The Old Grind Changes

April 1st, 2005

April brought more rain but the dry season was just around the corner. We looked forward to that for some strange reason. It really didn’t matter, you were going to be wet anyway no matter what. Once the rain stopped it was so hot you were dripping wet with sweat. People that haven’t done it can never imagine how hard it really was humping day after day after day. It seemed like people were in a daze a lot of time. It took everything a man had sometimes just to keep up with the daily grind.

It wasn’t unusual for a man to simply fall out from heat exhaustion. The rest of the squad would pick up the slack for him. It happened to me once. I swore I would never let the squad down by passing my work on to someone else because everyone was over worked anyway. It was hot and we’d been humping the mountains around the An Lo valley again. I’ll never forget it. I began to feel weak in the knees. I knew the heat was getting to me. I took my canteen and took off my steel pot to pour some water over my head. I wasn’t sweating and that’s not a good sign. Harrington, the gunner, a very large black man from somewhere in the northeast, held his hand up and grabbed my shoulder to get me to the ground. About that time I went black for a few seconds. It wasn’t very long but as I began to open my eyes Harrington and Scotty (the other grenadier, a black kid from NYC) were taking my rucksack off me and covering my head and face with wet towels (everyone had a towel around their neck most of the time) to get me back to my senses. The column had stopped until I was ready to go. My platoon leader, Lt. Mordeau came back to check on me. I told him I was fine, let’s move back out. I saw a look on his face I’d seen more than once on a man’s face. The look is yeah, right, you’re ready. Wayne Peace (funny I remember some full names after all these years, mostly I remember faces) and Eddie Harris (the man I had become pretty tight with) grabbed my gear. Peace carried my rucksack and Harris grabbed my web gear. All I carried was my weapon and ammo. Harrington and Scotty would have carried the gear but they both carried extremely heavy loads. Harrington humping the gun and Scotty humping the 79, so they couldn’t really carry that much extra weight. A couple minutes later the colum moved out again as it would have normally. About an hour later I was feeling stronger so I took my web gear back then after another half hour or so I took my rucksack. I thanked Peace and Harris and it was simply a smile returned meaning they knew I would do the same for them and they also knew if we’d hit something I would have pulled my load.

Funny how you remember some things. I can honestly still smell the fires in the hooches as we’d walk through a village. I remember some trails as if they were my back yard. I remember so many little things and all the big things that happened. We were a strange mixture of men. SFC Baiza was a huge hispanic (then we termed them Mexicans and they didn’t mind at all), SSG Horton was an average size man from Missouri, nice guy, good squad leader, Wayne Peace, a very simple guy my age from Georgia, Eddie Harris, another very simple young man from North Carolina, Scotty, a guy as black as the night, about 5′8″ and strong as an ox, Sgt Peiffier, simply a very average man from California, Sheddrack, an extremely quiet black man from South Carolina, Larry Clauson, a real hard case from Florida (he was one of the replacements), Rubio, another Mexican from a poor part of some city in Texas, Hundly, as nice a guy as you could ever meet but strong and steady (another replacement), Doc Word, average size black guy from Texas, Charles Thoms, ugliest SOB you have ever seen, buck teeth and a nose that ran to his chin, young kid from NYC, thought he was a bad ass, Brophy, heavy set guy, never met a friendlier person, and the list could go on, just so many young men coming and going either by rotation, medevac, or a body bag. I simply feel obligated to let people know everyone wasn’t just a poor black from a ghetto. We were from all over and all cared as much as anyone could for each other in that situation. Nobody wanted anyone to get hit but we knew it was going to happen. There was simply no way it wasn’t going to happen. We were in a war, we all knew that. We just hoped it was someone besides “me” meaning every man there.

