Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
John Fanning: "There were two wars going on."
A lot of them — the kids, I mean — went to boot camp, came out of boot camp, got on an airplane to Vietnam, and went straight to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). One such case was where we were up along the Laotian border, and we were getting replacements coming in. And I was up on a hillock kind o' directin' the helicopters. And of course anytime 'copters came in and bad guys were around, they would start mortaring us. Well, a helicopter landed and mortars started coming in. And the troops came out of the helicopter and they just started running, you know, tryin' to get into cover. And I remember one kid came off, he ran over, he jumped into a foxhole, and a round came in right on top of him. He did not last more than a minute in combat. I don't even know his name.
- Col. Jack Kelly, USMC (Ret.)
Jack Kelly: "This kid ran over, jumped into a foxhole, and a round came in right on top of him. He did not last more than a minute in combat."
I think the public as a whole couldn't care less, but those who do care don't know that there were two wars going on. Everyone thinks we were running around chasing Vietcong in black pajamas and conical hats. That's not true. The real war was up in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) with the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). These are the guys with the flamethrowers at Con Thien, better equipped than the Marines, you know. As FO (Forward Observer) I personally saw I don't know how many thousands of NVA infiltrators. This was big-time warfare.
- Lt. Col. John Fanning, USMC (Ret.)
John Fanning, Vietnam era: "The North Vietnamese with the flamethrowers at Con Thien were better equipped than the Marines."
Basically, I enlisted in the Marine Corps 'cause I was being drafted into the Army, and the Marine Corps offered me a 120-day delay — four extra months! I hardly know truly what the Marine Corps was, except for some John Wayne movies. I was in my first year of college, confused, no real direction, taking basic bullshit classes. This was 1965. Vietnam was hardly even talked about, certainly didn't seem like, you know, it was gonna turn into what it did. I was raised in a very religious, loving family...father from a farming background, a B-24 gunner in the Pacific, highly decorated...so it just seemed like the thing to do. It was my American Duty.
Larry Bangert today (left), and as a young Marine: "I hardly know truly what the Marine Corps was."
I was a mama's boy, grandma's boy. Mother worked full time, Grandma raised me. This was a suburb of L.A. I was a good kid, went to Catholic school, church. I was an altar boy. My grandmother had ambitions of me becoming a priest. But when I got to the age of reasoning, puberty, about 12, 13 years old, things changed. This was the '60s. I had a period of time where, uh, I had a problem with stupid authority figures. I rebelled.
Steve Fasching today (left), and 30 years ago in Vietnam: "I felt guilty."
And when I was about 15 and a half years old, I split and went to San Francisco later the Lovin' Spoonful. That got too crowded, so I went over and lived with a group called the Quicksilver Messenger Service. I got in with some of the so-called alternative music of the days, hung out with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin. I partied a lot with Janis Joplin. I did a lot of things like that up in San Francisco.
Tim Fagan today (left), and 30 years ago in Vietnam: "I was full of testosterone and energy."
The war was going on, but it wasn't talked about that much - still in the technical-advisor stage - so the antiwar/peace movement really hadn't started yet. The protests happening in Berkeley were about "Ban the Bomb." That's where the original peace symbol came from, a symbol for a B-52 bomber. Anyway, I started seeing friends having serious problems - one died from an overdose - and I started thinking, "Where am I gonna go?" I felt guilty. I kind of did a self-reality check there. Came back down to reality and, uh, decided, you know, I don't have a masculine side to me. I mean, I knew I had a masculine side in me, I just didn't know how to express it. So I guess for me, the Marine Corps was a kind of savior type of thing. You know, I'm gonna go be a man now. And I signed up.
Danny Romero today (left), and 30 years ago in Vietnam: "My dad wanted to move to Mexico."
In high school I was full of testosterone and energy, all revved up on the express train to nowhere. My parents were neurotic and didn't have a clue how to raise children. So I quit high school and joined the Marine Corps. There wasn't a war yet, January of '65, but as long as there are dumb 17-to-18-year-old kids full of adrenaline and testosterone, there will always be war. It was the best thing for me, I guess.
Ron Lightfoot: "My uncle'd been a marine tank commander in the Pacific."
Operation Buffalo? Sure, I remember it. It was a bloody slaughter. Three battalions of Marines were being eaten up in the DMZ. We had these handheld KB-28 cameras, which we - we being a Marine Observation Squadron - would use. I took some pictures of the area where the church was..."the corner," I think they called it. One unit was trapped in a crossfire by the enemy and their damn artillery in the north. We flew in there firing, tryin' to fire on the bad guys, not...thing was...Marines were callin' fire down on themselves.
- Chief Warrant Officer L.F. Lacy, USMC (Ret.)
Except for a few years of schooling in Mexico, I was born and raised in East L.A. Most of my childhood was spent in the barrios during the last vestiges of the pachuco era, you know, young guys in long clothes and khaki pants, like images of American Graffiti, subculture youth, car clubs, dances, street fights...you know, nothing dangerous, not the way it is now. It was comfortable getting up Saturday mornings, because you knew that the world around you was at ease. Elders were respected. Sunny afternoons appreciated. Everybody had a pattern. Anywhere you went you were home. Everybody waving hi. And then all of a sudden, my dad one day approached me with the idea of moving to Mexico. He talked about the quality of life we could enjoy there, you know, opening our own bakery. At that time I couldn't understand what he was suggesting. I didn't want to go south. I was having too much of a good time! Later I understood my dad's logic. I was 18. I had just received my draft notice.
- Danny "Little One" Romero
Growing up with the Kennedy assassination...I was 14, kind of idolized him, you know, that influenced me. And I was kind of a military buff growing up, raised on John Wayne movies, Sands of Iwo Jima. My uncle'd been a marine tank commander in the Pacific. And of course stop-the-spread-of-communism type thing. It just made perfect sense. This was going to be my Great Adventure. I enlisted right out of high school. The Marines'd just landed at Da Nang. I remember being scared to death, scared it'd be over before I got there.
I don't know if the war contributed to the fact that I got divorced and, you know, held a lot in, didn't communicate and all that stuff. But shoot, I might've been that way anyway. I mean, a lot of people are that way. My father was a career serviceman, was in World War II, didn't talk much about it. I was one of six kids. We moved around a lot. Heck, every time I made a friend, they either got transferred or my dad did. I'm not a real open person, even though I'm rattling away here. I enlisted two days after I turned 18. I told my father - shook him up really bad - he said, "God! You couldn't come to me? We couldn't work this out? You went off and did this?" He knew what was gonna happen. Eighteen years old...to be thrown into that.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot
There were 12 or 13 of us. After the medical exams, they asked all these questions, like, "Are you a homosexual?" and, "When was the last time you were out with a girl?" and, uh...made you stand at attention. They were relatively nice at that point. Then this staff sergeant gave me a brown envelope, which I'll never forget as long as I live. Inside, it had a bus ticket to San Diego and chits for dinner in the station. I'd never heard the word "chit" before. And he explained: "When you get done eating, and everybody's finished, call this number, and they'll come over and pick you up." He emphasized, "Whatever you do, don't call the number before you eat." So we eat, and I go over to the pay phone. The guys are acting silly, everything kids'd be doing. I pick up the phone and go, "Uh, this is Larry Bangert, I'm supposed to call this number." All of a sudden this guy goes, "WHOA! LARRY BANGERT? WHO THE FUCK IS LARRY BANGERT?" He's screaming, "YOU MEAN YOU'RE PRIVATE FUCKIN' LARRY BANGERT, YOU ASSHOLE!" And I'm thinkin' ho-ly shit, what's this? I mean...on the phone! I looked at the other guys, they're all smilin' at me, and I whisper, "Listen, he's real serious." None of 'em believed me.
So we had a family gathering, say good-bye, you know, say our good-byes to friends. I tried to get laid a few times with some of the lady friends. That didn't work.
"I'm leaving tomorrow, honey, sniff, sniff, I may not see you no more."
"Well, when you come back, I'll be here waiting for you. I'll be praying for you with all my heart. Every night. Okay?"
"Yes. Thank you very much."
I took the prayers anyway, you know.
So we went to Clifton's Cafe in L.A. We had to be there at 6:00 a.m. That was my first experience of hurry-up-and-wait. We had nothing to do. The chit they give you is worth about a quarter of what you can eat. And we had this little bite to eat, and then we came back and waited longer. We didn't leave until 3:30 in the afternoon. On this yellow school bus. They gave us a box lunch: egg sandwich, apple, potato chips or something, and we headed out. What got me was, why 3:30? Freeway's bumper-to-bumper. So we sat, 100-degree, August day, slowly driving to San Diego.
The guy shows up, and he's the blackest man I've ever seen in my life. Chiseled. Chiseled! DI (Drill Instructor) hat on, big arms - big arms! Skin-tight shirt, shiny shoes, and it's dark. All I remember is his teeth, and his black face staring out under that brim, screamin' crap I can't even remember...lot of it just things, you know, Military Code of Justice and "We have the right to..." and "WHEN I OPEN THIS DOOR YOU MOVE YOUR SLIMY ASSHOLES TO THOSE YELLOW FOOTPRINTS!" blah! blah! blah! And you know this is it, the beginning of something...surreal...screaming, top of his lungs, in your face, spittle flying, all of just just terrified.
It just slowly, in degrees...the concern you felt...the little stories you heard about guys comin' back in body bags, or the guy who came back wounded. Slowly you'd started seeing that in the neighborhood, slowly started to think. After I'd gotten the yellow envelope, I went home, and I got a call from the Marine Corps. I swear! I wasn't even home two hours and I get a call from the Marine Corps. "Hey, we saw your tests, man! You got a good mark on your scores." To this day, I don't know what they were. You know, I wasn't so sure what they meant. Yeah, you're dumb enough to hold a rifle, you're not smart enough what's goin' on, you're just our type! Then on the bus, I remember sitting way in the back with two guys named Sikes and Charmel. They were dropping acid. As for me, I'm just trying to relax. And after a while the trip just kind o' like, you know, put me at ease. It was dark. Everybody's talking, having a good time as we're pulling into MCRD. Just a lot of bullshit conversations, you know. And for me, myself, I'm thinking. Oh, man, all these scary stories I was hearing are a lot of tales, you know. I'm thinkin' to myself, Ah, man, that was just to scare me, bunch o' bullshit lies, you know. Nothing's happening. I look around me, everything is safe. The bus stops. Off gets the driver. On steps this bald-headed barracuda, gets on that bus, man...and...I have never seen a glare like that. He didn't say one word. Everybody was quiet. And I"m checking this guy out through the crack of the bus seats, and I just felt a little pang in my stomach, my balls started to kind o'like itchin' a little bit, you know, and all I could think of was, Oh shit. You know, O-o-o-h shit!
We entered MCRD on that yellow bus. By then it was dark...and see all those drill instructors sitting out there. I'm still not scared about any of this stuff. They get on the bus and start screaming. I've been sizing up everybody on the bus for hours, and now everybody's acting different. They're not the same people. The assholes on the bus now are scared little freaks. Some of the macho guys are still trying to be macho, and the DIs are barkin down their faces. "What are you smilin' at, you little pussy piece o' shit?" And I'm standing there, you know, in my ponytail. Mistake number one. Oh, man. Should've shaved that sucker 'fore I left! This black DI grabs my ponytail, pulls me around front, yelling at everybody. The macho guys start to get a little less macho. Couple of 'em wanted to be the DIs' pets and got shit. I looked at the DIs and I sized them up. They're motherfuckers, number one. Number two, this is gonna be hell. All I wanna do is get through this shit the easiest way I can.
From there they buzz all your hair off. Next thing you know you're buck naked and puttin' all of your clothes in a box. And there's guys checkin' your asshole, you're bendin' over spreadin' your cheeks, and somebody's lookin' up your butt - you don't even know any of these people. I mean, you are totally degraded to bare-ass nothin'! Then they throw you some utility pants that're way too big, way too long, you know, hangin' on the ground, some black tennis-shoes, white T-shirt, these yellow sweatshirt-lookin' things that say MARINES on the front, and a cover, you know, hat that falls down over your ears. I mean, you're the dorkiest-lookin' guy on the planet. You don't see yourself in the mirror. You can see everybody else! Our heads are all white. I mean, the experience from one hour earlier, sittin' down there at the bus station, to standin' there like that is, What happened to me? Where am I? This is enough of this shit for me!
