Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
FIRST FIREFIGHT by Mike McFerrin
I had arrived in the bush late in the afternoon the day before. The night had been filled with fear of an attack. At least I had been. The company had only been expecting it. Nothing had happened that night.
I had already been "under fire," so to speak, at the combat base, An Hoa, every night since my arrival there. That is to say we had received a few rounds of incoming 82mm mortar rounds. To me, a new guy, this was under fire. I had now been in the bush some 15 hours without a problem. Only some 12 months and 3 weeks to go. May be Id get lucky and not see anything.
The reality of the bush was about to become clear to me. One of the squads from one of the other platoons had gone on a short patrol that morning shortly after dawn. They had found and chased some 10 or 12 gooks into a treeline not too far away. The company commander had not allowed them to continue the pursuit. As the squad returned to the company, we were given orders to saddle up. The whole company would enter the treeline to go after the enemy soldiers.
Before 7:30 AM, we moved out in column. The column was maneuvered along the edge of a bushline some 300 meters away and parallel to the target treeline. We made a left face and were now facing the target in a row. The target was an "island" of trees in the middle of a huge area of grass ranging from six inches to knee high. To the right and left of the island were long tree lines about 200 meters away from each side. As we looked at the target it seemed to be about 100 meters wide and perhaps the same deep. It also appeared to contain some hootches somewhere in its interior. We couldnt actually see any but there seemed to be an order about the trees, bushlines, and paths that we could see that indicated man had been there for a while.
The Captain decided that we would approach the island in a "wedge" formation and enter the treeline at a path that was almost at the midpoint of the island. My platoon got picked for the front of the wedge. My squad was picked for the front of the platoon. And sure as shit, my fireteam was picked for the very point. My fireteam leader decided to take the very point himself and I was a few steps back and to the left of him. We were to wait until we were about 100 meters from the target and begin "reconning" by fire as we approached. It all sounded just like the training formations at Camp Pendleton. Easy stuff.
We moved into the open area and started towards the target. At about 150 meters, our simple maneuver started falling apart. Out of the treeline to the left came one of the other companies in 3/5. We kept moving but it didnt take a mental giant to see that their column and our wedge would collide at a point about 75 meters out from our target. We were finally halted while the eminent tacticians decided what to do. Their decision caused somewhat of a stir in the ranks because I could hear some mumblings about the stupidity of it. Neither the decision nor the mumblings made much of an impression on me that day as I was on my first field maneuvers in a war and was concentrating on all the things I was supposed to do such as distance and direction between myself and the other men, watching for enemy movement in the trees, etc.
The decision had been to have Mike Company stop its wedge formation assault on the treeline and allow the other company to cross in column between it and the target. I now see how ridiculous that decision was and why everybody groaned and mumbled. We were approaching this treeline as if there were a large number of enemy troops in there ready to fight us. But for a few moments we would pretend there was nobody in there and another Marine company would walk right across in front of this treeline as if they were just walking by minding their own business. This probably looked good on paper and surely the gooks, if they were in there, would honor this little time-out we called. I mean it would certainly be unsportsmanlike for them to wait for the column to get spread out directly in front of them with the wedge formation directly on the other side of that column then open up with Marines two deep in front of them.
Of course, that was exactly what happened. Due to the heat the Marines of Mike Company had sat down to wait for the other company to move across. I was a new guy so I had a helmet. Not all of the non-new guys wore helmets. Some wore bush hats of various types. I sat on my helmet wiping the sweat from my brow. All of a sudden, the air burst into whizzes and whines of bullets. The cracks of dozens of AKs firing at once followed the bullets across the grassland. And behind that the screams of the wounded and dying.
I rolled off my helmet instantly and flattened on the ground. There was no cover anywhere. And none of us in Mike Company could return fire anyway since the other company was in front of us. Bullets were striking everywhere around me. I tried to crawl underneath my helmet. My terror was increasing as the realization that there was nowhere to go came over me.
Then I heard a yell from behind me to my left. They didnt know my name yet so they called me "New Guy." Three Marines had found a small rise that offered some cover and on the other side of them one Marine had found a small shell hole that had room for another person. I raised my head just enough to see them as they told me to come over there. It was probably no more than ten to fifteen meters but the bullets were thick enough to walk on so it looked like a click or more to me. I said no to the requests that I come to their cover. No way.
