Briefly, during my senior year at the University of Florida in 1964, I volunteered for the Peace Corps to go to Chile. Since the Vietnam War had not really
come to the forefront during that time, the issue of being drafted was not a big one. So I was off to train in Puerto Rico for four months in early 1965
and then on to Chile for two years. That period was one of the major highlights of my life. But this is not the forum to discuss that.
A lot had changed by July of 1967, the war had moved to the forefront, the draft was going full bore but it seemed heading to graduate school was the next stage for me. However Local Board 17 in Gainesville, Florida had different plan for many students. It was clear in early September that Local Board had a high quota including me, so I 'volunteered' for Army OCS, two days prior to my notice being mailed. While conflicted, I felt I had a duty to serve. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your countty..." still resonated. So off it was to Fort Dix for basic and AIT. Following are portions of letters home.
Letter from basic Fort Dix, October 1967:
"The barracks are modern and quite comfortable but we are only 500 yards from the first approach lights for McGuire AFB' main runway. So there is always the roar of jets. Overall there are 223 men from 25 states, about 185 regular Army, the balance draftees, reserves and National Guard... Overall most of the classes are kept simple and tend to be dull. My drill sergeant-known as DI's spent 11 mos. in Nam and is far and away the best instructor... However since most of us will go to Vietnam in some capacity, we, in particular the older ones, are trying to learn everything well, so we can get back in one piece. There is real doubt about our involvement over there but it is accepted as a matter of course (or bad luck on our part)."
Letter from Infantry OCS, Ft Benning, June 1968
"Our class which started at 230 is down to 135 and we will probably lose some more. I'm really tired of training and will be glad when it's finally over" Letters from Hunter AAF, Georgia, August & September 1968 "I am the Admin. Officer for a Huey Cobra Maintenance Company. This means I handle all the paper work that our C.O. at Lt. Col. does not want to handle and only keeps me here nine hours a day, five days a week"... "Now I am the Executive Officer which means days are longer 11 hours, 6 days a week. Not sure why I am doing this (ExO) other than officer politics and change do not make much sense" Fast-forward to February 1969 and orders come and I am off to Vietnam via Jungle School in Panama.
Letter from Jungle School - Panama, March 1969
"Sure could use some Gatorade!!! This is really the tropic. We off now for four nights in the Jungle"
On to Nam- March 20, 1969
"I am somewhere between Okinawa and Bien Hoa, RVN, sure how long we have been travelling we left Travis AFB at 9 PM on March 19..."
"Heading to the Americal Division along with 13 others. Headquarters are in Chu Lai. After some training at the Division Combat center, it will be on to the 11th Light Infantry Brigade... In closing my arrival date in the USA will be 4 March 1970..."
March 29-Chu Lai "It is apparent that the TET offensive has failed and the VC and NVA can not win. This doesn't mean that South VN can control the country either. Only an agreed to truce can stop their (VC) harassing tactics. The question here is not whether we should be here or should we get out? But rather what we-meaning the US soldier can to at any cost to prevent casualties until the politicians decide what to do"
April 1-LZ Bronco "Por fin---assigned to A Co, 3/1 Inf, 11th LIB... Really glad to end training but not too excited about going the field." April 3- Chu Lai" Well back in Chu Lai- this time the company has 3 days off before going back to the field. I'll be first platoon leader when we move back to Duc Pho."
April 7-LZ Cork "We're currently "palace guard" for an artillery battery... Not really too much to write about. Presently I try to keep 20 plus people occupied part of the day and at least 1/3 awake all night"
So for some of you, you had a new platoon leader, for others you would meet me later on. My next installment will deal with the five or six months I was in the field with you. It will take longer to compile and make sense of those letters along with what I remember. My reflection at this point is that I must have made my family more nervous than I thought I was at the time.
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During this time,I am sure we were getting used to each other. On the whole, I have forgotten a lot more than I remember. In reading these letters for the first
time recently, there are certain events or items I do not remember. The most baffling and most trivial is my frequent request for cigars. Of this, I have no
memory. I know I had smoked cigarettes occasionally but quit during AIT at Ft. Dix. My dad smoked cigars and pipes, so I probably thought they were okay. But while
in Nam did I sit around and smoke cigars or did I share them with others as well?
