Sumo Returns From Tokyo


roadside hooch
Roadside Hooch near Dai Loc

Saturday, September 21, 1968

Max was packed and ready for the trip back to Battalion Headquarters.  We shook hands and parted ways in a cordial manner.  He and I had completely different styles and attitudes about the mess hall (and the war).  I was sure he would succeed in his own way, wherever he was assigned.

Mama-San and Hua were relieved when Max left with the Admin truck.  They didn’t like him but couldn’t give me a reason why (maybe they felt the tension between us).  The Vietnamese could “read us” with accuracy.  Our American culture was more emotional compared to theirs . . . we let it all hang out, while they were much more reserved.

Sumo arrived with the Admin truck and was a sight for sore eyes.  He looked refreshed and was happy to see us.  We spent some time exchanging the latest news and went to mail call together.  As usual, I received a letter from Jenny.

Fernando came over to give me the gossip from Headquarters . . . Max was transferred to Lima Battery.  As it turned out, Lima Battery was now located at Hill 55, and they ate at the 5th Marine Regimental mess hall.  This meant that Max would be assigned duty at that facility.  Good for him.

After dinner Sumo presented Reb and me with the “gifts” he had purchased with our money in Tokyo.  Reb was thrilled with a large box of “Washi” art paper.  It had a smooth surface on one side and was textured on the other.  Either side could be used for sketching.  Reb said the paper was exotic and had a natural feel to it.

Sumo’s selection for me was a box of handmade Ha-ze candles.  They were long lasting and had the unique feature of keeping the form of their flames; they didn’t flicker as they burned.  The candles came with a special nipper in order to keep the wick trimmed properly.  These would be used when I wrote to Jenny . . . Sumo couldn’t have picked a more perfect gift.

We got a basic rundown of his R&R.  After arriving in Tokyo, he took the short flight to Iwakuni.  He and his wife spent the first night together in her parents’ house.  The next day they rode the train back to Tokyo and settled into a hotel for the week.  There were similar happenings there, as in Sydney.  Student anti-war demonstrations were against any presence of American servicemen, and it seemed the Vietnam War was being protested around the globe.

Art Paper
Washi Art Paper

Next Edition:  The Rice Crop


Standard Issue Canteen Cup

Friday, September 20, 1968

Making coffee in the field was a big deal; there was no coffee brewing equipment.  We learned a method in Cook School:  bring the water to a boil and remove from the heat source.  Then add the coffee and let it steep for five minutes.  Finally pour cool water over the surface while stirring slowly which allowed the grounds to sink.  The result was coffee with poor clarity and a lump of residue in the bottom of each cup.

While in Sydney Reb learned about making coffee in a large “press.”  Margaret (the manager of a “coffee lounge”) taught this process to Reb.  She said it was the best way to brew coffee, and it left very little sediment in the mug.

Some larger mess halls had big 100-cup stainless steel percolators, but they weren’t in our supply system.  “Drip filters” were not yet available.  Marines commonly referred to coffee as “a cup of mud” or “a cup of Joe” and sometimes just “the dregs.”  The Vietnamese called it “Ca Phe.” *

Reb tried to fashion a coffee press, but instead he invented a reusable filter that worked.  It was a rubberized circle of cloth with holes punched into it with an ice pick.  This cloth (filter) was secured to the top of a 10-gallon pot with a thin strip of inner tube from a truck tire (tied in a knot).  The filter was then filled with measured ground coffee.  Boiling water was slowly ladled over the grounds and dripped through the rubberized cloth filter.

The outcome was fresh-flavored coffee with clarity and little residue.  Both Max and I were impressed with Reb’s invention.  I asked Reb, “Where did you get this rubberized cloth?”  He took me into the bakery and showed me the leftover cutout from a (new) body bag.  There was a template to make a second filter with a pair of heavy shears.

We continued to use the filters, but the origin of the material remained our secret.  The field Cook School mantra, “Improvise,” was still a valuable lesson to remember.

