Saturday, December 26, 2009

What War Is and Does to People:'The Girl I met on Christmas Day’ Dan Nang 1968.

This was originally a letter sent to my
son, Kyle, and then, my daughter, Nora.
I've added to it since, and will more as it
will be part of a novel.

I never heard a response back from my
children, and it just feels worse.
But, I am re-posting and re-editing this
over the next few days

I was trying to explain why I was not an
ordinary father with a 9-5 job, career etc...
much of the terror, trauma, and grief was and
had to be suppressed at the time...because I
had a bigger concern...just surviving that

It's only later when we return that it comes
over us.For me, it meant drinking as much as
I could, and any drugs I could take during my
first 2 1/2 years back to shut out the thought,
images, pain and hurt.

Each Christmas is harder to survive in a way
because I landed in Da Nang, VietNam on Christmas
Day 1968 at about 2-3 am...and if you read far
enough below you will read of 'The Girl I met
on Christmas Day’ Dan Nang 1968.

But, this year I started writing about it. I
felt so fucked up in pain that at some point
I took a pen into my hand.

What she did...without ever speaking a word was
to show me what war is and does to people. She
took this hard marine and ripped his heart out
and humanized him! I think of her, and have
never forgotten her.

I came to Vietnam with Marine Corps training that
taught me to hate. But, I left her feeling awful...
and feeling love for her and also, hurt, pain,
and the beginnings of a new awakening.

What War Is and Does to People:

Dear Kyle,

It was 40 years since I was in Vietnam as a
young boy of 18. I was a Marine Corps 'grunt'
(a rifleman). This Christmas will be 41 years.
The first time I was 18 and 4 months when I
was medivaced from a place of terror. I felt
guilty for leaving my platoon, and especially,
Chief, my team leader and a Seminole Indian
who had saved my life at least once.

I was walking point , but as I made it to the
top of the hill I stopped. I felt uncomfortable
with the layout. The hill was a large area with
chest high grass, and surrounded by trees. I felt
inside somewhere that this could be it for me. I
didn't think that I could turn around and say I
got a bad feeling about this...can we go back
to the fire base? No, I was there. I was a
FNG (fucking new guy) walking point.

But, before I could take another step my Chief,
(Paul Bowers) my team leader stopped me. I
really think that it was for Chief to take a
look for himself. If i fucked up and stepped
on a landmine it would not be just my life.
He saved many lives by stopping me.

He turned his back to the hill, and told me
if you see anything don't look directly at it,
or they may open up on us if they think you've
seen them...or words to that effect. He had me
look at him and said not to look at the hill,
then he told me that there may be something
at 1 o'clock, or between 1 and 2 o'clock.
his neck was 12 o'clock.

I turned my head to my left away from the
hill, and smiled like we were sharing a
something funny, but my right eye was
looking over the spot, and I had a
sinking feeling in my heart or stomach...
and nodded.

I was waiting for Chief to get back into
his spot when I was told to 'freeze'.
Chief came back, and motioned me to step
back. He carefully went through the bushes,
and vines I’d been pushing through, and
showed me a green vine that was flat
against my chest. It was a trip wire. He
had it between his thumb and forefinger.
My next half-step and I’d been blown to
bits by an anti-tank mine on one side of
me and an anti-personnel mine on the
other side.

It would've taken 8-12 men dead and wounded.
My own death was one thing, but I would've
felt awful to have caused the death of
others. If we were ambushed as well,
then much of the platoon would be gone.
That’s how sharp Chief and aware of
everything around him, and why he was
important to the platoon. He came up;
took a look, and remembered something
that wasn't right and came back. I and
others are alive as a result.

Bobby traps, particularly, the 'bouncing
betty' killed more US troops than anything

It was a special to see him laugh or smile,
or share good moments with him. He saved my
life, and I learned to watched for everything
in a way I hadn't before that. And, I had been
very alert and aware.

