Sunday, July 21, 1968
Gunny Pavelcek had been planning to hold a drill to test our new defensive positioning. He wanted to see how long it would take for each OP to be on station. We had a new air horn like the one Battalion Headquarters used to announce incoming rockets, and Pavelcek decided to use it for the “incoming” drill.
Reverend Starling was in the middle of one of his stories of the Gospel. Jesus was breaking up seven loaves of bread and giving the pieces to his disciples to serve in the field mess. There were also a few small fishes, and this limited menu was used to feed four thousand people.
All of us feared being called upon by Starling, and he did it regularly. I knew this story and was prepared to answer. Finally the question came, “Ptomaine, how is it possible to feed this many people on seven loaves of bread and a few fishes?”
Hoooonk . . . Hoooonk! The air horn blasted twice, and the mess deck emptied out. Everyone raced to their stations, and the drill was quickly completed. Reb and I were on top of the Exec Pit, manning the 50 cal. machine gun, when the Gunny yelled, “Secure.” Below us, Starling was standing in front of the medical hooch with his arms crossed. I shouted down to him, “IT WAS A MIRACLE.”
A group of Marines from the church service gathered around Reverend Starling as he finished his sermon. “As the Gunny has tested you with the INCOMING drill, Jesus similarly tested the faith of his disciples.” Starling always left us thinking . . . Was this a test? What was the lesson?
Next Edition: T.O.T.
Friday, July 19, 1968
Our commitment to replant the rice paddy was scheduled for today. The same six Marines involved in the rice field crop loss assembled for the work party. We arrived at “ground zero” of our handiwork and reported for duty to the elderly Mama-San. We were greeted by a dozen young women dressed in knee-high black pajamas. They planned to teach us how to plant the rice shoots.
Captain Cavagnol initially interpreted as we got started, and he gave us a verbal outline of the task at hand. It was a small paddy and had been prepared for planting. We took off our boots, rolled up our trousers and stepped into the ankle-deep muck.
When we began to plant the rice shoots, there was a lot of laughter at our awkwardness, but it was a bonding experience between each Marine and his tutor. As we finished a row and doubled back, the planting went quickly. We finished planting the small paddy by noon.
While we rinsed our muddy feet and put our boots on, Captain Cavagnol approached me and said, I’m heading to Da Nang.” He reached in his pocket, handed me a small box and offered, “I want you to have this.” It was a brand new stainless steel Zippo lighter. “This is to replace the lighter you traded at Thuong Duc.” * He squeezed my shoulder, and we said goodbye. He sat shotgun beside his driver who gunned the Jeep, and they disappeared into the dust.
Our work was done so we said “Tam biet,” to the girls. It was a worthy experience, and we had made some friends. We drove back to Hill 65, and I lit a cigarette with my new lighter. Wilson said, “Captain says you earned that lighter.” He was curious, but I decided to keep the story private . . . no one else ever knew of the trade I had made. *
* See previous blog, “Special Forces Camp A-109” June 14, 1968
Next Edition: The “Incoming” Drill
Thursday, July 18, 1968
At 0730 it was all hands on deck. We stood in formation on the road in front of the CP. The transfer of leadership from Captain Cavagnol to Captain Smotherman was a symbolic handover of authority. We had no ceremony when Cavagnol arrived, just a quick staff meeting. *
Cavagnol gave a short speech, praising the Kilo battery performance and accomplishments. He gave kudos to the gun crews, with special recognition to FDC, who plotted the fire missions. We had earned a Navy Unit Commendation for these efforts.
After the formal ceremony Gunny Pavelcek assigned work parties for the day, but before dismissing us, he made an announcement. “I hereby officially proclaim a name change for “Ptomaine.” From this day forward, he will be known as “TRIPWIRE.” The outlandish Rube Goldberg device rigged to explode the rockets was just another example of our field training motto: “Improvise.”
My new nickname didn’t really stick, but it was appreciated. Few people actually knew my real name, and I had finally accepted “Ptomaine” in the spirit of unit morale.
During the afternoon we baked a simple sheet cake and frosted it with white frosting. Reb mixed in some caramel coloring and drew an image of a 155mm round heading to its target with the caption, “Kilo’s Killers – Good Luck Patty Shell” (Cavagnol’s call sign).
* See previous blog, “Captain Cavagnol” January 26, 1968
Next Edition: Cavagnol to CONUS
Wednesday, July 17, 1968
The prisoners spent the night locked in the Club. In the morning they were each given one of Reb’s pastries and a cup of coffee. They didn’t seem worried or concerned about their situation.
We put them into the backseat of the Jeep and followed the Admin truck on the same route as the day before. I pointed out to Captain Cavagnol the spot of the first stop yesterday and explained how I had mistakenly moved on.
As we approached the scene of the explosion, we were stopped by a patrol; engineers were repairing the road. The exploded rockets had left a crater, making the road impassable. A TD-15 tractor was filling and grading the new surface.
As we waited, Cavagnol noticed a huge “crop circle” caused by the blast. It had flattened the rice fields in a quarter-mile diameter. He said, “This is bad; we’ve ruined their crop.” After some checking, he found the owner of the land, an older Mama-San. He apologized for the loss and offered to help replant a new crop. She was surprised and agreed to have a plot ready by Friday.
After the road was repaired, we headed to Division Headquarters with the captive Vietnamese. We turned them in to a G-2 officer, and I was told to wait outside. Cavagnol advised me to hang loose until he returned, and he took off in the Jeep. After waiting for about ten minutes, I was summoned inside where I gave my account of the capture. A Major repeatedly asked about the first stop, and he seemed to be disputing the location. He took me to a map and gave me a pin to mark the place. I put the pin on Route 4, a click east of Dai Phu, and he blew up.
