By: Brian Emerson
The C-130 flight from Okinawa to DaNang took seven hours. I had been in Okinawa at Camp Hanson for three days, getting shots for exotic sounding diseases. The plague, diphtheria, yellow fever, and a host of others, they were all strange to me, a 19-year-old kid from New Jersey. Frenchie, Ron, and I had drinks at the EM club the first night at Camp Hanson, since we weren’t allowed to go on Liberty into Kim Village, which was right outside the camp gates. We assumed it was because we were in transit and they didn’t want to lose track of us, or they were afraid we wouldn’t come back. So the second night at the club we met a guy who knew where there was a hole in the fence. He took me, and my friend, Frenchie, to find it and go into Kim Village from the back. On Liberty you were supposed to be in UDs (uniform of the day).
Getting a Liberty pass wouldn’t work either, because we did not have the uniform. We never did find that hole in the fence so we went over the top of it. The three of us walked through a couple of gardens and around some houses until we found a road that looked like it was going in the right direction. I remember dogs barking, but no one came out to investigate. I guess they were used to guys jumping the fence to go into town. I’m sure we weren’t the first to think of it. We wanted to have some fun before they shipped us south to Vietnam. As we approached the town from the rear we were forced to hide in alleys and doorways whenever we saw an MP vehicle turn up the street towards us. One of these times we jumped into a recessed doorway and just knew we were going to get caught. We tried the door and it was open. We all spilled inside and turned to see Mama-san and 2 Nay-sans sitting cross-legged at their dinner table, eating what I assumed was their supper. I felt like a burglar who had just been caught red-handed, standing in the foyer of their modest home. Apparently, I was the only one who felt that way. The Corporal who brought us there had told us to stay put while he went outside and reconnoitered the area to see where the MPs had gone. I never did see him again, but we found out later that he went down the street and got caught from behind, while looking the other way.
The next day we boarded the same C-130. They gave us a box lunch when we got onboard for our 7-hour flight. A very noisy flight I might add. I woke up as the plane descended toward the airfield at Da Nang, my new home.
It was November 12, 1967 and it was hot!
Strange smells assaulted my senses as they lowered the ramp in the rear of the C-130. The smells were a cross between a garden greenhouse and a ripe garbage dump; nice mixture of accelerated life and death. Not actually a conscience thought, just a deep feeling you got inside. It was a sense of something totally foreign, outside any past experience.
We were herded to a low building on the edge of the field where we were assigned to different units and told to wait (that made me feel at home) for the deuce and a half to take us to our new units. I only had to wait about 45 minutes for my truck. Which I thought was real efficient for the Marine Corps I was used to. There were 12 of us in the back of the truck heading out for the 1st regiment rear area that I estimated to be about 12 miles west of Da Nang.
The ride out was pretty quiet. Eight FNGs (f****ng new guys) not wanting to show how dumb they were by opening their mouths, and four guys who were coming back from R&R or emergency leave. The four of them talked quietly amongst themselves and looked at the rest of us with eyes that knew too much to match the age of their bodies. Two of the guys back from R&R opened their sea bags and pulled out handguns, one was a military .45 and the other a nickel-plated .32 caliber pistol. There was also a guy, riding shotgun, with an M-16 stuck out the window. I started to get the impression that it wasn’t as peaceful in the villages as it looked on the surface. My rubbernecking activities took on a slightly lower profile. At first I couldn’t figure out why the bed of the truck had a layer of sandbags in it. But then it dawned on me that it was to protect us from shrapnel if the truck hit a land mine. Reality was starting to knock on the door of my consciousness.
We reached the regimental rear without incident, and from there I was assigned to a battalion, which was about 100 yards away from Regional Headquarters. In turn, they sent me to Charlie Co, 3rd platoon. It was late afternoon when I finally met my new team leader, Jack. He took me aside and we had about a fifteen minute conversation on where I was from, where I went to boot camp, how well I knew the M-60 machine gun and generally a ‘getting to know you.’ Quickly sizing up one another was important, a requirement in any war. He also gave his own shortened life history. He said I would have a ten-day orientation at battalion rear before I would be allowed to go on patrols into “The Bush”. I was relieved to hear this, because I figured I could learn enough in ten days to at least feel semi-comfortable when I finally got sent out in to the jungle. After our conversation, I went to get issued my 782 gear: military camping equipment. I was also issued my M-16 rifle. The rest of the day was spent getting my gear straightened out, while sitting on my rack, listening to conversations in the 20 man tent and meeting other guys coming off perimeter watch or back from daylight patrols. It had been a long day so I went to sleep early.
