Change of Command Ceremony

Captain Cavagnol with Lieutenant Braley – FDC Officer

Thursday, July 18, 1968

At 0730 it was all hands on deck.  We stood in formation on the road in front of the CP.  The transfer of leadership from Captain Cavagnol to Captain Smotherman was a symbolic handover of authority.  We had no ceremony when Cavagnol arrived, just a quick staff meeting.  *

Cavagnol gave a short speech, praising the Kilo battery performance and accomplishments.  He gave kudos to the gun crews, with special recognition to FDC, who plotted the fire missions.  We had earned a Navy Unit Commendation for these efforts.

After the formal ceremony Gunny Pavelcek assigned work parties for the day, but before dismissing us, he made an announcement.  “I hereby officially proclaim a name change for “Ptomaine.”  From this day forward, he will be known as “TRIPWIRE.”  The outlandish Rube Goldberg device rigged to explode the rockets was just another example of our field training motto:  “Improvise.”

My new nickname didn’t really stick, but it was appreciated.  Few people actually knew my real name, and I had finally accepted “Ptomaine” in the spirit of unit morale.

During the afternoon we baked a simple sheet cake and frosted it with white frosting.  Reb mixed in some caramel coloring and drew an image of a 155mm round heading to its target with the caption, “Kilo’s Killers – Good Luck Patty Shell” (Cavagnol’s call sign).

* See previous blog, “Captain Cavagnol” January 26, 1968

Command Chronologies – Kilo 4/11 – July 1968

Next Edition:  Cavagnol to CONUS


Wednesday, July 17, 1968

The prisoners spent the night locked in the Club.  In the morning they were each given one of Reb’s pastries and a cup of coffee.  They didn’t seem worried or concerned about their situation.

We put them into the backseat of the Jeep and followed the Admin truck on the same route as the day before.  I pointed out to Captain Cavagnol the spot of the first stop yesterday and explained how I had mistakenly moved on.

As we approached the scene of the explosion, we were stopped by a patrol; engineers were repairing the road.  The exploded rockets had left a crater, making the road impassable.  A TD-15 tractor was filling and grading the new surface.

As we waited, Cavagnol noticed a huge “crop circle” caused by the blast.  It had flattened the rice fields in a quarter-mile diameter.  He said, “This is bad; we’ve ruined their crop.”  After some checking, he found the owner of the land, an older Mama-San.  He apologized for the loss and offered to help replant a new crop.  She was surprised and agreed to have a plot ready by Friday.

After the road was repaired, we headed to Division Headquarters with the captive Vietnamese.  We turned them in to a G-2 officer, and I was told to wait outside.  Cavagnol advised me to hang loose until he returned, and he took off in the Jeep.  After waiting for about ten minutes, I was summoned inside where I gave my account of the capture.  A Major repeatedly asked about the first stop, and he seemed to be disputing the location.  He took me to a map and gave me a pin to mark the place.  I put the pin on Route 4, a click east of Dai Phu, and he blew up.

The ox cart had passed through four separate checkpoints manned by the Popular Forces (National Police).  It meant there had been a breach in security and that the local government was allowing weapons and materials to traverse freely toward Da Nang.  He thanked me for the information and said, “You’re Dismissed.”

I hesitated long enough to get his attention and he said, “You have a question?”  I asked about the prisoners, and he explained that they were “Indigenous Vietnamese” and would be released.  “They are non-combatant porters.”  I was outraged and replied, “But they were hauling rockets.”  The Major cut me off, “YOU ARE DISMISSED!”

I waited at the intersection for Captain Cavagnol, and we headed for the 11th Marines Regimental Headquarters.  Inside the Regimental Office, I sat in a waiting area next to the Sergeant Major’s desk.  There were officers talking behind a partition, and I could hear laughter.  I was fidgeting as I waited, and the Sergeant Major asked, “Are you OK?”  I answered, “Sir, am I in trouble?”

He smiled and said, “Hold on,” and knocked on the Commander’s door before entering . . . more laughter.  I was invited into the Colonel’s office, and Captain Cavagnol introduced me to everyone.  The Colonel praised my performance and said it was unfortunate that “porters” weren’t considered POW’s.  Luckily, we had uncovered a flaw in security, and it would be corrected.  One of the officers was Captain Smotherman who was going to be the new Kilo Battery Commander.  Since Cavagnol was rotating to CONUS on Friday, Smotherman would ride with us back to Hill 65.

The return trip was quick.  Cavagnol drove fast, and the dirt road made it a rough ride.  Smotherman had a new flak jacket and helmet and looked like a “new kid on the block.”  I wondered how long it would be before there were bags under his eyes.  Lack of sleep and stress would take some pounds off his already thin frame.

Next Edition:  Change of Command Ceremony


Tuesday, July 16, 1968

The Admin truck to Da Nang was ready with PFC Wilson driving.  He was a veteran driver of Convoy Road and knew every mile of it.  As the Marines got on board, I visually checked each one for the proper gear, and the Gunny was eyeballing them as well.  There were six Marines, including PFC Jepson, who I knew from Thuong Duc.  He was a cannoneer from Sergeant Bivens’ gun #1.  His small stature was deceiving . . . he was able to dead lift 90-pound rounds with one hand, by the eye bolt.  I knew he was a capable Marine.

