Da Nang TAOR, January 18, 1967
The previous evening, just before turning in, I wandered off by myself, stared into the distance, and murmured, “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t die tonight.”
I knew it was melodramatic, but I did it every night, without fail. In a way it was a message to a God in which I had long since stopped believing. Almost. If there was a God, I had concluded years earlier, He was at best an indifferent God, one just as likely to kill me during the night as He was to let me live through it. Depended on His mood. Did He have a good day or a bad day? Maybe it was an unprayer, a way of not praying to the God I didn’t believe in, so He wouldn’t notice me and decide to squash me for the hell of it.
I rolled off my cot that morning, pulled on my boots, and stumbled over to the contraption we used for shaving: a fence post driven into the ground, with a metal mirror nailed to it above a wooden ledge to hold a helmet filled with water. Marines, officers and enlisted, shaved in the morning when they could. Personal appearance counted, even in the field. It was a matter of discipline, and in a combat zone few things are more important.
“Almost ready, Lieutenant?” the Mighty Mite driver asked.
“Be there in a minute,” I replied, ducking back into my tent. I pulled on my utility blouse. (We slept in our trousers. The company Command Post was mortared regularly. No one fancied running for the bunkers in their skivvies.) Then I slipped on my flak jacket, grabbed my web belt, on which hung a .45 caliber pistol and my sheathed Ka-Bar, and snapped it around my waist.
“Thought you were going on R&R today, Sir,” said the Mighty Mite driver as we pulled out of the CP and onto the dirt road that led to Battalion Headquarters.
“Change of plans, Lance Corporal,” I replied.
“You’re one of the short guys, aren’t you, Lieutenant?” asked the driver.
“Can’t get much shorter, Lance Corporal.”
A brief ride to Battalion HQ. The vehicles that would form our small convoy were waiting, their engines running. I passed the bulky canvas bag I had just been given to a Marine already on top of one of the two Amtracs and climbed up to join him. Moments later the convoy began to rumble down the hill and onto the road where my future awaited me.
Ihad not expected to be sitting on top of an Amtrac that morning. For the past couple of months, and until about 2100 the previous evening, I planned to be in Okinawa, looking for a string of pearls for my wife and scouting out stereo equipment for our small apartment atop a two-car garage in the breezy California community of Laguna Beach. That’s what young Marine officers did as their Rotation Tour Date neared; take a few days of R&R in Tokyo or on Okinawa and load up on cut-rate, high-quality jewelry and electronic gear for the trip home. Tax-free and duty-free, too. My RTD, 1 February, was getting close. In thirteen days I would have been overseas for thirteen months, a standard tour for Marines and one month longer than the Army kept its troops in-country. The extra month never made sense to me, by the way, except as an exercise in one-upmanship on the part of the Corps, always paranoid, though not without reason, that it would be disbanded and its men and women scattered among the other services.
But there would be no shopping spree for me today, though at the moment I had almost enough money with me to buy out Mikimoto Pearls. Sadly, the money was legal tender only in South Vietnam. The dollar-bill-size notes, known as military payment certificates, came in various denominations and each carried, in the place of honor normally accorded to George Washington, Old Hickory, or Honest Abe, a woman who reminded me of Jackie Kennedy.
None of the money, which was stashed in the brown canvas bag I had clamped between my knees, was mine. It belonged to the five officers and eighty enlisted men of Bravo Company, First Antitank Battalion, First Marine Division (Rein), FMF, and thanks to me, and to the Leatherneck tradition that said Marines get paid every two weeks as long as they were not under hostile fire, they were about to enjoy another on-time payday. It didn’t matter that you could only spend MPCs at a PX or some other service facility like an enlisted men’s club, or that Bravo Company, especially its Second Platoon—a unit deep in the boonies and whose CP was the first stop on my paymaster rounds—was not likely to even smell a place like that anytime soon.
Bravo’s five officers were the company commander, the executive officer—that was me—and three platoon leaders. All of us except the skipper took turns serving as pay officer. The honor was mine today even though it wasn’t my turn. I had been dragooned into it because the platoon leader whose turn it was found himself otherwise occupied. This was, of course, a war. So the duty fell to me, and instead of R&R and methodically working my way through the PX at Futenma, trying to decide between a TEAC or a Sony tuner, then relaxing at the O Club with the popular gin-and-champagne concoction known as a French 75, I was scanning the sun-bleached terrain from atop an Amtrac as it bounced westward along a rutted, dusty trail toward the base camp of Bravo Company’s presumably cash-strapped Second Platoon.