The ox cart had passed through four separate checkpoints manned by the Popular Forces (National Police). It meant there had been a breach in security and that the local government was allowing weapons and materials to traverse freely toward Da Nang. He thanked me for the information and said, “You’re Dismissed.”
I hesitated long enough to get his attention and he said, “You have a question?” I asked about the prisoners, and he explained that they were “Indigenous Vietnamese” and would be released. “They are non-combatant porters.” I was outraged and replied, “But they were hauling rockets.” The Major cut me off, “YOU ARE DISMISSED!”
I waited at the intersection for Captain Cavagnol, and we headed for the 11th Marines Regimental Headquarters. Inside the Regimental Office, I sat in a waiting area next to the Sergeant Major’s desk. There were officers talking behind a partition, and I could hear laughter. I was fidgeting as I waited, and the Sergeant Major asked, “Are you OK?” I answered, “Sir, am I in trouble?”
He smiled and said, “Hold on,” and knocked on the Commander’s door before entering . . . more laughter. I was invited into the Colonel’s office, and Captain Cavagnol introduced me to everyone. The Colonel praised my performance and said it was unfortunate that “porters” weren’t considered POW’s. Luckily, we had uncovered a flaw in security, and it would be corrected. One of the officers was Captain Smotherman who was going to be the new Kilo Battery Commander. Since Cavagnol was rotating to CONUS on Friday, Smotherman would ride with us back to Hill 65.
The return trip was quick. Cavagnol drove fast, and the dirt road made it a rough ride. Smotherman had a new flak jacket and helmet and looked like a “new kid on the block.” I wondered how long it would be before there were bags under his eyes. Lack of sleep and stress would take some pounds off his already thin frame.
Next Edition: Change of Command Ceremony
Tuesday, July 16, 1968
The Admin truck to Da Nang was ready with PFC Wilson driving. He was a veteran driver of Convoy Road and knew every mile of it. As the Marines got on board, I visually checked each one for the proper gear, and the Gunny was eyeballing them as well. There were six Marines, including PFC Jepson, who I knew from Thuong Duc. He was a cannoneer from Sergeant Bivens’ gun #1. His small stature was deceiving . . . he was able to dead lift 90-pound rounds with one hand, by the eye bolt. I knew he was a capable Marine.
We headed out as the road was cleared and passed Dai Phu village school at the bottom of our hill. After traveling about a half mile, I noticed two Vietnamese men pulling an ox cart toward Dai Loc. Something didn’t seem right, and I asked Wilson to stop the truck ahead of the cart.
The cart was fully loaded with layers of banana trees, and I got out to inspect it. The men kept saying in broken English . . . “Market, Market.” The Marines in the truck started whining about being delayed. “Sarge, you’re going to ruin our day, let’s get out of here.” I gave in to their pressure, and we moved on toward Dai Loc. After making the turn north toward Da Nang, I realized the roadside market wasn’t open until Thursday. My decision to move on and not check the cart further was eating at me all day. I had allowed these young Marines to influence me, and I regretted the hasty decision.
We stayed as long as we could in Da Nang, leaving enough time to get back to Hill 65 before dark. As we headed south on Convoy Road, I spotted the two Vietnamese pulling the ox cart, and Wilson stopped again. This time I was more forceful, “Lock and load, cover these men while we check the cart.” The Marines followed my orders as we emptied the banana trees. Under the trees was a heavy layer of thick leaves, and stashed underneath were two 122mm rockets . . . Even I was surprised.
I yelled, “Secure the prisoners.” All of us had trained for this scenario in Staging Battalion. The detainees were searched and put into the truck. Jepsen had them take off their black pajama shirts, and he cut the sleeves off to tie and blindfold the prisoners.
Wilson refused to allow the rockets to be loaded into the truck. I asked for his grenade, and he retrieved it from behind the driver’s seat. I decided to make a long tripwire and blow the rockets from a safe distance. The truck had a winch, and we pulled the steel cable out as far as we could (about 50 feet). Wilson offered a bundle of paracord he had for tying down loads, and I tied it to the cable. It was too stiff to tie to the grenade’s ring so I told one of the Marines to remove his boot laces. After securing the laces to the paracord, we lifted the rockets slightly and placed the grenade under them. The boot lace was attached to the grenade ring. We estimated the makeshift tripwire was at least 150 feet long.
With everyone in the truck, I straightened the pin in the grenade and we got a rolling start. At 150 feet, the ring was pulled from the grenade, and we had an additional seven seconds to clear the blast area. There was a bright flash and explosion. My ears were ringing . . . there was no shock wave because we were inside the shock perimeter. Wilson managed to drive the truck out of the blinding dust, and we could see a massive cloud of debris over the detonation. He stopped the truck, and we retrieved the cable and paracord before moving on.
It was just before sunset when we arrived at Hill 65, and the situation became a circus as we unloaded the prisoners and told our story. Captain Cavagnol ordered the prisoners to be separated, and he interviewed them individually in the Enlisted Club. Each Marine on the truck was debriefed, and Top Culverhouse wrote out statements regarding the incident. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Cavagnol came to our hooch to inform me of his plan to take the captive Vietnamese to Division Headquarters the next day (I would accompany him). He looked around our quarters and said, “Nice digs.”
I had made a miscalculation regarding the 122mm rockets. Normally the rockets would have burned off all the solid fuel before exploding at the target. The combined fuel in the rockets was nearly 100 pounds, and this became additional explosive material in the blast. It had the effect of exploding a 150-pound bomb two feet above the surface of the road.
Next Edition: The Interrogation