Monday, November 11, 1968
Gunny Pavelcek agreed the cooks’ OP was overcrowded with the four of us. The bunker next to our hooch would be manned by Sumo and Fernando. Its blast walls provided safety and good fighting positions.
The thatch door (wall) was finished, and the OP blended into the background of the landscape. We had enough leftover woven reed and grass to wrap the 55-gallon drum on our shower.
After the sun set behind Charlie Ridge, I went to the cooks’ OP, lifted the thatch door and braced it open with a bamboo pole. The opposite horizon sunset was spectacular, and parallel rays of light converged into a blanket of violet haze beyond Hill 37.
Sipping my canteen cup of herbal tea, I noticed a pleasant fragrance . . . an earthy smell with a fresh scent as well. It was the thatch; the sun had baked the woven grass wall all day, and the OP absorbed the lush essence of the reeds. It reminded me of the Tiki Huts at the International Marketplace in Waikiki. *
The view of Arizona territory was beautiful. Light reflected off the Vu Gia River to the south, and the stars were starting to brighten against the darkening sky. I wondered about the Grunts in their perimeters, settling in for the night and trying to survive to fight another day. The war was built on the easy courage of these kids. Our involvement in this conflict was feeling more and more like a lost cause. I wondered if the “Law of Diminishing Returns” applied to war the same as it did in Economics.
* See previous blog, “Sunlight” May 9, 1968
Next Edition: Lieutenant Westerfield
Sunday, November 10, 1968
Traditionally the ceremony of cutting the cake was done with a “Mamaluke Sword.” The oldest Marine cut the cake, and the first portion went to the honored guest. The second piece was served to the oldest Marine who “passed the torch” to the youngest.
OUR honored guest was an M-16 with a bayonet stuck in the ground. Topped with a helmet and a pair of boots beneath, the first slice of cake was placed in front of the boots. Top Culverhouse said, “We honor the fallen — Semper Fidelis.”
This symbolism was playing out at every Marine Corps installation around the globe. Some were attending a Ball in Dress Blues, and others were marching in parades. Combat bases with Marines in jungle utilities were all eating cake. Either way, it put a lump in your throat and was a somber experience.
Reb was critical of the frosting and commented on it being too greasy, “It has the wrong ratio of shortening.” His assessment was refreshing to me, and I thought the instructors in baking school would agree. We didn’t have the luxury of high speed mixers. Everything was done by hand with elbow grease and in small batches. Mass production sacrificed quality.
At our weekly meeting in the Staff hooch, the Gunny asked about any worries or issues from the section heads. I was concerned about our new OP being cramped. With all four of us in such a small space, a B-40 could take us all out. He promised to check on it in the morning.
Next Edition: Arizona Nights
Saturday, November 9, 1968
The Admin truck returned with two Marine Corps Birthday cakes. One belonged to India Company, and the other was for Kilo Battery. Fernando had loaded the truck carefully, and each cake was protected by cases of chocolate milk cartons. The rest of the meats and produce were in the trailer.
After unloading, we delivered a cake to the India Company CP. It was a standard 18″ X 26″ two-layer cake. Their Gunny wanted me to keep the cake until tomorrow but I said, “No, we don’t have security to guard it.” He fell for my lame excuse and made room for the cake on an empty cot in the CP.
Back at the mess hall, Doc Driscoll was introducing a new Corpsman. His name was “Doc Wayne.” I looked at the embroidered name patch on his uniform (J.D. Wayne) and said, “Don’t tell me your first name is John.” It was his name: Hm 3rd Class John Duke Wayne. Referring to my nickname he said, “Is it Ptomaine, as in the poison?” I corrected him, “FOOD poisoning.” It was a good friendly first meeting until I asked, “When is Doc Furman leaving?” Driscoll said, “He left two days ago to CONUS.”
This hit me like a brick. How could he leave and not say goodbye? This news hung over me like a cloud. After a while I realized Furman was a sensitive guy behind the facade of his gruff personality. The emotion of saying goodbye was something he couldn’t afford. I wondered how he ever kept it all together.
