Red Clay Newsletter of the Veterans who served at Khe Sanh Combat Base, Hill 950, Hill 881, Hill 861, Hill 861-A, Hill 558 Khe Sanh Village, Lang-Vei and Surrounding Area

 

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MY KHE SANH EXPERIENCES

By James Dalto
Kilo Company 3/26 Hill 861

MED EVACTED

During the second week of February 1968, Lang Vei was overrun and a big, silver C-13O crashed and burned on the Khe Sanh airstrip. I was assigned to a working party to dig a foot-deep trench from our Platoon CP down in the main trench located at the Company CP on top of the hill. This small trench would, hopefully, protect the lima-lima line from shrapnel. The lima-lima line was simply a field telephone wire, or land line, which allowed instant communication between the Command Post. Shrapnel from enemy mortars had a habit of regularly clipping said wire and cutting off communications between the Command Post.

I was one of two men assigned the task. The other Marine assigned had been injured, and should have been in a hospital. He had become robot like, and had to be ordered to seek protection when we were being shelled. We decided that the safe way for us to accomplish the mission was to complete the task ASAP. We began digging like a pair of gophers and had finished about 25 feet when we were hit by incoming. None of us was hit by shrapnel but the concussion blew both of us into the trench line. The Marine that was helping me, struck an empty grenade case and suffered a deep gash across the bridge of his nose and was bleeding pretty bad. I landed on my head crushing my face and jaw and injuring my back teeth.

I remained conscious and there was a lull in the barrage. A few seconds later I could faintly hear Sergeant Strong hustling down the trench, yelling, "Is everyone OK? Is everyone OK?" like he always did after an attack, his concern for his men driving him to get help to anyone who needed it ASAP. When he observed us lying in the trench line he began yelling, "Ripple up, Ripple up the coded call for a Corpsman.” As soon as he left, mortar rounds started impacting in the trench. I was slowly regaining some of my faculties and noticed we were only a few yards away from gun bunker. After a few attempts, I was finally able to speak legibly, yelling out, "You! In the gun bunker! We need help” Sorry! We don't make house calls in weather like this", came the disappointing reply.

Though I still couldn't stand, I was by this time able to crawl, and angered by their response. I managed to crawl over my buddy's body. Then, using only my arms, lever his body over mine, closer to the door of the gun bunker. Three times I repeated this process, until I finally heaved him to the doorway. Two sets of arms immediately emerged, the hands grabbing the shoulders of his flak jacket and dragging him inside. I was completely spent, I couldn't even crawl. I was able to rollover onto my stomach, just enough for the men in the bunker to see one of my outstretched arms. A moment later, strong hands gripped my right wrist and I felt myself being pulled inside to safety. I felt a great surge of relief, and then promptly passed out.

The next several days were no fun for me at all. The conditions on 861 were bad and I soon developed a raging infec­tion in my gums. It was bad and the Head Corpsman determined I had to be med-evaced, ASAP. The weather gods, must have had it in for me, the cloud cover rolled in again, completely enclosing the LZ for days. By the time the LZ was usable again, I was feverish and disoriented and it took several attempts to get on a chopper. In fact, I don't even remember boarding any chopper.

I recall wandering around the main Khe Sanh base, looking for the dentist's office. This took quite some time, but I finally wandered into the dentist's office. A dentist administered Novocain and the pain went away. The dentist determined my crushed teeth and swol­len gums were combining to make it impossible for the doctor to be able to extract the infected teeth. The in­struments he needed had been destroyed in the shelling so he ordered me to be transferred to Dong-Ha for treatment. I reported to the Landing Zone Master, who informed me that there were no more aircraft flights due in that day; I'd have to come back the next morning.

I made my way to the Kilo Company rear area, near the Battalion Aid Station, checked in, and settled in for the night. Things were going fairly well until the Novocain wore off. The pain of half-extracted teeth caused me pain beyond the bounds of one's imagination. I spent that eternal night in what can only be described as hideous pain. So intense that I was actually begging people to shoot me, just to make it stop.

Morning finally came and some kind soul drove me down to the airstrip, where the LZ Master took one look at my evac tag and told me that there was a fixed wing due in shortly, and that I was to run onto it the moment it came to a stop. Even in my semi-delirious state, that sounded like the world's most excellent idea to me.

I waited in a large bunker full of other casualties, which was located adjacent to a widened area of the runway; a turnaround area. As we waited, members of the LZ party circulated among us, assigning teams of ambulatory casualties to individual stretcher cases, with instructions to carry said stretcher onto the plane once the LZ Master gave us the signal to move.

Despite my pain and delirium, I was able to reach deep down into my psyche and tap into the last of my physical and mental reserves. Crouching almost like a runner waiting for the starter's gun, I concentrated, focusing all my attention on the LZ Master in the doorway. The wait felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than 15 minutes. Suddenly, the LZ master was signaling us to move out, punctuating his hand movements by yelling, "Move. Move. Move." with each wave of his arm. Parris Island conditioning suddenly kicked in and I found myself up and moving in almost perfect coordination with the other men carrying our assigned stretcher. Out the door we burst, our ears assailed by the beautiful scream of turbo-prop engines. A camouflage painted C-123 loomed into view, dropping its rear ramp as it moved. The plane jerked to a stop just as the first of our gaggle reached the bottom of the loading ramp. Up and in we hustled, barely noticing the disembarking replacements moving past us.

Within moments, everybody was on board, the Crew Chief yelled into his microphone, and the plane jerked into motion, the rear ramp rising as we moved. The pilots hustled that big bird down to the end of the runway, wheeled it around like a Corvette pulling out of a drive-in diner, then, without stopping, pushed the throttles to the stops and we screamed down the strip. The landing gear banged over the seams of the Marston Matting at an ever quickening pace for a few seconds, then went silent as we broke free of the ground. Almost immediately the tail dropped as the pilots put the nose up and clawed that beast up into the sky. As the plane spiraled upward, I caught a last glimpse of Khe Sanh wheeling beneath us. Artillery fire was hitting the airstrip.

Relief seemed to melt my bones at this point, and I, as the saying goes, fell right through my ass, and collapsed to the deck next to my assigned stretcher. I revived somewhat a few minutes later, when the plane's crew began circulating among us, passing out packs of Marlboros, smiling and nodding, offering whatever non-verbal comfort they could. At that moment, I actually loved those guys. I damn near cried.

It then occurred to me that I had a full pack, 20 whole cigarettes. I ripped that pack open, jammed a Marlboro in my mouth, and fired that sucker up. I drew that first delicious drag deep into my lungs, reveling as the nicotine buzz coursed through me and started to dampen my shakes. Satisfied, I turned and grinned at the guy whose stretcher I'd helped carry. In response, he held up two fingers on his unbandaged hand in the wordless universal plea, "Hey buddy, can I get a smoke?" I hesitated a moment, noting the bandages swaddling his chest, then nodded. I pulled out another cigarette, lit it off my own, and gave it to him. We lay there together and chain smoked for the rest of the flight.

A short time later, the C-123 circled and began to descend, almost fluttering down to a nearly glass-smooth land­ing on some huge airstrip. Once we'd taxied to a halt, the engines shut down, and the ramp came down. I could see a bunch of ambulances and several helicopters parked along the tarmac. Air Force medics then hustled aboard and began to gently move us off the aircraft. My smoking buddy and I ended up together on a weird looking silver Air Force helicopter. It had two tilted rotors, mounted side-by-side on top, so the rotors moved through each other's arcs, like the blades of a mix master. As we lifted off, the thing flew weird; in a series of sort of juddering hops. It was a bit unsettling.

