the same time. The team now wanted to put it to good use and Alpha Company was as good as it got. But the exact plan could not be made until Alpha's approach could be determined. It also had to be a secret from Charlie's officers and First Sergeant. So, it would have to be done when the circumstances were so confused that no one would know who did it, the perfect crime.
It was a foregone conclusion that Alpha would wait until after dark to "sneak attack" Charlie's position. Everybody figured they would come early so that we could get it all over with and get some sleep. We spent the day stringing C Ration cans with rocks in them from the thorn bushes. Each squad was given their perimeter fighting positions. Once we were set in, the XO came around to each position and gave us the plan for the night. Once Alpha attacked from whichever side, we were to roll back, appearing to retreat, but then when the side that was being attacked reached the opposite Marines in the fighting positions on the other side, a counter-attack would be launched, reinforced by the Marines in the rearward holes. It sound great and we were looking forward to it.
The light faded and a dense fog rolled in. The nightmare of getting through the thorn bushes in the daytime was going to be pure hell at night. Charlie Company was glad it was Alpha doing the attacking through the thorns and not them.
We still hadn't decided what to do with the CN grenade but that was taken care of later that night. Well, Alpha didn't attack early like they should have and we stayed up all night waiting for them. About 0400, we heard noises down one side of the hill. It was the side opposite the team with the CN grenade. Even on the "back side" of the hill from the noise, it could be heard. It turned out that Alpha was avoiding the trails and "sneaking" up through the thorn bushes to get into position to attack. However, the going was rough for Alpha. Long before anyone reached the C-ration alarms, rustling bushes and muttered curses could be heard. Charlie Company tensed, ready to put the counter-attack plan in action. Some chuckled about the misery their brothers in Alpha were going through, envisioning the Reconners trying to slip through the thorns. Charlie Reconners already knew the pain and difficulties; they had set out the C-ration cans in broad daylight and still suffered thorn punctures. Another ten or fifteen minutes went by, more cracking branches, even louder and more curses, then... the farthest-down C-ration cans rattled. Charlie tensed up even more. Another fifteen minutes of the same, more rattling cans and curses. Another ten or fifteen minutes, Charlie Company started yawning, "When the hell were they going to be ready?"
Finally, about 0510, a bunch of yelling, firing Alpha Reconners tried to jump up and spring their surprise. Some made it through the last thorn bushes, others yelped at being stuck yet again by the thorns and stopped in their tracks. As planned, Charlie Company fell back to the back positions. The CN team saw their opportunity. The trails along the top of the hill completely circled the position. The four of them raced to the right flank and started back in the direction of the Alpha attack. A soft breeze was at their backs, perfect! It was barely getting to be light but with the heavy fog, not enough to see much at all. Weaver had the grenade. But the Alpha Company CO, apparently having had enough of the misery of the thorn bushes, shouted, "Administrative, administrative," having only reached the outer Charlie positions. At the same time, the Marines of Charlie Company started their counter-attack. Hearing Charlie Company jump off, Weaver blindly through the CN grenade in the direction of the sound of Alpha Company's CO. The heavy grenade flew through the air and arced down to hit one of the guy wires of the comm tent, bouncing onto the tent and sliding down at the feet of the officers who were just debating whether Alpha could unilaterally declare the exercise over. Lieutenant Matthews was criticizing the Alpha brass for quitting just when Charlie was attacking. The Alpha brass were insisting that Charlie was "pushed" off its positions.
With the dense fog and the weak pre-dawn light, and all the noise and debate going on, the snap of the CN igniting wasn't notice at all. When the tear gas cloud loomed up and started to spread, it looked just like the rest of the clouds of fog rolling around. Only the Israeli corporal noticed the grenade while seated at the battalion net radio. In a cramped position he could not move or otherwise react to the grenade near his feet. He recalled later looking helplessly at the grenade, hoping it wasn't what he thought it was. No luck, it went off coating him with CN.
Outside the comm tent, the Marines finally started to react to the clouds of gas. Although everyone was supposed to have gas masks, some didn't bother since tear gas wasn't a part of the training exercise. Apart from the crying and choking, everything on the hill was coated with a layer of water from the fog, in which the CN quickly entered. The tents, guy ropes, equipment, weapons, clothing, all were quickly soaked by the gas and water mixture. Those who finally wiped their eyes clear would lean against one of the tents and then again go to wipe their eyes only to reapply more CN.
That just about concluded the debate over who did what and who won in the mock battle. People went in all directions, fleeing the gas. The CN team crouched upwind, trying to laugh as quietly as possible. Weaver said, "Let's get the fuck back to our positions before they start looking around and asking questions."
The Charlie Company area was cleaned up as much as possible and some hot chow was brought up by H&S. At this company breakfast, Lt. Matthews talked to the troops, recounting how Alpha gassed themselves, not having taken the wind direction into account. According to Matthews, Alpha got what it deserved by trying to pull a surprise stunt like that.
After breakfast chow, we saddled up and headed back to our tents back at camp.
Fog and liberty in Takigahara
The fog at Camp Fuji was so thick during June and July that it was much like the billowing pillows of white coal smoke from a locomotive. It was particularly thick at night. Right next to the Marines' Camp Fuji, the was a small Japanese light-plane airstrip which was off-limits to the Marines. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces maintained guards around the clock at the base to keep unauthorized personnel from trespassing. It also had the remnants of a barbed wire fence around it. The airstrip was rather long for small planes, it ran for almost a half mile between the camp and the Gotemba trail. Normally, the Marines would have respected the off-limits requirements but there was a situation seemingly designed to entice the Marines across the forbidden airstrip.
For some reason, the Marines of the base cadre did not allow tenant Marine units to use the south gate closest to the small town of Takigahara. The only liberty gate accessible to the FMF Marines was the one northern gate at the far end of the airstrip. For Recon, Engineers, and Tankers, this was a hell of an inconvenience, especially when Cinderella hour was drawing near and a Marine had a few Asahi beers, Suntori whiskey, or a Typhoon fifth of warm saki put away just before heading back to base. The Recon's assigned area was just to the north of the MCB personnel. The walk around on the road and then back to the Recon tent area was over a mile and a half. After some hard work at chasing women and eliminating beverages with toxic chemicals in them, a Reconner would naturally look for a short cut to ensure that he would not be UA.
The one-hundred yards or so gap between the road and Recon's tent area was just too enticing on particularly foggy nights. As with everywhere else in the area of Camp Fuji, around the airstrip, the soil was a soft, granular, crunchy volcanic sand. The sand particles were about the size of match heads and made a rather loud "crunch, crunch, crunch," when one even attempted to go softly and slowly across it. On relatively clear days, you could almost hear the Japanese guards crunching along their guard paths, leisurely strolling the course of their watches from a hundred yards or so away. The sound didn't carry that far but one was so accustomed to hearing the noise, you would just hear it in your mind when you saw someone walking through the ash.
Marines being Marines, and Reconners being worse, it was not an uncommon occurrence to see someone coming in from liberty, appearing either slowly or quickly from out of the fog from the direction of the airstrip. Some had snuck through, some were outdistancing the Japanese pursuer. The goal line to be crossed was the ditch just a few yards from the tangled barb wire that ran along the perimeter of Camp Fuji and delivered the Reconner to an area just behind the group showers building. For all who made it, it spelled "safety."
About every three or four weeks, the First Sergeant or the Gunny would announce at muster that the Japanese had complained about a few incidents where Marines had trespassed across the airfield. We were cautioned that the guards were armed and had to be alert to frequent attempted (or successful thefts) of Japanese military gear. Although there was no overt threat of the Japanese wanting to shoot somebody, we were cautioned that at night in the thick fog, it was tempting fate to chance a run by when there was maybe a jumpy boot guard on duty armed with an M-1 Garand. We all listened with interest and gave whatever assurances were solicited that we would not cross the airstrip. After, none of us had ever done that and we did not intend to. However, these assurances were undermined by the fact of torn khakis, stripped open by the goddamned tangled barb wire which wasn't always properly maintained or even in the same spot it was on a previous night. The wire had been jerked, pulled, and dragged, probably for years, certainly for the months of Recon residence. It seems that when discovered, a trespasser would break into a run and sometimes become entangled in the wire and drag it along for a few yards. Apparently the restoration of the barbed wire wasn't the highest priority in the Japanese airstrip maintenance program. That meant that the wire could migrate over quite a distance over the course of a dozen or so "snaggings."
