Convoy Surprise

Mail bag
Village Below Hill 52 on Way to Pick Up Mail Bag

Saturday, June 22, 1968

Waiting in anticipation of the convoy was agonizing.  Everyone wanted their mail . . . it had been nine days since the last mail call.  The convoy arrived at 1530 and was missing one truck.  It had hit a mine, and the driver had been medevaced with a broken leg.  The mailbag was left in the destroyed truck.

This surprise development became secondary to the miracle of Corporal Diaz arriving with the convoy.  He was sporting a shaved head with a 5-inch groove (scab) on top.  The angle of the bullet and some really crazy luck prevented it from entering his skull.  He was returned to duty two days after being shot. *

Captain Cavagnol called out, “Sergeant Kysor, front and center.”  I answered him, “Reporting as ordered, Sir.”  He told me to get my helmet, flak jacket and M-16 . . . He wanted me to ride shotgun in the Jeep, “We’re going to get the mail; the truck was towed to Hill 52.”

The 3 miles to Hill 52 was a straight shot.  There was no security, and Cavagnol confidently pushed the speed on the dirt road.  We arrived in less than 15 minutes.  After some inquiries, we found the truck and mailbag.  The vehicle was still loaded with 155mm rounds.  A Grunt Lieutenant asked what he should do with the stranded ammo shipment, and Cavagnol told him to request a Helo pickup and delivery.

We raced back to the Kilo compound without incident and were greeted with cheers.  Lieutenant Grant announced “Mail Call,”  and I received six letters.

There was another surprise . . . Three Mermite thermal containers were waiting to be opened, but they had an ominous white envelope marked, “Ptomaine.”  I opened the envelope, and a note from Sumo read:  Container #1 is Carolina Chowder, #2 Rainbow Jello and #3 Bigfeet ** for breakfast.  I gave the note to Cavagnol, and he started laughing and said, “Get your canteen cups.”

It was a good meal, and I heated my stashed can of white bread which was great with the chowder.  Everyone rinsed their canteen cups and had Jello for dessert.  Morale was high as everyone ate and read their mail.

I arranged Jenny’s letters by postmark and read them in order.  She was finishing the semester at Fresno State and was going to attend her sister’s graduation at Stanford University.  Then she would move to San Diego for summer school with her friend, Nancy.  Things were proceeding as planned, and our cat (Gus) would stay with her parents in Glendale.

After the sun went down, we had another campfire and heard Diaz’s story of being shot.  He recalled me bandaging his head but nothing else.  Going into shock from the loss of blood, he only remembered waking up in the Naval Hospital in Da Nang with IV’s hanging over him.

Diaz retrieved his guitar at Hill 65 and brought it with him to Thuong Duc.  Captain Cavagnol asked him to play a song of his choice, and as he tuned his guitar he said, “Bob Dylan,” and played Blowin’ in the Wind.  We quietly listened . . . the lyrics were profound, and he hit every note.  It was a moment of contemplation; I was thankful Diaz was alive.

* See previous blog “A Long Walk to Thuong Duc” June 13, !968

** See previous blog “Big Foot” March 29, 1968

Command Chronology Kilo 4/11 June 1968

Next Edition:  Volleyball Vietnamese Style

The Campfire

Thuong Duc
Sergeant Bivens’ Gun Crew in Kilo’s Thuong Duc Compound

Friday, June 21, 1968

Captain Cavagnol asked the Gunny to have the battery compound policed (cleaned up).  All wooden pallets, crates and material for a campfire were set aside.  We all knew he had a surprise up his sleeve, and as usual it would involve morale.

Finally after sunset a campfire was built, and everyone gathered around.  It was just like a summer YMCA camp.  It started with a corny skit.  A galvanized tub of water was brought to the fire, and Lieutenant Grant knelt before it . . . ready for “Baptism.”  Cavagnol dunked Grant’s head in the water for ten seconds, pulled him out and said, “Do you believe?”  Grant replied, “No Sir.”  Everyone was laughing as the Lieutenant was submerged again.  He was pulled out of the water and asked a second time, “Do you believe?”  The baptismal candidate gasped, “Sir, No Sir.”

As the skit continued, Grant took a deep breath and was again dunked.  He was under water for a long time . . . bubbles were coming up, and his head shot out of the water.  “YES SIR, I BELIEVE!”  Cavagnol asked, “What do you believe?”  The Lieutenant answered, “Sir, I believe you are trying to drown me.”  It was classic camp entertainment, and everyone clapped for the performance.

