23 May 69
Well, as I write you, I find myself in the same compound I was in the night before we left for Hill 500 and Operation Taylor Common. That was back on around December 8th.
This time, we are going on an operation to three different areas around the southern part of Da Nang. The three areas are Dodge City, Go Noi Island, and the Arizona Territory. Right now, they are said to be the hottest combat zones in Vietnam. So I hope God will be with me. So far, I've had good luck; but I'm starting to get scared with only about 5 months left before I come home. I'll be lucky if I don't get hit again. But if I do, don't worry as the Marines and Navy take good care of us wounded.
I see Mama got a telephone call from Sharon the other day. Well, the reason I left her is because she's been going out with some guy by the name of Keith. Plus, the last time she wrote, she told me, quote, "It's been so beautiful out, I haven't had time to write."
She always adds a remark like this, and it makes me mad and gives me the impression I'm just being a fool keeping her. So, if she calls again, tell her to go to hell and not to wait for any letters from me because there's no way in the world I'll write her. But like I said, me and this girl from New York are getting pretty close.
Well, got to go for now. I'll write tomorrow; and, if Sharon calls again, tell her not to bother calling anymore. And, if you don't, I'll write and tell her myself.
P.S. Have Marsha send me a picture, as there's a buddy of mine who wants to write her. Okay?
It was good to be back at the same compound. For some reason, I had fond memories attached to this compound that almost reminded me of a small castle with a moat surrounding it. I had fond memories of Sergeant Thompson, Corporal Johnston, Joe Freeman, Christianson, and Merriweather. Memories of having played cards with them in the compound before we went on the operation they would not survive. I still wonder who, if any of them, had a premonition back in December of 1968 that they'd be dead in three months...
About two nights before Mike company was to go on the next operation (Operation Pipestone Canyon), myself and a few other Marines from the 1st platoon got our hands on some beer and drank it. I got drunk; and in my drunken stupor, I began to cry and yell out obscenities.
I yelled out all the pain I was feeling about knowing the Marines Corps had left three good men on Hill 315. I yelled out all the pain about Sharon leaving me. Yelled out that I wasn't going on the next operation, that I wasn't going to give anyone the chance to get me killed, a chance to leave me behind.
Captain Burns came to where I was and asked me what was wrong, so I screamed at him "how could he leave men lying dead in the jungle when in boot camp it was beat into us that the Marines never leave their dead behind." He was somewhat sympathetic ... said he too felt bad. He assured me that the bodies would be recovered in the near future.
I told him I didn't care what he said; and to his face, I said, "I'm not going to the bush again, Sir."
I remember he had the corpsman try and talk sense to me, tried to quiet me down; but when it didn't work by talking to me, Captain Burns had the corpsman pull my trousers down and give me a shot of something in my ass that quickly put me to sleep. When I woke in the morning, the corpsman asked me how I felt. I looked at him through blurred eyes and said, "I'm dead serious. I'm not going to the bush again. Not ever."
28 May 69
How's everything going back at home? Good I hope. I'm not going to be able to write too often as we are now on Operation Pipestone Canyon. I think that's what they are calling it.
Right now, we've been sweeping Go Noi Island and have taken many casualties; but I haven't even got scratched. Not bad. Our lieutenant got hit yesterday and so did my buddy, who was going to write Marsha; but he'll be back. He gave me his radio and camera.
Well, I got a letter from Steve Coates; and he sounds like he is doing okay.
I was going to write longer, but the chopper will be down in a minute. Will write later. I'm hurried.
My refusal to go back out to the field only lasted an hour or so from when I had woke with a big head from all the beer and whatever it was the corpsman had injected me with. I had gone down to the lake behind the compound and was swimming with other Marines; but, at the same time, I was staying to myself, when the Lieutenant came to me. When he walked up to me, even before he said anything, I said, "I'm not going to the bush, sir. I'm not changing my mind."
He told me to think it out real good. He said the Captain would have me sent to the brig in Da Nang if I refused to go to the bush. I said I didn't care. I'd rather stay in the brig where no one was shooting at you than take the chance of dying. Plus, I said, I couldn't see what the war was all about anyway. And again, I talked about Sergeant Thompson, Merriweather, and Christianson lying dead back up in the mountains.
I remember, during this conversation, being able to see behind the Lieutenant, the mountain range where they were lying dead, on the horizon.
But somehow, the Lieutenant reached something inside me that changed my mind. He probably pushed a button planted there when I was on Parris Island; because, in a short time, I found myself telling the Lieutenant that I had changed my mind and would go to the field with the company.
He told me that was the right decision. He said I was needed to help the other Marines. He told me we were going to Go Noi Island. He said we would come upon many booby traps and hard core NVA. I already knew this from stories I heard from other Marines who had been on Go Noi Island the summer before.
Go Noi Island had a bad reputation. The area in the dry season, the summer, wasn't really an Island, but a piece of high ground surrounded Son Thu Bon to the east and a dry river bed to the west. The area was populated with farmers sympathetic to the Viet Cong. The farmers by day, VC at night.
I think it was May 26, 1969, that we moved towards Go Noi Island in the middle of the night. We had been trucked from the compound outside of An Hoa to Liberty Bridge during the late afternoon. We then got some rest along the Son Thu Bon before we moved east under the cover of darkness.
We moved single file in the dark towards Go Noi Island. As we approached the area, the man on the point hit a booby trap. This would signal to the VC that we had arrived. AK fire broke out in a quick burst, sending us all flat on our bellies; but the fire was no more than an attempt to slow us down. It did.
We set up a hasty defense and waited for the medevac to come and get the wounded point man. While in this defense, it was hard to keep our eyes open. It was three or four in the morning; and we had been on the move for five or six hours, carrying heavy packs loaded with C-rations and ammo, including more than our share of grenades and full canteens of water.
When the medevac had arrived and departed with the wounded Marine, we got moving again or we thought everyone started moving again. But this wasn't true.
In the morning, it was discovered that the combat engineer attached to Mike Company was missing. No one could account for him, other than he was with us when we had set up the defense in the night. No one could say that he moved out with us when we got on the move again. For a day or two, we would patrol back to where he was last accounted for.
On May 28, two days after his disappearance, his mutilated body would be found in the bottom of a bomb crater. Rumors would pass around that he had been skinned alive some and scalped and that his eyes had been poked out. These rumors festered anger and at the same time, fear inside me.
