Camp Pendleton was a good duty station for us. My first assignment was Chief Cook at the same Battalion mess hall where I ate as a Private in ITR during 1964. I supervised the “starboard watch” of cooks. We worked day on and day off, with every other weekend off.
That summer Jenny and I went on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park, and we visited Charlie * (my Best Man at our wedding) in Idaho. On our return, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It seemed strange to me that the war in Vietnam was dragging on, and we were planting a flag on the lunar surface.
Later we visited Sumo and his Japanese wife at their apartment in Anaheim. It was a short visit, and Sumo gave me an update about his remaining time on Hill 65. There was no news concerning Reb . . . he was still waiting for his orders when Sumo left. Fernando enjoyed R&R with his parents in Hawaii, and a new Mess Sergeant had moved into the cooks’ hooch. This visit was a bit awkward because Sumo’s wife spoke very little English.
In the fall I signed up for classes at Saddleback Jr. College. I took bonehead English and PoliSci 100. Jenny and I would sometimes stay up late debating issues regarding current political events. Oddly, President Nixon acquired “La Casa de Pacifica,” (The Western White House) in San Clemente. I often rode my 10-speed bike to the “guard shack” on Avenida Del Presidente where I waved to the sentry.
Jenny became pregnant in September, and we started preparing for our first baby. Our bedroom was small but had enough room for a crib.
In November I baked a large cake in our Battalion mess hall for the Marine Corps birthday. It was a double layer sheet cake, similar to the one that had been delivered to us on Hill 65. Somehow this cake got special recognition, and I was transferred to the Regimental mess hall at Camp Horno as Chief Baker assigned to a corner of the galley known as the bakery. With two mess men, I worked from 0400 until lunch was served (I was usually home by 1300). It didn’t take long before I became an expert at making Cream Puffs, Eclairs, Boston Cream Pies and of course, “Rainbow Jello.”
Our daughter, Claudia Lyn, was born on June 9, 1970, at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange (the same hospital where Jenny was born). We were a happy family.
In August I was ordered to report to the Chief of Staff at base headquarters. When I asked what it was about, no reason was given. My big ego assumed that I may be needed as a PMI ** because of my secondary MOS as a rifle instructor.
This was a brief (non-interview) situation. The new Commanding General (Major General Bower) was looking for an Administrative Steward, and I cut off any discussion before it started. “I AM NOT A STEWARD!” The new Aide de Camp ordered me back to ITR saying, “You are wasting our time.” On the drive back to Camp Horno, I had a deja-vu moment when Lieutenant Martin called me an idiot and sent me to Thuong Duc *** in Vietnam. Flashing lights appeared in my rear-view mirror so I pulled over to the shoulder and received a speeding ticket. It was a bad day!
The remainder of my time at Camp Pendleton was pleasant, and I was honorably discharged in April of 1971. I was proud of my 7 years of service in the Marine Corps.
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Regarding the Marines (characters) in this blog: Private Gaskins, Doc Furman, Sergeant Leggins (Leggs), Captain Cavagnol, Top Culverhouse, Fernando and Reb were never heard from again. It was a result of how we were deployed from Staging Battalion. We went to Vietnam as a group and were immediately split up into different units. We came back separately. Few people exchanged addresses. Although we were brothers, it was a superficial relationship. We all just wanted to move on and put Vietnam behind us. It didn’t work out so well . . . the war experience clung to us, and there was no one to talk with who could understand it.
Ten years later (1979) I was working as General Manager of Casey’s Bar and Grill in Westwood (near UCLA). It was a Friday Night Happy Hour, and I went outside to get a breath of fresh air. Coming toward me was a man, walking with a cane and limping. As he approached I said, “Wilson?” **** He looked at me and answered, “Ptomaine?” He had just had his annual medical evaluation at the VA Hospital a few blocks away.
We had dinner together and talked for hours. We spilled our guts, cried and consoled each other. His new hobby was the racetrack in Inglewood, and he was having good luck betting on the horses. My new hobby was Astronomy, and I was inventing a telescope to locate objects in the sky. We enjoyed a good visit.
The following night our bar entertainment played a set of Beatles tunes in a non-stop medley. At the break I asked the drummer, “Why was ‘Back in the USSR’ in the set? It isn’t a Beatles song.” He corrected me . . . “Yes, it is from the White Album.”
On the way home that night I heard the same song again, and I realized that Armed Forces Radio must have censored it from their playlist. It wasn’t appropriate for us so I wondered what else I had missed?