Next Edition: Young and Old
Friday, November 8, 1968
The drive on Convoy Road to Da Nang was a little smoother in the new Admin truck. Fernando was driving at a moderate speed as the trailer bounced along behind us. Mud had hardened and cracked as if the road had a bad case of immersion foot. Soon the Amtracs would grind the surface to dust. It was a never-ending cycle.
I had my invitation to the gathering at Division Food Service and wanted to ride with Gunny Sampson. * At Headquarters we transferred to a Jeep. It only took a few minutes through Dog Patch ** to Freedom Hill. The road to Graves Registration now had a guarded gate.
We checked into the meeting and waited for others to arrive. Part of signing in was to print our nickname on the roster. I wanted to leave it blank, but Sampson cajoled me into writing “PTOMAINE.”
When the meeting started, a Master Gunnery Sergeant introduced each Mess Sergeant by rank, nickname and last name. “Gunnery Sergeant HASH – Brown, Gunnery Sergeant HILLBILLY – Hodges, Gunnery Sergeant CAJUN – Sampson,” and so on. I was the lowest ranking, “Sergeant PTOMAINE – Kysor.” Everyone got a big laugh, and my face was red.
The meeting covered two subjects, Marine Corps Birthday cakes and the Thanksgiving Day meal. The cakes would be available for pick-up at the FLC bakery tomorrow. We received copies of the Turkey Day menu, along with new recipe cards and a lecture about this being the most important meal of the year.
I looked at this group of Mess Sergeants and thought of the color photo insert in the Regional Cook Book. The images of women cooks around the USA would be replaced by: HASH Brown, HILLBILLY Hodges, CAJUN Sampson and PTOMAINE Kysor. Even with us all using the same recipes, our mess halls would have a regional influence. We were no match for home cooking but would do our best.
* See previous blog, “Gunny Sampson” January 8, 1968
** See previous blog, “Vietnamese Kitchen Workers” January 9, 1968
Next Edition: Replacement Corpsman
Thursday, November 7, 1968
Top Culverhouse ordered Fernando to report to the Headquarters Battery motor pool as soon as he arrived in Da Nang. The Admin truck always pulled a trailer in case there was a surprise delivery.
Today the surprise was a brand new truck. The M-35 2½ ton vehicle had all the bells and whistles. The cargo bed was sporting a canvas canopy which made it difficult when transporting troops (there were always 4-6 Marines in the back). The cover was raised on the sides before returning to Hill 65. It was a tactical issue in case of an ambush.
Back on the hill it was decided to remove the tarp and supports, leaving the side rails in place. The fold-down bench seats provided a better ride for the occupants.
During mail call I received a formal invitation to attend a gathering at Division Food Service the next day . . . it emphasized “mandatory.” I asked Culverhouse, “What is a mandatory gathering?” He was quick to answer, “It means be there on time and don’t volunteer any information.” This sounded like trouble to me.
Next Edition: Birthday Cakes
Wednesday, November 6, 1968
Someone high up in the chain of command decided our Battery needed more ammo on hand (a lot more). Top Culverhouse asked if the cooks could help with unloading an ammo delivery.
It was unexpected to have four trucks fully loaded with 155mm rounds (800 total). Each round weighed 95 lbs. and had an eye bolt at the tip where a fuse would be screwed in before being ready to fire. There was a line of Marines at each truck, and the rounds were eased onto our shoulders. We then walked the round to an ammo bunker (holding the eye bolt) and worked it down in front of the bunker entrance.
This process was physical, and after moving a dozen rounds, everyone was sweating. The gun crews had the task of lining up the rounds in the bunkers which meant dead-lifting them with one hand.
Sumo and I took turns showering before dinner. When we returned, Reb was making a crumb topping with a combination of flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and melted butter. Richard Nixon had won the election, and we would serve apple crisp for dessert.
Next Edition: Fernando’s New Truck