Reb’s Invite

Da Nang crossroad
Intersection in Da Nang

Thursday, November 14, 1968

Our overnight Navy visitor returned to Da Nang after working with Reb in the bakery.  He extended an invitation for Reb to join him on a night shift at 1st Med so I explained to him that we would work out the details.  There was nothing to lose from this relationship, and I considered it a healthy distraction.  It would also allow Reb the opportunity to spend some time at the China Beach R&R Center.

This venture needed approval from Top Culverhouse, and I tried to sell it as a reward for Reb’s hard work in the bakery.  The Top was reluctant to approve this unofficial overnight stay.  There were a lot of loose ends, and we didn’t have all the answers.

Culverhouse was shaking his head as if to say no, but then he bluntly asked Reb, “Why do you really want to go to work at 1st Med for a night?”  Reb’s answer was unexpected, “I was hoping to be able to sketch some of the nurses.”  This seemed to break the ice on the conversation, but the Top needed some time to “think it over.”

Later as we were unloading our weekly dry goods order, Culverhouse showed up to watch us rotate the products received.  When everything was secured, Reb asked Top to look at his artwork.  It was an impressive collection, and the intimate sketches of Margaret caught Top’s eye.  “Is this what you have in mind at 1st Med?”  Reb answered, “Oh no Sir, I just want to sketch them at work.”

Culverhouse approved the overnight but wanted to see Reb’s results.

Next Edition:  Langostino

Visitor From 1st Med

Concussion from a 175mm outgoing round. No one was hurt, and the screens were repaired before serving dinner.

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

Lieutenant Westerfield


Napalm Delivery in Arizona

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

Arizona Nights

self potrait
Self Portrait – Arizona Territory Backdrop

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

Young and Old

symbolic image
Our Guest of Honor

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

Replacement Corpsman

Doc Furman – Med CAP – Thuong Duc

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


Birthday Cakes

oiled roads
Newly Oiled Road

Friday, November 8, 1968

The drive on Convoy Road to Da Nang was a little smoother in the new Admin truck.  Fernando was driving at a moderate speed as the trailer bounced along behind us.  Mud had hardened and cracked as if the road had a bad case of immersion foot.  Soon the Amtracs would grind the surface to dust.  It was a never-ending cycle.

I had my invitation to the gathering at Division Food Service and wanted to ride with Gunny Sampson. *  At Headquarters we transferred to a Jeep.  It only took a few minutes through Dog Patch ** to Freedom Hill.  The road to Graves Registration now had a guarded gate.

We checked into the meeting and waited for others to arrive.  Part of signing in was to print our nickname on the roster.  I wanted to leave it blank, but Sampson cajoled me into writing “PTOMAINE.”

When the meeting started, a Master Gunnery Sergeant introduced each Mess Sergeant by rank, nickname and last name.  “Gunnery Sergeant HASH – Brown, Gunnery Sergeant HILLBILLY – Hodges, Gunnery Sergeant CAJUN – Sampson,” and so on.  I was the lowest ranking, “Sergeant PTOMAINE – Kysor.”  Everyone got a big laugh, and my face was red.

The meeting covered two subjects, Marine Corps Birthday cakes and the Thanksgiving Day meal.  The cakes would be available for pick-up at the FLC bakery tomorrow.  We received copies of the Turkey Day menu, along with new recipe cards and a lecture about this being the most important meal of the year.

I looked at this group of Mess Sergeants and thought of the color photo insert in the Regional Cook Book.  The images of women cooks around the USA would be replaced by:  HASH Brown, HILLBILLY Hodges, CAJUN Sampson and PTOMAINE Kysor.  Even with us all using the same recipes, our mess halls would have a regional influence.  We were no match for home cooking but would do our best.

*  See previous blog, “Gunny Sampson” January 8, 1968

** See previous blog, “Vietnamese Kitchen Workers” January 9, 1968

Next Edition:  Replacement Corpsman