My Alive Day
OK, those who have been there know that the craziest crap happens at the worst possible time. Sometimes it?s your fault and sometimes somebody else does something so stupid it defies the imagination. No matter whose fault it is, you are left holding the crappy end of the stick.
Hopefully, no one except the enemy gets killed because of it.
January 6, 2010 will be the 40th Anniversary of my Alive Day. The Alive Day concept came to my attention while reading about some wounded Marine Warriors at Bethesda Naval Hospital. They came up with the idea to celebrate the day they were WIA and survived, calling it their ?Alive Day?. Beats ?Dead Day? all to hell.
Forty years ago I was coming up on my 14th month in country with 11th Marines. I was NCOIC of a ten man Counter Mortar Radar (CMR) team at LZ Ross, a rundown former US Army artillery support base located in the Que Son Valley about thirty five miles southwest of DaNang, Vietnam.
Our Korean war vintage MPQ-10 radar system was situated about a hundred yards in from the perimeter and we scanned the skies nightly for incoming mortar rounds. This cranky piece of vacuum-tubed garbage looked impressive enough wagging back and forth, but to my mind it was a big shit magnet ? hard to maintain, difficult to run and a hell of a target for the NVA. Oh, well. In the Marine Corps you work with what you got, right?
My CMR unit was attached to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and as a Team Chief I got to sit in on daily briefings at the Battalion Combat Operations Center (COC). In December of 1969, we were briefed 1st Mar Div Intelligence had tracked elements of the 409th Local Force VC Battalion from their usual area of operation in Quang Tin Province and were now believed headed in our direction.
I got back to my team and told them we needed to better prepare in case we got hit. During heavy monsoon rains and cold windy weather at the end of the month we reinforced our position and dug deeper fighting holes next to the radar. Everybody was bitching about the work and nobody was happy about filling sandbags in the rain, but tough titty. I was the Sergeant and that?s the way it was going to be. Little did I know it at the time, but the extra effort and all that rain wound up saving our asses big time.
I had a buddy over in 7th Marines from boot camp who scammed a couple of extra cases of M26 grenades and ammo for us. At the time, M16 ammo came in bandoliers with each pouch containing 20 rounds packaged in a paper box with stripper clips for easier magazine loading. The grenades came in a wooden ammo crate inside round cardboard and tin containers. To get the grenade out, you had to remove the tightly packed container by twisting the top off. This took time and I didn?t want to waste any if I needed a grenade in a hurry.
While up north on the DMZ earlier in my first tour, I?d seen a neat trick to insure frags were readily available in case the doo doo hit the revolving mechanism. After taking the pre-packaged ammo out of the cloth bandolier, you could slip several M26 fragmentation grenades into the empty bandolier pouches. When needed, grab the bandolier and off to war you go. I told one of my Lance Corporals to load up four bandoliers with frags and place one at each end of the two tents we were using.
Here?s where the story gets interesting. This particular Lance Corporal, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty, told me he thought it was crazy to put live grenades into bandoliers. ?What if a grenade falls out and hits the ground?, he whined. ?The pin could jar out and explode. It would be safer to keep them in the cardboard containers.?
The answer was, ?No, do what I tell you, Marine?. This guy was probably my biggest complainer and he had an irritating way of flinching every time the arty battery next to us fired. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, either.
What happened next is chronicled in the US Marine Corps History and Museums publication U.S. Marines in Vietnam – Vietnamization and Redeployment, 1970-1971 by Graham A. Cosmas and Lieutenant Colonel Terrence R Murray, USMC.
?On 6 January 1970, sappers of the 409th Local Force VC Battalion, supported by a mortar detachment from an unidentified VC or NVA unit, came out of the southern hills to attack LZ Ross.
During heavy monsoon rains which masked their approach, between 20 and 30 NVA and VC regulars in five-man teams crept up to the outer perimeter wire and quietly cut their way through at several points. Dressed in black or green shorts and bandannas, barefooted, and laden with grenades and satchel charges, they entered the perimeter without alerting the defenders. At 0130, the first rounds of a supporting mortar barrage exploded on the base and sappers outside the perimeter opened fire with RPGs and small arms. The infiltrators went into action, hurling explosives into bunkers, Southeast Asia huts, offices, and vehicles. They concentrated on the countermortar radar, the battalion combat operations center, and the artillery positions.?
I was rudely awakened at 0130 by a stupendous blast which collapsed the small CP tent I lived in with Sgt. Jim Bailey, a good friend and a great radar technician. A bookshelf between our two cots built out of artillery ammo crates by Bailey shielded me from most of the explosion. Bailey, unfortunately, took the brunt of it. Later, I found out the NVA had thrown satchel charges into both our tents and was the opening salvo of their attack on LZ Ross.
Crawling out from under the collapsed tent canvas into a drizzling rain, I could not believe my eyes. Our generator was on fire, my beautiful wing tank shower was blown up, and mortar rounds were impacting the immediate area.
I rolled into one of our two sandbagged fighting holes and landed on top of two of my enlisted team members. Both had been on radar watch, but abandoned the scope and jumped into the bunker on hearing the first explosions. I had dragged my rifle and .45 with me, but saw no one else had any weapons. Six Marines occupied our other bunker and had no weapons either. I was not happy.