A word about the vehicle on which I was riding, since it was anything but an innocent bystander in this tale. The LVTP-5A1 Amphibian Tractor, the Amtrac’s official designation, was designed to transport Marines from ship to shore as they assaulted enemy beaches, a primary mission of the Corps in World War II and, to a much lesser extent, during the Korean War (think Inchon, MacArthur’s masterstroke). Since there were no opposed landings in Vietnam up to that time (or later for that matter), Amtracs were deprived of their primary mission. Instead, the Marine Corps used them as substitutes for armored personnel carriers. The Corps had no APCs of its own.
The Army’s APCs resembled Amtracs; both were rectangular in shape and ran on tracks, like tanks. But there was one design feature that separated the Amtrac from the APC, and it would make all the difference in the world to me. Twelve fuel cells containing a total of 456 gallons of gasoline, with an octane rating of 80, lay between the hull and the deck plates of the Amtrac. This was not much of a problem when the vehicle was employed as intended, for churning through water on the way to a beach or crunching over a barrier reef; on land, though, should an Amtrac encounter a mine, it became a death trap, anyone inside instantly fricasseed. By this point in America’s great Southeast Asian adventure, no one rode inside an Amtrac; you sat on top or clung to the side. The fuel cells were where they always had been, though, and an Amtrac was still an Amtrac, and not an APC.
With thirteen days to go, I had long since qualified as a full-fledged short-timer. I had my handmade short-timer’s calendar: a drawing of my wife sitting on the edge of a bed, in a T-shirt hiked up to midthigh. At first I was going to draw her naked, then I decided there was too great a chance that one of my fellow Marines might stumble upon it. But I played with the drawing enough that with a little imagination it began to look like the cover of one of the pulp novels I obsessed over as a kid. Then I superimposed one hundred squares on the drawing. I had been filling in a box a day since October 10, one hundred days from my RTD. The one-hundredth box was where you’d expect it to be. There was nothing subtle about anyone’s short-timer’s calendar, certainly not mine.
There were more serious concerns as my days in-country grew short. Notably, what next? I was a Naval Academy graduate and a Marine first lieutenant about to be promoted to captain. In less than a year and a half, I could resign my commission and begin a civilian career. Did I want to stay in the Corps or see what else might be out there for me?
I already had my orders home. I was going to the Fifth Marine Division, a newly mobilized unit based at Camp Pendleton, on the California coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. That meant my wife and I could remain in Laguna Beach, where we had lived before my battalion mounted out and which we loved. But scuttlebutt already had drifted across the Pacific that the new 5th MarDiv would be deployed to Vietnam within six months, no doubt bringing me back with it.
Then there was the war. Since I was in it, I didn’t feel I could trust my judgment about whether it was a good war or a bad one. It didn’t matter, not then. All I knew was that I was ready to go home, the sooner the better. In truth, I had not had a horrible war.
The First Antitank Battalion was a curious unit, with an even more curious weapon, a lightly armored, tracked vehicle called the Ontos (officially the Rifle, Multiple 106 mm, Self-propelled, M50A1). Its main armament consisted of six 106 mm recoilless rifles. Ontos means “thing” in Greek. It looked like a roach squirting here and there with six gleaming cannons protruding from its carapace. It was originally built for the Army, but the Army decided it didn’t want it, so the Marines took it. Or so the story goes.
I was, as it happened, an infantry officer. To my mind, that designation made me a fish out of water in an antitank unit. But that, which I asked for and received upon graduating from Marine officers Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, did not guarantee me assignment to an infantry battalion, as I thought it would. I arrived at First Marine Division Headquarters at Camp Pendleton in December 1965 only to learn that I had been assigned to the First Antitank Battalion.
I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t set records at the Basic School, but I wasn’t a fuckup, either; what the hell happened? I hurried to the headquarters of First Antitanks and reported to the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel.
“Sir,” I told him, “there’s been a big mistake. I don’t belong in this battalion.”
“And why is that, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“I’m an infantry officer, Colonel, not an Ontos guy. I’m supposed to be a rifle platoon leader.”