The other theme is what a messed up effort this was in 1969. We were involved in a civil war that we could not "win"; however you might define that. In Neil Sheehan's important book "A Bright Shining Lie", he centers the war on the life of General John Paul Vann. There is a part describing the war in 1964, where Vann basically says there is no way the US can win this with the South Vietnamese and we should not be here. He,of course, stayed and later was killed though by then in a "civilian" capacity. Some of my observations at the time were naive but I will argue the underlying thesis is valid. (Note: the italics are directly from the letters--- I sure could have used some editing then.)
An uneventful week on this isolated mountain top... I get up at various times during the night to check the bunkers and to make sure the men are alert. Sleeping on guard is not a real problem here because the company has bad memories due to this a few months ago... Our Bn C.O. died yesterday. Though I only met him once I was impressed by his sense of compassion for his men... So the choppers---the life line of the Army--- bring mail, chow, water and other supplies daily. We get mail, Time, and Stars and Stripes to keep us up with outside world. We also get 2 beers & 2 Cokes per man per day. There are radios around so there is music from Armed Forces and Hanoi Hanna.
Am sitting in front of my bunker writing letters and watching some Phantom air strikes about 5 km away on another mountain... I led a 20 man recon patrol to that mtn to observe and search for signs of VC. Other than an old Montagnard grave, we found only 15---foot saw grass and quite few leeches---Actually the leeches find you. I guess we'll be up here a few more days. Actually as peaceful as it is, I'll happily stay here for six months. Our new Bn.C.O. is LTC Ellis---he was my OCS Bn commander.
...went by chopper to the beach 7 km south of Duc Pho. From there to here (Dien Troung) about 8 km we've searched farm houses and checked ID's looking for VC suspects. We found a few and sent them to the rear... There are kids everywhere and they beg for our extra c---rations. We hope none of it ends up with the VC but I sense some must. This kind of operation is really hairy. But we do feel relatively safe with kids around. I guess these people must be used to GI's coming thru and searching their houses. However I think we should get out let the Vietnamese haggle all this out. Our hearts aredefinitely not in this... This is written this way because I'm using the butt of my rifle to write on (Editors note: writing was less legible than normal). ...I have lots to do keep my people coordinated & doing their job---plus carrying my own share of ammo, etc. pack must weigh 60 lbs.
Nr. Dien Truong & Lake Damankhe... Got the cigars today. Many thanks. I'm down to 20 men now as my point man and one other were wounded by a booby trap. Neither was hurt bad and should be back out in a couple of weeks. We help provided security for the national police who check people for ID's and weapons. Rather boring and lots of hot tiring walking but as peaceful as it is nobody minds at all.
It's about 7:30 AM and we've moved into a VC controlled village and we're waiting for the National Police and Popular Forces to search it. Yesterday they found 5 lbs of gold, $10,000 and knives. Also they captured a few suspects... As far as the conduct of the war-this is definitely not our ball game and we should get out. The career military i.e. Company commanders and Battalion Commanders say we need "kills". The rest of us say OK if not one American gets hurt. But that too is impossible. We can't control this country and stop their guerrilla war by our relatively conventional means. The ARVNS seem incapable of controlling all their country despite M-16's (they are newer than ours) and assorted weapons. Their (ARVNS) main weakness is lack of qualified leaders. Other arguments-Of the 540,000 US soldiers here only about 80,000(I think this is a liberal estimate) are in the field i.e. what I' m doing. The old NCO's are smart & know how to get soft jobs-so the actual war is run by 20-22 old year GI's and the majority are draftees. For example, I am authorized 44 people including one E-7 Sgt. and four E-6 Sgt plus 38 others. As it is now, I have none of these and I don't expect any. Today I have 20 with me and at most I have had 28. This is par for the course of most infantry units.
The majority of soldiers are in the rear base camps i.e. brigade & division with electricity, movies, cold beer & hot meals and with USO shows and TV. The infantryman- in particular I sympathize with the draftee- in the field has of none of this-makes the same amt of money plus he gets shot at on occasion. These remarks may sound like the complaints of all infantrymen in all wars but this is not like any other war.
