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A Marine's Journey Through South Vietnam 1968â"1969
By Gregory V. Short
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2012 Gregory V. Short
All rights reserved.
Journey to Ixtlan
"Conflict is an essential part of the evolutionary process. For better or for worse, it washes away the old and brings in the new."
In the latter part of January 1968, I found myself on a bus heading towards the Norton Air Force Base located in California. Earlier that morning at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base situated just north of San Diego, we had been briefed as to what was expected of us once we reached the air base. Apparently, the officers and noncoms were somewhat concerned about the possibility of our making a break for it. All day long, they kept hovering around us like a bunch of old mother hens. However, there wasn't any need for them to have worried. After spending eight long weeks in boot camp and another six backbreaking weeks in infantry training, we weren't about to bail out now.
As new and eager U.S. Marines, the overwhelming majority of us were just kids. Although I had turned only eighteen-years-old the previous month, the other guys around me weren't much older. In fact, I would have bet that most of them had never been away from home before. Standing almost five-foot eleven, and weighing close to one-hundred-fifty pounds, I was in the best shape of my life. While possessing trimmed brown hair, deep blue eyes, and a determined chin, I probably could have passed for a Marine poster boy. Of course, I wasn't the most educated guy in the world. But I had been blessed with a lot of common sense. Looking back, the whole experience seemed like a wild adventure. We were young, ignorant, and full of spunk. We believed in our country, our leaders, and in our mission. To our way of thinking, we were invincible. We represented the best, the brightest, and the richest country in the world.
While driving through the sun-baked countryside, one could feel the excitement in the air. We talked and giggled to each other as if we were going on a high school picnic. Once we had enlisted in the Marines, we had heard a lot of war stories about Vietnam, so we weren't completely ignorant about our destination. Yet at the same time, we firmly believed that we were a part of the finest fighting organization that had ever gone to war. We considered ourselves physically fit, motivated, and sincere in our beliefs. Nothing was going to stand in our way.
As the bus weaved its way through the heavy traffic, some of us even began joking around about how we were going to quickly end this thing and go back to our homes and sweethearts. As for myself, I felt the pride swell in my chest. I was finally going to do something with my life besides serving someone else hamburgers and attending those dismal high school classes.
Then right before we reached the air base's front gate, something happened that only added to the carnival-like atmosphere. While we were waiting at a stoplight, someone in our bus yelled out, "Hey, look at the weirdo." Standing across the street on the opposite corner was an old drunken black guy. In spite of the noise from the oncoming traffic, we could hear him yelling at us in a very high feminine voice, "Now, you lovely boys be sure to come back and see me, because Old Papa Joe wants to buy every one of you dudes a cocktail."
The scene wouldn't have been so funny except for the fact that Old Joe was wearing a long green chiffon dress with white cuffs and a pair of high-heeled shoes. Parading around in a yellow wig that was shaped like a beehive, he had a cigar protruding out of his mouth in between what few teeth he had left. If I remember correctly, he was wearing a pair of sunglasses that looked like something from a Lady Gaga collection. Then smeared across his lips and into his ragged beard was a thick line of bright red lipstick. Slapping ourselves on the knees, we just laughed and laughed at this guy as he staggered around the gutter swinging his purse at the passing cars. We had never seen a real-life transvestite before. For the most part, we had come from neighborhoods where the social outcasts weren't permitted to roam the streets. Feeling somewhat uneasy, I couldn't help but wonder why someone would want to act that way. Not understanding the complexity of human nature, I always thought that guys were supposed to be guys and wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes wasn't going change that fact.
Unwittingly for many of us, weird Old Papa Joe was going to be our last vivid memory of America.
Sometime around four o'clock in the morning, our plane landed on the island of Okinawa. Before they loaded us into some more buses, we were marched over in the darkness to an Air Force mess hall for breakfast. In a Marine Corps mess hall, the enlisted men are expected to glide through the line, while the food servers slop this less than palatable food onto our metal platters. There were no special orders taken and no one could ask for seconds. Except for the officers and staff NCOs, we weren't ever fed any real fried eggs, unless it was a special occasion.
As we stood there mesmerized by the sight of sizzling sausages, piles of hot buttered pancakes, and slabs of thick bacon, the cook behind the grill looked up and asked the first Marine in line how many eggs he wanted and how did he want them cooked? Taken by surprise, the Marine stood there for a moment completely dumbfounded. Then he meekly cleared his throat and said, "Uh, I'll take a dozen of them yellow-eyed beauties over easy." To our utter amazement, the cook began cracking open twelve eggs and then placing them onto a hot griddle without even blinking an eye. The reaction to the cook's generosity was overwhelming. Everybody in the line started surging closer to the griddle in the hopes the Air Force wouldn't run out of eggs. When the cook finally looked up at me, I couldn't resist asking for a six-egg, give-me-the-works cheese omelet.
