Once the artillery barrage of Hill 110 was over, the surrounding low growth jungle area subsided into a windy silence.
The hot air wafted, like blown cobwebs sweeping slowly back and forth across the face and body of anyone standing. I lay in my hooch, waiting. The night was coming and my fear was rising once again. I hated that the Gunny was right and that I was starting to get used to being terrified to death, not that the terror lessened. It didn’t. Somehow I could maintain control while going through it. Maybe, for the first time, when the sun went fully down, the terror would not be as bad as it had been every night before. It was only my fourth night but thinking back to the airliner ride into Da Nang was like mentally going back a year in relative time. The only good thing about the night was the coming of the next day if I lived. Resupply, with tracers. Another day closer to getting a letter from home, or even a package or tape. Anything. “Home” was in the music from the radios and from the notes in the cigarette cartons. And the letter hastily written to Mary was in my front pocket. That was it.
“Stevens, front,” I ordered, leaning out toward my little dry moat.
There was a scurrying sound before my three scouts appeared before me, each looking compliant and ready for whatever I might order. They resembled the Marines in combat I’d been led to believe I’d be leading. But in only four days and nights I knew better. They were each independent thinking machines making decisions based upon their own survival strategies. How to get them to do what I wanted or needed them to do because they wanted to do it occupied much of my thinking.
“Stevens, go on over to First Platoon and tell the commander of that unit that he’s going to have his men carry the Marines who can’t walk when we leave here,” I ordered.
“The Gunny’s not going to like that,” Stevens replied, not moving an inch.
I was ready for his response, however, so I showed none of the mild exasperation I felt at not being instantly obeyed. My mission was to lead to the extent that I survived, nothing more and nothing less. I too had quickly become an independent thinking machine dedicated to my own survival strategy. The other Marines in my unit kept their strategies secret, for the most part, unless they were dumb enough to frag or injure themselves to the point of attempting to get out. I had to go along to get along. I had to keep my own secrets, even from the Gunny.
“Then tell the Gunny on your way, but don’t come back here until you’ve told Jurgens what I ordered,” I said, my voice going soft and casual.
Stevens still made no move, as he considered his options, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news to racially volatile First Platoon’s command post. Mentally, my right hand slid marginally closer to the butt of my .45, but physically I made no move. I could not openly threaten any of the men under my command, not with full darkness on the way. My mind worked as if on two levels, one deadly lethal and wanting to kill anything that was the slightest threat to my potential survival, and the other totally shocked at being able to think such awful and foreign thoughts about any other human being without hesitation or regret. Stevens stared into my eyes. My eyes did not blink as I looked back. I tried to soften my facial features while we stared back and forth, so the man would not understand the battle going on in my mind.
Suddenly, Stevens got to his feet, motioned to Nguyen and was gone. The last glance he’d given me told me I’d succeeded somewhat. He hadn’t picked up on my conflict although his frown indicated he wasn’t happy with my leadership decision. Nobody was being evacuated, not without having their ass literally shot off. Zero moved to join the departed scouts.
“Stay,” I ordered before the man got fully underway.
“Why do they call you Zero?” I asked as he settled his huge bulk back down in front of me.
“Wrestling,” he replied, looking wistfully after Stevens and Nguyen. “I wrestled at 285, what they used to call Heavy Weight. But I was so big they said I was off the chart so they called me Zero. My wife lives in Japan.”
I looked over at the giant child. The wife comment came out of nowhere so I pursued it.
“What’s her name and where does she live?” I asked, not really caring but trying to come to grips with what I had to deal with in the man and why he would not participate in whatever was going on in Fourth Platoon.
“Yokosuka,” he replied. “Namika.”
I frowned. Which one was the place and which one was the name? I didn’t know and didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking.
“I’m a Private,” Zero went on. “A Marine Private. Is Scout a higher rank than Private?”
“You have to be a Corporal,” I answered, having no idea.
“So I can’t really be a Scout?” he asked, his voice disappointed.
“You’re now a Corporal,” I answered, wondering if I was being funny or serious with myself, much less the Marine in front of me.
“Combat promotion. The needs of the unit. Heroism in being real when everything and everyone else is shit,” I finished, no humor in my tone.
“Thank you, sir,” Zero said, rising to his feet and coming to attention. I looked up at the man mountain.
