First to Fight
The hangar deck of the USS Iwo Jima was a jumble of humanity. One thousand marines, all dressed up for combat. Packs were packed, helmets pulled on tight and cartridge belts filled with a large assortment of rifle magazines, hand grenades, flares, mortar shells and machine-gun bandoliers. Everything in its place, neatly stored for easy use. We looked sharp.
This wasn't a parade and no well-defined lines existed, but we knew exactly what we were doing and where we were going. Random, yet well-defined motion in all directions. It may have looked like mass hysteria to an outsider. Nothing could have been further from the truth. This movement was part of the overall plan, a very precise drill. Each movement had a purpose. A deadly purpose.
We had practiced this exercise hundreds of times, but could all that practice prepare us for the real thing? This time our M-14 rifles were loaded with live ammo. This would be the first shooting war with this new-model rifle and its 20-round, bottom-loaded magazine. It was very accurate at 500 yards and more but this wasn't target practice. This time somebody might be shooting back. This time people were probably going to get hurt.
It was June 5, 1965, and we were about to introduce South Vietnam to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. OPERATION STARLITE was officially under way. We would participate in the first large military operation of the war. Other American troops were on Vietnamese soil and had been for a couple of months, but up until now military activity had been confined to a rather large-scale show of force. Forces from the Pacific had been deployed throughout the area for just exactly this contingency. We were the first forces sent from the mainland U.S.A. We weren't here to show force. We were here to do force, in a big way. We all wanted to perform well. We all wanted to stay alive. Maybe we'd get this over and be home in a couple of months. Maybe the bad guys would turn and run for cover. The Marines had arrived. Wouldn't LBJ be pleased if we got this over in a hurry? Wouldn't we all.
After a hurried departure from Camp Pendleton, California, and 17 days at sea, we stood approximately three miles off the coast of what would turn out to be a hard-to-forget, easy-to-hate part of the world. We were tired of being honored guests of the U.S. Navy, even though a converted aircraft carrier was more hospitable than some of the other crap the Navy used to move marines around the world. We were ready. We were confident. And we were scared.
Intelligence reports indicated that the 7th Marine Regiment, with two of its three battalions already ashore, was head-to-head with two hard-core North Vietnamese regiments. Butt-kicking time. The previous evening, the Battalion Commander had conducted a short briefing for the battalion's officers in the ship's main wardroom.
"We'll be landing by helicopter at first light, just west of the Viet Cong's main force," the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Richard Owens, had said, opening his operational briefing session and mentioning for the first time the name of our adversary on this landing. "Viet Cong" was the South Vietnamese guerrilla forces. We would come to know them as the VC or Victor Charlie or just Charlie. His counterpart from the North was known as the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). We called either of them anything that came to mind, not often making any big distinction between the two. "Our mission will be to form a blocking force and to seal off any escape route they might attempt to use," Owens continued. "Fighting has been going on since yesterday and the 7th Marines and elements of the 4th Marines have received their first wartime casualties since Korea," he added, in a deep, full, stern voice that he must have been practicing since the night before. This was the real thing. Most of the young lieutenants, like myself, normally had a tough time taking the Colonel very seriously, but tonight was different. We could still clown and make jokes but we knew we had to buckle down now. Humor had a way of containing the pressure, making the tension more tolerable.
During the briefing, Tommy "Max" Sanders and I were included in a small group in the back of the wardroom participating in one of our favorite pastimes: imitating the Old Man. His overstated mannerisms and tough-guy style were an easy target. We made little attempt to hide our dislike for him, even though disrespect of a superior officer was a crime punishable by death or something even worse. After all, this was the Corps, and it just wasn't permissible to criticize your superiors. If you were very clever and careful, as we certainly were, you could go right up to the line of disrespect without actually crossing over into the land of military justice.
"Do you suppose he's going to ask us to sing 'The Star Spangled Banner'?" Max asked nobody in particular.
