Hastings At 34, Part 1. (July 18, 1966)
I guess one of the few words that can sum up combat is confusion. As hard as you may train, and as agile a warrior as you may be, there’s just always a little confusion when the shit hits the ‘ole fan.
Another word might be recovery. How fast one may recover from the initial shock of contact with the enemy (combat). Still another could be focus. With adrenaline pumping through every vein and pore in your body – What IS your most immediate threat?
I wasn’t aware of anything particularly unusual about how the last operation, Operation Deckhouse II, was finishing up. It was the shortest operation we’d been on so far. We’d been ‘in country’ for over a month, and had already pulled several operations – Deckhouse I and Nathan Hale. I’m not even sure whether I was assuming it was over. It never even dawned on me why the USS Princeton had abruptly left the Philippines. Or why it left in such a hurry that some of our guys were left behind in the little town of Olongapo (?). I was just an 18 year-old Pfc., and had learned quickly in my brief career as a Marine that mine was not to reason why – mine was but to do or die.
The one thing that was certain was that it was extremely hot in the July sun. We did find one comforting respite from our wanderings in the "Sahara Desert". (That’s what I called it, because for about three days we had wandered around in the sand dunes of the northernmost coast of South Vietnam…and to me, it looked like what I pictured the Sahara Desert to look and feel like.) That respite was a wide river, which may have been the Song Ben Hai. All I remember about it was the cool water that was so refreshing after our walk in the desert. Isn’t it funny how some things still come to mind. Are they always stored there in our brain? Some we keep at the front of the library, and others are back in the shadows? Well anyway, I still remember the softness of the water. Lazy - kind of. With sampans (those flat-bottomed boats) drifting out in the river. Their owners, snaking a single oar at the aft to push them through the murky water.
The peaceful scene was suddenly broken by the loud whapping of air through the rotors of an all too familiar sight... Our squadron of SH-34 helicopters coming in for a landing. Mixed feelings... Were they coming to take us home? (The USS Princeton – LPH 5) Or were we going to take a ride?
I didn’t have long to ponder as the barking words, "Saddle up!" drifted down to where I was just coming out of the water after a refreshing dip. "Helo-teams! Grab your gear on the run. Run! Run! Move it! Move it!" There wasn’t time to think. Everything was a conditioned reflex tuned to verbal commands. Whether we were going home, or off on another ‘adventure’ as we called them, the results were the same – to get on board a chopper as quickly as possible. Normally this meant quickly locating the rest of your helo-team - usually a couple of fireteams from your squad, and piling on board a chopper in an orderly-like fashion.
But, not only was I literally caught with my pants down, but I wasn’t even close to where I should have been. I think back on it now, and I’m pretty sure I had spotted a couple of my close friends from Mike Company, and had wandered down to where they were also bathing along the river. A lot of us in the battalion had friends strung out in the other companies. Many of us had gone through boot camp together, or ITR, or had known each other in some way. The guys from Mike Company shared the same ship with us, the USS Princeton. So, they usually weren’t too far away during these first couple of operations, which were basically battalion-sized in nature. The Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment was at this time, the designated Special Landing Force – or reserve battalion. To be utilized as needed... So, as I was saying, Mike and Lima Companies were stationed on board the Princeton, while India and Kilo operated off the USS Pickaway. Both were on station in the South China Sea off the coast of South Vietnam. The Princeton was an LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) and the Pickaway was an APH (Amphibious Platform Helicopter) which usually set our companies ashore by ‘mike’ boats and/or amtracs. We (Lima and Mike) got to fly into the Nam by helicopter. Our Weapons Company (machineguns, rockets, and mortars) was spread out through all of the four rifle companies.