Twenty-four hours later, no sleep, and we're outside the receiving barracks with our shitty fatigues on, holding hands. We're all holding hands. We look like shit, two strands of long hair sticking out, 'cause they rip those sheers so quick when they cut your hair off. And, uh, we meet our platoon commander, a master-gunnery sergeant. He looked like he'd been around a long time, knew what he was doing, the classic look, real put together. I could tell he was a good marine, for whatever I knew at the time. And then we had this staff sergeant...one look at his face told you he was an asshole, a fuckin' bastard. He just looked like, you know, just pull out a knife and cut you. Mean sonofabitch. He had medals drippin' off him. I didn't know what they meant, but he had a lot of 'em. Then the gunny left. This staff sergeant took over. He started walkin' through, beatin' the shit out of everybody. He'd walk down the line, somebody'd give him a look - bam! - he'd smack 'em on the side of the head. "Who the fuck you lookin' at, maggot motherfucker!" All that stuff. And some big stupid dufus guy started laughin' in the back. Staff sergeant came back and used one o' those deathkill things and flipped 'im on the ground and put his foot on his neck and said, "You fat motherfuckin' lump o' shit! I'll kill your ass! You're dead! You're mine!" And that staff sergeant walked us around that whole base until fuckin' 3:00 in the morning. Just walkin' around the base. He walked us around the goddamn road that goes over to the Navy side we used to do the three-mile run on, and he walked us back, walked us everywhere and he didn't say nothin' except "Quit snifflin' and shuffle." Said, "Don't walk, shuffle! Make dust! Make dirt!" Anyway, he finally put us to bed at 3:00 in the morning.
We woke at 4:00 a.m. to the sounds of that sucker walking through with a fucking trash can, just bangin' it, throwin' people out of racks, knockin' racks over and buckets flying. With Cannibal the Headhunter in our midst, we quickly jelled together and in no time at all learned to anticipate the DI's mind-fucks. We were to go through a lot of unforgettable shit, man. Before we became Green Killing Machins. Some guys couldn't take it.
The DIs gave us PT (physical training) almost daily. And after an hour or two of it they would throw us all in a tin can (Quonset hut) and have us memorize 102 questions and answers. It would get suffocating in there, and we were not allowed to open the doors or windows for ventilation. Because of this, a few guys would go at it now and then. But on one occasion, this guy gets up, grabs a bayonet, swings it in front of us and yelling, "This is fucked up! It's all bullshit! Don't nobody get near me! I'm going to find the sergeant and I'm going to kill him!" And with that he takes off. We all stayed, looking at the door, no one daring to go notify anyone, because the Terrible had told us to stay put until he returned! Well, Ivan did return a half hour later, marveled at our stupidity, and sounded the alarm with the other DIs. They found the guy crossing the airport, dazed and confused. We never heard from him again.
Then one night - must've been in our fourth or fifth week of training - it was raining. We were asleep in our bunks. Sometime around midnight the DI barks everyone out of their sleep and out to the platoon street. Soon he has us doing PT in the mud. Everybody's skivvies are soiled in no time at all. He had us out there for quite a while. I keep thinking, bad dream! Bad dream! It start raining harder. The DI is getting angrier. And while he has us catching our breath at attention, he looks up at the sky and with 1000 percent intention and force in his voice he shouts at the sky: "STOP, RAIN!" I can only think that this man is committing blasphemy and is going against the will of God. Still, for a second or so, I almost expected the heavens to cease. When the rain didn't stop, the hard-assed heathen got even more agitated and started working our asses again.
During the whole training process at MCRD, the one thing that stands out is the fact that everybody would get punched, slapped, or kicked sooner or later. And after a few weeks the weaker guys and the uncoordinated guys stood out like sore thumbs. This one guy, Fiske, became the DI's favorite scapegoat. Brutus would hit Fiske in the stomach while he stood at attention. After the first few times, he only needed to get close to Fiske, and Fiske would start wobbling, shaking, sometimes even fall to the ground backward in anticipation of the blow. Darnedest thing I've ever witnessed. It's as if the DI surrounded Fiske with invisible cords, and toyed with him at will. We tried telling Fiske not to let Psycho get the best of him. I don't know how Fiske managed to endure the cruel exercise, but it was a sure bet that Fiske would just about piss in his pants whenever Psycho got close. Finally, graduation day came, and we assembled on the platoon street for Final Inspection in our dress uniforms. The DI, with his panther leer, walked past each one of us, preaching the gospel of the Corps. When he approached Fiske, he pounded his fist into the palm of his hand. Then came the moment of truth. The DI made this flicking movement with his knee as if to deliver a crotch blow, but Fiske did not move. The DI sneered at Fiske straight in the eye. Fiske did not blink! The DI moved on and addressed everyone, saying, "As of this moment on, you are all Marines!"
Green Killing Machines
The goddamn Army had more support troops than the Marine Corps had Marines. They had pizza-delivery men, damn Army out there did. They had so many junk jobs. There were 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and I think 400,000 were support. That wasn't reflected in the DMZ. The [101st Army Airborne] so-called relieved Khe Sanh late in the game, when it was over. Khe Sanh never needed to be relieved. We could've broken out of there any time we wanted.
I never got a chance to go to Korea. I enlisted in 1950 in Boston. I was 21. Old enough to drink beer. We were so worked up with all the guys coming back from World War II, gung-ho group o' guys. It was unbelievable! There're too many guys who wanted to go! I went and requested mast - in those days you didn't request mast, but I requested to see the commanding general anyway. Jesus Christ! Guys were drawing straws, cutting cards, anything to go to Korea. No way. So I said, Ah, bullshit! and got out o' the service. I was out from '53 to '61. Climbing telephone poles and digging post holes. And I see all these swabbies and Marines in Newport, drinkin' beer after work and havin' fun, and I'm diggin' holes and drinkin' beer after work. So I said to my wife, "What do you say we give it a shot? If I can't make warrant officer or something..." We gave it a shot. And I was very lucky. I made warrant officer. Not right off the bat. First they sent my ass to goddamn Okinawa, didn't see my wife and kids for 15 months! It was not fun. I got home the day Kennedy got shot. It was a bad time to come back. All the bars were closed.
I've been in San Diego since 1947. And ever since I saw the World War II movies about the Marine Corps - Guadalcanal Diary, Halls of Montezuma - I wanted to be a marine. And in high school a lot of my older friends were joining the Marine reserve unit at MCRD. So I joined. That was 8th of June, 1953. I was 15 years old. My dad was a naval officer here, and he had a facsimile stamp. I stamped it on my consent papers. They didn't ask any questions, and I didn't say anything. So, I stayed in San Diego and went to college, went into the Marine Platoon Leaders' program, hoping to be commissioned upon graduation. And the girl I was going with, my future wife, didn't want anything to do with the military. She said, "It's either me or the Marines." So I made the mistake and took her.
When I enlisted the recruiter'd given me a piece of paper and said, "Sign this and we'll put you in a program called Aviation Guaranteed, put you in the airwing, sign this." Airwing, right? Where I'll be safe, right? So I did. Then halfway through boot camp they sat me down and told me that "aviation guaranteed" essentially meant I'd be a door-gunner on a Huey. "Life expectancy's not very good. You sign this waiver, we'll give you some tests and make you something else." And, of course, I signed the waiver, took the tests, they made me an 0311 Rifleman.
I'd gotten my MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] outta boot camp. I was gonna be [in] an 1833, amtracs [amphibious landing craft unit], and I got orders to go back to Camp Lejeune. I ended up in North Carolina during all the civil rights marches. There was just horrible discrimination. I mean, as far as the Marine Corps, blacks and whites seemed to get along pretty well. But off-base? It was incredible. But during that period of time, I made friends with a black marine who actually lived in Jacksonville, sort of the Oceanside of Camp Lejeune. Where the black people lives was out-of-bounds for white Marines. Well, my friend invited me to go over to his uncle's restaurant. I did. Fascinating. There was a bunch of run-down houses, and the restaurant was in one of 'em. You'd eat in the living room. I was the only white guy. We had soul food, fried chicken, delicious, best food in North Carolina. You'd get beer out of the refrigerator in the kitchen, cost almost nothing, and these guys'd play the blues on washboards and old chrome guitars. These old gray-haired guys'd be singing. The nicest people I've met in my entire life.
Another Marine I met was from North Carolina, coal miner. White guy. Ugly man. Big barrel chest, hairy, looked inbred, family tree didn't have too many branches. And ignorant. Barely makin' it on the IQ test. Anyway, he invited me to go home with him to a dance. So we went about 150 miles back up into the mountains on this bus. We got out at this little town called West Fork, don't know if it's even on the map, one of those places that's one building, everything's kind of attached. One side's a garage/blacksmith's shop/general store. Other side's kind of a community meeting place.
So we got off the bus and walked up a trail about a mile to his house. Looked like something out of Li'l Abner, rocks on the side, an old shit roof, three rooms. Nice people. His mother looked like him. And his father was even uglier, probably spent his whole life down in the mines. Real hillbillies. Barely could understand 'em. We had dinner, consisted of fatback. Ever had fatback? It's kind o' like big hunks o' bacon without any meat on it. She takes this fatback stuff and fries it in a pan with navy beans and pours in a jar of fried-lookin' pieces o' shit. And these wonderful greens, right? She cooks them in that grease! You know, instead of boilin' or steamin' 'em, she cooks 'em in that goddamn fatback grease! We eat cornbread, fatback, greens of some sort.. dinner! Beer and moonshine whiskey. Which was pretty smooth. You know, these guys were pretty good at makin' it.
So it's time to head on down to this dance. This guy steps outside and literally sueys up the holler - makes a pig call! And in about five minutes, these two gals come walkin' down for us to go to the dance with. Twins. Six-foot-two, 90 pounds. Knees stickin' out, they're so goddamn skinny. Throats about this long. Big Adam's apples. Huge foreheads. You know, almost no hair. Just somethin' you couldn't even believe! And goddamn dumb. DUMB! I mean, these gals couldn't have had 70 IQs. And, of course, they want to know all about Cali-forny and crap like that. So we go down to the dance. There's a really good bluegrass kind o' band, couple violins, guitars, flute, banjo, and they're playin' this music. No one's doing anything. Men are all out back standin' around these big tubs o' ice and beer. Shit beer. Like Vietnam beer, you know, that real skunky crap they give ya. All of a sudden, the guys come in - gals sittin' on one side - and they start dancin' some kind o' organized thing in a circle. I couldn't ever quite get the knack of it. So guys are pretty shitfaced, dancin' up a storm, and next thing I know I'm turned around talkin' to one o' the twins. Easel May. Other one's Ellie, or somethin' like that. Great names, fit 'em perfect. And all of a sudden I look around. "Hey, where'd everybody go?"
"Oh, you know," she says, "they be out there funnin'."
Funnin'? So I walk out in the back, there's some pickup trucks, and everybody's out in the lot fuckin'! Out in the bushes and shit! You know! And then somebody figures out, "Hey, that guy's screwin' my sister!" Another one, "He's screwin' my wife!" Or whatever. And then it gets into fighting!
Easel May says, "Oh, that's the way all the parties are! There's some dancin', some funnin', and some fightin'!"
Weirdest thing I ever seen in my life.
In staging I ended up with a bunch of different people than I'd been training with. Kind o' got to know a couple people. One of 'em was the person I told you that got out after they cut Flash's finger off. He was just one of those guys where the judge said, "It's prison or the Marines, son." He and I almost came to blows one day, because in staging they had this mock village they made you walk through. Well, I got us killed 37 times or something. Every booby trap that was there I tripped. And so this guy starts sayin' "Okay, dead man." He was calling me "dead man" and "ghost man" and stuff like that. So him and I, we started to go at it. But we didn't get far. We ended up becoming very good friends. We ended up going into Oceanside the night before we left and partying a little bit. Got to know each other.
Loss of any of the troops was really hard. I had to write letters to all of the parents. It was really hard. You didn't know what to say. You...you didn't use a form letter, but you used a kind of guidance on...uh...on what to say. I mean, what can you say? I'm sorry? He was a very brave, loyal kid? You say everything like that. You just...it was extremely difficult. Particularly when you're in command. Particularly in the Marine Corps. Because they're like your sons. You feel close to them. Particularly if you've been with 'em for a while. And then to have 'em killed on ya like that, it's...a real tragedy.
