Body Bags

hHill 65 mess hall
View of Kilo Battery Mess Hall from my hooch.

January 16, 1968

My internal alarm clock woke me up, and the luminous watch dial read 0355.  I took off my helmet and flak jacket, thinking about the mortar attack.  Boots were on my feet (unlaced), but I couldn’t remember putting them on.  As I tied the laces I decided never to go to bed with my boots off again . . . when under attack, seconds count.

Walking to the mess hall, I noticed the sky was clear with a few wispy clouds glowing brightly from a full moon.  The light sparkled on the rice paddies and lit up the river flowing toward Dai Loc.

Britt was mixing pancake batter while Stewart opened cans of sausage links.  I was making coffee as we discussed the mortar attack.  They could tell by the sound that the mortars were 82mm.  Smaller 60mm mortars weren’t as loud and did less damage.

We opened for breakfast, and a steady line of Marines moved through the chow line.  Hot cakes, sausage, eggs to order, juice and coffee was a standard breakfast.  Everyone ate quickly and moved out; there was no lingering in the small dining area.

Outside there was a commotion toward the Grunt compound, and I saw Marines loading two body bags on a MULE (small motorized platform).  As the MULE drove away, other Marines were dismantling a large tent.  A Grunt in the chow line said, “It was the engineers . . . an 82 blew them away in their sleep.”  Stewart said, “It don’ make no sense – sleepin’ in a tent.”  I thought about what Stewart said; he’d been here over a year and never said much.  It was a profound survival lesson.

After breakfast I walked over to where the tent had been.  There was a puddle from the rain, and I did a double-take.  It was the wrong color, a mix of rainwater and blood (a lot of blood).

The morning breeze puffed in my face, and I detected a metallic smell.  It was like iron or copper, and every hair on my body stood up.  I felt flushed and retched; another whiff from the puddle, and I was on my knees puking.  I headed back to the mess hall, drenched with sweat and rinsed off at the water buffalo.

Leggs showed up as I was recovering and listened as I described the scene I had just witnessed.  He went to the bulldozer and started it up.  The dozer rumbled toward the blood puddle, and the blade lowered, burying the blood as the dirt pushed over it.  He continued leveling the area as if it was being readied for construction.  He cleared a 100 foot square area adjacent to the mess hall and parked the dozer.  As Leggs got out, he pulled a wooden ammo box from the cab and set it down in front of me.

The box was full of basic carpenter tools:  a hammer, saw, pliers, cutting sheers, heavy-duty gloves, a staple gun and various wrenches.  He said, “Put this in your hooch.”  I answered, “They belong to the engineers.”  Leggs replied, “It’s a gift, and they won’t be needing them anymore.”

Next Edition:  Mama-San




My coy
My Cot

January 15, 1968

The sky was turning dark and threatening to rain all morning.  My plan today was to travel to Hill 37 (near Dai Loc).  Hill 37 was Headquarters for 3rd Battalion 7th Marines.  The Mess Sergeant at 3/7 was authorized to receive our allotment of food and supplies at the docks in FLC.  It was obvious that he was shorting us when distributing these goods.

He was an E-6 (a grade above me) and was pulling rank by squeezing our allotment in his favor.  When I suggested he was skimping on our provisions he said, “Ptomaine, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about . . . I’m giving you your fair share.”  I replied, “OK Sarge, I’ll be talking with the CO of India Company about how you’re shorting his troops.”  He condescendingly asked, “What else do you need?”  I declared, “Our full allotment.”

We got a full quota of food that day, but I knew this would be an ongoing issue.  Returning to Hill 65, it started raining as we unloaded the food.  Britt and Stewart were stunned at the amount of supplies we received.  The driver related the story of how I demanded our full allotment and Britt said, “Payback is a Muther,” insinuating things could get worse.

After dinner I managed my way to the showers in the dark, only to find out there was no water.  I walked back to the mess hall water buffalo (a water tank trailer) and scrubbed down with a wash cloth.  I dried off in the hooch and changed into my last clean uniform and wrote a short letter to Jenny.  There was no electricity in the hooch, and we burned wax candles at night.  It was about 2100 when I laid down on my cot.

