The “Southern Meal” was in full swing as the Chaplain came through the chow line. Starling was a little pudgy and very fond of food. His tray was loaded with cornbread, pinto beans, coleslaw and the triangle-shaped portions of ocean perch we called catfish. * He was in good spirits and geared up for the Bible Study he had promised us.
After dinner was secured, we were in the process of rearranging the mess deck when small arms fire echoed over the hill. It was coming from the CAP unit by the river. This usually was a warning of incoming mortars. Suddenly the air-horn went off, and everyone dispersed to their alert stations.
While climbing the ladder of the Exec Pit, the first mortar hit . . . it was close, and immediately the yell of “Corpsman” rang out. The incoming intensified as the attack continued; it seemed like more than one location was firing on us. The rounds came from Arizona territory which was out of my field of view. Then automatic fire (AK-47) abruptly came from a thatched hooch, out near the rice paddy, and I opened fire on it with the 50 cal. Two other outposts also fired, and the aggressor was silenced.
A stretcher went by during a lull, and I could see a severe head wound on the occupant. The sun had set, and it was still dusk when the “Secure” call came. I climbed down from the Exec Pit and went to the Medics’ aid station.
The hardback aid station was divided in half by a clear plastic partition. One side was an exam room, the other was a waiting room with two benches . . . they were full. Docs Furman and Driscoll were both working on the head injury. Chaplain Starling was saying, “Hold on Rocky, you’re going to be OK.” Rocky was a tough gunner and was conscious throughout this ordeal.
Turning to the Marines in the waiting area, there was an array of wounds. The worst was a Corporal, holding a battle dressing to his throat. He showed me the area (it wasn’t bleeding), but a half dollar open hole below his Adam’s Apple gaped at me. He was calm and relaxed. I said, “Hang in there.”
The next casualty had a bleeding knee, and blood was pooling on the wooden floor. I cut the leg off his trousers with utility scissors and applied a tourniquet — it worked. Other wounded Marines had superficial shrapnel injuries and were waiting patiently.
The outside exam room door flew open, and I saw Starling fall off the top step. As I ran around the hardback, I could hear a loud retching sound . . . the Chaplain had lost his dinner in the dirt. He was sweating heavily, and I thought he might be having a heart attack (he was very pale). I said, “Sir, lay back and lift your knees.” He followed my directions, and the color came back to his face.
Rocky was carried to the LZ in a stretcher, and the Corporal with the throat wound walked behind, holding his battle dressing. The Marine with the tourniquet had a wrapped dressing on his knee, which was elevated, as a stretcher took him to the incoming Medevac.
Chaplain Starling sat up and cursed, “Damn, those beans didn’t sit right.” I left him and went to get a wet towel from the mess hall. When I got back, he was up and walking around, looking sheepish. The Bible Study was canceled, and we never requested another.
* See previous blog, “The Southern Meal” February 23, 1968