Southlands Snuffys

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Chapter 32 (v.1) - Un frère par les Armes

Submitted: December 26, 2015

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Submitted: December 26, 2015

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Un frère par les Armes

 

“Remember this well, in Vietnam a danger for one will be a danger for all, the two will always go together. Life is full of dangers, but in War dangers are infinite. When under fire rely on the Marine who is fighting next to you, your buddies, your training, and keep on praying for goddamn deliverance!”

 

 Gunny Capes, USMCRD, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1966.

 

 

Over two and a half million military dudes served within the borders of South Vietnam during the War. That’s over two and a half million personal stories, with the vast majority never to be told. But events in war experienced by others, to the general public, may seem relatively unimportant so many years on. However, to those who were there as the events unfolded can still find them to be at times all-consuming.

Not far short of  half of those returning to the world did so suffering from, albeit in greatly varying degrees, the socially debilitating psychological problem once termed as “battle fatigue”, and now known and accepted as “post-traumatic stress disorder”.

Just a scrap of their time is what a day would probably have been to someone who was not at War. However, to a boot camp recruit, a “maggot”, or a fully-fledged Marine grunt, a “snuffy”, fighting in the Southland of Vietnam, time was not something they could afford to squander, for a day could seem like a lifetime, or even prove to be the end of one.

In the best traditions of the 1960’s land of liberty, freedom, and “back of the bus” equality, the South Carolina Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, ensured that all of the slow-thinking white dumbasses and the sharp-thinking white smartasses were compiled into training classes made up in equal amounts of each, whilst the mightily few “soul brothers”, black guys, though part of the new racially tolerant “two-tone” Marine Corps, had training classes allocated unto themselves. But Carolina isn’t all that far from Alabama and Mississippi, and old habits such as no integration tend to die mighty hard. Anyway, much of the Corps wasn’t quite ready back in 1966 for such a thing as ongoing “two-tone” racial harmony.

However, white or black, smart or dumb, a “maggot”, recruit, was still a “maggot”, and who lived in a world that could only function on, or by, numbers. Everyone and everything had a number; every squad, class, drill, weapon, and piece of gear from the tiniest to the colossal had a goddamned number which the “maggots” had to memorize, as their life steadily became defined by numbers.

For most “maggots” at boot camp, the short hours between lights-out, being in their rack, and the inevitable crack-of-dawn garbage can being hurled down the center of their Quonset hut by an uncompromising, bawling hard-ass Marine Corporal was the only time they could possibly consider as being their own. There, snug in their rack, cuddling up to their ”bunk buddy”, an ancient M14 rifle that their fathers may have used to fight the Japs at Guadalcanal, or the Chinese at The Battle of Chosin Reservoir, was a place to reclaim an identity that was close to being devoid of a number.

It was a time to reflect on moments of raw emotion, to take stock of another day’s pain and suffering from the constant and seemingly pointless rushes from one place to another, and back again, whilst loaded down with gear like pack mules, and if so allowed could dent even the staunchest of spirits, as they sped through the training that would take their youth. If lucky, and they didn’t buckle under the sheer soul destroying weight of it all, the end result would see them becoming a fully-fledged United States Marine “cherry”, a grunt not yet having killed.

Every recruit had developed some form of grievance to bitch and moan about, but they soon learned to keep it to themselves. To openly voice it would have increased the possibility of swift and possibly severe punishment. For any dissenting voice within the ranks could breed resistance to training, even threaten good discipline when it really came to matter, as in combat, so had to be swiftly silenced. Therefore, to vent their spleen everyone converted their grievances into “Military Humor”, and that way, in most cases, they could avoid punishment. For as the old military cliché states, “if you can’t take a joke, then you should never have fucking joined!”

Within the Rung Sat Special Zone, the VC and NVA had footholds which grew slowly but ever stronger as their numbers swelled, and as a result any small force military forays into Charlie controlled areas met with stiffer resistance, especially by heavily armed marauding NVA and VC groups who were tasked with seeking them out, and eliminating them.

During 1967 there was a period in the fighting when arriving in an “AO”, area of operations, as a cherry or new fucking guy, had become even more perilous than normal. In the region of only ten percent of those replacements had any form of previous combat experience, and no more than thirty percent were deemed ready for immediate operational deployment. However, ready or not, after a short period of acclimatization they were all thrown straight into the shit storm.  

A stiff wind sweeping across the wide river had driven short, steep waves ahead of it to break on grassy banks where sad faced Corpsmen tended to wounded grunts with a feeling of hopelessness and despair, in a makeshift dug-out aid-station covered with ponchos. The sound of sobbing and sharp cries of agony hung in its fetid atmosphere made up from the heavy aroma of human shit and urine, warm blood that seeped from ugly wounds and the already decaying flesh of wretched looking casualties, among them were the more silent, morphine drugged “expectants”, those expected to die.