I woke from a sound sleep to someone yelling, “INCOMING.”  SsshBoom, SsshBoom, SsshBoom.  The detonations were coming in sets of three (mortar tubes).  Thunk, Thunk, Thunk . . . was the sound of mortars being fired and ten seconds later, SsshBoom, SsshBoom, SsshBoom.  After another volley, things went silent.  A few minutes later someone yelled, “Clear.”  Everything in the battery went quiet, and there were no casualties.  I slept wearing my helmet and flak jacket for the remainder of the night and could hear a soft rain outside the hooch.

Next Edition:  Body Bags

My New Nick Name

Northwest view hill 65
Northwest view of “Charlie Ridge”

January 14, 1968

Rise and shine at 0400 was the cook’s normal daily routine, but on Sundays we got to sleep an extra two hours.  That day “Brunch” was served at 0900 – 1300 and dinner at 1600 – 1800.  The battery had a formation (briefing) every morning, but the cooks only attended on Sunday (normally we were cleaning up after breakfast).

The battery Gunny assigned work details for the day and made various announcements.  He introduced new arrivals “Top” Culverhouse, “Doc” and Mess Sergeant, “Ptomaine” (as in food poisoning).

Everyone got a big laugh, and I did my best to go along with the fun everyone was having at my expense.  Inside, I hated the name and vowed to try and earn another nick name,  Some people got nick names by their actions.

Britt told me that he and Stewart had brunch under control and that I should take the tour of the hill.  Leggs was assigned as our tour guide, and Top, Doc, and I were introduced to the different section heads and leaders in the battery.

The view from the crest of the hill was spectacular.  We were surrounded by small villages and rice paddies.  A significant mountain range to the northwest rose from the valley floor.  It was named “Charlie Ridge” and ran the full length of the river valley.  The Song Vu Gia River came toward us from the southwest and made a wide easterly bend as it flowed by hill 65.  It ran slow and deep with a greenish brown color from recent storm runoff.

The south end of the hill was occupied by India Company 3rd battalion 7th Marines (Grunts).  There were approximately 250 Marines in the unit, and their mission was defending the hill and patrolling the surrounding area.  There were no tents or wooden structures in their compound, everything was dug-in heavily fortified bunkers.   Leggs helped them from time to time with maintenance and repair issues.  He got his nick name from having his head buried in a project and all anyone could see of him were his legs.

After the tour of the hill, I helped serve brunch and got a full welcome from everyone.  “Hey Ptomaine – welcome,” “How you doing Ptomaine?”  I could see Gunny Sampson observing the situation, and he joined me saying, “This is good for morale, you need to go with it.”  I did adjust my attitude and accepted the nick name but . . . Not really.

I was approached by two Marine engineers after brunch was secured.  They had a D7 bulldozer and offered their services in trade for a case of apple juice.  Britt suggested they dig a swath into the slope of the hill behind the mess hall so we could isolate the 50 gallon gas drums.  I gave the OK, and the bulldozer cut an 8X16 foot area into the slope and leveled the area behind the mess hall.

Sampson approved of the earth-moving handiwork and said good-bye as he headed back to Battalion Headquarters via Convoy Road.

During the afternoon break I met the other two occupants of our sandbag hooch.  Sergeant Paige was in charge of FDC (Fire Direction Center).  He made the coordinate calculations for the artillery.  Sergeant Tibbits was in charge of COMM (Communication).  Together they worked side by side, communicating and calculating fire missions called in from the grunts or forward observers in the field.

Next Edition:  Incoming

Sergeant Leggins
Sergeant “Leggs” Leggins

Convoy Road – Dai Loc

Convoy Roadside Ville
Local farm on Convoy Road

January 13, 1968

Convoy Road” was the primary route from Da Nang to Dai Loc (a rural district of Quang Nam Province).  Every day the route was “cleared” by engineers and EOD (explosive ordinance disposal).  Usually the dirt roadway was declared safe by mid-morning; there were engineers clearing it from both ends (working toward each other).  We were at the first checkpoint by 1000 and waited for the “Road is Clear” signal.

Our truck was occupied by a handful of Marines:  1st Sergeant Culverhouse (the new Kilo battery 1st Sergeant), a new Corpsman, Sergeant “Leggs” Leggins, PFC Wilson (the driver), Gunny Sampson and myself.  The Corpsman sat in front with Wilson, and the rest of us sat in the fold-down seats in the bed of the truck.

