First Firefight

by Joe Holt

Larry Messmore asked me to document his injuries of some night in June of '66. When I finished the story I asked him if he'd mind if I put the story on the site. He said OK. Nothing all that dramatic, but I reckon if we all write down everything then history will be correct.

Joe Holt

A fella will always remember his first firefight. Even if its one sided. 
This one night is such a night. We'd only been in country a week or so. 
Deckhouse I. We'd landed on the beach just south of Quang Nai, and moved
inland a bit, searching the villages and hamlets. We'd been fired on a couple
of times, but nothing dramatic. No enemy assaults or large scale gunfights. 
We'd been trained in guerrilla warfare. Okinawa, then the Phillipines. We
were pretty good at small unit stuff. Ambushes, booby traps, and the like.
We were on a hill overlooking a river valley. Near dusk. Gorgeous
evenings. Warm. Still. Only the sound of Fuck You lizards. Our squad
was selected to be on an ambush that night. We saddled up and left our
perimeter about a half hour before dark. We all knew what to do.
We were to set in an ambush along a hedgerow adjacent to a dry rice
paddy at the base of our hill. In silence we descended the hill. It was only
about a half a click, but it was almost completely dark when we got to the
bottom. We had predetermined our rallying point to be near the base of a
large outcropping of rock at the base of the hill. This large rock formation
was the logical selection due to the fact that it was the only distinct terrain
feature in this small wooded area. The remainder of the hill had very little
cover. A little brush and the occasional rock.

I was the next to the last guy in the column. Smith, my fire team
leader, was ahead of me and Messmore was behind me. The column moved
slowly along one side of the hedgerow. Too slow. I had no idea what the
hold up was, but I was beginning to wonder. Through the hedgerow on the opposite side I heard a twig snap. Only a small twig. It couldn't be helped, but it irritated me that anybody would make any noise. Silence was our first rule. I assumed the point guys were circling around the hedgerow, and that we were eventually going to set up on that side, even though this isn't what we had planned. Through the near total darkness, through the hedgerow, I could see the shadow of somebody moving. Those of us who had stopped were down on one knee. I could barely see the guy in front of Smith come back to him and whisper in his ear. As the guy returned to his normal place in the column Smith walked up to me and cupped his hand over my ear. He whispered, They say there's a bunch of gooks setting up an ambush on the other side of this hedgerow. You tell Messmore. When Luzietti opens up well all
fire one magazine through the hedge, then well run back to the rally point.
I was surprised to say the least. I tiptoed back to Messmore and
whispered the news to him which he took pretty well considering. It was too
dark to see the expression on his face, but I betcha his eyes almost popped
out just as mine had when Smith told me. Then I returned to my position and
stared hard at the hedge. A full minute went by. Seemed like longer.
The split second the shooting started at the front of the column I let go
with a twenty round burst. I spread it out some, hoping to get the guy who
had made the shadow. We had no return fire. As I turned to start running
towards our rally point I stuck in a new magazine and let the bolt home. It
only took a second to almost run up Messmores back. As he approached the
tree line he had to slow down to make his way through the brush. We all
trudged along to the base of the big rock formation. When we stopped we
waited for Corporal Luzietti and the rest of the squad. I was horrified when
Smith started talking. Loud.

What the fuck was that all about? I didn't see no gooks! The sound of his voice could probably be heard for miles. I almost put my hand over his mouth, but he was my fire team leader, so I whispered, Hold the noise down will ya. What do you think your doing? Oh bullshit! There aren't any gooks around here. What's wrong with those guys? They chickenshit? Luzietti walked up.
Shut the fuck up!

The excitement of the gunfire, and the monstrous sound of Smith's
hollering created a real fear in me. We'd been trained to be silent under all
circumstances, not to mention Smiths flat insubordination. His stupidity had
gotten on my nerves more than once, but now his behavior was dangerous. If
there was a gook within a thousand yards they sure as hell knew where we
were now. We had to evacuate this position now no matter what. We had to
move to some other position and set in a perimeter for the night. We weren't
about to climb the hill back to the Company perimeter. It was too far to
travel at night. 