We headed out as the road was cleared and passed Dai Phu village school at the bottom of our hill.  After traveling about a half mile, I noticed two Vietnamese men pulling an ox cart toward Dai Loc.  Something didn’t seem right, and I asked Wilson to stop the truck ahead of the cart.

The cart was fully loaded with layers of banana trees, and I got out to inspect it.  The men kept saying in broken English . . . “Market, Market.”  The Marines in the truck started whining about being delayed.  “Sarge, you’re going to ruin our day, let’s get out of here.”  I gave in to their pressure, and we moved on toward Dai Loc.  After making the turn north toward Da Nang, I realized the roadside market wasn’t open until Thursday.  My decision to move on and not check the cart further was eating at me all day.  I had allowed these young Marines to influence me, and I regretted the hasty decision.

We stayed as long as we could in Da Nang, leaving enough time to get back to Hill 65 before dark.  As we headed south on Convoy Road, I spotted the two Vietnamese pulling the ox cart, and Wilson stopped again.  This time I was more forceful, “Lock and load, cover these men while we check the cart.”  The Marines followed my orders as we emptied the banana trees.  Under the trees was a heavy layer of thick leaves, and stashed underneath were two 122mm rockets . . . Even I was surprised.

I yelled, “Secure the prisoners.”  All of us had trained for this scenario in Staging Battalion.  The detainees were searched and put into the truck.  Jepsen had them take off their black pajama shirts, and he cut the sleeves off to tie and blindfold the prisoners.

Wilson refused to allow the rockets to be loaded into the truck.  I asked for his grenade, and he retrieved it from behind the driver’s seat.  I decided to make a long tripwire and blow the rockets from a safe distance.  The truck had a winch, and we pulled the steel cable out as far as we could (about 50 feet).  Wilson offered a bundle of paracord he had for tying down loads, and I tied it to the cable.  It was too stiff to tie to the grenade’s ring so I told one of the Marines to remove his boot laces.  After securing the laces to the paracord, we lifted the rockets slightly and placed the grenade under them.  The boot lace was attached to the grenade ring.  We estimated the makeshift tripwire was at least 150 feet long.

With everyone in the truck, I straightened the pin in the grenade and we got a rolling start.  At 150 feet, the ring was pulled from the grenade, and we had an additional seven seconds to clear the blast area.  There was a bright flash and explosion.  My ears were ringing . . . there was no shock wave because we were inside the shock perimeter.  Wilson managed to drive the truck out of the blinding dust, and we could see a massive cloud of debris over the detonation.  He stopped the truck, and we retrieved the cable and paracord before moving on.

It was just before sunset when we arrived at Hill 65, and the situation became a circus as we unloaded the prisoners and told our story.  Captain Cavagnol ordered the prisoners to be separated, and he interviewed them individually in the Enlisted Club.  Each Marine on the truck was debriefed, and Top Culverhouse wrote out statements regarding the incident.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Cavagnol came to our hooch to inform me of his plan to take the captive Vietnamese to Division Headquarters the next day (I would accompany him).  He looked around our quarters and said, “Nice digs.”

I had made a miscalculation regarding the 122mm rockets.  Normally the rockets would have burned off all the solid fuel before exploding at the target.  The combined fuel in the rockets was nearly 100 pounds, and this became additional explosive material in the blast.  It had the effect of exploding a 150-pound bomb two feet above the surface of the road.

Next Edition:  The Interrogation



Leggs’ R&R

Rickshaw Pedicabs – Da Nang 1968

Monday, July 15, 1968

The afternoon Admin truck returned with our food supplies and Sumo.  China Beach was not Sumo’s idea of R&R so instead, he had managed to spend some time touring the sites of Da Nang.  He hired a Rickshaw/ tour guide and shopped in local markets, sampled street vendor food and experienced Vietnamese “city” culture.

Sergeant Leggins (Leggs) * returned from his R&R as well.  He had planned his week in Okinawa for a long time, but it had been cancelled with a last-minute offer to go to Australia.  I opened cans of peanut butter and grape jelly as Leggs recalled his experience over PB&J sandwiches.  He was enthralled with the countryside and thought it would be an excellent place to live.  He stayed in the “Kings Cross” section of Sydney and spent most of his money in the exotic night clubs.

As we were talking, Gunny Pavelcek joined us in the mess deck.  He wanted me to go on the convoy to Da Nang the next day as the NCO in charge.  I balked at this suggestion and said, “I’d rather not.”  He said, “Sorry, there isn’t anyone else.”  It was a new Battalion order . . . every convoy would be accompanied by an NCO in charge.

I finally agreed to his request, but I told the Gunny, “No one gets into the truck without a helmet, flak jacket and M-16.”  Too many Marines were becoming lax about the trip and didn’t want to be burdened with the gear once in Da Nang.  The Gunny consented and promised to make it happen.