It was dicey crossing the forbidden territory. You couldn't see but five or ten feet on most foggy nights. Even without too many beers, it was hard to judge just how far you had to go up the road before sneaking over the fence and crossing the airstrip and past the guard. You had to cross before the hangars started because they had better fencing around them If you went too far, you would wind up trapped against the building or the hangar and could be caught a lot easier. So you tried to remember when to turn into the nothingness to shortcut to the tent area. The Japanese guards had to know it was a common thing for us to cut across but they didn't seem to want to do a lot about it. Once in a while you would here a challenge in Japanese to which you would answer by blindly running away from the voice but still not too far away from the direction of the showers. Invariably, you'd be dashing through the fog and snag your foot on some of the barb wire fence that had been knocked to the ground or where is was just a few inches above ground level. Or you would see the damn barbed wire at the last minute and it would not be knocked down and you'd try to hurdle it and it would catch your khaki trousers and rip them. But, all in all, nobody got shot and nobody seemed to every get arrested. It's amazing that it never happened.
Going into the ville of Takigahara only had a few things to offer: whores, booze, and a cultural commonality of the Japanese known as a community bath. Well, having learned about American GIs and their penchant for voyeurism, probably from the start of the American occupation in 1946, had asked and were granted the favor of having the Takigahara bathhouse off limits. However, the MPs could not constantly patrol the small block of the bathhouse and there was always a fair chance that Marines could get away with a few minutes of peeping at the naked Japanese families in the baths.
While the hospitality of the Japanese was impressive, it did not extend to allowing a dozen or so Marines to leer at teenage daughters. Angry Japanese parents would make hostile feints at the barred windows, clad only in bath towels around their wastes, and sometime without bath towels at all. And the fist-shaking charges were not confined to the fathers; middle-aged mothers would indignantly impersonate water buffaloes at they charged in all their overweight naked splendor out of the steaming water toward the leering Marines. Some of the more sophisticated peepers got great fun from merely provoking such rages as from seeking the naked teenagers. Besides, when the fog was thick enough at night, the chances of the MPs catching you was slight. However, there were a few exciting foot races up and down the crooked paths of Takigahara around the bathhouse, prompted by a surprise visit by the Camp Fuji MPs along with the local Japanese constables.
Takigahara was only remarkable for a few things.
Mainly for its sameness with any other village overseas next to a military
base. It had the usual customer oriented businesses catering to Marines.
And, it was the initiation site for any Marines new to Japan to the infamous
"saki and coke." Now saki is a potent rice wine, meant to be served slightly
warm and sipped from small china cups which could be barely held in three
fingers. Apparently, this delicacy was lost before it began on most Marines.
The old standby of, "If the booze isn't that tasty, then mix it with Coca
Cola," was readily applied. Trouble was, it didn't taste that good with
coke, either. But the main this was and is, it was booze and it kicked
your ass after a few drinks. Recon had a running chant and cadence to this
drink, it went:
Let me tell you about saki and coke,
It's swift, silent, and deadly
And, that's no joke!
Many Reconners considered that the best thing about Takigahara was that it was the place that you could leave. That is, you couldn't get anywhere but from there.
Then there were the Marines who sought higher cultural appreciations by requesting "overnight" liberty to visit such places as Kamakura, Tokyo, and Yokohama. Such pursuit of cultural absorption was encouraged by the officers but not naively. Liberty was granted for overnight outings, provided one could produce 1) a bus ticket from Takigahara to Gotemba; 2) a train ticket from Gotemba to Kozu; and 3) a pre-purchased ticket from Kozu to the authorized destination.
However, the more sincere of the culture seekers could make it past Takigahara and experience the essence of Japan. One of the often overlooked pleasures of visiting other places in Japan was the very medium of getting there. The bus ride from Takigahara was memorable mainly because it seemed like someone had the great idea of mapping a bus route over the Chisolm Trail. The bus itself would undergo tremendous abuse on its way to Gotemba. After all, the passengers had some "give" in them as they tumbled around the inside. The bus was rather rigid and reacted accordingly.
Gotemba was about two or three times the size of Takigahara. Not much is known of Gotemba due to the fact that the bus station was only a short walk across the street from the train station. It is largely an unexplored region. It is not known if any Reconner ever slowed down to as much a look down a street in Gotemba. If any Recon team ever did go in, it was never heard of again. Probably for this reason the Japanese of Gotemba liked Marines more that the people of Takigahara did. There was some small speculation that there had to be at least two bath houses, probably more, in Gotemba, but no one ever bothered to find out for sure.
The trains from Gotemba to the electric trains in Kozu were exciting and fascinating. They had 1940's era steam engines, and cars to match. Since Gotemba was still in the foot hills of Mount Fuji, the train wound its way through canyons, valleys, and tunnels. Tunnels. That's something one riding a coal-burning train has to learn about. This was the '60s, the steam engine trains had no air conditioning; and it was July and very warm, even in the mountains. The first thing to do was to lower the windows, if they weren't already that way. As the train picked up speed, a pleasant wind would blow through the car, cooling the passengers.
Now the segregation of passengers was also interesting. Apparently the Japanese travelers on these trains were accustomed to seeing Marines in pursuit of culture. For whatever reason, they would usually avoid sitting in the same cars with Marines. Why? Maybe it was like Gunny Miller said, "They haven't forgotten we kicked their ass twenty years ago." I guess he meant ass "collectively." Maybe it was a deeper reason, cultural that is. Maybe it was simply a form of respect or politeness. Maybe they just weren't comfortable with foreigners. We would learn why later on.
The trip from Gotemba to Kozu took two or three hours but was a nice ride for the most part. But all of a sudden, the handful of Japanese who had dared to stay in the same car as the half dozen or so Reconners went scrambling through the car closing windows. This made the car very warm and muggy. So, the Marines, who didn't appreciate the presumptuousness of the natives promptly went about opening them back up. The Japanese, apparently because they couldn't have their way, hurriedly went into the next car. A minute or so later, the train raced into a tunnel, a long tunnel. The sulphurous smoke poured into the car, choking the Marines and the two or three Japanese who stayed to see the Marines get their due. Then it was the Marines who were racing to shut all the windows. By the time all the windows were closed, a heavy yellow and dark grey fog permeated the passenger space. And then the train came out of the tunnel. But, with the windows closed, the smoke still choked all within. Then the race began to open all the windows. Finally, with fresh air thinning out the rancid atmosphere in the car, the Marines could now see the soot all over their uniforms. A few Japanese who had fled the car came back in to join the two or three who were brave enough to watch the show. The Japanese smiled all the way to Kozu. (Not to be confused with Koza in Okinawa.)
Kozu was a big town, or maybe it should be called a city. It had long stretches of suburbs through which the steam locomotive chugged to the midtown railroad station. There, the group of Marines wandered around wondering about the strange kana characters on the signs. The western-alphabet signs help no more that the kana, since the only Japanese learned in the few weeks the Reconners learned in Takigahara was "Suntori" (a brand of whiskey), "saki and coke", how much naison short time for ichi ban skivvie honcho?" None of the signs had such information on them, so the Marines resorted to showing their tickets to strangers. The Japanese are a marvelous people. Virtually all who were asked in this sign-language fashion attempted to help. Finally, a woman in western style clothing took hold of one of the Marine's shirt sleeve and pulled him with her, motioning that she was going on the same train.
Then came the amazing electric trains. They were cutting-edge modern. And they went FAST! After riding the rather leisurely steam train from Gotemba to Kozu, the Marines all took window seats to open the window and rest their arms out the window while they looked at the countryside whisk by at ninety miles an hour. This went well for about ten minutes. It seems that, in a move having to do with economy of space, the Japanese built their sets of rails side by side with only enough room to clear whatever metal objects were attached to trains. Combining this fact with the fact that, how did that old in-writing math problem go? If two trains traveling toward each other and each is going ninety miles an hour, how long does it take to chop off an elbow hanging out the window?
"WHOOM!" It was unclear whether the Reconners' reflexes were that quick and sharp, or if it was the one hundred-eighty mile and hour air blast that blasted the arms and elbows back inside the windows. It is not known whether the Japanese on this crowed train knew English, particularly rude American colloquialisms, but if there were any, they politely ignored the Americans' reactions, quite a few showing open amusement. However, the shocking lesson was almost immediately lost on at least one Reconner who was curious to see if another train was coming in the opposite direction any time soon. His brothers had to physically restrain him from sticking his head out the window to take a look. It is not know why he thought his head stuck out any less that an elbow, or that it was better to put your head in harm's way rather than an elbow.
By the grace of God and the help of the Japanese people, the Recon team finally made it to Tokyo, soiled by coal soot but relatively unharmed. The adventure in Tokyo is another story.
Adventures In and Around the Environs of Tokyo
You may thing that you've seen crazy taxi drivers, or you may thing that you've seen brave taxi drivers. But in Tokyo, we saw the top of the list in either on or the other, or both categories. We got of the train in Tokyo and looked at all the hustling and bustling of the citizens of Tokyo. We stood there in our cotton tropical uniform of the day just off one of the platforms, watching the crowds, like sea currents, wending their way through each other, this way and that, with 'nary a glance or two at the uniformed strangers in their country. Occasionally, some looked and smiled, others looked briefly and quickly went back to their own business of going somewhere.