The colonel proceeded to explain to me, in a reasonably kind tone, that Ontos platoon leader, the position he had in mind for me, was an infantry officer’s billet, though he himself was a tank officer.
I begged, pleaded, importuned, beseeched, entreated. “Sir,” I cried, “please transfer me to an infantry battalion.”
“Lieutenant,” the colonel said, “the Marine Corps in its wisdom assigned you to this battalion for a reason. Not that I know what the hell it is. But you’re here and you’re gonna stay here.”
By then his voice had taken on an edge.
“Sir,” I said, “I’m from New York. I don’t know squat about vehicles. I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-three. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I don’t even know how to check the oil.”
“Lieutenant,” said the colonel, “the First Sergeant is sitting at a desk outside my office. I want you to go to him right now and get checked in. Welcome aboard.”
Idon’t know if we Americans were doing anything worthwhile in Vietnam. Seems like when I first got there I saw this old peasant ankle deep in a rice paddy, walking behind a plow pulled by a water buffalo. And I kept seeing him every couple of months, never in the same place, him and his water buffalo just plowing a rice paddy—a pair from central casting. He always had his back to me, so I never saw his face. In between sightings, though, my battalion engaged in search-and-destroy operations, convoy duty, resupply missions. And we’d get intelligence briefings that said the Vietcong were on the run, or lying in wait for us behind the next ridgeline.
Then I’d see the old guy again, him and his water buffalo, never giving any indication that a bunch of Marines armed to the teeth were half a football field away, or that anything we had done since I last saw him had had any impact on his life. I would have felt better if once, just once, he had taken off his wide-brimmed peasant hat and waved to us—or spit at us or given us the finger—but he never did. It was as if we weren’t even there.
But Vietnam would not be my problem much longer. When my plane took off for the States in thirteen days, the war would be behind me. More important, all the demons that had tormented me since childhood would be left to fend for themselves. My parents were good people, and talented ones. My mother was a magazine cover girl before she even reached her teens, then a featured dancer in Broadway musicals mounted by the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld. My father was a composer who wrote much of the background music for Fleischer Studios cartoons such as Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman. His older brother, Herman, a comic, was the family headliner. He also wrote the Marx Brothers’ first vaudeville act. His sister, Hattie, managed their act. Dad led the band when Herman performed and was often pressed into service as Herman’s straight man. When Herman and the Marx Brothers worked together, Dad often roomed with the brothers on the road and they delighted in playing tricks on him.
Both my parents were in vaudeville, which is where they met. She was Irish Catholic; he was Jewish. That should have been a problem back then. It wasn’t, not for them—that is, if you don’t count my deeply religious maternal grandmother routinely feigning suicide by putting her head in the oven when she heard her daughter, the oldest of her seven kids, coming home from work or a date with my father.
But there were other issues, which led to divorce, and for my two younger sisters and me, a seemingly endless diaspora. We lived with people all over the city of New York, sometimes together, sometimes apart. By the time I reached high school I had attended a dozen schools, three in the same year twice.
By high school all three of us kids were living with my mother. By then, though, she was an alcoholic and life was often hellacious. My father was a timid man whose fears undermined his enormous talent and may have contributed to my mother’s alcoholism. I inherited his fearfulness; at least I believed I did.
I fought against it by constantly testing myself, doing things I never could imagine him doing. I boxed in the Police Athletic League, played football in high school and on the sandlots for a few years after that. I was a better baseball player, but I never even went out for my high school team. I didn’t want to be distracted from football by what I thought of as a pussy sport, at least when compared to the action on the gridiron. After high school, I went to the Naval Academy instead of a normal college, selected the Marine Corps over the Navy because it was tougher, then became an infantry officer because I couldn’t imagine anything tougher than that.
I was proud to be a Marine. Unlike many of my fellow Leathernecks, though, I wasn’t thrilled that a war had materialized to allow me to put my training to use. But as my tour in Vietnam drew to a close, I felt I had done my time in Hell and, to my mind, I was finished testing myself. I was ready for a life devoid of madness. Time to drop my pack and just be happy.
I was going home to a lot. I had met Janie when I was a plebe at Annapolis, and for the next three years had courted her with varying degrees of success. For much of that time, she was cool to me but never fully dismissive. And I wouldn’t take no for an answer. By the time I graduated in June 1964 we had caught fire. We were married under crossed swords at the Academy Chapel a year later, a few weeks after she graduated from Lake Erie College in Ohio.