We didn't have much time to worry, in just a few minutes we were sitting on a helipad in front of what was obviously a hospital, a real big one. A stretcher-bearing party quickly hustled my smoking buddy away, while a Corpsman took me by the arm and led me into a nearby building. The blast of air conditioning that hit my face when the door opened almost floored me. My escort steadied me, led me over to what I assumed was a Corpsman, and helped me into a chair next to the desk. The Corpsman leaned over, grabbed my evac-tag, and carefully examined it. "You're not supposed to be here." he said. "Huh?" I replied, completely flummoxed. "This evac-tag says you should be in Dong Ha." "I'm not? Then where the hell am I?" "You're in DaNang this is the Naval Hospital at China Beach" he added, giving me a look reserved for gibbering idiots. "You have to get up to Dong Ha for treatment." "How do I do that?" I asked in desperation. "Not my problem." he replied, with the calloused tone of a born bureaucrat, and then waved me away in dismissal.

Crushed, almost overcome by despair, I rose to my feet and staggered away. I was so disoriented by this time that I headed in the wrong direction, toward a larger desk sitting by itself at the far end of the office, some tears of frustration coursing down my face. The man sitting behind the larger desk, a salty older Master Chief wearing crisply pressed khakis, noticed my distress. He rose, walked over to me and asked what was wrong. He patiently listened to my tale of woe and, with a sympathetic look in he eyes he reached out to touch my arm, his mouth opening to make his reply. The instant he touched my arm, however, his eyes widened in alarm and his hand flew up to my forehead.

"Holy Shit!” he exclaimed as the back of his hand touched my forehead, "This man is burning up! A second later he spoke again, the tone of command snapping out, "We're admitting this man, stat! Get him a seat. Detail somebody to get him a wheelchair and take him down to Dental Surgery! And, for God's sake, someone get him a cup of coffee!" In a blur of activity, I was lowered into a chair by gentle hands and a cup of coffee was pressed into my hands. This done, The Chief laid a comforting hand on my shoulder, leaned over, smiled, and said, "You just relax, son. We'll take good care of you now.” instantly guaranteeing my vote for his sainthood.

Less than 15 minutes later, I was sitting in a dentist's chair, with a doctor and two Corpsmen prepping me for surgery. While one Corpsman started me on an IV set-up, both to re-hydrate me and bring my fever down, the doctor began to pump Novocain into my gums, shot after shot, until my entire face seemed to go cold and numb. The numbness devoured my pain, leaving me practically wallowing with relief in the chair.

The doctor talked to me the entire time, explaining in detail everything that was going on. Drifting in pain-free bliss, I wouldn't have cared if he'd started farting out Sousa marches; but I listened raptly as the doctor explained, in a reassuring voice, how he had the Corpsman starting huge doses of' antibiotics through my IV set-up, and a number of other procedures. I was too giddy with relief to give much of a damn about anything.

Once he was sure that the Novocain had taken effect, the doctor began the extractions. As he worked, I became more and more amazed at how easily my teeth were coming out. From previous experience, I knew that pulling teeth took quite a bit of effort, but not on this occasion. They seemed to be coming out with all the effort it would take to pull the petals off a daisy. The doctor showed me each tooth as it was extracted. The roots of each one were covered, with some sort of white corruption. The doctor explained that the white stuff was the infection itself; and that the teeth had already been detached from the jawbone by the infection, which was why they were coming out so easily.

It took about an hour until the doctor finally finished. He'd extracted all of my top teeth and two of my lower back molars, which, he explained, had been badly broken in my fall. Those lower molars had been the most difficult extractions, since the infec­tion hadn't progressed as far as the others. They weren't detached from the jawbone, but they were too damaged to save. As the doctor stitched up my gums, he told me that all of my remaining teeth had been severely traumatized, and that I would probably lose the rest of them by the time I was forty.

After a bit of rest and once the doctor decided I was stabilized, I was helped back into my wheelchair and taken down to a general ward. One of the ward staff helped me into a hospital bed and I was left in peace. Exhausted, depleted, pain free at last, I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up the next morning to a blood­ soaked pillow with a Purple Heart pinned to the pillowcase, and with absolutely no immediate memory of where I was or how I'd gotten there.

 

FIELD EXPEDIENT

Once I'd been discharged from the hospital, I was sent back up to Khe Sanh, until such time as a dental plate could be made for me. On my return to Khe Sanh, I reported in at Kilo Company's rear area, expecting to be choppered back up to Hill 861. Instead, after conferring with a doctor up at the B.A.S., Kilo's Top Sergeant told me that I had to stay down in the main perimeter with the rear element Something about there being no 'soft' foods up on the hill. I'd have to wait until I had teeth again before I could return to the Company. Since the Top Sergeant pointedly mentioned I didn't need teeth to work, and I was otherwise unhurt, the Top decided to give me a job. Assistant Supply N.C.O. For a moment, I was flattered. A real job title and everything, an. ad hoc N.C.O.. My balloon was popped a minute later, when the Top gave me a more detailed overview of what my new job entailed.

It seemed that every day the CP up on Hill 861 would radio down a list of specific supplies that the Company needed for that day. The Top would compile, then scan the list, separating out the items available within the KSCB itself, then pass along the rest. He would then give this 'locally available' list to the Supply N.C.O., in this case, another P.F.C. named Brown (my boss), and order him to transport this stuff down to the staging area down at the LZ. Brown would then grab me up, we'd jump on the Mechanical Mule, and off we'd go.

Now, the Mechanical Mule was a weird little vehicle which everybody seemed to inexplicably, love. Why? I have no idea. This vehicle was as low-tech as you could imagine. It was simply a flat, rectangular deck surrounded by a short rail, with a tubular-steel framed driver's seat welded onto the front. The thing had a souped-up lawn-mower engine, a three-speed manual transmission, and no suspension system; just four rubber tires at the ends of two straight axles. Since Brown, like everybody stuck in that beleaguered perimeter had developed a great aversion to being out in the open, he tended to always drive at top speed. That tendency, plus the lack of a suspension and those myriad holes which seemed to magically appear allover the place, meant that we spent a lot of our driving time airborne. I had to maintain a death grip on the railing to avoid falling off. I didn't complain. My attitude toward being out in the open exactly mirrored Brown’s.

While both Brown and I worked together loading and unloading our cargo, my main duty was to hold onto the cargo as we bombed along. As for loading, we always strived to accomplish that just as quickly as possible, since any supply point, like the P.O.L. depot (petrol, oil and lubricants), or any ammo dumps, were all prime targets for the NVA. As for unloading, we worked out methods designed to cut a lot of time out of the process, since the airstrip was the NVA's #1 prime target. It was no place to linger.

The method we came up with was as we neared the painted circle at the end of the runway which designated Kilo Company's staging point, I would jump off the still-moving Mule and running alongside, start to sling the cargo toward the circle while Brown braked the thing to a stop. Sometimes I was able to complete the unloading before Brown completed stopping. At other times, when our cargo was delicate or more usually liable to explode, we handled it a bit more carefully. That was simply good common sense. While it did take longer, especially when handling an item like a case of 106mm Recoilless Rifle rounds, (which took two people to lift) we would only take a few moments to unload. The LZ landing party had the job of getting the stuff on a chopper or in a cargo net so once we were off-loaded we were free to jump back onto the Mule and bomb on home.

Like anyone else, when not working I tended to jump in a hole and stay there. My hole was a small, tiny actually, one-man bunker that I shared with one of the Company clerks, a Corporal named Andrusi. There was just enough room inside to set up a single folding canvas cot, which the two of us shared. (Nothing romantic, folks.) Andrusi was a fairly organized dude, so he had some amenities available; candles, his own 5-gallon jerry can of water and a case of Kool-Aid. His prize possession was a small, battery-powered record player and maybe three 45 rpm records. Nowhere near all the comforts of home, but all in all not too bad, considering. Add a steady supply of cigarettes and we were in hog heaven.