We then, having realized that our mission of reaching Tokyo had been accomplished, stepped apart from the flowing crowds and huddled to see what to do next. Just like most Marines, we hadn't thought much about what we would do once we succeeded in our main feat of simply reaching Tokyo. We figured that we should do at least some different things from what we did in Takigahara. It was July, 1964 and Tokyo was going to host and open the Olympics in late August. We could check out the Olympic Village or whatever, maybe take a tour of Tokyo, and then find the bars later.
We ran into some guys from off of a carrier at Yokosuka who had been there since the day before (that made them experts on Tokyo) and they told us that we should see something called the Ginza. We didn't know what a Ginza was but if it was something to see, we should do it. They also said to check out the Tokyo Tower, not far from the train station. Well, with these two clues we had a plan. The Tokyo Tower was first, since it was the closest. We agreed to split into two groups and meet back at the train station that evening.
We went to the Tokyo Tower and saw this Eifle Tower looking thing, only more modern and it didn't seem as high. We went up in the elevator but couldn't see much at the top since it was overcast. There didn't seem to be much more sunshine here than at Camp Fuji. We bought some post cards and a couple of trinket souvenirs, took a couple of snapshots and left for whatever this Ginza thing was. We hopped a cab and told the driver, who didn't speak any English at all, "Ginza" and away we flew. In Japan, they drive on the wrong side of the road, on the left. So, as the driver sped through heavy traffic, he would barrel around turns, seemingly aimed into oncoming traffic, since he was going toward the left lanes. The trip was frightening but a lot of fun, kind of like the fun on a roller coaster ride. We finally turned onto a wide street with a lot of lights and fancy stores.
The Ginza turned out to be the high-rent, main shopping district in Tokyo. We walked up and down for a couple of blocks but everything was priced out of the range of PFCs who maybe cleared eighty bucks a month before allotments. We had spent a lot of our MPC on buying some Japanese Yen, bus and train tickets, and chow along the way. We didn't have much interest in window shopping so we decided to head for wherever the bars were.
When in doubt, ask a cab driver, but that wasn't so easy with the language barrier. Among the four of us in our group, we jabbered in pigeon Japanese and with hand signals, tried to communicate to the driver that we wanted to go where there were some women. He dropped us off at the Kabuki Theater. We didn't know what a "Kabuki" was any more than what a "Ginza" was when we left the train station. I took a picture of it just because it looked like a place I needed a picture of in case I didn't get to see anything else.
We were confused but decided to check it out. We saw a line of Americans or Europeans waiting at an entrance for tourists. There were no English signs so we walked over to them and found some people who spoke English. It was a line waiting to go on a tour of the Kabuki Theater. Since none of us had ever seen a Kabuki Theater, or ever heard of a Kabuki, we decided to go on the tour. Well, it turned out to be something like the Cage of Folle, a bunch of men dressed up like women in traditional Japanese dress doing some overacting. This sucked! The actors (playing actresses) had about a pound of white makeup on and kept fluttering fans at their faces and screeching at each other. We decided to blow this off and continue our search for true Japanese culture elsewhere.
We were now looking forward to our next taxi ride. It was easy to get a taxi. They were everywhere. This driver knew a little English, very little, but we could communicate our need for alcoholic beverages. We were becoming fluent in Japanese by now and spoke to the driver, "Saki, Asahi, Suntori," we explained to him. He grinned and took off like a bat outta hell. He went a short distance and pulled over to the curb outside a liquor store.
The guys who had been in Okinawa for a while were always talking about "Typhoon Fifths" of saki, which none of us had ever seen. We asked the guy behind the counter, "Typhoon Fifth, dozo." He didn't understand. He smiled and shook his head. "Saki, toxon saki," we said. His face lit up and he brought us the biggest bottle of booze we had ever seen, aside from a picture on a roadside billboard. It stood about two and a half feet high and was about ten inches around, tapering to a narrow neck at the top. Wow, that was over a gallon of saki. None of us were crazy about saki but this was a good start at partying. We bought that with a bunch of Yen. Now, a bunch of Yen is a handful of paper, at least that's what it seemed like. At the time, the exchange rate was 360 to 1 three-thousand sixty yen for ten dollars. When you went to the MPC store at Camp Fuji, you had to convert to yen in ten dollar increments. So, each of us had bought at least ten thousand yen, and some of the rich Lance Corporals bought twenty thousand. We had our pockets stuffed with yen in all denominations. Half the time, we just held out a handful of the stuff and let the Japanese take whatever was required for a purchase. The stuff was so bulky it made us feel rich.
Well, we stepped back outside and the taxi driver had waited for us. We seemed to have a rapport with him so we decided to stay with "our taxi". We started passing the bottle around and drinking the saki straight. It tasted terrible but it was all we had at the time. The driver was having a ball with us so we induced him to join us, as we passed the huge bottle around. He had noticed that we laughed like hell when he did something crazy in the traffic so he started getting even crazier. He would also laugh like crazy each time he pulled a stunt and we would kick and beat on the back of his seat, yelling, "Hiyako! Hiyako! goddamit." After about twenty minutes of this, we told him to go somewhere where we could get some Cokes.
Funny thing about Japan in those days, Cokes cost more than booze. Booze was cheap. You could get a shot of Suntori whiskey for about twenty-five or fifty cents but if you got Coke with it, it cost a dollar. If you got just a glass of Coke, it cost a dollar. Anyway, he took us to a little store where we bought two or three cokes and promptly dumped them into the Typhoon fifth and drove around with out cab driver for another half hour or so. We then told him to take us to a bar. He communicated to us that he could take us to one in the suburbs that wasn't overpriced like the tourist or GI bars near town. We like that idea, it would save us money.
We wound up in who knows where, deep in a Japanese neighborhood at this little street corner bar. There was only two or three local Japanese men in the bar aside from the bartender. It was dark now and we sat down at a table. The drinks were really cheap but the cokes still cost a lot. We began buying drinks for the house and bought so much booze, the bartender treated us to some food. Don't know what it was but we were hungry and gobbled it up.
A little later one of our new "friends," one of the Japanese in the bar when we got there, was now sitting at our table and getting pretty drunk He started getting nasty. We weren't sure at first but it became more and more apparent that he was trying to insult us. He had to try because at first we couldn't figure out what he was doing. He couldn't speak English but he would say something like, "Merican" and pinch some hair on one of our arms and blow on it. He did this over and over for a while until we started getting the drift. Then another Japanese in the bar, who was sitting a few tables over by himself, picks up a beer bottle and walks up behind the first guy who was busy blowing on our arms. He slowly raised the bottle over his head behind the guy and stood threatening him with a busted head. The bartender came out and grabbed the bottle and spoke to him calmly in Japanese. The two argued for a few moments and then the guy goes back to his table, all the time glaring at the Japanese guy at our table. He's too drunk to even realize what happened. Meanwhile, one of the guys in our group, Angell, after the Japanese guy grabs some of his arm hair and blows it, starts waiving his middle finger in the Japanese guy's face. Then everybody starts crowding the guy's face with middle fingers, saying, "Yeah, we've got something for you, too, here, lookit this, asshole." The situation started getting scary. We were deep in some residential neighborhood, our cab driver had gone, we didn't have a clue where we were, and we hadn't seen any cabs going by like in downtown. The bartender came over and grabbed the hair blower and drug him to the door and put him out. He announced something to the other customers and motioned to us that he was closing up. That was that. We went outside and walked for about a half mile until we got to a main street, where we found a cab. We returned to the train station to find that we had to wait over an hour for the other crew to come back. When they arrived, we got on a train back to Kozu.
The Bay of Tonkin Incident
About August 8, 1964, all Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Marines at Camp Fuji were ordered to sea or air. The majority were sent to Yokohama to embark on ships taking them back to Okinawa, while many were loaded on C-130s at Iwo Kuni, Japan to fly to Okinawa. The Third Recon Battalion flew to Futema MCAS, Okinawa and trucked from there to Camp Schwab. Charlie Company immediately made a twenty-four hour mount out to the port at Red Beach to board LPDs, APAs and AKAs, and to join in working parties to load heavy ammunition on the ships. Charlie Company was assigned to working parties with sailors on an AKA and began helping to load thousands of rounds of 155mm and 8-inch. Each weighed in at around two- hundred pounds each. The 155mm was stamped "196 pounds," and the 8-inch was stamped "204 pounds." These were taken out of their wooden "egg cartons" and stacked individually in concentric stacks in each hold like individual eggs. When the level of each hold was full, a hatch "floor" was put in place and the stacking resumed until that level was full, and so forth, until all lower levels of the ship were full of 155mm and 8-inch ammunition. Naturally, by the second day of loading, the ship rode lower and lower in the water. One sailor commented, "I've never seen her ride this low in the water," referring to the ship.