It was now time for the announcements.  Tomorrow a convoy from Hill 65 would bring mail and resupply us with a full 500-gallon water buffalo.  This in itself boosted our morale, but then Cavagnol added:  the “Mayor” (village chief) of Thuong Duc has challenged us to a volleyball game.  There will be a potluck picnic, and we will share food with them.

In a serious closing to this announcement, he said, “We will let them win the volleyball game and be good sports about it.”

Next Edition:  Convoy Surprise

Transplanting Rice Seedlings

Thursday June 20, 1968

Since the 26th Marines took over operations in the Thuong Duc area (the day after I arrived), Kilo battery had very few fire missions.  We could see the action in the hills and mountains to the north (especially at night), but they weren’t calling in fire missions.  We did fire sporadic rounds throughout the night, but they were preplanned H&I fire.

My sleep patterns changed in Thuong Duc, and I rarely slept more than three hours at a time.  From 2000 to 2300 was my primary sleep.  At midnight I was designated as the northern perimeter LP until 0400, and we used a “wired” phone connected to the CP to communicate.

The late watch was relaxing, and I was comfortably reclined in my fighting hole/hooch.  The moonlight was bright enough to view the fields and landscape in front of me.  I heard a long ShhhhhhH passing overhead and a series of loud booms in the distance.  I thought it was some sort of BIG artillery.  I usually slept, after being relieved, from 0400 to just after sunrise.

While I ate breakfast, the Mama-San showed up in the flooded plot with bundles of rice seedlings.  She started planting them by hand and stooped, constantly pushing the short stems into the mud.  She planted in perfectly straight rows and slogged her way back and forth across the paddy.

Captain Cavagnol announced that the noises we’d heard overhead during the night were gliding bombs from B-52’s.  They were targeting a suspected infiltration route.  After making my morning rounds of the perimeter wire, I sat with Doc Furman in the med tent, trying to stay out of the sun.  The Mama-San continued planting rice in the 100-degree heat.  It was exhausting just watching her.

After bathing in the river, I took another 2-hour nap before dinner.  Mama-San was almost finished planting and continued until after sunset.  It was a 13-hour day for her to plant the field.

Next Edition:  The Campfire

Survival of the Fittest

Wednesday, June 19, 1968

Doc Furman and I ate lunch together in the medical tent.  We sat side by side on one of the cots, facing out toward the rice fields.  The tent flaps were rolled up to allow air circulation.

Our conversation was about how differently people react to injuries.  One with a minor shrapnel wound in the arm cried in pain, and another with a gaping hole in the throat would stay calm.  Also there was Corporal Diaz with a serious head wound saying, “Bring me my guitar.”  Furman summed it up as “Survival of the Fittest.”  He considered it a Darwinian thing.

I was eating cold Beans and Weenies out of the can and said, “Hey look!”  There was a large brownish red caterpillar inching its way along in front of us.  Suddenly a purple florescent wasp swooped down and attacked the woolly worm.  The wasp instantly won the battle and was holding on to its prey with a death grip.  Doc said, “There it is, Survival of the Fittest.”  We were both mesmerized by this life and death struggle when out from under a cot leaped a frog.  Its tongue shot out and consumed the wasp and caterpillar.

Furman and I finished our lunch in silence (no one would believe this story).  I picked up the frog and tossed it into the rice paddy.  Furman said, “Why did you do that?”  I answered, “It don’t mean nuthin.”

I went to the river to take a cool dip.  As I walked onto the beach, one of the peepers started waving her arms and calling out.  A Marine in the water said, “Hey Sarge, she’s talking to you.”  I walked over to the bamboo, and she handed me a bar of homemade soap.  I took it and asked, “Ten (your name)?”  She answered, “Trinh.”  I thanked her (cam on) and gave her a nodding smile of friendship.  Trinh smiled back and made a quick bow . . . we were now friends.

The soap had an earthy fragrance (pungent, like Bay leaves).  I washed with my back to the peepers and didn’t lose my grip on this soap.

Next Edition:  Transplanting Rice Seedlings

C-Ration Burner

Tuesday, June 18, 1968

Every morning the trash was taken to our small dump site and burned.  Excess powder from our artillery was used to light the fire.  The powder looked like alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) and would burn off in a quick flash of bright intense flame.  It was like lighting fireworks in the street.