Weeks later, our platoon (about 45 men) were
used as bait for a battalion of NVA (North
Vietnamese Army regulars). We were put in a
small abandoned Marine fire base. Hall, a
state (high school) wrestling champion came
up to me and patted me on my right shoulder
and said, (I thought) 'Are you okay?' And I
said 'ya, i'm just getting my gear; i'm doing
the first watch.’

But, then Hall said 'your okay.' and patted
me on the shoulder. I looked at him, and he
tapped my radio, stood in front of me, and
said there were three on that(the radio)
before you. I was the platoon Sgt’s radioman).
Plus there was a guy from Vegas (I think)
who got shot up bad when he was the radioman...
then there were three in the 4-5 months he was
in the hospital, and

I had transferred from Fox 2/3 2cn Battalion
(Batt) 3rd Marines (regiment) because 2nd
Platoon golf 2/3 had 'lost' a radioman and
needed another.

Hall was just telling me you're okay and
you've been okay(and LUCKY-mine). I really
respected him. He had a good sense of humor,
was strong, and Always made people laugh and
was good even nice to this F-cking New Guy FNG.
It meant that there was some talk of me:-) I
couldn't have asked to be placed with a better
group of Marines, or fellas than those in the
second platoon of Golf Co.

Then, and this is what happens in war...a
terrible irony…he pointed to all the firing
pins (from hand grenades) scattered around
and told me not to touch them. He said they’re
dangerous. He said that it’s safe to pick them
up one side, he picked one up to show
me he said, but if you pick up the wrong side
your own body heat is enough to set off the
charge. And then, his hand opened up in front
of me from the explosion, and he was screaming
and screaming. It looked as if someone took a
knife and sliced his hand open.

With explosions or see the
results and then hear the noise. There was a
loud explosion after I was looking at his hand,
and blood flying both ways. He was in immense
pain, shock. I was in shock and have never
forgotten that night.

I've always felt bad that if he hadn't been
nice to me...

About a week or less from my being medivaced
(seizure and dysentery) to the USA we landed
on a ridge (Co Ca Va?) in the A Shau valley;
the ‘ Valley of Death ’. It was Fire Support
Base (FSB) Cunningham; the HQ for Operation
Dewey Canyon I.

Being a radioman is one of the most dangerous
jobs; (a snipers delight). They could ambush
a platoon, but if just one man survived he
could call in air strikes within 10 minutes.
So they go for the radio first, and the platoon
is a bit f-cked. Someone (Hall?) explained
this to me after I survived a month (as
radioman) and snipers.

When word got out that we were replacing
Mike Co., 3/9 (3rd Battalion 9th Marine
regiment) it had a chilling effect. 1/9
(1st Battalion 9th Marines was known as
'The Walking Dead'- a casualty rate over
90% dead, wounded, and missing...93.?%
of every 100 young boys like me...year
in and year out...every year of that war.
War is criminal. I had hoped to join them...
was I daft.

But, even 3/9 meant bad, bad shit was going
to happen. The Ninth 9th Marines meant only
one thing: 'heavy combat' and casualties like
not seen before. We missed the main attack
(below) 'Sapper Attack in the A Shau During
the Vietnam War' (link )

But we were replacing the men who had endured
that assault-to rub out the base, plus nightly
sapper attacks…night terror. Sappers were four
men teams with explosives in their backpacks,
and plenty of hand grenades to toss into other
holes. They were brave men trying to rid their
country of foreign the Vietnamese
people had for thousands of years.

Our first night we(Chief and I) were sent to a
share a bunker with some (grunts) from Mike 3/9;
they were leaving the next morning. After we had
made the introductions...some men started to cry;
and these were tough marines...who had been exposed
to too much night terror. They said the things
like...'we're all gonna be die'. They said they
get in every night.

I had no idea of what they were saying. Is he
talking about a ground attack? I had not even
thought, nor probably heard about 'sappers.'
They said sappers get in every night...we're
gonna die. Chief immediately grabbed one covered
his mouth and told them all to 'shut the fuck up'
etc. It was a powerful lesson for me.

