After Vietnam: Okinawa, Home, and Camp Lejeune

Marine Corps barracks in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

Looking back at my Vietnam experience, there is one thing that I keep thinking about: the fact that God was watching over me and keeping me from harm. As I previously wrote, I put in for a transfer from my first infantry unit to go to a village unit, because I thought I would have a better chance of being involved in battle. Well, as it turned out, I was in no battles at all in the village unit. And I also found out from a friend that the unit I had transferred out of, at hill 52, had been almost overrun by the Vietcong, and many of the Marines there were killed. So, as it turned out, all the action I took to put myself in harm’s way, God seemed to turn it around to put me in a safe place. That has made me wonder what God has in store for me. What purpose does He have for me?

After Vietnam I was to be sent home for just a week; and then, after that, I had 6 more months to serve on the Marine base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. But my first stop was Okinawa. I had a large duffel bag full of clothes and uniforms locked up safe in a storage ben there—so I thought. As it turned out, after looking for a while, the supply clerk told me that there was no duffle bag there with my name on it. Of all the luck. I had a brand-new set of dress blues in that bag that I never got a chance to ware. I wouldn’t have felt so bad about it if the clerk would have been just a little sympathetic toward me. He didn’t seem to care, nor did he seem the least bit interested in trying to recover my stuff. Well, so much for that. I put it out of my mind. Next stop, Minneapolis.

When I arrived at the airport in Minneapolis, I didn’t bother to call home. I just took a taxi home. It was about noon and my mom came to the door. She was quite surprised and glad to see me. For some reason I don’t remember too much during my week off at home. Things were a little different with my mom. She had recently divorced my dad, and so, I hate to say it, but everyone was feeling relieved and more at peace. I suppose the only thought my mom had about the divorce was that she probably wished she’d divorced him sooner. I think we all had the same feeling.

I don’t remember clearly how things were with me and Joy, but I think during this week was when I saw her one last time. I did love her, but I knew the relationship was wrong or would not work. Yet I kept praying for her salvation.

My week off at home went by fast and I was back with Marines again, in a new Marine unit in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I had only 6 more months to serve, and I was a little surprised by what they had me do: more combat training. Why? Why was I put in a training unit when I just got back from Vietnam? Well, I can’t remember if I ever asked any of my commanders that question; but I reasoned…what else would Marines do? A Marine trains for war and goes to war. That’s his purpose. Possibly they may have expected that I would re-enlist. In fact, at the end of my two-year enlistment they offered me a promotion if I would re-enlist. I said no. I had been to Vietnam so what else was there for me to do?

Vietnam: Letters, Cards and C-Rations

This is me writing a letter. “Dear mom, I’m getting ready to go out on patrol. Please pray.”

Contrary to what some people probably think about the Vietnam war, we weren’t always in battles, fighting for our lives. There was actually a lot of down time in-between patrols. And as I remember, our platoon commander was fairly easy-going and didn’t give us a lot of extra duties; just the necessary things like outhouse duty, consisting of burning and dumping the sewage barrels.

During most of my down time, I wrote letters. Most of the guys didn’t do that so much, but I would write at least one letter a day. My pen pals were mainly my mom, a man from my church, and about three or four different girls. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not some kind of a lady’s man. I was just trying to stay somewhat sane, and I guess I liked people (girls) telling me that they were thinking of me and praying for me. At first Joy, the one I was so crazy about in high school, would write me quite often.  But after about 3 or 4 months, she didn’t write quite so often. I actually felt relieved, because I didn’t feel that our relationship was right—of the Lord. Then this other very young girl (about 14 years old) started writing me and even sending me packages of cookies, etc. As I wrote previously, she got my address in Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. Anyway, she wrote me very consistently all through Vietnam and sent goodies. What a ministry she had to me. I remember witnessing to her and she actually became a Christian, but I’m not sure how that happened or what influence I had on her. After I got back from Vietnam and was discharged, I went to visit her and met her mother. I was praying that maybe we could make a connection (a date), but it never happened. I wish I could remember her name. The other couple of girls that I wrote, it wasn’t as often, but I was glad to get their letters and their appreciation of my service.