We moved no where on Go Noi Island without first napalming the tree lines and villages before us. Sporadic AK fire was a common occurrence. We constantly had shadows moving about in the tree lines before us. On the morning of May 27, we began to move into a tree line which camouflaged a small village. Off to the right, without warning, came an enormous explosion, a flash... BOOM!
Dirt and dust and screaming and whistling sounds of shrapnel filled the air; and in the dust, I saw something thrown into the air and fall back to earth. It was the body of one of my squad members, John Kirchner from Wisconsin. I yelled out to him but knew inside he was gone.
To my left, I saw a friend of mine, Dewey from Pennsylvania, bleeding from the jaw. A stream of blood was flowing under great pressure, and he was staring at me in disbelief. He walked towards me; and in his shock said, "Did you just sucker punch me?"
I was shaking inside at the sight of what I thought was a Marine bleeding to death; and I managed to say, "No, I didn't hit you. But you are hit. Corpsman up!"
And the corpsman came; and with ease, saved Dewey's life by simply putting a battle dressing against the heavy bleeding and holding it there. The whole time, Dewey had been spitting out blood, teeth, and bone from his mouth. Somehow he even managed a smile through his pain.
As for John Kirchner, he was gone beyond. We would put his body in a green rubber poncho and begin our walk with our dead and wounded towards the village in the tree line. To insure our safety, we would grab a villager, a female teenager, and have her walk point for us, as we believed she knew where other booby traps would be.
And we were right; but what happened was that when she came upon one, she didn't have it inside her to die for her cause. Instead of stepping on the booby traps, she side stepped some and missed the booby traps; but the Lieutenant didn't understand what she had done. Instead of following in her foot steps, he walked straight ahead, even as I yelled out to him to stop; and, boom, another booby trap was blown.
The Lieutenant was lucky, damn lucky. The booby trap was more sound than shrapnel, yet he and his radioman would be peppered with hot burning metal and also need to be medevaced.
I would come to grab the teenage villager by the hair and throw her forward, then stick the muzzle of my M-16 between her shoulder blades and push her along. Without a word, I wanted her to understand that if we hit another booby trap, she'd be killed; and there was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't have pulled the trigger. In fact, it took all I had inside to keep from killing her right then and there in revenge for John Kirchner's death, in revenge for my friends still dead in the mountains.
As we passed through the village, I heard women and children crying in that singy-song, high-pitched Vietnamese language that no one, no Marine, that is, could understand. They wanted us to think they cared for us, for our dead; but I thought different.
I moved inside one of the huts and stood locked and loaded above women and children down on their haunches. I pitied the filthy sight before me. I screamed inside for revenge. I was never so angry and yet so sad in my life. I just wanted to blow away all that had happened before me.
And, if I thought by killing these people it would bring life back to John Kirchner, back to Sergeant Thompson, Merriweather, Christianson, Freeman, Johnston, and even myself, then I would have just squeezed the trigger and had them appear. But, deep inside my mind, deep inside the core of who I am, I knew this couldn't happen.
I turned away from the women and children and cried enormous tears for my dead friends. And I remember wiping these tears with my hands, mixing the dirt on my face with my tears, and feeling relieved for not adding to the carnage before me.
Strange as it may seem, even to this day, sometimes I wish I had killed all the women and children; and other times, I am so grateful for whoever or whatever it is that brings a sense of sanity to us during an unsane time.
(A corpsman, Doc Pyle, would die as he ran to the call of "Corpsman up!" as he ran to help wounded Marines maimed by a booby trap. As always, booby traps came in twos and threes so as to kill and wound others coming to the aide of those taken down by the initial blast.)
30 May 69
Well, got a chance to write again. The gooks haven't given us much chance to put our heads up, but today we have a cease fire because of Budda's birthday. I hope they obey the cease fire for awhile.
I'm sorry the last letter I wrote was so short, but I had to have it on that chopper to get it out.
Well, the temperature has been pretty hot over here the last few weeks. Would you believe about 95 in the shade and about 110-115 degrees in the sun? After awhile you learn to live with it.
I forgot all about Cheryl's birthday; so, take out $10 and buy her something, okay?
The rumor is, 5th Marines will be leaving Vietnam in July and either go to Okinawa or California. That would be great and mean I only would have a month and a half left in Vietnam. But like I said, it's only a rumor.
Well, Tommy and Marsha should be out of school pretty soon. I bet they are looking forward to it; but Mom and Dad ain't.
Well, I can't think of anything more to say except, don't worry and be good.
There always seemed to be a rumor floating around about how the 5th Marines would be leaving Vietnam before my tour of duty was over, and I would always passed this rumor on to my family; but I never really believed that the 5th Marines would ever get out of Vietnam. I mean, never. In my mind I had no vision of the war ever ending. To me, it seemed like other guys would replace those either killed or those lucky enough to go home after their tour was over. Yes, I was feeling pretty hopeless at this time; and it would grow worse.
How I still managed to think about my family back in the world is beyond me; but I know now that whatever thoughts I could muster of them, these thoughts were keeping me sane in the sense of what sanity was back in the world. And yet, my thoughts of not wanting to die, not wanting to fight, were making me insane among my fellow Marines. I have since learned that insanity sometimes is no more than being out of step with those who surround you, even if they themselves are insane. I was becoming lost in my thoughts.
03 June 69
Well how's everything back home? I hope everything is fine. From my temperature report, you can see we are really in the heat. By 1:00 this afternoon, it should be about 105-110 degrees; plus the humidity is up to about 80%. The heat really gets to you.
Well we've been sitting along the same river for the last 3 days and got 7 more to do. We are acting as a blocking force as the 7th Marines sweep the gooks up towards us.
Well got to go for now, but just wanted to let you know I'm doing fine. Only 5 1/2 months left.
Mike company was dug in along the Son Thu Bon. The river bank was about ten feet above the level of the water. The water was brown with silt. One morning we went swimming in the river, taking turns swimming while others stood watch keeping an eye out for the enemy. While swimming, I submerged and swam underwater through some weeds and snuck up on a friend of mine; and, as a practical joke, I grabbed his ankle and surfaced right in his face. I'm lucky to be alive; because, when I came up for air, I was staring down the barrel of my friend's forty-five. He was screaming at me, "You damn idiot, I nearly blew you away. You damn idiot."