As he did this all of a sudden we heard loud
screams from beyond the perimiter wire. They were
silenced immediately by a very loud explosion,
and then, there were no more screams. The other
men started to break down, and the first one said
'See, that's the fourth LP in a row. An LP is a
listening post, and on that ridge it was four
men. With that explosion the total went to 16.
4 men each night for four nights. North
Vietnamese Army Regular (NVA) sappers had
crawled up on the LP and one sapper
sacrificed his life to blow four Marines away.

The men started to sob again and Chief drew
his knife. I got in front of another Marine
and drew my K-Bar (combat knife) and stood
in front of the other Marine. He probably had
much more time in Vietnam than me, and it felt
strange to be doing this. They don't teach
these things in boot camp and infintry training.

Then, Chief took me away from that fortified
bunker and went pointed to two small three
foot deep holes forward of all the bunkers
with no sandbags or any protection, and right
out in the open. He got in front of me; our
faces were far apart, and as he pointed to
the bunker that we had just left he said 'We´ll
be okay. will watch each other each other's
back. We'll be okay, but we got to get away
from that(panicking-mine). He pointed toward
the bunker we had just left .' Chief said it
twice and looked into my eyes saying "we´ll
be okay." And we were okay. We survived a
scary night. I trusted Chief, and would have
followed him in any situation.

The next morning, Mike 3/9 were gone. That
night our company, Golf 2/3 were facing what
had terrorized the men from Mike 3/9. Of the
three platoons in the company, ours, the second
platoon, had to send out the first LP. Everyone
was nervous because by then we knew what had
happened to the other LP's/ It came down to
our squad and then, our four man fire team-
Chief’s. But, Chief had a plan to make sure
that we didn’t get blown away. I wasn't
surprised that Chief was chosen to take out
the first fire team!

I thought that Chief stood the best chance
in the whole company. I'm just glad that I
was with him. In 2010 he joked me that he
just thought that they (command) were trying
to get me killed

Chief's plan was simple, yet like everything
he did...he had put a lot of thought into it...
and that night, Chief wasn't exactly leading
the cream of the Corps (myself included--still
green;-) men he could have, but he made it work.

The plan was this: if we try to stay out all
night...we'll be dead. They'll-the NVA creep
up on us like they did the other LP's. We
were going to have to be faster, and sharper.
The others were blown away within an hour or two.

When we heard movement...even before they could
get within hand grenade of us...we would notify
our LT (Lieutenant) that we had contact and were
going to toss hand grenades to break contact,and
come back into the perimeter...this allows for...
when we think we hear contact? They were there,
but we're alive.

But, the brass didn't want us to come in. When
I called in-radio-to the CP they said we need
more information on how many they were, the
direction of attack know the types
of things that would get us blown to bits if
we stayed out all night like they wanted us
too. I whispered to the next man what was
said, and it was passed to Chief. Chief and
I leaned forward, and looked at each other.
Chief shook his head back N forth "NO!' a
few times, and made a sign with his hand
and that was good enough for me, and I went
to squelch on the radio. This meant that I
could not talk (make verbal transmissions...
as someone is to close:-) And, I could only
use (key) my handset.

We had tossed our frags (grenades) in front
of us, to give us time and cover to get back
into the perimeter. I was the the last one
out-position, I was 'Tail End Charlie. And
when I got up I realized that they were closer
than we thought. As I got up to run I heard
noise to my right and almost right rear and
saw someone in the darkness...where we hadn't
thrown frags.I was terrified that they had
gotten so close. I sprayed a burst emptying
my magazine. I was more than nervous...
'scared shitless' is the word.

I ran forward through the zig-zag like coils
of concertina wire, whilst looking behind me
for anyone who wasn't supposed to be there.
I was last. I was changing the magazine in
my rifle while listening for the sound of a
'frag'(hand grenade)dropping near me(theirs-
none). I was trying to catch up with the
others. As I came through the last twist
and turn of the wire all hell broke loose.
I thought that the NVA had opened fire on
the hill, or launched a ground attack, and
ours were returning fire.

