Thursday, January 23, 1969
Northeast of Hill 37 was a territory Marines had nicknamed “Dodge City” which was an NVA stronghold and part of the rocket belt surrounding Da Nang. A year ago I mistakenly hitched a ride on a truck going to Hill 65. The truck took a different route because it was late in the day; it was my only visit through the Hill 55 complex. At the south gate the guards said there were no security escorts so the decision was to make a run to Hill 37 through Dodge City. It was a race against the setting sun, a flat road through rows of palm plantations. We made it unscathed . . . we were lucky.
South of Dodge City was an area designated as Go Noi Island (another stronghold). Part of the boundary of Go Noi was the Thu Bon River. There was never a time in 1968 that either Dodge City or Go Noi Island was under American control. It was just as bad as, if not worse than, Arizona Territory. The NVA held these regions, and the river served as transportation for enemy supplies via boats and sam-pans.
Kilo Battery guns could reach Dodge City and Go Noi, but we didn’t get many fire missions in that direction. When we did fire eastward, the outgoing blast produced a heavy concussion to the structures on our side of the hill.
This extra buffeting was more than annoying . . . the unfinished staff club took a beating from a fire mission in that direction. It was obvious that liquor bottles would not survive this kind of pounding. Gunny Pavelcek solved the problem using empty #2-1/2 size peach cans. They were bolted in place and held the bottles quite nicely.
Next Edition: Finals Week
Wednesday, January 22, 1969
After breakfast I walked around the mess hall looking for any shrapnel damage from last night’s mortar. Searching further out, I finally found the small crater from the detonated round.
It was only a few feet from the spot where the two engineers had died in a tent over a year ago. * Sergeant Leggins had bulldozed over the puddle of blood and leveled the area where the mess deck now stood.
The memory of the two body bags being loaded onto a mule brought a flashback of the event. It was my first experience with death in Vietnam, and I remembered the nauseating metallic smell of blood mixed with the rain puddle. The shock to my senses had made me sick.
Now, a year later, there was no one left to remember the incident. India Company was gone, Leggs had rotated to CONUS and here I am with deja vu. I had thought about marking the spot with a cross, but I didn’t know their names.
At the time Leggs retrieved a wooden box of tools from the engineers’ bulldozer and he told me, “They won’t need these anymore.” We had made good use of them all year. Now those tools were being used at the staff club construction site.
I walked away from the memory of it and felt depressed. That occasion had been a call to action . . . I was determined not to die in my sleep, unprotected in a tent. It was the beginning of a series of enterprises: a bunker, the cooks’ shower, a walk-in refrigerator and the bakery addition. Now the only project on my mind was to get home safely.
See previous blog “Body Bags” January 16, 1968
Next Edition: Go Noi Island
Tuesday, January 21, 1969
If the timing was right, sometimes the cooks managed to get a good nap between lunch and dinner. Sumo’s Italian meat sauce was finished. The spaghetti noodles would be cooked at the last minute, and the garlic bread was grilled to order as the Marines came through the chow line.
Naps (for the cooks) were essential. A short afternoon “siesta” gave us a second wind from the 15-hour daily grind. There were no days off.
After an hour-long nap, Sumo and I got up at 1500 and put the final touches on the Italian night dinner. It was always a popular meal, and Reb’s brownies hit the sweet spot for dessert. The current group of mess men were motivated, and they cleaned up quickly. Reb always supervised the final scrub down, and his night custodian was trained to finish the mopping and set up for breakfast. Coffee and snacks for the guard was Reb’s first priority at night.
Just before midnight a mortar came out of the tube, THUNK! Subconsciously, I raced to my post as the round arced toward us. I was out of the hooch and in the OP (from a sound sleep) in about 10 seconds, and Reb was right behind me. SsshKaboom . . . The explosion was close, and we waited for more rounds to be fired. None came so we laid low until the Gunny announced “CLEAR” over the wired field phone. Reb went back to work in the bakery, and I hunkered down in the OP until 0400. Three hours of sleep for the night was better than none.
Next Edition: Flashback
Sunday, January 19, 1969
The initial primary construction of the staff club was completed. Now the detailed finish work needed to be accomplished. Reb taught the Sergeants how to use a gas-blown torch on the wooden ammo box paneling. This not only burned off the stamped markings but enhanced the grain of the wood. The next step was to rough sand the panels and then burnish the wood with linseed oil. This required a lot of elbow grease, but the end result was a soft grungy luster. It looked like a hunter’s cabin (all that was missing were some antlers).
The interior reminded me of the main gathering room of the Special Forces Camp (A-109) at Thuong Duc. * There they had a display of captured weapons and NVA flags. Our tiny club was much more intimate and had a charm all its own.
There was still more work to be done on the bar as well as some screened windows, but Top Culverhouse wanted to make a toast: “To our Commander in Chief, may you enjoy your remaining years in peace.” We clinked our beer cans and said, “Cheers to LBJ.”
Tomorrow Nixon was to take the oath of office, and the Johnsons would retire to their Texas ranch. The politics of the war in Vietnam were out of our control; the only option was to follow orders . . . and we did.
* See previous blog, “Special Forces Camp A-109” June 14, 1968
Next Edition: The Lantern
Monday, January 20, 1969
Sumo had a blue dental appointment card which instructed him to report to the clinic before the end of the month. After seeing the dentist, he planned to do some shopping in Da Nang so he rode with Fernando on the admin run.