He didn't talk to me the rest of the day. And when I started to think about how foolish I had been, it started to sink in to my mind that I really had come close to dying because of my fooling around.
I have gotten together with this Marine over the years, and he still remembers the day he almost blew me away.
05 June 69
Dear Mom, Dad, Tommy and Marsha,
Received 2 letters from you on the 30th and 31st of May. Well, it sounds like summer has come to Quincy, finally. In a way I'd like to see a little bit of snow. Today wasn't too bad, it was only 102.
Well, we are still sitting on the river waiting for gooks. Today we killed an NVA officer and a NVA girl. They were in the act of, "you know what;" but, after you see your buddies killed, you get revenge anyway we can.
We also burned a village down and killed about 20 pigs. Plus, somehow, a little kid got in the way of a round. Tough shit!
I just wrote Cheryl and Bobby. Plus I got a letter from Paul Diaz and told him he could come up and see you people and maybe you could show him some of my pictures. Okay?
Let me tell you about my other girl. She's from the Bronx in New York and works for TWA Airlines. She's a ticket agent and has blond hair, 5'3", and blue eyes. She's out of this world and is something Daddy, Grandpa, Gus, and Arthur would whistle at as she went by, like they use to do when Annie walked by on Utica Street. Oh, her name is Lynn White. When I come home, she's going to fly up to see me, and I'll probably fly down to New York while I'm on leave.
Well got to go for now, but will write later.
Love you all, Paul
While we were set in along the Son Thu Bon, we would patrol he area around us during the day to keep the enemy on their toes. There were small villes all over Go Noi island, nestled in the tree lines. This area may have been serene many years ago; but, with the war, Go Noi island was pock marked by years of air strikes. There were Vietnamese civilians, woman and children in these scattered villes, but never any teenaged children; for, if there were, they would have been detained as VC suspects and sent to Da Nang for questioning.
The story of the NVA Officer and NVA was told to me by other Marines that had gone out on a patrol. Many times, Marines would come back with stories of what happened or I would be listening to the radio and hear messages about fighting taking place or other actions; and then, when the Marines involved came back into the perimeter, I'd ask questions. Always curious to find out more of what went on.
The story, if I remember it right, was that a patrol had stopped to rest; and, where one of the Marines had sat was actually right on top of a trap door covered by sand. The trap door covered over a fighting hole dug in the ground. The Marine could see sand seeping around the edges of the door.
With his hand, he began to move around the sand, then started to clear the sand away, and discovered the wooden trap door. He then flipped the cover off the hole; and, the rumor I heard was that in the small hole in the ground was an NVA soldier and a Vietnamese girl. They were supposedly nude. The rumor was that they were in the act of making love when the Marines on patrol shot them dead.
On Go Noi Island, we were constantly receiving sniper fire; yet, most of the time, again, there were only woman and children who never seemed to loose their smile. On many occasions, after being sniped at, the word would be passed to burn the villes and kill the livestock. Where the people would go is beyond me. They were not our concern. I can only think about how angry people were inside these villages as we burned and killed livestock; and how, at night or even during the day when they knew they could go undetected ding it, they would snipe at us with their weapons or plant booby traps that would kill and maim us. Our aggressiveness only seemed to make these people harder, and yet their hardness only seemed to make us more vicious. Vietnam was becoming an endless, hopeless circle.
As for the small child, again I heard about it second hand; but I remember when I did, it didn't phase me at all. By now, I didn't care if we killed all the Vietnamese. It would have been easier than trying to sort which ones we were suppose to be helping, which ones were on our side, from the ones that were trying to kill me. They all looked alike with their devious smiles.
I would continue to get letters from my sister Cheryl and her husband Bob. When I could, I'd write them. I have no idea what I use to tell them. If I had been honest with them, I probably would have said that I was slowly going crazy.
09 June 69
Well things are still the same here but the nights are a little different, as 2 nights ago, we got overrun. My squad managed to hold the gooks off, but the 3rd platoon didn't have the same luck and lost 11 guys. When the sun came up, we had 2 bodies; and we figure the gooks dragged away many. I am now the owner of an NVA belt.
There's a chance that I might be put up for corporal, meritoriously. Right now, we don't have any corporals in the bush. I hope so because that would mean more money.
Well we've been out on this operation 15 days now. I figure about another 30, and it should be over.
Got to go for now, but at least you know I'm safe.
The night we got overrun, I had been on watch sitting on the back edge of a fighting hole dug into what was known as the railroad berm, part of the old French railroad which no longer existed. The steel tracks and railroad ties were long gone and probably being used to reinforce enemy bunkers somewhere in Vietnam. All that remained were the track beds, and they had fighting holes dug into them all up and down the berm which ran for miles from the Son Thu Bon to the Que Son mountains.
This night, I was fighting off sleep. We had been on the move all day in the vicious heat. Where we had been set in along the Son Thu Bon for 10 days or more, we vacated or were relieved by another company of Marines; so we moved up to the railroad berm. Again, the heat was unbearable for this forced march. At least, when we arrived at the berm, we didn't have to dig in. We just took up our positions in the previously dug holes.
It was around 3:00am on June 6th or 7th. My head was nodding badly. My eyes were coming out of my skull. I was beyond exhaustion trying to figure out whether to really try and stay awake or succumb to the desire to fall asleep. I actually was listening to a small transistor radio with an earplug plugged into one ear, listening to AFVN radio from Da Nang playing rock music.
As my eyes closed and opened one more time, as my head nodded up and down, I saw something move to my front, down below the berm. A slight reflection. There was moonlight that night. The moon had reflected off the cheekbone of someone crawling on their stomach below my fighting hole.
I stared in disbelieve as this cheekbone became a whole person before my eyes. This person crawled ever so slowly, moving one leg, then one arm, then the other leg, the other arm; crawled like a crab.
My buddies, who I shared the fox hole with, were close by; but not close enough that I could wake them without alerting the enemy soldier. I continued to stare as he moved ever so slowly, going from my right to my left. Real slow he was. Deliberate in his movements. So was I.
I moved to get my M-16. I thumbed the safety to semi-automatic as I slowly shouldered my weapon. I had to stand a little tall to be able to shoot down upon the enemy. Having been trained how to sight a weapon when firing at night, I aimed over the top of the barrel not through the rifle sights. Having a good aim on the enemy still moving slowly, I squeezed the trigger; and the world flashed in front of me. I squeezed the trigger maybe 7-8 times, always aiming down at where the enemy had been. I was blinded by the muzzle flash and no longer could make out the shape of what I had been shooting at; but, in my mind, there was no question that I had been shooting at someone moving before me.