After Luzietti got Smith to shut his mouth he appointed our fireteam to
be point. We needed to get away from this position as soon as possible. 
Messmore led the way, then me, Smith and the rest of the squad.
Mess hadn't gone ten yards when he lost the trail. This was not hard
to do. It was totally dark. We had just turned the corner around this large
rock formation and it was anybody's guess where the trail opened up from
there. Mess got himself tangled in some large brush. He tried to shove
through it, but it was obvious from the sound of him that he was getting
nowhere. Smith started spouting off again. He shouted, Let me up there. You worthless fuck. All you guys are worthless
fucks. Cant even find the fuckin trail.

Smith barged by me and when he got to Messmore he shoved him
back and tackled the obstacle ahead of him. Messmore bumped into me. We
just stood there, not ten feet away, listening to Smiths stupid rage. Yelling
still, Ill get through this shit. You worthless fucks cant do anything right. 
I'm so.........Boom!

It was like a flash bulb. Very bright. The sound crunched. Too loud
to really be a sound. I got knocked right on my back. Like I was a toy that
had been tipped over. I lost my rifle. My first thought was, where was my
rifle? I gotta find my rifle.Smith started screaming. Really screaming. For his life. Mess had been hit also. He started to scream for help. I laid there on my back trying for a second or two to get my head and ass wired back together. This purple spot floating in front of my eyes. My first coherent thought was,
This cant be happening to me. This shit only happens in the movies. Somebody change the fucking channel!

After those first few seconds I tried to determine where I was hit. My
chest hurt, but not in one particular point. My whole chest ached. Was I
bleeding? I patted myself down and moved one piece of my body after
another. No pain. Nothing broken. I sat up. Mess was at my feet screaming
for help. Nobody had come forward. Somebody do something! These guys need help. I rolled to my knees and crawled to Mess. At the same time Doc
Collins scooted past me. I thought he was going to help Smith, but the
second he passed me he opened up with two or three rounds from his
shotgun. I had no idea what he was shooting at, but Luzietti and a couple of
the other guys had come forward too so I felt unaffected by all of it. I was
concentrating on Mess at this point. I laid both hands on Mess's chest.
I'm here Mess. Where you hit? Everywhere! I thought Oh shit. What now? Then Mess said, My arm! Then, My face, my jaw! I slowly started to run my fingers over his jawline, and sure enough, there was this slimy, bumpy feeling just below his left jaw line. Not his throat actually, but just below his jawline. When I put my fingers in the wound I found no hole, just a big tear in his skin, deep enough to just miss the bone. I told Mess, Its no big deal Mess. Just a deep cut. You aren't bleedin much. I'll put a bandage on it.

I rolled him over towards me a bit and got his pressure bandages out of
his pouch. When I did this he moved his wounded arm and I was splashed
with all the blood that had collected in his rolled up shirt sleeve. My lap was
suddenly a slimy warm mess. The real amount amount of blood was
difficult to determine in the pitch dark so I reckoned Id better take care of
his arm before anything else. He knew exactly where the wound was and
had covered it with is other hand. When he moved his hand and I felt for the
wound I found it was a relatively small hole, no tears or bits missing. I put a
dressing over this wound, then proceeded to dress his jaw wound.
While this was happening Doc Collins was trying to patch up Smith. 
In the little bits of conversation that I heard it didn't sound good. Smith had
been hit in the ass with a large piece of shrapnel. It had torn a large chunk
out of one of his cheeks, and it was bleeding all to hell. They weren't talking
about it much so Smith wouldn't be worried, but they put on quite a few
dressings. Doc Collins was having a hard time figuring how bad the wound
was so somebody got a poncho out, spread it out over most of Smith, then
they got under it and used a flashlight, but only for a second or two.
Once I got Messmore's wounds bandaged I was relieved. I put my
hand on his shoulder and told him, You're gonna be OK Mess. I've plugged up all the holes, and you aren't bleeding anymore. Sgt. Drake radioed for a Medivac, and we'll get you outa here in a few minutes.