We were paying more attention to the mountains on the edges of the valley now instead of being deep into the mountains. That told us Charlie was moving closer to the villages. That also told us there were going to be more and more booby traps and snipers in the areas we were patroling. One day I was in the point squad patrolling the ridgline facing the rice paddies. Our squad went out around the point of the ridge searching down the hill for signs of enemy activity. After we had moved out around the point of the ridgeline the squad following us had cut across the ridge. Sure as they did the second man in their squad tripped a bouncing betty. That is a booby trap that, when tripped, springs up to about waist high and explodes. It took out two men, Brophy and another that I can’t remember the name of. I remember looking back and seeing Brophy lying there. The mine had cut him in half. We called in the Medevac, Doc Word had patched him up as best he could and filled him full of morphine. It didn’t matter, he died before the medevac could get back to the forward MASH unit on English. We continued humping never saying a word. We knew he had died and nobody said anything. We just set up for the night and went about our duties. The log ship brought us hot chow and mail. That was always a welcome sight. I remember we had roast beef, smashed taters and gravy, and lima beans. Of course we knew it wasn’t real roast beef, it was water buffalo. It tasted just as good but it was always a little tough and stringy but it was hot and good. We all had mail whenever the log ship brought it out because we didn’t see it every day. I’d seen times when we didn’t see the log ship for 5 days. It was a welcome sight anytime though.

We stayed in the mountains around the Bong Son plains for a couple more days and it was nearing the 3rd week in April. That meant my R&R was coming up. 5 days of drinking and chasing Japanese women (actually it turned into less than 4 because flight time and orientation time to Japan took up a lot of time). Never the less it was great to climb on the log ship the day before I was going to get on that big iron bird. Even as I was flying back to English to chopper over to An Khe to get my class “A’s” the door gunner tapped me on the shoulder and told me someone was in the shit and choppers had been deployed to pick up my company to go in to help. Apparently it was A company and they were getting hit pretty hard. My thoughts were I hate to see it happen but I’m going to forget about it for a few days.

We got to Japan and we were all strangers to each other because we only let one man from the platoon go on R&R at a time. They had different hotel packages so four of us grunts from different units grouped up and went to the same hotel. As soon as we checked in we headed straight into downtown Yokohama to hit the bars. We started out in a bar that catered to American military. Most were stationed in Japan. This is the killer, I went to the bar and ordered a beer and you would not believe what happened. The bartender carded me and of course I was 19. It seems the legal drinking age in Japan is 21. Here I stood with a Combat Infantry Badge on my uniform on R&R from Viet Nam and the bartender wouldn’t serve me. There were several guys at the bar that were apparently stationed in Japan. One of them told me to go sit down. About 5 minutes later here came a half dozen of these guys and each of them sat down at out table and each one of them set a cold beer down in front of me. They said they had just had a friendly conversation with the bartender so I could drink all I wanted. They were a bunch of nice guys. As soon as I was good and drunk they pointed us to the girls in Japan. We walked into a bar and were immediately surrounded by girls. I had one on each side of me, both pretty girls making sure I knew their intentions. So I ended up with two pretty Japanese girls for three nights. It sure made me forget Viet Nam.

But, all good things must come to an end so back to Viet Nam I went. When I got off the Caribou at An Khe the dust and heat hit me in the face and my head dropped. I thought, “here we go again”. I picked up my gear at supply and hopped a ride to the chopper pad. I climbed on the log ship going out to my unit. Of course I was greeted with the expected sarcastic “welcome homes” I was given by all my platoon. They were actually happy to see me. SFC Baiza had been moved to third platoon which puzzled me a little. I asked what was going on. SSG Rozelle was now our platoon sgt and we had a couple of new faces in the platoon, actually several new faces in the company. Hell, one of he FNG’s even tried to bust my chops a little when I got off the chopper but he was shut down in a hurry by the rest of the platoon. (Dumb Ass). Apparently the night I went out and my company was picked up A company (again) had run into an NVA company. My platoon lost an entire squad that night to friendly fire. Apparently two smoke grenades were popped (same color). One was where to bring in the slick and the other was to mark the position of our forward troops position. The gunship mistook the first smoke as our forward position because it was popped first and the gunships were coming in for their run. They opened up and chopped up an entire squad. Joe Bailey, the guy that had taken my place humping the 79 had also been hit 6 times, not by the gunships but the NVA. They told me he was all right and was in a Japanese military hospital. They told me he had taken all 6 hits in the arms and legs. I found out 20 years ago he was KIA that night when I saw his name in a casualty book at a Memphis vet center. My platoon simply didn’t tell me that because they didn’t want me to feel guilty about him getting killed walking in the exact spot I should have been in.

Things really began to heat up at the end of April and continued to escalate into May. Charlie was going to make a move somewhere. We just didn’t know where.

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