The night came to life with my shooting. Everybody woke. Radios came to life. The captain wanted to know what was going on. I passed the word that I had movement to my front. Just about now, the enemy came to life, too, firing AK and automatic weapons at us. The sky was filled with green and purple tracers from their weapons. I saw tracers go right over my head.
We fired illumination rounds into the sky to light up the battlefield before us. I saw shadows of the enemy moving all about. I fired more, and my muzzle flash drew return fire. More purple and green tracers went overhead. Then below me, I saw another enemy soldier crawling to where I had figured the first soldier laid dead or wounded. Those of us in my fighting hole started throwing grenades down at this soldier. We threw them as fast as we could until we ran out. We also blew every claymore mine we had in place, as I started to see what seemed like hundreds of enemy to our front running in and out of the shadows moving towards our hole.
At some point, the captain came on the radio and told me I better have bodies in front of my fighting hole in the morning or else. He was questioning whether I had really seen the enemy or was I just shooting and throwing grenades and blowing claymores in a panic or staged fire fight. And so, the war took on a new purpose. No longer did I fight the enemy for the South Vietnamese or America. I fought to prove I was not crazy, was not seeing things in the dark.
The enemy fought the rest of the night until dawn trying to recover their dead lying in front of my hole. At one time, I heard metal ringing out as grappling hooks were being thrown towards the enemy as they tried to hook their dead, allowing them to pull them back.
As dawn came, the battlefield before me was a sea of gunpowder, smoke, and fog. The fighting was over. The enemy had withdrew. I was not certain whether there were dead in front of my hole, but there had to be. No way could the enemy have recovered their dead. I kept staring to where I figured the dead should be but couldn't make out any bodies. More light came as the sky brightened in the east. Still no bodies. As the sun first peaked above the horizon, I began to make out what looked like a clumps of dirt. As I continued to stare down, two bodies began to take shape.
The Lieutenant had me take five or six Marines with me down to where the bodies were. The enemy was mangled; and yet, one of them was still alive. Despite missing an eye, the one alive was able to blink with the other one. He had gapping wounds all over his body. I yelled up to the Lieutenant who was standing on the berm that we had two enemy soldiers. One dead, one very close to it.
A corpsman was sent down to us. He looked at the wounded enemy and said he was close to dead. I passed this word to the Lieutenant. The word was passed back to put the soldier out of his misery. I'm not sure who fired the shot, but one was fired; and the wounded soldier was now dead. Two confirmed dead. What Captain Burns would call "foot on chest kills."
I knelt beside the dead and removed a belt from one of the soldiers. It was an NVA belt with a red star in the middle of belt buckle. A prize possession. Something to be proud of. A belt I would wear, and everyone who saw it knew the owner had a confirmed kill. (When I returned to the rear, I would get drunk one day and trade away this prized belt for a cold case of beer to some office worker in An Hoa. He probably still has it today and tells war stories to his children about how he fought and killed gooks ... I kind of still wish I had the belt, but that's where drinking took me.)
I was never so proud of myself as when Captain Burns came to my fighting hole later that morning. "Sir, I wasn't playing a game last night."
He congratulated me and said he'd see to it that I was promoted. He even came up to my fighting hole the next night and sat with me for a few minutes and told me I had done a good job, that my alertness had helped save many Marines. Again, pride. I no longer felt like some high school dropout.
The third platoon had not been as lucky as the first platoon. They suffered many wounds and deaths. The enemy were able to sneak up on them. I'm not certain whether guys on watch had fallen asleep; but, if they had, I could never slight them, as I know I was so very lucky myself to have stayed awake and spotted the enemy. (Actually, as to my luck, I give credit to God for having saved my life.)
A Marine I had gone through training with back in the states was one of the wounded. I had heard an enemy chicom (grenade) had been thrown into his fighting hole and detonated. He supposedly lost both feet.
I remember also having to bury the two dead soldiers. We were not happy about having to dig graves in the hot sun, but the Captain had passed the word to do it. So, not far from where the dead laid, we dug one shallow grave in the sand, rolled the bodies into it, and covered them back over. We made two crosses out of bamboo and stuck them in the sand beside the grave. Back then, I never gave it any thought that the enemy probably were not even Christians; but I think the crosses made us feel better inside.
11 June 69
Well just finished swimming in the river we are set up near. We had a lot of fun down there, as there is a blown-up bridge that we've been jumping off.
Well the rumor is that Nixon is going to pull the 5th Marine Regiment out of Vietnam and back to Okinawa. This should be by the end of August.
The "Big People" who run this war have changed the operation, and word is that we are going back to An Hoa in about 3-5 days. I sure am glad because this has been a bad operation.
Well got to go for now but will write later on. I'm safe and sound and still going strong.
When I went back to Vietnam in 1990, I wanted to return to the railroad berm. To this day, I can still see it in my mind. I have a few maps of Vietnam that still show the rail line and where it crosses the Son Thu Bon. Back during the war, the bridge was blown down. When this had happened or who had done it was unknown to us Marines back in 1969. Fighting had taken place in this area between Marines and the enemy going back to at least 1965.
The bridge was a rusting, mangled, twisted array of steel, blown in the middle so that the rail bed now pitched downwards at an angle towards the muddy river. The angle was steep, but one could climb up and down without slipping.
One day, we set out security while we washed and swam in the river. After I was done, I climbed up on the blown bridge to the highest point I could get to and jumped from the bridge into the river below. I had jumped maybe from a height of 15-20 feet. It brought back memories of swimming in quarry holes back home where, as kids, we would jump from heights up to 70-80 feet. (It seems that at least one kid would drown each summer in a quarry hole back home ... kids still drown jumping in these quarry holes today.)
When I came to the surface, I heard the Captain yelling at me. He was tearing mad saying, "What are you trying to do, kill yourself? You have no idea how deep the water is or if there is steel beams beneath the water."
I tried to tell the Captain I knew what I was doing because I swam in quarries back home, but again he yelled that he wasn't going to have some Marine die doing something stupid or foolish. As for the depth of the water, I knew it was deep enough (how I knew I don't remember); but the Captain was right -- there could have been steel beneath the surface of the water. Gives me shivers today thinking about having my body impaled upon a steal rod.