The emphasis is not on territory controlled, won, etc. but the no. of enemy dead counted on the battlefield in relation to US_Allied casualties. Also any foreign occupying Army i.e. US is not going to win very many friends & undoubtedly alienates more. Also we've screwed up their economy.
Reading this batch of letters for the first time. Still amazed I shared so much with my parents and we only talked about my combat experiences
in any detail one time. These are the only known letters, did I write to others in that detail? After my discharge from Ft Eustis in August 1970,
my Dad and I drove back to Florida together following old US Hwy 17. We talked a lot about it then. Some of you have already posted your May, 1969
remembrances so you will see how I reported them 46 years ago. Again the italics are what were written and they have not been edited though they
sure could be.
3 May to my Dad only
We've finished 14 days running around the country side- the last few were pretty tough- As a result last PM near dark we relaxed too much and got shot at by snipers- no damage to us but the choppers blew part of a village away. Hopefully we'll go back to a firebase soon- we need the rest. With luck, it'll be next week...
5 May to my Mom only
Happy Mother's Day-this will probably be late but it should get there in 7 days... Last couple of days have been quiet... Tomorrow we go to firebase-finally after 17 days in the field-showers + hot meals plus a beach...
Greetings from Bridge 58 just south of LZ Charlie Brown & the village of Sa Huymn. We came in from the field to LZ CB yesterday after a dusty 10 km ride on Armored Personnel Carriers. My platoon- now down to 18- is guarding 2 bridges on either side of LZ Charlie Brown. They are major bridges on HWY#1 i.e. "The Red Ball"... nice thing is hot chow- 3 times a day- instead of once a week and the river is swimmable... This AM I went with C.O. to meet the village chief and local military authorities. Vaguely reminded me of meetings with Chileans but my Vietnamese is up to 15 words - So that is one big difference M-16's another.
The bridge is by a small Buddhist village about 100 meters from S.China Sea. They pray, chant and ring bells all night really weird when you're trying to keep people from coming through the wire.
One thing about my platoon I don't think I've mentioned. I have 2 brothers in one squad-a real rarity but they wanted to be together-they're from Iowa. My RTO is a country boy from Greenville, So.Carolina. My platoon sergeant is an E-5 from Lexington, NC and his RTO is from Manitowoc, Wisc.
Right now we're on LZ Charlie Brown after 5 days patrolling on our own. We're out when big Ho Chi Minh birthday rocket attacks hit all the base camps... But luckily no fatalities. However we may not be getting clean clothes for a while. It has only been 10 days since we got clean clothes. At least here on Charlie Brown we can swim in the S.China Sea...
15 May to my Dad only
We've enjoyed our 4 days on Charlie Brown what with swimming & hot chow. Tomorrow we go back to bridges. Apparently the NVA think this place isn't worth shelling. It isn't. Really things settled to a routine out of the field. Also I could use a few more cigars- El Producto panatelas are OK. No I won't argue or discuss your "taste" for cigars. Over here you take what you can get.
Well it's the day before Ho Chi Minh's birthday and things have quieted a bit. The platoon is back on bridge guard for a few days. Yesterday we had lot of excitement. The night before I called a fire mission i.e. mortars on an enemy mortar position (about a mile from here). The next morning the C.O. had me send a patrol out. I sent 7 men about 600 meters from here they spotted 17 NVA with wpns on the move. My people stayed concealed & were never spotted as I tried to call mortars on the NVA. But higher command held up clearance & they got away. The bad thing was we think the (NVA) were the same group who shelled a village near here & killed a bunch of civilians. This is the sad part of this whole dirty mess. The innocent S.Vietnamese who often get clobbered from both sides. Well so much for my ramblings about the war. I don't mean to scare you about what I see. I just want to tell it like I see it from ground level.
More about the people I'm with. My C.O. is a senior Cpt who'll be up for Major soon. He is career. He was a Special Forces medic as EM & NCO before he went to OCS in 1964. He knows his stuff and peaks Vietnamese as well.
