Thursday, May 23, 1968
The guns on Hill 65 were now referred to as Battery KY which included two 155mm and two 8-inch Howitzers. Tandem fire missions were slightly more complicated and took time to coordinate but were deadly on enemy positions. The increased number of units in Arizona Territory added to the amount of fire missions. Occasionally they had to be prioritized, and some requests were put on standby.
The competitiveness of the gun crews was expanding, and they started to compete in a contest to see who could finish firing (“fire out”) first. Safety was always top priority, and everyone knew that shortcuts were deadly. After each round was fired, the powder chamber behind the gun tube had to be “swabbed” with water to cool it and prevent excessive heat buildup before the next powder bags were loaded.
A gun chief from an 8-inch gun got behind in the competition and took the shortcut of not swabbing the chamber. He tried it a second time, and the powder bag flashed back (a cook off) in his face, severely burning his eyes, ears and lungs. He was medevaced in critical condition, and it was an event no one would easily forget.
Battery KY would undergo an inquiry regarding this event, and Lieutenant Martin would have to answer for the tragic outcome.
During lunch Captain Robb made the comment, “Tough day for the gun gooneys” (artillery nickname). We had heard stories from the Grunts about Robb’s insensitive remarks. I kept my head down and didn’t respond . . . it was an awkward moment, and the Grunts in the chow line were embarrassed.
Next Edition: Hill 52 Attacked
Wednesday, May 22, 1968
The increased activity in the Thuong Duc Corridor brought men and equipment to Hill 52. With this movement, there were skirmishes and more fire missions. Across the river in Arizona Territory, the 5th Marines from An Hoa were patrolling by day and setting new perimeters at night. The mobilization south of us was spreading like a spiderweb.
In the afternoon, a squad-sized party of Grunts worked below the mess hall. They were reinforcing the perimeter wire. I filled a thermal container with our Rainbow Jello and carried it down to them, and started a conversation with the squad leader. I’d seen him before and knew he was a machine gunner. He was getting short and only had a month left before leaving for CONUS. He spent some time showing me how to tighten loose wire . . . it was tricky work, and he wore special protective gloves. I learned how to set up illumination flares and attach tripwires.
A Marine came over to refresh himself with the Jello cubes, and I realized he was Lance Corporal Murphy. * He had served on mess duty back in January before TET and had taught us how to sharpen knives. He took a handful of Jello and went back to where he had been working. I could tell something wasn’t quite right and asked the squad leader about it. He said, “Yeah, Murph’s been real quiet and doesn’t talk much.”
I got permission to talk with Murphy and asked how things were going. He said, “It don’t mean nothing.” I questioned, “What means nothing?” He looked all around and said, “All of this is crap!” It was as if the young energized kid I knew was gone. This 20-year-old Marine had spiraled into a dark place . . . I wanted to help but didn’t know how.
The exchange with Murphy was troubling. The issue was called combat fatigue in WWII, and it was obvious Murphy was mentally detached. I made a comment about his condition to the squad leader, and he said, “You stick to cooking Sarge, you got no business with our mentality.” I knew he was right and let it go.
* See previous “Murphy Leaves for India Company” blog (February 15, 1968)
Next Edition: Cook Off