"I'm betting on the 'Marines' Hymn,' " I countered.
"You're on for five," he answered. We were very careful with this kind of stuff, except in the privacy of our quarters. Besides, we were good officers ourselves and really did love the Corps, rules and all. But this jerk really deserved our nonsense and it helped relieve the tension. And the tension was suffocating.
Max was my best buddy, a bullheaded but easy-to-like product of San Angelo, Texas. His long sentences usually ran no more than four or five words. Beating around the bush was not his strong suit. He had an especially low tolerance for anything Mickey Mouse. The perfect material for the making of a good Marine officer.
Nothing in life had come particularly easy for Max. An undersized, former high school football linebacker, he had to fight his way onto every team he ever tried out for, including the Marines. He made up for his lack of size with Texas-sized grit, an innate toughness and a dogged determination. A below-average student and dirt poor during his days in San Angelo, he was given no chance to go to college but did anyway and in four long, tough years of near-starvation and constant study he received a degree from the University of Texas. He had learned to scratch and claw for whatever he wanted in life.
The Marines offered him yet another opportunity to butt his head against a wall and he took to it with the same determination and doggedness. The Corps's demand for total conformity occasionally came into conflict with his free spirit but its demand for dedication, hard work and taking on impossible missions fit him perfectly. He found a home in the Marines. We'd served together around the world for nearly three years and had learned much of our craft as Marine infantry officers together in the boondocks of Camp Pendleton, Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines. Max loved it when the time came to put on the helmet and our green fatigue work uniforms. He felt somewhat out of place and uncomfortable in spit-shined shoes and our world-famous dress blue uniform. He liked to get dirty and flop around on the ground, as we were frequently required to do. A certifiable nut case, but just the kind you'd like covering your butt in times of trouble. Tomorrow he'd be covering mine.
Tom Draude, the third member of what had become our special, private brotherhood, had also been with Max and me for the last three years. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he always looked and acted more serious than the rest of us did. He was. But through it all he maintained his considerable sense of humor and put it to good use whenever he could, which wasn't often since he had become the Battalion S-1 (Administration) Officer, and found himself spending most of his time running errands for Colonel Jerk. While the rest of us were off screwing around whenever we had a break, you could always find Tom with his nose in some military manual, studying some new way to serve the Corps more competently. Raised on the south side of Chicago, Tom was a staunch Catholic and the ultimate overachiever. He didn't know how to be number two at anything he did. He knew exactly what he wanted and went after it. He never gave himself much time to smell the roses. Not antisocial but with little time for social events, Tom was surprisingly well liked by everyone. Always pleasant and in control, he never seemed to struggle with any aspect of life. He loved every aspect of being an officer and a gentleman.
During the briefing, Tom was at the front of the wardroom next to the Old Man, looking very businesslike and trying very hard to avoid eye contact with Max and me. We normally had no particular problem getting him to crack up, but tonight he didn't feel like playing our silly games. Tom was very much a product of his middle-class Catholic upbringing and the Academy had only served to strengthen his already strong work ethic. It was time to go to work and he was all business. Nevertheless, Max and I did our best to keep it loose. We had to do something. We were sitting on this immense war machine, somewhere in the South China Sea, 8,000 miles from home and about 10 hours away from losing what little virginity we had left. If we could have envisioned the events of the next 13 months we would have been even more concerned.
"Ask a question," I said to Max.
"OK," he replied, ready for some fun. "Sir, do you anticipate that we'll get any liberty this weekend, after we land?" Max knew this would probably set the Colonel off on a pretty good tirade, but he was enjoying the round of snickers the question raised in the room.
"Lieutenant Sanders, I'm not going to honor that question with an answer. This is war, gentlemen. No time for thinking about getting liberty or time off. We have a job to do. An important job and one which we will be proud of," the Old Man blurted out, never aware that his leg was being pulled.