We had six months together. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and living in San Clemente, just north of the base. Janie fell in love with another seaside town a little farther north, Laguna Beach, a place wonderfully at odds with the stereotype of the Southern California coast.
Laguna was quirky, artsy, and unpredictable. It was studded with boutiques and galleries. Each summer the town mounted a festival in which costumed locals posed in tableaus of art masterpieces. The Laguna Beach Greeter was the town’s signature feature, a wild-eyed old coot with a cane and long white beard, who stood in the middle of Pacific Coast Highway and waved to the tourists as they drove into town. Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, was kicking around Laguna during this time, too.
Janie found the apartment above the two-car garage, which was perfect for us, and a job teaching what were then called trainable retarded children, a term that has now gone out of favor, though the kids still face the same challenges. The beach was three short blocks away, and we could see the ocean from our kitchen window and tiny porch. The beach at the bottom of Thalia Street was our place. You couldn’t swim there, but you could walk and sit on the rocks, poke the sea urchins, and let the eddies hypnotize you so for a little while you didn’t think about the war that was beckoning and that made any discussion of a future not just premature but, if you were superstitious, an exercise in tempting fate.
Now, though, with my RTD just around the corner, I could think about it.
I could, of course, stay in the Marine Corps. I’d still have a year and a half of obligated duty left when I got home, time to decide if I wanted to make the service a career. And whenever I thought about the civilian world, I saw lots of jobs I thought I could do, but none that I had any passion for.
In one recurring dream, I saw myself before a large status board with a big Texaco star perched on top. I stood in front of the board, a pointer in my hand, telling a roomful of tanker-truck drivers where to haul their gasoline. The only explanation I’ve ever come up with for this curious image is that Texaco sent me my first credit card, when I was a senior at Annapolis. To this day, I still know my ten-digit account number by heart, even though I haven’t had the card for years, stripped of it by Shell when it swallowed Texaco.
Truly, as my days in Vietnam wound down, I did not know if I would be a Marine or a civilian five years down the line. But I knew where I wanted to be—with Janie. Also, somewhere else, a place I sensed was awaiting me but that I only recognized years later when an Academy friend and fellow Marine, Ron Benigo, and I spoke about the call that had summoned us to the Naval Academy.
“I believe,” Ron said, “we had visions of being someday at that critical moment when what we did would change the course of history.”
Delusions of grandeur? Egomania? Maybe. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to do something that mattered, that gave my life meaning. And there I was, just thirteen days away from starting down a path toward whatever life had in store for me.
Ithought of my battalion, the First Antitank Battalion, as the real-world equivalent of the USS Reluctant, the bedraggled cargo ship that plied the backwaters of the Pacific in Thomas Heggen’s iconic novel of World War II, Mister Roberts. The book told the tale of a young naval officer stuck in the rear despite his persistent efforts to get into the action. Reluctant, we’re told, sailed “from apathy to tedium with occasional side trips to monotony and ennui.”
It wasn’t quite like that in First ATs. Our Ontos were bristling with cannons and looking for trouble. No vehicle in the world, no matter how thick its armor, could withstand an Ontos barrage, which should have made our battalion the scourge of the enemy’s tanks. But this enemy had no tanks or any other armored vehicles, for that matter, which made it impossible for us to carry out our primary mission, antitank warfare. The absence of enemy armor made even our name seem fraudulent. We could have easily been the First Antidragon Battalion for all our name reflected what we did.
With no tanks for us to challenge, we were assigned other roles—direct-fire support of infantry operations, static defense, and convoy protection. Mostly we did convoy duty, escorting trucks of various sizes on resupply missions from base camps to the outskirts of Indian Country where the infantry was operating.
It was dangerous duty since convoys were vulnerable to mines, ambushes, and rocket-propelled grenades, but nothing compared to what the grunts faced every day. To my mind, escorting motorized convoys was the equivalent of Reluctant shuttling supplies to the combat vessels that were really fighting the war in the Pacific.