“What are you doing?” I asked a bit befuddled.
“The ceremony,” he said, staring straight ahead, his facial expression as rigid as his body.
I rubbed my face with one hand, feeling the oozing remainder of repellent oil from the night before. I was down the rabbit hole but Alice’s Wonderland was a whole lot saner than where I had landed. I stood up.
“You are now officially a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps.” I saluted him, even though I wasn’t wearing any cover. He saluted back.
“When you find the company clerk, if we have a company clerk, then report yourself in on the daily,” I ordered before returning to my hooch.
The new corporal saluted again and then moved back to where his own hooch was under construction near where the other departed scouts had their stuff. I thought about the big man. He was the first Marine I liked, other than the boy Marine Fusner since I’d landed in country. And he called me sir. I had the feeling that he’d always call me sir, no matter what, and the thought was somehow comforting. I gestured to Fusner by holding out my right hand. In seconds the radio handset was plopped into it.
“Rittenhouse, sir,” Fusner said. I looked at him in surprise. “Rittenhouse, the company clerk. We have one. I can get him.”
“No, later,” I said. “I’ve got to set up night defensive fires for the hill we aren’t going to be on.
I silently wondered what the battery FDC might think if and when we got hit later in the night. All of the fire I’d be calling would form around a small perimeter circle some distance from the hill that I’d preprogrammed defensive fires earlier. They were cool, dry, just out of Fort Sill and not dummies in the Fire Direction Center. They’d figure things out if we needed too much help and then check fire. The Gunny and the Company were playing an extremely dangerous game I was being required to try to work them around and through without them being aware of what I was doing.
Trying to talk artillery ballistics to someone who’d not been trained in it was almost useless. The detail was everything. Back at the Battery, when their rounds started going out charge six and seven they had to begin calculating for the earth’s curvature and even its rotation. The density of air the shells would be moving through was vital and the shells went up thousands and thousands of feet through different densities. The Company wasn’t playing chess, it was playing dice, with every night being another throw. I finished setting up my layered defense with both the 105 battery and that of the 155s closer to Da Nang, knowing the 155s would be much bigger rounds but less accurate because we were out near the edge of their effective range.
The Gunny appeared, bringing with him somehow a cloud of the evening mosquitoes. I reached for the repellent bottle held to the side of my helmet by the big rubber band Fusner had found for me earlier. The Gunny squatted down but made no move to make coffee or be social in any way. I slathered bug juice on my face and neck, and then my hands and wrists. I put the bottle back where it belonged and waited.
“That’s a bizarre solution and not really a solution at all,” the Gunny began. “That just means we’ll have to deal with them later on or other problems because of them.”
“So, Jurgens is unhappy over there in First Platoon,” I said, without making the sentence a question.
“As you knew,” the Gunny answered. “I don’t know what you’ve got against him, anyway, but there’s something between you. He’s probably going to kill those kids. You know that.”
“Couldn’t ship ‘em out and couldn’t keep ‘em here,” I intoned, ignoring the Jurgens thing.
I realized how hard it was to hide anything in such an emotionally charged environment. Everyone was watching and judging everyone else while lying about watching and judging. I felt absolutely nothing for the ‘kids’ who’d damaged their own feet in an attempt to get out of the same hell I’d have done anything myself to get out of.
“He may not do it,” the Gunny mused. “Jurgens just may leave them behind for us to deal with when we pull out of here. If we pull out of here.”
“Then he can lead the way in the taking of Hill 110,” I replied. “I’m playing along with this charade, as is everyone else. I presume you’ve got Lima Company’s 81s under control. If somebody wants to break ranks, then up they go and we all assault that hill or call Battalion and tell Bennett we’re refusing to attack because we’re a bunch of chicken shits.”
“Well, mister new tough guy, what if Jurgens simply decides to take you out?” the Gunny asked, his voice little above a hissed whisper.
I looked over at Fusner, who all of sudden was drifting outward into deeper vegetation.
“First Platoon is registered,” I replied. “Are they coming now?” I picked up the handset to the Prick 25 Fusner had shed and left lying on my poncho liner.”
“Jesus Christ,” the Gunny swore, raising his voice. “No. I don’t know. This whole thing is fucked. Leave it alone. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help all of us.” I heard the sound of mortars leaving their tubes and flinched.