Another thing I remember about being set in near the blown bridge and the river is that I found small, fresh-water clams along the river's shore. The clams were no bigger than my thumbnail, but they reminded me of the clam flats back home and how we used to dig clams and steam them.
I gathered a handful of these tiny, fresh-water clams; got some water boiling in a canteen cup; and steamed the clams until the shells opened just like salt-water clams would have back home. I then sat and had myself a very, small feast of steamed clams. Even without drawn butter or the fact they were small in size and not salt-water clams, I remember they tasted surprisingly good.
Another thing I remember about being set up along the river is that the day after we were attacked in the middle of the night by the enemy, a helicopter landed; and 5-6 new guys raced out of the back of the helicopter. I stared at them for a second, then went back to doing whatever it was when all of a sudden, one of the new guys was standing above me. He said, "Hi."
I remember staring up at him thinking what the hell was this new guy saying "Hi" to me for. "I'm Marshall," he said.
"Who?" I said.
"Marshall. Mike Marshall."
I was bewildered. What did I care what his name was. But when he said "Marshall. I sat behind you in math," I came to life. Before me was a kid I had gone to high school with. He sat behind me in Room 208 where we took basic math in our senior year of high school. I didn't really know him that well in high school but did know him by looks.
It was so strange to be talking to someone from home, from high school, in Vietnam, especially the day after the fire fight in the night. I remember showing Marshall my NVA belt. I remember telling him also that Vietnam sucked and that there was a good chance we'd die here. I remember spending an hour or so together talking about back home, then he was called away as he was assigned to Third Platoon to replace the dead and wounded from the previous night. I didn't see him in Vietnam again, as he would be wounded (and not while fighting the enemy).
At night, grunt companies would set out three-man teams in front of their lines. They were called Listening Posts or more commonly, LPs. We were usually told to go out 500 meters in front of our lines and listen for movement. LPs were suppose to give an early warning that the enemy was moving towards the company perimeter. Again, only three men and not dug in. And if the enemy came, most likely these three men would be outnumbered.
No one really liked going out on LPs, and very seldom did anyone ever go out as far as they were told to go. 500 meters was a long way and a long run back to the perimeter if the enemy came, so most guys went out less distance, maybe 300 meters; but they wouldn't let the CP (command post; Captain) know it.
I don't think Marshall was with Mike Company more than a week when he and two others were sent out in front of the 3rd Platoon one night as the LP. I remember this night. I was on watch in my fighting hole, still on the railroad berm. Listening to the radio, I heard someone trying to contact the 3rd Platoon LP for a radio check. This procedure of checking the LP via the PRC25 was supposed to occur every 15 minutes. As the 3rd Platoon CP continued to try and raise the LP on the radio, there continued to be no answer. The Captain was notified of this. I remember thinking they had fallen asleep out on the LP; but, then again, there was always the chance that the enemy had crept up on them and slit their throats.
The Captain ordered a few illumination rounds fired out towards the supposed position of the LP to see if this alerted or stirred the LP. As the illumination floated back down to earth, there was still no answer from the LP over the radio. The Captain then ordered an HE (high explosive) round (60mm mortar round) fired short of the expected position of the LP. He wanted the round fired out about 300 meters thinking the LP was 500 meters out. This would have had the HE round landing about 200 meters from the LP.
The round was fired, and I remember hearing it explode. The radio came to life. The LP needed help they said. They were wounded. They said the gooks had thrown a chicom or something at them. They were screaming that they needed a corpsman. Little did they know that the round that had wounded them wasn't a chicom from the enemy but a mortar round fired by their own side. The round was never intended to hit them, only to wake them. Had they been out to where they were suppose to have been, 500 meters, they only would have been woken up by the exploding mortar round.
In the morning, I went down to the area of the 3rd Platoon. I was talking with someone I knew there. He was talking about the LP and how the three Marines were wounded. He said one of those hit was a new guy in country. When I heard that, my body tingled. I asked him if he knew the name of the new guy; and he said, "Yes, Marshall."
It was as if, when I started to walk towards the area of the 3rd Platoon, I knew I was going to hear that Marshall had been wounded, though I didn't even know he was out on the LP.
I asked about the wounds and was told that one Marine had his guts blown open and another had taken shrapnel to his face and body. The wounded Marines had been medevaced, so I didn't get to see Marshall or what condition he actually was in.
In time, I forgot about Marshall. In Vietnam, it was easy to forget the wounded. They were pushed out of my mind. But five months later, after I returned home to the world, I came upon Mike Marshall again or he came upon me.
I was home on leave from Vietnam. I was standing in line at a local hamburger stand, getting something to eat, when I heard someone say my name. I turned, and there before me was Marshall. His face was scarred real bad. We shook hands as he said, "I see you made it home."
I said, "Yes."
I then looked at him and said, "Is that what happened to you back there?"
I was talking about his face and Vietnam. "No," he said, "I went through the windshield of my car recently."
To this day, I don't know whether Marshall had really been in an auto accident after getting home from Vietnam or if he was trying out on me what might be his life-long story. I don't remember much else that was said that night. I know we did not spend any time together that night. It was as if Marshall didn't want to talk about Vietnam at all, and he went off with the guys he was with; and I went off with my friends.
I have never seen Marshall again or heard anything about him, but I do think about him often. Sometimes I think of looking him up; but then again, I think I might be the last person on earth he would want to see, especially if he lives thinking he went through the windshield of his car.
19 June 69
Received the package from you and Ma and Grandpa's, too, on the 12th. They came in handy, as after eating C-Rations for awhile, stateside chow comes in real nice.
I'm 19 now; but, after being over here, I feel 25. I sure hope that next year I can be home for my birthday.
Once again, my hair is over my ears; plus, because of the hot, direct sun, my hair is pure blonde.
Well, we are still on this operation; and tomorrow we are suppose to get choppered up to Alligator Lake for a vacation. Ha! They have made sightings of 300-500 gooks there, so we ought to have our work cut out for us.
Well got to go for now.
PS. Thank Ma and Grandpa
I turned 19 years of age while sitting in a foxhole on top of the railroad berm. My parents had sent me some canned frosting in the last package of goodies I had received from them and even a birthday candle. For my birthday, I frosted a C-ration, pound cake and stuck the candle in it.
