The mess men were usually fed first before the chow line opened. Our latest group was eating breakfast and getting to know each other. The young-looking Marine was nicknamed “Bambino” by his platoon Sergeant because he was an Italian kid from New Jersey.
He had everyone’s attention, giving a description of demonstrations by Vietnam War protesters. The local Recruiting Center was inundated with these long-haired dissidents, holding placards scrawled with “Baby Killers,” “End the War” and “Drop Acid not Bombs.” When he finished his story I asked, “Why did you join?”
Bambino’s family had a long tradition of military service. His father had served in Korea but drowned in a boating accident while on a family vacation. It was an obligation to honor his father’s service by joining the Corps. His mother signed a release after high school graduation, allowing him to join at the age of 17 (he turned 18 in October).
That night I lay in bed thinking . . . BABY KILLERS? Where was that coming from? I thought it must be the result of distorted news reports. Why would we kill babies? From our perspective, it was the opposite… we were protecting innocent civilians. It was the VC doing the killing, not us; something wasn’t right.
The cooks never attended the morning muster and briefing. It was held daily after breakfast, and we used the time to scrub down the galley. Fernando usually kept us up to date about any special orders, but today Top Culverhouse brought the news of a change in Sunday church services. The Battalion Chaplain (1/7) would hold one service on Sundays at Hill 37. Transportation would be available to anyone wanting to attend. We would not see Reverend Starling (3/7) again.
Later in the day Gunny Pavelcek took me aside and asked if the cooks had any grenades. We had six in the OP, stored in an ammo box under the Jeep seat. They were left over from the night of TET; we had been issued twelve, and I threw five that night.
The Gunny wasn’t “In Country” during TET and he asked, “How bad was it?” I told him, “I had five grenades in the air before the first one went off.” We both laughed until he did the math . . . “where’s the other grenade?” I felt he was pressing me and answered defensively, “I used it on the road to Thuong Duc when we were ambushed. Diaz had just been shot in the head. *
We sat down on the Jeep seat and talked about the fragging incident the night before. The Gunny theorized it was a “Lone Wolf,” someone who was attacking authority. It made no sense to me.
Pavelcek let us keep the grenades and asked if we needed anything else for the OP. We each had four full magazines and a bandoleer of M-16 ammo . . . “It will do for now.”
* See previous blog, “A Long Walk to Thuong Duc” June 13, 1968
The word from Bravo Company was: Kilo Battery rules the Song Vu Gia River. The NVA used sampans to cross into Arizona Territory. These crossing points were well documented, and our FDC had coordinates already plotted. Once sampans entered the water, our vertical timed (VT) fuses detonated the rounds in midair over them. Lieutenant Westerfield had been plotting this scenario for a long time. Now as CO, his efforts had come to fruition.
After cross-training the new mess men from Bravo on each position, we started a rotation so no one got stuck with the same task every day. I assigned the young kid to Reb as a baker’s assistant. He was a hard charger and had endless energy. It would be Reb’s first opportunity to exercise some leadership.
Our staff meeting was a review of our Division inspection. It was a surprise to me until Top Culverhouse said, “Division delegated the mess hall inspection to Gunny Sampson.” I laughed at this, “They let the fox inspect the hen house.”
Thump, Thump, Thump . . . BOOM! A grenade exploded outside the staff quarters. It had bounced across the roof over our heads and landed behind the blast wall in front of the open door. Someone had fragged us. No one was hurt, but this was unexpected. Who would do this? And why?
After breakfast there was a meeting in the Officer/Staff mess. We tried to eavesdrop but couldn’t hear the whole conversation. The general topic was about Bravo supplying us with mess men. Gunny Sampson yelled, “Ptomaine, more coffee.”
I brought a thermal container in, and Reb followed me with a tray of doughnuts. Top Culverhouse said, “Ptomaine, stay” and motioned for Reb to leave. There were three Gunnys and two Staff Sergeants. Staff Sergeant Lopez questioned the need for four mess men, and I answered, “We can get by with three if you give us a cook.”
Everyone laughed at the surprised response from Lopez, “You never asked me for a cook!” I answered, “No, I just asked for help.” Culverhouse waved me out of the meeting, and the negotiations continued. When the meeting ended, Gunny Sampson took me outside and broke the news . . . you will get four mess men.
I walked him to Fernando’s truck and helped him put the flak jacket on his massive frame. He extended his hand and said, “It’s been nice working with you. I’m leaving for CONUS in two days.” He had orders to report to MCAS Cherry Point and hoped to finish his career there.
Returning to the mess hall, there were four young Marines waiting in the mess deck. One was so young he looked like he was barely out of high school. He smiled and said, “Reporting for mess duty.”
