Rice Hull Pillow

Hua – Mama-San’s adopted son

February 14, 1968

Sumo and I were preparing breakfast when Murphy showed up and excitedly announced the birth of his daughter.  He had received a letter from his wife in Maine.  We congratulated him on the good news and asked, “Where are the cigars?”

Because we were being shorted on our food allotment from Hill 37, I had decided to keep a record of everything received on our daily runs.  I asked Top Culverhouse for advice on this issue, and he gave me a clipboard with paper and said, “Make sure someone issuing the food signs the daily allotment and print their name on it.”

I picked up the allotment that day and recorded everything on the clipboard.  The Mess Sergeant wouldn’t sign the sheet so I ignored him and wrote his name along with “refused to sign.”  I asked my driver to verify the refusal with his initials.  The Sergeant sarcastically waved me off, but I could see he was concerned about us recording the details of the transaction.

After unloading the supplies, I took the signed receipt to the Top.  He ordered the battery clerk, Corporal Hernandez, to set up a journal to record all the details of each transaction (time, date, quantities and names of those involved).  It was all extra work for us, but I knew if I were to complain about this issue of being shorted, I would need evidence to back up my claim.

In the afternoon Mama-San showed up with a surprise.  My 1st MAR DIV sweatshirt had been expertly fashioned into a pillow.  The seamstress had turned the shirt inside out and cut off the sleeves.  Then the arms and bottom were professionally sewn up with double seams, and the shirt was turned logo side out.  Buttonholes were imbedded in the crew collar with a paracord lace was fed inside and around the neck.  Three black silk pods filled with rice hulls were pushed through the collar to stuff the pillow before tying it shut.  The pillow conformed to my head and seemed to be ventilated.  Most importantly, it didn’t absorb my body heat and stayed cool.

Mama-San would not take payment and said, “Tinh ban be.”  Hua would not interpret for me but wrote it down.  I asked Captain Cavagnol the meaning of the words, but he needed a reference point.  I told him the story about the pillow, and his eyes lit up with a smile.  “It means friendship, think of it as a Valentine.”

Sumo got a big laugh out of the situation and called it a “Love Pillow.”

Next Edition:  Murphy Joins India Company

Fire Mission

Kilo Battery – Guns 1 and 2 on Hill 65

February 12, 1968

During lunch I sat and talked with Sergeant Bivens, the “Gun Chief” of Gun 1.  He offered to give me a tour of his “Gun Pitt” and show me the ropes of how 155mm artillery worked.  “Come over after the convoy arrives.”  (Ammo trucks had to be unloaded first.)

I took him up on the offer; Bivens with his six-man crew walked me through the process of firing a round.  First a fuse was attached to the 95 pound round before loading it into the gun tube.  Then a bagged powder charge was pushed in place behind the round, and the breech was closed.  After that, a charge with a blasting cap was inserted into the primer unit, and the gun was ready to fire.  Pulling the lanyard would trigger the firing pin . . .  the round would then fire.  the process was a bit complicated but gave me a basic understanding of the sequence involved in firing a gun.

The battery’s wind-up siren went off . . . “Fire Mission!”  Bivens pointed to a wooden box and said, “Sit.”  The coordinates came in through his headset, and he rotated the gun into position.  The progression of fusing a round and loading the gun was happening as I sat and watched.  Someone warned me to cover my ears, and Bivens pulled the lanyard.  KABOOM!  The guns were firing six rounds each – the mission was completed in less than three minutes.

The crew was laughing at me when the fire mission was over.  It was a powerful demonstration, and I was amazed at the precision involved; there was no room for error.  These kids had a difficult job and were always ready, day and night, to support the Grunts in the field.

Next Edition:  Rice Hull Pillow

New Sweatshirts

Jenny wearing sweatshirt

February 11, 1968

Today marked my fourth Sunday on Hill 65.  We had gone five nights with no incoming, and I woke up with a sore neck from sleeping so long.  Sumo and I went to the morning briefing, and Top made several announcements; Division Special Services issued 1st MAR DIV logo sweatshirts to all units.  Damaged or broken pallets were to be stored at a designated area near the mess hall . . . no more burning them.

After the meeting I took my sweatshirt to the hooch, and Sergeant Paige gave me his.  He thought it was too hot for sweatshirts, and he didn’t like the logo.  I decided to send one to Jenny and had an idea about making a pillow with the other.

Murphy had cut all the steaks for dinner so we were free for a three-hour break in the afternoon.  As I was fooling around with the sweatshirt pillow idea, Mama-San asked what I was doing.  I explained about making a sleeping pillow, and she took the sweatshirt from me, saying, “I do it, I make numba one pillow.”  That evening she brought the shirt home to Dai Loc.