My squad leaders are both young-one 20 & the other 19. There are others older but these two have demonstrated adequate leadership & maturity to do the job. Presently I have no Negros- one Mexican and a Puerto Rican who keep my Spanish up. Seven are married and states represented include Cal, Oregon, Texas, NC, SC, WVA, Wisc, Iowa, Mo, NY, NJ... Well it is about dark-about daylight where you are so we get ready for the long 11 hr VN night
22 May This letter was written on the same paper on which I had plotted 155 artillery targets earlier.
We're back in the field for about 17 days. We're heading generally west from Charlie Brown... It's a lot hotter now than the last time we were out. Must be 95 to 105 in shade and hotter in the sun. The heat has really been tough on a lot of us. I have been able to stand it so far... Had a rough night on the bridge before we came out. A Zapper squad suicide squad tried to hit us but they only got to the first of 3 fences of wire. No casualties but we were up all night... We have had a rash of illnesses lately so have lost 5 men- 2 with malaria. So my operating strength is at its lowest level.
Well our mission changed yesterday. And to sum it up yesterday was just one hell of a day. We hiked 3.5 km in mountains yesterday morning before we got a call to change missions. Then we sat in a hot mountain meadow awaiting choppers. We had a combat assault near the red ball Hy#1. 10 minutes later fires started in the dry brush and woods from artillery which prepped the area just before we landed. The fires literally chased us out of the hills to the red ball. It was the scaredest I've been yet because I was afraid the fires would catch us. There was no trail off the hill about 170m high & we literally dove off the hill. I took over as lead man part of the way crashing through 10 ft high thorn bushes. All this time we had no water & it was 100+ in the sun and the heat of the fire. We made it to the bottom safely only a couple of heat casualties but they were all right after a few hours. Then after finding water we had to push back up another 140 m hill to spend the night. We covered some 10km all day 3km at breakneck speed. All this with packs over 65 lbs. So needless to say we were an exhausted bunch. But when we got to the top of the last hill a chopper came with water and mail 3 letters plus Kool-Aid and cigars. Just as well we are holding our position today as I have a stiff knee... Well so much for another day in Vietnam. I just hope we don't have to go thru another like it.
I'm in LZ Bronco as pay officer. So this means a week out of the field and running around paying people-in the field on firebases and the hospital in Chu Lai... Also my legs are all bandaged up one from "jungle rot" open sores but they are healing well the other for strained ligaments & fluid on the knee... few more days taking it easy should settle that... a good project for those in G'ville who'd like to "help the boys in "Nam"/ There is a lack of reading material in the company paperbacks, Westerns, mysteries and "pop" novels are all read and enjoyed.
Comment on this period: it is clear that the fire was a strong memory for those of you who were there. According to the 25 May letter, I was there but I have no memory of that day. Not sure why but it is curious.
During June, things begin to change. There are fewer letters being written, generally further apart as we are busier than previously.
The letters are now being written on A 3/1 11th Brigade stationary instead of plain paper. While the descriptions of what we were doing
are fewer, commentaries about the heat, rain and mosquitos increase. As a life long O+ mosquito magnet, I complain about them in several
letters. The care package requests become broader i.e. sure could use some A-1 sauce-"Got to do something for those C-rations".
One letter revealed what I was doing with some of the cigars: supplying the First Sargent. As far as items from home, I remember
that my RTO-Leslie Pressley from South Carolina would receive a can of boiled peanuts almost weekly from his mom. The other big event
that impacted us was Nixon's announcement that we would start reducing troop levels (they peaked in May, 1969 at 545,000).
2 June Letter to my parents
"..still paying people 6 chopper rides yesterday, 2 today and a flight to Chu Lai tomorrow to get the hospitals... experienced my first big rocket attack last night. It is a horrifying sound that I'll probably never forget. Break-I've just spent the last 2 hours in a bunker we had a mortar attack no damage. Maybe I should go back to the field where it is safer."
17 June Letter to a friend
"2 years from the day I returned to the US from Chile-Seems like a long time ago. It has been a long and unhappy week. I've been back in the field 8 days and we've seen our share of action. Today we got hot chow & cold beer out here for the first time... While all this might seem trite to those in the world they mean a lot to us here."