* See previous blog, “Charlie” November 1967
** See previous blog, “My Military Background Part III” Fall 1967
*** See previous blog, “Troop Surge” June 12, 1968
**** See previous blog, “India Company Returns” April 30, 1968
The 20 days leave between arriving home and reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton went by too fast. After a quick trip to Fresno to pick up the rest of Jenny’s belongings and check out of her apartment, we returned to Orange County. Although she was thrilled that I was finally home again, Jenny became slightly emotional about leaving Fresno for the last time. She had enjoyed living there while finishing college, and now the long wait to be reunited was over.
Our main focus was to find a place to live and get settled in San Clemente. We wanted a one or two-bedroom apartment in our price range ($125 per month). The rental market was tight, and we considered expanding our search when we made a final effort at an upscale real estate agency on the main street in town (Ole Hansen Realty).
A white-haired agent with thick black-framed glasses said no to our inquiry. Then as we were leaving he remarked, “Wait, I have a rental place that needs a lot of work.” He tossed me a set of keys and gave directions . . . Escalones, meaning “The Steps”, was only three blocks away.
It was a one-bedroom Spanish style duplex with a red tile roof, and it was a real mess. There was a dead Christmas tree in the living room as well as a pile of dog poop on the wood floor next to the fireplace. We tried to look past the glaring conditions and thought it could be cleaned up with some fresh paint.
Returning to the agent I asked, “How much?” The rent was $85 a month with free utilities. I asked for an allotment for paint, and he wrote a $25 voucher to the hardware store across the street. We paid the $85 and signed the agreement. The only stipulation was that we were required to give one-month notice before leaving.
Our first purchase at the hardware store was a box of Spic and Span and a bucket (we also got some paint samples). Both Jenny and I had painted before, but her determination to thoroughly clean all the walls and ceilings before applying any paint was a surprise to me. My method was to stir the paint and slap it on . . . I yielded to her requirements, and those rooms became attractive and charming in 10 days. Our furniture was delivered from storage, and we moved in with a few days to spare. It was a new beginning in a cozy place that was our home for the next two years. There were loose ends (curtains, etc.), but Jenny had these details covered with her sewing machine and some fabric I had sent from Vietnam.
The day before I reported to Camp Pendleton (Monday, March 3), we attended a family gathering in Laguna. Jenny’s parents had given us space to get reacquainted which we appreciated.
A letter for me had arrived in Glendale the day before (it was from Sumo). I opened it in private and was struck with the news. Sumo’s orders were to MCAS El Toro, and he was happy with that assignment. However, it was disturbing to hear that Kilo Battery had been overrun by sappers on February 23. Two Marines were killed (one was Corporal Shoemaker) * and eight others were WIA. This correspondence spoiled the family reunion for me; it was poor timing.
On Monday afternoon I reported for duty to MCB Headquarters. A woman Marine Staff Sergeant said, “We’ve been expecting you.” She escorted me to the Chief of Staff’s office. The General’s Aide de Camp told me to have a seat, and he proceeded to interview me for the job of “Administrative Steward.” Somehow they knew I had gone through Steward School even though my MOS had changed.
I was polite and answered the questions but was not enthusiastic about the prospect of being a “Coffee Boy” for the General’s Staff. Finally I looked him in the eye and just shook my head, NO. The Captain got upset with me so the base Sergeant Major intervened. We moved to his office, and he closed the door (it was tense).
He explained that this was a good opportunity with a lot of benefits. “It will be good for your career.” I answered, “I never signed the volunteer page in my record book to be a steward.” ** He checked and sure enough, it was blank . . . “I won’t sign it!”
He took me downstairs and asked the clerk to find the available billets for cooks and then asked me, “Where are you and your wife staying?” I answered, “San Clemente.” He directed the clerk to assign me to 2nd ITR. An Addendum was attached to my orders, and I was told to proceed to the Camp Horno Headquarters building.
At Camp Horno I received a “check-in” memorandum to the 1st Battalion at Camp San Onofre. It was closed for the day so I gave up and went back to our comfortable new home. It was a convenient 20-minute drive.
* See previous blog, “A Long Walk to Thuong Duc” June 13, 1968
** See previous blog, “My military background/credentials part I” November 1967
Our flight to CONUS departed in the late afternoon. We flew into the darkness for over 13 hours. The sun came up before we began descending, but there was nothing to see because of cloud cover. The flight started getting bumpy, and it was obvious we were nearing El Toro when the landing gear was lowered. Finally we broke through the ceiling, and things became smoother; I could see the morning traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. After a smooth landing the pilot announced, “Please remain seated until we reach the terminal.” Immediately everyone was unbuckled and cheering in the aisle.