This Puerto Rican kid takes me back to his home on the train. I'd never seen the East Coast before, and suddenly there were the lights of New York City! The train went under the river, and we came up in Grand Central Station. I followed along, we got on a subway, got on another subway, and came up in Spanish Harlem. The projects. Tall buildings, Puerto Ricans, blacks, nobody lookin' like me. I was too stupid to feel outta place. We went to his home, where six people lived in two rooms. Place smelled kind o' like urine. Later we and half the project went out to this salsa dance. Fascinating! Me in my geeky Marine clothes, they in all of their wild colors, you know, chartreuse tuxedoes! They're very flamboyant people. Not mean or nasty in any way. I was a novelty. You know, I've always enjoyed travel, always enjoyed seeing things, but as a Marine, it seems I was really in the minority. People just wanted to go back home. I wanted to see something, you know.
Enemy...you don't have that feeling. It's a defense mechanism in the mind, I think. You don't look at the guy as another human being. When you're shooting at him, and he's shooting at you, he's an object. And when you kill him, you don't have feelings.
Anyway, I got picked up for warrant [officer]. Went to jump school and all that stuff. In those days you had to go to a screening course, just like boot camp. Shaved your head all over again. The average guy had nine years in service, 23 percent still quit. Lot o' guys just didn't want to do it. I mean, they were already gunnery sergeants. "I ain't puttin up with this bullshit." Every day you were degraded. And degraded very severely. It was really a tough course. I remember after we became warrant officers, some dufus second lieutenants got mad because we wouldn't salute 'em.
The Marine Corps has this habit of letting their "intelligence community" go to hell in a hanging basket during peacetime. They do absolutely nothing with it. Then war comes, and they suddenly have no trained intelligence specialists. So it becomes a wide-open field. I'd tried several times to get back in the Marine Corps, and they'd say, "Hey, you didn't accept your commission, we don't want you." But when Vietnam came along, and I was still a corporal in the reserves, they asked for volunteers for active duty. I volunteered. They contemplated sending me to boot camp, but since I was already an NCO, they figured it would be sort of stupid. So they waived boot camp. I went on active duty in October of '65, picked up sergeant by January, and then they waived all the prerequisites for my MOS [general/counterintelligence]. By August of '67 I was a staff sergeant. That's damned fast promotion.
Field artillery? I don't think I can explain it in a few words. We went to Field Artillery School, Naval Gunfire Spotter School on Coronado, things like that. You're talkin' about laying the batteries, all the survey, there's a lot to it. I mean, you got to have appreciation for the guns themselves, the ordnance, the ammunition...survey was the hardest. Nowadays you press a button and it tells you where you are on the face of the earth within five feet! Those days you had survey crews goin' out to calculate where the gun's position was on the face of the earth to equate with the firing tables. Everything was confusing. Very difficult. I didn't really feel like I knew survey when I got to Vietnam. And I got so sick of hangin' around the batteries with those dufus second lieutenants, which by that time included myself. So when they asked, "Anyone wanna be a forward observer?" I said, "Count me in!"
The Marine Corps totally changed my bearing. When I graduated from boot camp, I was 175 pounds. Strong, I had a very clear understanding as to what I wanted to do. And I have no problem with that. I mean, if you're going to take something like the Marine Corps and pussify it, what the hell will you have? They train you to kill people. Marines have one purpose, every single one of 'em, which is to work as a unit and kill people. That's all it is! It's nothin' else. Killing people is your job. You have to be motivated, molded, and taken out of how we see things as civilians, and kill people. I could no more kill somebody today than the man in the moon. I mean, I couldn't even comprehend it. I had to be taken from somebody who was basically nonviolent and turned into somebody who would shoot somebody.
My buddy, on the way over...person next to him passed away on the flight. Just up and died. On the flight! He sat there by this person, noticed he wasn't breathing, wasn't doing anything. He called the stewardess over. They asked my buddy to move over. They stopped in the Philippines and dropped the guy's body off. Then the plane took off for Okinawa. Boy, I think I would've snuck off some place.
We left for Vietnam from El Toro, where this kind o' like mind-fuck thing happened. I ran into this guy from the neighborhood. When he was a kid, we call him Rockin' Roll, because he was always rockin' rolling, singing, you know. When he got to junior high, we called him Rocket. And then he got to high school, we called him Rock. He became a big guy. Well, as I'm leaving El Toro, there's, like, a mess hall right there, and you kind o' like walk a little bit and there's a plan...I met up with him. "Hey, man! What are you doin' here?" "Just came back," he says. "Oh gosh! That's good! Really good!" "What are you doin'?" "Well, just leaving." And he gave me a handshake and a look - sonofabitch pissed me off! I got mad at him. He was already kissing my ass good-bye. I mean, it was a look that you give somebody when you're seeing them for the last time. And I got angry at him. But I was really taken aback. Of all the years I knew him, he never looked at me like that.
We were the last battalion to go over by ship. Three o'clock one morning they woke us up. We had all our 782 gear packed, had our rifles, and we got on buses to Long Beach. I'll never forget this ship, the USS Wrenville, old World War II troop transport. They loaded us aboard first thing in the morning. And what a pit this ship was. It was disgusting. As I recall, there were three levels, and we were in the bottom level. The bunks were stacked five high. You had to slide in sideways on your back or stomach to get in. You were stacked too close to turn over because of the sag-factor from the guy above you. It was a nightmare. Most of the guys had never been on a boat in their life. And if they had, it probably was the Staten Island Ferry. So the whole battalion was sick. Guys were puking everywhere. Everywhere you went there was puke. You go in the mess hall, guys were pukin' in their trays. Guys were pukin' everywhere in the heads, the water fountains. You couldn't go in the holds, where everybody was supposed to sleep. They were so disgusting. Everybody ran around with a helmet under their arm so they had something to throw up in. There was maybe six or seven of us that weren't sick. I was raised on the Chesapeake Bay, so I was used to the water and the ocean. Only thing that made me sick was everybody else puking. The smell was just horrendous. What we did, though we weren't supposed to, was take our mattresses up on the deck. We'd find little places to hide out and sleep. It was so bad.
I was a supply clerk, 3042 or something, working warehouses and shipping supplies at Camp Pendleton. I thought, I'm gonna miss it all! I wrote a letter: "I want to go to Vietnam..." blah, blah. This is bullshit! I'm not gonna let the train pass me by. I mean, it wasn't like I'd analyzed any geopolitical issues, it was more like, "Hey, a parade!" Could've been a parade to the death camp, I wasn't gonna miss it. So I got assigned to 3rd battalion, 5th Marines. When they went overseas, the battalion went by ship. I personally went by plane, kind of the advance party. On the way over we landed on Wake Island. I didn't really know a lot about it, other than it was significant in World War II. There was nothing there. Quite desolate.
Anyway, we left El Toro, got out in Hawaii for about 15 minutes, gave me something to say later: "Oh, yeah! I've been to Hawaii." Two o-clock in the morning, one glass of orange juice, no leis. When we got to Okinawa, it was hot, humid. We got transported up north. I don't know where. But at this stage, I started seeing changes, you know. Some o' the guys started draping themselves in holy medallions and crosses and scapulars, like this one, see? I knitted this one together. It's like a holy piece of cloth. If you die with this on, you're guaranteed the gates of heaven, you know. When I was in boot camp, I didn't see none of this. But as you got over there, all of a sudden you start seeing the holy things, the rosaries, not too many guys jokin' around. Then on the other hand, I"m seeing guys sharpening their bayonets, their knives, whatever they got, just kind o' like, you know, I'm gonna go kill me a gook a day, all this tough talk. And I kind o' like felt funny, 'cause on one side o' me I saw novice assassins, and on the other side, I had these guys getting ready to become priests.
Boot camp started that transition, breaking you down from a civilian. What they want to build is fighters and killers. I still remember the DIs, last thing before lights out, makin' us pray for war.
Okinawa, we went through the northern jungle-training area. I also remember spending a lot of time out in Kin Village. Talk about learning what life is about, right? I learned you go out and get a steam bath, one buck; then go to a club and drink all night; then pick out the girl you want to screw, two bucks! And that was my "experience" with women. Which always sets one up good for life, you know, to have a really well-adjusted framework in dealing with women. I mean, in high school, my experience was nothing. Okinawa, that's all there was. So the war's over, you go home, you start meeting women, it's like, Whoa! What's going on here?
As I recall, we trained at NTA [Northern Training Area, Okinawa] about three weeks. We camped up there, and we trained on patrolling, you know, humping through the jungle, using flankers and things like that, to basically get a feel for what it's like to operate in the jungle, 'cause it was so totally different from what we'd experienced up to this point. We would set up ambushes, dig foxholes - you know, one company against another - cleared fields of fire. They even had simulated punji pits, booby traps, that we'd fall in. And they'd use things like smoke grenades when we tripped wires. It was probably as good as we could've gotten.
They sent us to Escape and Evasion School in the Philippines. Right? If you were a crew member, you went. So off we went, a week or two vacation from Vietnam. And such a contrast. All of a sudden you're in Subic Bay. We go down there, and for two or three days we're in the jungle. One senior Filipino comes up to us, "You must have a bola to cut bamboo in the jungle," he says. "You make cups."
"Uh...how much is a bola?"
"Only $3 for you, sir."
"I don't want a bola!"
"Oh, you make a cup!"
"I don't want a goddamn bola, okay!"
Anyway, they take us to the jungle, and we're all starting to make our cups at night, and my buddy and I say, "Let's get the fuck out o' here." We sneak out and hitch a ride to the O-club, where they're having happy hour. We down about 9000 San Miguels, while everybody else's back cuttin' bamboo cups in the jungle. When it's time to go back, my buddy, he's a Marine captain, see, but they think he's a Navy captain...they send a cab for him.
"Where do you want to go, sir?"
"Down to the bus stop, uh...to the jungle."
And off we staggered back into the jungle. Next morning we graduated. Got our Escape and Evasion pins.
Another thing I started seeing on Okinawa, guys breaking out with mean heat rashes. The doctors say, "You can't go to the jungle, 'cause your body cannot take the extreme heat!" These guys were getting sent Stateside! Well, later I found out these guys were going around eating things they were allergic to, providing them with the perfect symptoms for getting rejected for combat duty. And in the meantime, you go into town bars everywhere, boom-boom [whores], you know, this an' that. Before you know it, we're flying out of there. And my mind is, If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go. In my mind I'm gonna die! I took out as much insurance as they're able to give you. I figured my family's gonna be a bit better off, you know. Ten thousand dollars, big deal. In the meantime, keep your eyes open, walk softly.
When I got over there I was scared. I wouldn't walk unless I saw somebody walk in front of me first, because of booby traps...hear all this stuff. When we got into Da Nang, they put us on the USS Princeton; it was a ship, like a carrier, flat top. I don't know enough to name the ships. All I know is they had a few guns out there and that underneath the big flat top was, like, a big - it amazed me - like a big, huge valley where everybody was in there. And they were getting us ready with gear and, it was kind of enjoyable. I mean, to tell ya, man, for me, growing up in a small little block area, you feel that is the whole world. But being out there, seeing the inside of that ship, being on the water. Know what I'm telling you?
They brought in a World War II carrier, um, USS Princeton, had the old HS-34s [helicopters] on there, got the wheels, Korean vintage, pilot sits way above, and we started to float up the coast of Vietnam, from Da Nang to the DMZ. Whenever any of the Marines stepped in anything, or on any major operations, they'd fly us in from the ship. Then when we were done, they'd fly us back to the ship. Of course, after our experience aboard the Wrenville, you know, this carrier was like a luxury ship, 'cause we had so much room. Accommodations were nicer, chow was better, and the sailors treated us with respect. That definitely made a difference. On the Princeton there wasn't this Marine versus Navy conflict. 'Cause they're seeing us go out on operations and seeing us come back. Part of the ship was a hospital.
Probably my most vivid memory came when I was not in the field, but when I was on the ship. The elevator. They had an emergency hospital thing set up for the casualties on Hastings, and they'd medevac the kids' bodies in on choppers, put 'em in the elevator, take 'em down, and...uh...I was there. They'd take 'em from the elevator and wheel 'em down to the end of the bay where the temporary hospital was set up. And they'd drag the Marines' equipment off to our side. And we'd, you know, deal with the equipment. Talk about hamburger. Hamburger! And to see it constantly, you know. God. There was one guy, I knew him. Can't remember his..could see his...looked like somebody took a fuckin' ax, chopped him off. No way he, uh...I'm sure he died. Just these kids coming down. Parts gone. Helmets with bullet holes in 'em. Shit. Hair stuck to the...ah...constantly...to see it. Elevator goes up, elevator comes down, goes up, comes down bringing more. No way I can describe it.