I'm not sure if any of the other guys celebrated my birthday with me or not or if I had this small celebration to myself; for, by this time, I was keeping to myself in Vietnam. I was having less and less to do with anyone other than what was required of me to do my duties as a squad leader. I do remember talking a lot with the corpsman, but that really only added up to whether I was going crazy or not, for I started to believe I was.
At night, while on watch, I was starting to have anxiety attacks, thinking I wouldn't live to see the next sunrise. These attacks were horrible and led me every morning to the corpsman who said I'd be all right, that I was just tired. He added that everyone was. I remember also after I'd asked him to tell me what he really thought of what was going on with me and what I was all about, he said, "You are just a little hyperactive."
What that added up to, I'm not too sure; but I remember those words to this day.
This would be the last letter I would write for almost three weeks. We would go in pursuit of the enemy. More friends would die. And I would think I was going out of my mind and would end up in a "nut ward" in Da Nang .....
9 July 69
Sorry I haven't written lately. I was wondering if you were notified of me going to the hospital for battle fatigue or combat stress. Well, I'm out of the hospital now and back with the company.
We just came back from a 48-hour R&R at China Beach, Da Nang, and had a good time. You could have all you wanted to drink, and I put away 2 cases of beer. I was really feeling good.
Well, I'm going on R&R again. It's for Japan, but I'm going to try and change it to Bangkok. It's from the 30th of July - August 6th. So between the 15th and 18th, send me $250. I'm going to make this an inexpensive trip.
Well you talk about the heat. Today is cool out; it's only 105. I am tanned completely all over. I weigh 150 lbs., and I am 70" tall. So I really haven't lost too much weight.
Well got to go but will try and write tomorrow.
PS. I'll try and write more often. Sorry.
PPS. I'm in good condition.
PPPS. Only about 120 days left.
Many people have been asking "where are the rest of your letters." The rest of the letters are hidden behind this one. This is the letter, these were the times, this was the part of Vietnam that crippled me inside.
Today, April 13, 2000, while walking my dog and trying not to think, trying not to cling onto thoughts or ideas running through my mind, it came to me, seeped in, filled my mind that I need to move on, to progress with my letters so I may be free.
I am filled with anguish; but to the naked eye of others, they do not know. I do not think an autopsy after my final breath will ever show any signs of the anguish carried from Vietnam. Let me try to explain in words what went on during the three weeks I did not write to my family back home.
Rumors were flying every day that Mike Company was going back to An Hoa. Then one day the word was passed that a recon unit had detected, through some sort of electronic surveillance, large groups of enemy troops moving at night through a valley. Six hundred or more every night. That was the word; so one day in the middle of June, Mike Company saddled up and moved along the old French railroad berm towards the Que Son Mountains.
I remember we moved through several different valleys. Some of these valleys were just beautiful. One didn't even seem to have a single pockmark in it. In my mind today I think there were even wild flowers growing. But I also remember the beauty didn't last as someone tripped a booby trap and got an ass full of shrapnel. I remember walking by the wounded Marine that was being treated, remember seeing the pepper holes in his ass and backside, remember sort of wishing it was me who got wounded so the misery in my mind and in my body could end.
Late in the day we set up in a defensive perimeter and waited for darkness. We would make a company movement up and over a set of foothills and descend down into the next valley over and lay in wait and hopefully ambush the enemy who continued to travel through this valley. Word continued to feed down to all that the enemy had been pretty predictable, that between 3 and 4 in the morning, they moved through the valley from Go Noi Island up into the Que Sons.
Just after dusk the company began to move out. The 1st platoon had the tail end. As we crossed over the foothills and began the descent into the valley below, our tail-end-Charlie opened fire. He had turned behind him and saw a Vietnamese following, and so he shot. I remember hearing a rumor or such that the Vietnamese was actually an old farmer, non-combatant, who was just following us out of curiosity. Regardless, he was killed.
When we came into the valley, the different platoons began to set up the ambush. My squad along with the rest of the 1st platoon was not set in a very well protected way. We were nearly out in the open, five or ten yards away from a trail. Some Marines from 1st platoon were set in so they were facing right down the trail, so we were almost in an L-shaped ambush.
I was asleep when the Marine I was with woke me to say the word had been passed over the radio that movement had been spotted coming down the trail. Many, many. Word was passed not to open fire. Not to open fire?
Not to open fire?
I could not believe it. I thought we were being told to hold our fire until we knew the enemy was in our killing zone. It wasn't long before we started seeing the silhouettes of the enemy with their conical-shaped hats. And we could hear their footsteps as they stepped on a board, a small bridge or something.
Do not fire. Do not open up. Hold your fire. The radio was buzzing with all sorts of reports. Everyone had spotted the enemy now; and yet, the word was to hold your fire.
More silhouettes. More footsteps on the wooden board almost like a slapping sound. We had to turn the radio way down. The enemy was so close we didn't even dare whisper. We didn't even dare move; but, running through my mind the whole time was the phrase, "Element of surprise."
To this day I think we could have kicked ass. We could have fulfilled the motto "Get Some." We could have revenged the death of many Marines. But it was not to happen. Disciplined Marines listened to their officers and did what they were told ... "Hold your fire."
For close to an hour, silhouettes passed only yards away from our positions. The enemy never knew we were there. I actually dozed off, in and out, during this time. I actually began to say, "Fuck this war."
Damn, came to fight; and when we had the chance, we blew it. Do you know how many ambushes I had been on at night when nothing, no one, ever appeared. All the false bullshit about how the VC would be passing by never happened. The nights of lying in ambush in the rain, the nights of getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and no one came; and now the chance to make good, and we blew it. Yes, even today I call it the blown ambush.
In the morning the valley came to life. There were broncos overhead circling looking for where the enemy might have gone. Helicopters began bringing supplies and the Brass. I was questioned by a Major as to why I did not open fire. I told him because I was ordered not to. Just following orders. And then I added it was a shame we were out in the open.
I talked to one of the corpsman on this day and told him I thought I was going crazy. I was paranoid. I was growing anxious. I had no idea what the war was about anymore. We had a chance to kick ass and let the chance slip away, and then I get some Major asking me what went wrong. "Sir, if I had my way, we would have opened up and utilized the famous element of surprise."