An LPD was a Landing Platform, Helicopter, a "modern"
ship theoretically having air-conditioning in the troop spaces and was
characterized by a deep well that ran from the back of the ship to about
one-third its length which could be flooded to allow landing craft such
as Amphibious Tractors (AmTracs) to be floated out and launched directly
from the ship. The stern of the ship could be lowered backyards into the
sea to allow debarkation of the landing craft. Just aft of the ship's superstructure
the was a relatively large helicopter landing area (helipad) overlooking
the ship's well. APA was the designation for Navy troop ships designated
"Attack, Personnel, Amphibious." AKA's were Navy troop ships designated
"Attack, Cargo, Amphibious." They were almost the same as APAs except that
they had more cargo space and less troop compartments. Charlie Company
embarked on the USS Monticello, LPD 35. The Monticello and its sister ship
USS Alamo, LPD 33, were due on their Far East rotation and were en route
to Pearl Harbor, on their way back to the States when ordered to turn around
and take on Marines for the crisis. There were some unhappy sailors taking
care of the Marines on their ships.
Meanwhile, Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon was detached and sent with the 9th Marines on a separate mission. The 3rd Platoon embarked on the USS Epping Forest and headed for Vietnam. The 3rd Platoon ran beach surveys at Cam Rahn Bay from the DE USS Cook during the "Bay of Tonkin" float while detached from Charlie Company. They pulled liberty at Subic Bay and Olongapo in September, 1964.
Back in Okinawa, the remainder of Charlie Company spent a few days at White Beach. Within a week, the newly formed squadron of approximately a dozen ships departed Okinawa, carrying the 9th MEB or 9th MAF. Off of Okinawa, the squadron was joined by three destroyers as escorts. At different times our flotilla was referred to by one or the other name. The small fleet headed "down South." After the Bay of Tonkin incident and the initial crisis was over, Third Marine Division Marines began referring to Viet Nam as "down South." The term may have been used before that but no one in Charlie Company had used it before that. The destroyers were to come in handy in a few weeks.
The squadron was to spend fifty-four consecutive days at sea without a port call, cruising in the South China Sea just off the DMZ and Saigon. About two weeks into the cruise, the Monticello was ordered to return to the West Coast, as she was already overdue to rotate. Recon was put aboard an LCU "Utility Boat" on the high seas to transfer to the APA USS McGoffin. Marines from Camp Pendleton and Okinawa often referred to the USS McGoffin as the "greasy McGoo" because of the intensely greased lines and pulleys on the ship. It was difficult to keep uniforms grease-free on the McGoo. Less than two weeks later, Charlie Company was again sent to another ship, again a high-seas transfer; this time to APA 18, the USS George Clymer, the oldest APA in the fleet. The George Clymer was familiar to former 1st Recon Marines who were now in 3rd Recon. The Clymer was a regular participant in maneuvers off of Camp Pendleton and landed troops on Red and White Beaches at Camp Pendleton. The Clymer was a pre-World War II cruise ship converted to Navy use as a troop transport. It still had the hardwood decks and fancy brass fittings left over from its civilian cruise days.
The Clymer would give the squadron its share of fits as its evaporators, boilers and engines frequently broke down. Water rationing and "Navy showers" were not uncommon on the George Clymer. "Navy showers" were 5-minute salt-water showers followed by a 2-minute fresh-water rinse off.
The political and military situation in South Vietnam was extremely unstable. At one point, the 9th MEB was ordered to standby off the mouth of the Mekong River, and ready itself to evacuate American civilians. The 1st Platoon of Charlie Company ran drills to provide security, equivalent to putting Marines "in the rigging" should the ship have to run a gauntlet of small arms fire sailing up the Mekong River to Saigon. Charlie Company Marines were assigned various stations around the main deck of the ships; around anchor-chain openings, mooring rope openings, and along both sides on the 01 level. However, the rescue call never came and the assignments were put aside. The squadron sailed to the north toward the DMZ, with an additional protector on the horizon, the CV USS Constellation keeping air cover.
The George Clymer had wooden decks and fancy linoleum passageways but the nice veneer masked trouble inside its workings. The ship's two evaporators broke down, thankfully, only one at a time. However, the ship's first priority for pure water for the boilers, not for drinking and washing. With over a thousand sailors and Marines aboard, this was a critical issue. Scuttlebuts sometimes issued forth a creamy, milk-like substance which everyone was assured was "potable." The white suspension was "harmless" and should not dissuade the thirsty from drinking their fill. Not many bought that but sooner or later, one had to drink and many reluctant Marines sipped the minimum amount to sustain life.
Then Charlie Company engaged in its first technical "combat" of the Vietnam era. It occurred toward the north end of its loop up and down the coast of South Vietnam. Aboard ship there are constant drills. All are necessary and all are bothersome. They gave adequate grist for bitching and moaning. Of course, the first were the abandon ship, fire drills, and the "dong, dong, dong, "battle stations" drill. On all of these, the bosun would precede the announcement with "This is a drill, this is a drill." Then the announcement, "All hands, man your battle stations, set condition Zebra, close all watertight hatches." The crew would scramble through the ship, sealing each Marine unit into their compartments. The non-air-conditioned ventilation was shut off. This compounded the comfort level of troops crowded into darkened, gasoline-fumed sleeping spaces. And, then, in a few minutes, usually less than twenty or thirty minutes, it would be over.
Then came the inevitable "1-Alpha" drills, or "over the side and onto the cargo nets and into the Papa boats." Marines called the small landing craft "Peter boats," while the sailors referred to them as "Papa boats." If you've never experienced a 1-Alpha drill or the real thing, then you probably have more faith in amphibious operations than one who has been in them. The operation of landing troops from a conventional troop ship by way of climbing down cargo nets and boarding the small Papa boats is not as simple as seen in the Hollywood versions. The 1-Alpha operation is a complex ballet of men, machines, and the sea. Not only do the sailors; i.e., coxswains, have to be highly skilled in forming their wave formations, sometimes circling in their four-points-of-the-compass formations around the ship on the high seas, but there is a critical and complex shuffling of groups of Marines up from below decks and on the sea decks to their debarkation stations. "Red One," "Blue Three," "Yellow One" are all established places along the gunwales of APAs and AKAs where cargo nets are draped over the sides. Add to this the complexity of having Papa boats from other ships also coming along side to offload a given troop ship, it was quite an operation.
Starting below decks, Marines are ready to fight in their full battle dress, full 782 gear, along with a huge Navy blue life preserver. This is no small Mae West but an oversized kapok-stuffed life preserver. Put on over a field pack; i.e., knapsack, haversack, and blanket role, in addition to web belt, canteens, ammunition, K-bar and M-14 (and a radio or M-60 in some cases), the additional life preserver makes one feel like they are trying to unlock their car while carrying six bags full of groceries.
Stuffed into the narrow corridors formed between rows of hammock-like racks in the troop compartments (with perhaps a 3/4 ton truck parked in the middle), the Marines waddle and shove against each other, jockeying for position to form up with their squads for climbing up the steep, narrow ladder to the outside world; only to find when they get up on deck, they must snake their way single file through sailors scurrying about their duties to their debark stations.
Once at the designated debarkation station, each foursome of Marines must climb over the railing and "ladder down" the cargo net, keeping "dressed right" as they climb down. Meanwhile, down in the Papa boat, bouncing up and down, drifting first away and then into the side of the ship, slamming against and scraping up and down, then out again, a couple of sailors and the first team of Marines are hanging onto the bottom of the cargo net to keep it from folding between the Papa boat and the ship. If that should happen, any Marines in the dip in the net could be crushed or drowned at the two collided. However, in keeping the net as taut as possible, some are hoisted into the air as the ship heels one way while the Papa boat drifts outward the other way.
Some might describe this as a critical ballet, while others would view it as a cruel comedy; but somehow it happens, one way or another. In any event, the sheer difficulty of accomplishing the embarkation of troops into the small boats is such that only persistent practice will allow any success with a minimum of hazards. So it was on that day when the squadron stopped to practice its "away all boats" routine. The position was somewhere north of Da Nang and about thirty miles off the coast which was just in sight on the far distant western horizon. We were told that the horizon at sea, as viewed from the deck of a ship, was approximately twenty miles away, given the average main deck being twenty feet over the sea level. Since the mountains in Vietnam were close to the sea, land was discernible from about thirty miles of shore.