We were scheduled to go for training up to Mt. Fuji. But after we'd drawn all out cold-weather gear, the word came down that we were going to Vietnam. So we turned in our cold-weather gear, drew jungle gear, got on Navy ships, and sailed to Vietnam. Da Nang had been landed at a month before, so we landed at Chu Lai. We provided the initial perimeter security while the Seabees built the airstrip. The true intent of our mission was fairly cloudy. We'd heard about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, knew that our ships'd been fired at, that the president had committed troops into the country, and we just thought we'd go defeat the bad guys and go home. That was the initial feeling. Then the Marine Corps did what was probably the most disastrous thing they possibly could have done. They went to what's referred to as the "mix-master program": Marine Corps began deploying entire battalions into Vietnam, but they did not want entire battalions rotating out of Vietnam. So they took all of the units and switched people helter-skelter. They moved machine-gun squads from one battalion to another; companies from one battalion to another; command officers from one battalion to another. And the rationale was that when everybody's turn came to rotate to the States, they'd all be rotating from different areas, individually, rather than by units. What that did was take all of the training we'd done and destroy it within three months of landing in Vietnam. Absolutely the stupidest program I've ever seen. Absolutely disastrous.
Flying in I was thinking, Man, we're landin' in Da Nang in a goddamn Pan Am jet with stewardesses. Even had TV screens for movies. We landed at night. Got out and got in the back of a deuce-an'-a-quarter. Real bumpy-ass truck. Spent the first night on a cot with a blanket and a shit pillow. Next day they took me to the amtrac [amphibious tractor] camp. It was in a valley just outside of Da Nang, black market, whores, Dogpatch. I go in there, check in, guy goes, "Get all your gear, you're goin' up to the DMZ." Shit. I just arrived! Don't have a rifle. Don't have squat. Only people left are short-timers goin' home, you know, already done their time. Of course, they were just gonna scare the living b'jesus out o' me. And they'd been through a lot o' crap. Showed me their wounds. Amtracs were all blown to shit. Mine holes in 'em, whatever. They gave me an old, wet flak jacket, had sand inside it. A helmet I had to put a piece o' wire in to make it work. A rusted-shut M14. One bandoleer. Two magazines; three rounds in one, four in the other, all rusted inside. That was my gear. It was November 10, the Marine Corps' birthday. So we celebrated. Watched a movie. We're sittin' on this patio out there, and - no shit - watchin' Beach Blanket Bingo. You know! I'm in Da Nang watchin' Beach Blanket Bingo, California surfers, Frankie Avalon, all this hokey shit. And I'm goin', This is unreal! I'm lookin' out over this valley, there's a tree over here, a pet monkey's up in there jerkin' off - uh! uh! uh! uh! - you know, part of his foot missing. And I'm watchin' Beach Blanket Bingo outdoors. No shit! Drank shitty Ballantine beer in rusty cans.
This is gonna be hard for you to believe. They were flying me north from Da Nang, no idea where I was goin', in one o' those old HS-34 helicopters from Korea. If you remember, the cockpit was elevated from the cargo area. And I'm not exaggerating: there was a bicycle mounted in dead center o' that helicopter. I'm sitting there, and we start to take off, all of a sudden, two beer cans drop down out o' the cockpit! And the helicopter lurches a couple times. I'm thinkin' Jeez, that's strange. Then the crew chief comes over, jumps on this bicycle, and starts to pump like crazy. Helicopter gets stable. Then, about ten minutes later, four or five cans come out of the cockpit - empty beer cans! Again the chopper starts to lurch. Crew chief jumps on the bicycle, pumps like hell, chopper straightens up. Well, ten minutes later, six more cans come out. But now the crew chief is busy doing somethin' else. And the chopper starts to wiggle. And some passenger like myself, some dumb lieutenant, jumps up and gets on that bicycle, starts pumpin'. The whole crew starts laughin'. It's all a joke. And this poor dumb lieutenant thought he was savin' the day.
Got to Da Nang, it was just hot as hell. That night I went out and watched a movie, Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood. All they're doing is shooting people. I'm thinking, Oh God! Next impression, I'm standing in the chow line, and two guys behind me - camouflage on, all kinds of stuff - talking about some patrol on Monkey Mountain. Somebody'd thrown a grenade, I don't remember. I'm thinking, What's goin' on here? Anyway, it took three days. Finally they called mine and, uh, Jerry, my buddy, and Deke, another buddy of mine, called our names, put us on a C-130, and flew us up to Dong Ha. And I'm sitting on the runway at Dong Ha, waiting for a jeep to come and get me, right? And this green box refrigerator truck pulls up. I'm thinkin', Wow! Beer and ice cream. This ain't so bad. And this forklift comes up, they open up the truck, they start lifting these big boxes out, start putting 'em on this airplane - boom! - it hits me: these are dead people. Dead Marines. Dead Americans. And I'm thinking, I gotta be here 13 months? I'm not going to live 13 months! How in hell can I, dumb 18-year-old stupid me, got killed 32 times in staging, how in hell am I going to live 13 months? I mean, you watch Dan Rather or whatever on the news, right? You see it! You watch it in your living room! But it's over there. It's not you. But here you are. I mean, besides the fact it's smelly and it's hot and you're scared, here's reality hitting you in the face. There's death here. Watching 'em forklift those...I just thought, Oh, man.
I don't know how many old helicopters they used, but they took a great number of us from the ship into Vietnam. And somehow my helicopter got separated. Other helicopters went, like, one way, ours went the other. I ended up in Dong Ha. Anyway, because of that, it took me another two days to hook up in Quang Tri. You know, get on a truck convoy, it's kind o' crazy! All these signs: KILL 'EM ALL/LET GOD SEPARATE 'EM; signs pointing UNITED STATES this way, NEW ZEALAND that way. Shit like that. And I kind o' saw, like, everybody walking around with their head cut off. But it was organized chaos. Trucks goin' this way, that way. Guys with serious looks on their faces. Others, like, just walkin' down the street. Anyway, when I got there, checked in. And they tell me, "We been expecting you guys."
They needed trained intelligence people so badly that they pulled me out of school and sent me, name orders, to Vietnam. You know, I wasn't just a sergeant, I was Sergeant Leamond F. Lacy reporting to HMM-265 as intelligence chief. I wasn't just a body to fill a quota. I didn't have to go through ITR or that 30-day indoctrination. I went direct on Tiger Airlines. Landed at Da Nang right after the first rocket attack they had on the airfield. It was hotter'n hell! That damn humidity hit you, and you would...you just died. I ended up next to Marble Mountain. There was a hard-back tent area there.That spring they'd been hit by mortar fire that'd blown everything away, so they'd built a bunker in the center. It was six feet underground with heavy timbers and sandbags. That's where intelligence operated. We had a Marine outpost on the damn hill, but the bad guys were just on the other side, where incoming flights to Da Nang took fire from. We couldn't napalm the hell out of 'em, because we had civilians runnin' around up the ying-yang. One night I got involved in a damn firefight. I had to make a courier run to headquarters, which entailed riding a Jeep across Freedom Bridge between Da Nang and Marble Mountain. Damn ARVNS [Army of Republic of South Vietnam soldiers] were supposed to guard the damn thing. We started taking fire like gangbusters from automatic weapons. I jumped out firing an old M2 carbine. My driver fired an old grease-gun. His was so damn rusty I couldn't believe it worked. That was my first taste of bullets coming at me with To Whom It May Concern written on 'em.
We were in the Philippines on more jungle training. And I remember being in town on liberty really pissed off. I'd gotten rolled. Three women had been, you know, doing sexual stuff to me, stole my damn wallet. Must've been two whole bucks in there. Looking back now I think, Why can't that happen to me today? Three women ravaging my body? Stealing my two bucks? I mean, the irony of the whole thing. But then all of a sudden, the whole battalion got rounded up. All liberty was canceled. "Report back to ship immediately!" And we just blasted off for Vietnam. Just top speed. I mean, I have vivid memories of being directly underneath the flight deck, where the elevator came down, of plaster falling off the ceiling. We were going so fast. This was a big-time emergency. As soon as we got there, the operation began. Infantry companies just got slaughtered. I remember getting on one of those helicopters - the old helicopters, not Hueys - thinking, We ain't gonna make it! I mean, you go off the flight deck and you go down. And you ride in that thing for a while, start to land, somebody yells, "Get out!" And so you jump. You don't know where you are. But I was told later we were in the DMZ.
My MOS was 7011 or SATS [Short Airfield for Tactical Support]. You know, on the aircraft carrier? We catapult the jets off. Then when they come in, we tailhook 'em. That's what I went to school for. In other words, a carrier goes into an area and provides SATS. Then to relive that carrier, so it can go someplace else, the Marines land, secure a beachhead, helicopter or parachute all the shit in honeycomb matting stuff - jet engines for the catapults - and build a SATS. It's pretty complex, but we could complete a runway in 96 hours. Everything. Just like an aircraft carrier, except it's on the ground. Anything that can land on a carrier can land there. So after getting our hemoglobin shots and storing our Stateside gear in Okinawa, we arrived in Da Nang. Stewardesses smiling, "Thank you for flying American Airlines."
They'd fly us in on the HS-34s. As I recall, they could carry six fully loaded Marines. First operation is probably when my thinking switched. This Puerto Rican kid in our platoon had just turned 18 on the ship. He was very, very religious. He had pictures of the Virgin Mary and crosses above his bunk. Prayed all the time. Never cussed. Never drank. Saved all of his money to send back to his family, because they were so poor. It was really our first on-ground operation in Vietnam. We got off the chopper and, we had all this World War II/Korea stuff, you know, these old grenade pouches, and this kid was going down a trail. He slipped and a branch caught one of the grenade pins, uh...grenade went off. Blew his leg off. We rushed him back to an LZ [landing zone], got him laid out on his back, trying to keep him from looking at his leg. He seemed to be doing fine. Then I remember he raised up, saw his leg was gone, instantly went into shock. When the chopper got there he was dead.
They say "We're gonna land right in the middle of the DMZ. It's gonna be the shits! They are there...." The Ben Hai River flows through a delta lined by cliffs, flows to the most gorgeous beaches you'll ever see in your life. We'd loaded the grunts into the amtracs in the dark. At day break we headed to shore. It was a gorgeous day. I'll never forget it. One grunt from Kansas had a little bitty radio he was playing. We opened the top doors for air, so it didn't seem so claustrophobic. Or in case we hit a mine or somethin', 500 gallons of gasoline were underneath us. Everybody was kind of jokin' but serious. I'm drivin' the tractor [amtrac], grunts in the back. It's calm. Not a breath of wind. All you can hear are the motors, school of bullet tuna jumpin' in front of us...
Get up to the beach and poles are laid up, SEALs already'd been there. You go up a sandy incline into a flat area. The lieutenant's on my tractor, so the SEAL comes over and says, "Bunch of 'em in that tree line over there." The grunts get out and run to the top of the sand. Start movin' forward, all hell breaks loose. They're there. Full company o' the little bastards, little helmets and all that bullshit. Total NVA. Machine guns. AK47s [Russian/Chinese assault rifles]. RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. I still had my rusty M14, but the grunts had M16s. Our job was to secure the LZ, move the troops up, provide machine-gun fire, take the ground. Tanks are comin' up. Planes are in the air, so as soon as they radioed "NVA in the tree line," here came the napalm. And this beautiful day turned into overcast. All the ordnance. All the noise. I don't know how to explain it. Everything's whizzing....
We were supposed to move forward. They'd already set up a hospital/medevac LZ on the beach. USS Sanctuary [hospital ship] was out there. See more napalm. More bombs. Grunts movin' into the tree line, see Marines drop. You fight feelings: I gotta do what I gotta do - I'm gonna run like hell the other way! There's a gap, you know, a razor-thin edge. Some guys did just that. Just took off runnin' for the beach. Their eyes - I mean, you couldn't communicate with 'em. Just turned tail and ran. One of 'em was babbling. Total terror. I mean, the guy's face. I don't hold it against 'im. I wouldn't court-martial 'im. This wasn't something he wanted to have happen. He didn't hit the beach thinkin', I'm gonna run for my life.