The fly in the ointment in this little set-up was Andrusi's best friend, another clerk/Corporal named Rogers. Roger’s main claim to fame was his aversion to sleeping in a bunker. In deference to his touch of claustrophobia, he'd set up a cot in the large tent that served as the Company office. I always thought of him as a bit of a sarcastic S.O.B., mainly because he immediately nicknamed me "Fang" because of my severe lack of teeth at the time. This raised a few problems for me because Rogers, being Andrusi's best buddy, spent most of his free time hanging out in our bunker. The two of them would sometimes gang up on me, poking fun.

They used to heckle me mercilessly about being a grunt. While most people are aware that inter service rivalries, like the Marines vs. the Army, or the Navy, or the Air Force, exist, they aren't aware that some rivalries exist within the various services. In this particular incidence, the two of them were what we grunts called “pogues”. Pogues were rear-echelon types, the ones we grunts called "The guys in the rear, with the beer and the gear.” They in turn laid nicknames like “bush beast”, on us grunts. They always loudly proclaim that a dude had to be dumb, or crazy, or both, to end up as a grunt. While it wasn't anywhere near as intense as street-gang behavior, they did manage to really tick me off sometimes. I began thinking up ways to get back at them. Lowly grunt my ass.

Andrusi unwittingly provided me with the exact opportunity I was looking for one morning. Brown and I were getting ready to make our daily supply run when Andrusi asked me, in an almost offhand way, to see if I could scrounge up some nails during my travels. He went on to explain that he wanted the nails so we could hammer them into one of the wooden support beams in our bunker, so we could hang our gear on them rather than throw the stuff under our cot. I immediately realized that this was a fool's errand, we didn't have a hammer. Not letting on that I'd realized I was the potential butt of his little joke, I agreed that it sounded like a great idea and promised to see what I could do. Of course, I had something completely different in mind; a plan both diabolical and stunningly brilliant, downright evil, in fact.

That was a terribly difficult morning for me. It was extremely hard to keep a straight face while I was practically gibbering with anticipation inside. Luckily there was no one in sight when I finally did find some nails, so I was able to do a little happy dance to tide me over through the remainder of my little counter scam. I was also able to take advantage of the few moments of privacy to perform the most important part of my set-up; removing the blasting cap from my emergency frag, a grenade that I always carried with me, hanging by its spoon, which was inserted in the little pencil pocket on my flak jacket.

Arriving back at our bunker, I took a moment to compose myself then dropped down into the bunker, to discover that the set-up was absolutely perfect. Both Rogers and Andrusi were sitting there on the cot, grinning at me. "Hey man," I chirped, "I found some nails!" I continued, pulling them out of my pant's pocket and showing them to Andrusi. "Hey, great man!" he replied, "Now we're all set!" "Yeah" I continued, "Now all I need is a hammer!" "Hammer, we ain't got no effin' hammer!" Andrusi said, still blissfully unaware that I was no longer the butt of his little joke. He and Rogers grinned at each other in anticipation, both of them obviously in on the joke.

Working up a 'thinking hard' face, I hemmed and hawed for a moment, then did a 'Eurekal!' face. Then I took one of the nails, set it point-first against a wooden beam, and, before either of them could react, grabbed my emergency frag and started whacking the head of the nail with the base of the frag, hard enough to pierce the thin metal skin of the grenade. For a moment the two of them froze goggling in horror, then simultaneously bolted for the bunker door, where they had a brief, but extremely vicious little fight to be the first one out the door. Rogers won. He was a short timer down to about two weeks.

I was still laughing several minutes later when the Top stuck his head through the entryway and said, "Hey Dalto! Your buddies tell me you're driving nails with a grenade Don't you know that's dangerous?" “Not when you take the cap out first, Top.” I snickered back, quickly unscrewing the ring and spoon assembly and holding it up to illustrate its fuse free status. “Just teaching those fool pogues not to mess with a grunt,” I added.

Though he tried not to laugh, the Top just busted up at that. He head back to the CP Bunker, shaking his head and still laughing. My two victims returned to our bunker several minutes later suitably abashed. No more special errands for me. The kidding incidents also dropped in frequency, precipitately. They were especially careful not to say the word “ crazy” around me again. As for the nails, I used an E tool to complete hammering them into the beams. Hanging up our gear was really a good idea.

 

NEW TEETH

February slowly rolled into March, each day seeming to stretch into years. Tedium and terror combined in mind-numbing monotony while tales of close calls circulated among our bunker society. In our Company area, delayed-action fused artillery round had hit between us and the B.A.S. leaving an unbelievably deep and wide crater, which gave anyone who saw it quite the case of the willies. There wasn't a man among us that hadn't had at least one close call.

I suspect it really was our own fault. Andrusi and I were snugly ensconced in our little bunker, doing our Kool-Aid, cigarettes, playing records thing; the Khe Sanh equivalent of an orgy, except without the sex or booze. Dazed by this non-debauchery, it never occurred to us that we were burning a candle, and maybe our light discipline wasn't so good. I have absolutely no recollection of what happened next, having been severely and instantly rendered unconscious. In fact, the entirety of the next two days is really fuzzy. When I try to think back on this period, all I get is the impression that I was inside this gigantic bell. Andrusi filled me in about the details later, once I could hear him again.

According to Andrusi, one of those Katyusha siege rockets exploded right next to our bunker. He said the explosion was so loud he couldn't even hear the start of it. Just, all of a sudden, his ears are screaming and me, he and everything else in the bunker is airborne inside this chunky black cloud, then all of it landing in a single heap in the far corner of the bunker. Andrusi added that while he had not been knocked out, he had most definitely been heavy-duty stunned, so it took him a while to get his fecal material re-compacted and start to make sense of things again. One of the first things he noticed was that the really heavy thing on top of him was me. Immediately his priority switched to my buddy's-hurt mode. He said he worked on me about ten frantic minutes before I finally came to. Then he dragged me out of there and up to the B.A.S.

The crazy doctor went over me pretty thoroughly up at the B.A.S. other than a nose bleed and various bumps and bruises associated with taking an unscheduled flight inside a bunker, I was physically unhurt. Most of my problems, including my screaming headache, came from a double dose of concussion. Not only had I taken a very large dose of the semi-solid wall of air type of blast concussion, I had also, since my head had been in contact with the wall closest to the explosion, taken the equivalent of a right haymaker from ground concussion. There was also the possibility that I had landed on my head at some point. While at first I did get a smidgen of sympathy from the crazy doctor, who's current insanity emerged immediately after he'd been a tad too close to the first ammo dump that had blown up back in January, such sympathy quickly evaporated. The second he determined that my injuries weren't life threatening, he completely lost interest in me. He told a corpsman to give me a big bottle of Darvon and then told me to go away. Like I said crazy.

Andrusi told me he'd taken me back to our bunker, where, he added, rather than just falling asleep I immediately seemed to lapse quietly into a coma. I was slightly more lucid when I struggled back to consciousness late the next morning, and it was no fun at all. My entire body, every last atom of it, seemed to be vibrating; my head felt like I had an elephant sitting on it. My hearing was like I had a thick gauze bandage wrapped around my ears. I felt like screaming, but I instinctively knew it would hurt too damn much. Andrusi, God bless him, started feeding Darvon to me until the pain faded enough for me to stand up. Bladder pressure then forced me up and out of the bunker. When I turned to start toward the head, I promptly fell into this God-awful crater. My cognitive faculties weren't quite up to speed yet, and it hadn't occurred to me that there might be a big hole nearby and I should maybe look out for it. Luckily, I didn't wet myself, but I was so discombobulated that I instinctively knew that I had no chance of making it out of that hole with dry pants. I was still in the process of relieving myself when Andrusi wandered up, looked down at me, and said, "Yeah, that effin' hole scares the piss outta me too."

