The Charm of Sandbags

Hua – Mama-San’s Adopted Son

Thursday, September 12, 1968

When Hua arrived on his bicycle, his tires were caked with mud.  We helped him clean his wheels at the water buffalo with a scrub brush.  The roads were clear, but it was a wet slick ride in some areas.

The Rhinoceros Beetle was scratching around in the cracker tin as we shared the bug with Hua.  These beetles were prized in Vietnam as pets.  The affluent class used them as “toys” for their children.  A string would be attached to a collar, and the beetle could fly freely (like flying a model airplane).  They were kept in a cage (like a bird) and would live a few years.  Their diet consisted mainly of fruit, especially bananas.  We decided to give the beetle to Hua in exchange for keeping the 50-gallon water barrel full for our shower.

Hua was a resourceful kid.  He was good at mundane chores, and one of his specialties was filling sandbags.  His skill at this job was unusual.  Building a sandbag wall or barrier was similar to laying bricks.  The bags were never filled completely full.  If folded and tucked properly, they could interlock for stability.  Once a bag was in place, it would be “tamped” with a 2″X4″ board to make it level for the next layer.  This process took patience and a special talent . . . it was time consuming.

A well constructed sandbag wall was not only secure, but it had aesthetic value (similar to one made of adobe).  The beauty and charm of a sandbag wall was dependent on the skills of the laborer.

Top Culverhouse and Gunny Pavelcek contracted Hua to do the sandbagging of their new hooch.  It would be built of wooden ammo boxes and wrapped up to five feet with sandbags.

reinforced bunker
The bunker where Private Mott and I fought during TET

Next Edition:  Sumo to Tokyo R&R


The Rhinoceros Beetle

Rhinoseros Beetle

Wednesday, September 11, 1968

We returned to serving three meals a day after the resupply from FLC.  It was a relief to receive mail and get Jenny’s latest news.  She was heading to Fresno (planning to register for the fall semester) and looking for an apartment.  It had been an interesting summer for her, with friends and family keeping her busy.  She was ready to settle into her own place and have a regular address for us to communicate.

I wrote Jenny a letter from my lawn chair as I watched the sun set.  The typhoon temporarily put a hold on the war in Arizona territory.  There was little action except for the occasional illumination flare.

A loud buzzing sound got my attention and “WACK,” something struck me in the head.  It felt like getting hit with a softball.  After a lot of commotion and yelling, Sumo, Reb and I managed to capture the giant bug that had flown into me.  We used a metal cracker tin to hold it, with holes punched in the top so the bug wouldn’t die.  This huge insect was 6 inches long and filled the bottom of the tin — we called it the “5 lb. bug.”  Its prominent features were a hard dark shell with a “horn” on its beak.

We took it to Doc Driscoll who had an Audubon Society Natural Field Guide of different species in Asia.  He claimed it was a “Rhinoceros Beetle” and quite harmless.  The tin was stored outside, next to our shower, and we decided to share it with Hua (teenage Vietnamese boy)* who was more familiar with the local bugs.

* See previous blog, “Mama-San”  January 18, 1968

Our shower – Hill 65

Next Edition:  The Charm of Sandbags

The Three Little Pigs

Drying Out
Drying Out After The Storm

Tuesday, September 10, 1968

We served a breakfast of grilled Spam, cottage fried potatoes and eggs to order.  It was the last of the fresh eggs, and our supplies were depleted.  The water supply was now critical, and everyone was rationed two full canteens.  We had managed to go five days without any resupply.

Just before noon it was announced, “The road is open.”  Fernando was driving the Admin truck as usual, and he asked if there was anything special we needed.  I told him to hook up the trailer and get anything fresh:  bread, vegetables, meat and seafood . . . MAIL!

We spent part of our day cleaning the fire units in our burner shack.  The fact that we had built this workshop didn’t go unnoticed.  Top Culverhouse had a chat with us as we did our maintenance.  He said, “You cooks have been the most forward thinking in Kilo battery.”  I gave credit to Sergeants Paige and Tibbits. *  They had advised me from the beginning, “This battery isn’t going anywhere.”  The prevalent attitude at the time, “don’t bother making improvements,” was false.  Instead, I chose to believe Paige and Tibbits.

Culverhouse conceded he and Gunny Pavelcek had fallen into that negative line of thinking.  Their quarters were soaked from the typhoon, and they had plans of building a new “Staff Quarters.”  My natural inclination was to throw my support to their endeavor and offer assistance, but I held back.  I remembered all the scoffing we had endured as we built our bunker and constructed the cooks’ shower.  We were the laughing stock of Hill 65.

This reminded me of the childhood fairy tale, “The Three Little Pigs.”  In our version of this fable, the “Wolf” was the Vietnam War itself, with all its destruction (mortars, rockets, B-40’s) and now a natural disaster, Typhoon Bess.

* See previous blog, “Tibbets Rotates to CONUS”  January 27, 1968

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

Next Edition:  The Rhinoceros Beetle



Monday, September 9, 1968

Flood waters in Arizona territory were receding.  The road was still closed, but there were some patches of high ground.  Only a couple waterfalls could be seen on Charlie Ridge, and the inflow of water to the An Hoa Basin was waning rapidly.

Our rations were also diminishing.  We put our heads together for a menu and decided to serve the Navy recipe classic, S.O.S. (chipped beef on toast).  Traditionally, Marines liked this meal but always talked about in a derogatory way.  We were ready for their verbal insults.

The issue with dried chipped beef was the high salt content.  The recipe said to “soak it” in water, but this was a major understatement.  Sumo separated the dried beef slices into a “square-top” and covered it with warm water for 30 minutes.  The water was drained, and the process repeated before straining it thoroughly.