I told the Lieutenant that the war was full of shit. I don't remember what he said because I was no longer listening. I was going inside myself. I was beginning to quit, to shutdown.
To my disbelief, my squad was sent out along with the Lieutenant on ambush the next night along the same trail but set up in a better defensive way. I said to the Lieutenant, "Do you really think the enemy is that stupid, that they will come again knowing we are here?"
Not sure what his answer was. No one was trying to answer my questions anymore. I was probably the most frustrating thing to them all. I was growing sane in an insane place. And when one becomes sane, becomes the only one sane in an insane place, the sane person is the one who appears insane.
I never wanted to explain the war or what we did, but what I have stated above is the crux of all society for me. Never forget it.
The enemy did not come back the next night. I knew they wouldn't. It was so stupid to think they would. Can you feel the cynic here? That is how I became. Cynical but kept it to myself. And paranoid too thinking the Captain might simply have me killed if I continued verbalizing my thoughts.
The next few days we patrolled up into the Que Sons. We came upon caves, reinforced bunkers, and bamboo huts signaling another base camp like the one during Operation Taylor Common. We found medical supplies like stainless steel bedpans and bandages, both new and used. We found a small, hand-cranked, electric generator with Russian writing on it and a field radio with Chinese writing on it. And we discovered several Vietnamese in a cave. They were wounded, maybe left behind for dead. I passed this word along and the next message was from the gunnery sergeant. "Put them out of their misery."
To this day, I'm not sure if it was because I couldn't do it, couldn't kill them, or if the gunnery sergeant was just too impatient. He was yelling, "Do it! I haven't heard anything yet. Do it!"
Next, he was yelling for me and a few others to get out of the cave; and, as we left, he went in; and I heard several shots fired. End of story. Nothing was ever mentioned again.
On the first day we discovered this base camp/hospital, we only spent the daylight hours there. We moved down out of the base camp for the night and returned the next day. The next day was different.
The next day while moving towards the base camp, small arms fire broke out somewhere to our right. One of the other platoons of Mike Company was ambushed. I think a Marine was killed and a few others wounded. I do know that one of the wounded had a bullet lodged in his arm. I got to talk to him. I remember he said the wound didn't really hurt. Again, I wished it was me who had been wounded so I could be sent to the rear and to safety.
We spent the night in the base camp. I'm not quite sure of the time frame; but after the Marine was killed, a medevac was called to take out the wounded and the dead. When the helicopter made its approach, AK fire broke out and the helicopter had to retreat. And when a patrol tried to move up a trail, it was ambushed. When another patrol tried to move back to where we came from days before, they too were ambushed. It was starting to sink in to everyone; we were surrounded.
The next day another patrol tried to move outside the base camp area and got ambushed. I believe they said a ground attack was coming. It was at this time the word was passed for all of us to take cover, as close air support was about to bomb very close to our positions.
I took cover in a cave. I huddled in the dark. The jets came screaming in; and, just after you heard their jet roar, the earth shook; and the concussions left our ears ringing. One screaming jet after another, one enormous concussion, on and on and on. I wondered if it was ever going to stop. I even wondered if the jets were on target; and if they were on target, it meant the enemy was very close to our positions.
Finally, the bombing stopped; and the word was passed that it was okay to come out from our cover. I never planned it, never gave it any thought when I went into the cave; but while I was in there, something came over me. I decided I wasn't coming out from the cave. Never.
I thought I was playing a game in my mind. Thought I could change my mind and just come out; but, when I tried, I couldn't budge an inch. No way was I coming out and taking part in any more Vietnam. I had had enough. I was finished.
A few Marines started talking to me while I was still in the cave. They said the word had been passed to come out. Who cared? I didn't. I was not coming out; and the more I said it, the more the thought sunk into my mind. The corpsman was called over along with the Lieutenant. Doc asked what my problem was.
"Not doing Vietnam anymore, Doc."
No one really yelled or ordered me out. The Lieutenant said I should come out, and people could help me. No way. I was not going to talk to anyone, not going to listen to anyone, not going to do it the Marine Corps way again. And I sure as hell wasn't going up any trail just to get ambushed and die. For what?
The Lieutenant tried to talk me out of this mindset of mine. I told him he did that once before, but I wasn't going to fall for it again. I had come to realize the war was senseless. Not just that one could get killed but, when we had a chance to kill the enemy, we didn't. Get some? Who was kidding whom?
The Lieutenant wanted to know if I was refusing to fight, refusing his direct command to come out of the cave. Yes, I was. "Kill me if you want. What's the difference because we all are going to die anyway."
I told him I no longer was a part of anything. I no longer wanted to be a squad leader. I was not going up any trail either by myself or with anyone else. Day after day, pointmen were being killed. Senseless.
The next day Mike Company attempted to move out from the base camp area again. 1st platoon had the point. The Marine I figured took my place after I quit Vietnam was with the point element. His name was Terry Householter. I was the last man of 1st platoon in the column because I was a nothing now. I had asked the Lieutenant where I should fall in; and I remember him saying, "I don't care where you fall in, don't care even if you come along with us."
I was empty inside but would feel even worse when I heard the AK fire break out in the direction of the point. Before I even heard what had happened, before I had heard the names, I knew inside Terry Householter was dead. And I died with him.
I wanted to get up so badly and charge forward and save him or whoever had been hit. I wanted to change everything that had happened in the past. I wanted to be a hero; yet, I didn't want to die. So, I laid still on the trail while others ran forward to help the wounded. This is the anguish I bear. Another man died in my place.
1st Medical Battalion, Da Nang --
The ward was clean. I was lying on a mattress with sheets on it. I had my head on a pillow. There was even a pillowcase. I was alive somewhat. I had survived. Mike Company had made it safely out of the base camp but only by hacking a trail through the jungle where no one could be waiting for us. Thick, thick, green, thorny, tangled vines.
And, as we left the base camp behind, we had spread CS gas crystalline everywhere. And when we had gotten a safe distance from the base camp, jets roared in and bombed the site so as to stir up the CS gas so no one could follow us. This was all a memory to me now as I laid in the "nut ward" in Da Nang. I had finally gotten what I had wished for. I had finally made it to the nut house where I felt I belonged.
What a horrible feeling. To be a coward. To be a United States Marine and yet to be a coward. I lay on my side for a day or two so I wouldn't have to look at corpsman, but what was in my sight were other Marines behind bars. They were sectioned off from me. Some of them were strapped in their beds. One of them should have been strapped because all he seemed to do was masturbate and yell out, "Look at me."