Sometimes I would join in a game of cards. We always played the same game. I think it was called “back alley.” It was fun and helped to get our mind off of whatever was bothering us. Some of us were just bored. Some of us, like me, would almost rather be patrolling—doing what we came there to do.

Our meals came every day with the mail and supplies—from a helicopter. Generally, it was 2 C-rations a day. One meal consisted of a can of meat and potatoes or something similar, a can of some kind of fruit, a small can of crackers with a chocolate patty, and a small carton of cigarettes (about four in each carton). Every meal had cigarettes in it, so if you weren’t a smoker when you came to Vietnam, there was a good chance that you were a smoker when you left. I smoked for a short time, but not enough to give me the habit. Besides, I didn’t want to have one more thing to make my mom upset about.

Heating up some ham and eggs. Yum!

Oh, each box of C-rations also included a heat tablet, some matches, a plastic fork and spoon, and a package of instant coffee. Some guys chose to eat their food cold, but I was more civilized and always heated mine up and made coffee too. I think Vietnam is where I got the coffee habit. Now the way I would heat my food up is to make holes in my empty cracker can, turn it over, and put the heat tablet under it. It made a great stove. The heat tablet we had for each meal would burn just long enough to heat up your food and make coffee. I really got to like C-rations.  Mmm good!  Can you tell that it doesn’t take much to keep me contented? Thanks to God, I seem to learn very easily how to be content in every circumstance.  

Vietnam: Security Watch

Me and this Marine made the most of the day under this sun shelter.

In addition to weekly platoon patrols, we almost daily went on squad patrols, mainly just for security around our location—hill 52. The patrolling never lasted more than a couple hours, but once in a while the squad leader decided to cheat. That is, we didn’t really go where we were expected to go. I remember, on one occasion we went over the first hill to our first check-point, and just sat there for the entire time. We were always required to call in at every check-point to report. Well, we called in every 15 minutes or so and pretended that we were at the next check-point. I wasn’t in favor of it, but most of the squad justified it, explaining to me that it wasn’t worth the risk of someone getting killed. I could understand their reasoning, but yet it still didn’t sit right with me. And I hated just sitting there doing nothing.

In addition to patrolling—and fake patrolling—we also occasionally just sat and watched. I don’t remember what the exact reason was, but on one occasion 4 or 5 groups of 2 Marines per location sat alongside a gravel road. We sat there most of the day doing nothing. I suppose we were there just to let people know that there were Marine in the area. And it was hot. So, I found a couple long branches and made a shelter for shade out of my poncho liner (pictured). Some of the guys never thought of doing anything like that, but for some reason I was always thinking of ways to make the most of the situation.

Night watch was most important. Whether we were away on patrol or at our home base, it was so important to have at least one guy awake and watching. The enemy would often strike at night when most were asleep. And if the watchman fell asleep, which occasionally happened, that put the squad in grave danger. I remember many a time while on watch, I struggled to stay awake. I often used the time to pray and quote Scripture. Here’s one that I probably thought of:

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

Vietnam: Large Patrols

Here our entire platoon was getting ready for a major patrol.

I arrived in Vietnam in February of 1970. I had just missed most of the fighting, which mainly occurred during the Tet Offensive in 1968. So, I guess you could say that I was part of the clean-up crew. We were there to mainly watch over the area and stop any insurgency groups. Very rarely were we called on for any major offensive missions, but we went on patrol almost daily, just to look around and kill or capture any of the enemy forces that were still there—many of which were dug-in, hiding in underground bunkers and tunnels.

Our patrols were both by the entire platoon, made up of four or five squads—about forty Marines; and by squads—there were about eight in our squad. The larger, platoon patrols happened less often, maybe about once a week at the most. But the smaller squad patrols went out almost daily.