He was right. That effin' hole was downright scary. The damn thing was bigger than our bunker. The sight of our tiny bunker seemingly teetering on the very edge of that chasm reduced me to a weak-in-the-knees, gibbering idiot. One full layer of sandbags was nothing but eviscerated ragged tatters. Bad as our bunker looked, the company office tent was much worse. Most of the shrapnel produced by the rocket had splashed forward into the tent, chopping up all the equipment inside. A good deal had hit Rogers' cot, reducing it to kindling and shredding his poncho liner. Rogers hadn't been in his bunk when the rocket had hit. He'd been visiting over at the CP bunker at the time. He was short, less than a week away from his DEROS, and his 'short timer's blues' had him at a level of paranoia so intense that you could almost see an aura. This incident didn't help him any. While it did instantly cure him of his aversion to sleeping in a bunker, it now became a major chore to get him out of a hole. When he did emerge, he scurried a lot.

As I continued to eat Darvon like Tic-Tacs, life swiftly returned to what passed for normal at the KSCB. Though Andrusi and I were pretty tight by then, I was nowhere near the point of forgiving Rogers for the Fang nickname he'd laid on me. I soon reverted back to my normal pagan ways and tormented him in every way I could, mainly tweaking his paranoia at every opportunity. Every morning he'd wake up looking hopeful, cheerfully chirping about how little time he had until the sacred 'wake-up'. I'ld give him the hairy eyeball and say, "You aren’t outta here yet. Those suckers are after your butt, personal-like!” and then cackle like a crazed hyena as I watched his bubble burst. Some people thought I should lighten up on the dude, but he never did stop calling me 'Fang'.

Finally, one very, very good day, two sets of orders came in. One set ordered me down to DaNang to get my new teeth. The other set was Rogers' Freedom Bird ticket; he was going back to the “World”. I hadn't seen a happier look on a man's face since the first time a lady mistook my face for a saddle. He almost instant­ly disappeared, then reappeared two minutes later with all his gear in hand, literally dragging Brown behind him, and giving me a "Why aren’t you ready yet?" glare. You can't argue with a man when he's right, and all I had to do was grab my rifle, so it was less than ten minutes later when Brown dropped us off at the LZ.

After presenting our orders to the LZ Master, we were directed to the staging bunker. We were organized into a boarding stick and told to stand by; the first chopper would be coming in once the ground fog cleared. The wait, like all such waits when something good lies at the end of it, quickly became interminable. Every second seeming to move through glue. Being right next to Rogers was no great treat either. He spent the entire time chain smoking and softly chanting "Lift, Goddammit!" at the fog under his breath. As irksome as this soon became, I didn't bust his chops about it. I figured that if something bad happened to him at that point, it would probably also happen to me. At long last we got the stand-up signal, then the wave-out and bustled outside to see a beautiful Banana Boat touch down as we cleared the bunker. Up the boarding ramp we hustled !(Nobody, but nobody got on or off a helicopter slowly at Khe Sanh.) The last man onboard raised his arm to signal the crew chief, who then yelled into his mike, and the pilot jerked that bird off the ground. Willing the thing up, we passengers fixed our eyes out the back end watching the ground race away from us. Right about the count of five, we saw a mortar round explode in the exact spot we had just vacated. There was a momentary flash of fear, then relief as we continued to gain altitude without a hitch. A minute later and we were in cloud. We could breathe again. We continued to climb until we popped out above the cloud layer. Khe Sanh was blessedly out of sight.

A short and fairly jubilant flight later and we were on the ground in DaNang, a place widely believed by the average grunt to be safer than, say, Cleveland. In contrast to the tension we'd been under at Khe Sanh, we were now relaxed to the point where we were able walk naturally, rather than march or run, amazed at what a pleasure it was to walk erect. Eventually, we sauntered into the M.A.T. (Marine Air Terminal) and presented our orders to a clerk at the counter. Rogers was told that his Freedom Bird was scheduled to take off early the next morning, then directed to proceed to a transient barracks area located near the Freedom Hill PX complex. I was to proceed to the hospital at China Beach; and no, there was no bus. Rogers and I, never expecting to see each other again, split amicably and headed our separate ways.

I spent most of the rest of that morning asking directions as I hitch-hiked across the DaNang perimeter, arriving at the hospital about a half hour before lunchtime. Amazingly, I had my new dental plate in time to still have lunch there. As good as it felt to be able to chew again and to have things like condiments available the greatest pleasure of the meal turned out to be simply sitting in a chair, at a table. I felt like Conan the Barbarian the first time he hit the big city.

Once they threw me out of the hospital mess hall, I started hitchhiking back toward the airfield. At one point, I was dropped off near a bridge somewhere around the Deep Water Pier. As soon as I cleared the truck my antennae went up; I could hear gunfire. Confusingly, the firing didn't sound anything like a firefight. It had the steady deliberation of a firing range. As I moved forward, I noticed a long line of Marines spaced about ten meters apart the entire length of the upstream side of the bridge. Each man, in no particular order, was firing down into the river every few moments. Perplexed, M-16 at the ready, I moved up to the first man on the line and asked if he needed any help. Without ever taking his eyes off the water upstream, firing slowly and steadily, the guy explained to me that his unit was the bridge guard. He went on to explain that the enemy regularly tried to blow up that bridge by floating explosives down the river. The guards' job was to shoot at anything floating down the river before it came within 50 meters of the bridge. They did this 24/7, using big spotlights at night. I left that place shaking my spinning head at the complete insanity and perfect sense of their job.

I made it back to the M.A.T. around 1600 hours, only to learn that there were no more flights up to the KSCB that day. I was then directed to spend the night at the same transient barracks that Rogers had headed for that morning. Still being somewhat sane, I felt no great urge to zip back up to Khe Sanh, so this sounded like an idea I could really get behind. Cheerfully unlimbering my thumb again, off I went. Within an hour-and-a-half, I was checked into the transient barracks. I'd had a lot of people staring at me during my travels, very probably because my jungle utilities were a different color than anyone else's; the same rusty Khe Sanh's clay. As a result, I had quite a few things planned; taking a long shower, washing my filthy clothes, sleeping on a mattress, with a pillow and sheets. All such plans were summarily scuttled a few moments later when I ran into Rogers and his new posse of short-timers.

They had several extremely interesting items of information for me. First they told me that the big place across the road was the Freedom Hill PX complex. Then, much more importantly, they added that you could get California-style cheeseburgers, French fries, and, wonder of wonders, beer. My immediate reply was, "We ain't there yet?" We spent the remainder of that evening rapidly drinking ourselves comatose( we called it the Tooth & Freedom Party).

At 0500 the next morning, well before the first blush of dawn some sadistic S.O.B. started pumping reveille through a bunch of large loudspeakers at full volume, the noise of which heterodyned disastrously with our crippling hangovers. Startled into movement, we were herded onto what we called 'cattle cars' open flat-bed trailers equipped with rows of wooden bench seats. Fifteen minutes later we found ourselves standing in the dark very near the end of a line of men more than 500 feet long. This line led into a large mess hall tent, located near both the airstrip and the M.A.T.
Not a big fan of standing at the end of a very long line and savagely hung over, I was not in a good mood. Rogers' cheerful chirping about being so close to safety and already past the sacred 'wake up' swiftly raised my bile. Overwhelmed by the urge to ply the needle one last time, I said, "Hey man, you're not out of Nam yet. Those effers could still get your skinny ass!"