Later, as several hundred of us were sitting around and enjoying our delicious breakfast, the mess hall was eerily quiet and subdued. What could we say? We were all thinking the same thing.
"Boy Howdy, I sure screwed up by not joining the Air Force."
While we were in Okinawa, the schedule was hectic and almost nonstop. From dawn to dusk, we were run through an assortment of medical, legal, and other administrative services in order to satisfy the government's bureaucrats. Walking from building to building, we also had an opportunity to run across several returning veterans. Most of these fellows had not seen any combat, so they felt free to fill our heads with their bizarre stories of bravery and woe. Yet the infantrymen (grunts) that we did get to meet weren't very talkative. In fact, they didn't want to deal with anybody on any level. At the time, I thought it was very unfriendly of them, because we were eager to listen to what they had to say. Confused about their behavior, I took the time to observe them for awhile. They didn't appear to me to be shell-shocked or in a daze. Instead, they seemed to be terribly pissed off about everything around them. It was only after I had served my first tour of duty in the field that I would come to understand why they were so angry and distant.
In preparation for our flight to Vietnam, we were required to attend a variety of classes on venereal diseases, drugs, and the evils of the black market. During the VD class, the naval corpsman went out of his way to scare the holy hell out of every one of us. Seemingly, the Pentagon had thought they could terrify us into not having sex with the Vietnamese women. And why they even cared about our sex lives was a mystery to me. As the corpsman continued to expound upon the risks of fornicating with the opposite sex, he began showing us pictures of swollen and diseased genitalia. Personally, I found the whole class to be somewhat perplexing and confusing. From the very first day of boot camp, we had been told by the drill instructors that homosexuality was some sort of alien disease punishable by a dishonorable discharge. Now, here they were telling us to keep our grubby hands off of the women too.
Near the end of the class, this cocky corpsman suddenly reached up to a string on the wall and yanked down a picture of a young, beautiful, naked woman. With our eyeballs almost poking out of our heads, we all leaned forward in our chairs to get a better look. Dangling underneath her rounded shoulders was a set of perfectly pointed breasts. Her pink nipples were so large and erect that they seemed to be staring back at us. From where I was sitting, she looked like an angel with the sun's rays shining against her ivory-colored skin and chestnut hair. Slowly running my eyes up her long, slender legs and into her heart-shaped buttocks, I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of homesickness. Then without any warning, the corpsman suddenly yelled out as loud as he could, "Now would any of you Marines want to screw this gal knowing your penis might fall off?"
I was so proud of us, because everyone in the class yelled back at him with a big grin, "You bet."
During our last few days in Okinawa, we kept hearing stories about how the fighting in Vietnam had greatly intensified. Unbeknown to us, the 1968 Lunar Tet Offensive had just begun. As best, as we could understand it from the sporadic news reports, it appeared as though the enemy was finally coming out into the open and confronting our troops. With over 80,000 combat troops, they had simultaneously attacked over 100 towns and cities, along with every major U.S. and South Vietnamese installation. Lasting for almost two months, the casualties on both sides, including the civilians, would be staggering.
At the time, there was talk among the officers that we would be flown into Vietnam on a military transport, instead of using a commercial airliner. We had heard that the civilian pilots were refusing to fly us there, due to the heavy fighting. Luckily though, it wasn't true, for bright and early the next morning, the prettiest stewardesses that Pan Am had to offer were standing there at the doorway waiting to greet us.
Descending from the cold blue sky, we prepared ourselves for the adventure of our lives. I don't think any of us was truly prepared for what we would eventually experience. Peering through the small window on the plane, I was able to get my first real glimpse of Vietnam. The landscape was green, rugged, and foreboding. Amazingly, I could see a number of people working their fields and tending their water buffaloes as if the war didn't even exist. They were just going about their business, ignoring everything around them.
Then after the plane landed on the tarmac and began taxiing to the main terminal, the pilot came on the intercom and said in a smooth, ironical voice, "Welcome to the Republic of South Vietnam, gentlemen. Your bunkers will be on our left."
Since the Tet Offensive was in full swing, we were ordered to rush off of the airplane and run into a group of nearby cattle cars. The idea was to get us off of the airstrip as soon as possible, so that we could have our paperwork processed at a safer location. Since the enemy had just recently stepped up their attacks, there was a definite aura of fear surrounding the place.