Finally a corpsman sat beside me and said, "You are not one of them."
I told him I didn't know who or what their problems were, but my problem was I wanted out of the bush. I had seen enough. I wanted no more. I didn't want to die.
I was sent to see a psychiatrist, a shrink, while I was at 1st Med. I think he told me I was tired and needed a rest. I told him I was tired and needed to go home. He said going home was out of the question, but maybe he could get me an R&R. I told him I would settle for a job in the rear. I told him a lot of my friends who were still alive had gotten jobs in the rear. I'd do mess duty, burn shitters, do anything; but I wasn't going back to the bush. I'm not sure what he said to all of that other than he arranged for me to go on R&R and sent me to see a chaplain.
The Chaplain asked me what my problem was. I told him I didn't want to die. He said no one wanted to die; but, as a Marine, I had a job to do. I told him I was still willing to be a Marine but wanted to be a Marine in the rear. Other friends of mine are in the rear now. Why not me?
He said, "Marine, if every guy who was afraid of dying was given a job in the rear, who do you think would do the fighting?"
Hand salute. Aye, aye, sir. About face.
To this day I have trouble with the Bible as it is written. But I am very spiritual and believe I know more than any clergy does when it comes to life and death, and life and death is what life is all about.
Thank God for other Marines that have survived, who have come forward to tell me I was not a coward, that I was not wrong. Remember, all of this happened way before PTSD was coined. Before I learned every man has a breaking point. Every man has feelings. Every man is fragile. My thanks go out to those who have helped me understand mankind.
If I had known this back then, I could have written my parents right away and told them I needed a rest and would be fine in a few days. But I was consumed with shame over feeling like a coward, and so I didn't write for weeks. And my poor parents must have died every night they didn't hear from me. Finally, they contacted the Marine Corps who contacted my Captain who chewed my ass out for putting my parents through needless anxiety.
And so, I wrote them the above letter.
48-Hour R&R at China Beach --
I don't think I had been back too long from 1st Medical Battalion when the word was passed. Mike Company was going to be trucked to Da Nang for a 48-hour stand down or R&R. Sounded great to me. More rest on top of the rest I got while I was in Da Nang.
The company boarded trucks in An Hoa. I remember we were out in the open sun. The weather was hot as hell. Beers were being passed around. Although the beer was hot, I remember sucking down all the beer I could get my hands on. Someone had some pills called "French Number 10s." I remember popping a couple of them into my mouth. Someone had said to only take one, but I downed two thinking the more the merrier.
The ride to Da Nang was hot and dusty, but we didn't care; we were getting out of the bush for a few days. The word was we would have all we wanted to eat and drink for 48 hours and wouldn't have to stand any watches. And we could swim in the ocean and sleep in beds on real mattresses, not "rubber ladies." And the threat of being attacked in any way was minimal, even close to being out of the question.
When we arrived at what was called "Stack Arms," we got down from the trucks. My knees buckled the second I hit the ground. I just flopped to the ground. I was both drunk and in a stupor from the pills. A couple of friends pulled me up by my arms and braced me so I looked like I was standing.
A company formation had been ordered. I remember, in slurred speech, complaining about how the Marine Corps had said we would have 48 hours off; and now we were out in the sun in formation. It seemed like we were standing in formation for hours; yet, actually, I had lost all sense of time.
While in formation, some Marines were presented with Bronze Stars for their actions during Operation Muskogee Meadows. Even in my drunken state, I remember feeling cheated inside as I watched others receive Bronze Stars; yet my award never materialized. Later on I would ask about my Bronze Star, only to be told that the award had been denied by the higher ups.
It wasn't that I had started this Bronze Star thing in the beginning; but, once I had been told I had been put in for it, and my hopes soared so high I couldn't wait to write home about it, well, needless to say, I was hurt inside watching the others get their Bronze Stars.
I do not remember the formation ending. I do not even remember being put to bed. All I remember is waking the next morning. I must have slept or been passed out for more than 16 hours. The combination of booze and pills had zonked me.
I woke lying in a bed with clean sheets and a pillow beneath my head. Heaven. For months my gas mask pouch with the gas mask inside had been my pillow. Even though I recently had been in Da Nang and had slept in a bed, I didn't rest as well as I had this night. Maybe it was because of the booze and pills. Or maybe it was because I was with Mike Company and not some strange "nut cases" in Da Nang.
For two days we ate, drank, and body surfed in the South China Sea. I was in and out of a drunken stupor most of the time. Maybe everyone was. I'm not certain, but I surely was. I remember smoking some pot, too, and even doing a little morphine. It was like a total cleansing of my mind and body. It seemed like no one was telling us what we could or couldn't do for these 48 hours. It was an absolute blowout.
Lance Corporal Terry A. Householter
17 Sep 48 - 23 June 69
There was a very long break in Paul's writing letters after Letter #59 above. In fact, Paul didn't send anything else to me until 2010 which starts with Letter #60 below. It is very understandable and, IMHO, found in these words quoted at the first above in Paul's "Looking Back" to Letter #59:
"Many people have been asking 'where are the rest of your letters.' The rest of the letters are hidden behind this one. This is the letter, these were the times, this was the part of Vietnam that crippled me inside."
There is no right nor wrong way here - only at the Warrior's speed.
I know it's hard, Paul; but thank you for starting again. We have looked forward to these.
July 10, 1969
Well, it's another hot one. It's already 100 degrees and it's only 9:00 am.
I forgot to tell you, but I tried to call you on the 5th between 9:30-10:15 am, your time, but there was no answer. Oh well, I'll try some other day.
I want you to give both Tommy and Marsha $5 each for their birthday. I forget their dates, but I think as long as they get their money they won't care.
Well got to get ready for a patrol, but as long as you get a letter you know I'm alive.
PS. I still receive the Quincy Sun and Playboy.
Whether it was my parents back home or just that I remembered my brother and sister's birthday, I wanted them to have some sort of a present from me.
As for the local newspaper, The Quincy Sun, and my subscription to Playboy, I believe my Father often asked if I was still receiving my mail. I was.
As for the phone call, I believe I tried to call home from the MARS Station in either An Hoa or while I was in Da Nang at Stack Arms. Either way, there was no answer at home.