And I was no Mr. Roberts. All I did was piss off the battalion commander when I tried to transfer to the infantry. At that point, I said fuck it. Mr. Roberts never did, never stopped trying to get off Reluctant. (He finally made it to another ship and got killed.) So aside from the singular event that lies at the heart of this book, my war fell well short of the heroic dimensions that Ron Benigo had foretold for us. (Ron’s didn’t. He commanded a rifle platoon and an infantry company and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.)
And after all that happened, it’s hard to believe that most of what I remember are the funny things.
We were usually mortared once or twice a week, the first rounds triggering a mad scramble for the heavily sandbagged bunkers on the perimeter of our base camp. We usually hung out there until the shelling ended, either because our counterbattery fire had neutralized the Vietcong mortar teams or they had called it a night.
One evening, though, the manner of attack changed as we were awakened by the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire. At first glance—and second glance, too—it seemed evident that the tank company guarding the perimeter to our left front was taking heavy automatic-weapons fire. Like the firefight I watched from the shitter on my first night in-country, tracers were flying in from the perimeter and out from the guns of the tanks.
On third glance, though, nothing made sense. Instead of intersecting tracer rounds of distinctly different colors—red for us, green for them—all the rounds, incoming and outgoing, were red. And they seemed to be coming not from the trees well beyond the fence line where the VC normally dug in, but from the fence line itself. If so, that meant Charlie had closed on us more than ever before, in fact was almost on top of us. Either that or—was it possible?—we were shooting at ourselves.
That’s what we were doing. Well, not us, not my company. The culprits were our neighbors to the left, the tank outfit, at least that’s the story that went around in the wake of the attack that wasn’t. It seems a tanker on guard duty thought he heard something threatening outside the fence line, which Vietnamese civilians were advised to give a wide berth after dark. The tanker reacted with a burst of automatic-weapons fire, which was almost immediately returned.
With that, all hell broke loose, as the other tankers on duty all along the perimeter opened fire with their heavy-duty machine guns. We, of course, were in our bunkers within seconds and could see the tracers flying back and forth, a scene “like Coney Island on the Fourth of July,” a line I’ve cribbed from one of the many World War II movies I grew up with.
What had happened was that some of the tanker rounds were hitting the iron fence posts and bouncing back at the good guys, making it seem as though they were under fire. In a way, of course, they were, but not from the VC. As for the bad guys, presumably they were off causing trouble somewhere else. Or sitting in the trees laughing their asses off.
I tell this story reluctantly because I owe that tank company a lot. It may have saved me from a court-martial.
Our battalion was kept busy. Our squat but deadly Ontos provided security for numerous resupply convoys. We must have done the job well because we rarely came under attack. We also went on a number of search-and-destroy missions with the infantry. In the planning stages, these missions promised ferocious firefights.
At the briefings that preceded each operation, a series of battle maps mounted on easels set the stage. First there was a topographic map of the area in which the operation was to occur; then a sheet of clear, heavy-duty acetate was flipped over onto it. The positions of the enemy units we would be engaging were plotted in red. One North Vietnamese regiment here, another one over there. A second sheet of acetate was then flipped over onto the first. This one showed units in blue.
We were the blue and, judging from the map, we would be virtually on top of the VC or North Vietnamese Army troops we were preparing to seek out and destroy. A helluva battle awaited us.
Except those battles hardly ever materialized. Either our intelligence was bad or the enemy had been tipped off. Most of us were convinced it was piss-poor security. Too many Vietnamese, both civilian and military, wandering around headquarters where the battle plans were hatched. So we would spend days out on operations in which not a round was fired at a known enemy target.
We had a lot of downtime, at least compared to the grunts, for whom the shit never ceased. One of the most difficult tasks was keeping the troops alert and ready for action when we were between convoys or search-and-destroy operations. As company XO, this job fell to me. My first achievement, a minor one, was procuring horseshoes for the troops in the company headquarters group.
Horseshoes were fun for a while, but it was sort of an old man’s game and the troops were mostly in their late teens and early twenties. We needed something more physical, not just to allay boredom but to keep them in shape.
What we needed, I decided, was a basketball court.
We were operating out of a base camp in the vicinity of Da Nang, having moved up from Chu Lai with the tank company and several other units. The terrain was flat, with little vegetation. Perfect for basketball if we’d had (1) a basketball, (2) a basketball pole, (3) a backboard, and (4) a hoop, preferably with a net attached. Actually, we needed two of everything except the basketball since I envisioned full-court games. I figured we could get Special Services to supply the basketball. Maybe we could get the other things from them, too. That’s what Special Services did, minister to the morale and recreational needs of Marines.