17 June Letter to my parents
"Well another week has gone by- we're our guarding Hwy #1 again in a different location. It has been rather rough especially as it seem to be getting hotter...Water resupply is a continual logistical problem but somehow we make it... due to go a firebase for awhile"
23 June Letter to my parents
"My platoon has been operating on its own for the last couple of weeks. It has been pretty hairy at times but the kids have performed pretty well. I've sure got a lot of new green ones-some are activated national guard...Nixon's plan of getting us out suits me.. The NVA show no signs of quitting-the VC in this area have been pretty much neutralized. The NVA are taking high losses but they still attack the big bases. I figure they want us to leave with our tails between our legs...head to firebase tomorrow.
26 June Letter to my parents
"...We're on a firebase now for a few days-LZ Debbie. We'll be here a few days pulling mostly daily missions. We can certainly use the rest."
26 June Letter to a friend
"...Nixon's plans about bringing troops home sure sounds good. However NVA show no signs of easing up, they're trying to hurt us badly so that it looks like we're surrendering... Though my overall feelings about this war are unchanged. You can't help feel a little ruthless & hateful i.e. eye for eye when you see your people messed up & hear of friends & OCS classmates being killed. Excuse the writing-PEACE IN VIETNAM!
29 June Letter to my parents
"We have had some good operations of late. The other day the platoon ran a search mission with PRU's an all Vietnamese outfit-a provincial forced which are about the best they have and 6 tracks & engineer demolition experts attached. We spent all day searching a small village and captured 5 VC and some AK-47's plus we blew up all the tunnels and bunkers. The PRU's did most of the work while my people & tracks provided security. All of this without firing a shot. It was just about our most successful mission... We're running missions with Vietnamese forces. Mostly we're here to give them confidence... but at least we're letting them run more of this war i.e. their war... lots of new people in my platoon this month- about 12 so my field strength is up a bit... most are 20 year old draftees from all over. Most of our losses have been normal rotation... many care packages of late... really don't need candy... a good package would be cookies maybe fritos or peanuts, canned fruit, fruit juices... Well those are just some ideas that seem practical to a man in the boonies...
June was the first of several tough months taking casualties, always integrating new new people, experienced ones leaving, and enduring more heat. I often thought then and still do today, if we had been an athletic team we would not have won a game. Our lineup changed all the time. It was the hand we were dealt and we tried to make the best of it. No remembrance of the Chu Lai rocket attack mentioned in the first June letter. I did forget it. As far as sounds, the noise of 16" battleship shells roaring overhead is one I do remember.
The letters also had thank you's for the care packages and as noted continued suggestions for additions and changes. The primary personal side centered on my brother's upcoming wedding and noting that he had been writing me often. We talked about it recently and of course, neither one of us remembered exchanging correspondence. He was soon to go to the Air Force as a communications officer.
There is a change in the tone of the letters from this point. Now it is my fourth month as an infantry platoon leader.
During this month the first man lands on the moon but I barely remember reading about it. Also Nixon creates "The Nixon Doctrine"- no more
Vietnam like wars. The letters to my Dad were primarily about money items, depositing checks, etc but with some commentary.
3 July- to a friend
"....Despite of talks of withdrawal, etc., the war goes on and Alpha Company has seen her share of late. At least being on a fire base we can relax a little more, get cleaned up daily instead of being in the field all the time. I often wonder how this thing i.e. the war is changing me-does it show in my letters. I know I hate the NVA(do I really? Or do I just seem to?) and we give them no quarter. Maybe it's the sense of survival with a little eye for an eye thrown in. I know all this is not nice to write about but I feel I must. In any event I don't look at this as job as some do but an ordeal to be endured..."
5 July - to my parents
"...Tomorrow we leave LZ Debbie...to a new area..we're still not sure where yet. Replacements have filled my platoon to its highest strength yet-27. But this creates problems because there are so many green ones....I've been a little busier and haven't written that much... not to much to write about... hot but we are getting more rain..."
13 July-to my parents and sister
"We're now building the new fire base some 10km due west of Quang Ngai City. A fire support base-is a forward base that gives infantry fire support from 81&4.2 mortars and 104 & 155mm artillery.
We have about a two hundred man task fore headed by our company building this thing. We also have an ARVN battalion pulling security for us. Despite all this the VC & NVA have propaganda teams trying to get us to surrender-they have...loudspeakers blaring away in the early evening.