Below decks, the troops, informed the day before of the training exercise, were dressed in their bulky gear and ready to go. That the ship had stopped dead in the water was easy to tell, the constant rumbling of the steady engines had gone. The clanking and battering of steel on steel came through the hull and into the compartments in loud reports. Getting nearly a thousand troops into two or three dozen tiny boats takes no short time and the waiting Charlie Reconners were doing the usual "hurry up and wait" things; liars' poker games, speculation on the skills of the ships crew (usually critical), observations on the intelligence of the Navy and Marine command levels, the usual. The 1-Alpha drill was duly announced over the 1-MC. "Now hear this: Set conditions for one alpha; Now, I say again, set condition for one alpha. All Papa boats over the side. All Marines report to your compartments and ready for debarkation." "Here we go again" was heard all through the Marines' compartments. The 1-MC blared on: "Now Team Bravo to debarkation station Red One," and so on, as each unit was called to their stations. Some troops were in the Papa boats, some were on deck, waiting to go over the side, and some were still down in the troop compartments, waiting.
Less than half way through the process, the 1-MC came on and blared, "Now battle stations, battle stations, all hands turn to. All boats stand off! Prepare to get underway. All boats, stand off! Now, set condition Zebra. All Marines on deck, clear the deck and report to your assigned compartments." Now this last order did not comport with the conditions Zebra order, if you can understand that. Condition Zebra meant to close and seal all water-tight doors. Ordering Marines to leave the deck and go below to their compartments required going through some of those hatches.
Also, having been conditioned to dozens of drills by the ship's crew, and taking into account months or years of military life, many naturally believed this last announcement to be a drill, a mistake, and a very stupid idea. "Just like the Navy to have a "battle stations" drill right in the middle of a 1-Alpha drill" was mentioned. Some, though, questioned the failure to mention "drill" in the announcement. "Probably just another screw up" was the response. Then the 1-MC again blared, "Now hear this, battle stations! This is not a drill, this is not a drill. All Marines, below decks. Clear the decks and secure all compartments. Set condition Zebra!" Well, that was it for sure. It was no drill. The old George Clymer shuddered to life as the engine rumblings worked their way through the steel hull. The ship slowly and subtly began to change its unpowered rolling with the sea to a more forward lurching, front to back roll as the ship began to make headway.
What was going on in the minds of the Marines out on the high seas in the Papa boats at the mother ship pulls away? In fact, what were their thoughts watching the entire squadron begin to move off and leave them behind?
The confusion among the troops sequestered and sealed in their hot, humid compartments was clearing and giving way to reality. The ship was under attack, it was a basic fact that was hard to accept after years of drills and training, where you always played at war. It was for real. Old George picked up speed, maybe up to ten or twelve knots.
The 1-MC, now tied into the comm net was giving a blow-by-blow account. There was no wondering what was going on now, it was a "live broadcast." "Three unidentified torpedo boats, presumed hostile, bearing something or other, range seven miles." Some Marines, trapped topside had the best seats in the house. Their reports later on relayed to topside events to those who were cooped up below, still in their packs, rifles, 782 gear, and those huge life preservers. The destroyers were the first to show a reaction. Unlike the troop ships that had to stop in order to participate in the training, the destroyers had continued their vigilant cruising at speed. Now, at the first announcement of battle stations, they radically turned and visibly leaned away from the direction of their turns, toward the approaching enemy.
"Torpedo boats, bearing something or other, range five miles, closing," rang out the 1-MC. "Targets hostile, closing, range four miles." The ship now was near top speed, whatever that was for an old APA. It shuddered as it "dove" into the oncoming swells. The Papa boats were now far out of sight and, presumably alone. Then a pair of Phantom F-4s were overhead. The 1-MC continued its updates, "Targets no longer closing, bearing such and such." The reports continued for another fifteen minutes or so. And, then, "Secure from general quarters. Make ready to retrieve Papa boats." And that was it. Technically, our first "contact."
A few days later, the chatter about the incident started to be old news and Charlie Company returned to the grinding routine of shipboard life. PT in the morning, maybe an inspection now and then, PT in the afternoon, work details both on Marine matters and on detail to the ship's company, and so on. But mostly, it was trying to find a paperback book that hadn't been read yet, or playing cards or monopoly. Monopoly sometimes got real serious. Near fistfights would occur over whether the dice counted when they rolled off the board or fell to the deck. If someone felt the other players were ganging up on them, friends wouldn't be friendly for days. The lack of action, whether it was shore liberty or more rewarding duties on ship, was eroding the morale. Marines were becoming more and more vicious toward they Navy hosts. Charlie Company Marines spent endless time and energy devising ways to torture the sailors taking care of them and the ship. In view of the antics of the Marines, the ship's company was extremely patient and professional. There were a couple of other units on the ship other than Recon and when the Marines were not harassing the sailors, they were aggravating each other according to which unit they were in. There was a hierarchy of how to pick fights. If sailors were not handy targets, then one would find someone from another unit. If they weren't around, or the supply of them had already been exhausted, then you turned to someone in the other platoon. If that didn't turn out, then you picked on someone from outside your squad. The last resort was finding something irritating by someone in your own team. Fortunately, intr-team arguments were rare.
And then there was the ventilator wars with the crew. Charlie Company's compartment consisted of about three-quarters of a troop compartment two ladder down in the ship and wrapped around a hatch cover in the middle with a three-quarter ton truck called a "PC". The PC was the best vehicle in the infantry's inventory. It would go places a Mighty-mite or a 6-by (6x6 deuce and a half truck) couldn't make it. But this one was fueled and the gas fumes were always present in the poorly ventilated compartment. A single square vent passed through the compartment and forked off with another vent going into a ship's company compartment on the other side of the bulkhead. The compartment was nearly unbearably hot and humid. Even the outside, ninety-degree plus air from outside the ship seemed cool. The feeble draft from this vent stopped one day. The gunny, who stayed in the compartment with us, went to the First Sergeant and the CO about the problem. Later that day some sailors came and look at the vent and got about half of the former circulation going. It provided little relief. Then, that night, the vent stopped again. The next day the sailors looked at it again. They said they couldn't do anything about it and left.
Well, then we took things over and a few Reconners tore open the vent and found out that there was a blockage about two or three feet from the fork in the vent, the one leading to the sailors' compartment. We fixed that quite easily. In fact, we improved tremendously on the ventilation by achieving even better ventilation than we had before. The blockage was simply repositioned to block the ventilation to the sailors' compartment. It made a world of different. However, within a few hours, some sailors came down to check on the ventilation duct in our compartment. We told them to go away since they told us before nothing could be done. They insisted on checking the vent, we insisted on taking them at their word given earlier and didn't allow them to get at the vent. After about a twenty-minute argument, they left all pissed off.
Then a lieutenant JG and a Chief came back, along with the working party of sailors we kicked out before. This time, we had to yield. They opened the vent and immediately saw the block we had moved around. It was made of rags made of sailors' clothing so we clucked our tongues saying that they shouldn't throw their old clothes into the vents. The sailors started mouthing off.
The lieutenant cut off the arguments by saying that nothing would be allowed in the vent by anybody. The gunny said if the vent stayed in its intended state then that would be fine for us but if anymore modifications were made by the sailors in the other compartment, then things would be taken care of directly. The Chief told the gunny that he would personally see to it that the vent wasn't tampered with and things got peaceful. A week later, the air flow again diminished. We checked the vent for blockages and saw none. We tried to figure out what was happening. Upon a more thorough inspection, we discovered that the sailors had cut an additional, larger opening in the vent upshaft of our opening. We thought that was a good idea, too. Since the vent came first into our compartment and then into the fork to the sailors' compartment, we simply cut a large flap our of the vent where it came out of the wall. Well, this started the shit all over again. This time the XO of the ship came down and pulled Charlie Company and the sailors next door into the chow hall and laid the law down. The vent would be restored to its original condition anybody changing anything would get at least Captain's Mast. That pretty much stopped the modifications.
Adding to the naturally generated hostility of the boredom was the constant failure of the other equipment of the George Clymer. The ship went nearly a week with broken or partially functioning evaporators that barely made enough distilled water to manage cooking food after the set aside for the ship's boilers. The ship had two evaporators that suppled the ship's boilers. The boilers required ultra-pure water and were the first priority. The chow hall cut way back on the variety of food, even going to cold cuts and sandwiches due to the restriction placed on boiling food items such as potatoes and the like.
Then what everyone was expecting finally happened, old George's evaporators both broke down. Now, for nearly every day of the cruise, at least in clear weather, you could look out over to the east of the squadron and see the comforting sight of the USS Constellation on the far horizon. Sometimes it was hard to spot but if you looked hard enough, eventually you saw her. Now, the Clymer was broken and couldn't repair herself quickly enough to keep up with the squadron. So, one morning soon after dawn, we awoke and went up on deck for PT and saw that we were alone except for a sea-going tug that had come from Subic Bay to keep us from drifting into the coast, or out farther to sea, for that matter. The rest of the ships were gone, the Constellation was gone, and we were sitting dead in the water. It was eery, everything was quiet except for the soft splashing of the waves now and then. Apparently, the silence at reveille went unnoticed by most. The ever-present rumbling and ship plowing through the water sounds were gone. Even the gentle roll of the ship instead of the churning through water went unnoticed at first. These came up only as afterthoughts. Keep in mind that the Clymer had only a half-adequate ventilation system that simply sucked in hot, humid air from outside the ship and pushed it under low pressure into the living spaces inside the ship.
