Wednesday, July 10, 1968
The new battery Gunny (Pavelcek) hung out in the Officer/Staff mess after breakfast. He was pondering a checklist of work parties and preparing to assign tasks at the morning muster. He asked, “What outpost are the cooks assigned during “incoming” threats? My answer was, “We have no assigned post.” He said he would be back after the muster to review this issue.
Sumo suggested I go to Da Nang and turn in the dry goods requisition. We discussed the order and made adjustments to include more canned fruit (it was an easy substitute if something ran out).
Pavelcek returned from the muster, and we reviewed his plan for defensive assignments during an attack. He re-positioned a 50 cal. machine gun to the roof of the CP and wanted the cooks to man this weapon. The only question I had was, “Three of us on the roof?” He consented and said, “Yes, two are enough.” I showed him our bunker and how it was positioned to defend the slope below the mess hall. We agreed this would be Sumo’s primary spot during incoming attacks.
The convoy to Da Nang was not as dusty; the dirt road had been oiled, and this allowed the vehicles to travel somewhat faster. We stopped at Freedom Hill, and I went into the Dispersing Center to get paid. I exchanged a $10 MPC note for a new one (it had faded from moisture). Now I had $30 in MPC (plus $90 in greenbacks).
At FLC we picked up our food allotment and turned in the requisition. The dock with extra food for the taking had cases of “Pork Butt” so I loaded three cases. After picking up ice and bread from the bakery, we headed back to Hill 65.
Next Edition: Pulled Pork
Tuesday, July 9, 1968
I had difficulty sleeping through the night. The early morning watch routine was now a part of my sleep pattern, and it would take time to readjust. Also my rice hull pillow * smelled bad, and I blamed it on the “hooch guest.”
I sat in my folding chair outside, facing Arizona. The moon was high and nearly full. It was regrettable that we left Thuong Duc so abruptly, and I was disappointed about not being able to say goodbye to Trinh. Relationships in Vietnam were a transient experience, and except for a few close friends, they were mostly superficial.
The mess hall schedule hadn’t changed, and it was good to make fresh coffee again. Reb’s assortment of breakfast pastries was impressive as always, and he had finally mastered filling the jelly doughnuts.
Top Culverhouse came through the chow line and told me and Reb to attend the morning muster at the CP. It was usually a quick briefing, and work assignments were announced.
At 0730 we lined up for the muster and were introduced to the new battery Gunnery Sergeant, “Gunny Pavelcek.” Captain Cavagnol started the official meeting and called out four names, “Front and Center.” Reb was one of the four so he reported to the front. It was a promotion ceremony, and Reb was now a Lance Corporal. Four more names were called who were recipients of the Purple Heart (Diaz was one of them).**
After these presentations, Mama-San showed up at the mess hall, and we talked (with Hua interpreting) about Thuong Duc. She acted as if the people living there were backward and of a lower class than the Vietnamese in Dai Loc. I thought it was odd but didn’t offer an opinion either way. I asked her if she could please wash my rice pillow, and she agreed to refresh it. When I gave her the pillow, she sniffed it and shook her head in disgust. It felt good to be back at Hill 65.
* See previous blog, “Rice Hull Pillow” February 14, 1968
** See previous blog, “The Long Walk to Thuong Duc” June 13, 1968
Next Edition: Division Dispersing Office
Monday, July 8, 1968
Four empty trucks arrived late Sunday afternoon from Hill 52. We also received orders to break camp on Monday and return to Hill 65. My job was to retrieve the Claymore mines and trip flares from the wire around our perimeter, but I wasn’t allowed to start until after sunrise.
I spent much of the night taking down the canvas shelter half and packing my rucksack. I left the bamboo framework in place. My final C-rat breakfast was “Ham and Eggs, Chopped.” The steaming white bread transformed the meal into fluffy breakfast sandwich bites.
The Claymores and trip flares were secured by 0900, and I began the task of bunching the accordion-like concertina wire into 50-foot bundles. We weren’t taking the wire with us, it would be picked up later by the Special Forces unit.
The job of dismantling the Medical tent was fairly easy with everyone helping. It was folded and secured in a truck for future use at Hill 65. All the cots were broken down and stored with it as well.
We were finally ready to mount up and leave the compound by noon. The 155mm guns were tracked vehicles and could travel fast, but the dust cloud they generated was thick and created vision issues. Aside from the lead vehicle, everybody was driving blind and eating dust. The three miles to Hill 52 went quickly (less than an hour), but the deep sand next to the river bogged down our progress.
