May 26, 1969
The Battery had been moved to the top of Dong Ha Mountain for a few weeks now. Battery A 1st Battalion 12th Marine Regiment 3rd Marine Division had built a position for their six 105mm Howitzers on the top of a high peak and was capable of providing close artillery support in any direction. The work was very hard. All materials, ammo, supplies and equipment had to be man carried and placed. No trucks, just a placement by CH-53’s and 46’s and the guns tended to sink in the mud. Thousands of sand bags filled with mud had to be assembled into gun pits and houches. The wind and rain chilled you to the bone. The fire missions were long and everybody was worked into a trance. The Marines in the battery were very close to each other. We humped ammo and worked together to accomplish our mission. Many life long friendships were born. Many lives were changed.
As a Battery the troops worked as a unit to accomplish the common tasks. Humping ammo, building fortifications and doing whatever was necessary. But the very close relationships came within the various Gun crews. When your Gun had duty, time off, chow or guard it was only your crew as all others were sleeping, eating or on work parties. The five Marines on your Gun were yours. On Dong Ha Mountain the Guns were arranged in line connected by common pit walls. I was on Gun #1 and shared some personal moments with Gun #2 and #3, but the farther down the line towards the CP the closeness seemed to fade a little. The firebase was the night rest stop for various infantry platoons; they would hump in and out daily. I don’t recall even speaking to these Marines but their presents was always appreciated.
I remember Van Vleet as a skinny light haired kid from Utah. He was a hard worker, friendly and he knew how to stay out of the Sgt.’s ire. He was on Gun #2. Gutierrez had a slight build and was from California as was I, but I don’t remember talking to him much about home. Although he was a Corporal he worked very hard and was on Gun #2.
On the day I can never forget the call rang out “battery adjust, enemy contact, rounds, charge, azimuth, deflection”. All Marines scrambled. It was wet and almost dark. I was standing behind Gun #1 loading powder bags into a canister. Mike D. was next to me setting a fuse when I swear that it went completely quiet and I heard for the very first time in my life the words “short round”. For some reason, I will hopefully understand some day, I crouched down, there was a loud snap sound, and then screams. Robert Van Vleet and Raymond Gutierrez were on high ground when the round hit wire or air bursted directly between Gun #1 and #2. They died and I was changed forever. Death, pain, blood, sadness and the realization of mortality was the lesson of that day.
I am a United States Marine Veteran but I must admit that at that moment I was a child. The gallant efforts displayed by other Marines inspire me. I will not name them but they were truly heroic. The Doc worked and men held the victims down, carried them to the helo and I think completed the fire mission. I think all I could do was help. There was no shortage of leadership and courage. After it was all over and quiet again I became overwhelmed and jumped into a bunker. I think I was scared. I remember thinking to myself “what the F*ck are you doing? There is no danger now”. The fact is that I was changed forever.
God bless Van Vleet and Gutierrez. They were taken at nineteen years. They are forever nineteen while those of us who survived are old. They missed what we were given and I will probably never understand why.
I will never forget these two Marines. They gave all so we can be free. When I hear people speaking of gallant war heroes with medals and citations I remember these two Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice with little if any recognition. They were the gallant heroes I knew.
(Quote)”All Marines die in either the red flash of battle or the white cold of the nursing home. In the vigor of youth or the infirmity of age all will eventually die but the Marine Corps lives on. Every Marine who ever lived is living still, in the Marines who claim the title today. It is that sense of belonging to something that will outlive our own mortality. It is belonging to something which gives people a light to live by and a flame to mark their passing.” (Author unknown)
Mike Stagner, aka “Orange”
0811, Battery A, 1st Bat, 12th Reg.3rd Div.