It all started with an elegant star show.
In the predawn hours on this particular night in the DMZ between North and South Vietnam the stars and the comets put on a show for us and it was mind bogglingly beautiful. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of shooting stars flamed across the night sky. And the perfect backdrop of the wheel of constellations made the show that much more impressive.
We were staging on a low lying grassy hillock waiting to head out on a sweep of an area where some NVA [North Vietnamese Army] troops had been spotted.
But you would never have known that if you could have heard our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahhs’ as we reacted to the thrilling display that the wheel of stars and the flaming burnouts put on just for us.
We were Fox Company 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Division but on that early dark morning we sounded more like little kids watching the fireworks on the 4th of July.
The faint smell of marijuana mixed with the cigarette puffs as we sat mesmerized. Some of the boys liked to tuck a little pot in the tip of their butts to spice up the day. Don’t have any idea how they got it, because where we were in the middle of the McNamara Line that stretched from the South China Sea west to ‘Khe Sanh’, there were no villages or any civilians at all. In the Demilitarized Zone anybody out there was a target, not a pot salesman.
The post we’d just embarked from was called ‘Con Thien’; the Hill of the Angels’ although why it had that moniker none of us knew.
Never saw any angels there or any angelic goings-on.
At any rate we were told to saddle up and the potheads and the cig puffers extinguished the smoking lamp and headed out. Our destination was an old uninhabited Buddhist temple which was supposedly being used as an enemy base of some sort.
We trooped along in single file, each one of us left alone to the silent thoughts which everyone carried along on patrols like this.
From out of nowhere I suddenly felt a very uncomfortable feeling in my gut. After trying to ignore it for a few miles I admitted to myself that I had to make an emergency bush stop.
Now this was never a great idea because the column could not be alerted to one Marine’s nature call and they would not have stopped anyway.
Sometimes the Vietcong who were typically south of the DMZ would trail behind the troops. Their numbers were never enough for an attack, so they’d just wait and hope for a straggler behind the group that they could ‘pick off’. We didn’t know if the NVA did it too and did not want to know.
This was certainly on my mind as I sat crouched and trying to quickly finish my business. But I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom.
The marine buddy who stayed behind with me to serve as lookout started to cough nervously to let me know that we risked falling behind if I didn’t giddy-up. But I was in a jam.
After what seemed like an eternity I pulled up my jungle trousers and we caught up with the rest.
I just figured that that would be it for my little sidetrack and got back to my squad as the morning dawned and we approached what appeared to be a nicely manicured little hillock. It was really quite pretty sitting all alone and eerily silent in the middle of nowhere.
The mound was layered, terraced really, with short hedges which rimmed the outside of its perimeter. The ledges were only about 10 feet wide and they reached up the hill in layers, like a cake.
When we reached the top the Captain called squad leaders up to plan our ‘look see’ of the pretty little temple that sat on the hillock’s crest.
It was abandoned but it was easy to see that a lot of care and craftsmanship had gone into its construction. Smaller than a village church back home but with room enough for probably 20 or 30 worshippers. Only now it was empty.
My squad [as usual] was picked to reconnoiter the place. The interior was quite elegant in a simple way. The walls and floor were white washed. The ceiling was actually just the tiles and roof supports which showed underneath.
There was not a speck of anything anywhere inside. It wasn’t quite spotless but there was virtually no sign of human presence whatever, only a few scattered leaves.
About that time I had to go back to the bush again. This time I really couldn’t stop going. Eventually I just pulled up my pants which without my knowing it were covered in my stomach contents. But I was too exhausted to crouch anymore.
When I reported to the Captain he looked at me and told me to go over and lie down near the hedgerow.
I spent the rest of the morning in a kind of peaceful fevered state. No sense of time or place or anything else bothered my peaceful dream trance.
Late in the afternoon when they’d finish their mission they woke me up and we moved out. At first I was able to walk OK but after a while my paced slowed and my rifle and pack and extra ammo began to feel heavy.
Little by little other marines had to take on my load as I just couldn’t cope. After a while even my cartridge belt was weighing me down and they relieved me of it.
Finally two marines had to more or less drag me back onto our hill. The Sarge took one look at me and told me to go and see the Corpsman. I dragged myself to a tent, which had not been there before, wearing no trousers or boots. Those were left in a messy heap outside my little pup tent.
The Doc took me into the tent wrapped me in a towel and told me to lie down on a cot that was alongside a bunch of other ones which I barely noticed.
And that’s how began one of the most bizarre days and nights of my life.
Unbeknownst to me the tent I was in was paired with a twin and both were packed with cots holding about 40 marines all who were sick and weakened by the same condition.
We were all naked except for the towels we wore and some didn’t even have that. The Docs were going from cot to cot offering encouragement, some salt tablets and some bottled pink stuff of unknown origin.
Meanwhile this macabre procession was going on. Each of us Jarheads in our turn were dragging ourselves up and plodding outside to the latrines. We all spent that time parading by one another barely aware of each other’s existence, from tent to the pits and back. Sometimes we’d actually make it to the latrines, other times we would not. Some of the marines simply gave up trying and they just slumped down on the death march that went from the tents to the pits.
A number of guys died right where they slumped.
I barely remember but can vaguely recall that the Docs, with help from other corpsmen from the battalion were lining the path and shouting at us to keep moving along. Inside the tent they were moving from cot to cot dispensing meds and hollering at us and shaking people to keep us from passing out, which meant certain death.
Next day when I woke up I felt OK and was told I could go back to my outfit. On the way out of the tent I passed a Corpsman buddy of mine named Mike. Still pretty woozy I remember him looking at me and shaking his head. All he said to me, and he kept saying it over and over; “Hour and half, Saunders, hour and a half.”
I trudged back to my tent fetched my soiled trousers and boots and proceeded to the swamp where I washed them as best I could and hung them on the tent to dry.
Just then Sgt. Buck came by. He said, “Hey Saunders, wanna get some breakfast?” I said sure, and off we went.
Mike told me later that what he meant by, ‘Hour and a half’ was that if I had come in an hour and a half later than I did, I would have died.
Later that day I learned that 43 marines had been struck with dysentery and 19 had died that night along the trail and in the tents. It was supposed to have been from bad water from one of the battalion water trailer tanks which we shared.
Back on that grassy knoll gazing up at the shooting stars flashing by; I never would have dreamed they’d have carried me near to death’s door and back.
-Charles M. Sander
Second Battalion, First Regiment, First Division
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