I remember pulling guys into the tractor...gonna take 'em back. We had two corpsmen who were just freaked, and, uh, the stillness started to come. There's people hurt, this is your job, in front of you. And I remember pulling a guy in - amtracs got this little window, one of those freeze-pictures in your life, little window out the back - the kid from Kansas's radio is still playin', had it there on the thing, he's layin' with two other guys. It's just like all the noise and everything stopped when I looked through that window, saw those three guys with their life gone. I mean, obviously out of 'em, just this frame-freeze that...just this Polaroid kind o' pops up in front o' you, to this day....
Then the tanks were there. There were bumpy areas to take cover behind. We were kind of pinned down at the time, and the planes were coming in, and the tanks came in, and the tank commander - they were charging this tree line...he's up there, man, fully exposed - took one right between the eyes. Dead center. And it took our lieutenant. They were great friends, almost buckled him. You know, he was gonna take that tree line. I don't know how long it took to get his body. They were puttin' KIAs in bags and evacuating 'em with the wounded. I have no idea how many. Time you finally get back there, dead are already gone. You just don't really remember.
That ghostly smell, it's a...it's part the ordnance, but there's a smell that's very much like that smell in a slaughterhouse. It has this rawness to it, you know, mixed with ordnance. And it puts this aroma over the place. The only other place I've smelled that kind of stuff is the slaughterhouse. It's fresh, very different, and it's pungent. You can smell it for a long way. And you don't forget it. And you know what it is. No one has to tell you. It's really - it's a smell of gutted death. But we took the tree line. Moved forward. Took the ground. Which was the stupidest thing to ever do anyhow, take the ground. Just gonna leave it anyway.
Remember those old Marine movies? When they hit the beaches? Ramp hits down? Everybody comes out running? We did that one time. Cua Viet. We kind o' like leap-frogged, you know. Then all of a sudden we're setting up our pit and our mortars, when all of a sudden...you ever smelled a dead dog? No dead dog compares to smelling a dead body, man. I mean, it is so rank. Nothing like it. We get on top of this beach, there was two black marines. Heads cut off. Dead black Americans. Either that or the sun did a good job of barbecuing these guys. No heads. I don't know how long they'd been there, but their skin is already, like, busting up because of the heat. You already see their skin crackling, you know. Where you see the inside kind o' like wanting to bust out. They wore jungle boots, otherwise they were naked. Already turned into, like...you know, in school? When frogs are dead? How their limbs are kind o' like, semi-stretched out, but almost like in the fetus, kind o' like, well, like a frog. You know, if you're gonna teach about dead frogs? Their chest is kind o' like out there stiff. That's how these guys were. We didn't know what to do. So we just buried 'em, you know. I mean, they're already in this crater. We just threw dirt on them. Said a prayer, you know. Lot o' the guys said, "Fuck it, man, leave 'em alone!" We said, "No man! We gotta maintain some kind o' dignity in this crazy place! Say a little prayer, you know? Make sure that the dead get buried, man."
We started in the flat sandy area around Quang Tri. Obviously they just wanted to break us in and get us used to what hell was like. Then we started to inch our way north. This was June. Hot. I remember flying over the Rock Pile. Of course, that was where the DMZ mountains began. I remember flying over that jungle thinking how beautiful this place is. What a great place if there wasn't a war going on.
We start on convoy to LZ Stud. A shell comes across and explodes on the north side of the truck. I'm just looking at it, man. Then another one explodes a little bit ahead of us. Didn't think nothin' of it. Guys behind the 50-caliber machine guns wearin' goggles, flak jackets over bare chests, like in a Sgt. Rock comic. You know what I mean? I'm just kind o' like in a numb state. You just try to maintain control. Later you think, Gooks were tryin' to walk in on our asses! And we do it too. Fire one round...
"Where'd it land?"
"Short, man, go down two clicks!"
Add some more yardage.
"Where'd that one land?"
Third round, man, better be on target!
Operation Hastings was the biggie for us. Nothing prior to that had involved NVA units. It was obvious this was the biggie. We started having brief sessions. Never'd done that before. Officers showed us pictorial maps. Told us what to expect. Told us we'd no longer be fighting VC, that this would be the NVA army. That they'd be equipped as well or better than us. And they were. I understand now this was the North's first big push into South Vietnam. I think we used five battalions of Marines to stop their 324-B Division. We choppered from Dong Ha into the DMZ foothills. We started patrolling into the mountains. Into the jungle.
When we got to LZ Stud, I got assigned to weapons' platoon, mortars. And what I liked about bein' over there, man, is your three-man teams, your fire team. They became your family. You looked after your family. And to me, mentally, that's a very strong way of handling movement out there, just puts everything kind o' in order. The gooks do the same thing. And also, when I first got there, I found out guys who got off the ship with me were already going back home in body bags. Right then I realized it was gonna be a game of luck and fate. I mean, it's like getting in a poker game: if you come out not losing your pants, you did all right; if you come out winning, better for you. But if you lose your life, well...that's the way it goes.
We kept saying that we were not going to do what the French did, because all the French did was build little outposts and stay in little outposts and let the enemy have control of the area. I remember very distinctly hearing the senior officers say, "We're going to make this a fluid war. We're going to be all over 'em!" We ended up in little outposts. Doin' the same thing the French did. You know, ended up in firebases. That's all we had was firebases. Con Thien, Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, they were all firebases. We didn't control anything. We'd move into an area, clear it out, and then pull out o' the thing. And ten minutes later they were all back in there.
After I got in the VA hospital, talking to the Army guys who'd fought down south, it was like they'd been in a totally different war. Every section was so totally different. Different types of obstacles. Sometimes I got that deja vu feeling. Stomping through the jungle, we'd come across old French forts, remnants of French brigades that'd been wiped out. There'd be gear and stuff laying around, old French helmets rotting. Felt kind o' like I've been here before. It was spooky. Like this will be my fate too; only thing left o' me will be a old helmet, rotting.
I kept yelling and crying and everything else, so they finally decided to put me out with 1st battalion, 9th Marines, an infantry battalion. 1/9 was called "the walking dead" at the time. And the stories you hear are absolutely true, "You're either going to be killed or wounded." For me, being a captain, it wasn't too shocking. But for the 18-year-old kids assigned to 1/9, being told that...poor kids didn't know what to do. And that was because 1/9 just constantly got into firefights. I don't know what it was, but wherever they went, the bad guys were there. So if you joined the walking dead, odds were you'd get wounded or killed.
What was it? 1/9? Yeah, "the walking dead." They came down the damn road, and I said "Oh, Christ, here we go, another shit sandwich." Those poor bastards.
There was a feeling at that time that it wasn't what we were doing, it was how we were doing it. It just didn't feel like we were following a good strategy of war from Washington. And a lot of kids were being killed by this strategy. The worst guy that we've had in our history is this Robert McNamara. I mean, there is not a spot in hell too hot for him. I've talked with some general officers who dealt with him a lot. Said they'd never seen anybody quite like him. Arrogant sonofabitch.
After training in Okinawa, I thought I knew what jungle was. But as we started to get into the DMZ, it became real obvious this wasn't anything like that. I'd never seen foliage that thick, impossible to cut or force your way through. We quickly got the gook sores, jungle rot, and 'cause we had to drink out of rivers and creeks, everybody had dysentery. Constantly had the runs. It got so bad we'd slit open the back of our pants, so when we had to squat, we'd just squat, then get right back up and keep movin'. I mean, it was like water. We never wore underwear. Never, never, never.
Thing people don't realize is the importance of water, carrying water. We carried five or six canteens always. Every marine, no matter what, carried at least 80 pounds. You had to carry extra water. You had to carry extra ammunition. And if you're bringing mortars, like the 60s [60mm mortar], everybody had to strap extra rounds onto 'em. No matter what, you're always carrying at least 80 pounds. And the heat's just horrendous.
I carried 60s. Humped it legs and all. With the plate and everything, came to about 42 pounds. You put it on your back, with the plate kind o' like resting on one side, holding on with the legs so it sat right. In addition, you carried maybe another 40 pounds: bush hat, two pairs o' socks, T-shirt, a towel you kind o' like put around your neck, two bandoleers, 14 loaded clips [of M16 ammunition], couple o' grenades, my E-tool [shovel], two or three days' C-rations [canned meals], a little bit o' C-4 [plastic explosive] - it cooked food faster. And it beat carrying all those little tablets too. All you need is a little bit. Pinch it a little bit on the side, set a light to it - foosh! - beats any microwave, man. I mean, that can o' pork slices be boiling in seconds flat. Extra mortars. And you carried a lot of water.
I remember one time without water, we couldn't get resupplied. And we came across a rice paddy that had stagnant wastewater on it. Water buffaloes, that's how they fertilize...green scum on top. We brushed the scum aside, put our canteens in the water, put tablets in it, let the iodine rest for half an hour, and then we drank it. You would never in a thousand years believe that people would do that. They will do anything for water. Food, probably the longest we ever went without food was five days. But you can survive without that. You can't live without water.
That's how Captain Wes Fox won his Medal of Honor. We had no water. We'd located a little stream off the edge of our ridgeline. So Fox took his company down there. Ran into an NVA position. The NVA'd always set up little enclaves around the streambeds. We found that numerous times up along the DMZ. God! We fought all day and night. We dragged the wounded marines up the ridgeline. The Navy corpsmen were just dynamite. They were bandaging wounds with the cellophane wrappings that ammunition came in, trying to stem the flow of blood. We couldn't get any helicopters in. Whole trail along the ridgeline was used as the infirmary. It was a hell of a fight! Fox ended up fighting with the NVA from something like 3:00 in the afternoon to almost 3:00 in the morning. It was a heck of a day.
We're set up all night on LP [listening post] on this little hill. My buddy that I told you stole my Purple Heart...Jerome? Called 'im Jerry. He was down with the squad leader at the bottom. Me and Deke, my other buddy, and this guy named McBride, we're on top sitting kind o' at corners. Very next morning, Jerry yells at us to come down. So we come down the hill, kind o' in single file to where the trail splits. This McBride guy, who I just met, is supposed to go left but goes right to take a leak. And steps on a box mine. Blows several fingers off of his hand. Blows his heel off. So I run down to him. One of his fingers is hangin' there from skin and stuff. I fold it over, put a bandage on it, and I yell over, "Where are you guys? This guy's hurt!" Jerry yells back, "Squad leader's dead!" I'm thinkin' What? In reality he wasn't dead, yet. But this box mine didn't have a lot of shrapnel, right? IT was all explosive. Somehow it blew a rock or something clear over to under the squad leader's flak jacket and into his heart. He died on the helicopter. Guy who steps on it, he lives. It's strange.
Our strength was usually about 130. Lowest, I guess, was 103, about half a company. Then we'd get replacements up to a high of 200. Then guys started dropping of malaria. There was a strain of malaria up along the DMZ that we didn't have any kind o' cure for. We lost hundreds of troops to this malaria. And we had another thing that was called "jungle rot"; and what'd happen is you'd get a scrape on your arm, and you'd wash it off or something like that, and all of a sudden it would start to boil up. Only thing that really cured it was penicillin. Some of the senior commanders believed that the junior commanders just weren't taking care of their troops. That was not true at all. Whatever it was up in that DMZ, just - oh, it was horrendous. We had to medevac a number of people because of that jungle rot.
It was a grunt, a rifleman. Walked a lot o' point. You carried a machete and it was scarier'n hell. In the jungle, it was all search and destroy. Kind of. We stumble into them, they stumble into us. Just whoever saw who first started shooting. Because you couldn't see! You didn't know what you'd walk into. Longest you could walk point was maybe 40 minutes. Hands were all blistered. Where we landed was very mountainous, very thick jungle. Very few places to land helicopters. You'd sometimes go seven, eight days without resupply. It was real tough. And if you had wounded, trying to find an LZ for a medevac was a real problem. One particular night, right after India Company got wiped out, we were on the same hill. We'd relieved what was left of 'em. I remember it was my 19th birthday. We got overrun that night. They broke through our perimeter, and it got pretty hairy for a while. It was just mass confusion. One of the few things I liked about the movie Platoon was the chaos, you know, and the craziness. The feeling at night, you know, in a firefight. Nobody knows what the hell is going on. Bullets flying everywhere. Just complete confusion. And the thing is, because the jungle is so thick, each little battle is isolated. It's usually only a small group of men involved in any particular battle. You know what I'm saying? The jungle is so thick. And if you're in the middle or towards the back, you really don't know what's goin' on.