This is Che taking a rest. We were on patrol in the “Arizona Country.”

The platoon patrol always had more of a mission and sometimes lasted more than a day, and sometimes up to a week. The mission I remember most was when we went to the “Arizona Country.” I don’t know why they called it that; probably because it was always very hot there due to the tall elephant grass that would block the wind, but yet the sun would beat down on you. I remember that a couple guys fainted from heat exhaustion. I think those were the only casualties we had, even though, for a time, the enemy had us surrounded. It was kind of surreal. We didn’t know exactly where they were, because of the tall grass that was blocking our vision. Yet their ak bullets (from the AK 47) were zooming over our heads from all directions. I suppose we could have gone out to get them, but we weren’t that eager—or stupid. So, we just got very low and crawled away to safety.

Now that I think about it, there was another platoon mission that was equally memorable. I don’t remember exactly where we were patrolling, but at the end of the day we stopped at a clearing and were told to dig in. Sometimes we weren’t given the details of the mission; we were just given orders and were expected to follow them. So, the platoon made a perimeter and dug fox holes big enough for two or three guys each. That night we were fired on, but we didn’t see them. And a couple of grenades were also thrown our way, but not close enough to hurt anyone. Strangely, some of the rounds were coming from above, like they were in the trees. In one case we could see automatic tracer rounds coming from one location, but hitting in only one spot. There was only one explanation I could think of: there was a machine gun planted up in a tree and a guy below was pulling a string that was tied to the trigger.

As soon as it was light, the enemy fire seemed to end. So, we very cautiously gathered up our gear to depart. I remember that one guy who was not even in a fox hole, but was lying in the nearby grass, just stood up and stretched as if he was waking up from a deep sleep. We all quietly yelled, “Get down, are you crazy.” The truth is, he had probably been smoking Marijuana and had apparently slept through the whole night not knowing what went on that night.

The only casualty came just before we left. I don’t remember who it was, but he was sitting right next to me; and he stood up, took just two steps, and boom! He stepped on a small booby trap. It didn’t kill him, but the shrapnel cut him up pretty bad. We tried to comfort him by telling him, in between his cries of pain, that he would get a purple heart and would be going home. A metevac helicopter came within about fifteen minutes and took him away. I was so impressed at how fast they came.

Before we left, we called in napalm. That means that an airplane flew over and bombed the area all around us with napalm, which is a very hot incendiary explosive used to quickly burn out the enemy. It was standard practice to use napalm in Vietnam after such missions, especially if we knew that there were underground tunnels around, which we suspected there were.

Vietnam: Meeting My New Squad

This is a good shot of the bunkers. I don’t remember the names of these two guys, but they were good guys.
An open bunker on the right and our stylish, Marine-made toilet in the back.

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.

Gumbi on top, radio man middle left, Che middle right, Frank lower middle, and Denise lower left with t-shirt. I was taking the picture. We were cooking up something to eat.

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.

This is me, shooting off a few rounds from my M79.
The M79 with various rounds. I mainly used the round pictured on the top row, second from the left. It exploded upon impact just like a grenade.

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.

Vietnam: Processing

This is a CH46 Marine helicopter, used to transport Marines and cargo.

After my combat training in San Diego and my week off at home, my first stop on the way to Vietnam was Okinawa to be processed. During my week stay there I stored my extra military uniforms (that I wouldn’t be needing in Vietnam), and I was issued new combat clothes, boots, rifle, poncho and liner, and backpack—everything I needed for Vietnam. That didn’t take more than 20 minutes or so. So why were we there for a whole week? Good question. Nobody questions things like that. We were just glad to get a few more days off. Okinawa was beautiful compared to where we were headed. And the food was good too.