Tom grimaced in our direction. We smiled and waved back, glad to have finally gotten him to look at us from his position near the map the Colonel was using for the briefing. Max flipped him the bird. A faint smile came to the corner of Tom's mouth.
Our last night aboard ship was spent sleeping on mattresses and sheets. It would be the last time for a while. My 15 trips to the "head" that night were made in the relative comfort and style afforded an officer and a gentleman on a U.S. naval vessel. For the next year, minor events such as taking a crap would be much less comfortable, unless you enjoyed sharing your most private human functions with 800 million flies and an occasional water buffalo.
The Navy always saved its best meals for moments like this. I believe it is the same tradition carried out in our prison system just prior to throwing the big switch. Unfortunately, the thought of food at this very moment provoked nothing but nausea. Coffee went down well but went right through you. The Navy always had lots of coffee available. Also, lots of places to take a leak. These places were all highly utilized the last night aboard that ship.
It was impossible to sleep after the Old Man had done his John Wayne impression in the wardroom. We passed the remaining hours talking with the troops, making final plans and going over the last-second changes. People were added and deleted from rosters every 10 minutes. Equipment appeared and disappeared. Sergeants shouted orders at no one in particular, and the troops bitched. They'd do anything to get off this boat.
Back in the privacy of our sleeping quarters, we wrote letters, checked equipment for the tenth time, listened to Max's garbage about the superior quality of high school football in Texas, made more trips to the head and tried to forget our fears.
"What's the Old Man think is going to really happen tomorrow?" I asked Tom, who was stretched out in the rack above me, knowing that because of his job, he might have some secret insight into what was really going on, beyond the normal party line.
"I think he feels like most of the fighting will already be over by the time we get in there," he answered, not bothering to look up from the letter he was writing.
"I hope it is," Max stated.
"Me too," I offered.
"I thought you guys were dying to be highly decorated war vets," Tom jabbed.
"Not me," Max answered.
"What do you want, Tom?" I asked seriously, as I got up to pace around the room one more time.
"I just want us to do well, whatever happens," he said, sounding a little perturbed by all the questions.
"Think we'll do OK?" I asked, hoping my own self-doubts didn't show too much.
"Damn straight," Max spit out, without thinking twice. "By the way if you get killed tomorrow, Van, can I have your watch? Mine seems to have gone on the blink," he added, as he threw his Marine Corps-supplied timepiece in the wastebasket.
"I ain't gettin' killed and you ain't gettin' no damn watch," I responded, without losing a step in my pacing around the room.
"Will you guys knock it off? You're driving me crazy. We're going to all do just fine tomorrow. We're marines aren't we?" Tom said, sounding very confident, as usual.
"Why don't you do something useful, like get us a cup of coffee?" Max asked. "I can't stand watching you walk the room much longer."
"Get your own damn coffee. Pacing is what I do best," I answered.
"Could you guys knock off the shit? I'm trying to compose a letter to Sandi and I can't think with all this racket going on," Tom pleaded.
"That girl doesn't want any letters from any marine. She ain't going to marry into the Corps," Max poked.
"She's in love with this marine and she can't help herself," Tom boasted, trying to hide the one area in his life where he didn't have complete confidence.
"You're dreaming," I said, trying to get in one more dig, before I stepped out into the passageway, on my way up to the flight deck for one last breath of fresh air. It was a long walk, but who could sleep.
A large number of people were walking around the ship alone and in small groups, an unusual occurrence for 0200. Not much sleeping going on. Mostly thinking. And praying. Mostly in private. The prayers were, I'm sure, largely identical. Please Lord, don't let me get hurt too bad and please, please Lord don't let me screw up. If it's time to die, Lord please let me do it with some dignity. Don't let me be a coward. Amen. Letters home were similar. Dear Mom and Dad, Tomorrow your son will be going into Vietnam. Doesn't look too serious. I'll be careful. Whatever happens, I love you.