Wednesday, June 12, 1968
While in the final stages of preparation for lunch, a high-ranking visitor (full bird Colonel) came through the mess deck door. He approached me and commanded, “Feed these men now!” The four Marines were a bedraggled group, and they all had the “thousand yard stare.” I answered, “Yes Sir” and motioned for the troops to follow me.
We served them hot meatloaf sandwiches with mashed potatoes, gravy and rainbow Jello. They sat at a corner table eating, and the Colonel asked if we had any coffee. I led him into the officers mess, and the thermal container had fresh hot coffee. Part of Reb’s pastry tray was still on a side table, and the Colonel picked up a “Big Foot” and took a bite. “Where did you get these?’ I explained about our bakery and offered to give him a tour.
After showing off the bakery, walk-in and outside BBQ area, we returned to the mess deck and found the Marines laughing over the jiggling cubes of Jello . . . they were unwinding from their nightmare. I asked them their unit, and a Sergeant answered, “Delta 1/5.” They had been in the bush for three weeks. I asked if by chance they knew a Private Gaskins, and they gave me a blank look. I explained, “he has a really small head,” and they responded, “Spider.” One of the Marines said, “I write to his sister” and I said, “Yes, Lilly from Kentucky.”* It was confirmation we were talking about the same individual.
Spider was Gaskins’ nickname, and he was a “tunnel rat.” He went into the darkness of NVA/VC tunnels and probed for caches of supplies and enemy soldiers. It was a dangerous job, and he was good at it.
The Colonel nudged me away and said, “Give them some space.” I understood, and we left them to decompress. The Colonel was agitated, and said, “Where the F**k did you get all this? I didn’t understand so he said, “The bakery, the walk-in, Jello . . . out here on a fire base?” I answered, “Sir, we just improvise.” He was annoyed that his fancy mess hall back at Hill 55 didn’t have doughnuts or Jello.
He asked if there was anywhere these Marines could stay for the night, and I showed him our abandoned sandbagged bunker/hooch. It wasn’t my place to give it away which he understood. I motioned toward the Exec Pit, and he turned to me and said, “Thank you, Sergeant. As you were, now get back to work.”
We served over 600 meals at lunch and resorted to opening cans of Spam. With the meatloaf and Jello long gone, we were preparing a large batch of spaghetti with marinara sauce for dinner. Most of our supply of fresh food was gone. I went to report our situation to the Exec Pit, and Lieutenant Martin cut me off in mid-sentence, “You feed EVERYONE who comes in the door.” I answered, “Aye-Aye, Sir” and walked away. Top Culverhouse overhead the exchange and followed me to the mess hall, asking about the situation. I explained that we may use all the food we had during dinner . . . it was too late to adjust to feeding this many troops; we had no advance notice.
Operation Mameluke Thrust was expanding; the 7th Marines were to take over the area of Route 4 to Hill 52, 5th Marines were in Arizona Territory and the 27th Marines were being inserted into Thuong Duc.
We did run out of food after serving 1,600 meals at dinner. I reported to the Exec Pit with the news, and Lieutenant Martin was furious. You’re an IDIOT!” It got worse . . . he pushed me in the chest against the sandbag entrance where I lost my balance and fell to the ground. Thankfully there were witnesses, and Lieutenant Skoog restrained Martin. Top Culverhouse helped me up and said softly, “Easy does it.” I stood at attention, and in front of a growing crowd of Kilo Marines, faced Lieutenant Martin. “Sir, NO Sir! The Sergeant is NOT an IDIOT!” Martin responded, “I want you out of here! You go on the convoy to Thuong Duc tomorrow.” All I could say was, “Aye, Sir” and I walked away.
There were more than a dozen witnesses to Martin’s outburst, and I knew this incident would blow up morale in our battery. Culverhouse followed me to my hooch and reassured me. He planned to personally report the situation to Captain Cavagnol in Thuong Duc the next day.
I took a shower, and Corporal Lackey (battery supply NCO) was waiting for me in the hooch. He asked what I needed for the trip to Thuong Duc so I gave him a list: extra canteen, entrenching tool, rucksack, etc. He told me to stay put, and he would bring it all to me. A Sergeant from India Company showed up as I was packing and asked me to come to the mess deck. He introduced me to one of his squad leaders and suggested I join them on the sweep to Hill 52. “Walking the road is safer than riding in a truck,” and I agreed.
Sumo and Reb were upset about my punishment and felt guilty that our team effort resulted in me being disciplined. Finally I explained to them about Lieutenant Martin trying to charge me with an Article 15** over the accident when I burned my hand. They promised to watch over my gear. I told them I wanted to sell the Super 8 movie camera if anyone was interested ($50 including a cartridge of film).
Before going to bed, I wrote Jenny a short letter explaining my move to Thuong Duc. I addressed the letter c/o her friend, Nancy in San Diego. This was going to make communication more complicated.
* See previous blog “Basic Infantry Training” pre-Christmas 1967
** See previous blog “Inquiry Finding” April 29, 1968
Next Edition: A Long Walk to Thuong Duc