No sooner were these words out of my mouth than two large Katyusha rockets exploded on the far side of the airstrip, more than a quarter-mile away. The timing couldn't have been better if I'd paid those gunners. The immediate reaction was complete chaos, with hundreds of people scattering in every direction at very high rates of speed. All except me. I'd only run a few strides. Inured to conditions at the KSCB, enemy fire hitting at that distance didn't worry me that much. Besides, I soon noticed that no more fire was coming in so I stopped. I soon found myself alone; everyone else had disappeared.

Since there was no longer a line of men in front of me, I decided no one could hassle me about cutting in line if they weren't there and hustled up to the door of the mess tent. Looking inside I was amazed to find the place completely deserted, even the cooks and servers had run off.

Incredulous, I drifted forward toward the serving line, almost slavering at the feast laid out before meat, eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon, toast, butter, home fries, boxes of cereal, tapioca pudding, fresh fruit, chocolate milk, for God's sake! Smiling my brand new smile, I slowly scanned over the delicious vista and announced, "Well, well, well! Looks like the perfect chance for me to put my new teeth to the acid test!" Then, rubbing my palms together in glee, I dug in. I took some of everything I liked, just piling the food on my tray, stuffing every pocket I had with fruit and boxes of Post cereals, pouring myself an entire pitcher of chocolate milk. I ate and ate and ate--some more. After awhile, the mess hall staff filtered back in. They glared at me quite a bit, but I didn't care. I paused only long enough to give them the finger, then resumed eating. After a good hour of munching, my jaws aching, I was finally done. Struggling to my feet, I waddled out of there and over to the M.A.T., groaning with pleasurable pain.

As for Rogers; even though I kept an eye out for him, I never did see him again. I figure he must have dived into a hole somewhere and pulled it in after himself; emerging only to run up the boarding ladder of his Freedom Bird, probably cursing me with every step, not that I blame him.

 

SETTING A RECORD

Like any of my days at the KSCB. Once Brown and I had finished breakfast, we reported in to the Top, who gave us the welcome news that all we had to do was pick up and stage some engineer's stakes and we were done for the day. This had us in a pretty good mood as we set off. Within a half-hour, we were bouncing merrily along toward the airstrip, a dozen or so bundles of short engineer's stakes on board. I didn't even have to lay on the stakes to keep them aboard, so I could hold on with both hands, the extra security definitely a plus in my book.

Down at the LZ, our speed-unloading went perfectly. I had all the bundles off and staged before Brown could get out of his driver's seat and we were heading back, bombing along the end of the runway, relaxing and doing some sight­seeing. I was sitting cross-legged, Indian-style, staring off to our right at a weird looking armored vehicle called an Ontos, which was parked along the perimeter bunker line. When I turned to my left to impart this cogent observation to Brown, he wasn't there. He'd stuck the Mule in neutral and bailed out on me.

A motion caught my eye and I looked up to see three fountains of dirt, exploding enemy artillery rounds, at the far end of the airstrip. The sound of the first explosion reached me about the same time, punctuating the fact that the explosions were walking down the middle of the runway, directly toward me! I was off that Mule and sprinting toward the bunker line cringing as the noise of the explosions got louder, ergo closer, at a truly terrifying rate. By the time I hit the trench line concussion was slapping at me. A heartbeat later just as I was in the doorway of the nearest bunker, an artillery round exploded right next to it, close enough that I found myself deafened and flying through the air, enveloped in the dust ball of the explosion.

Things turned pretty hazy for me then. I'd bounced off the far wall of the bunker. Along with being pretty well jellied by concussion, all I could do was wallow on the deck in sheer terror, barely aware of the continuing barrage as it walked back over the bunker line. After some time, I recovered a bit, there was a lull in the shelling and I suddenly heard Brown's voice, yelling, "Hey Dalto! You alive?" "Yeah! Still in one piece!" I called back, clapping my helmet back on and sticking my head out of the bunker door, just in time to see Brown come pelting out of the trench. "Let's get the eff outta here!" he called as he legged it toward the Mule, sitting, a few hundred feet away still idling. Sounded like a great idea to me. A stride and a jump and I was out of the trench, but Brown was way ahead of me. He was in the driver's seat, had stuck the thing in gear, and dug out while I was still more than 100 feet away. About the time Brown hit second gear, artillery started coming in again hitting the airstrip. That inspired me to reach down inside myself and hit stripe-assed ape gear, gaining on the Mule. As Brown slapped that thing into third gear, I caught up with him and dived forward, landing belly down spread eagle on the flat deck of the Mule, grasping the deck rail with a death grip as Brown kept the pedal to the metal, practically flying through the shell holes.

Once we cleared the immediate impact area, Brown spared a second to glance over at me, then did a bit of a double-take and said, "Uh, Dalto ___ don't panic or nothin', but I think you're hit!" "What! Where!" I yelled, my lips going numb with panic. "Back of your left knee!" I craned around, frantically scanning down my body, and saw a wet, red stain about halfway down my left leg, setting off a molten wave of shock that seemed to drop my stomach straight through the soles of my feet. I spent the rest of that short trip cursing non-stop. I have no idea what I said, but it made Brown cringe a bit. We very quickly arrived at the Company area, whereupon Brown stuck the Mule in neutral, switched off the engine, jumped off the still-moving Mule, and dove into the CP bunker. I stayed on the Mule until it coasted to a stop, worried about further injuring my leg. With enemy shells still screaming overhead, I sat there for a few minutes, carefully checking my leg. After a very close inspection, I discovered that I was O.K., with no holes in my pants leg or, more importantly, my leg. There was some blood and tissue there, but I concluded it must have come from someone else. Vastly relieved, I instantly became so happy that it didn't occur to me for at least a week that I had a piece of someone else on my pants leg.

Almost giddy, I hopped off the Mule and trotted over toward the CP bunker. As I approached the doorway, I heard the Top's voice angrily berating Brown about "leaving a wounded man out in that shit," which was why I was laughing when I dropped through the doorway. The Top spun around at the sound of my boots hitting the deck and asked, "Dalto, you O.K.?" "Yeah, sure, Top" I replied, happy as a clam in mud. "It's just a piece of someone else," I added, turning and pointing to show him the stain on the back of my pants leg. Giving me a very weird look, the meaning of which went right over my head, he added, "Glad you're O.K” " He then turned back to Brown and continued chewing him a new, and much wider anal orifice; amply proving yet again that senior Marine NCOs can really cuss. I thought it was hilarious.

During another lull, I made it back over to my own bunker. Shortly afterward, the NVA opened up again trying to set a record.. This time they shifted fire, soon hitting the ammo dump about 75 Yards away from our Company area. While they didn't manage to detonate the entire ammo dump in one fell swoop, they did set it on fire. As we watched, the fire began to eat its way through the ammo dump, pallets full of ammo detonating one after another every few minutes. The entry door of our little bunker faced directly toward the conflagration, almost giving us the illusion of watching TV, which is actually a very accurate analogy. Andrusi and Rogers and I sat side-by-side on that canvas cot/living room couch, sipping Kool-Aid, smoking cigarettes, laughing and scratching, whooping and hollering three dudes watching the greatest fireworks show imaginable. And what a show it was. I'm completely sure that most of the American population has never witnessed a real explosion from relatively short range, mainly because doing so is extremely dangerous. At the same time it can be quite impressive as a Show, a spectacular form of entertainment. For instance, a pallet of artillery ammo goes off with an enormous flash, a big, rolling ball of dust, a noise so loud you stop hearing it immediately after it begins a slap of concussion like a hard left jab, and smoking bits of metal arcing through the air. A simultaneous violent assault on all your senses.