So here I was, scrambling to get on board a chopper. Any chopper, because when you get a Sgt. barking up your ass - you do what you’re told. I’d just have to try and sort things out later. Hopefully I’d never be missed, and when I got back to the ship - I’d just do a teaberry shuffle back to my own company. Nope! Wrong again! I realized after a very short time in the air that we weren’t going in the direction of the ship, and therefore out to sea. I could only guess where we were going and was already trying to formulate a plan as to how to get back to my squad. I had managed to get on the chopper last, and was closest to the hatchway (door). This was probably due more to instinct then any direct intention. Or maybe it was because whoever was barking at me had made it perfectly clear that I would be on THAT chopper...NOW! (I was, after all, just a Pfc., you see.) In any case, I found myself in the same position that I normally would have been in, if had I boarded with MY helo-team on the right chopper.
It amuses me that a lot of people think that during a war you just hand a bunch of guns (rifles) out to some young guys with helmets and boots, and put them out there where they’re needed. Then, to get them there, you just cram them into a tank, or a truck – or whatever, and send them into battle. Same thing with helicopters. Just throw ‘em on board the little gizmatrons, and get them quickly into action. Ha!
The Marine Corps (and I’m sure it’s probably true with the Army) has certain procedures to cover everything they do, and how they go about doing it. One such procedure is how to embark and disembark from a helicopter. Groups are put together into what is called helo-teams. These teams are the exact number of men that can safely travel through the air on a helicopter with lightest (greatest?) of ease. I think with the SH-34, it was around nine guys – or two complete fireteams with weapons (machinegun, etc.). Sometimes less, if the pilot was running out of fuel – or time. Sometimes more, like trying to leave an area during overt hostilities! (like… "Fuck You! I don’t care if there’s too many of us! Just get us the fuck outta here!")
But, from what I remember, you boarded a helicopter (or chopper, as we used to call them) with the idea that when it touched down at your final destination, you disembarked as quickly as possible, and took up defensive positions in order to protect the next chopper coming in. There was an imaginary face of a clock spread out on the LZ (Landing Zone). Choppers would land, for instance: first chopper – 12:00 to 1:00, second chopper – 2:00 to 3:00 and so on, until all choppers had unloaded. I may be wrong, but I think 12:00 was usually due north.
It was important that this procedure be followed for the obvious reasons of orderliness, but also to try and protect the next helicopter coming in as much as possible. (The slow moving SH-34, was very vulnerable.) Along with this strategy was the protection provided by the chopper as well – in the form of armament (rockets, guns, etc.). Unfortunately, at this time in the war the SH-34 only had a single door gunner. The door gunner was equipped with an M-60 machinegun fixed to a swivel device that could be aimed in just about any direction out the hatchway (door) of the ship (chopper). If he was good, he could lay down some protective fire if needed. It was his duty also, to shout out any orders or commands from the pilot, as he was directly connected to the cockpit with a built-in headphone in his helmet. Now you know about as much as I do.
The first indication of trouble that I can remember was the little light holes appearing in the fuselage. I remember just seeing them appear, but really not (at least immediately anyway) associating any danger with this strange phenomenon. You see, the 34 made so much noise that you could hardly hear yourself think. Any type of exterior noise (like enemy machineguns, et.) was masked by the noise of the huge engines directly under the pilot, and just forward of the troop compartment (where we were).
So on this day, after I don’t know how many other uneventful landings, we made a "hot" one. Hot, as in bullets penetrating the fuselage around us. And, HOT as in…more to be expected upon landing. When those light holes started to appear, the door gunner started firing his weapon and cursing at the top of his lungs out the door. The chopper began to lurch heavily one way, then another. I don’t think that it was because of the bullets hitting it. I think the pilot was doing everything that he could to lessen the profile of the chopper, and make it less of a target. (If I’m not mistaken, it’s a maneuver commonly referred to in aeronautical circles as ‘jinking’).
The gunner turned and screamed at us to get out. "OUT! OUT! OUT! NOW!" Being closest to the door, I could plainly see that we had not landed (in any way, shape, or form.) We weren’t even close to the deck (ground). But, the gunner grabbed my arm and shoved me, physically, out the hatchway. I was off balance as I hit the ground, and tucked and rolled to one side, trying to regain my footing.