“Outgoing,” the Gunny said, getting control of himself. “The 81s are firing around the hill we just took, to make it look good. Lima’s okay.”
“Thanks, Gunny,” I said, softly.
“For what?” he answered.
“For everything,” I said, being careful not to sound paternalistic or commanding, but trying not to sound weak either. “This is impossible and you’re doing the best anybody could.”
“Shit,” he said, forcefully, and got to his feet. “They’re going to fire down on us tonight because we’re sitting targets and they know it. Use that underground crap you called in before when it starts. I think it shakes them down to their little gook asses.”
He disappeared into the brush without further comment. Fusner reappeared, as if by magic, as Stevens and Nguyen returned to report back. They both squatted down before me but neither said anything. I gave Nguyen one slight head nod, motioning toward behind me. He moved quickly and silently, like he was made of liquid, and disappeared behind me. I faced Stevens, wanting a cup of coffee, but it was too late in the waning day to light anything.
The radio on Stevens’ shoulder was turned way down but I heard the announcement by Brother John that the next song would be the last until the morning. The song began to play. “I know you want to leave me but I refuse to let you go…” came across the short distance between us. I thought about the lyrics of the song and my wife, and Stevens and the Gunny. It was like God was talking to me.
“Please don’t you leave me, girl, don’t you go.”
I needed these men and yet the circumstances of my needing and the circumstances of their own seemed so divergent. How could it ever be possible to bring them together? I had my third letter in my pocket. How many letters would I get off before there would be no more letters?
“Call the other guys,” I said to Stevens, as there was no point in discussing what he’d been ordered to do, what the result was or even how the Gunny had become involved.
I waited while I heard the hustle and bustle behind me meant they were coming. My scout team. In the Basic School, one night a week, each platoon got together to play a game before calling it a day. The game was “What now, Lieutenant?” The phrase driving the game was ‘any decision is better than no decision.” Decisions were supposed to be what lieutenants did. A problem would be trotted out by a trainer. A problem impossible to solve. Like the Lieutenant and his unit had to get across a bottomless chasm where there was no bridge or rope, or they’d die where they were. A few pieces of junk, like stakes, hooks, some fishing poles and a few planks too short to do the job would be provided to be used in solving the problem. The trainer would make sure everyone understood the problem and the only tools. Then he would point at one lieutenant, of those gathered before him, and say: “What now, Lieutenant?”
My team squatted down before me, except for Fusner who sat next to me in radio cord distance. Stevens, Nguyen, and Zero. I thought about how much fun it would be to describe where we were and what our situation was and ask the ‘What now, Lieutenant’ question. But I was the lieutenant and the problem was worse than some chasm or canyon that could not be crossed. I lit a cigarette, ostensibly to let the smoke drift over my face, before talking.
“Things are going to heat up tonight and there’s no predicting what’s going to happen. We’ll get hit with whatever they’ve got up on that hill because they think we’re going to attack at dawn anyway. I’ll use arty to suppress what I can. First Platoon isn’t happy with me and there’s nothing I can do about it. So, we may have visitors from them, as well. I want you guys to move to another location until dawn. Leave the radio here so I can call in the night fire.”
I looked at them through the smoke and in the waning light. They were good men, all four of them. God hadn’t been fair to them. I was going to be.
“I registered First Platoon earlier,” Stevens said. “I’ve got friends there. Are you going to call it in if they come in the night?”
I stared back at the ambivalent sergeant, torn between his friends, being a standup Marine and trying to stay alive.
“I don’t know,” I answered, truthfully.
The nine-digit grid coordinates of First Platoon’s position were at the forefront of my memory. I could even see the code conversion on the map, burned into my mind like blackened letters burned into a wood board.
“Does it have to be this way?” Fusner asked, his voice a whisper from my right.
I puffed on the cigarette without inhaling. I didn’t want to go into a coughing fit in front of these men.
“One night when I was thirteen years old my uncle, who was in the Army and had fought from Normandy all the way across Europe, took me up into the attic of his house. He opened a big wooden box and showed me his souvenirs from the war. Daggers, helmets, and even an old non-functional Luger impressed me mightily. I could tell my uncle was drunk. He smiled at my enjoyment until I asked him a question. I don’t know where the question came from. It just blurted out. “What was the worst thing you had to do in the war?” I asked.