* See previous blog, “Papa-San”  January 20, 1968

Next Edition:  Sumo Returns From Tokyo

The Countdown

Me (Ptomaine) In Hooch With Countdown Calendar

Wednesday, September 18, 1968

The spotting scope was like a new toy for me, but it was limited after sundown.  The low light conditions were not optimal for the small aperture lens.  I scanned the river where the NVA had crossed in sam-pans on the night of the TET offensive; the sand bar was gone, but there was a riffle where it once was (maybe it was underwater).  I secured the scope as it became too dark outside.

Thinking of how long Jenny and I had been apart, I started making some calculations.  The elapsed time, from when I left her at Camp Pendleton in January to R&R in Hawaii, was 124 days.  It was the longest we had ever been separated.  Recalculating from when we said goodbye again in Hawaii until now was 18 weeks.  At present we had approximately 140 days still to go . . . it was mind numbing.

I wrote a quick letter to Jenny, wishing her good luck with her new semester of college classes (she would receive this correspondence in five days).  Now we had a new way of counting the time left.  We were in the “last semester” and looked forward to mid-term and final exams (graduation and homecoming).  I tried to look on the bright side of our situation.  We were getting “Short.”

Next Edition:  Coffee

Recon Inserts

Digging a Fortified Bunker Next to Our New Hooch

Tuesday, September 17, 1968

Kilo battery was designated as “General Support” for the 7th Marines.  Our guns had a maximum effective range of 7 miles but could reach distances between 9 and 11 miles.  Hill 52, to the south, was at the outer limit for our 155mm rounds.

A recon team was inserted on Charlie Ridge, and they observed NVA units moving through a river crossing below Hill 52 (see map at bottom of glossary).  The fire missions started in mid-morning and continued through lunch.  We extended the meal to allow the artillerymen a chance to eat.  Max was annoyed by this disruption, and he also questioned why we fed everyone who came through the door.  He said, “It’s obvious some of these engineers and Amtrac crews are just passing through.”

Top Culverhouse was in the chow line and overheard the conversation.  He chimed in, “Max, where’s your Esprit de Corps?”  It wasn’t exactly the answer I would have given, but it was along the same line of thinking.  I wanted to say, “Why are you here?”

During dinner a CH-46 helicopter landed and dropped off two Recon Marines.  They came through the chow line, and one of them recognized me from his training session at the El Toro rifle range.  Normally weapons were left outside in a rack before entering the mess hall, but this Recon Marine had his Winchester Model 70 slung over his shoulder.  I invited him to join us after dinner so we could talk.

Following dinner Max and I took turns showering.  Then the two Recon Marines showed up at our hooch and were looking for a place to spend the night.  They laughed at my lawn chair and called me a “Pogue.”  It was a friendly term, and we listened to their crazy tales from Charlie Ridge.  I noticed the M-49 spotter scope and asked if I could use it for a minute.  It reminded me of old times on the rifle range and “reading the wind.” *  I commented, “I sure wish I had one of these here.”  The two Marines looked at each other and said, “If we can take a shower, you can have it.”  (The scope had belonged to a wounded Recon Marine who rotated out of country.)  They showered and spent the night in our outside bunker . . . the scope was now mine to keep.

* See previous blog, “Sniper School”  Published November 17, 2017

Command Chronology – Kilo 4/11 – September 1968

Next Edition:  The Countdown

Sound Effects

Thuong Duc Corridor – Charlie Ridge

Monday, September 16, 1968

The sun rising on the eastern horizon was spectacular.  The Marines standing in line for breakfast had an excellent view of the pink and purple clouds.  From our vantage point on Hill 65, we were at just the right angle to see the reflection of the colors off the rice paddies.

Max and I were serving the first wave of Marines in the chow line when there was a blast of outgoing artillery.  He had experienced single H&I rounds that were fired during the night but not a full battery of charge 7’s all firing at once.  Max dropped his pancake spatula but quickly recovered it.  The blister on his finger was wrapped with gauze, and it made a good excuse for the spatula to slip out of his hand.