A pallet-full of rifle ammo, however, blows in a rapid series of smaller explosions, maybe a box at a time; each burst throwing out a glowing parabola of red-hot lead in every direction. Though not a serious assault it was a visual treat. The whole thing was enormously entertaining, made even better by the caperings of the poor slobs who were fighting the fire. Maybe we three were born without a sympathy bone; or maybe it relates to the fact that I totally got it when Tolkein used the phrase, "Mad for fun", but we thought it was hilarious as explosions blew those guys off their feet and tumbled them around. Here were brave men, with balls of pure forged brass, trying to put out that conflagration by shoveling dirt on it, some of them using E-tools, for God's sake, and we're sitting there laughing at them until our ribs ached.

I guess it simply never occurred to us that those men were in serious physical danger. In fact, the very idea of physical danger never entered our heads until after a particularly large explosion, the business end of a l06mm recoilless beehive round skipped past the door of our bunker spewing out flechettes, some of which flew in and bounced off us. From then on, through the rest of that day, and all that night, we listened to the rest of the show cowering on the deck in our bunker.

 

LAPES

The morning after that big shelling we crept tentatively out of our bunkers to see our familiar landscape littered with what looked like tons of expended ordinance. The WIA bunker, home to Kilo's 'walking wounded; looked especially woebegone; covered with soot, with many of its' sandbags shredded. We had been very worried about those guys, since their bunker was much closer to the burning ammo dump than ours. Gratefully, our emergence was greeted by Crazy Tim's insane cackle and the gleam of teeth as everyone inside grinned out of their powder- smoked, grimy faces at us. We'd taken no casualties, an intense relief to everyone. Once the Top had ascertained his men were all OK, he surveyed the scene, tilted back his helmet, scratched his head and said, "Well men, let's get this area policed up." And that's how we spent the entire day; sweeping back and forth over the Company area, nervously picking up blackened bits of ordinance and carefully depositing them in a nearby crater.

Routine quickly reestablished itself over the next several days and our main priority, after staying alive, returned to finding different ways of amusing ourselves. I had Rogers, who'd developed a roaring case of the 'short timer's blues', jumping into holes for an entire afternoon when I discovered that tapping my boot heel lightly against a full 5-gallon jerry can full of water perfectly reproduced the faint little 'bump' noise that announced that the NVA was sending us yet another H.E. round in from Co Roc.

Most of the time, however, our main entertainment was supplied by our flyboys. At any given time on a clear day, you could see every aircraft in the U.S. inventory that could carry armament making attack run after attack run all around the plateau, dropping tons of holy, high hopping hell on the NVA. I know that personally, the thought of the NVA getting their collective asses waxed warmed the very cockles of my heart. Not a very Christian attitude I admit: but those yahoos were trying very hard to murder my young butt. So it was that I regularly joined all the other troopies standing on top of bunkers and screaming, "Yeah, get some" at every explosion. I've always considered this air show the greatest morale booster we had inside that beleaguered perimeter.

Our favorite part of the air show was, by far, the LAPES runs (That's Low Altitude Parachute extraction System). LAPES was a supply delivery system which did not require a fixed-wing aircraft delivering cargo to come to a stop. This was very impor­tant because, with plenty of practice, the enemy artillery could eventually begin their shelling before a fixed-wing aircraft could complete its' land-offload-takeoff cycle. As a result the Khe Sanh airstrip had been closed to fixed-wing aircraft since shortly after that big, silver C-130 had been hit, crashed and burned on the 10th of February. Helicopters could still make it in and out safely, but they couldn't carry enough to supply the 4,000 or so souls we had at the KSCB. Choppers could bring in replacements and evacuate our wounded, but it would take an entire squadron of Banana Boats (CH-46s) to bring in one C-130 load; and we needed several C-130 loads, every day, ergo LAPES.

The LAPES process itself is both fascinating and thrilling to watch. The big plane would come in, wheels, flaps and cargo ramp down, engines whispering on low power. Close to the ground the ship would flare out: raise the nose, with the landing gear seeming to grope for the ground like a bird reaching for a roost branch. Inside the plane the crew would release the stay chocks holding the roller-mounted cargo pallets in place, then the Load­master would pull a drogue parachute release the instant the back wheels kissed the ground. Slipstream would drag the chute out the back end, with said chute inflating almost instantly with a "pop", providing the impetus to start the cargo pallets moving. At a command from the Loadmaster, the pilots still keeping the nose up, would crack the throttles up to a full-engine-power scream, adding yet another source of inertia to the process. The cargo skids, still attached to each other by a single, wide, nylon strap, would slide out the back end and onto the runway, while the plane would simply take off again; total of maybe ten seconds ground time, and tons of supplies delivered. With not much in the way of real entertainment at hand, we troopies really looked forward to these LAPES runs, so we soon worked up an alert system. There were always some men on watch along the perimeter line. When one of these sentries would spot a C130 pop out of the clouds that always seemed to be hovering over the hilltops, they'd yell out, "LAPES comin' in!", which, in true Marine fashion, would be echoed by everyone who heard it.

In the time it took for the plane to get even with Hill 861, about four clicks out, the tops of every bunker were covered with spectators yelling encouragement. There was an almost festive air to the whole affair, somewhat accentuated by the variously colored state flags individual Marines proudly displayed over their bunkers. Now even though a normal LAPES run was a great spectacle, it was what happened after the skids cleared the aircraft that everyone was actually looking forward to. Each skid was not a single object, but a mating of three various parts: the cargo items themselves, which were attached to the second part, wooden pallets, several of which were, in turn, attached to large, flat, thick, aluminum skid plates, forming what we called skids of about 9 cubic yards. These multiton bricks were moving at more than 100 mph when they touched the runway, at which point all bets were off. Occasionally there would be little irregularities in the runway, like one of those pesky holes that kept magically, and loudly, appearing all over the place. These would impart a touch of English to the trajectories of the skids. They'ld curve. Many times, the new curved trajectory would lead off the narrow runway. The skid would then hit the dirt in a huge ball of rust-colored dust, then an edge might collide with a ridge of hard clay or something and complete chaos would result as the whole assembly separated and scattered all over the area.

Sometimes the single nylon strap that linked the individual skids would fail to break and a second skid would pile into the first, instantly doubling our thrill. We'd whoop and holler and grab-ass for a few seconds, then jump into the nearest hole to avoid the inevitable barrage. NVA gunners already had in the air, headed our way. A few desperate nearby people might run out and steal, I mean salvage the aluminum skid plate, hoping to beef-up a bunker roof, but everybody else was back underground before the dust settled. Another aspect of these LAPES runs that appealed to we troopies was just how slick the operations appeared. That and the sensation of putting one over on the enemy would put a grin on our faces. The daring and skill displayed right in front of our eyes was a distinct thrill, made complete by the sight of the aircraft lifting off and steeply clawing back into the sky, safe and sound, untouched. Safe and sound were the touch words here.

Those aircrews were risking their collective butts to help all of us stay alive. We admired them; loved them like brothers. Nobody hoped to see the alternative to safe and sound. We had already seen that on February 10th and while it had been spectacular, there had been absolutely nothing approaching entertaining or fun about it. Instead there was horror and regret and sympathy and thoughts of families swamped with despair. Almost superstitiously, we refused to think about something going catastrophically wrong, for fear of jinxing them.

 

   
             
 
 
 
         
     

DREAMS

By Don Meyer

I was asked to expand in my thoughts about dreams. I tried and really don't like it. Nevertheless, here it is.