Our immediate problem was where were we going to have the
Medivac come in? It would be dangerous to move far, and this bunch of
trees was too dense to have a helo land. Wed have to have them lower a
sling. Sgt. Drake had climbed to the top of the rock formation, about ten or
fifteen feet up, and flashed the flash light as the helo started to approach our
area. I'm sure the light could be seen from a satellite, but the helo guys
couldn't detect it. Sgt. Drake decided to light a signal fire. He crumpled up
a bunch of C rat shitpaper and lit it. Right on top of this huge rock.
While Sgt. Drake was performing these heroics we were moving Smith
and Mess to the base of the rocks, trying to prepare them for the sling. As
the helo approached, all the lit shitpaper started flying, creating one weird
scene below. All these glowing pieces of paper flying in all directions.
They got Smith lifted out first. Then we moved Mess the last few feet
to where the sling would come back down. A few seconds after we set Mess
down he started to make sounds. Ouch. Ouch! Ow, Ow, Ow. Something's wrong! Hey!

The flashlight came out again and we gave Mess the one second
lookover. Wed set him down on a colony of ants! Those red, kick ass,
Vietnamese ants! Big suckers. They were all over his arm and chest, and
were eating him alive. This is where Private Holt displayed, once again, his
brilliance under stress. I figured the ants were insects, weren't they? I had
insect repellant, didn't I? Well, Private Holt put two and two together and
decided to squirt my entire plastic bottle of insect repellant on Mess's chewed
up bits. That'll get rid of those nasty critters.

As the insect repellant (which is 90% alcohol) flowed into the wounds
Mess let out one huge gasp, started to scream I'm sure, then fainted. He
maybe didn't actually faint but his brain housing went on overload for sure. 
He turned into a zombie in two seconds flat. At least he was relaxed going
up in the sling.

As the helo departed the silence returned. We tightened the perimeter
and waited till dawn. Wed decided the explosion was probably from a
grenade thrown from the group of rocks. The gooks knew what they were
doing too. A listening post made sense. At least Smith found out they were
really there after all. My chest still ached, but I knew I wasn't hurt. Luzietti
thought for sure I had been hit with the blast, and I was going through some
sort of shock. All through the night he kept asking me if I was OK. 
At first light I crawled around and found my rifle, only a few feet to
the side of the blast. We saddled up and started the short climb back toward
the Company perimeter. As we got to the top the sun had risen completely. 
Only then did I realize how horrible I looked. I had Mess's blood all over
me. My trousers were one, caked, brown mess. Considering the condition of
my clothes Luzietti didn't have much of a hard time convincing Lt.
Woodburn and Doc Wise that I had probably been hit and was somehow
oblivious to it. They had me stand up and strip. One memory is of me
looking out over that beautiful river valley, with the coolness of the early
morning, perfectly serene, with three Marines gawking at my naked self. At
least I got a new pair of utility trousers out of the whole deal.
I believe to this day Luzietti is confused as to how I could have been
spared a wound considering I was standing directly next to Messmore and
just behind Smith.

Smith lived. We got a Christmas card from him from the Great Lakes
Naval Hospital. He was using a cane, but he should consider himself lucky
at that.

Messmore returned to our unit when we returned to the Philippines a
couple of weeks later. He was wearing his Purple Heart ribbon. Our first. 
He also had the coolest scar running up his jawline. Id never been so happy
to see anybody in my whole life. Somehow I've always felt that I owed Mess
something. His ordeal gave me the opportunity to, for the first time, do
something that really needed doing. The first in a long line of reasons why I
remain Semper Fidelis.