Leggs was the Kilo battery Maintenance NCO, and he narrated throughout the trip.  It was slow going . . . the distance of only fifteen miles took two hours.  There were security checkpoints and pauses all along the way.  We passed a junkyard littered with various destroyed vehicles and equipment.  The terrain opened up to rice paddies on either side of the road, and there were peasant farmers tending to the newly-planted crops.

The faces of the kids in Dai Loc were friendlier than those in Dog Patch.  Leggs theorized it was because they were living on their own land, in their own homes and going to school.  There were cattle, pigs, chickens and ducks in each ville along the route.  We passed several school yards with dozens of kids; they ran toward us waving as we drove by in a cloud of dust.

We arrived at hill 65 during lunch, and I followed Sampson straight to the mess hall, entering through the back door.  It was a tiny galley cluttered with dirty ovens, and the cement floor was wet.  The dining room had eight picnic tables and a plywood separation for officers and staff with two tables.  The maximum capacity was 60, and 300-400 Marines were served at each meal.

The menu was sandwiches of assorted cold cuts (sliced Spam, bologna, salami and cheese), with potato salad, coleslaw and condiments.  The beverage was red Kool-Aid, and dessert was canned fruit cocktail.  Also available were open cardboard crates of fresh apples and oranges.

After lunch the Gunny introduced me to the cooks, Corporal Britt and PFC Stewart.  Both of them were short timers, and Stewart had less than a month left in country.  They were competent but clearly worn down after a year of duty in the field.

The Gunny ordered a complete scrub-down of the mess hall and took over the cooking of the dinner meal . . . Pepper steak, Cajun rice and red beans.  There was about two hours of down time in the afternoon as dinner simmered in the ovens.  Britt showed me to the quarters of the evacuated Mess Sergeant, a sandbagged bunker with three cots.

As I unloaded gear on my cot, a hand-wound siren started whining and Britt said it was a “fire mission.”  We went outside, and I could hear the commands, “Battery at my command, Stand-by . . . FIRE.”  The ground shook as the six 155mm guns went off, and it was like being right next to a thunder clap.  “Fire at will.”  This was a 36-round mission, each gun firing six rounds.

I asked Britt, “How do you sleep through this?”  He answered, “Your brain adjusts.”  And it did.

Next Edition:  My New Nick Name

Lima Battery Attacked

January 12, 1968

It was mid-morning after breakfast, and we were preparing for lunch when a jeep pulled up.  A Lieutenant got out of the jeep and entered the dining room looking for Gunny Sampson.  I directed him to the Gunny’s table and observed them having a serious conversation.  The Gunny’s head was down, and his hands were on his head . . . it didn’t look good.

Lima battery had been attacked during breakfast.  An 82mm mortar came through the mess tent and detonated on a table, and three cooks were KIA (killed in action).  Sampson knew all of them and had tears in his eyes as he left for his quarters.  Everyone was silent as we ate lunch. The Gunny returned and sat alone in his corner.

My expectation was that I would be sent to Lima battery, but instead two of our galley cooks were summoned to his table.  Quietly they got up and left the mess hall to gather their gear.  There was a truck outside waiting, they got in and headed out for Lima battery . . . no good-byes, no best wishes, just an uneasy silence.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

I took over the dinner shift and assigned menu items to different cooks.  Friday night was always Ocean Perch.  We baked it with a thin slice of lemon, sprinkled with salt and ground pepper.  I didn’t like perch because it had a mushy consistency, but we served it with Mac and Cheese which was a popular item, and Coleslaw balanced out the meal.

The Battalion Doctor came in as we were finishing cleanup after dinner, and again there was a huddle at the corner office table.  The Gunny looked angry and slammed his fist on the table.  The Doc got up and left . . . more bad news?

Sampson motioned for me to join him.  It turns out that the Mess Sergeant at Kilo battery had come into sick bay in the afternoon, and the Doc diagnosed him with a bleeding ulcer.  He was medevaced to a Hospital ship.  Tomorrow the Gunny and I would be on “convoy road” to hill 65 where Kilo battery was positioned.