Top Culverhouse asked if we needed help cooking the traditional Friday Southern Meal. * I told him we had it under control, but as he was leaving I asked, “Could you help serve on the chow line?” He understood I was asking him to “sell it” to Bravo Company, and he agreed.
Gunny Sampson arrived early and did a complete inspection of the mess hall. He posted the results on the partition dividing the Officer/ Staff mess. It was a good score, but he busted us for not having a cover on the central floor drain (there were no drain covers).
After lunch Sampson reviewed our dinner menu and said, “I’m going to spice up the beans.” His “Louisiana style” red beans added some heat and color to the menu. I asked the Gunny, “Will you serve the beans on the line?” He laughed his deep belly laugh and said, “Ca c’est bon” (that’s good). He could sell almost anything.
The final surprise of the day was Staff Sergeant Lopez from Hill 37. He was making a courtesy call representing 1/7. He knew the Marines of Bravo Company, and they respected him as their own Battalion Mess Sergeant. I gave him a tour of our mess deck, galley, bakery and walk-in. Pointing to our hooch and shower he said, “What’s that?” I let him into our hooch, and he was flabbergasted. “You have a mattress and pillow?” He laughed at our homemade shower with the immersion water heater (misappropriated equipment).
As we returned to the mess hall, the conversation turned to the subject of Bravo Company providing mess men. We always operated with three from India Company, but technically we should have had four. I trusted Lopez to be fair and asked if he would stay for dinner. He said, “Oh yes, I’m spending the night.”
This was another opportunity so I asked if he would help serve the fish on the chow line. “Ocean Perch?” I told him, “We call it Catfish.”
The mess hall doors opened at 1630, and the “Southern Meal” was transformed into a Tex-Mex Mardi Gras Carnival. Culverhouse was barking about splitting the cornbread in half, and Sampson ladled the beans over it saying, “Ah . . . les rouges.” I served the coleslaw, and Lopez followed with, “Catfish Here.” Reb and Fernando stalked the mess deck with baskets of hush puppies, talking in their natural Mexican/Carolina accents. For many, this was as close to home as it could get in Vietnam.
* See previous blog, “Texas Style Pinto Beans” June 7, 1968
Sumo prepped the rolled & tied roasts and slow cooked them at night. Reb (per Sumo’s instructions) stored the cooked beef in the walk-in to cool. The roasting pans were deglazed, and the au jus was strained and saved for gravy. Marine Corps Cook School didn’t teach creativity (it was frowned upon), but in Vietnam the rules called for improvisation.
We had a large roll of heavy-gauge aluminum foil and trimmed it into 12-inch lengths. The cooked beef was cut into chunks and centered on a foil sheet. Potatoes, carrots, celery and onions were added. The final addition was a ladle of light gravy, and the foil was sealed shut to form a pouch.
These individual portions were slow cooked for another two hours and served steaming hot on the chow line with a fresh biscuit. One of the buzz words in Cook School was “eye appeal.” If a meal looked good, it would be perceived positively. The foil pouch and biscuit served on an aluminum tray was poor presentation so there were low expectations. However, when the pouch was opened, the steaming pot roast pulled apart easily. It was a simple meal, and we received good reviews.
Our staffing situation had not improved. Top Culverhouse gave temporary assignments of mess duty to assist us, but we couldn’t keep operating at the same level much longer. Fernando stepped up and worked on the chow line during breakfast and dinner. He always smiled and had a knack for serving a short portion, then saying, “Do you want a little more?” Using this tactic, he made a lot of new friends with the Bravo Company Grunts.
I wrote a short cryptic note to Gunny Sampson (Battalion Mess Sergeant on Hill 34) explaining our situation . . . “Understaffed, can’t keep up, need help.” I sealed this note in an envelope for Fernando to personally deliver to Sampson.
Later in the afternoon the Admin truck returned with our mail and food supplies. The dock of unwanted items had cases of “Beef Shoulder, rolled & tied.” Fernando retrieved three cases, and Sumo said, “Pot Roast.” I received a letter from Jenny and put it in my pocket for later.
Fernando handed my envelope back. It had been opened and re-sealed. The back of my note said, “I’ll be there Friday night.” I asked if there was any other conversation, and Fernando confirmed Sampson knew about the Bravo Company situation.
Jenny’s letter was intimate. She enjoyed Thanksgiving with her family, but being in Laguna Beach reminded her of our final days (and nights) before my shipping out to Vietnam. She talked explicitly of her plans for me when I came home. I returned the favor with a detailed X-rated version of my intentions. This covert sex talk was the beginning of a stimulating series of letters between us.