When we left Okinawa I kind of expected to go right to my new unit, but we had one more stop to make—Da Nang, one of Vietnam’s major cities. We stopped there for I think it was two days. I wasn’t sure what was happening there, but I suppose we were waiting to be assigned to our new unit and to complete any final paperwork. When it was finally time to go, we all got separated into different groups, according to what our particular duty classification was, and where we were needed. My duty classification was listed as 0311, rifleman (better known as “grunt”); and my new address was: Co K, 3rd Bn, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. So, those of my group, just a few of us, were directed to get onto a large green helicopter. I remember looking out the helicopter window as we flew over the trees and rice patties. It didn’t take long at all before we arrived at our destination—hill 52. Vietnam is a small country and my unit was only about 15 miles southwest of Da Nang.

The first thing I remember upon landing, was all the dust that the helicopter was creating, and a few dirty-faced Marines that were there to greet us. Though it was late February, in Vietnam it was warm. Questions raced through my head. What had I gotten myself into? Where was I? Where was the enemy? We all needed some direction.

Next blog: Meeting My New Squad

Marine Corps Training: Last things before My Tour of Duty

I hope to conclude this boot camp segment with this blog. Then I will begin writing about my tour in Vietnam.

About halfway through boot camp they (my drill instructors, I think) decided that I wasn’t motivated, so I was transferred to what was called “motivation platoon.” I don’t know why they decided that; maybe it was because I didn’t seem fearful enough of them. Like I said previously, I prayed a lot, especially while I stood at attention; and I was always committing everything to God. Maybe they sensed that I was too calm about everything. Anyway, motivation platoon only lasted about a week. We did things like, set up tents, and camped out, and watched movies about how great the Marine Corps was. Then they transferred me to another boot camp platoon—which seemed easier; and the drill instructors seemed nicer and didn’t swear as much. I remember that the top drill instructor said to me that he couldn’t figure out why I was transferred, because I was doing so well. He especially likes my high marks in the physical exercise tests, like pullups and pushups, etc. And so, anyway, I was feeling good about the whole thing. No doubt God had something to do with it.

After boot camp everybody got sent home for a week. I don’t know why, but I can’t remember any details about that week. It was a time to relax and get ready for more training (at ITR) and Vietnam.

ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) was located also at Camp Pendleton, but was separate from the boot camp area. It was a place with lots of hills and trees and underground bunkers, a perfect area to train for war. The instructors there were kinder, I mean they didn’t harass you as much. We were respected more—as marines. But the training was more intense. Oh, I remember trudging up and down those hills with back packs and rifles. In fact, everywhere we went we carried our rifles. And they would sternly let us know if we didn’t always have our rifles with us. That was part of the training: to know that we had to be always combat ready.

I really don’t remember anything in particular about ITR, except that it was very intense. I think I had my mind more on what was to come—Vietnam. And they would constantly talk about it, to prepare us for it. ITR wasn’t nearly as long-lasting as boot camp, though it seemed long. I think it lasted about six weeks, enough time to get us all geared up for our year long tour. But before Vietnam, they gave us another week off to say goodbye to friends and family.

If it wasn’t for the pictures I took, I wouldn’t remember this week. I guess it went by fast, and I probably had my mind on what was to come. I know that I saw my girl friend Joy a lot; and though I really felt that I loved her, it was a strained and awkward relationship, mainly because I knew she wasn’t a Christian. But I was going off to Vietnam, and somehow, I knew that that would provide me with a way of escape. That is, to get away from temptation.

I also slightly remember that during that week my mom, as well as my grandparents (on my mom’s side) were quite upset and fearful for me going to Vietnam.  In fact, my grandpa had taken some legal steps to get me a humanitarian discharge. The whole thing was strange to me, because I really didn’t want it. It was all his idea, and maybe my mom’s too, and they pursued it kind of behind my back. As I remember it, there never was a time that I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I never was a person that would fight against going to war. I always figured that if your country called you to go, you should go; that it was part of God’s will. And, this may seem strange, but I really kind of wanted to go. There was something in me that was excited about it. I wanted to fight for my country, and I was ready.