Just recently, while going through a reenactment of this landing in order to try and remember more (My girlfriend, Tess, had me squat just inside the French doorway at home…as if it were the doorway of the chopper I was on). And I remembered seeing a horrible sight. A sight, which up until then, had been buried deep in my subconscious.
As I was rolling out from underneath the chopper, I saw a chopper in the distance hit the ground sideways and crash. It erupted into heavy flames as soon as it splintered against the deck, and pieces of it went flying into another chopper close by. That’s it... I remember I kept rolling until I regained my footing, and then ran, zigzagged towards a tree line in the distance. I remember the terrain being flat and gravelly, with sparse brush dotting the immediate landscape. I remember being in extreme danger. It seemed like the whole world was flying apart in all directions. There wasn’t anybody going towards any type of imaginary clock…the clock was scattered, as the chopper I just left, tried to get others out. It was like some big bumblebee scattering pollen. It would jink one way and someone would fly out the door – go a few yards further, and do it again. Guys were scattering in every direction, and I just focussed on getting to some cover. I still hadn’t figured out what all was happening. It was as if one minute we were bumping along real easy, and the next - all hell broke loose. It was, for me, complete and utter confusion…
Some have said that everything, so far, was about the way I remembered. Some had a different perspective. Most guys say they remember a large stream or river there. And that we had to cross it, in order to form up eventually. But I don’t remember any type of water that day. I was distinctly aware of being in a riverbed however, with a lot of gravel and sparse vegetation. At least briefly, until I got out of the open – which was fairly quick. If there was any water around, it had to have been behind my forward progress. Maybe I was in an old dry bed of a river…like an abandoned oxbow. As I’ve said: I think I may have been with Mike Company on landing. Wherever they were… (I’ve found out in the years since that this landing area was designated LZ Crow. Yup! It was HOT alright! )
God knows, I don’t know how I survived those first few moments at LZ Crow. I wasn’t a battle-seasoned Marine. Sometimes I think the only difference between surviving and dying is some inner instinct. Something in your genetic code, that hasn’t been measured yet. Something passed down for generations… Some infinite measure of energy that causes you to react the right way. Something that feeds an impulse to your brain that makes you to turn right instead of left, or duck instead of stretch. Some just call it Luck. Whatever it was, I managed to rapidly put two and two together. The first place I hit the ground (after zigzagging off the landing zone) was an old hollow log at the edge of the riverbed. But, there was an enemy machine gunner that had me in his sights who decided it was my time to die, and he started blasting away at it.
I had no place to go, but I was dead meat if I stayed there. At first, I just tried to burrow into the log like a termite. I remember my body desperately trying to disappear into the profile of it. Twitching back and forth as the log started to splinter apart. Then, I remember thinking ‘This isn’t working!’…letting out a yell, and going for it as I raced towards the hill directly in front of me.
When I got to the base of the hill, I just laid there for a moment panting like a dog on a hot summer day. No more bullets coming at me. Whew! It’d been close. For the first time I could decipher where the fire was coming from. The top of the hill above me! Shit! Now what? Okay, okay – you can do this. This is what you’re supposed to be here for. This is why the Marine Corps spent thousands of dollars on your training. This is what you’re getting paid for. To take apart machinegun nests . . . I know I must have looked behind me at this point and seen others still struggling off the landing zone.
I started to work my way up the hill. The hard way. Run and drop – kneel, crouch - and do it again. There was another guy close to me, and a little behind me. He was doing it too. I had help. We didn’t say a word. If we’re quiet, the enemy won’t see or hear us. Took a while. Bush to bush, and then into the trees. I had a feeling others weren’t far behind. I didn’t see them, but they had to be coming to help wipe out the threat. I felt confident. But, I was so scared the adrenaline must have been poring from my body. It was darker there in the shadows of that hill. I don’t know what time of day it was. I’d lost all track of time. It was late afternoon (I think). I moved on, again and again. It was like a game. Like hide and seek when I was a kid. (How long ago had that been?) I was good at that game. I was even better at sneaking up on animals in the forests where I grew up. But this wasn’t fun. This was real, and it was scary. (It was almost like John Wayne and Audie Murphy - all rolled into one. Shit! I started having mental pictures of the enemy just about to overrun the pill box, then at the last moment, they get picked off by the good guys. Shit! that could be us!)