I dreamed I was back in Khe Sanh last night. It was a dream so realistic that I could almost smell the red clay from a freshly dug trench. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my back and hear the guys cutting jokes as their e-tools cut into the moist ground. I sat on the side of the trench and I was just staring at the surrounding hills. I could feel the dirt against my body and I looked so young and felt so strong. I just sat there and stared at the hills and was struck by the beauty of my surroundings, how the brown and green colors seemed to so natural together in the midst of bomb craters and areas burned from napalm.

I don’t know why, but I felt like I had only been in Khe Sanh for a few days. Maybe the fact a trench was in the process of being dug made me feel that way. I was not afraid I was happy and content for some reason. Maybe it was the beauty of the place and being with my buddies I don’t know. I felt none of the anger that has eaten away at me for all of these years and I was full of hope and pride, just a content young man with purpose.

Looking out at the hills I knew there were other Marines on many of the hills looking down on me and hoped that they were safe. I felt a connection to them and knew that them being there was to protect me. I also knew that the enemy was out there but I felt no fear of them, it was just so beautiful and I was so happy.

When I awoke this morning I remembered this dream and it has stuck with me all of this day. Being awake, the feelings from the dream were soon gone replaced by the anger that has plagued me for so many decades now. The anger that is slowly killing me, that has left me numb to all emotions. I truly miss the feelings from last night and wish desperately that they could once again return to me.

I tried to remember when I died inside and could not think of just one event. It finally came to me that each day in Khe Sanh as we were so unmercifully bombarded and each night with the stress of the dark and the lack for sleep from two hour watches we slowly died. It was so subtle that I never realized it and so numb that I did not care.

When was this numbness replaced by anger. What could be so traumatic that it has dominated me so all of this time? Then I remembered after the battle Khe Sanh was abandoned. I felt betrayed and the empty area was replaced with a feeling of anger that came from the sole. All of the sacrifice, all of the pain, the death and for what. The only reward a warrior has for his death is to know that it was for something more important than him. It is a pact between him and his leaders that his efforts have meaning. This is a trust that is sacred and holy in its commitment. Without this trust there can be no battles, no wars. We made this commitment at Khe Sanh and honored the agreement. So many were crippled and died to protect and hold that piece of ground and I remember no complaints. Then when it was over we were betrayed and the base demolished and left to the enemy to take without a shot. The agreement was broken and the terrible losses could not be justified. The anger was born of betrayal and nurtured by deceit.

My emotions have been barren for so long and I miss feelings so much. No amount of medications or therapy have been able to return the good feelings to me only dreams seem to do that. Instead of putting Khe Sanh behind me and focusing on my many blessing, I think of it every day. I go to our Khe Sanh web board like a junkie looking for my next fix to be reminded of this time in my life and relive events that cause the anger I feel. I go to counseling where I have to talk about this time in my life and think this will help heal me. I go to 1/9 reunions to refresh the memories that have been forgotten just to increase the load I already bear. I take medications and alcohol to dull the pain and then seek out places so I can’t forget. What a life.

Then the dreams come as they did last night and I feel so happy. In a short while the happiness is replaced again by the anger because the dream only reminds me of what I have lost. Nevertheless, I love these dreams and pray for their return. Once we were young, once we were happy and once we lived a life with purpose. We were not born as we live in old age, we were made this way. The dreams give hope that in our afterlives we will reclaim our happiness and have eternity to sit and look at the hills.

 

   
             
 
 
 
         
     

RED CLAY and DRESS BLUES

By Dennis Mannion

The conclusion of Record Day at the Parris Island rifle range in February of 1967, and I moved slowly away from the 500 meter firing line. I had just qualified with a score of 219 and earned a Sharpshooter badge, but I was barely able to suppress the angry emotions welling up inside. I shouldered my M-14 rifle and tried as best I could to mask my bitter disappointment. The importance of the scores we earned this day had been stressed to the platoon almost from the moment we departed from the Receiving Barracks seven weeks earlier. Time and time again, we had been told by our three drill instructors that it didn’t matter what kind of shooting totals we earned in the practice rounds leading up to Record Day. The only points that had any merit would be from our last day on the range, and that score would be entered into our Service Record books.

All week long in pre-qualification target practice, my scores had been consistently in the low 200’s. I had had no trouble with standing and shooting at 200 meters and the same was true in the prone position at 500 meters. For me, the stumbling block had been the 300 meter line where sitting and kneeling were the required shooting positions. I had been a weightlifter in high school and in my two years of college, so scrunching into those tight shooting postures had been all but impossible. There were times that week when the DI’s actually sat on the back of my neck and shoulders to “get me lower and tighter.”

On Record Day, my point total at 200 meters equaled what I had fired all week, but surprisingly my scores at 300 meters were better than they had ever been. So good in fact, that I was eager to get to the 500 meter line. I really felt that as long as I continued to shoot well an Expert badge was now within my grasp. In the prone position, my first few shots were dead center. Then the unthinkable – some shots were out of the center ring! My aim and my focus seemed to be off. I was not hitting the middle of the target as consistently as I had all week. More frustrated with every squeeze of the trigger and struggling to maintain some sense of control, I fired my last bullets and totaled up the score. With an empty feeling, I recorded 219 in my shooter’s book. That was better than anything I could have hoped for, and it was higher than any score I had earned all week. Still, to miss out on an Expert badge by a single point – after getting so close – was devastating. It had been in my grasp and I had let it slip away. I had no one to blame but myself, and the few tears that I tried to blink away were self-directed and anger-driven.

Moving off the firing line with others in my squad, I kept my head down as I fought to control my ragged and jumbled emotions. Suddenly, there was a great jolt of pain in my lower back and the sensation of being propelled forward and down. My senior DI had kicked me in the tail bone area, and as I fell to the sand, he was on top of me in an instant. He rolled me onto my back, slapped my face and screamed that I was a disgrace to his Marine Corps. Behind a quick flurry of fists and open hands, he called me just about every profane word that is applicable to women. He hauled me to my feet and shoved me away with the words, “Get off my firing line, you snot-nose bastard.”

In the barracks that night, we sat in a circle around the DI’s desk. Whatever topic covered that night is lost to me, but as we stood up to go back to our racks, the senior DI angrily singled me out. “They mis-marked your target twice today,” he said. “Your final score was a 221. Are you happy now, cry-baby?” Even if I had a response, there is no way I would have said anything to any of my drill instructors. I was happy with the 221, but my lower back had an ache that would not dissipate for months and the humiliation of being kicked to the ground would linger even longer.

February melted into March, and Platoon 236 began to recognize that graduation day was less than a month away. In the evenings there was small talk about who might make PFC and, more significantly, who the platoon honor grad would be. With the honor grad designation came a set of Dress Blues. Heading into the last two weeks, I figured I had a chance at PFC and just possibly honor grad as well. I had done very well in many aspects of training and had been recently assigned as a squad leader. However, I have never been enthralled with uniforms, conformity, and the allure of colors and spit shined polish. In those final days I had made up my mind that if I won the Dress Blues, I’d look to sell them as soon as I could. No disrespect in that; someone else would have had a much greater appreciation for them than I. My sole purpose in joining the service after flunking out of college was to serve in Vietnam as part of a Marine Corps infantry company. There was nothing in my three year enlistment that was even remotely connected to uniforms and colors.

Still, I did have a strong opinion as to who our honor grad ought to be: Carey Lee Johns. Back in early January, when our platoon had first formed up, fate had me standing next to Carey Lee when we approached a line of Navy Corpsmen for a series of medical shots. As the two of us stood abreast with our shirts off, the doctor supervising the corpsman pointed to the two of us and said to the ever-present drill instructors, “Don’t you wish they all looked like these two, knuckle dragging ape maggots!?” One of the DI’s replied, “If they all looked like these two, I’d be out of a job.” It was a real emotional lift for me to be compared to Carey Lee, and from that moment on, I knew that my boot camp experience would be physically tough but not insurmountable. Carey Lee, to my mind, was the best of us in the platoon – he looked, acted, and comported himself as a Marine’s Marine. Not a man in Platoon 236 could have been disappointed when he was selected as the honor grad. I was happy for him and proud of him as well. After graduation he and I were inseparable as we completed Advanced Infantry training at Camp LeJeune. A month later, with leave papers signed, we sat next to one another on a bus to the airport in Washington, D.C. We were headed home; he to Alabama and me to Connecticut. We shook hands at the terminal and promised to stay in touch, but as with a lot of friendships in the military, we never saw one another again.