We found a patch of ground well within the wire that was just about the size of the basketball courts you find in school yards. Not regulation NBA size but plenty big enough for a fast-paced game. The problem was that the ground was all chewed up by tire tracks, littered with rocks, and pockmarked with holes of varying sizes, the handiwork of mortars and artillery shells.
We figured with a lot of hard work we could smooth out the ground and make it nominally playable. That would work, but it just seemed, well, cheesy. I realize this was a bizarre value judgment since we were talking about fashioning a basketball court in an unfriendly venue where the sound of mortars would be standing in for crowd noise.
I don’t know who came up with the idea. Probably the First Sergeant or maybe Gunny Walker; it may even have been me. The idea? Get the Seabees, the Navy’s construction force, a heavy-equipment outfit, into the game. Their base camp was just a few miles down the road.
In the minds of Marines, the Seabees had anything you wanted and could do anything you needed done, sometimes under orders, other times out of the goodness of their hearts, still other times in response to bribes. They built bases, roads, airstrips, bridges, medical facilities, and a lot more, including schools in villages as part of Marine civic-action programs.
We were looking to them for something far less ambitious. We just wanted them to build us a basketball court. And somehow, thanks to the negotiating skills of the Gunny and the First Sergeant, they agreed to do so.
Our negotiators were not without bargaining chips. Several of us, officers and NCOs, had smuggled a variety of adult beverages in-country, either when we first landed or on returning from R&R, and squirreled them away for times when it might be safe to enjoy them. So far, months into our deployment, the time never seemed right, so it wasn’t all that painful to donate the booze to seal the deal with the Seabees.
It took two days to get the court built. The company commander was away, so I was in charge. The first day went smoothly. A grader arrived early in the morning, and before noon we had a smooth playing surface. Then some troops who knew about construction framed the putative court with long boards, two-by-sixes, I think, all the material and the tools compliments of the Seabees, who seemed to be getting into this cockamamy project.
That night there was a torrential storm, which turned much of the ground to mud, but the Seabees’ cement mixer showed up as scheduled the following afternoon. Before long, concrete was pouring down the chute from the truck’s rotating drum, slowly but steadily filling the space defined by the wooden frame. It took a few hours, but by midafternoon the concrete had been poured and smoothed. We had done it. We had built an outdoor basketball court in the none-too-friendly confines of a country at war. The poles, backboards attached, had even been set in place, implanted in the concrete at each end of the court.
The Gunny, the First Sergeant, and I were congratulating one another on our unlikely achievement when we heard some buzzing and loud cursing. We looked in the direction of the commotion.
The cement mixer, on its way out of our base camp, had sunk its two back tires in the mud. The driver was rocking the vehicle in an effort to extricate the monstrous piece of equipment from the quagmire, but it just seemed to be sinking deeper. Then the tires started spinning. Not only was the cement mixer stuck; it was now a sitting duck for enemy mortars and artillery.
We were in trouble. More precisely, I was in trouble. The CO had signed off on the idea of a basketball court but left it to me to make it happen. I knew the ground was soft and muddy, and there was no reason not to delay the cement mixer’s work for a day or two until the ground dried. But I wanted to get it done while we all were excited about it, so impatience trumped common sense. The result? I had sunk a cement mixer in mud that was providing a dead-on imitation of quicksand.
“Any ideas, First Sergeant?”
“Yes, Sir,” he replied. “Let’s see if we can get Tanks to help out. Why don’t you call them, Lieutenant? Or . . . um, maybe I should.”
I have no idea what the First Sergeant said to his tanker buddies. I’m not sure I wanted to know. All I know for sure is that I saw him talking into our sound-powered phone in a businesslike manner, as if he was cutting another deal, and a few minutes later two tanks came rumbling down from the hill on our left flank. I watched, bedazzled, then humbled and eternally grateful for the breathtaking ingenuity of enlisted Marines. The next thing I knew, chains were being run from the tanks to the cement mixer. The rumbling became even louder as the chains grew taut. Slowly the tires of the cement mixer gained traction and rolled out of the mud it had been trapped in, a sitting duck no more.