They dropped us from a Chinook, you know, tail drops down...and there's high elephant grass, six, seven feet up. Sergeant says, "Go!" I step off and fall five feet. Eighty pounds of weight on me, right? Two guys fall on top of me. We finally get untangled and go into this jungle. We find aid stations and freshly buried NVA. This is close to the Laotian boarder. And we come out in this canyon - black marble, emerald-green rocks, trees growing out of it, waterfalls - most beautiful place I've seen. We get about halfway down, and some Marine slips and breaks his leg. So we carry 'im back out. We're there two or three days, don't find anything. They say, "Okay, we're gonna take a couple days off." Bring in beer and soda - hot beer and soda, right? I trade my soda for another can of beer, three cans of beer. Pretty soon I've got a buzz on. Then the word, "Somebody's getting hit! Saddle up!" So we saddle up, helicopters come, they fly us to the foot of the hills. And we assault up 'em. Second platoon runs into all kinds of shit. We take fire on our hill, but not much. For second platoon, it's a John Wayne, screaming, yelling, while we cover 'em. One of their gunners, who I knew, has his 60 jam and had a Chicom [Chinese Communist grenade] blow up between his legs. When it's over, we hump over to 'em. There's dead enemy all around, one's Chinese...belt with a big red star, taller'n everybody, you know, the prize! They tell us to set up a perimeter. But I'm so tired. Drunk in the sun. Just saw a John Wayne thing. Just put 500 rounds through my rifle. And I sit down in the open and say, "I don't care if they can see me from Hanoi, fuck it!" All of a sudden an explosion goes off, and I'm rolling down this hill! I'm thinkin', Oh, my God.... Well, somebody behind me'd tripped a booby trap. He took shrap-metal in the stomach, but he lived. I got shrap metal in my neck, back, my side, my hip, my leg...second Purple Heart, right? Anyway, maybe I should've got behind something.
I made it through Hastings, although I had some very close calls. I was walking point and they had us switch. So the next fire team moved up, took over point, and we moved to the back of the company. Not two minutes later they walked into an ambush. First six or seven guys were killed. Just unbelievable. And you always wonder, Why them? You know, Why not me? You always play that game with yourself. You basically just learn to shut yourself off. Close down all your emotions.
One thing I respect is the will of death. I respect that. A couple of my friends said if they gotta die, get killed, they didn't wanna get killed in the face. They didn't wanna get killed with their teeth blown out. And that's exactly how they died. So I don't ever tell death how not to take me, 'cause that's how death will come.
Con Thien looked like World War III had been fought there. Very, very, very depressing. No trees or anything. Flat. Rocks. Red-brown dirt. Shallow craters everywhere. It was a firebase on a little hill surrounded by barbed wire and 60,000 mines. You could see south to Dong Ha. East to Gulf of Tonkin. West to the mountains. And north to the tree line, DMZ. Ninth Marines actually got to that tree line. Hand-to-hand fighting. All those guys were dead or gone. We replaced what was left of 'em. Same things happened to us. Every time we left the wire we got hit. In my 82 days at Con Thien, I took two showers. We took incoming 152s two or three times a day. Officers were afraid to send us outside the wire. Probably because of what happened to the 9th Marines. The one time we almost made it to the tree line, we got the shit kicked out of us. Night before that my buddy shot Flash's finger off.
It was a hell of a night. Weather was getting nasty. And they wanted to send out a patrol. No one wanted to go. That day we'd been hit outside. So we had people actually asking the lieutenant, Why the hell you wanna send us out on this night? After we just got attacked? And what nobody realized at the time, some of our own rounds that day had been short. Landed in the minefield. Nobody paid any attention.
So it got dark. First thing that happened, Flash got his finger shot off. We all knew we were going to the tree line the next day. I mean, we'd swept south, we'd swept west, we'd swept east. We had never swept north. Flash says, "I ain't goin'!" So Flash and Deke went alone to the bunker where Flash lived. They said Flash's rifle slipped over and went off. Blew off his finger. Everybody knew. So Flash was taken away, and they sent out this night patrol. Con Thien had a safepath that zig-zagged through the minefield with guide wires. But one o' those short rounds'd blown up the guide-wire. Nobody knew. It's a raining, nasty night. Point guy doesn't know the wire's down, and he wanders into the minefield. Gets a ways out there. Next guy is a black Marine from Georgia, got in-country that day, he steps on a mine and blows his leg off. One of the corpsmen, Doc Loyd, who I shared a bunker with (good guy, roly-poly kind o' guy, wife just had a son he'd never seen), he goes in to get him. "No, Doc! You're in the minefield!" Doc says, "Bullshit!" Goes in and gets him. Doc's dragging him out, steps on a mine, gets blown away. Doc Loyd gets killed.
Next morning Deke says to the lieutenant, "Why the hell d'you send those people out there?" And he takes a swing at him. They put Deke in irons, ship him off, and I never see him again in my life. This all happens just as we're leaving the wire for the tree line. So they walk us out the north gate. Half the way there this new lieutenant sees a wire, picks it up and pulls it. And this explosion goes off. "Everyone okay? Okay! Everyone okay? All right! It's okay!" We stand up and start walking. All of a sudden mortars are raining from two areas. The NVA put that wire there hoping some dumb kid would trip it, not that some dumb lieutenant'd pull it. We were zeroed in. NVA had predesignated coordinates for their mortars. When the lieutenant set it off, they start dropping mortars on top of us. I mean, exactly where we are. Right in the middle of us. It was chaos. Very loud. Mortars coming in. Feel 'em explode. Smell the powder. People screaming.
I had a LAW [light anti-tank weapon] over my shoulder. Top [first sergeant] says "Shoot over there!" We were taking fire from the tree line. I'd shot LAWs a couple of times in training. Later I'd shoot quite a few of 'em, and there's no recoil. I know this. But I was so excited or whatever, that when I fired this thing, I leaned into it. It landed a third of the way to the tree line. And here we are, mortars exploding around us, we're taking automatic fire, and standing straight up in the middle of it's a six-foot-four top screaming, "You are the biggest idiot in Marine Corps history! The dumbest sonofabitch that ever lived! The biggest lowlife in the civilized world!"
I said, "Top, can we get behind a rock?"
Marines were callin' fire down on themselves, 'cause the damn NVA are so close! I remember the church, 60, 70 meters off the church. And a tree line there that the bad guys were in. They wanted us to hit it. But the Marines calling for it are only 10 meters away. Our pilot, Major Reynolds, says, "No, we'll hit you guys!" They said, "We don't care! You gotta help us!" SO we did. I fired a couple boxes of ammunition into that tree line. Not seein' what I'm firing at, just firing at where I think they're gonna be. Sittin' there with a damn M60 machine gun shooting at the...watchin' my tracers, hoping I'm hittin' the bad guys, not the good guys. We made six runs, then back to Dong Ha and load up more ammo, more rockets, and do it again.
Then the damn 34s would go in for medevac. And we'd fly the chase, you know, circle the area...someone fired at them, we'd fire back. The NVA had our equipment. Wore our flak jackets. Helmets. Had our M16s. Stole it off our casualties, took it off our dead. And they'd set those damn traps with our dead and wounded out there. Knowing that the Marines would go in, balls to the wall. Try to get our wounded out, our dead out. NVA'd even fake bein' one of our people. They'd suck us in on those. Just wait for us to come in and get our people. Because Marine Corps...we don't leave our dead behind.
I was around the Rockpile, yeah. Mutter's Ridge, as you say. It was named after the call sign for 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. "Mutter" was 3/4, and because I was with Kilo Company, I was "Mutter-kilo." We'd call in, "Mutter, Mutter-Kilo." And they'd respond, "Mutter-Kilo, Mutter." I'm sure intelligence on the other side was wondering, Who are these goofs?
I was forward observer, aerial and on-ground. We were lost all the time. Jesus Christ, in the DMZ, nobody knew where the hell we were. It was just difficult. You know, you're walkin' around in these jungles, and helos put you here, and they say you're there, and you're not there, you're two hills off. And tryin' to fire artillery? I remember one day we prefired our artillery - we saw some clearing, wanted to fire at something - and I remember this kid goes, "Oh, oh! FO's puttin' his helmet on, this is gonna be serious!" There were so many accidents. The 81s, hell, nobody even wanted to use them. They were so inaccurate. So many accidents.
I flew bird-dog in a tiny Cessna, sat behind the pilot. That's where I saw that 881 South, the Hill Fights, I think they called it. Just to get out away from Al Gray for a while, I'd volunteered to go to the Khe Sanh. And I never saw so many airplanes in my life. I mean, A-4s [fighter jets] came underneath us. They'd radio, "I got ya, buddy, don't worry!" Can you imagine us? In our little Piper Cub? A-4s on air strikes flying under us, VROOOOM.
We flew really low at times, you know, 500 feet, 600 feet. We'd go down and check things out. Mark targets with hand-smokes, too, after we ran out of our rockets. We had six rockets. We'd throw hand-smokes out the windows to mark the targets. And then the jets - "I see your target!" you know, they'd take over from there.
So we circle Hill 881, and I see about 15 NVA bodies. One of 'em, uh...torso only, legs someplace else - still see it. We'd just called an air strike in on 'em. We called air strikes, air strikes, air strikes. We had so much air stacked up. So next day we go back up, I get hold of a Marine on the ground, say, "Hey, how many guys? What's your score down there? I saw 15 yesterday." He says, "Sir, they were all Marines." God. We clobbered our own marines. We thought they were the enemy, you know, 'cause we - you'd see 'em, you know, all the explosions that were going on.
When we had the battle of the hills north of Khe Sanh, I happened to be at Phu Bai, Delta Med. I had to help unload the Marine's bodies. That was one hell of a job. Our squadron used two Hueys to resupply Khe Sanh every week. They brought in 123 bodies. These were the Marines that got killed because their M16s malfunctioned. You know, that wonderful Matty-Mattel Special. These were the guys killed with their damn cleaning rod in their weapon trying to clear the damn thing. But it was Marines in this damn thing, you know, in body bags that we were unloading at Detla Med there. And that damn [Dan] Rather came by and shoved a microphone in my face and said, "This is a worthless war, don't you think so, sergeant?" I said, "Get your ass outta here before I put you in one of those body bags." I just had no respect for that man. He would try to pick somebody that was really in an emotional state and try to get him to say something on the air. I hated those damn press people. I would've loved to put 'em all in a helicopter and shot it down.
We picked up some ROKs [Republic of Korea marines] one time. Lt. Bell was flying. And they had some VC prisoner they were bringing back for questioning. We were giving 'em a lift. So this ROK colonel and some enlisted guy started interviewing this guy. They were speaking Vietnamese, but I could pick out enough to know the VC was telling 'em to "get fucked" all the time. You know, "I ain't tellin' you shit!" or whatever their expression was. And I was watching the scenery, hearing 'em argue and all that. And finally those ROKs just threw 'im off the chopper. We were about 3500 feet up. I called up the front, "Hey, they just threw the Vietnamese guy off!" Bell looks back, and these ROKs are just laughin' their asses off.
ROKs? Great troops! I would love to have them on our flank. The ROKs would come in to an area, go to the chief and say, "We're here to help you. But if we take any fire from you, you're history." And so the damn Vietcong wouldn't screw around with 'em, because the ROKs would completely destroy the ville and the VC's supplies. They didn't fuck with the damn ROKs. I've seen the damn ROKs. They'd take three prisoners, and by the time they'd kicked two out, the other one's chattering like a Chinaman. That's the way they got 'em to talk. They were vicious, disciplined troops. I mean, if you fell asleep on post, you didn't get office hours, you got shot on the parade deck. They would shoot you in front of the unit. And it's not recorded - must be recorded - the number of villages the ROKs destroyed over there. But it was yellow man killing yellow man, so it didn't make the headlines. But they did annihilate a lot of villages.
That's probably so. They're mean people. Just lookin' at 'em...they don't smile or anything.