The most dangerous stretch lay ahead. The eight miles to Hill 65 was a very narrow passage, susceptible to ambush. All of us were on alert as we slowly moved through the dense growth on either side of the road. The final mile of the trek was more open terrain, and we could see clearly into Arizona territory on the other side of the Song Vu Gia River.
My wristwatch was caked with dirt which I brushed off — it was 1600 when we entered the Hill 65 complex. With my pack over my shoulder, I walked down the slope to the mess hall, and Sumo greeted me with all smiles, “Glad you’re back, we missed you.” I unloaded my gear, dropping it outside (not wanting to bring all the dirt into the hooch). I wanted to shower first so I undressed and went inside to get a towel and soap. When I came into the hooch naked, Reb was just getting up and he said, “Damn Sarge, you’re a mess!”
We laughed as I reached for the Dove soap . . . it had been opened and slightly used (I wondered who would do that?). Then I noticed $50 in greenbacks where my movie camera had been stored. Reb said, “We sold the camera like you wanted.” He made a quick exit and left me to my shower.
The water was warm and felt clean compared to the river. As I scrubbed down and rinsed, I noticed some graffiti-like letters written on the wall of the galvanized aluminum siding . . . “MERCI”.
After I was dressed, Top Culverhouse knocked on the hooch and said, “Sit down, we need to talk.” From the sound of it, I thought I was in trouble.” He gave me a handful of letters as well as a package and offered some polite small talk. Then he said, “There was an incident while you were gone.”
He went on to explain: A patrol from India Company returned from a week in Arizona territory, and they brought a woman into the compound with them. She was an Associated Press photographer. Captain Robb turned her away, leaving her nowhere to stay for the night. Being filthy, needing new clothes and a shower, Culverhouse ushered her to the cooks’ hooch which was secluded. He ordered Sumo and Reb to give her privacy and keep her presence a secret. The woman was issued new clothes and spent the night in our hooch, sleeping on my cot. The next day she left on the convoy to Da Nang. He ended with, “Sumo and Reb had nothing to do with this.”
After Top Culverhouse left, I read Jenny’s letters and opened the package from my grandmother * (seeds, herbal tea and shortbread cookies). Sumo came in with a tray of Udon noodles and spicy beef tips which was his delicious specialty.
Sumo’s version of the woman photographer was more graphic. She was young (our age), very short and French. After she cleaned up in our shower, her old clothes were given to Mama-San who got rid of them. The photographer was interested in my Super 8 movie camera and had paid for it with the greenbacks.
She wanted some photos of Captain Robb and had maneuvered her way (by helicopter) to join the India Company platoon in Arizona. Apparently this woman thought that staying with the platoon would eventually lead her to Captain Robb. Her plan worked, but Robb would have no part of it. The press credentials were worthless to him.
In the process of putting Jenny’s letters away, I noticed someone had opened my old mail. I had them arranged a certain way, and they were now out of order. She had read my mail! This revelation set me off, and it took some time for me to cool down. It was disrespectful for someone to come into my space and read my personal letters. This affected my attitude, and I felt my privacy had been violated.
Reb offered his take, “I brought the French lady pastries in the morning, and she said I was an artist.” I told him about her reading my letters and he said, “I think she was lonely and homesick.” She talked about her parents back in France and not seeing them in two years. **
During my tour of duty in Vietnam, this woman photojournalist remained a mystery. She was just another blur in my memory of the war. I have since forgiven her for reading my letters; loneliness is painful.
* See previous “The Apple Tree” published in Mid-December
** #CatherineLeroy@LAtimes “A Window on the War”
Next Edition: Please Wash My Pillow
Saturday, July 6, 1968
The Marketplace in Thuong Duc was like a maze of organized chaos. The vendors were almost all middle-aged women who were highly competitive. Rice, the main commodity, was displayed in large tightly-woven baskets. “Shoulder poles” were used to transport rice and other products; they were traditionally made of bamboo. With an equally balanced basket at each end of their pole, these women carried heavy loads from the fields.
Trinh called these women, “shoulder pole vendors” who carried the rice directly from the harvested paddy to market. After selling their product, they would buy or trade for other needed goods. It was a barter system where supply and demand was the driving force of every transaction . . . Economics 101 in action.
We visited the market in small groups and did our best to interact with the people. The haggling was intense, and there were a lot of hand gestures. At times it seemed like a fight would break out . . . then there was an agreement, and everyone was satisfied.