Special Services, as I knew they would, came through with a couple of basketballs, and a few days later, when we were sure the cement had dried, we were playing hoops, three-on-three, marvelous games.
Special Services, in addition to supplying the balls, the poles, and the backboards, made other contributions to the troops, including efforts to engage our intellect. What it did was send us several boxes of paperback books.
Until then our reading material had consisted of whatever we’d brought with us and Hong Kong fuck books, which just seemed to somehow materialize. The latter were the products of an enterprising publisher in the British Crown colony who fed the male desire to get to the salacious parts of any narrative by skipping everything in between. Many of these books—replete with misspellings, capitalization, and exclamation points—tilted toward hijinks between priests and nuns, which seemed to me an acquired taste, but there was more than enough standard porn to satisfy less ecclesiastical appetites.
Marines like to tell jokes regarding their literacy. This is one: “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘Marine.’ Now I are one.”
In truth, Marines are smart and read a lot more than you may think, so we were excited to learn that boxes of books had just arrived at the company CP. Our excitement quickly cooled, though, when we discovered that the boxes Special Services had delivered all contained the same book: Stacy Tower, by Robert H. K. Walter, described on the cover as a “Raw, Powerful Novel of Life at a Big University.” The cover also trumpeted excerpts from a New York Times review: “Student Rioting . . . Dirty Politics . . . Sexual Episodes . . . Suspense and Drama . . . An Uncouth Giant of a Book.”
At first I was pissed. Who the hell, I wondered, had the publisher paid off to get the Marine Corps to buy for troops in combat scores, maybe hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books about long-haired college kids, most no doubt draft dodgers, and the sexual shenanigans of their no doubt antiwar professors?
Actually, I didn’t much care about long hair, draft evading, or professors preaching against the war. I did care about the Marine Corps letting itself be used by a publisher at the expense of the troops. When I cooled down, though, I decided it was laughable. Stacy Tower was harmless. Pretty well written, too. And if Bravo Company had a reunion in thirty years, men who hadn’t seen or spoken to one another in decades would have something to chat about besides a war everyone wanted to forget. Perhaps they might enjoy sharing their feelings about Chet Nordstrom, the professor who lives in fear of World War III, and whether his timid nature is what drove his hot-blooded wife, Leah, into the bed of his closest friend. Or they might recall with a knowing wink the cheerleader, Binkie Landrum, whose wild, half-naked dance triggers a riot.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games.
Iwasn’t happy, as I rode along on that Amtrac, that I’d had to scrap my R&R. In fact I was feeling mildly fucked. Everyone in the company who had mounted out from Pendleton with First ATs had gone on two five-day R&Rs except me. And the reason I wasn’t going a second time was because the platoon leader who was supposed to be pay officer had an inspection or some other kind of Marine green bullshit.
Not that I was fixating on it. Focusing on a personal grievance while moving through hostile territory, which meant every piece of land except the one you were standing on, was a luxury only an immortal could afford. From the top of the Amtrac my eyes constantly scanned the terrain, the desolate open area to the right, the tree line to the left, the uncomfortably well-worn trail our tracks were rolling over.
The ground was pitted with craters large and small, evidence of exploded mortars and artillery rounds and mines. But for weeks the trail had been used to resupply troops in the bush without incident. So we were cautious and alert, but we did not anticipate trouble.
Moments later, I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.
SLEEPLESS DAYS, SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
On 18 January, a detail enroute to the second platoon position for administrative purposes received four WIA when the Amtrac upon which they were riding hit a mine at coord 939581.
—COMMAND DIARY, COMPANY B, FIRST ANTITANK BATTALION
When I regained my senses, I was splayed out on the ground, a corpsman shaking me.
“Lieutenant, c’mon, Lieutenant, wake up!”
I knew immediately what had happened. Our Amtrac had rolled over a land mine, possibly a pressure-activated mine but more likely one detonated by VC crouching in the tree line to our left.
That meant whoever had set off the blast was probably preparing to take us under fire. Basic small-unit tactics decreed that you cover an obstacle by fire. In other words, when you’ve got your enemy dazed and flustered, as we were, you try to finish him off before he can clear his head and get reorganized.
A sergeant who had been on the same Amtrac as me raced over, looked down.
“You okay, Lieutenant?”
I knew I was wounded, badly, but oddly enough I wasn’t in a lot of pain.