We'd just dropped off five or six of 'em. Bell and the lieutenant colonel were writing shit in their logs. We're sittin' there on a dike, idling. Revved up, got up about 600 feet. Started taking a lot of fire. They hit Bell and killed him. They also shot the lieutenant colonel. We started oscillating. I was off to the side, so I wasn't gettin' shit. Lieutenant colonel took control, but we went down. I started seeing hydraulic smoke comin' out. Tail-rotor of the chopper hit first. I just jumped. Hit the water. Only thing I had was my 45. I started running. I was gonna cross the dike and go where the ROKs were headed. But I saw the lieutenant colonel wasn't gettin' out. I knew Bell was dead, his head was gone. I went back and grabbed [the lieutenant colonel] and humped him out. To the dike. This [enemy] group was firin' AKs. Got to the top of the dike, his weight...just rolled down the dike. I thought he was dead. We laid in the water, I saw enemy comin' just pulled him over me. It was the ROKs. They came back. They were right there. I mean, the ROKs just fuckin' killed 'em all. They didn't just shoot 'em once, it was boom, boom, boom, even into dead bodies. The ROKs saved our asses. Saved our asses big time.
Including dead, I had 164 casualties in a company of about 130. That means a lot of Marines got wounded more than once. Operation Dewey Canyon was in the A Shau Valley. A firefight a day down in there. We initially went into Firebase Erskine, which was under constant artillery attack. We couldn't figure out where the artillery was coming from. Well, we set up one night on a ridgeline and thought we heard tanks. Tanks coming up towards us! So they turned all available artillery over to me. And we shot six batteries of artillery at a hill near Laos throughout the night. Next morning we commenced again. And when we walked into that area, it's the damnedest sight I ever saw. I mean, in thick, triple-canopy jungle, not even a blade of grass. That's no exaggeration. Not a blade of grass was standing. We'd completely denuded the entire hill. Everything. Obliterated it! Found a lot o' bodies. We continued down the ridgeline, engaged a bunch more NVA, killed 'em all. And we found two huge cannons. I mean, I called back, and they asked, "What kind o' guns?" My description: "Big...fuckin'...guns!" Turned out to be Russian guns our intelligence didn't even know the Russians had in their inventory. Therefore, we didn't know they had such range! That's how they were hitting Erskine.
We finished the attack right at the border, so we reconned into Laos. And we found a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Right on the border! These guys never expected we'd do such a dastardly thing. So they built the trail not 20 yards across the border. Under the canopy, they had carved out a hard-pack dirt road. On portions of it, for lack of a better description, they'd built Exxon stations! Fuel. Oil. Repair parts. Trucks could pull into these little dugouts, refuel, replace tires. And we found ammo pits. Weapons from Russia, China, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, even Swedish stuff. There were bunches of Chinese rifles in there. That was a thing to see! Had the basic rifle, okay? The SKS. Then it was wrapped in gauze. Then it had a coating of wax on top of that. Then that was wrapped in brown tar-paper. That was put into a metal can. The metal can was sealed. That's how they shipped the weapons. These weapons could be underground for 200 years, and those weapons would fire.
Here's another thing, Ray. The press were always portraying these guys as having sandals and spears. That they were a low-class, lowlife enemy. But the NVA were better armed and better equipped than we were. They were a tough, tenacious soldier. They were good fighters. I mean, I got a lot o' respect for them. They were tough guys! They were nothing like they were portrayed by the press. When we later went back up on that denuded hill and into the bunkers, we found all the firing data on these guns. Found it written in Vietnamese, French, and Russian. The noise we'd thought were tanks were Russian halftracs. We'd helicoptered in, and they never expected us. They were trying to drag these guns back into Laos.
Rico, this guy, crazy guy. He was loaded high on dope at LZ Cate. And all of a sudden three fire missions come up. Troops all start calling this guy, hit this target, you know. And he's coordinating it, when another thing comes in. So he's coordinating all that, and another thing comes in! All at the same time! Three different fire missions! You know, that means getting the coordinates, figuring out where you are at, interpreting information for these guys so to shoot, and not getting mixed up! He was high on dope! That Rico, man. He got stripes for that.
Routine one-day patrol. Walking point. Got help up for, don't know why, an inordinate amount of time. I'd turned to say something to this guy...remember the look on his face. Eyes kind o' got big, he started to bring his rifle up. This gook'd popped out a spider hole. Before I could even spin around the bullet hit. Felt like being punched hard in the lower back. Actually had a flak jacket on that day, flak jacket and pack. Bullet went through both. Legs just went out from under me, just kind o' gave out. Just collapsed. Within a few minutes, my legs feel like they're on fire, like a blowtorch is runnin' up and down my legs. Corpsman gets to me. Then it starts raining. Remember it raining real hard. They pulled me into a depression on my stomach. The hole started filling with water. Tried to hold my head up. I kept asking, "Is my spine hit?" And, uh...all he'd say is, "Naw, doesn't look like it."
I almost shot a kid once. And I know that many, many men over there did shoot kids. But those kids, they blew up a lot of GIs. But I think also a lot of guys did it, just...just because they could get away with it. And to me, even though they could get away with it, it's still wrong if there is no reason. You know? I remember pulling out of Quang Tri once, and the kid comes running out between these little hooches. He must've been seven, eight years old. Little shorts on him. And he's throwing what to me looks kind o' like a Chicom, little handle on it. He's throwing it at us. And I saw it. And I had a 45, turned it around, aimed at the kid, feeling the trigger. You know what I mean? Because I'd cocked it, and I was ready. And then I see the thing kind o' like hit the back o' the truck and...and...I said to myself, No need to kill the guy. Kid just took off running. And that was it. It might've been a different story if, you know...you know what I mean?
They called the operation Pegasus. Purpose was to reopen Highway 9 and relieve Khe Sanh. Army ended up getting the credit for it, but they ain't the ones that walked down that road. My squad and platoon were point from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh. We followed the river through some pretty rough mountains. You'd come to a corner - this's where I told you I fired a lot of LAWs - anything looked like a cave, you'd fire a LAW. Or walk up and blow it up. One guy we lost...one of the most traumatic moments. My friend, Marty, they'd sent him to Vietnamese language school, and he was working with command. And he was a radioman. He had made friends with a lot of the command people, you know, who didn't go out on the patrols. This one guy, who was a good friend of Marty's, was driving a mule, bringing supplies back up from the rear to the front. You remember on the mules, how you set up over the left front tire? He drove that tire over a mine. Blew him up. We couldn't find him. And we're looking all around for him. Finally we found him. He was pretty well dead. Top asked me and Marty if we would pick him up and put him on the poncho and take him to the helicopter. And it was like, this guy was a big guy, 200 pounds. Big guy, right? He didn't have nay blood or anything, just part of his upper body. And when I lifted him, it was like lifting 20 pounds. It went through me then, this is no longer - this is not a person. Weighed 20 pounds! My friend Marty, he sat down and cried and cried and cried.
Some recon came up from Khe Sanh to our hills. We could see the DMZ, could see North Vietnam way over there. And between us is a valley. Recon tells us, "There's a freeway of NVA down there." I mean, from up here all we saw was trees and everything. They said, "Down there, man, they're everywhere." So they go down there. About five days later, recon's coming back. They're getting chased. They radio us to get ready. We hear sporadic gunfire. Then it gets intense. Oh, shit! We want to throw down some mortars. "No, we don't know where they're at! What if we hit these guys?" Then here comes a Chinook - looks like a big weenie ready to fart - comes around - whump! whump! whump! whump! Gunner's firing - ta! ta! ta! ta! ta! We're thinkin', Oh, shit! Chinook hovers there like a bird of prey, motionless-like then all of a sudden swoops. Smoke's coming out of the helicopter. Black smoke. They disappear firing - ta! ta! ta! tat! - like it's the Fourth of July. We're thinkin', Sonofabitch, man! They just downed a helicopter and kicked some recon's ass! They're gonna be energized, full of intent. Now they gonna come up for us! That to me is shitty. You know, all this animal comes out. We're getting ready, lining rounds up, ranging sights, everybody's kind o' like in a frenzy. All of a sudden the helicopter comes up. They got the recon. Gunner's still shooting - ta! ta! ta! ta! ta! My understanding is two or three got wounded bad. But like the Phoenix, that bird just rose from the ashes. "Yes!" We pound more mortars down there, man. Then it's okay.
I remember the red clay. Scary place. They said, "Get down to the runway! People are getting hit!" What'd happened was the classic. They'd sent in a squad that'd got hit. So they sent in a platoon. They got hit. So they send in a company. NVA just jumped on 'em, right? So they call us. We're going, right? And we're sitting on the runway waiting for the helicopters to come, and here comes this little bird-dog spotter plane? Didn't have a tail! And it's wobbling all over the place. It hits the ground and goes nose first. Right in front of us! Pilot walks away. We're thinkin', That's where we're goin'? And right then, who comes walking up the trench line? Walking up the trench line at Khe Sanh? Flash! Big grin on his face. His finger missing.
I don't know what else to tell you, man. There's stuff I'm not too proud of. There's Mosely, um...only tellin' this because that guy...there came a time when I became kind o'like unofficially in charge. There's the captain and the sergeant, but outside o' that, we had things under control. You know what I mean? If we wanted to smoke, we had it under control. Wanted beer, we had that under control. Needed any special supplies, next guy in on the chopper had it under control. But this one time, we're on this bill, and Mosely, he had, like, a month go to, whispers, "Little One, I don't wanna go out!" Because they told us we were going into the DMZ. There was heavy movement. In other words, the shit's gonna hit the fan. And we kind o', like, did a little bit of letter writing, but Mosely, he was short. He goes, "I feel it, man! I'm gonna die!"
"Relax, man! Don't be talkin' like that."
"You gotta do somethin', man!"
I don't know who came up with the idea, I think it was him and Sal, but somebody says, "We'll break your finger."
"Yeah, man! Break my finger!"
So we go up the side of the hill, get the M14, make sure it's clear of any rounds, put his finger between two rocks, and oomph! hit him a couple of times. Then my buddy grabs Mosely's fingers and cracks 'em back. Mosely goes, "Owwwww..." wanting to cry, you know. I say, "Okay, see the sergeant and the lieuy over there talking?"
"Yeah, yeah, shit..."
"You're gonna pass by, not gonna salute, just say 'How's it going? And you see that hole right next to them?"
"Soon as you say hi you're gonna take your eyes off the road, and you're gonna slip, and when you slip, you're gonna try an' stop your fall with your broken hand."
Sure enough, it worked out like a charm. I couldn't have planned anything better. Mosely went, "How's it going?" and he slipped and the lieutenant and the sergeant was there to see him have the accident. If it would have happened anywhere else, without them being there, they would figure something is funny. But they saw him. So, here comes the helicopters. Mosely gets on, his fingers all bandaged up, and he goes.
"Like, all right!"
"Hey man, have fun!"
Chopper takes off for LZ Stud. So now our thoughts come back to us. We're making sure all our gear is combat-ready. Don't carry too much stuff. Getting focused. Having your silent prayers, your silent thoughts. We get on the choppers, start - whump, whump whump - flying towards the "Z", and all of a sudden, Fuck, man! the choppers - whump, whump, whump - turn and follow Mosely into LZ Stud. And that night, man, we're all drinking beer, having hot food, taking showers, getting ready to go see the movies some of the guys already went to get some smoke, and we're all, like, "Yeah!" We're happy. And Mosely, he can't drink no beer, he's all alone with his fingers, man, thinking "Sonofabitch! Sonofabitch!"
And he came back. We're sitting in the trench line at Khe Sanh, which was a horrible, horrible place, six weeks later, I don't know. And here came Flash. Just knocked us over. Told us a doctor in Guam looked at his finger and said, "I know what you did, and you ain't gettin' away with it" and sent him back. And Flash's the same old guy. Great guy. He's comin' up tellin' us all about the new music, about a group called Cream.
And it's maybe a week later, this guy walks up and says, "We're looking for volunteers to go to a CAP [combined action program] unit." There's a bunch of people want to go. You know, everyone's "Me! Me! Me! Get me the hell out o' here!" So I walk to my lieutenant's tent and say, "I got more time in the bush'n anyone in my platoon. I've been wounded twice! I outdo everybody here."
He says, "Done."
