The Long Road Back From Hill 55
REPUBLIC OF SOUTH VIETNAM (1968 – 1969)
The scent of the heated turkey loaf had my full attention. I had become addicted to the nasty stuff after a period of subsiding on rat-fucked rations consisting of beans and mother-fuckers and some really foul tuna delight.
This turkey loaf had real possibilities. I had to be careful not to the burn the bottom of the olive drab can even though the burned turkey still tasted better than the nauseating lima beans dredged up from a farm located in hell. I shaped another little cooking ball of C-4 to use on my pecan nut roll for desert. Had to be a little careful with the C-4, but it was pretty safe, and so very fast to get a meal ready.
I scooped out a cavity in the middle of the turkey loaf for the introduction of my special mixture of hot sauce and nuoc-mam (rotten fish oil). The nuoc-mam smelled terrible but it sat on the taste buds like a bite of key-lime pie. I trashed the bread without a second thought. No one and I mean no one, fucked around with the bread. I bet the guys at the bakery stateside were rolling on the floor laughing at the nasty joke they titled “bread”.
Some of this stuff was left over from the Korean War. I was too young to get involved in that one. From some of the stories I heard from some of the older guys on our block, it was a damn good thing, too.
No, I had the unfortunate good fortune to be involved the seemingly never-ending Southeast Asian War Games. We were either saving the clueless populace from the evils of Communism or projecting our war-mongering imperialism onto a helpless third-world country. It really depended on your perspective.
Vietnam was a beautiful country. It was a country of lush jungles, flooded marshlands, and urban areas with a strangely unique French flavor. The use of the French language intermixed with the Vietnamese language was a tribute to the many decades of French colonial influence in Indochina.
I had studied the history and culture of the area at a special school in the Washington, D.C. area located not far from the Iwo Jima Memorial. I often went there to eat a very different and tastier lunch. A Marine disguised as a normal civilian. I think the short hair and the shiny black shoes were a dead giveaway. The school also included a special department for language training. It was supposedly of an almost fully immersed nature. I realized how non-immersed it really was after being “In-Country”.
This special training was pretty well wasted after being grabbed up in an “every swinging dick” raid on the Camp Pendleton, California base to press anyone standing and breathing to immediate deployment during the “Tet” offensive. I really didn’t care that much as I was curious to see the country I had trained to operate inside. My MOS at the time was still in Armor. I should explain MOS is yet another military term for Military Occupational Specialty. My actual MOS in Intelligence was never activated due to some SNAFU back in HQMC. (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) and (Headquarters Marine Corps) So the reason I was squatting in the dirt outside an abandoned French pillbox on the “safe” side of a rapidly flowing and totally opaque river was an administrative error. My current fixation on food was driven by a recent bout with amoebic dysentery that had pared over 40 lbs. off my already slender frame. It was quite a drastic reversal from being an obese child during my early school years.
Just a few hours prior, we had a monsoon type rainstorm that left the area steaming in a humid mist. The ground was already dry and only patches of the moisture could be found here and there in odd places. The solid French fort behind me pre-dated the debacle at Diem-Biem-Phu over a decade prior. When I first saw it, I was reminded of the photos of the World War II Maginot line touted by the French Army as the “Greatest Breakthrough in Defensive Warfare” since the introduction of the moat.
It did seem that pillboxes of this type were doomed to failure regardless of where they were located, along the coast of France, on isolated islands in the Pacific, or, even here in the middle of the Indochinese Jungle.
Despite all these facts, I found myself relying on the thick cement walls and excellent fields of fire it afforded well-armed defenders of this crucial avenue of approach into the vital airfield at Danang in central Vietnam.
This was I Corps area. It was a Marine area of responsibility. The Army considered the entire area of central Vietnam from the DMZ almost all the way down Highway 1 to just North of Saigon as the “boondocks”. An area fit only for Marines to take care of. It was far too vulnerable to infiltration from Laos and the populace was for the large part “non-pacified”
The pillbox was raised on top of crumbled rock laced liberally with interlocked razor sharp barbed wire. The barbed wire was a combination of tangled strands and more organized concertina hoops that looked formidable to me.
To the East there was an abandoned field that was clearly marked “Danger Live Mines”. I had never seen any person or animal venture into this area so I had to assume the warning was the truth. I certainly was not the one to question its basis in fact. Adding to the apparent danger was the unstable condition of some of the mines laid by earlier French Army residents.