* See previous blog, “Convoy Road – Dai Loc”  January 13, 1968

Next Edition:  Tripwire

Lieutenant Martin Transferred

Sunday, July 14, 1968

Sumo took the late convoy to Da Nang after church services and would return on Monday night.  The Steak BBQ was chaotic as always and had become more of a social event than a meal.  I retreated to the galley and helped maintain the chow line.  We cooked steaks on our flat grill for those not interested in using the charcoal BBQ outside.

Captain Robb came through the line and complained about never having sour cream for his baked potato.  I ignored his comments which seemed to provoke him into conversation.  He asked, “How was your stint in Thuong Duc?”   I answered, “It was a vacation, Sir . . . easy duty, just laying around in the sun.”  Robb knew the circumstances of why I was ordered to Thuong Duc. *  He seemed sympathetic to the unfairness of it and said, “Some things work out for the best.”

The insinuation of “things working out” was confusing to me, and his comment made no sense.  Hernandez, the battery clerk, overheard the exchange and said, “Lieutenant Martin was sent down.”  He was now the Officer in Charge of a provisionary battery of 155 guns in An Hoa.  “Tango Battery” was comprised of ARVN soldiers training to become artillery men, before moving on to their own commands.  It was an undesirable post with little or no interaction with Marines.

During college classes after returning from Vietnam, I learned about a new concept in business management, “The Peter Principal.”  It claimed that people in an organizational hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence.  Lieutenant Martin was the epitome of this satire which was later modified to become the “Dilbert Principal” of the cartoon strip, Dilbert.  The least competent employees are promoted to middle management to limit the amount of damage they could do.

*  See previous blog, “Troop Surge”  June 12, 1968

Next Edition:  Leggs’ R&R

New Poncho Liners

Cook trio
Sumo on the Left – Me (Ptomaine) and Reb on the Right

Saturday, July 13, 1968

The supply NCO, Corporal Lackey, was issuing new poncho liners.  They were made of nylon and had two ties on each corner which somehow connected to a waterproof poncho.  For me, it became a bedspread.  My canvas half shelter was folded to fit over my cot, and a wool blanket added a layer of comfort to soften the stiffness of it.  The new lightweight liner was like a quilted bed cover and complimented my designer (1st Mar Div) pillow. *  What I really needed was a mattress, but there were none to be had.

The cooks’ quarters was divided into cubicles with stacked wooden ammo boxes allowing each of us limited privacy.  Connected to my headboard was a wooden post where my helmet, flak jacket and rifle hung at the ready.  My web gear (cartridge belt and magazines) was stashed under the cot.

Each cubicle was adorned with personal items (photos, cards, calendars, etc.).  Reb displayed some of his artwork on the wall, and Sumo had a tray with a small bonsai juniper tree he’d brought from Japan.  I had pinned up maps of Vietnam and Dai Loc.

There were no formal inspections of our quarters although we kept things clean and tidy.  We had a makeshift card table in the open quadrant of the hooch with three fiberglass stacking bucket seats leftover from the Officers mess.  There was no electricity.

Reb returned on the afternoon convoy with souvenirs from China Beach.  In addition to collecting some beautiful “Moon Scallop” seashells, he had purchased a jewelry box of smaller shells from some Vietnamese kids.  He planned to make a necklace for his girlfriend, “DeeDee,” in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The time off did him good.

*  See previous blog, “Rice Hull Pillow” February 14, 1968


china beach
China Beach R&R Center

Next Edition:  Lieutenant Martin Transferred

Supply Requisitions

Friday, July 12, 1968

Sumo and I got up at 0400 and relieved Reb so he could get some sleep before heading to China Beach.  He would stay overnight at Battalion Headquarters and return on Saturday afternoon.

The routine for Friday’s “Southern Meal” * hadn’t changed, and we managed to serve over 300 dinners.  The heat kept some people away from eating a full meal, and the Carolina Chowder was a popular option for Marines not wanting to stand in line or sit in the mess deck.

The supplies which I had requisitioned earlier in the year were trickling in, and we now had new utensils and kitchen knives.  The process was slow and random . . . it made no sense.  Filling out the requisitions was tedious, but I learned to reorder anything we received by using the order codes from the supply receipts of the items delivered.

Reb had set up a row of metal ammo cans with solvent (outside the galley), and each one held burner parts (copper lines, valves, burner caps, etc.).  It was an organized way of keeping the burners clean and ready.  We discussed building a shack or workshop for burner maintenance because we would need to keep the oven heating units and equipment dry during the monsoon season.

The evenings were peaceful just before dark, and that’s when I usually enjoyed writing to Jenny about the daily events and activities.  Her class at San Diego State would end in a few weeks, and then her address would change again.  Although I worried a lot about having the current address to post letters to her, she always kept me informed, and we never lost each other during the transitions.  Jenny was one step ahead of me in the mail department.

*  See previous blog, “The Southern Meal”  February 23, 1968

Next Edition:  New Poncho Liners