Next day I'm at China Beach, drinkin' beer in the sun, the waves...war changed for me right then. I was out o' the bush. The CAP school was right on China Beach. We would do patrols in the neighborhoods around there. You'd go through people's back yards with clothes hanging. The enemy had clothes hanging on the line! You're goin' through, and the people are eating their dinner, looking at you, you know. I tried surfing. Did all kinds of stuff. Went swimming every day. Went to the club. I mean, one minute I'm at Khe Sanh, next minute I'm at China Beach. And, uh...think I told you, right? After I left for CAP school? My unit getting ambushed? Yeah, walking convoy patrol on Highway 9. Flash got killed. Along with most everybody else I knew.
Took 'em 30 minutes to get a helicopter, it was raining so hard. Went through two shots of morphine. As they were carrying me to the chopper, another sniper opened up. Really scared me. It's funny, 'cause I didn't feel like my injury was life threatening. I do remember thinking, Stay awake, don't go to sleep.... They flew me to an aid station in Chu Lai, looked at me, then flew me to Da Nang. Put me on what's called a Striker Frame, don't even know if they use 'em anymore, to keep my spinal cord immobile. Every half-hour they flip you over. Stayed there 25 days. To ship me back to the States, they put me in a full-body cast. A nightmare. Noise was real bad at the back of the plane. Everybody was screwed up. Two or three died on the flight. Kept telling myself, It's not permanent, it's not permanent. Landed in Japan for a night. Then on to Andrews Air Force Base
Feel kind o' like my grandmother right now, you know. My grandmother's dying. She's, like, 92. She's led a very strong life. When she was, like, 50, 60, she was one strong lady. And I'm talkin' about being a full-breasted mama, you know. And now she's slowly becoming smaller and smaller. I went to her the other day, and it seems to me she's talking things out, to empty herself of words, so that she can...for her moment of peace. And right now I mention that, because I'm just right now feeling that, all of this...all of this is coming out, you know.
I still think about the insects. Big old mosquitoes, man. I swear, noses like syringe needs. Army ants! Saw some hairy mothers. ugly-lookin' army ants. I'm talkin' like a brown river going through the jungle. A piece of work, those army ants. And the spiders, the hard-shelled, colorful spiders? And the rock apes, man. They're not insects, I know, more like baby orangutans. Like to swing through trees. Like to throw rocks. All of a sudden you have four, five, six rocks comin' at you. And leeches? Oh, shit. Big ugly ones bigger'n your finger. This black guy went to take a leak, and all of a sudden he turned around crying, "Ahhhhhhh!" like a baby. I said, "Hey, man, don't be showin' off your dick!" A leech's going into the head of his, uh...it was so funny, man, the helicopter came, and he's getting on with his pants halfway down, holding onto his dick and his leech.
I won't go into how I ended up there, but I was trying to fire a LAW into a cave up on the side of Marble Mountain. Keep coming back to LAWs, right? This sniper had us pinned down. And to get a good shot, I had to get exposed on this knoll. I pulled the LAW apart - three safeties, right? Pull one pin, slide the little thing on top, set it on my shoulder, looking through this pop-up sight, reaching back to pull the safety - the guy shoots me. Bullet goes in here [left armpit], hits my bandoleer [of M16 clips], and blows a little bitty piece of aluminum into here [right arm]. I rolled down and passed out.
And I'll tell you, just before I got out of the Marine Corps - 'cause I had to go back and do six weeks or somethin' - I bought a used, almost new Corvette Stingray. I'd saved all my pay. Didn't go whorin' and gamblin', spendin' all my money like a lot o' the guys did. When I got back to Camp Pendleton, Corporal Bangert had a better car than the goddamn company commander. I have to tell you, I had a couple years when I first came back that were out of character. More drinking, you know. The adjustment was just too hard. I got back in '68, married my first wife in '77. Sowed a whole bunch of wild oats. I mean, livin' down at the beach, makin' good decisions and some bad ones. Fortunately, no bad ones came back to bite me. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't just lived a charmed life.
Marble Mountain's five minutes away from the second largest hospital in Vietnam. Huge hospital. They put me in triage. Some o' the biggest battles ever fought in that area happened the night before. Special Forces camp got overrun. We watched 'em run up a Vietcong flag. Watched everybody retake it. Hueys firing. Battles everywhere. And the fighting's still going on. ROKs were trying to keep some bridge from getting overrun. They kept bringing 'em in. Legs blown off. Everything. Kept telling me, "Sorry, these people are worse off than you." Well, I kept rolling over on this bitty piece of aluminum in my arm. All of a sudden blood starts spurting up. It'd cut my medial artery and nerve. So they whip me into surgery. Today these fingers are numb, get very, very cold easily. Basically, I've taught myself to be a left-handed person. I can still write right-handed, until it starts to hurt.
After I'd been transferred out of 3/5, at the very end, they spread us all out, so everybody had different rotation dates. I went to 7th Communication Battalion for my final month. And one day I woke up and I couldn't hear. You know, it was like I'd gone deaf. I was frightened. So I went to sick bay. They stuck this plunger in my ear and squirted water. And all these rocks of mud and everything from helicopters dustin' off, just constantly going in the ear, all this stuff popped out. And when it all popped out, it's not only could I hear like the day before - I mean, it's like, My God!
At Bethesda Naval Hospital they waited on us hand and foot. The nurses, the doctors. They'd have ambassadors come by and shake our hands. The VIP treatment. My neurosurgeon, I remember him telling me, "Better get used to being in a wheelchair the rest of your life, 'cause you're never going to walk." I mean, he didn't use any diplomacy. Then they sent me to a VA hospital. McGuire Hospital, Richmond, Virginia. I'll never forget this place as long as I live. It was a pit. old building. Stink. Water stains everywhere. The attendants rolled me into this hallway and put a sheet over me. Turned out the lights. Then left. I waited in that hallway from 9:00 at night until the next morning. Didn't see a soul. Nineteen years old. Just cried my eyes out.
See this picture? That was me. I look at that and go, "Man...." But in our minds, we're young inside. We're alert. I always felt like we had an advantage over many family and friends back here, because they don't know what the fuck. To me, they're numb inside. Numb to television, numb to newspapers. Numb to everything. But we've been on the other side of things. We've been in a place where life and death make you sharp! Took away any hesitation. And coming home, it was hard. Because there's a purity in war. It's bad, but it doesn't get any more real. you know? Here we say, "See you next week." Over there, man, "God willing, we'll still be here in an hour, let's...." So it purified your thoughts. Yeah, you bull-shitted, but you knew when you were bull-shitting. Over here, man...I don't know. It's kind of funny. I was real scared going over there, but when I came home I wanted to go back.
First ten years back, I wouldn't even tell anybody I'd been to Vietnam. Today, in my circle of friends, I still have no one I discuss Vietnam with...except maybe trivial things. They weren't there. They don't know about it. I'm an oddball, you know, in the group of people I hang around. Vietnam was a blue-collar war. Poor man's war. It wasn't like World War II, where everybody went. But I'd still do what I did. I'm still proud of my service. Of all my experiences, I'd have to rate it among the things that greatly molded me. And molded me positively. The experience definitely puts priorities where they should be. Trivial things don't scare you. My priorities are not material things. They're different than a lot of people might think.
To be perfectly honest, there really aren't things that take me back to Vietnam. Not really. But I think that's because I've been fairly good at just burying that stuff in the subconscious. I didn't face all the horrible things that some Marines did. I was fairly fortunate. I saw a lot there. But I really wasn't, you know, balls to the wall. Of the lot I did see, though, I've been fairly successful at burying. And I have two ex-wives who will tell you that "If there's any stuff that Tim doesn't feel comfortable with, he's just gonna put it away." And that's probably true.
Some things bother me. One thing I'm bitter about is Marines were never allowed to be Marines in Vietnam. To truly fulfill their task of being a Marine and finish the job right. They said, "We're not allowed to do that." And I look back at what I went through...my time in Vietnam was not overall as bad as most. I think I had it pretty well made. I had about three or four months where it was all condensed. And I would not give that condensed part up. That was really enough. But I look back now and figure if I would've had a whole year or two at that intensity, I would probably have a whole lot more mental gymnastics to play with myself today.
I think the strongest revelation came in college. That's when I got real smart real fast. Big intellectual growth. I wanted to analyze everything, and it was so fresh. I began to understand how lucky I was. And the prices that kids paid...for nothing! Just so politicians wouldn't feel embarrassed. So that Robert McNamara wouldn't lose face. I mean, golly gee, didn't he just come out with a book? Twenty-five years later? "Whoops! Sorry about that, guys, I was wrong." You know? Or Johnson? Nixon? "If we lose Vietnam, uh...Thailand will be next." Okay! So if we lose the war, and that doesn't happen, then can we round up your ass and stick you in jail for life?
The '60s were such interesting times. So much turmoil. So much growth. And everything changed. The culture changed. Everything. And the war definitely was part of that. I mean, if you watched Forrest Gump...it was like that, right? But the 18-year-olds I was with were just like any other 18-year-olds. Just because they'd been chucked a rifle and then thrown into that horrible mess...they were still 18-year-olds.
Maybe we keep things inside because we know we were lucky. Have friends that ain't here no more. When I came back, for a long time I just said, "No, man." For about a month, I didn't care. "What is it? Give it to me!" I remember coming home one time and telling my dad, "I'm going into my room. Don't want nobody bothering me." Slept for about two days. My dad thought that I died, you know. Went in on Friday afternoon, didn't wake up till Sunday. And when I did wake up, I just stood naked in my room, and I felt hollow inside. Very hollow inside. Very strange. Right then and there I said, "Okay, let's get back." You know, try to get back and click in.
I've given some combat classes up in Camp Pendleton. I tell 'em, "In Vietnam, these 18-, 19-year-olds weren't just going out 100 meters. They were going out 2000 meters! In the middle of bad-guys country. At night." That's a frightening experience. That's a tough job. And these kids did that on a daily basis. I don't think the country has suffered because of what these guys did. I think the real Vietnam vet has been a credit to this society, although it's been greatly understated. We keep trying to portray 'em as this poor weirdo that's sittin' on the street, this homeless guy, you know. That's not it at all! That's a one-percentage, if it's that! You go up to a homeless guy on the street holding a sign saying, "Vietnam Vet" and ask,
"How old are ya?"
"Great. So you were about 10 years old when the war ended?"
I can't think of a guy I know of who is traumatized. Some guys have had to deal with an awful lot, yes. And the horribly wounded guys that technology kept alive, those guys suffered tremendously. Yet even all o' those guys I know of have maintained.
From 1954 to 1975, the Ben Hai River served as the demarcation line between the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) consisted of an area five kilometers to either side of the demarcation line. During the Vietnam War, the area just south of the DMZ was the domain of the United States Marine Corps. The Marines suffered 66,227 killed or wounded (22.5 percent) or almost one of every four Marines who served.
Larry Bangert worked in real estate for 20 years. Today he is a partner in a business specializing in the acquisition and sale of surplus industrial turbines. He lives in Carlsbad.
Tim Fagan completed his four-year enlistment as a drill instructor. In 1979 he returned to California to establish a job-recruitment agency. Today he owns a mortgage-loan brokerage and lives in San Diego.
John Fanning spent 34 years in the Marine Corps before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He is an "old mustang" (36-year-old sergeant when commissioned). His many awards and decorations include the Bronze Star with Combat "V", 14 Air Medals, Joint Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon with star, and a Vietnam Service Ribbon with five stars. He lives in San Diego.
Steve Fasching has spent over 25 years in business (beginning as a security supervisor for upscale clothiers). Today he is a marketing manager and owner of a consulting firm and lives in Cardiff by the Sea.
Jack Kelly retired as a "bird" colonel after 27 years in the Marine Corps. He served two tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer, earning two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He also served in the Gulf War. Today he raises thoroughbred racing horses and lives in Encinitas.
Leamond F. Lacy served 30-plus years in the Marine Corps before retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer. As a drill instructor, he was awarded the General Gerald C. Thomas Award for Inspirational Leadership (citation hangs in USMC Museum, MCRD). He has devoted 20 years to Little League baseball (coach and past league president) and lives in San Diego.
Ron Lightfoot is VA-rated 100 percent disabled. He served seven years as communications supervisor for Life Flight. Today he is a drug and alcohol counselor and lives with his wife and six children in Olivenhain.
Danny Romero spent 15 years (following the Marine Corps) working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as a union organizer. Today he is a printer and lives in Vista.
D. Strick (name abbreviated by request) was awarded three Purple Hearts during his eight months in Vietnam. He worked at General Dynamics for several years. Today he works in finance, enjoys spending time with his children and new grandson, and lives in Leucadia.