I took a shower before going to bed, and then wrote another letter to Jenny explaining the situation.  I didn’t tell her about the three cooks being KIA.  I told her the only change in my address would be “K” battery instead of “HQ” battery.  It was a fitful night of sleep.

Next Edition:  Convoy Road – Dai Loc


January 11, 1968

Thursday was our scheduled day to pick up the weekly dry goods order.  The depot in Da Nang, FLC (Force Logistics Command), had separate loading docks for ice, produce, meats, canned/dry goods and a large bakery.

Every Wednesday a request for our dry goods order was submitted and would be filled the following day.  “Filled” did not mean we would get everything we ordered . . . we may have ordered six cases of canned apple juice but only receive four, plus two cases of pineapple juice.  It seemed arbitrary, but there was some sort of logic to the madness.  None of the other docks needed a request, we would just receive what was issued.

One of the first things I noticed was the massive amount of shrapnel holes in the warehouses.  These holes ranged from small pea size up to 3 inches in diameter.  They were the result of NVA rocket attacks fired from launchers miles away and gliding randomly into a certain area (they weren’t precise).

Looking northwest toward the mountains, there was a long convoy of vehicles lumbering up the grade.  This was the “Hai Van Pass,” the highway to Phu Bai, Hue and points north to the DMZ.  Our 4th Battalion “Lima Battery” was located near Phu Bai.  It didn’t look very inviting, and I was hoping not to get that assignment.

We picked up our dry goods and moved to the produce dock.  There was a variety of fresh vegetables (limited fruit), and we usually got to pick what we needed.  The meat loading dock had a prescribed issue.  Thursday was always “Ocean Perch.”  Moving to the ice house, we loaded four 100-pound blocks of ice into a portable thermal chest.  Finally at the bakery we picked up racks of fresh bread (unsliced), and I was told they occasionally issued hamburger buns.

Driving back we had a good view of the beach and a long string of shanties or HOOTCHES (dwellings or homes).  It looked like another version of Dog Patch.  There was little foot traffic on the road, and aside from military vehicles, it was busy with bicycles and Mopeds.

The whole routine took less than three hours round trip and was repeated every day except Sunday.  Operating a successful mess hall required a daily run to FLC.  There were additional issues, such as a supply of fresh water, gasoline for the burners, soap, brooms, scrub brushes, etc.  It was obvious to me that this endeavor required a team effort and cooperation from everyone.  Gunny Sampson’s leadership style demanded teamwork, and he was completely backed by the officers and staff of the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines.

Next Edition:  Lima Battery Attacked

Vietnamese Kitchen Workers

January 9, 1968

The 1st Marine Division, in its wisdom of displacing the local population into relocation camps, had a policy of training selected evacuees to work in our facilities.  Certain families would receive compensation for their services in mess halls near where they had previously lived.  Our Headquarters Battalion had three such workers.

The oldest of the three was “Mai,” and she was married to an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) officer.  He was a Captain in the Rangers, and she had not seen him in over a year although she did get messages from him now and then.

Mai was the supervisor of the two younger workers.  If we needed potatoes peeled, we would give instructions to Mai and she would communicate the task to the younger workers.  They worked all day in their own space (a produce room) and were never allowed in the mess hall.

The land we were occupying (Hill 34) had been theirs, and in our compound behind the mess hall, were grave markers of their ancestors.  I found this arrangement strange and a little uncomfortable.

Every morning at 0800 we would pick the workers up in Dog Patch and return them at 1600.  The driver needed someone to ride shotgun while driving them back home, and I volunteered to go with him.  It was only a five minute drive and supposedly “safe.”  After dropping them off, we made a U-turn and headed back.  My window was rolled down because it was hot and the driver said, “Roll your window up.”  I started to question him and he said, “Just do it.”  I rolled up the window just in time.  “BANG!”  A golf-ball sized rock hit the window and shattered the glass.  Neither of us was hurt, but it was a lessen learned for me.

I lay on my cot that night listening to the rain patter on the galvanized roof and thinking of Dog Patch.  These people were forced off their land into a cardboard shanty town.  None of their faces were friendly, and I couldn’t help thinking, “for good reason.”  If I were in their position, I may have thrown a rock too.

Next Edition:  Logistics

Famly Plot
A family plot directly adjacent to the Battalion mess hall.