We made a large batch of creamed gravy, using a base of dehydrated non-fat milk and enriched it with plenty of evaporated milk.  The mixture had a nice thick consistency but tasted bland.  Sumo said, “The salt in the chipped beef will add plenty of flavor.”  The beef was finely chopped, peppered and grilled before adding it to the white sauce.

We had no bread, and even if we did, there were no toasters.  The chipped beef would be served on fresh baked biscuits.  The final touch was “eggs to order.”

Surprisingly, we got the “thumbs up” from most Marines.  Doc Furman said, “This is the best S.O.S. (shit on a shingle) I’ve ever had.  It was a big compliment coming from his Navy background.

Next Edition:  The Three Little Pigs



The Threesome

cinnamon rolls
Cinnamon Rolls

Sunday, September 8, 1968

Normally we served French toast for Sunday brunch.  It was a way to get rid of stale bread.  The rich egg batter moistened the dry crusty slices, and they were grilled to a golden crispy brown.  The spicy fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon masked any musty aroma from the old dry loaves, but we were out of bread.

Sumo came up with the idea of using cinnamon rolls for French toast instead of bread.  We would slice the rolls in half, dip them in batter and serve three grilled halves to each Marine.  The “Threesome” was then topped with hot apple filling and a ladle of warm caramel sauce (we were out of maple syrup).

The work started at midnight.  Reb made the sweet dough in batches.  I cracked and strained the eggs, adding condensed milk, vanilla and cinnamon.  Sumo made the caramel sauce and kept it warm in a double boiler.

It was a labor intensive all-night affair, and we took turns rolling dough, brushing melted margarine and dusting with cinnamon sugar.  The large sheets of dough were then rolled into spiral logs and cut into individual buns.

Before opening for brunch, we experimented on the mess men.  Also we served crispy fried canned bacon on the side.  One of the mess men suggested we drizzle the caramel sauce on the bacon . . . it was similar to the menu of a concession stand at the County Fair (a sticky mess) and was a big success.

The Gunny issued everyone a box of C-Rats, and we supplied coffee to the Exec Pit for the Marines standing watch in the OP’s.

Arizona territory was still under water, and it was extremely toxic.  There were bloated animal carcasses floating with sewage from the flooded rice paddies, and this mixture was seasoned with the half-life of the defoliant we had sprayed on the land a month ago.

Command Chronology – Kilo 4/11 – September 1968

Next Edition:  S.O.S.

Sunshine and Waterfalls

mess deck
Mess Deck (left) and Entrance to Chow Line

Saturday, September 7, 1968

The morning sun peeked through the clouds and revealed a new landscape.  Hill 65 was now an island rising from the flooded An Hoa basin.  Charlie Ridge was a postcard image of raw natural beauty.  There were waterfalls scattered along the mountains.  One larger cascade displayed a rainbow surrounded by mist; the rain had stopped.

Top Culverhouse and Gunny Pavelcek wanted to review our provisions so we did a quick inventory.  The only “fresh” food was 120 dozen eggs in the walk-in.  Everything else was either canned goods or bakery supplies.  Without a resupply, we were limited to cooking only four or five more meals.

A meeting to assess our situation was arranged with officers and staff in the club.  Captain Smotherman was not the aggressive decision maker that Captain Cavagnol had been.  Complicating our current circumstances was the issue of water . . . we had limited storage.  Ironically we were surrounded by water, but it was contaminated.

The Grunts were in a “stand down” and set in a defensive mode.  There would be no patrols or ambush plans.  After some consideration, it was decided to limit the mess hall to one meal per day starting Sunday.  Water rationing would be monitored, and the showers were closed.

With Captain Cavagnol now gone, there was no discussion regarding the local Vietnamese.  It appeared they were on their own to deal with the aftermath of Typhoon Bess.  Central Command had been specifically concentrating on “Civic Action,” and now, it seemed to me, would be a good time to step up this endeavor.  It was a question that went unasked and unanswered . . . we were focused on ourselves.

Next Edition:  The Threesome


Dodge Map
The An Hoa Basin

Friday, September 6, 1968

The winds and rain continued.  The Song Vu Gia River had overflowed, and much of Arizona territory was now under water.  There were dozens of sampans with families, trying to survive.  For them, it was a crisis of survival.  We saw a water buffalo calf struggling for higher ground and could hear its panicked bellowing.

Serving two meals a day gave us a lot of spare time, and we tried to stay dry in the hooch.  We started a game of Hearts and played to 500.  During the game Reb asked what sort of message Margaret was sending with the two photos of her brother’s headstone.  After looking at them closer (one in focus — one out of focus), I saw the dates and said, “Did you notice it was the second anniversary of his death?”  Reb looked again and was surprised by this revelation.

Reb pondered this and said, “Why is one photo fuzzy?”  I answered, “Maybe she is letting him go.”  Reb said, “Yes, it must have been true.”  He was silent for a while, and Sumo put his two cents in, “I think she is depressed.”  Reb said, “How so?”  Sumo told him to look at the photo of her on the toilet . . . “She misses you but won’t say it.”

Again, Reb looked at the blurry photo and thought about this point of view . . . “What should I do?”  Sumo said, “Cheer her up with your sketch.  Add some panties around her ankles.”  We all laughed, but I could see Reb was concerned.

Later (in private) I told Reb to remember their commitment to “Collaborate.”  Getting too funny with this situation might backfire, “Think like an artist, not a lover.”  He said, “Yeah, thanks — it’s confusing.”

Next Edition:  Sunshine and Waterfalls