Pop a Yellow Smoke
The Greek was a little smaller than me, and he was very muscular and well built; Palmer was a big guy. No, Palmer was a really big guy, and strong. “What was his first name?” At the 1st RadBn compound, in a field of red dirt where the generators were, there at VCB, we had unloaded several 55 gallon drums of diesel fuel from the 6-by to be used by our two 20 KW generators.
Often, in the sultry afternoons we would get those notorious afternoon rains. One day, after a particularly hard afternoon rain, the water was flowing and much of it was in the field around those barrels of fuel. We had to go move them under the covering that was made for the generators, our rudimentary generator shack. Our purpose was to set those barrels up, out of the mud, onto some planks. Greek and I were rocking a barrel back and forth to unstick it from the red mud, but we were really struggling with the thing. Palmer came over and flexed his arms, moving the two of us out of his way. Then he gave that barrel a bear hug, picked the whole thing up out the mud, and set it down on the planks. “There, that’s how you do it,” he said. Seems to me that the Corps should have made him a 81mm mortarman so that he could carry around the baseplate. When our 6-by had a flat, Ol’ Palmer would take that tire off of the truck, break those split rims, and fix the flat in no time at all. That guy could really manhandle a multi-fueller. Come to think of it, I’m glad he was with us, and not a mortarman.
Around the last of August 1969, some of those NSA (National Security Agency) guys caused us to be brought up a barrage balloon. What it was all about was highly classified at the time. We were raising the balloon which had an antenna box attached for the purpose of receiving a type of radio waves that were traveling along a particular path in the troposphere. - SECRET stuff. We had a bunch of black bottles of compressed helium gas to keep that balloon filled to the proper pressure. Up and down, Up and down, we’d raise it and lower it via the winch on the front of the 6-by. It was a daily occurrence. The whole experiment was unsuccessful and didn’t last very long; not like over at 1st RadBn in Dong Ha.
I often thought of my initial greeting upon entering VCB; that is, the external net of Marine bodies slung below that CH-46. It always made me more aware of my mortality, and the fact that there were innumerable “bad guys” out there just dying to kill me.
We had a very large amount of concertina, barbed wire in large coils all along our outer perimeter. Of course there had to be guards too. That was a never ending, pain in the neck, job to be added to our regular SigInt mission.
I remember one bright, moonlit night, so bright that every object could be plainly seen, though the eerie shadows caused everything to seem alive and moving. There was a noise coming from a couple trash cans set down next to a blast wall made from dirt filled ammo boxes. Although I was sure that it was a rat, it needed to be checked out, investigated anyhow. I had on my deuce gear, including a bandoleer, and of course my M16 rifle, and flack jacket. Man those plated Marine jackets were uncomfortable, and hot, even at 0-dark-30 in the morning when it ought to be nice and cool. I had it on, but it was unzipped in the front so that the air could circulate better. As I approached the two cans, I could see that one was about half full of trash, and the other was empty. Moving closer, my rifle was instinctively moved from the ready position in front of me to a much lower and casual position. There was a large rat standing in the bottom of the empty can. It was standing on his hind legs with his fore legs up as if begging, “please sir, let me out of here.” Now you have to understand that everything took place in an instant, as though my mind was watching it all in slow motion. That rat lunged from the bottom of that empty trash can and slammed into my chest just below my neck. I’m sure that he was going for a “lip lock” on my jugular but all he got was a mouth full of flack jacket. Pushing off, he was gone into the shadows - boom - just like that. I was stunned. If it had been over just an inch or up about two inches, that rat would have got a mouth full of meat - my meat - and I could just imagine the headlines, “Marine Taken Out By Rat.”
A few weeks earlier, the day after arriving “in country” 1st RadBn issued me my deuce gear, three sets of cammies, (we called them “You Can’t See Me’s”), jungle boots (“I Been There Boots”) and a chintzy green, two piece rain suit. After donning one set of cammies, and the boots, all the extra stuff went into my Willy Peter bag.
In early September, at VCB, a typhoon was upon us and I had the 0-dark-30 watch. Seemed like a good time to break out the rain suit which was big enough to wear over all my gear. Just after taking charge of my post I was walking right next to the concertina and the wind caused my rain suit to catch on one of the barbs. Snaaatch, riiipp, swoosh - that rain suit was gone in an instant - and I never had another one the rest of my time “down south.” Imagine the headlines, “Marine Blown Away By Big Wind!”
Earlier, probably that day, or just a day or so before, I had gone over to the Battalion Aid Station (BAS) which was just up the hill from the 4th Marines marvelous chow hall. It had been raining a little bit and I was fortunate to be able to ride over in our “deuce and a half,” which Palmer was driving; “man, what was his first name?” We forded a small stream that was slightly swollen by the rain from an approaching typhoon. There was a jeep just ahead of us that was slip, sliding in the stream bed, and the guys who had been in it, except the driver, were standing on the bank yelling at the driver and waving us on, “Naw, we don’t need no help. We’ll get it out in just a minute.”
So, we went right up, past the chow hall, and on up to the BAS. I had to go see the dentist for a tooth ache at Battalion Dental which was collocated with the BAS. As I was standing in line waiting to go in, there was a tall, fine-looking Marine standing right behind me not talking. I started a conversation with the guy, but he just answered with a short garbled sentence. Basically I asked him what his problem was. Come to find out he was being treated for a shrapnel wound to his mouth. Outwardly he looked fine, but there was a small, nearly healed wound on the side of his cheek, and he was being treated there at the 4th Marines Dental for the wound to his mouth. That little piece of shrapnel went through his cheek, then hit his teeth and proceeded to do a flamenco dance in his mouth. You couldn’t tell from the outside, but when he opened his mouth or talked, it was apparent that young man was changed for life. We lost 58,000 of America’s finest, who wouldn’t shirk their duties, but a whole lot more were changed for the rest of their lives. As for me, the dentist sent me out to the hospital ship USS Sanctuary via CH-46. It wasn’t urgent so it was a few more days yet before I left.
On the way back, we were heading down the side of the hill and saw that the stream was really swollen now. There was muddy water flowing completely over that jeep and a whole bunch of guys just standing there waving us on. Ol’ Palmer (what’s his first name?) just “gunned” our “deuce and a half,” and with the downhill momentum, we crossed that swollen stream with nary a problem. Imagine the headlines, “Marine Croaks In Swollen Stream.”
In a couple days the “Phoon” was past and I was on a CH-46 “chopping” towards the USS Sanctuary. Just as we cleared the mountains heading east towards our intermediate stop in Quang Tri, I could hear several bangs on the hull of the bird and two shafts of light appeared. As I watched out the big opening in the tail of the “46," I could see a trail of black smoke. The crew chief, who was standing at the side with an M60 M/G looking out, became quite animated and talked a lot into the integral Mic. We continued on towards our destination though, and after just a short ride, we landed safely in Quang Tri where we switched birds and headed on out to the hospital ship. Man, this place could be hazardous to one’s health! Once again, I could just picture the headlines, “Marine Bites The Dust Going To The Dentist.”
Di Dah, Di Da Dit