“Sergeant, we need to set out a perimeter defense,” I said. “The VC are probably in those trees, but they could be anywhere.”
“Already done, Lieutenant,” the sergeant said.
“I called for a medevac, Lieutenant. The choppers should be here in a few minutes,” said the corpsman. “Are you hurting?”
“Yeah, but not all that much.”
“I can’t give you morphine, Lieutenant, not with a head wound.”
“Anybody else hurt?” I asked.
“Three other guys, but you got the worst of it. They’ll be okay.”
In those few minutes, as the pain gradually intensified, I checked myself out. My face and arms had been scorched and my throat felt raw, but incredibly I could see perfectly. I also could hear and speak. And the rest of my body seemed like it was intact. This felt serious, but was it?
Suddenly I was on a stretcher held by Marines front and back, being rushed to a helicopter that had just set down about fifty yards away, its rotors slowly slapping the air. Plop-plop-plop-plop. Then I was aboard the chopper, the rotors whirred, and we lifted off.
My face was tingling and I was having trouble breathing by the time we landed, about thirty minutes later, amid an array of Quonset huts. I gathered we were at a military medical facility; it turned out to be the station hospital near Da Nang, at the base of Marble Mountain. Once again stretcher bearers were hurrying me somewhere, this time toward one of the larger Quonset huts. Before we got inside, a small contingent of doctors, maybe three or four, stopped us and huddled around me.
“Is it hard to breathe, Lieutenant?” one of the doctors asked.
“Yes,” I said, my voice now raspy.
“He needs a trake,” a doctor said. The others nodded.
“Lieutenant,” the same doctor said, “your throat is closing up. You must have inhaled some of the hot fumes. We’re going to have to give you an airway.”
I gave the doctors a puzzled look.
“We need to cut a small hole in your throat and insert a tube so you can breathe. It’s called a tracheotomy. We’re going to give you a local, but it still may hurt a bit. We need to move fast on this.”
A needle entered my throat just below my Adam’s apple. Less than a minute later I felt a blade slice through the same area. I passed out.
The next thing I remember I was in a bed, in a large hospital bay with lots of other beds. A male nurse or corpsman dressed in white came by.
“I’m gonna have to suction you out, Lieutenant,” he said.
I tried to answer, to ask him what he meant, but no words came out even though my lips moved.
“You have to put your finger over the hole in your throat if you want to talk, Lieutenant,” the corpsman said.
I did. “What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I need to suction you out. I’m going to run this tube through your airway and down your throat and suction out the fluid that’s collecting in your lungs. Otherwise you’ll choke on it.”
He inserted the tube. I heard a gurgling sound from deep in my chest.
When he finished, he said, “You need to call us whenever you feel your throat filling up, so we can suction you out.”
“How often is that gonna be?” I asked, my finger on the hole.
“Can’t tell yet, Lieutenant, but the docs think you have pneumonia so it could be pretty often.”
It turned out to be every fifteen minutes for the next two weeks. I barely slept the entire time.
That gave me plenty of time to think. But I didn’t think of much during those two weeks because phlegm, or whatever the hell that fluid was, would start draining back into my throat almost as soon as I had been suctioned out. Each time I had to wave down a nurse or corpsman.
In a split second my life had changed. The question was how much. My face and arms were wrapped in bandages, but I asked for a mirror during an early dressing change and was relieved to see that my features, though red and raw, were unaffected.
The doctors, without going into detail, were encouraging. As I recall, there was some discussion of second-degree burns and third-degree burns and skin grafts, but not much; all that would come later. And my mood, if not sunny, was not morose, either. Yes, the homecoming I had envisioned would probably be delayed, but I was hopeful in those early days that little else would be affected.
It wasn’t long before my need for sleep became overwhelming, as much a necessity, it seemed, as air or water. But the need to suction me out every fifteen minutes meant that if I slept at all it was in snatches of five minutes or less. Any longer and I started to choke.
One day a heavyset Marine and another officer came to my bedside. “Lieutenant Timberg, I’m General Walt. This is Commander Glenn Ford. How are you doing?”
Lewis Walt was the commanding general of all Marines in South Vietnam. Ford, a Marine at one time, now a Naval Reserve officer, was a well-known movie star who I knew from such films as Gilda and, more recently, Blackboard Jungle.