Uncle Jim’s smile disappeared as it had never been on his face. He stared at me so furiously I became slightly afraid to be up there in the old attic with him alone. He took a long time to answer, but he finally did. “The worst thing was killing the young officers assigned to us. I was the senior sergeant. It was my job to get rid of the officers who might get us killed.”
I looked at the men in front of me, and then over at Fusner. I puffed on my cigarette some more, even though there were no mosquitoes.
“I never believed his story and we never spoke again of the war he was in,” I said. “He died years back. It wasn’t until four days ago that I found out Uncle Jim had told me the truth that night in the attic.”
I looked from one Marine to another, waiting until I thought they might have had enough time to absorb what I’d said before I went on.
“I don’t make the rules out here and neither do you. This was all like this when we got here. We’re here and we’re trying to go back home, just like Uncle Jim. We’ll do what we have to do to accomplish that, all of us together or each of us alone. Now, go find another place for the night and return at dawn, if there’s anything to return to. No matter what, I hope you make it home.”
Like that they were gone in the night, none of them even stopping to pick up gear or equipment. I had the radio, some C-Rations, clean clear water, and the radio. I was surprised to find I wasn’t terrified. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t anything.
30 Days Home | Next Chapter >>
Wow, that has brought so many memories back that have been buried for years! Thanks James,looking forward to the next installment!
Thanks Mike. I particularly treasure comments from non-coms because of their
importance in my life and my survival. It’s true that Dr. Norton, the man
who triaged me when he might have let me die, and Dr. Atai, the surgeon in Japan who
fought to save me, were officers. But in the field it was all non coms all the way.
I eas never a Marine but I did ‘serve with’ them (in a ‘Joint Command’ in Thailand). This reminds me of a statement I heard recently on the new television show, ‘Bull’… There was a woman attorney giving a ‘Closing Argument’ in a trial. She ‘observed’… (I’m going to have to paraphrase here) “There is a reason they say ‘Truth has a Ring to It’ because you recognize it when you hear it…” This may (or may not) be ‘fiction’ but it is undeniably True…
Now that is an intelligent and interesting comment Douglas. I had to think about it.
These are my recollections brought forth using old letters and notes and, of course, memory.
Is this rendition of my story ‘true’ or not? Recollections are tough things to consider because we
don’t necessarily recall exactly as things happened and we come at it from one single perspective,
and that’s our own. Neat comment. I am thinking.
Great Writing, that has inspired so many Gr
eat Comments from Fellow Marines. I am so glad you are able to write it all down for Yourself, and for Them !
James I can tell this is written from your heart and gut. I am forever thankful that my tour (69-70)did not taker me where so many of you went. It is amazing to me that you are letting us experience this as you write it. I salute you for your service then and now.
the photo above taken at hill 823 nov. 1967 bravo company 4th 173rd airborne. val estrello
Yes, I pulled the photo because I don’t have any of my time in the Nam. I had not camera
and I could not find any good ones on the Internet. Thanks for the accuracy. I did not know that hill.
This is some awesome writing Lt. when is he book coming out?
Mando. I am writing it day by day as you see if come up. Tonight the next segment will hit. I started
this just to write it. I will publish it myself on Amazon just as soon as it is done. It will probably take about
45 to 60 days to finish. Thank your for the asking and also for the service.
I gave our Uncle his shot when I got drafted in’66. He chose to send me to Korea. Your narrative (can’t call it a story) reaffirms experiences I’ve heard from some very brave men. Braggadocio seems to go away when it’s dead or alive only. Thank you for your service first and for telling about it second. Keep it up.
Thank you Walt. I am doing the best I can day by day to get it up. I’m not sure why. Just seemed time.
Found all the letters and diary in the basement and sat there thinking. And it all just started to come out
on its own.
I would have had to respectfully declined your order Lt. Man for Man – your bar to my chevrons we were Marines who needed each other. I would have to live within myself. Keep writing your story. It is riveting in every sense of the word. Semper Fi
Your reply means more to me than you might know. The
real men, like you, who forged units and held it all together
so that men like me could somehow be accorded leadership roles.
Not much is made out of the vital role of non coms in combat.
Like parents, really. Saw that in a movie once. The Gunny was
like my Dad when we were in it. Like the unit’s Dad too.
