Hill 52, about the size of a football field, wasn’t exactly a paradise. It was pretty much just a pile of rocks and sand, made into a fortification: with barbwire mesh all around it, and a few bunkers and barricades made of sandbags. I suppose it was typical of all the Marine-made fortifications in Vietnam, made in the early years of the war.
We also were fortunate to have a very stylish toilet (pictured), a bit larger than your typical outhouse. But instead of digging a pit for the excrement, as was the case for your typical outhouse, someone came up with the idea of catching the waste in cut-out metal barrels and then burning it: a process of simply pulling out the barrels full of excrement, adding some kerosene (or gasoline), and then lighting a match to it—a duty that I fortunately missed. Or, now that I think back on it, I believe I did do it one or two times. A nasty job.
Almost right away, after arriving, I was introduced to the squad that I was assigned to. There were about eight of us (pictured). Denise was the squad leader. I can’t say enough good things about Denise. He was a natural leader, yet quiet and just an ordinary guy. When we went out on patrol, he always knew just what to do and how to lead us. But if he wasn’t sure about something, he would never shy away from getting ideas from Frank or Gumbi—two other great guys. One thing I remember most about Denise—as well as most of the other guys—is that, his top concern was always for our safety. In fact, sometimes I felt a little overprotected. It was my inclination, when we went out on patrol, to want to engage the enemy. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if I had experienced more action, as I think some of the other guys like Denise and Frank experienced. That’s probably why they were quite protective of me. They didn’t want me to go through what they had to go through.
Frank, a Corporal in rank, like Denise, seemed to be quite combat wise; and, as I noticed, Denise was conferring with him constantly. If we were ever to lose Denise, Frank would unquestionably be his replacement. I liked Frank and so did everyone. He was always upbeat and a natural leader. I found out a few months later, after I had been transferred to another unit and ran into Frank, that he had been promoted to Staff Sergeant. I was surprised, but I should not have been.
Gumbi had no teeth, hence the name Gumbi. He also, like most of the guys, had been in Nam a while and were combat-wise. He was a valuable member of the squad.
Che was usually our point-man. When we went on patrol, he would typically be the one to see danger ahead, either enemy troops or some sort of booby trap or trip wire. Unfortunately, he was also the most likely to step on a booby trap. So, I guess you could say that he was the most trusted and also the most in danger. It was usually hard to get anyone to volunteer to be point man, but Che time and time again was that man.
The tall guy on the left (in the picture) was usually the radio man. You had to have certain talents for that job. When we were in a situation where we needed airstrikes or mortars, the radio man had to know where exactly to call it in. So, he had to be able to accurately read a map and to know precisely where we were and where the enemy was—so that we weren’t the ones being bombed by friendly fire! He also had to be willing to carry the radio, which wasn’t light. Now, I don’t want to be too negative, but I could tell that he was more than ready to go home.
The first thing I remember after arriving, even before being introduced to the squad, was being handed the M79 Grenade Launcher. Denise told me that its previous handler had left (transferred or killed) and that I was his replacement. He also pointed out that I might want to clean it up a bit; it had been neglected and was rusty and dirty. Wow! How did that happen? Why? So, I cleaned it up as good as I could. And Denise also took the time to instruct me on how to shoot it—even though I had a little instruction and practice in boot camp. I was also given a 45 Cal. pistol to go with the M79. Now I had three weapons, including my M16 rifle. And they didn’t want me to leave my rifle behind when I went on patrol. That didn’t make sense to me. You would think that if I got another weapon, they would take the M16 off my hands. But anyway, I didn’t ask why. At least now, I thought, I was fully prepared for anything, even though I was quite weighted down, especially since whenever we went on patrol, I had to carry with me many M79 rounds, each being the size of a grenade. And I wanted to carry as many as possible just in case. Sometimes I would carry as many as 65 or 70 rounds (with a total weight of up to about 30 pounds). I guess they knew I was in good shape and could handle it. I never complained.