Soon many were talking it up about the situation. Soon, the incident of a few weeks previous concerning the torpedo boats was brought up. In addition to being dead in the water, we were on the strictest water rationing of the cruise. For the next two days we were taking salt-water showers and drinking the milky substance that passed for water. Once another ship pulled along side and shot a line across. A hose was connected between the two ships and drinking water was pumped over to us. On the third day the sailors had partially overcome the main problems and we got underway and, well, "raced" isn't the word for it, we went to catch up with the rest of the squadron. We were still on water rationing but it was more generous than the last few days. Soon we would have plenty of water and plenty of diversion beyond our imagination at that point.
Replenishment Details on the High Seas
Since the cruise was lasting so long, it was necessary to replenish the ships of the squadron at sea. Sometimes this was done in daylight but sometimes it was conducted at night. Recon took its turn at providing warm bodies to form human chains to pass boxes of supplies from the piles dropped off by the cargo nets onto the deck, and down to the reefers or storage places below. What one found out when passing along the crates and boxes was that, with respect to food, someone was not sharing the frozen strawberries, steaks and other good stuff with the privates and PFCs, or, maybe with any of the Marines. After a couple of tours of duty at this, certain things occur to the those looking at the goods. We helped ourselves to the oranges and bananas passing through. The Navy NCOs only winked at this; they simply ignored the petty pilferage. Maybe they figured it was a reward for the hard work. The Chief in charge of the reefers once gave us a box of oranges to take with us when the detail was over.
Once there were boxes of four gallon-sized frozen strawberries going along the line. Someone thought that a few cans of these would make a great treat on some hot afternoon and one of the boxes took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in the Recon space. We thought we had really pulled a good one, all of us looking forward to dipping into the four gallons of frosty strawberries in the 100-degree heat of our compartment. What we didn't know is that probably all the three or four working parties from other units were doing the same thing. This created a noticeable shortage in the officers' mess, evidently. The next day, the word was passed that the stolen property should be returned. Hell, we weren't going to own up to it. After all, as Marines, we were trained to steal equipment from the Army and Navy, this didn't seem all that different. Instead of batteries for our radios, or helmets, or web gear, it was strawberries, that's all.
That's not how the ships' officer took it. So we had to try to find a place to stash the rather large cache of frozen strawberries. We considered having a party right away and swallowing the evidence but there wasn't time. So we stashed them in the good old ventilation system. After all, it wasn't like we weren't familiar with it. The frozen gallon cans were put back into the vent out of sight. Then we got an added boon for our efforts. The frozen cans cooled off the air a little. When the Master at Arms team came to search our compartment, we were a little worried about the rather pleasant temperature but they didn't notice. Yeah, it was a lot like the Caine Mutiny. A real uproar about some canned strawberries. We pulled it off, I don't know if the other units were caught. But by the time we pulled the strawberries out, they had defrosted in the hot air in the vent. It wasn't bad though, they were still pretty cool and very sweet. In fact, one guy claimed he ate too many and got the runs. That night, we strolled the decks in our field jackets in ninety-degree weather and pitched the empty cans overboard.
The 55th Day - Subic Bay, P.I.
The cruise up and down the South China Sea off the coast of South Viet Nam started in August and droned on until October, 1964. Then, the word was passed out, we were going to make a port call at Subic Bay, liberty call was likely. Everything changed in a matter of moments. Some had been to Subic before and immediately became resident experts on the options available for liberty there. Debates broke out whether we would get "base" liberty, or be allowed to pull liberty in Olongapo, the sin town outside the base. Experts disagreed. Some cynics "knew" that either the Navy or the Marine Corps would work hard to screw up a good time. "We would be lucky to get base liberty," a few said. Others, ever the optimists, forecast that "they" just couldn't deny units on a non-stop 54-day float the ultimate in liberty, at least it would be Cinderella liberty.
A day or two passed and speculation grew about just how true the claim that we would get liberty at Subic Bay was; you know, the Word always changes ten times before things finally settle down, and usually ended up in the worst-case scenario. Then the sailors were finally talking about Subic themselves. They were the experts. After all, it was their ship and wouldn't they know for sure? Now, in fact, the sailors were talking about TOMORROW. Port call in the morning?
Sure enough, the next morning all on-deck musters and PT was canceled. Roll call was taken in the compartment space. The familiar 1-MC announcement changed back to the lesser familiar, "Now set the special sea and anchor detail, prepare to enter port, prepare to dock," or something like that was announced. Then, and only then, did the last of the cynics concede that we were going to make landfall. Many tried to sneak up on deck to get a view of the Philippines; a couple made it, most did not. The wait was not long, though. After an hour or so, the Marines were allowed up on deck and everyone was excited and wanted to see what Subic looked like.
Up on deck, we could see a beautiful place. The ships, not just our squadron, but a large number of others were tied up to the docks sandwich style. Other warships, destroyers and guided missile cruisers, were anchored in the bay. The George Clymer was the fourth ship out, which necessitated crossing the gangplanks and quarterdecks of three intervening ships. The bay was gorgeous. A moderately large area of approximately ten to twelve miles across with a large island, called Grande Island, exactly in the middle of the harbor. The skies were perfect, with alto cumulus clouds floating around. The water, beyond the green pier water, was fantastically blue. The entire area was ringed with jungled mountains. The morning temperature was in the pleasant high seventies. We were elated and hoped that the "green side-brown side" bullshit would be kept to a minimum. "Green side-brown side" was a term generated from 782-gear inspections where Marines were required to fall out dressed in field gear, including their "field pack" consisting of an upper knapsack to which a lower haversack was attached. Draped over these bags was a roll made up of one or two blankets, rolled up in and covered by a thick canvas shelter half. The roll formed a square, upside down "U" shape and was attached to the knapsack. The shelter half was camouflaged on both sides. one side was a predominantly greet leave pattern, while the opposite side was a beige or light brown leave pattern. The term directly comes from the inability of whoever was holding the inspection, or those who were trying to figure out what these inspectors expected, to establish the color of the shelter half for the inspection. Coincidentally, the helmet cover, which had the same color schemes, had to match the blanket roll-shelter half color. For most inspections, the word would be passed, first for "green side out," but soon would be changed to "brown side out." This would occur for the half-hour just preceding the muster time for the inspection. Invariably, Marines would turn out in both colors, or, one platoon would be green side out and the next would be brown side out, giving fits to platoon leaders and platoon sergeants, who, in turn, would take in out on the hapless Marines in the "wrong" color. Marines would be scurrying around the grinder (parade field) or the pasture on which the inspection was to be held, seen unrolling and rerolling their blanket rolls. Thus green side brown side meant the word was ever changing and the only consistency was change, sooner or later.
After a few hours we realized that there would be no immediate liberty call. However, the news was still good. Liberty call would be sounded at 1500 hours but would be "port and starboard." That meant only half would be allowed on liberty at the same time. The other half would have to pull watches or simply wait until the next day. The immediate fear of the "starboard" crew was that the ships would suddenly have to pull out on another mount out and they would forfeit their chance on the beach. However, there would be more liberty than could be exhausted in the next few days.
At the same time that the squadron, having some 5,000 Marines and another 1,000 sailors or so, was settling in to its moorings, into Subic Bay comes the USS Constellation and its supporting ships, another 5-6,000 sailors. With everybody in Charlie Company distracted by who would be "port" and who would be "starboard" on the liberty roster, no one gave much thought to the consequences of the confluence of two fleets of ships coming into Subic at the same time and releasing thousands upon thousands of sailors and Marines into a rather small port town at the same time, to say nothing of the fact that, at least for the 9th MEB, it had been at sea nonstop for nearly two months.
For Charlie Company, as for the few thousand Marines of the 9th Marine Regiment (reinforced), there was to be a glitch, even for those lucky enough to get first-night liberty. The entire Brigade had been living out of seabags for two months. Only officers and staff NCO' had "pressed uniform" privileges on ship. The rest, from platoon sergeants on down to the privates, had only laundry service shipboard. That meant that the khaki, uniform of the day short-sleeve shirts and trousers were folded as neatly as possible in the bottom of each Marine's sea bag, packed along with their dress shoes. This did not give them an acceptable barracks-like look. Long gone were the sharp creases and mirror-shined shoes of garrison Marines. However, unit officers and senior NCOs, understanding the relative hardships of shipboard life, living out of seabags, did not bother with the general unsightliness of uniforms of the day less that perfectly pressed. The extreme cases, and there were always a few, were turned back to get "squared away," and allowed to return when the minimal improvements were made.