We disembarked and walked onto the wet tarmac . . . a few Marines got down and kissed the ground. In the terminal building, we were seated and instructed to wait for our name to be called. There was a counter with windows (like a bank), where each Marine was issued travel pay and their orders were endorsed.
A Sergeant approached me and said, “You were my coach on the Rifle Range.” I didn’t recognize him, but he was wearing an Expert Badge so I took credit for it. When he found out that I didn’t need my travel pay immediately, he took me to a window and time stamped my orders. I was then free to go through Customs. Just outside was a bank of phone booths so I dropped a quarter in one and dialed the Operator. I gave her the Laguna Beach number and she said, “Please add 15 cents to complete your call.” I put in another quarter, and the phone rang twice before Jenny answered. I said, “I’m here” and she responded, “I’m on my way.”
With my sea bag over my shoulder, I walked toward the front gate. The shortest route was to go past Station Headquarters. I heard the loudspeaker’s “click” so I put my sea bag down; it was 0800 and time for morning colors. The bugle began playing “To the Colors” as I stood at attention and saluted while the flag was raised. When I reached the front gate, a sentry waved me through, and I crossed over to the Dry Cleaners.
The owner of the Dry Cleaners was a huge man (maybe 400 lbs.). * He came out and greeted me, “Just getting back from Vietnam?” I smiled and politely said, “Yes Sir.” He remembered me and asked my name. When I gave it to him, he went back inside and checked his Rolodex file to see if my account was paid up to date. He never returned.
Our blue VW made the turn from Sand Canyon Road, heading toward the front gate; Jenny pulled up next to me, grinning her big smile. I loaded the sea bag in the backseat and got into the front passenger seat of the car. We hugged and kissed awkwardly over the gearshift and headed for Laguna. It had been an awfully long time, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She looked confident and self-assured.
Once in the Laguna house, we wasted no time and were quickly in bed. After our first session of “love making,” we cuddled and talked. Our conversation was interrupted by the wind outside.
A Pacific storm was rolling in with gale-force winds. The trees were thrashing against the house, and we heard thunder in the distance. Still naked, we hunkered down under the covers of the twin bed. A flash of lightning lit up the bedroom as thunder crashed overhead, and hail was pounding on the roof. The center of the cloudburst was now above us.
The storm finally passed, but a soft rain continued to fall. We took showers and started getting dressed but ended up back in bed. Our hormones were on fire so we tested our stamina and purposefully prolonged the sex. Afterward we simultaneously said, “Thank You!” We both laughed . . . it was a special moment.
In the late afternoon we went to dinner at our favorite restaurant, “La Paz.” ** Our waiter (Louis) asked if we wanted our “regular” order (Sanborn enchilada and chicken taco). When I said, “Yes,” he commented, “We haven’t seen you in a while.” I explained that I had just returned home from Vietnam. Louis put the menus and order pad down and said, “Welcome Home,” and he gave me an emotional hug.
After dinner we went to the Laguna Hotel where we had met, and we enjoyed a few drinks in “The Captain’s Cabin.” Jenny wanted to go to the Gazebo where we first kissed so we drove up to the iconic overlook.
The sun was setting as the storm had passed. Clouds were a mix of dark purple, orange and violet, and the ocean mist scattered the light. There was a beautiful “Afterglow.” It was both a visual and inner feeling. At first I thought it was the drinks, but maybe it was leftover hormones.
We stood in the same spot of our first kiss, and we kissed again, as if it was the first time. This was a new beginning. The storm (Vietnam) was behind us, and we looked forward to our life together again.
* See previous blog, “A Trip to the PX” December 1967
When I entered the San Jose Recruiting Office in 1964, I was greeted by Master Sergeant Bradbury. During our first exchange he said, “Can I help you?” Sarcastically I answered, “I need a vacation.” He was well trained and had me begging to take the written test (he claimed I couldn’t pass it). Afterward while he was getting my personal information, he asked my date of birth. When I answered, he smiled and commented, “I was a PFC on Red Beach in Okinawa the day you were born.” I rudely shrugged; it meant nothing to me.
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Standing in line, waiting for brunch was taking forever. I wanted to catch the bus to Red Beach in order to atone for my poor behavior toward my recruiter. I kept looking at my new watch (I didn’t want to miss the bus), but the chow line was very slow moving.
Suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to face Master Gunnery Sergeant Bradbury. He smiled and slapped me on the back. Bradbury and I had crossed paths at El Toro * before I left for Vietnam. He seemed to know I had arrived in Okinawa and said, “Come with me, you can be my guest in the Staff Mess.”