I got the idea to use the pellets for heating C-rats.  I buried a small engineer stake flush into the ground and filled the curved depression with a handful of powder.  My first attempt was a half canteen cup of water, and it worked; the water was hot in a few seconds.  I stirred in a packet of hot cocoa powder and had to wait for it to cool before drinking.

This new development made cooking easier.  The quantity of powder used could be tailored to the size of the container, and multiple cans could be heated simultaneously.  Soon after, everyone in the battery was sharing engineer stakes as cook stoves.

The fields to the north of my hooch were planted with manioc, a tuber similar to a sweet potato.  One patch of ground was fallow, and a Vietnamese woman was preparing the soil with a long-handled hoe.  It was close to our wire perimeter, about 25 yards out.  She had been working on this area for a few days and now was releasing water from a canal to flood the plot.

Captain Cavagnol explained that she was preparing to plant a late rice crop.  It would be harvested in October or November.  Rice plantings were staggered, and harvest season was spread over months.

My dinner was Ham and Muthers.  I split the contents into two batches and added a can of “pimento cheese spread” to one and “caraway cheese spread” to the other.  Both recipes were good with the steaming hot white bread.  I named the meal “Cheesy Muthers.”

Next Edition:  Survival of the Fittest


Losing My Soap

Monday, June 17, 1968

We looked forward to our afternoon swim sessions. The river flowed slowly with circling eddies on our side of the beach. Ten yards across, the water ran deeper and was adjacent to a steep embankment. Marines had carved steps into the elevated slope and leveled a space on top to function as a diving platform. The depth on the other side was only seven feet but was enough for “cannon ball” dives.

For myself, the river was a place to cool off and bathe; I never ventured to the deep side. The greenish water was murky and had low visibility. Red dragonflies skimmed the surface searching for hovering midge flies and mosquitoes. Several Marines found leaches attached to their skin so we were careful to inspect our bodies closely when getting out of the water.

Twenty yards downstream was a large clump of bamboo on the shore. It served as a privacy screen. Two young teenage girls hung out beyond the bamboo, and we called them “peepers.” They were weaving rice hats and watching the naked swimmers.

As I was washing with the remaining sliver of Dove soap* from R&R in Hawaii, it slipped out of my grasp. Lunging for the bar, it kept squirting away, and finally it was gone . . . too deep to see. I was irritated and slapped my hand on the water in frustration. The peepers laughed at my emotional outburst.

Losing the soap was upsetting because it had sentimental value. I wrote a letter to Jenny about this incident and dropped it in the mailbag that evening. We had received no mail since my arrival in Thuong Duc.

* See previous blog “R&R Hawaii” May 8, 1968

Next Edition: C-Ration Burner

Fighting Hole Design

Sunday, June 16, 1968

In high school I took classes in drafting, mechanical design and architecture.  My teacher was Mr. Burch, and his focus emphasized simplicity.  His motto was “Keep it Simple.”  After graduation I considered majoring in Architecture, but it required a lot of algebra, trigonometry and physics (my weak subjects).

The fighting hole was now 2 feet deep with a 6-inch perimeter of sandbags.  It was long enough for me to lie down comfortably (6 feet), and the width was about the length of my arm (30 inches).  This configuration was fine for sleeping but not comfortable for observation.  Kneeling to stay low was the issue.

After digging the hole slightly deeper, I then cut out a seat on the back side to sit with my feet flat on the floor.  The dirt was angled at the back to allow for a backrest.  The seat was deep enough so I could sit relaxed and use the sandbags for armrests (it was like a dirt recliner).  The floor and seat bottom were lined with leftover cardboard from C-rat cases.

It was a good basic design (simple), but I needed protection from rain.  My “shelter half” (canvas tarp) was the perfect size but required a framework to angle the run-off away from the hole.  There were clusters of timber bamboo near the river, and I used Papa-San’s * machete to cut down enough material to build a sturdy support for the canvas.  We had bailing wire which I used to lash the joints together and tie down the shelter half.  There was an unobstructed view from the fighting hole in all directions; the tarp acted as an umbrella.

This structure was now my new hooch, and I thought Mr. Burch would approve of the design.  A major benefit of the canopy was shade from the sun.  The east-west layout provided early morning sunlight and shade during the rest of the day.  As the sun sank below the mountains to the west in late afternoon, I could nap under the shelter.  The afternoon cloudbursts were noisy, but I stayed dry.

* See previous blog “Gifts” – May 20, 1968

Next Edition:  Losing My Soap