Wednesday, November 13, 1968
Sometimes visiting units on Hill 65 stood out. We had an Army gun battery on the hill for a few days (two 175mm guns), but they were moved shortly after blowing all the screens off the mess hall. We were in the concussion radius of an outbound round. Visitors weren’t always welcome and were carefully watched as suspicious characters.
There was a knock on the galley door before dinner (no one ever knocked), and a Navy Petty Officer wanted to speak to me. He was a baker from 1st Medical Battalion in Da Nang and wanted to meet with our baker (Reb). He had heard stories from Marines about our pastry bar and came to see it for himself.
After a short conversation, it was decided he would work with Reb during the night and return to Da Nang the next day. Compared to the hospital facility, our galley and bakery were primitive. 1st Med had commercial refrigeration and deck-style ovens. I was skeptical about the motives of this stranger.
Reb was a little chilly about this idea, but Sumo told him it was an opportunity (maybe there would be a reciprocal response). The two of them went to work after dark, making batches of sweet dough and created doughnuts, maple bars and sugar twists.
I got up at midnight to see how they were doing, and the two had become fast friends. As it turned out, “equipment” had nothing to do with the end results. Reb’s techniques (learned from Margaret in Sydney) were not in Navy/Marine Corps recipe guides. It was a craft. *
I went back to bed, knowing I was one day closer to going home.
* See previous blog, “Reb’s Story” August 18, 1968
Next Edition: Reb’s Invite
Tuesday, November 12, 1968
We always got the latest news from Fernando who attended the morning muster. Today’s briefing announced the new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Westerfield. He was now the fourth CO since my arrival in January. There was no Change of Command ceremony or meeting of section heads; we just continued with the daily routine.
All I really knew about Westerfield was that his skills in FDC were unmatched and he knew a lot about the AO’s (Aerial Observers). Being in FDC also gave him exposure to the Comm Center. He was the verbal connection between FDC and the Exec Pit.
It seemed to me his leadership style was to work closely with Top Culverhouse, Gunny Pavelcek and not to over manage us. My focus was on serving three hot meals a day. Less interaction between the cooks and officers was better for me.
My morale was dependent on mail delivery. As long as Jenny’s letters arrived, I was happy (even with the 5-day delay). Another TIME magazine came, and the articles seemed optimistic about the prospect of peace talks. I didn’t fall for that line of thinking. We were “locked into” this war. Talking? What the Hell? People are dying here. There was NOTHING in the November 1st issue about body counts or lives lost.
Next Edition: Visitor From 1st Med
Monday, November 11, 1968
Gunny Pavelcek agreed the cooks’ OP was overcrowded with the four of us. The bunker next to our hooch would be manned by Sumo and Fernando. Its blast walls provided safety and good fighting positions.
The thatch door (wall) was finished, and the OP blended into the background of the landscape. We had enough leftover woven reed and grass to wrap the 55-gallon drum on our shower.
After the sun set behind Charlie Ridge, I went to the cooks’ OP, lifted the thatch door and braced it open with a bamboo pole. The opposite horizon sunset was spectacular, and parallel rays of light converged into a blanket of violet haze beyond Hill 37.
Sipping my canteen cup of herbal tea, I noticed a pleasant fragrance . . . an earthy smell with a fresh scent as well. It was the thatch; the sun had baked the woven grass wall all day, and the OP absorbed the lush essence of the reeds. It reminded me of the Tiki Huts at the International Marketplace in Waikiki. *
The view of Arizona territory was beautiful. Light reflected off the Vu Gia River to the south, and the stars were starting to brighten against the darkening sky. I wondered about the Grunts in their perimeters, settling in for the night and trying to survive to fight another day. The war was built on the easy courage of these kids. Our involvement in this conflict was feeling more and more like a lost cause. I wondered if the “Law of Diminishing Returns” applied to war the same as it did in Economics.
* See previous blog, “Sunlight” May 9, 1968
Next Edition: Lieutenant Westerfield
Sunday, November 10, 1968
Traditionally the ceremony of cutting the cake was done with a “Mamaluke Sword.” The oldest Marine cut the cake, and the first portion went to the honored guest. The second piece was served to the oldest Marine who “passed the torch” to the youngest.
OUR honored guest was an M-16 with a bayonet stuck in the ground. Topped with a helmet and a pair of boots beneath, the first slice of cake was placed in front of the boots. Top Culverhouse said, “We honor the fallen — Semper Fidelis.”
This symbolism was playing out at every Marine Corps installation around the globe. Some were attending a Ball in Dress Blues, and others were marching in parades. Combat bases with Marines in jungle utilities were all eating cake. Either way, it put a lump in your throat and was a somber experience.
Reb was critical of the frosting and commented on it being too greasy, “It has the wrong ratio of shortening.” His assessment was refreshing to me, and I thought the instructors in baking school would agree. We didn’t have the luxury of high speed mixers. Everything was done by hand with elbow grease and in small batches. Mass production sacrificed quality.
At our weekly meeting in the Staff hooch, the Gunny asked about any worries or issues from the section heads. I was concerned about our new OP being cramped. With all four of us in such a small space, a B-40 could take us all out. He promised to check on it in the morning.
Next Edition: Arizona Nights
Saturday, November 9, 1968
The Admin truck returned with two Marine Corps Birthday cakes. One belonged to India Company, and the other was for Kilo Battery. Fernando had loaded the truck carefully, and each cake was protected by cases of chocolate milk cartons. The rest of the meats and produce were in the trailer.
After unloading, we delivered a cake to the India Company CP. It was a standard 18″ X 26″ two-layer cake. Their Gunny wanted me to keep the cake until tomorrow but I said, “No, we don’t have security to guard it.” He fell for my lame excuse and made room for the cake on an empty cot in the CP.
Back at the mess hall, Doc Driscoll was introducing a new Corpsman. His name was “Doc Wayne.” I looked at the embroidered name patch on his uniform (J.D. Wayne) and said, “Don’t tell me your first name is John.” It was his name: Hm 3rd Class John Duke Wayne. Referring to my nickname he said, “Is it Ptomaine, as in the poison?” I corrected him, “FOOD poisoning.” It was a good friendly first meeting until I asked, “When is Doc Furman leaving?” Driscoll said, “He left two days ago to CONUS.”
This hit me like a brick. How could he leave and not say goodbye? This news hung over me like a cloud. After a while I realized Furman was a sensitive guy behind the facade of his gruff personality. The emotion of saying goodbye was something he couldn’t afford. I wondered how he ever kept it all together.
Next Edition: Young and Old