There was no military issue of pillows in Vietnam; everyone improvised something to lay their head on.  The secret was using a material that wouldn’t make you sweat.  Poncho liners were quilted and didn’t breathe . . . too hot.  One good sweat, and it would stink!

That night while watching the war in Arizona territory, I thought of the Grunts and how pillows were the least of their worries.  While observing the war, it was easy to get caught up in an “inner dialogue” of rehearsing and rehashing events . . . how would I handle it out there?  The “what if’s” were nagging and hard to shake off.  The herbal tea* helped clear my head and provided a mental break.

*  See “The Apple Tree” blog

Next Edition:  Fire Mission

Lump Charcoal

February 9, 1968

Britt left without saying goodbye . . . maybe he thought it was our obligation to see him off.  There wasn’t any protocol for this issue; we all rotated in and out of country separately, determined by our date of entry.  The majority of Marines leaving Vietnam lost all contact with friends left behind.  This superficial nature of relationships made me uneasy, and I avoided getting attached to certain people.

Mama-San delivered 50 pounds of lump charcoal strapped to Hua’s bike.  It was in a large burlap potato sack tied at the top.  She said, “Than Cui” (Charcoal).  I opened the corner of the bag and inspected a handful; the small thumb sized pieces were hard but not brittle.  It looked good to me, and I decided to test it.  I asked Hua to build a small fire pitt out of rocks.

As Hua scavenged the hill for rocks, Papa-San and I sat and sipped hot ca phe.*  He related that the French had used this same charcoal in a forge, and he mimicked using bellows.  Also Vietnamese doctors would use the coals to heat metal irons to cauterize wounds.  Papa-San’s wrist had been treated in this manner after the Viet-Minh cut off his hand.

When the small rock BBQ pitt was finished, we started a fire and added the charcoal.  It burned hot with no flames and very little ash.  I went and got Leggs, to show off the new development, and he promised to construct a new BBQ pitt soon.

Later in the day Mama-San wanted to negotiate a price for the charcoal.  After a few minutes I realized the language barrier was too much so I went to the CP (Command Post) and asked Captain Cavagnol for help with interpreting.  He was excited about the idea of cooking steaks in an outside BBQ and joined the conversation with Mama-San.

Mama-San’s price for the charcoal was wooden pallets.  We were burning most of the ammo pallets at the dump every day, and they were worth money to her.  The deal required us to deliver pallets to Mama-San’s house in Dai Loc in exchange for charcoal.  Cavagnol approved this arrangement, making us the only unit to implement a charcoal BBQ pitt as a mess hall feature.

Later I learned China Beach R&R Center had a BBQ pitt using Kingsford briquettes.

*  See previous “Papa-San” blog

Next Edition:  New Sweatshirts


New Lunch Menu

February 7, 1968

The new burner unit smoked a lot at first, and we realized it needed to be broken in.  We let it run for a full cycle and refilled it in the morning.  This extra burner allowed us to use our three ovens and the flat grill at the same time.

Sumo suggested we change the repetitive “cold cut sandwiches” to a more diverse lunch.  He thought we could do a school cafeteria style menu and allow the Marines more hot choices.  I trusted his judgment and said, “Make it happen.”

Mama-San and I had a long discussion about charcoal.  She didn’t understand using it for cooking and said, “You use wood.”  I explained to her the qualities of charcoal:  “TEE-TEE” (very small) flames and “BOO-COO” (many or large) heat and smoke.  It made no sense to her.  Finally I said, “Vietnamese use wood, America use charcoal.”  She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, “Why don’t you say so first!” and she agreed to bring me a sample.

Sumo put out a lunch of thin sliced grilled (bacon shaped) Spam, mac and cheese, Asian coleslaw and baked apples.  The salad was an unusual and popular accompaniment to the meal.

With Britt leaving tomorrow, Sumo and I would be challenged to cook three hot meals a day for 400 Marines.  It would also make trips to Da Nang impossible, and we would be completely dependent on the daily food allotment from the 3/7 mess hall.

My evening routine began with brewing a hot beverage, (usually my Grandmother’s herbal tea), and then I would set up the folding chair in the “loge section” facing Arizona territory.  The Grunts in the field referred to us as Pogues, (Marines assigned to rear areas), and we thought the same of Marines in Da Nang.  The ones out in Arizona were at the end of the pipeline, and many would be taken out by medevac.  Sumo was creeped out by my watching the war and thought it was a form of perversion . . . maybe it was.

Next Edition:  Lump Charcoal

Trip to Da Nang

roadside hooch
Roadside hooch near Dai Loc

February 6, 1968

We received incoming mortar rounds at 0130 in the morning.  Sumo and I managed to get in the bunker together, and it was a tight squeeze.  The 15 to 20 rounds impacted with little damage but caused disruption of sleep; the adrenaline rush would last long after the danger had passed.