Hopping down the ramp as fast as I could, my first introduction to Vietnam was the all-consuming odor of the place. After one good whiff, I began to get sick to my stomach. Growing up in Fort Worth (Cowtown), Texas, I had run across some pretty strange odors emanating from the Annual Fat Stock Show. But this was a completely different experience. It smelled like a pile of pig manure and rotten fish all rolled together into one nauseating stench. Nonetheless, a person could eventually get used to it, if they stayed in country long enough.
As we zoomed through the winding roads, I couldn't help but notice how truly filthy and primitive everything appeared. The trees, the houses, the animals, and the people all seemed to be from a different world. It was nothing like where I had been raised. There weren't any paved roads, filling stations, movie theaters, or large businesses anywhere. These folks were hard-core farmers and they were going to remain so until the end of time. I remember thinking to myself during those first few days, "What in heaven's name are we doing in this dump?"
When we arrived at the Marine transit building on the north side of the airstrip, a tall sergeant started yelling at us, "Okay, gentleman, welcome to the Third Marine Amphibious Force, South Vietnam. Yell out the last four numbers of your serial number when your name is called."
As he was calling our names out, I began to admire the colorful unit insignias painted across the plywood wall. Sitting all along the wall and under each insignia was an astute-looking clerk ready to process our paperwork. With the help of the unit insignias, I immediately recognized the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions' process areas. Besides the different infantry regiments, there was also listed a variety of Marine air groups, engineering battalions, tank battalions, and artillery regiments. Having been trained and then classified as a mortarman (MOS-0341), I expected to be assigned to an infantry division, but one never knows while in the military. Much like any huge bureaucracy, they do the strangest things for the oddest reasons.
Within our particular Pan Am flight, the majority of us were assigned to the 1st Marine Division. To my absolute satisfaction, I had been placed into the 1st Marine Regiment, the "First of the First" as they were known in World War II. At the time, I couldn't have been happier. They had an illustrious history and I was going to become a part of it.
Then after wasting several hours standing around and waiting, we were finally led to a group of small huts next to the airstrip. The sergeant in charge told us we would be sacking out there for the night and that reveille would be at 0600 hours. Inasmuch as everything was new to us, we were too ignorant to know that we had been put in a very bad spot. The Marine transit area was located directly across the airstrip from where we kept our fighter/bombers. Thus whenever the enemy gunners fired their rockets and mortars at the jet hangars, the transit area would usually catch their short rounds. That day, we should have suspected something was awry, because the people around us were acting extremely tense.
After trying to choke down a horrible meal of stale bread, tasteless pork, and canned peas, we hit the rack several hours after dark. While lying there in the darkness, we were still excited about the events of the day, so we talked to each other for about an hour or so. Then as I was about to doze off, I was unexpectedly awakened by a crescendo of thundering explosions. Instantly rising from my cot, I could hear someone screaming and yelling, "incoming, incoming." As my mind raced through a thousand different scenarios, I was able to throw on some clothes, exit the hut, and jump into a nearby ditch with the rest of the kids. Unfortunately though, the ditch was rather small, so we ended up piling on top of each other as best as we could.
In between the igniting flares and the surrounding pandemonium, I noticed a couple of the kids had become so terrified that they began to dig into the dirt with their bare hands. It was like watching a pack of dogs burying a bone. They were throwing the dirt between their legs as it went flying through the air. Looking upward, I could see the trailing exhausts from the incoming projectiles as they whistled across the sky. Enthralled by the sights and sounds, I watched in awe as the enemy rounds exploded around the airplane hangars.
As quickly as the attack had begun, it suddenly stopped. The silence seemed strange and out of place, because it produced a false sense of well-being. Amusingly, the cessation of hostilities hadn't interfered with the diggers' enthusiasm for digging. A few of them were still burrowing away when we emerged from our hiding places to take stock of the situation. Within our own area, the damage had been slight. It seemed most of the rounds had landed on the other side of the airstrip. After brushing ourselves off, an old sergeant came by to see if we were okay. He told us that since the Tet Offensive had begun, the shelling had become a nightly affair. Then with an expression of confidence on his face, he ordered everyone, including the diggers, to go back to bed and try to get some sleep.
Settling down into our warm cots again, we felt a mixture of excitement and exhaustion. The shelling was over and we had survived our initiation to enemy fire. Although the air was thick and moist, I began to breathe easier. Life was good and I was safe. Then as I was about to fall asleep again, another salvo of rockets came screaming directly over our hut. Only this time around, I didn't even think about putting on my clothes. Similar to a herd of wide-eyed cattle, we stampeded our way right through the flimsy door and into the ditch.
Excerpted from Ground Pounder by Gregory V. Short. Copyright © 2012 Gregory V. Short. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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