I yelled at the other bunker to get back to their blown up tent and retrieve rifles, ammo and grenades. I low crawled back to mine and grabbed two bandoliers of grenades and a weapon, then made it back to the bunker with Sgt. Bailey who was seriously wounded and missing part of his right hand. I gave Bailey?s rifle to another Marine and hastily bandaged his hand which was bleeding profusely. As I wrapped the bandage, Bailey asked me for a favor. ?Please, he said, point that .45 somewhere else?. I realized while I was wrapping the bandage with one hand, I had my pistol in my other hand cocked and off safety aimed right at his head. I still have nightmares about that!
By now, the enemy had passed through our radar site and was in the process of attacking the battalion CP and a section of Seabees further inside the base. Friendly fire was impacting our position. Somebody started firing a recoilless rifle at enemy to our rear adding to the confusion. I about crapped my pants when a rocket-propelled recoilless round passed by me at shoulder level.
About this time I heard a strange hissing sound and saw a small flash of light in front of our bunker. I peeped over the sandbags and saw three NVA walking around like they owned the place. They were half naked and had large canvas bags slung over their bare chests. In the bags were explosive charges, which they were tossing at the radar and our bunkers.
I brought my rifle up and put a full magazine downrange (every time I see that Sgt. Grit T shirt saying, ?When in Doubt, Empty the Magazine?, I have to laugh).
All three dropped to the ground as soon as I started firing. I?m pretty sure I missed all of them because they continued to hurl more stuff at us from a ditch about fifteen yards to our front. Oddly, none of the stuff they were throwing exploded. One or two of them hissed and fizzled, but no bang, thank God.
I snatched up one of the grenade bandoliers with the idea to return the favor. I yanked the first one out of the pouch and went through the mental drill all of us were taught. Pull pin, throw grenade. Yell ?Grenade?. Count to five. Wait for it to go off. And wait, and wait. What the F? Must be a dud. Grab another grenade, Chuck it. No explosion. Double what the F? Throw another one. Then another. Nothing!
The nameless Lance Corporal whom I had instructed to prep the grenade bandoliers was in the bunker with me. He said something like, ?Sergeant, I know what the problem is. Take the tape off the grenade before you throw it.? I looked down at the grenade in my hand just pulled out of the bandolier. There was a band of electrical tape wound around the body of the grenade and the spoon. TRIPLE WHAT THE F!
The Lance Corporal said, ?I was afraid they would go off in the bandoliers, so I taped all of them up for safety?.
I had just thrown four grenades at the enemy with spoons taped up. It?s raining and it?s wet. The grenades are wet. The tape will loosen and the grenades will eventually go off. But they ain?t gonna go off any fricking time soon! I wanted to strangle this guy.
The other Marines frantically un-wrapped the remaining grenades and handed them to me. I threw three more and this time they went off. We had no more activity to our front after that. The rest of the night into the next day went by in a blur, but I do remember praying for dawn.
I also remember sitting in that bunker, seething mad at myself for everything that went wrong. We had gotten our asses kicked in a very bad way and I was responsible for the actions of my team. They were trained as radar operators and had very little in the way of infantry training prior to going to Viet-Nam. All they had was an abbreviated two week ITR and a one week orientation at Pendleton before deployment. Also, this incident happened at a very bad time for the Marine Corps. The war had lost all support at home (sound familiar?) and we had discipline problems, drugs, racial issues and fraggings going on. I had considered making the Marine Corps my career, but it was after my less than stellar performance as leader of this motley crew, I decided not to re-up.
Back to the more humorous aspect of this story. In the morning, I looked around and there was a lot of strange looking stuff strewn about our area. Interspersed with my taped up grenades were several unexploded ChiComs and what looked to be hastily improvised explosive devices. Some were made of discarded soda and beer cans. There were also a couple of long pipes, later identified as un-exploded Bangalore torpedoes, shoved under our tents and equipment
Fearing the taped up M26?s with the pins pulled lying on wet ground might go off, I got on the horn and requested EOD respond. When they got there, the Gunny in charge asked me if I knew anything about the taped up grenades. I can?t remember what I told him, but I know I had a red face while doing it.
I think his comments to me after his people cleaned up the explosive devices kind of summed up the whole episode. He told me we were damn lucky to be alive. The enemy had attacked under the cover of heavy rain and much of their explosives were rendered useless by moisture. Our Counter Mortar Radar was the primary target and bore the brunt of the initial assault. The enemy timing was screwed up as well. The sappers hit us at the same time their mortar barrage landed. Several were killed by their own fire.
Bottom line, if it weren?t for the rain, a disorganized enemy and forcing my guys to build bunkers and fill sandbags, my writing career would have been over long ago.
Sadly, thirteen Marines lost their lives that night and we had over thirty wounded. Enemy casualties were estimated at forty KIA. Sgt. Bailey was med-evac?d at first light and that was the last I ever saw of him. I?ve tried over the years to look him up on various websites and buddy locators, but no luck. Jim, if you are reading this, get in touch, will ya?
I?m attaching a picture of some of the unexploded ordinance EOD gathered together to blow in place. One of those taped up M26 Fragmentation Grenades is visible in the center of the picture. Also pictured – our sandbagged Radar (before getting nuked) and our personnel tent at LZ Ross, blown to hell by mortars and satchel charges on my Alive Day, January 6, 1970.
Moral of the story, check your weapons and ammo every day. Dig deep holes. Trust no one to do a critical job without supervision. Say your prayers and God Bless the Marine Corps!