As we came through the wire,someone set off
a trip flare, and we were visible to all.
We came the shortest way...across our kill
zone, and were almost cut to pieces by our
own machine guns, and every trigger happy grunt
(or as we say 'every swinging dick with a rifle.')
I had radioed in, but no one had told the fellas
we were on our way. We almost got torn to shreds;
the bullets were all around us and me.

I was the only standing target. ´Chief´, ´Rags´
and ´Florida´ were on the ground. I turned facing
the hill and went to drop, but a hail of bullets
went all aroud where I was to drop. I don´t know
how I wasn´t hit.

I turned a bit to me left-the direction of where
the others were on the ground and saw Chief look
at me like I must be crazy standing, but as I went
to fall bullets tore up the ground sent wood, rocks
and everything flying all around me on my left and...
I had tears and fear I turned back slightly the
first way facing the hill and fell to the ground.
Bullets were tearing up the ground just above
where my head was and down my right side. I was
terrified, and screamed into the radio. We
survived; Chief’s plan worked. God bless Chief.

When someone asks me how I survived I say I
know there is a God because I can't understand
the times I was almost been killed and Chief
wasn't there:-)

Secondly, Chief handled everything that God
was too busy for at the moment! And, that
was a lot!!

Third, my own instincts, and again, there
was Chief and my own good instincts…which
were constantly honed and corrected by Chief.

Finally, luck....if there is such a thing in war.

On night after Mike 3/9 was gone we had our own
sapper attacks; they must start about 2:30 am
because i'm always awake then and till later...
daylight. Chief and I had the bunker on the
extreme flank. One night the darkness was
pierced by the screams of the two men from
the next bunker. They came running towards
us screaming hysterically ‘The gooks are all
around us ...we’re gonna get killed.’

Chief and I each grabbed one,(I was following
Chief's lead from the first night)and covered
their mouths. I put the flat handle of my K-Bar
against the back of the neck of my man so he
couldn't move. Then I put my K-Bar to his throat.
In his eyes I saw sheer terror that I remember to
this day. I kept looking over my man's shoulder,
and all around me.

Chief whispered 'Shut the fuck up. Get back into
your hole. Keep your head down, and your eyes
and ears open.' And, for good measure, Chief
added 'and don't bring them over here.'

I had also run my knife down the man's throat
to his chest and I gave him a look that was
meant to scare him as much as what had just
terrorized him. I was scared too, but knew
that panic is deadly.

They ran back. We evacuated our bunker;
everyone knew it by then, and Chief said
something to the effect that we could only
use our knives and hand grenades from here
on in. The flash of a rifle would give our
position away.

After a few minutes a sapper made it into
their bunker and began knifing them to keep
them there until his satchel detonated. We
listened to them scream and scream in agony
and terror of their last seconds (6-7) of
their lives…They were fifty feet away…begging
and one cried aloud ‘Oh God’ just before the
explosion. It was awful.

I got over their deaths in a sense. A single tear
rolled down the right side of my face, and both
eyes were wet. But, I shut down every human
emotion and feeling. I was worried that the
sounds might mask someone approaching us. And,
I needed all my instincts unclouded. I was 110%
adrenalin. All they had to do was get within
hand grenade range.

Later that morning my platoon Sgt. said ‘we
got two new men coming in on the copter, and
we don’t want them seeing it (the bunker) like
that. I nodded and took the rags, and went in
to clean it up. My training hadn't taught me
how to clean up the exploded remains of marines...
it was all blood, bits of flesh, bone and whatever.
I almost cracked. It was horrible.

Most of all, God, I didn’t want another Marine
to see me crying…so I stuffed it. At one point
I said to myself 'You can't do this. You can't do
this(cry). So, I stuffed way down, but have cried
many times since leaving that hill.