The next day I went to the captain’s hooch to meet him, and to make sure my orders checked out, and I was who I said I was. Mostly routine office stuff: shot card check and settling in to my new unit. That afternoon I had indoctrination on the Vietnamese people, and what our mission goals were. It all sounded real good. After chow that night I heard that they were showing a movie. I headed over there shortly after dark where the movie had just started. There was about an 8’ X 10’ screen with about a dozen benches about 30’ long with an aisle down the center. There were three or four guys sitting at the ends of almost every bench. At first I thought that nobody sat in the center because the projector would be blocked, but when I looked, I saw that that was not the case. Not able to figure out why, I just decided to sit in the middle and not worry about it. About half to three quarters of the way through the movie we started taking incoming mortar rounds about 200 yards away. As we ran for the bunkers I realized why no one sat in the middle, It was the furthest from Half to three quarters of the way through the movie we started taking incoming mortar rounds about 200 yds. Away. As we ran for the bunkers I realized the bunkers and the benches slow you down. I didn’t make that mistake again, and I always smiled when I saw a new guy sit in the middle, another way to pick out a FNG. I didn’t go back to the movie that first night I just went to my cot and started thinking about what the hell I was doing over there. There was still no sense of any immediate threat to me personally. I wondered if those earlier mortars had hit anybody. There had been no yelling or mass confusion afterwards like I expected, just a silent wait, then back to whatever it was you were doing when it started. It was a very nonchalant attitude, no big deal, just a routine day. I finally fell asleep.
On the third day Jack told me my ten-day orientation period was over, I should get my gear together for a five-day platoon size patrol. I would be carrying the M-60, and I should turn in my M-16 and get the .45 caliber pistol from the gunner. Butterflies were starting to dance in my stomach. The platoon started out through the maze in the barbed/concertina wire surrounding the base around noon and headed northwest from the base. We walked until about 5:00 in the afternoon without incident. My stomach had settled down to just a small knot of excitement at this point. We started to take some sniper fire off to our right and Jack told me to set up the gun and cover the tree line where the sniper fire was coming from. Meanwhile a 4-man fire team would try to flush them out. They came back about 30 minutes. Later saying the sniper had “Dedee maud” (took off, grabbed his hat, split, gone) we then started to set up our perimeter for the night. Just around the time I had finished digging my foxhole Jack came over and told me our squad would be going on a patrol that night at 10:00pm so I should get some sack time as quick as I could. I made sure all my shit was secure then ate some c-rats. Not bad I said to myself. I rolled up in my poncho liner and got some ZZs. Jack woke me about a quarter to ten and told me to get my gear together for the patrol, he also asked me if I thought I could handle the gun this soon after coming in country, I told him I didn’t think I would have any problems (I was a “Marine” after all). I was positioned behind Jack and we were about three quarters of the way back in the squad line. Two fire teams, the squad leader, and the radioman ahead of us, the two of us, and then another fire team behind us. I was feeling really good about carrying the M-60 my first time into the bush, I felt it gave me a certain status, and I was determined to do a good job, and not let anyone down. We walked for about two hours, through a couple of small villages stopping periodically while the point man checked out the trail ahead of us. The third village we came in to word was sent back to hold up, and the team leaders were called forward to the squad leader. I set the gun down covering the right side of the trail that was more open then the left, with a rice paddy about thirty yards wide with a tree line on the far side. Fifteen minutes later Jack came back and told me that they had found a gook preaching Viet-Cong propaganda to the villagers. Jack said the gook was wearing civilian clothes and claimed to be a cousin of one of the villagers. His papers said he was from a village several miles away. The squad leader, and team leaders came to the conclusion that he was a Viet-Cong agent and we were going to take him back with us. They told the gook to put on the black silk pajamas they gave him (where they came from I don’t know). He was then made to walk point, the reasoning for that being if he was a VC he would know where all the booby traps were located and not lead us through them (I know there are some holes in that logic, but that was the story, at the time it seemed to make sense, I was just a FNG on my first patrol after three days in country). We walked for about another two hours before again getting the word to halt, and for the team leaders to join the squad leader, again. When jack came back he said they were going to turn the VC loose and for me to set the gun up to cover the rice paddy to the right of the trail. I asked him why we were turning the VC loose. Jack said we weren’t really going to let him go we were just telling him