As promised, liberty call was sounded at 1500 hours. The lucky "port side" liberty-goers lined up in neat ques along the passageway along the port side up to the Quarterdeck. As liberty cards were checked, each Marine or sailor would enthusiastically salute the Officer of the Deck, then turn toward the stern and throw a salute to the ship's ensign, and then charge off to board the next ship and repeat the routine. This was done four times before landfall was finally made. The freed Marines, for the most part not being familiar with the base, first wondered around confused about which way to go first. Olongapo was the destination but the route to the main gate had not been considered and, predictably, Marines in somewhat wrinkled khakis would stop passers by, mostly Filipino civilian workers, and ask directions. Then, having obtained all necessary crucial information, the bee line for the main gate was made.
The main gate between the Subic Bay Naval Base stood on the foot of a bridge about ten feet over a canal. The canal, among other things, performed as a sewer and general garbage disposal for the town of Olongapo. The first liberty detachment from Charlie Company came in view of the main gate.
However, upon reaching the main gate, the first Charlie Company Reconners saw a commotion of a few hundred Marines, similarly clad in various stages of wrinkled khakis, milling about angrily at the gate. The crown grew by the hundreds by the minute. Apparently, the state of the uniforms of the Fleet Marine Force Marines were not acceptable to the Marine Guard Company Marines manning the gate. Nearly everyone was being turned back, except for sailors and guard company Marines. This added to the frustration of the detainees. Entire companies of close-knit grunts were talking loudly about perpetrating serious offenses against the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If was made clear that these infractions would involve the guard company pukes. The injustice, it seems, involved the denial of a god-given right to go on liberty, as endorsed by THEIR superior officers, by some guard company pukes who weren't considered to be REAL Marines. This is a polite description of the actual, shall we call them, conversations taking place.
After about twenty minutes, the situation was near out of hand. Some grunts had actually crashed the gate and had run across the bridge into town. The Guard Company had received reinforcements but their numbers of a little over a hundred were still no match for the two or three thousand angry FMF Marines wanting very seriously to cross the bridge. Some FMF'ers were "detained" and the mood grew uglier. Finally, some higher-racking grunt officers showed up and helped calm the immediate rush of anger. There was a lieutenant and a captain from the guard company discussing matters with the FMF officers. Both got on the phone at the guard shack. Within a few minutes, the matter was resolved, the guards backed off and released the thousands of Marines and sailors that had backed up at the gate to cross the bridge to... Liberty!
Olongapo's streets were already painted white with the uniforms of swabbies released by the thousands earlier in the day. Scores of Tijuana-taxi-colored "Jeepneys" traveled up and down the main drag with Marines and sailors hopping in and out of the backs where bench seats were placed. They were made mostly from WWII ambulance jeeps but some old regular Model MB jeeps were pressed into service as open-air taxis. For about five or ten cents, you could just hop on while it was on the move, toss the driver the coins and hop off at whatever destination you chose along the route, all without the jeep stopping except for traffic.
Gradually, the white was blended by the khaki color of the Marines' uniforms. The Filipinos' numbers were dwarfed by the three-and-four-deep groups of sailors and Marines. Everything went smoothly for a couple of hours. The anger and frustration of those at the gate turned into joy at being released. The relaxation of that tension, coupled with the overriding joy having liberty for the first time in two months gave the town an elated mood.
The mood carried over until the inevitable again happened. After a few beers, or more, and after a certain initial politeness started wearing off, people started mouthing off. By sundown, there were beginning to be more and more frequent fights. A Marine grunt company would "camp out" and take over one bar. A ship's company would do the same at another. Some visitors might be allowed to quickly come in and have a quick beer, but now way would any solicitation of "their" women be tolerated. Being in small numbers to begin with, and those few in town not all being together, Reconners usually picked their watering holes carefully. Some self-preservation alliances were quickly formed in some cases. Reconners would run into Tankers or Artillery Marines. Some old friends were recognized from Camp Fuji, where the same had taken place; i.e, Grunts against everybody else. Old or new alliances, it was the same, Recon and Tankers or Artillery, a bond among motley bunches.
Olongapo's main drag ran for about three-quarters of a mile, until it joined another street in a fork shaped like an upside-down "Y." That street ran only about half the distance of the main drag and was known by whites and blacks alike at the "Jungle." Whites were not welcome. The bars and girls from the Jungle catered exclusively to blacks. A few white Reconners strayed down the Jungle trail but quickly learned the rules--stay away.
But there were plenty of other places to go and things to see in Olongapo. That first day of liberty in Olongapo was a normal development. Groups of twos, threes, and fours set out to find out about the bars and whore houses, which were mixed in with tiny storefronts hawking barbecued something or other, cigarettes an cigars, wood carvings, bolo knives, and other tourist offerings. Foolishly, some Marines shopped early and bought great looking souvenirs. Then, with an entire evening left of liberty, they then had to lug their purchases around and make sure they weren't lost by forgetting them in some bar, or by being swiped by somebody. This was not as simple as a first thought might suggest. There was an excellent type of bolo machete sold on the streets of Olongapo. It was reportedly made from salvaged car springs with hand-carved bone handles, and was of more than normal weight. However, with a little practice, it did three time the job of a GI-issue machete with no more the effort. Picture a group of Marines carrying two to three foot bolo knives, statues of monkeys and Filipino natives two or three feet (sometimes more), and other odd assorted goods, bar hopping and chasing women. The two activities of shopping and bar hopping should not be mixed.
Cigarettes were a surprise purchase in the Philippines. Those who ran out of smokes and hadn't thought to bring an extra pack with them could by cigarettes virtually anywhere along the street. The vendors had bright red packs of Pall Malls, red and white packs of Lucky Strikes, and many other American brands, unlike Japan, where American cigarettes could only be found and purchased on base. The surprise came when you lit one up! They said on the side of the package: "Made from the finest blend of domestic and American tobaccoes." To some who too casually read this, it meant that they were American cigarettes. Not the case. One drag brought a strong, pungent odor and taste, and would sometimes gag the unsuspecting-it depended how drunk you were. These cigarettes sold for about twice the amount of cigarettes on base or ship. There, a pack of Pall Malls would cost you eleven cents, and, if you wanted to economize, you could buy a pack of Luckies for ten cents.
Since the sailors' liberty call had occurred hours before the Marines were let loose, the bars nearer to the base were inhabited by the various ships' crews. Some were dislodged by grunt platoons or even company-sized operations, but most Marines filtered along the route to the farther bars down the street. Recon found a home at "Sam's Place," named after a popular Country and Wester, Buck Owens song of the same name. You couldn't tell it from the motif, though. It looked like most other bars but was just a little bit larger. Because of the size of the Recon battalion, most of the Reconners from the different companies commonly pulled liberty together if the battalion was at the same place. This proved to be a good survival strategy at Sam's Place. Reconners from the three line companies (Bravo was stationed in Hawaii with the 4th Marine Brigade), and H&S collected without prior planning at Sam's. Later on, odd groups of Marines or sailors would drift in but either leave right away or have a drink and move on, apparently not wanting trouble. We though maybe telling them we were Recon would intimidate them. Maybe it did for some but one sailor asked, "What's that?" We bought him a beer and explained it to him. Turned out, he was a real nice guy but he left after about a half hour. Sam's was our first encounter with a nasty sweet-tasting butterscotch gin. At first it tasted good but after a few drinks, you got real drunk and sick from the stuff.
The Filipinos were great. After having been in Okinawa and Japan for months, the Philippine actually reminded the GIs of home. Especially the Filipinos. They seemed more like the Hispanics back in the States. Almost all spoke pretty good English and were very friendly. The women reminded most Marines of the round-eyes back home. There were a few impulsive marriage proposals and talk of taking brides back to the World. But time was too short. Promises were made that should they ever come back to Subic, plans would be fleshed out and carried out. A good time was had by almost everybody.
Around 2200 we were running short on time and money and headed back to base. At the Olongapo side of the bridge about five or six gedunk wagons had parked. These all had lighted charcoal or wood burning in a metal pot enclosed by glass or plastic. Cooking over the fires were shish kabobs with some unidentified chunks of meat barbecuing away. Since almost everybody had not stopped to each since noon, and had only beer or booze for sustenance, the smell of the cooking meat was maddening. Each stick of meat went for fifty centavos. That was about twelve and a half cents in those days. Some said it was monkey meat, some said it was dog meat but after drinking beer for five or six hours without eating, they tasted great. Those who didn't even have fifteen cents left, traded American cigarettes to the Filipino vendors for food.
Eventually the sailors and Marines, in various degrees of disrepair, drifted across the bridge to the gate to board a base Jeepney headed for the docks. Liberty call ended and but the senior enlisted were required to report back by 2330 hours.
Circus Time on the Quarterdeck
For those coming off liberty early, there was quite a reward. In fact, even for those who were on the wrong side of the ship, port and starboard-wise, there was a show that was of some recompense.