We were treated to some fresh papaya by one vendor who served little skinless wedges of the soft fruit. I managed to trade a C-ration pack of Winstons (four cigarettes) for a whole papaya picked by Trinh as the freshest, by smelling the skin.
Captain Cavagnol acquired a large piece of roasted pigskin (pork rind). He planned to use it for dipping into a can of C-ration cheese spread.
We thanked Trinh for the guided tour of the market and headed back to the Kilo compound with our pickings. It was a fun cultural experience for everyone involved.
Next Edition: Convoy to Hill 65
Friday, July 5, 1968
The sun’s heat was relentless and combined with the high humidity we were all “out of gas.” Any little effort would cause us to sweat. There were no weather or temperature instruments, and Doc’s glass mercury thermometers were maxed out at 108 degrees.
A truck pulled into the Kilo compound, coming from the direction of Hill 52. The driver yelled, “Heat Casualties,” and we carefully unloaded 14 Marines. Most of them couldn’t walk, and two were unconscious.
The medical tent was now full, and Doc Furman made a quick assessment of each patient. We had all hands on deck in the med tent, and we tried to cool the Marines by fanning them and giving them sips of water to re-hydrate.
I was working on one of the unconscious Marines and noted to Furman, “his skin is dry and too hot to touch.” Also, his breathing was labored. Doc said, “Carry the cot to the river and cool him off SLOWLY.” At the river we set the cot down and splashed water on him. The canvas cot became saturated and acted like a desert water bag, cooling by evaporation. Returning to the med tent to get him out of the sun, the Marine went into convulsions; he was cramping and his stomach was rigid.
Captain Cavagnol came into the tent and announced, “Medevac is ten minutes out, everyone on your feet.” Twelve Marines stood up and walked out toward the LZ. As we carried the two cots out, Cavagnol ordered the others back into the med tent . . . there was only room for two, and the walking casualties would have to wait.
As the Chinook helicopter landed, a crewman exited and said, “NO COTS.” I lifted the Marine up and over my shoulders (we had trained for this, but I never thought it would happen). Running up the ramp of the helicopter, the Crew Chief was using hand signals, urging me to carry the Marine forward. The deck was covered with wounded and some poncho-wrapped dead Marines. I tried my best not to step on the ponchos, but it was impossible. I laid my casualty down as the Crew Chief was yelling, “GET OUT, GET OUT!”
I literally ran over the dead Marines on my way out and was free from the helicopter as it took off. As I was walking back to the med tent, Captain Cavagnol put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Good job, now go to the river and cool off.”
At the beach I took off my boots and waded into the water with my trousers on and sat down. Someone tapped my arm (it was Trinh) and said, “I wash” pointing to my pants. I took them off under water, and after they had been cleaned, she laid them next to my boots as I sat in the river.
The river was now thrashing with naked Marines (the heat casualties), and I got dressed and retreated to my hooch recliner. Someone had issued the noon C-rats, and I got “Beans and Frankfurters.” I ate the peach halves and laid down in my fighting hole and cried. I was bothered by walking on the dead Marines . . . we never trained for that scenario.
Next Edition: The Thuong Duc Market
Thursday, July 4, 1968
Kilo battery was not getting fire missions. Our primary assignment was “general support” for 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, but they weren’t operating within our range of fire. Although their job was to keep Route 4 secure, there were no convoys.
Boredom was killing us, and our only relief was to cool off in the river. During the day everyone went shirtless. It was so hot the mosquitoes would only appear after sunset when we put on our shirts for protection.
None of us wore underwear . . . it just wasn’t practical. We needed more ventilation to reduce moisture. We never used the term “going Commando,” but I did hear references to “free-balling.” Either way we adjusted to the conditions, and it appeared that the Vietnamese did likewise.
Just after sunset, Captain Cavagnol yelled, “Fire Mission.” The coordinates made no sense because we would be firing toward the mountainous jungle to the west. To further complicate things, the altitude was at a high angle, and all the gun tubes we’re pointing skyward. The ammo was WP with a timed fuse. Oh I get it . . . Fireworks!
The guns fired on Cavagnol’s command, and a few seconds later the rounds detonated (3000 feet above). Twilight backlit the white phosphorus, giving us a view of scattered puffs of smoke. It wasn’t the most impressive fireworks display I’d ever seen, but it made us laugh.
The radios crackled with activity as the Marines on Hill 52 wanted to know what was going on. Corporal Diaz, our radio operator said, “Amigo . . . Es Cuatro de Julio.”
Next Edition: Heat Casualties