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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
Reb spent all of his spare time sketching. The photographs Margaret sent motivated him to “collaborate” with her. The sketches were proportioned to the photos she had mailed him. All of them were good renderings and would stand alone as art, but the side by side comparison was stunning (two artists – collaborating). All of his sketches were signed “Bub.” *
Sumo was leaving a day early in preparation for his Tokyo R&R. He planned to take a short flight from Tokyo to Iwakuni where his young wife lived with her parents. He wanted to arrange for a more private setting so they could engage in “intimate activities.” We got a big laugh at this and thought it made more sense for her to meet him in Tokyo.
Reb packaged his sketches and addressed them to Margaret in Sydney. Sumo promised to mail them at the Division post office in Da Nang. Fernando had learned this process and would accompany Sumo with Reb’s package. I gave Sumo a $10 Greenback and told him to get me a souvenir from Japan (Reb did the same).
We wished Sumo well as the convoy pulled out of Hill 65. The road had already dried enough from the typhoon to leave a trail of dust down the road. Reb and I planned to have an intense work week, cooking three meals a day for 400 Marines.
* See previous blog, “Collaborative Art” August 22, 1968