As we ate breakfast I told him of my plan to visit Red Beach. He quickly agreed to take me personally in his staff car and give me the full tour. My orders to Camp Pendleton didn’t surprise him and he said, “It’s a good duty station for a Californian.”
I tried to turn the conversation to him, “What are you doing now?” He was leaving the Corps soon (after 27 years) and was in the process of acquiring part ownership of a local bar. “I’m going to retire here, where I started” Bradbury said. I looked at his chest full of ribbons: Silver Star, Purple Heart, service campaigns from WW II and Korea . . . he’d literally been all over the Pacific. He also wore a Distinguished Marksman (Pistol) medal.
After brunch we drove to Red Beach. There were a few sun bathers and some snorkelers out in the clear waters of the reef. Facing the open ocean Bradbury gestured to the horizon, “It was quite a sight to see . . . 3,000 ships on the water.” I could tell it was an emotional moment so I gave him some space.
We didn’t stay long at Red Beach before heading back to the base. I told Bradbury about the staff club we built on Hill 65, and he thought it was a good thing to have separate clubs for the young troops. My commitment to send the Gunny bar supplies caught Bradbury’s interest, and he made a side trip.
He parked off the street behind a bar where he knocked on the door. An attractive Asian woman let us in and locked the door behind us. The smell of stale alcohol and incense filled the room. We sat at the bar, and two glasses appeared as she poured us shots. Bradbury spoke to the woman in Okinawan and made hand motions to her as she gathered some “rocks glasses” from a back shelf. She boxed them up for shipment and used cardboard coasters as stuffing material.
This woman was his “partner” in the ownership of the bar, and it was obvious that they were close companions. I wrote out Gunny Pavelcek’s address at Kilo Battery, and the box was addressed for mailing. I offered to pay for the shipping, but Bradbury would have none of it. After returning to the base, we said goodbye as he dropped me off and drove away. He seemed lonely.
* See previous blog, “A Ghost from the Past” November 1967
Okinawa was a transitional facility for Marines heading to CONUS. Although we were now out of “harm’s way,” there was still plenty of trouble for those celebrating the end of their tour (in the club) . . . not my thing.
The uniform shop at the PX was empty as I was fitted with a new Gabardine coat and trousers. The tailoring only took a few hours which included new chevrons and service stripe being sewn on professionally.
Many Marines were having customized satin jackets made in the clothing department. They had military patches and monogrammed names with Vietnam maps on the back. Various locations were also embroidered (Khe Sanh, Phu Bai, Da Nang), and several had named operations (Mameluke Thrust, Taylor Common, Meade River, etc.). These were similar to high school Lettermen’s Jackets which proudly flaunted where a Marine had served. Some cost as much as my new uniform.
While at the PX I purchased a new gold Seiko watch with a “Twist-O-Flex” band. It was self-winding and showed the day and date of the month. This item helped to offset the loss of my stolen Timex.
We were given a lot of free time so I spent hours polishing brass buckles and spit-shining my dress shoes. They told us that Garrison caps (piss covers) were OK for travel, and one came with the new uniform. It was important for me to make a good impression, and I wanted to look sharp for Jenny. There was talk of anti-war demonstrations at airports and other transportation hubs, but it wasn’t a concern for me.
It was a quiet night in Da Nang, but we could hear H&I rounds being fired from a distant gun battery. The cattle car pulled up at 0400, and we packed into it like sardines . . . some had to stand.
A cattle car was basically a trailer attached to a truck. Sometimes double trailers were used to transport troops, depending on the number of people. These trailers were lined inside with wooden bench seats, set in double rows. The ride was always bumpy as there was little or no suspension. The safety factor in this mode of transportation was marginal at best. I can say, without a doubt, that I never saw an officer ride in one.
Our trip to the air terminal made the long circuit around the runway. There were two curves to negotiate which were slightly problematic (the double trailer had a mind of its own). On the first curve there was a truck coming at us in the other direction, and it sideswiped the back of the second trailer.
Both vehicles stopped, and there was an all-out panic. The truck had spilled a pallet of 155 mm rounds on the road. Both drivers were yelling at each other about the accident.
The road needed to be cleared of these rounds so I picked up one by the eye bolt and moved it to the berm. The rounds were not fused, and there was no danger in moving them to the side of the road. A few Marines started helping when an MP truck drove up. One of the MPs stayed with the drivers, and the other approached me. I told him, “These rounds are safe, but you should call EOD to pick them up.”