As we were preparing lunch, Max commented on the arrangement of Reb working as a night baker.  He thought there wasn’t enough “production” and we were possibly wasting man hours for doughnuts.  I pointed out that the fire units we used for breakfast were filled and fired up by Reb.  The water for the coffee was ready, and the burners we were about to use for lunch had also been filled by Reb in the dark.  Max wasn’t impressed with all the extras Reb did to contribute to the operation of our mess hall.

The conversation made me think of how things had evolved with the cooks.  We were a good team, and the operation ran smoothly.  Working long hours and sometimes struggling to get enough sleep, we got the job done.  I started to ask Max how he would distribute the workload, but I held back.  Finally I said, “I have taken ownership of this mess hall.  It’s a reflection on me, and I’m proud of the job we’re doing.”  This was the end of Max’s second guessing.  Eventually he would run his own mess.

There was another fire mission during lunch.  This time over 30 rounds were fired, and Max took it in stride . . . his brain was adjusting to the sounds of Hill 65.

Command Chronology – Kilo 4/11 – September 1968

Next Edition:  Recon Inserts


The Blister

Doc Furman and Doc Driscoll

Sunday, September 15, 1968

Brunch was the easiest meal of the week to prepare.  The rush of serving 400 meals was spread out over three hours.  Max was a new face, and his skills were good (he could talk and flip eggs at the same time).

Following breakfast we turned to the chore of cutting New York steaks for the afternoon BBQ.  Knife sharpening was not one of Max’s skills.  His erratic scraping back and forth on the stone was my first hint.  The second clue was his fancy “steel work.”  No blade needed that much steel.  Finally his style of cutting the meat was clumsy.  He was “on top” of the knife pressing down and sawing back and forth . . . I let him continue this “dog and pony show,” but it was hard to watch.

After the steaks were cut, I started refilling the burners and preparing to bake the potatoes.  Max was nursing a large blister at the base of his right forefinger.  It was the spot where the heel of the knife rested while cutting.  I felt my forefinger with my thumb and was surprised at the thick callus that I had developed there over time.

During the afternoon BBQ, Doc Furman looked at Max’s blister and told him not to pop it.  “Submerge it in ice water” was his temporary solution . . . there was no ice, we gave it all to the club to cool the beer.

The chaos of Marines cooking their own steaks was annoying to Max.  He was used to a more orderly meal routine.  This was our Sunday ritual and gave these young Marines some time to blow off steam.  Somehow the disorder preserved our sanity.  Max would not have allowed this to happen if it were his mess hall.

Next Edition:  Sound Effects

Sergeant Maxwell

Top Culverhouse Playing Horseshoes

Sergeant Maxwell

Saturday, September 14, 1968

During the afternoon mail call, I received another letter from Jenny.  As always, I stashed it in my pocket to read later in private.  When Top Culverhouse was finished passing out mail, he asked me to hang loose for a minute.  I waited until he returned with an unfamiliar face.  He introduced me to Sergeant Maxwell.  “He is here to assist you while Sumo is on R&R.”  I shook Maxwell’s hand and welcomed him to Hill 65.

Gathering Maxwell’s gear, we went to the hooch to settle him in.  Reb was up, and after a quick meeting we agreed, “Max” would stay in our hooch.  He would sleep on a cot in the empty corner space.  I returned to the mess hall while Reb and Max toured the Kilo battery compound.

Max arrived in Vietnam just before Typhoon Bess, and he worked for Gunny Sampson in the Battalion mess hall.  He was assigned temporary duty with us so he could become familiarized with a field mess hall operation.  It was obvious he was experienced.

I turned the conversation to Max’s background.  He had served as a Chief Cook in a busy mess hall at San Diego Recruit Depot.  These big mess halls were like factories pumping out pre-planned meals from someone sitting at a desk in Headquarters Marine Corps.  There was no comparison to the issues we faced on Hill 65.  It was an interesting discussion, and I knew Max was going to learn about the realities of managing a mess hall in the field.

Jenny found an apartment and registered for fall classes at Fresno State.  She was going to move in on Sunday, the 15th, which gave her a week to purchase books and get settled before starting school on the 23rd.  More important for me . . . now I had a more permanent mailing address to send my letters.

Next Edition:  The Blister