I have since felt that on the Judgement Day even
if Allah-God himself, and those two men come over
to me and smile and say it's okay now...I feel like
I will always feel like shit for eternity for what
happened that night. I looked at my man so coldly...
as if there was no human emotion within me. And I
know that we had no other choice...and would do it
again in the same circumstances.

The rags were too small, and their blood and
whatever got on my hands, and I ran out of the
bunker and wiped my hands in the dirt. War can
make someone superstitious. Stuff got on my
clothes, hair, and then the rags were soaked...
that's when it got to me, plus it seemed like
I didn't know how to do it...and I just wanted
to be done.

The medivac copter that took me out set down
at another firebase for 10 minutes...and in an
'Irish mist' I sat there counting body bags
stacked like cordwood on the tarmac. I stopped
at 240.

The screams of those two men, and the terror
and pain are with me every day. It never leaves.

I am just giving you this so you know what I
experienced, and why I was not the ordinary
guy with a 9-5, and got down. War is horrible
and criminal. It scars deeply within as surely
as it does on the outside.

But my real purpose is also to tell you of an
incident that preceded all the terror and death
(even before I touched a rifle)...and humanized
my heart and soul. I am speaking of...

'The Girl I met on Christmas Day’ Dan Nang 1968
I landed in Da Nang early on Christmas morning...2-3am.
Later I would fly north to Dong Ha, and then by truck
to Quang Tri to join the 3rd Marines.

We were taken into Da Nang city briefly after being
warned that begging children might steal. We came
upon a group of 30-40 such children.. I had some
money to give and sweets.

At first it felt good to give to people in need,
but I felt bad that they had to beg...why? And
why aren't they being fed by the military (my
first awaking that things weren't right).

Almost all were under 10, but some had
amputations, shrapnel damage and more. Most
were okay, but this was what this hard marine
so eager for combat saw on his first day in
Viet Nam .

But, I felt someone's presence at the back of
the group. I knew she was looking at me, and
when I looked up I saw a lovely girl of between
11-13. She looked right into my eyes (softly)
for a bit, then lowered (bowed) her head. But,
by then she had torn my heart out.

She did not hold her hand out like the others.
I think she felt different...not as young as
the others)...and marred

She raised her head again, made eye contact...
kept it for a bit and lowered her head again.
I waded through the crowd till I stood in front
of her and she raised her head again and we
looked at each other. I took her hand and gave
her whatever money I could get, and disguised
it to seem like I was just giving her sweets.
I didn’t care if I had any money left after
giving to her.

We both nodded to each other, and I know I was
holding back tears. We shared a special and
poignant moment in space and time that I will
never forget.

You see this beautiful Vietnamese girl had no
right eye and, had minimal treatment because
she didn't wear an American uniform! But she
was a beautiful young girl. And, it is that
young girl, and her soulful look, and her
situation that has been with me ever since.

I know she appreciated whatever I gave her,
but it felt inadequate to me.

She was marred; not even a patch, but I could
see the whole her, and my heart ached(s) for
her. Ive' always wondered what became of her?
I would have food, water, medical care, but she?

It is those things-what happens to children,
old people, and especially (young girls and
women, homes, families, villes, cultures,
societies, and also, to other Marines blown
to bits, maimed, traumatized for a fucking
medal that hurts and causes pain most every
day of my life.

Those of us who survived had to fight our
own government for recognition that their
wounds/conditions merited treatment. But,
the children of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq
or any country America wages war upon...
have to fend for theirselves.

But she is 'The Girl I Met on Christmas Day 1968’ '
or 'The Christmas Girl' and she can make me cry
easy...when I think of her.

War is a criminal enterprise!Or, as Major-General
Smedley D. Butler said, 'War is a Racket'.

Vietnam is over there, but the war is truly still
inside, and will be all the days of my life. All
of the hurt you see or feel and suppress at the feel later when you are home...and

1 comment:

  1. I can only imagine what you have experienced. It must have been terrible to witness the deaths of your comrades. Thanks for sharing!