Off to my right, on the West side of the circular building; I had a full panoramic view of the combination metal and wooden bridge that spanned the wide river that was part of the outer ring of defense around the all-important airfield in Danang. There were 3 concentric rings of defense around Danang. This was the outer ring, the most vulnerable one.
It was only about 10 days ago that the “Tet” offensive had breached all three rings and there was house to house fighting in the streets of Danang. Even now, he could see evidence of the chaos in the blackened ruins of the local RD force building that flanked the old French fort. The RDs were mostly wiped out in that attack that came in the middle of the night. They were a young bunch of teen-aged patriots trying to better the lives of the rural populace outside of the city. I was never really sure what the RD stood for, but I was told by a young Vietnamese girl it meant Rural Development. Then, another old man told me it actually meant Regional Defense force. The translation seemed to support the latter description a little bit better. They were armed with very old and light weapons.
When they got hit with the RPGs and the chi-com grenades, it was over before it even started. That was the night that decided me to not take my boots off at night and I kept that my modus operand for the remainder of my time in-country.
I counted 13 bodies we pulled from the burning building. They were all shot up pretty bad. There were even two girls in the band of young soldiers. I understood from a good PF (Popular Force) friend that these young people did not get paid and were all volunteers. It saddened me a great deal to think their patriotism to a decidedly corrupt central government in Saigon should be rewarded in such an unjust manner.
I helped body bag them after a little bit of a heated discussion with the platoon sergeant. He was of the opinion “we shouldn’t be wasting taxpayer dollars on burying gooks”. Since he outranked me by 2 stripes, I figured it was not a career enhancing move.
We buried them in a little peaceful grove down by the river. Nobody seemed to care about them and I guess all the documents got burned up in the fire. About a half dozen of the young kids from the village helped me put them in the ground. I used parts of a wood pallet to make little crosses for them. To be on the safe side, I had a monk from the road say a few words and shake some smoking sticks over them. I guess God would sort it all out on the other side.
An officer from the S-2 stopped by and told our Sergeant that we should be on the lookout for North Vietnamese “frogmen” who wanted to take down the river crossing. I was a little skeptical of this, but kept my mouth shut. Anyway, for a long time after that, we were having a high old time shooting at stuff floating downstream towards our bridge making sure there were no “frogmen” hiding inside. It was an opportunity to fine-tune my “off-shooting” technique. I got so good with that M-16 firing without aiming at moving targets that the other guys would come out just to watch me.
This “anti-frogman” operation reached a new height of absurdity when the Company Commander decided we would use a technique he had seen in an old World War II movie. I became well-versed in the use of munitions by creating C-4 on a string packages to catch underwater bad guys unawares. We would randomly lower small pieces of C-4 on a demolition cord into the water and detonate the explosive with blasting caps and remote triggers.
The only tricky part was placing the blasting cap into the C-4. I had always made a habit of not carrying any blasting caps on me when I had a load of C-4 in my backpack. They would even wake me up when I was sleeping to carry out this little chore. I guess they figured me being unmarried and easy-going; I would be a more receptive to volunteering for the job.
I didn’t mind too much because it let me stock up on my extra C-4 for cooking my C-rations.
After being at the bridge for almost 3 weeks, the hoopla of the Tet offensive subsided and things went back to normal. I have to admit nothing was really normal in Indochina in the days of the so-called Vietnam crisis. We kind of figured we were sort of on our own and even forgotten back in the Battalion Headquarters. I guess we got a mite bit complacent and “out of touch” with the big picture.
Although not very good with my hands except with guns, I decided to build a nice little “hooch” for me and a few of my close buddies. I situated it sort of defilade with the river bank. I figured that would keep stray rounds and shrapnel to a minimum.
Our primary construction materials were packed sand bags, stray pallets and pieces of tarpaulin from the supply tent. We had walls on three sides and it felt like an old time tree house only not in a tree.
The fact that the open side faced Danang was sensible and seemed appropriate, but in retrospect, I guess it was a little dumb, since the recent attack on the RD house came from that very same direction.
We even had a little “house mouse” in the form of a small Vietnamese boy who helped us keep it neat and clean and all shipshape and ready for inspection. My three cohorts never made it to the end of that first tour of duty. That was not particularly unusual in that time and place when nothing is certain and everything is just hanging from a fragile thread.
I remember that little “hooch” with fondness. It was a time when the only purpose in life was to survive.
(This story is essentially non-fiction and is a long-repressed memory of some 43 years ago. If there is a decent interest in the storyline, I will continue with successive chapters. It is not my usual cup of tea. Most of my stories are in the erotica genre)