Gritty and honost. Like the way you write and think. Wasn t a marine but a paratrooper post nam. Thanks for your reflections of war.
Thank you Joseph. I am writing it as best I can, reconstructed from the diary and letters that my wife and parents saved.
Appreciate the comment.
I got the previous installment yesterday as a suggested post on my FB page, went back to the beginning, and now am up-to-date. I’ve subscribed to make sure I get the rest of the story. Glad you’re planning to make it into a book! (I’m gonna share it to the “Terminal Lance” FB page; I think you’ll get some good feedback from that crew as well.)
I was in the Corps from ’78-’92 and, of course, served with many Viet vets – a lot of what you’ve written rings true from what many of them told me over the years.
I was interested that you served with Jim Webb. I remember reading “Fields of Fire” when it came out while I was at TBS; he’s someone I’ve come to admire greatly over the years… I suspect you won’t comment, but hope you do too.
Lastly, I think the book about the former SS in the Foreign Legion during the Indochina War you mentioned is called “Devil’s Guard.” I had a copy, but loaned it to a buddy when I was on Okinawa in ’81 and never got it back.
Please keep writing – for all of us… you & the others who were there, those of us who have followed the line of march, and those who will.
God Bless & Semper Fi,
Thank you Tim, for the rather riveting comment. Such things mean a lot
to an old Marine like me. As to Webb. A fine man, brave and a great leader.
He led the company on my flank. He plays a role in a later part of the saga
as I’ve laid it out. I’m writing it day by day so there is no book yet. You
are reading it every day as I write on into the night, using all my letters home
(saved by my wife and parents) and a cursive diary I made entries in while I was
there and thankfully sent home just before the wound that pulled me out for good.
It was encountering that stuff again in the basement that caused me to write.
I went to Jim Webb’s inauguration in D.C. when he became Sec. of the Navy.
He came to New Mexico to award me the profiles in courage award. It was so
good to see him again. When we first saw each other and then realized who we
really were (we look, talk and are so different from when we were over there)
we went straight to a bar and left everyone standing when we walked out.
It was grand. I will look up Devil’s Guard as I’ve always wanted to
read it post Nam but could not remember the name. Thank You!!!!
Thanks for the reply. Glad we agree about Jim Webb. (If you can find it, read the Washington Post interview with him that during the summer / early fall of ’78 after “Fields of Fire” was published and read his comment about Jane Fonda.)
I was at HQMC during his tenure as SECNAV and still have a copy of his resignation letter (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a link to it and President Reagan’s acceptance letter: https://www.reaganlibrary.archives.gov/archives/speeches/1988/022388b.htm [supposedly it didn’t bother the President too much]; my understanding is there was bad blood between Webb and Frank Carlucci before Carlucci became SECDEF and things went downhill from there). Not long afterwards, a group of us were having chow and someone wondered aloud what possible reason could have led Webb to willingly give up a position like SECNAV… my response was “principle.”
Tim, Thank you so much. I had read his resignation letter back in the day, of course. Class, just like he was and is. Reagan wasn’t really there anymore mentally when he got the letter so I never held his quick and easy acceptance too seriously. I also think Jim has had to deal with PTSD over the years like many of the rest of us and he neither suffers fools well nor is he much to hold his fire when faced with aggressive assholes. It is nice to have a man i served so closely with to look up to with such respect and admiration. Thank you ever so much for taking the time to comment here and fill us all in.
My mother saved every letter I wrote to her from basic to VN.
I am still reading them, and finding out that until something rings a bell from the letter that there were vast expanses of time that were blank.
You’re doing a great job of reminding what we went thru.
Thanks Dave, it takes some doing to reconstruct it all at the beginning but once
I got really into it the stuff just keeps coming back. And then I rewrite as I remember more
or even have to look some things up, like names of places I’ve forgotten.
Thanks for writing on here and liking the work.
I do not know if there is such a thing as a “good war,” but this American clusterfuck was one of the worst things we ever did to ourselves.
Jon. You have effectively described exactly the way life really is out here. These ‘worst things’ we keep doing to
ourselves mostly effect the people who never go and profit from others going. How to change that? I don’t know, really.
But more of us knowing and thinking about the truth cannot hurt.
Semper fi, and Thank You!!!