After a short delay we were back in the cattle cars and on our way to the flight terminal. The incident lasted maybe 20 minutes, but it probably seemed like a lifetime in the minds of our group. No one was injured.
At the terminal it was the same as every flight, “Hurry up and wait.” The sunrise was beautiful with only a few clouds. We boarded the plane (officers and staff first) and settled into our “Freedom Flight.”
I had a window seat on the right side, and my face was glued to the view. The jet rose at a high inclination, and I saw a huge dust cloud off to the west. There were two tanks moving along the road near Hill 52. Then we banked left as the South China Sea sparkled out the windows on that side. It was a long slow turn, and the plane leveled off on its flight path toward Okinawa.
As we got off the jet at Kadena Air Base and walked to the terminal, another group of Marines was headed toward our plane to board for their flight home. They were dressed in Class A greens and looked sharp. “PTOMAINE” * someone yelled. It was Tony, our Battalion Supply Sergeant (we had arrived in Vietnam together). There was no time to talk while I scanned the line, looking for any familiar faces. There were none.
We were then transported to a storage warehouse to retrieve our sea bags. It was a highly organized system, and I found my bag easily. There were about 20 bags left in my group. I looked at every tag hoping to find Private Gaskins, ** but no luck. A Staff Sergeant asked me what I was doing and I answered, “Just looking for a friend.” He shook his head and said, “It don’t mean nothin’.”
The rest of the day was filled with orientations regarding our stay in Okinawa. We split into smaller groups and listened to various talks about the facilities on base. One lecture was about the new Gabardine uniform. It was available at the uniform shop, and all tailoring was free. This uniform would be the new standard and required after 1970. It was expensive ($35) but recommended to those with two or more years left to serve. I decided to order one set.
* See previous blog, “My New Nickname” January 14, 1968
** See previous blog, “The Helmet Liner” late December 1967
Sumo told me not to get up because he had planned a special breakfast. The cooks and mess men usually ate before the chow line opened at 0530, and I joined them for my final meal on Hill 65. The menu was SOS (hamburger meat gravy) on fresh biscuits with eggs to order. Everyone had a big laugh about “Ptomaine’s favorite meal.”
After chow, I went to the hooch to gather my gear as Reb was going to bed. In an effort to dissuade him from his unlawful scheme, I started a conversation. “Looking over your shoulder the rest of your life will be miserable.” I explained how I understood his need to get back with Margaret; however, it didn’t make sense why he would put the person he loved in jeopardy. Reb was silent, but he listened. “Play it straight, be patient and you two will live a happy life together. Don’t do this to her; you should honor her brother.”
We patted each other on the back and he said, “Thanks Sarge.” I left the hooch for the last time and headed up the hill wearing my helmet and flak jacket with M-16 in hand.
Fernando drove his truck to the Exec Pit, and we started loading. A sick Marine with a fever rode in the cab so the BAS would be our first stop. As I lifted myself up to the bed of the truck, someone grabbed my leg and pulled me down . . . it was Mama-San, and she was wailing “YOU NO CAN GO.”
Marines were trying to pull her off me and I said, “STOP, leave her alone.” I held her and said, “It’s OK, I will come back.” Her dark eyes were filled with pools of tears as she repeated my words, “You come back?” I looked her straight in the face and said, “YES.” Hua stood beside her, crying (he knew I was lying).
The trip to Headquarters Battery on Hill 34 was uneventful. Fernando waited while I turned in my M-16 and 782 gear. I received my official orders and got in the truck. Next stop was the Division Dispersing Office. After exchanging my MPC for greenbacks, I walked to the Dental Clinic where I got my teeth cleaned.
I hitched a ride to Four Corners and waited for the Admin truck to return from FLC. It was dry goods delivery day, and the truck was loaded with provisions for the week. Fernando dropped me off at Headquarters, and we wished each other luck as he headed back toward Convoy Road.
I was covered with dust and needed a shower so I went to the cooks’ hooch. I was undressed and wrapped in a towel when Mai (now a hooch maid) came in and asked if I needed anything. “No, thank you.” I stuffed my wallet in my shaving kit and went to the shower to rinse off the dust. When I returned to the hooch and got dressed, my watch was missing (I had left it on the cot with my clothes).
The watch was now worthless except for sentimental value. Jenny had given it to me as a Christmas gift. * It was my fault for leaving it out, but thankfully my wallet was safe.
The Headquarters Jeep driver dropped me at the Transient Center. Handlers checked everyone in, and we were briefed to stay put until 0400. Then we would be transported to our flight ramp. It was a tense night, and few of us slept.
* See previous blog, “A Trip to the PX” late December 1967