At the river’s edge, a Corpsman was burying heaps of spent medical supplies and flyblown, blood clotted dressings. An assortment of gear and weapons taken from the dead and wounded were stacked high next to the aid station, and through which grunts were rummaging, the standard process of recycling anything that could be useful.

Our latest replacement, new fucking guy, who was also a “cherry“, fresh in from one Southland to another, worn out and scared, utilities saturated with foulness from others, and looking like the proverbial war-weary raggedy assed Marine as seen in a World War Two movie, sat outside the aid station gaging on its strong stench, the odor of violent death. Such a stench could become unbearable even for the most experienced of bush-beasts, let alone a “cherry” in a somber, black mood.

He had stared at a discarded boot and what was left of a foot. The boot and the foot sat together under a windswept but brilliant blue sky, on a river’s wide bank, as if someone had taken the boot off to go swimming then somehow absentmindedly left the foot behind. Our replacement had been detailed to help load Mike cargo boats with the glorious dead, who had been pumped-up and motivated by love of country, and a strong conviction that America’s freedom was being challenged by Communist tyranny.

Being painfully aware of the bloated cadaver bags surrounding him that were slowly leaking body fluids, he had watched with a fatalistic depression the enormous clouds of plump buzzing flies that seemed quite indifferent to the wind as they feasted upon the spreading pools of vile gore that seeped from the bags.

Those bags held the once fresh faced, wide eyed and eager, of which, until that day dawned bright and clear, he had been one. No name bundles, packaged up like ground beef from a slaughterhouse, and left waiting in lush green grass to be collected and reported for graves registration, and if whole enough in body forwarded for embalming by undertakers in seedy old Saigon and the no longer sleepy, river straddling city of Da Nang.

The operation had been another cluster- fuck from the outset, plague ridden by inexperienced cherry officers and grunts, overly optimistic planning, poor intelligence on enemy activity, and just plain old bad luck. Yep, when it came to cluster-fucks it has to be said that it was an impressive example of one.

A search and destroy force had been caught between heavy scrub jungle and a river with their breaches down, in a well-placed pre-set ambush by a two company strength of NVA regulars.

Chucks “ball game”, action, had started with command-detonated mines that blew the “pointman” and the next in line”slackman” to bits. By the time everyone else reacted Charlie was already ripping into them with a devastating fusillade of small arms fire and grenades from well concealed positions in the scrub.

In a mad fit of panic from being caught in a converging crossfire, and ignoring the more seasoned grunts screaming at them to run for the river, most of the cherries grouped together in an attempt to form a defense, and firing off hundreds of rounds they downed but a few NVA grunts that had openly shown themselves in what seemed to be a sacrificial faint. Charlie then took full advantage of the tactic and quickly flanked their positions left and right in a classic textbook maneuver. Rapidly smashing through the hurriedly prepared and weak fire perimeter, and with vicious intent, Chuck’s grunts set about chopping many of them to pieces.

It had simply been another case of success by numbers, for every one cherry there had been three or more gooks, and no matter how many they could have gunned down Charlie’s strong reserve numbers meant our guys had been pretty well guaranteed fucked from the moment they had bumbled into the ambush.

Unfortunately, their one slim chance at escape they had thrown away, apart from those who had managed to keep a cool head and concentrated on running with the group of bush-beasts who made a break for it. Then Charlie unexpectedly pulled back from their ambush area, and sent in fire teams to start picking away at the group that had reached the river and dug-in.  

Again, inexperience resulted in a poorly coordinated fire-mission, having been called for by a panicky “just in country” platoon leader, in an attempt to lessen the pressure on the guys still trapped in the killing zone. But it destroyed more of them than it did Chuck, with many wounded being killed by blast trauma, or ripped apart by shrapnel, and some of those who had been unwounded and still fighting in turn became casualties themselves. It was a spectacle of suffering and horror, as the air filled with terrible screams.

Both the living and the dead fell victim to shells that punctured and tore at flesh, some air-bursting and showering down white-hot shards of steel, others, the high explosive rounds, having been fired short, threw out jagged lumps of shrapnel as they detonated in their midst. The thunderous explosions left many of the living barely hanging on to their sanity, and the dead hardly retaining human form, but scattered among the carnage were those who could still fight.

Even an attempted air evacuation went badly and had to be abandoned when two evac slicks, coming in low over the river flew straight into a furious fusillade of automatic gunfire from Charlie. Plexiglas isn’t armor, so the straight-on fire obliterated the front of one bird downing it immediately, it’s madly spinning and detached main rotor shredding the already dead pilot as the slick hit the surface of the river. The other, although badly damaged, vibrating and shaking, struggled on to reach the “LZ”, landing zone, where it was instantly destroyed by a well-placed RPG round. The birds burning fuel sprayed over Corpsmen and the waiting to be evacuated wounded alike when it exploded, producing even more dead and wounded.