My cooking skills were average compared to Sumo’s. As a result I always tried to keep it simple whenever he was gone and I usually served “comfort food.” Lunch consisted of chili mac and rainbow Jello with canned peaches for dessert. Dinner was a spicy Cajun pepper steak served on a bed of dirty (bacon infused) rice. Reb made sheets of carrot cake drizzled with his brown sugar maple glaze.
Fernando’s truck arrived late (just before dinner), and I missed mail call. Sumo showered after his dust-laden ride on Convoy Road, and he made it to the mess hall in time to help serve on the chow line. He complimented me on the meal, “This is some good shit.” Coming from Sumo, this was high praise so I acknowledged him with, “There it is.”
Top Culverhouse hand delivered my much-anticipated letter from Jenny, and I pocketed it for later. Doc Wayne had snitched to Culverhouse about Jenny having the Hong Kong flu. The First Sergeant had eyes and ears on everyone in Kilo Battery; his radar for the personal mental readiness of “his Marines” was sharp.
Sumo had gone to the shopping district in Da Nang and purchased an oil lamp with a red silk shade. It was about the size of a beach ball, decorated with stars and moons (a celestial motif). This was Sumo’s contribution to the new staff club since he had offered no help to build it.
Jenny was now back in Fresno, feeling better. She wrote, “I think I lost a few pounds. It’s a heck of a way to get ready for your return home!”
Next Edition: NAPS
Saturday, January 18, 1969
Top Culverhouse announced at the morning briefing, “Everyone will FAM FIRE their M-16 before tomorrow’s free beer call.” This was an organized endeavor, and our names were crossed off his clipboard as we completed the assignment. I purposely doused my M-16 with solvent just before the exercise, knowing the rifle would be easier to clean while still hot (it was a trick I had learned from an armorer at Division Matches).
We were staggered in groups of four and fired from the sitting position. The FAM FIRE took place at the dump, and we shot at various objects in the trash. Marksmanship was not the point . . . we were just firing to make sure our rifles worked. It was a waste of time and ammo.
Back in our hooch I thoroughly cleaned my weapon and reloaded my magazines. Hopefully I wouldn’t need to use it in the next 20 days before leaving for CONUS.
During mail call I was a nervous wreck, waiting for my name to be called. Jenny’s letter was postmarked Porterville, California. Her fever had broken early Monday morning (she slept through the Super Bowl), and she planned to return to Fresno on Wednesday. Meanwhile Jenny was taking regular doses of Vicks NyQuil cold and cough medicine. This news was a relief, and I was thankful that our friends, Mickey and Larry, cared for her.
Next Edition: CHEERS
Friday, January 17, 1969
Marines had all sorts of superstitions. Some would wear a dirty stinking towel around their neck while on patrol to wipe off the sweat, but washing it would be blasphemy. The towel was like a sacred lucky charm. The Grunts never filled their magazines with the full 20-round max. It was believed the extra stress on the spring would cause a malfunction (we tested this theory at the El Toro Rifle Range and never had a misfire).
The list of these notions of unfounded fear was endless and unique to each individual. My superstition was the new moon. I associated it with the Lunar New Year (TET). Tonight was my last “moonless” night in Vietnam, and this groundless anxiety would keep my conditioned brain on high alert.
We had learned to deal with sleep deprivation. It was an acquired survival technique. In most cases it resulted in needless fear. I learned to worry about things that would most likely never happen. It was during a short fitful sleep that I dreamed of Jenny burning with a high fever from the flu. She woke up drenched in sweat as the fever broke. It was so real . . . I was sure it had happened.
With my rice pillow and poncho liner, I moved into the bunker next to our hooch and smoked a cigarette. Reb had to wake me because I had overslept. Breakfast was almost ready when I came into the mess hall. Fernando announced, “I remembered the words to the El Paso song, in a dream.”
Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys
Off to my left ride a dozen or more
Next Edition: FAM FIRE
Thursday, January 16, 1969
Fernando arrived late from FLC. We received our dry goods order, and after putting away the provisions, we went to mail call. Occasionally there would be a day when I didn’t get a letter. Today was one of those days . . . I received no mail and was worried about Jenny’s flu.
It always bothered me to see the disappointed faces of Marines who didn’t get a letter from home. Reb had been receiving regular mail from Margaret, and today he got two letters from Australia. Sumo’s wife sent him a card from Japan, and Fernando received two letters from El Paso.
I considered mail to be private and avoided asking about any information contained in the letters. On the other hand, if someone shared something, it was OK to comment. Sumo was more nosy and constantly pried into these personal matters.
One of Reb’s letters was from James (Margaret’s photography student). It was about their art project, and Sumo pressed Reb for more details. Reb was abrupt, “It’s private!”
Fernando also had a letter from a female friend. Sumo said, “Who is she? What’s her name?” Fernando blushed and repeated Reb’s words, “It is PRIVADO.” Sumo responded, “I bet it’s Felina.”
Reb said, “Who is Felina?” Sumo joked,, “You know . . . Feleena, the Mexican maiden from Rosa’s Cantina.” We all broke out in laughter and tried to remember the lyrics to the Marty Robbins song, “El Paso.”
This distraction brightened my mood. I was happy for the mail that was received because it was a morale booster. Nothing was more important than mail.
Next Edition: My Last New Moon