The drunken, bloodied, shirts torn, trouser legs hanging, missing piss cutters, bleary-eyed, truculent, semi-conscious parade of stragglers coming across the four quarterdecks to the George Clymer was a fantastic array of humanity. Not a good one, but fantastic nonetheless. Apparently only the officers and most senior NCOs were the only one's who spared themselves this indignity of reporting back from liberty in either a crazed or semi-comatose condition.
Not excluded from the menagerie was Gunny Miller, Charlie Company Gunnery Sergeant. Gunny Miller was about five foot seven and weighed about one-hundred-fifty pounds, all of it mean inferiority complex. Gunny was a tough old bastard and he was proud of it. And he was shit-faced drunk and had obviously either been in a fight of indeterminate outcome, or he had fell from a ten-story building into a ten-foot-high pile of concertina wire. The former was more likely but he looked the same in either case. As he came up to each Officer of the Deck, without a cover, after crossing the gangplank like a 400-pound gorilla walking tight rope, he would, well sort of, snap to an exaggerated stance of attention. He would then let fly a wild, arcing and rigid salute to the Officer of the Deck. He would stand there, swaying, until he received a return salute. He would then do a snappy, as much as he could, right face and salute the ensign in the same fashion. You could see the Officer of the Deck on each next ship eyeing him with a mixture of amusement and dread of having to put up with his antics. This went on four times.
The gunny finally made it past the Clymer's quarterdeck and relaxed and faced us and said, "Fuck it!" and sat down on the steel deck, still in his uniform of the day-what was left of it, leaning against the three-inch-gun tub and went to sleep. We respectfully carried the gunny below decks to his quarters. The next morning, the gunny awakened everybody at 0530 for PT, fresh as a daisy, himself, sporting only a few stitches and a black eye.
After a week or so of even more drinking, whoring, fighting, stitches, fighting, more stitches, and a couple of UAs, it was time to bid farewell to Subic Bay.
One of the UAs was PFC Schmidt. One night he decided that his itinerary called for an overnight stay in Olongapo. Schmidt came in about mid-morning the following day. He was dutifully put on report and put up on Office Hours by the CO of Charlie Company. Schmidt was older than most of the Marines in Charlie Company, being in his early twenties, about twenty-three or four, and even mature and intelligent beyond those years. The CO was disheartened to punish him because Schmidt was well thought of. When the CO asked him why he overstayed his liberty, Schmidt simply stated that when he was eighteen, his mother told him he could stay out past midnight. Schmidt got two-weeks restriction, which was served out over the next week and a half at sea. By the time we got back to Camp Schwab, his restriction was over.
Our little fleet left Subic Bay, headed for Okinawa.
Charlie 3rd Recon in Okinawa October 1964
The 9th MEB released Charlie Company after the Subic Bay visit and the Company sailed home on the old George Clymer. Charlie Company returned to Camp Schwab to its barracks and the normal garrison routine started again. It was a week of duty company, policing up the area, going out on work details, and so forth. Then it was a week on the beach in rubber boat training. While the weather was not as hot anymore, it was still not too uncomfortable in the water. The temperature was still in the 70s. Then it was up to the NTA for field exercises for two weeks. The Recon specialties of map reading, forward observer spotting, observation posts, and recon patrols were practiced and practiced. Then it was back in garrison for that routine.
Liberty call was sounded each weekday around 1630 when training schedules permitted. Third Reconners then braved the hazards of Henoko, the liberty 'ville outside the base, and the more adventurous tempted the RASP, the Ryukan Armed Serves Police, or the Okinawan military police, composed of MPs from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. This multilateral force was detested by all, and the MPs gloried in it. They had high unit morale. They were very hard-nosed and gave no slack. They could easily be distinguished from the detailed Shore Patrol MPs, who were actually regular snuffies temporarily assigned for a day or two, by their hard hats. Their covers were brightly painted helmet liners. The RASP were feared by transgressors in Okinawa, of which nearly all of us were from time to time.
Henoko was the most common host to the 3rd Marines, 3rd Recon, and AmTraks based at Camp Schwab. It was less than half the size of Takigahara at Camp Fuji but its main drag was lined, building to building with bars and whore houses. It was patrolled by the local Shore Patrol/Military Police, and occasionally by the RASP. Virtually all liberty in Okinawa was Cinderella liberty, i.e., check in at the gate was 2330 and you had to be back at your barracks and checked in by 2400 hours. Although Henoko was very close by the base, it still took about fifteen minutes to leave a bar and make it through the gate. Then it too another five to ten minutes to walk back to the company area and check in with the Duty NCO. Sometimes Marines' schedules did not allow for the walk around the fence from Henoko to the main gate at Camp Schwab. There was a hole in the fence conveniently placed in an almost line-of-sight route to the barracks areas of the base. As always, of course, as with all common-sense procedures, there where some draw backs to using this convenience. For one, although it did occur to some but not everybody, if one was told or shown the hole in the fence then it was not a great leap of intelligence to figure out that it would likely be know to every guard on the base. Especially if one takes into account that at least half the troops were assigned guard duty at one time or another on the base duty company. That meant that one chanced the risk of the MPs strolling around to the area of the hole around 2330 hours and watching for late comers. Another drawback was the lesser risk of tearing your liberty uniform, or at least getting it dirty or muddy. However, choosing between being UA by a few minutes and chancing the hole in the fence, it was better to take your chances at the hole rather than the near sure-fire chance of going on report. It is a mystery that in the entire year or so of a tour of duty, the hole was never repaired.
Meanwhile, Delta Company was still perfecting its ambush skills as the Raider Company. Again, Charlie Company was assigned to be the "victim" of a Delta Company ambush. This time it was to be along a road in the the NTA. Charlie was to move up the road in vehicles along a five-mile stretch designated at the tactical training zone. A four-man point was put out in a Mighty-Mite with a PRC-10 radio. The point ran about two to three hundred yards ahead of the body of the convoy. This was done because of the likelihood of an extra large ambush area in the case of a motorized convoy. The point was far out of sight of the company along the hilly and winding clay road. Vehicle speeds were down around five miles an hour. Then, as the point came up to a high point in the road with a cliff overlooking it on the right, a head in a helmet was spotted on the skyline. Now, in ITR they teach you never to shoot at someone one the skyline because it is likely to be a Marine. The enemy is not usually that stupid. However, there was no doubt that some Jarhead from Delta got excited when he saw the point of Charlie Company coming up over the crest and decided to make a last-minute adjustment in his position. The alarm went back to the company, "Ambush right, ambush right," was spoken in a low voice into the mouthpiece, as inconspicuously as possible. Delta, in the textbook fashion, let the point through.
However, Charlie Company was scrambling off the trucks and forming on-line in a counter-ambush formation in the thick brush on the right-hand side of the road. The trouble was, it was still over two-hundred yards from the ambush. The point went down the road another two-hundred yards or so to await the assault on the flank of Delta's ambush. It waited, and waited, and waited. Meanwhile, Charlie Reconners were fighting, but not Delta, they were assaulting the thick brush between them and Delta. It took ten or fifteen minutes for the left flank of Charlie, the flank nearest the road, to climb up the cliff side and make the first contact with the Delta ambush. The Delta ambushers at that end were not quite sure what to do. It was certain that they heard Charlie coming but stayed in position for the ambush. Then the center and right flank of the line of skirmishers of Charlie Company folded around and to the rear of the main part of the Delta ambush. The Delta troops, having been assigned their ambush positions, stayed in them as instructed. However, no counter ambush contingency plan had been formulated. It was all over, by the time the point crew heard the attack beginning and came back to support the action from the opposite direction, the exercise was all over but for the critiques.
The point team, proud of having spotted and sprung the ambush, came smiling into the milling crowd of Charlie and Delta Reconners. They were greeted by a pissed-off Charlie Company. The two-hundred-yard assault through the brush had not done a great deal for the collective appreciation of Charlie Company for the fine job done by its point crew. The positive lesson that came out of the long stretch of the assault was that both Charlie and Delta analyzed the development for better ways of ascertaining the exact position of ambushers in relation and distance to the counter ambush attackers. There was debate as to just how far ahead the point in a motorized convoy should be. If there was any resolution to this last question, it was not shared below the senior levels of the company. The entire exercise ran only three days. It was back to Camp Schwab.
In less than a month back at Schwab, Charlie Company got some great news. Delta Company was going back on float and Charlie Company was now to be the designated Marine Raider Company. That was good news but the great news was that the company would begin its Raider training back at Subic Bay! Some of the troops were literally jumping for joy, hopping around and laughing. This time the Word held stable and in a few days Charlie was en route to Futema MCAS to catch a C-130 for Cubi Point NAS, Subic Bay. It was now late October, 1965.
Continued in Part 2, Charlie Company in Okinawa 1964