that and when he got about thirty feet into the rice paddy we would “waste” him. Jack said if we brought him back to the rear he would just be questioned and then turned loose. He would probably be setting booby traps, and preaching more propaganda to the villagers. He said they had seen it happen before and figured they could save a few Marine lives if we took him out ourselves. I figured he and the squad leader knew what they were doing, right? I had a feeling this was not the way it was supposed to be handled, but I wasn’t about to question my team, and squad leader my first time in the bush. Jack then told me the M-60 would be the signal for everyone else in the squad to open up on the VC, he asked me if I thought I was able to open up on the VC first or did I want him to do it. I didn’t answer right away as my brain kicked into an adrenaline high gear I wasn’t aware I had. Was this a test? I had a strong suspicion it was. Jack said if I didn’t think I could handle it, he would do it, and said he knew he was putting a lot on me but if I didn’t want to do it he would understand. At any rate he continued, I would have about fifteen or twenty minutes to think about it while everything was set up and ready to go. He walked away and my mind was still racing. If it was a test would anybody trust me if I didn’t come through? I had twelve months and twenty-seven days till the end of my tour, if I made it at all. Was this a common practice amongst the Marine patrols? I didn’t think (or hope) so. I did a lot of thinking in that short fifteen minutes. I felt sorry for the “VC” cause he was going to die no matter what I did. I didn’t know for sure but I thought he might just have been grabbed out of a hooch because he was about the right age to be a VC. I never saw him up close but he looked to be about forty if I had to guess. If it was a test they wanted to see if I could pull the trigger, if I did, I would be trusted, one of the guys they could rely on if the shit hit the rotary impeller, a member of the club. If I didn’t, well, nobody would trust me. They’re would always be a doubt in their minds as to weather I could hold up my end or not. Besides, the gook was as good as dead anyway. These are the thoughts that kept chasing through my brain as the seconds ticked away. I did think that this whole thing seemed kind of elaborate just to see if the FNG would be reliable if things got hot. It would also keep me from saying anything about it later if I was the one to fire first. All in all it seemed like the best thing to do to insure my future with these guys. War is hell, more so for some then others. When Jack came back I told him that I would be the one firing the M-60, I also didn’t like the thought idea of him firing the gun after I had been humping it all night. If anyone were going to fire it, it would be me, for a lot of reasons. He smiled and said he was glad I had made that decision. I gave him a half smile back, as I thought, you bastard. He told me to get set because they would be sending him out pretty soon. I got set and waited. Jack would be my A-gunner feeding the ammo. I saw them untie his hands and tell him to start walking across the paddy, he hesitated and took a few steps, and he turned and said something in a pleading tone. They told him to walk; the poor bastard knew what was coming. He took a few more steps, turned again, looked like he was going to say something, changed his mind, turned back and slowly walked into the paddy. I pulled the trigger when he got about thirty feet out. The gun bucked into my shoulder as I followed him in the sight. I guess I gave him about a twenty round burst as I followed him down to the ground. I heard a few rifle shots as I stopped firing so I knew they had fired too, after I did. I hope he died quick, I thought, feeling an adrenaline rush in my body, and numbness in my brain. I had just killed somebody. I didn’t have a choice I told myself, not really believing it. Jack jumped up and ran out to where the body along with a few others. I sat back on my helmet and lit a cigarette trying not to think too much. I had just killed a guy they pulled out of a village to prove to them that I was reliable. I hardly knew these guys, other then that they were US Marines. That peer approval must have been pretty important to me, or that the survival instinct works on many levels. Jack came back a couple of minutes later and said everybody was impressed with my expertise with the gun, I caught him in the head first and went right down the middle of his body. He died real quick. Jack asked if I wanted to go look at the body, I declined, and he didn’t push it. I think he suspected I wasn’t feeling real proud at the moment and would rather be left alone for a while, he obliged. The LT called up on the radio to find out what all the shooting was about and was told about the suspected VC that we were bringing back who had tried to escape, so we had to shoot him. The LT told the squad leader to bring the body back with him. A bamboo pole about seven feet long was cut and the body was put on a poncho and tied to the pole. Two guys carried it; we looked like the natives coming back from a successful hunting trip, carrying our trophy, slung under the pole. Somebody else died on that patrol, a nineteen-year-old kid from New Jersey. I had just gotten my first lesson on survival in Viet Nam. It was a lesson I never forgot.
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