My primary goal today was to get a new gas cap for a leaking burner unit.  I hoped Gunny Sampson would help us with this issue.  Also I planned to talk with the battalion supply Sergeant about the process of ordering supplies.

The mid-morning ammo convoy left Hill 65 and rumbled down the dirt road toward Dai Loc and on toward Da Nang.  It was an uneventful trip, and we arrived at battalion HQ before lunch.  The Gunny was in a good mood and agreed to help me with the gas cap.  He was interested in Sumo and promised to send another cook soon to replace Britt.

While waiting for lunch I went out to get the new gas cap and saw the Vietnamese supervisor, Mai, talking with a Sergeant.  She took one look at me and touched my arm . . . “You are skinny.”  I knew I had lost weight (caused by stress) but didn’t realize it was noticeable.  The Sergeant introduced himself, and I quickly put it together.  He was just back from his “recuperation from a bleeding ulcer.”  We talked for a bit and as he gave me the new gas cap, I noticed a burner unit with shrapnel holes in the air tank.  I commented on how I could use the destroyed unit for parts, and he let me have it.

During lunch I sat with my friend from staging battalion in Camp Pendleton, “Tony.”  He was in charge of Supply, and I wanted to learn how to order things properly through the system.  He explained that filling out requests was tedious:  how slow the system worked and the random nature of when and what arrived.  He then told me about the system of “Code X.”  At FLC, it was possible to tag an item as unserviceable and trade it for a replacement (a military version of a department store exchange service) no questions asked.

After lunch I talked our driver into making the trip to FLC so I could try to Code X the old burner unit.  Not only did it work, but it was too easy.  Now I would be able to salvage unserviceable junk for new “in the box” equipment.

We stopped at the dock where the excess food products were available and snagged four cases of green cooking apples, along with two cases of Asian cabbage.  This dock always had products no one wanted, and sometimes we could acquire exotic ingredients.

We arrived back at Hill 65, and I retrieved two letters.  The one from Jenny had a newspaper clipping from the Fresno Bee.  The title was “President’s Son-In-Law, Charles Robb Headed to South Vietnam.”  I showed the article to Sumo, and we had a big laugh about it and speculated how funny it would be if he was sent to command India Company.

The other letter from my mother included a wedding photo of my good friend Doug Reed and his bride, Patty.*  It brought back a lot of good childhood memories:  Cub Scouts, fishing on the Manhattan Beach pier, sand sledding and making our own skate boards from old 2×4’s.  I was happy for them and their future together.

*  See San Francisco Blog

dougs wedding
Doug and Patty Reed – January 1968

Next Edition:  New Lunch Menu



BBQ Pitt

February 5, 1968

Our allotment of food on Monday was usually bulk ground beef, and on this day we received a full issue.  Sumo wanted to make meatloaf which required hand forming free standing loaves (we had no bake pans).  Each loaf would serve 8 portions, and we could only bake 20 in each oven.  Sumo and I managed to make 50 loaves, which left limited space to make gravy . . . we needed another oven and burner unit to cook for this many Marines.  As an alternative, I suggested making a glaze and remembered Jenny’s recipe for “Piquant Sauce” made of catsup, brown sugar, nutmeg and dry mustard.  The meal was a big hit, but more importantly, we successfully collaborated our creativity and cooking skills.

After the meal Britt asked to speak with me privately.  He’d spent some time talking with Sumo, and they spoke about the previous Mess Sergeant (medevac’d for a bleeding ulcer).  Sumo confirmed, the former Mess Sergeant was back working in the battalion mess hall.  Britt confidentially revealed to me that the Sergeant was an alcoholic and had traded canned goods with the villagers south of us for bottles of rice wine and local moonshine.

This news irritated me . . . the Sergeant’s ulcer issue was the reason I was transferred to Hill 65; and in this context I felt it was unfair that he was, in effect, rewarded for his poor choices.  I promised Britt I would keep the secret to myself and never spoke about it again.

Later that night Leggs showed up at our hooch and announced, “Man cannot live on bread alone . . . He must have peanut butter.”  Leggs had missed dinner in lieu of finishing a project, and this was his way of asking for a PB&J sandwich.

While relieving his hunger pangs, we sat in the dark mess hall talking while he slurped down a carton of milk and the sandwich.  I asked him how difficult would it be to make a BBQ Pitt out of a 55-gallon drum.  He thought it would be easy enough to make, but “Why?”

I told him of my idea to let the troops cook their own steaks on Sundays after the club closed.  Leggs was always one step ahead of me and asked, “Where are you going to get charcoal?”  I didn’t know the answer but did get a commitment from him.  Leggs would build a BBQ Pitt if I could acquire the fuel.

Next Edition:  Trip to Da Nang