It is really quite a project: our company two engineer platoons, 9 armored personnel carriers ....two bulldozers working all day digging bunkers... Right now we are working on the 97,000 sandbags that are needed for the project...On top of that we were hit by the backend of a typhoon...6+" of rain..made for a miserable night as well as tones of mud the next day...On a bright note I have an in-country R&R to DaNang on the 27th"
20 July-to my Dad
"...life on LZ Kelly-McCoy has been hectic. For 8 straight day we worked all day & fought all night. Some of our actions have made AP from what we can gather. Two nights we were serenaded by VC loudspeakers planning American songs "Where have all the flowers gone", "Oh Susanna and North to Alaska among a others. The last few days have been relatively calm but with heavy rains in late PM and night. We're still building this place like crazy..imagine it'll take 2 more weeks"
21 July to my parents and sister
"We completed two weeks of working on FSB Kelley-McCoy. Work has been going slow due to weather and lack of materials...things have quieted considerably...Thanks for the books maybe I'll get to read a few now that life is a little more settled...Un popped popcorn is fine-we do have fire over here. Met a Lt in Bn from Brooksville a '67 UF grad. My platoon has lost strength again- a combination of some getting jobs in the rear and casualties. Both my RTO' got jobs in the rear-so lots of traing for the new ones. The other had been with me all along and I depended on them quite a bit"
29 July to my parents, sister and grandmother
" Well I'm still on LZ Kelley-McCoy- I sort of got the shaft & my R&R to Da Nang was cancelled. So I'm still working away on the construction of the hill. Have enjoyed the letters-right now I end up reading them under flashlight...30 July..lots to do can never sit down and finish any letters. Assuming there are no mixups I'll make 1Lt on 4 Aug. It means a large raise in pay"
For those of you who were with me at this time, we had our hands full. Reflecting on this period, what I remember from FSB4-11 in the early days is sketchy at best. There is some recollection of incidents-fire fights, etc. but that is jumbled. My letters and your reflections brought some those times back in my mind but not all that much. This was a frustrating time for all of us, we did not want to be there and we were beginning to think our country did not either.
This was the longest and most difficult month. As you know this was the month when we took our most casualties over a three-day period.
The first letter was very short and the next one was not until 16 August. The letters are further apart than earlier.
3 August Letter to my Mom(on A 3/1 letterhead paper)
"Happy Birthday-Sorry this is the only card I have....It is a hot Sunday...quiet here...working hard sand bagging the bunkers...photos taken in Da Nang - my favorite showing the beach cut off by OFF LIMITS sign and barbed wire"
16 August Letter to parents, sister & grandfather
This was the day my brother was married and my Grandfather Baxter, a minister, participated in the wedding.
"Well I hope today was a great day. I'm thinking about all of you. No matter what the papers say the war is still going and it is as grim & as unhappy as before all this "lull" talk. It was a bad week for us. On a better note, stand down has been moved up & we all go to Chu Lai on on 24 Aug....first break since the first part of July. Really not too much to write about"
21 August Letter to my parents
"Well two days to stand down & we are ready for it. The platoon is tired after some hard 14 days in the field. Also I should get a few breaks myself. Stand down is 24 Aug to 27...then week of pay office, then 9 to 16 Sept I should have in country leave somewhere. My out of the field date is still undetermined late Sept or Oct. I'll be looking for a job in Chu Lai. The rumors of withdrawal, deactivation of the 11th LIB and "lull" in the war continue. However enemy pressure continues...harassing type operations with no other objective than killing & injuring GI's....The VC fire 6 to 8 round hoping to hit somebody then run because they know arty barrages will follow. Only once in may such attacks has anybody been hurt. Also replacements are still coming...I'm now the 2nd most senior plt ldr in the battalion. So it can't be too long.
Tomorrow is the last day of stand down and again I'm in charge of the awards ceremony. However few company awards have cleared yet. I have put two of my SP4's in for Silver Stars but I'll be gone before they are awarded.
Not too much more to talk about from this vantage point. Life gets to a routine & conversations mean little to any one except us in the field."