Near all day long the noise of battle rolled on, and to their immense credit the guys still fighting in the killing zone and at the river,although taking relentless fire from Charlie, kept up a steady volume of returning fire at practically every point of the compass, as they defended themselves from attacks from left, right, front and rear. Unknown to the higher-higher they had resolved to fight on to the bitter end. However, the higher-higher, seemingly stunned by the magnitude of such a chaotic cluster-fuck, handed over the relief to the Riverine forces for immediate execution, and that resulted in Monitors, Zippos, and Cargo Mikes being ordered out to collect the dead, wounded, and relieve the now pitifully few survivors.

On arrival the Monitors and Zippos laid down furious suppressive fire, the sound of gunfire from the Zippos being swallowed by the formidable roar of the Monitors heavy armaments. Then Vietnamese Air Force jets screamed overhead for a “nape”, napalm strike, in an attempted to turn Charlie into “crispy critters”. Only then did our boat, acting as guard, and the Mike cargo boats race forward through a haze of gun-smoke, dropping their bow doors some distance out as they ran in at speed over the shallows. Their Propellers churned up the rivers bottom mud as they held the boats firmly against the bank for loading, and created great swirling pools of brown colored water that released a gas which permeated the air with a satanic like sulphurous stink, adding another dimension to a frightful illusion of having just breached hells gateway.

As with ours, their crews were in a state of high nervous tension, knowing that Charlie, regardless of being ordnance pounded, and toasted with napalm, could easily make another bold and devastating attack without any prior warning. Just to make sure, guys were posted with binoculars to watch for any telltale movement in the rising dust and smoke where the estimated NVA positions were being blasted. Even so, they had no intention of hanging around for even one second longer than it took to load their cargos of mangled humanity, before reversing at high speed away from being inadvertently caught in harm’s way.

However, we need not have fretted so, for the NVA, having finally fully satisfied themselves with the hurt imposed on our forces, melted away to leave the Riverine boats blasting away at nothing, and the Viet Air Force “nape” induced fire burning no more than foliage and already dead gooks.

Without exception, all of those crewing the boats was exhausted, down on their chin-straps, for during the previous night they had been taking turns at throwing grenades into the river at intervals, in an attempt to deter NVA sapper swimmers who might have a mind of attaching a mine to a hull. Two nights prior those swimmers had managed to sink a swift boat, a Vietnamese Navy Yabuta coastal junk, and seriously damage a Mike eight by blowing away part of her stern gear and the two guys on night guard, so no boat crew was taking any chances, and meant that the dull thump of grenades exploding underwater was heard near continuously.

In essence the cherries had made three basic errors; the first was in ignoring those among them with fighting experience. The second by going to ground and not immediately trying to get out of the killing area, and the third in not respecting the enemy by holding to the widely held belief amongst cherries that the enemy was some form of weird pantomime character, just a bunch of half trained military and peasant farmers running around with weapons they hardly knew how to use, and no match against our vastly superior fire power. When in fact, the NVA were well schooled in tactics, disciplined, ruthless, and hard as nails, whilst the VC were not that much different, being wily in scheming as any coyote, and led by battle experienced Northern trained regulars who were completely dedicated to the eradication of the “Yankee imperialists”.

The main point regarding the NVA and VC alike was that they were incredible at surviving, especially when it came to being pounded by our firepower. Grunts that had been cheering on an airstrike or artillery barrage one minute, could easily find Charlie pouring out of their underground hideaways and one-man fighting holes the next, practically unscathed and immediately getting back into the fight.

One thing for sure, that particular detail, as it did with many there, left a long-lasting deep impression on our replacement, which eventually culminated into the now accepted post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to no help being neither offered nor given for that disorder back in the day, other that the stupefying and addictive valium, and like so many of his peers, he had turned to alcohol for solace, before choking on his own vomit in a drunken stupor up a garbage strewn alley in his home city. Lying unfound for weeks and rotting away producing the same stink that had plagued his own nostrils a decade or so earlier wasn’t exactly the most dignified way for any combat veteran to finally exit this life.

To add insult to injury, city officials compiled and sent out a letter requesting that the guys with whom he had served raise funds towards his funeral, but Uncle Sam, mighty late in the day and with a reluctant magnanimity, stepped in and gave him a somewhat nondescript funeral but included an honor guard supplied by the local Legion hall. Unsurprisingly, our replacements name has never appeared on any war monument, for you had to die in a designated combat zone to receive such an accolade, and the manner of your death in that zone simply didn’t matter.

He had been just one volunteer out of many thousands who had fought in an unpopular foreign war that their country even now barely gives a fuck about, forgotten heroes from that now near forgotten war. But since the Vietnam War there have been lots of other wars to swamp out their names, and generate new batches of dead heroes whose names can be carved with pride on monuments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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