I arrived in Vietnam in September of 1967 and was assigned as the artillery Forward Observer with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. In mid-December we were sent to Khe Sanh as part of the Marine Corps response to tens of thousands of North Vietnam Army soldiers advancing into the region. Just after Christmas Kilo hiked up to Hill 861 where we would endure the 77 day siege. That campaign ended in mid-April of 1968, and the company choppered out to the relative safety and comfort of Quang Tri. By the end of May I was transferred out of Kilo and assigned to the 12th Marines as part of a naval gunfire FO team. Using firepower from cruisers and destroyers in the South China Sea, we operated in small groups along the coast of South Vietnam in an area north of the Cua Viet River and south of the Ben Hai River (the DMZ).

In early summer, I was with my FO team waiting for a military barge to ferry us across the Qua Viet. It always took time to off-load and load, and as we waited in the shade for our turn, a platoon of Marines disembarked and set off down the road. Suddenly, one of the Marines stopped, looked over and shouted, “Hey, Mannion!” Puzzled at hearing my name from a stranger, I stood and moved into the sunlight. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was Sgt. Hicks – one of my junior drill instructors! We shook hands and exchanged the customary in-country greeting: Who are you with and when did you get here? We only had a few minutes to talk – his unit was moving south and I had to get on the barge. He walked me over to it, and I asked him about recognizing me and remembering my name. After all, he had been a drill instructor before my boot camp time and for some months afterward. With all those recruits, how had my name and face stayed with him? His answer stunned me. “Because of the Dress Blues,” he said. I honestly had no idea what he was talking about and said so. He replied that the honor grad award could just as easily have gone to me, but that that our senior DI wouldn’t even consider it because in his mind I was a cry baby. He added that there had to be a consensus with all three drill instructors and my tears on the rifle range had squashed any chance I might have had. “Sgt. Hicks,” I countered, “None of that matters to me. It really doesn’t. Carey Lee Johns earned and deserved that award. He was the best of us. I probably would have sold those Dress Blues the first chance I got. And here’s another thing. I’ve been here 10 months now and in that time, I’ve seen plenty of tears on lots of faces.” He responded by agreeing with what I had said about Carey Lee. In addition, he said that he had seen those same types of tears himself and that our senior DI had not been in any combat prior to becoming a drill instructor. The barge was ready for boarding and Sgt. Hicks had to rejoin his unit. There was only time for a black and white, Polaroid picture.

The two of us – a former DI and one of his recruits standing shoulder to shoulder with our backs to the Cua Viet River. Sgt. Hicks: in a jungle shirt, crew cut, and with a squint that could bore holes through anyone; and me: 22, looking years older, deep shadows under the eyes, long hair, red dirt from Khe Sanh still clogging most of my pores, and wearing a non-regulation T-shirt. We shook hands in the mid-June sun, wished each other luck, and he hustled down the dusty road. I have thought of him often in the past 40 years, but I have never seen or heard from him since.

In November of 1982, I went to the dedication of the Wall in D.C. I am not a joiner of groups and I knew no one who was traveling there, but I just felt a need to be in attendance. The day before the dedication, I heard someone say that the phonebook sized books that list all the names on the Wall were going to be available for purchase and I bought one. Over a year later, I chanced across my Parris Island yearbook, and I decided to go through the platoon roster and cross-reference the names with the names in the Vietnam Memorial Directory of Names. As I progressed through the first part of the alphabet, I developed a real sense of foreboding and a gut-sick, empty feeling inside. I almost didn’t want to continue because of the listing I felt I was going to see. Sure enough, there it was
Carey Lee Johns, Oneonta, Alabama, 18June 68.

I didn’t try to blink back the tears this time. Their source was heartache, not anger, and besides, there was no DI to lash out and reprimand. It would be another two decades before I learned that Carey Lee had died on one of those red clay hills outside of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. It’s almost impossible now to remember him and not think of Sgt. Hicks at the same time. After all, when I encountered Sgt. Hicks near the Cua Viet River it was the 3rd week of June in 1968. I take some comfort in the knowledge that around the time of his death, the two of us had been reminiscing about Carey Lee and the honors that had been accorded him. Our 10 minute, chance encounter was, without our knowing it, our funeral service to him and for him. Carey Lee Johns, my boot camp buddy and fellow Marine won a set of Dress Blues, went to Vietnam, and forfeited everything, while I lost out on an award and a uniform but was permitted to live, to remember, and to grieve.

Dennis Mannion
Sgt. USMC – Jan67 to Dec69
 

 

   
             
 
 
 
         
     

MY STORY

By Sgt Vincent Rios

In 1964, I graduated from Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School in Ft. Worth, TX. I enlisted in the USMC and graduated from MCRD San Diego. In 1965 I reported to Alpha Co., 1st Bn. 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division at Camp Margarita, Camp Pendleton, California for unit training. I embarked with the battalion for Okinawa aboard the USS General J.C. Breckenridge troop carrier in the normal rotation cycle as a replacement battalion. The 1st Bn., 5th Marines arrived in Naha, Okinawa, and exchanged banners with the 2nd Bn., 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, the battalion it replaced. After undergoing intensive jungle warfare training, the new E/2/9 sailed for Vietnam aboard the USS Pickaway, arriving at DaNang in July. In November, I and several other Marines from my platoon were transferred to A/1/1 where I served until July 1966, returning to Camp Pendleton as a corporal, assigned as a brig guard.

In 1968 I was assigned to the most decorated regiment in the USMC as 2nd Platoon Sergeant and acting 2nd Platoon commander of A/1/5 until I was severely wounded by an enemy explosive device in February 1969. I was evacuated via various military hospitals in Japan to the Oaknoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, CA, where I was medically retired from the USMC and transferred to the VA Medical Center in Los Angeles, to recover from my wounds. My awards and decorations are as follows: three times awarded the Purple Heart, twice awarded the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Meritorious Unit Commendation and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm. I also received the Vietnam Service Medal with four battle stars.

In the spring of 1969 I found myself near the middle of a string of hospitals that would punctuate my previously relatively undisturbed medical history. I believe it was at the Oaknoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California that the only photograph taken of me as an in-patient exists. In the photo with me is a Marine lieutenant colonel pinning me with a Bronze Star Medal. Actually it was the second award but the first had not caught up with me nor was I aware that it was coming. I never knew who the colonel was; he was probably the Marine liaison from the 12th Marine Corps District Headquarters, then housed at the Treasure Island Naval Base located in the middle of the Bay on the Bay Bridge, half way between Oakland and San Francisco.

The first Bronze Star Medal Award was for Heroic Achievement; the second was for Meritorious Service. If anyone wants to read about my close encounters in Vietnam in 1968-1969 that back these awards, send me a check for $35.00 to the War Memorial Commission at 401 Van Ness Avenue, Room 101, San Francisco, CA 94102. I will mail you an autographed copy of Doc Hutchings book “The Names Not On The Wall”

I have plenty and if anyone recognizes the colonel in the photo let me know I would like to connect with him. Maybe one of our A/1/5ers who come out for this years July 4 Parade in Redwood City can let me know .
 

 

   
             
 

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