25 August Letter to my parents
" ... got packages yesterday...dated 26 July. Chu Lai is hot and dry but the ocean or S.China Sea is as beautiful as ever & there is a nice sea breeze at night. Ran into a couple of lieutenant friends today while job hunting....There are possibilities here but nothing concrete as yet....Hope everything is going well back in the WORLD."
29 August Letter to my parents, sister and grandmother
"Came to Bronco tonight to be pay officer. Your package of 13 August arrived in good shape, many thanks....like to have another package of small cans of vegetables. They really improve the C's....Send more We got a new plt ldr today. So I am the next to be replaced under the normal replacement system..... A quiet night tonite.
11 September Letter to my parents-Written from China Beach R&R Da Nang
"I'm sitting on the patio of the Navy O Club overlooking the beautiful sand of S.China Sea. The sun is back out over I Corps after a 10 day absence. The first taste of the monsoon started at dawn on the first and it rained off & on for the next ten days. On the second I went back to the mountains with company and from the 2nd to 6th we searched for base camps & climbed hills 896,922 & 716(all in meters). Lots of humping but we saw nothing. On the 6th we went back to LZ4-11 for ten days. However on the night of the eighth I went to Bronco to get ready for the in country R&R....All seems peaceful now with the truce....Maybe Ho's death will let this thing die out but I really don't think so. Hopefully they'll keep Da Nang peaceful while I'm here. Though it is not a certainty it appears I'm out of the field for good now & will take the Battalion S-2 job. So it looks, happily, that my days as a rifle platoon leader are over."
So for a little over 5 months, 1st Platoon, A Company,3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry had a 26 year old lieutenant as its leader. While these letters rekindled the memory of events 46 years ago, most of my vivid memories are scrambled. I can recall events but they are only snapshots and I am not sure I will ever put them together chronologically.
Reflecting 46 years later, those five months were a period of conflict between the the futility of why are we doing this and the command pressure to kill as many of the enemy as possible because that was all that seemed to matter. My letters change over that period. The newness wears off and I sense being caught in the middle-take no casualties but kill. The reality is that the role of a rifle platoon leader is one of the loneliest jobs I can think of. I do not say this out of pity for me. I volunteered albeit under duress and took my chances. The platoon leader does not have the comradery the enlisted man has especially when the platoon operates alone. However, the nature of the Army is that officers are better off. We only had to stay in the field five to six months and you had to be there for most of your one-year tour. While we made mistakes on balance we did the best we could. I will always be indebted to all of you for your support.
It was a world where food was not to enjoy but consume as best as possible. We needed the energy but the tastes ranged from tolerable to awful.
Ah C-rations, the Army way to keep us fed easily and cheaply. Each meal came in a box containing three small cans: a meat, a bread, a dessert
plus an accessory pack containing powdered coffee, sugar, cream, four cigarettes and toilet paper. So how did we make it tolerable? It took sauces
such as Tabasco or A-1 and heat. Eating chopped ham and egg cold out of a can is disgusting. It could be heated up quickly with an explosive called C-4.
This was magic: detonate C-4 and it blows a hole in a wall, light with a match and it burns hot and warms the meal. That would be followed by pears
in a sauce and if you were unlucky fruit cake. If you were lucky it would be pound cake. Delivery of rations would begin a series of swapping among
the troops. An extra dessert might be obtained for the cigarettes. If your meat option was turkey loaf, you were stuck with it. Not even Tabasco
could help. After a few days of these random meals, it would evoke a plea in the next letter home. Could someone please send a few small cans of
vegetables and cookies?
C-rations would normally come by supply helicopter every three to four days. Each soldier would receive nine boxes. First order of business would be to break out all the cans and load our packs. The boxes would then be buried in a deep hole. So after adding 15 to 20 pounds to our light 60 pound packs, we would move to our next objective. Meal time was random. Almost all meals were eaten by daylight in a secure perimeter. Half the men would be on guard while the rest of us ate the army way-very quickly.
If we were in a safe location, we might get a hot meal flown in by chopper at midday. This was a treat and broke the boring eating routine. It also meant we would receive letters and packages from home. The packages were the highlight even if the cookies were just crumbs. For me, it was often a welcomed resupply of powdered Gatorade. My South Carolinian radio operator's package often contained a can of boiled peanuts.
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