I could hear the constant chatter of that machinegun up above us. The trees were dark and foreboding, as we inched along. A yard here…a couple yards there.
Then, all of a sudden, there was this huge roar right on top of us. It was the unbelievable sound of man-made rage…an F-4 Phantom! So close I could hear the metallic clicks of a million rounds of ammo slamming into chambers, and then the unforgettable roar of twenty-millimeter cannons letting go, all at once – tearing into the hill just above our heads! SHIT! There was this sudden pause of energy, then a massive effort to back pedal down hill. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that an air strike had been called in, and they didn’t know we were there! And even worse, we had no way of telling them where we were!
When my ears stopped ringing, I stopped my backward momentum. I don’t know why, other then if I could hear again, then maybe the gook could too. I waited for a minute. Nothing. Good! They must’ve gotten him. Then, just as quickly, my heart sunk - as once again I heard the unmistakable and familiar (by now) chatter of the machinegun.
I was no longer aware if the other guy (Marine) was nearby. Don’t care. Gotta get out of here quick, before the jet comes back in on us again. Might see us and think we’re gooks... Whoa boy! Shit! Stop! Stop! STOP! If that pilot sees me, I’m dead. Now I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. Don’t move, idiot...
Just then, the world just literally turned upside down. The wind in my lungs was suddenly sucked out of my body, and my hearing (what little there was after the twenty millimeter canons) shut down completely as my ear drums felt like they’d been shot to the twenty thousand foot level of Mt Everest in one second. The impact of the ground slamming against my torso, caused me to levitate upward, as if I had been drop kicked by a giant.
The five hundred pound bomb released by the Phantom’s second dive, must have hit pretty ding-danged close. I watched silently in slow motion, as brush and trees were mowed down by a wall of shrapnel right before my very eyes! Shit flying in every direction!
I lay there for what felt like about five minutes waiting for my senses to somehow take control. I wasn’t sure if I were alive or not - for a few of those five. When most of my hearing came back (I had a ringing in my ears for a couple of days afterwards), I was pretty sure they had gotten the machine gunner. And, by then, I was pretty sure that I needed to get off that hill as quickly as possible.
The rest of that day is rather vague. I sort of remember getting back with my guys, but I remember being with friends from Mike Company as well. A few of the guys I served with can’t remember a thing about the first few days, aside from landing at the hot LZ. But, for the rest of the operation, it would be the same. Life flashed by in a heartbeat…as action, constant action at every turn, became the rule of the day (and night).
I remember something else that as the years slowly eroded my youth and time has slipped away… It was exciting! I hate to admit it now, but it WAS exciting. The taste of the horrors that came later with bitter combat - had not yet tainted my youthful exuberance.
Compared to the little scraps with the Viet Cong that we’d experienced in previous operations, this was for all intents and purposes – conventional warfare. We found ourselves fighting an enemy that wasn’t afraid to duke it out face-to-face. This enemy, whoever they were (we didn’t find out until much later, that they were contingents of the North Vietnamese Army – NVA), were good. And, we would learn the hard way (as our numbers slowly dwindled), they were just as good as us. Not only that - I figured out real quick . . . that they out numbered us.
Before the 18th of July was over, three of our best had been killed in action, and a handful more had been wounded. I think Mike Company had been hit even harder. (I don’t know this for a fact – just a piece of information stashed away in my subconscious for so many years.) And, I had no idea where the other two companies were – or even if India and Kilo Companies had been on this operation.
Next: Hastings At 34, Part 2 (July 19, 1966)
Editor note: Part 2 is posted..click on the link above
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