Then as I turned my head back to the front and began lowering it back into the earth I saw an automatic burst of fire parting grass and striking dirt about fifteen meters in front of me and tracking directly to me. I paused only a second and rolled my left shoulder, leg and head to the right. Right where my head had been and right in front of where my face now was a bullet struck. Dirt was kicked into my right eye from the impact. One more round hit about where my kidney would have been. The burst ended with that round. I yelled over and asked if they still had room for me. They did but again I found it difficult to move. This seemed more impossible than dodging raindrops in the monsoon. I was trying to figure my odds of getting hit staying there versus moving to cover. Theres one for Einstein to figure.
As they coaxed me to come and I vacillated, a blood curdling scream and cries for help came from behind me to my right. I could not see who got hit but the sound was very close. In an instant I low crawled, no, I slithered, dragging my face in the dirt to the cover of the shell hole. The cries for help over to my right began to slow down. Then there was nothing.
To the front, the fast and furious cracking of AK fire began to slow. The screaming and yelling of the Marines seemed to get louder. I looked up and could only see two Marines out there and they were running back toward the treeline from where they had come. Then I could see some more Marines back in the treeline who had apparently made it to safety. But there were still people yelling for help down there. I quickly raised up a little higher for a quick glance. I could see five or six bodies laying in the grass in front of the island. The AK fire slowed to a burst every ten or twelve seconds. After about a minute of this, it seemed to stop completely. I was thinking the gooks must be dead or ran off.
The screams for help were really loud now. My fireteam leader jumped up, turned and looked at us and said to drop our gear and follow him. My first order to follow in combat. I dropped my pack and jumped up to follow my fireteam leader. The other Marine in the shell hole with me yelled at me to not go and said something about me being sorry for doing that. It wasnt registering because I was so scared and new that I was focused on what I had to do.
The fireteam leader said to follow him and I did. He began running out to the wounded Marines in front of the island. We had gotten about halfway there when my fireteam leader yells at me to zig zag. I said, "What? Theyre all dead arent they?" He yelled, "NO!!!" I glanced behind me and saw that not a single other Marine had come with us. UH OH!!!! I almost shit my pants. This guy is a nut or a hero and I am the only one stupid enough to follow him out here. By now, we are almost three quarters of the way there and I want to stop my forward motion and run back. As I slow though, I get scared that I am starting to offer myself as an easier target and simultaneously I see four other Marines from the other company come running out of their treeline towards the wounded. Then there was a short burst of AK fire. Both my fireteam leader and I dove to the ground right where all the wounded Marines were.
My fireteam leader crawled up to a Marine who had been shot in the butt and/or thigh and yelled at me to come and help. The Marine was ashen faced and trembling severely. It was hard to tell if it was from the wound or the experience of being abandoned to die for the last five minutes or both. My fireteam leader pulled the guys poncho off his pack and told me to spread it out next to him while he took the guys battle dressing from his helmet and applied to the wounded area. We then rolled the guy onto the poncho and began to drag him towards the treeline. By this time other Marines from his company began to come out to help and two of them took over the front part of the poncho while my fireteam leader and I picked up the back end and we carried him all the way to safety. The wounded Marine was thanking us and promising us a bottle of booze each for saving him.
My fireteam leader and I went partially back out once more to help finish carrying one more. Then we went along the treeline until we were parallel to where our company was and dashed across the open to them. This time I dove behind the little rise with the three Marines behind it. I was amazed that we had pulled it off. I was sure that my fireteam leader at least would get a medal for this. I dont think anybody wouldve gone out there if he hadnt gone first.
We heard the order being yelled to pull back. All the way back past the bush line where we had started and into the trees. My fireteam leader and I were the first to respond since we had already been running all over the place. I only went a few steps back when I saw the dead Marine. It was my platoon sergeant. I yelled to my fireteam leader who recruited a couple of others to help pull his body back with us.
As we dropped his body at the makeshift LZ, my fireteam leader looked to me and told me I had first shot at anything I wanted from the platoon sergeant. I didnt know what he meant. Then some of the other Marines began swarming around. One noticed that there was a K-Bar (knife) and told me that if I didnt want it, he did. Now I understood. We were going to go through the dead platoon sergeants gear and take what we wanted. This seemed somehow unholy. I hesitated. I was told that K-Bars were non-issue gear and were prized possessions because of their usefulness in the bush. I might not ever get one if I didnt take this one. I passed on participating in what seemed at that time to be a ghoulish practice. And yes, before 3 days had gone by, I couldnt believe that I had been that much of a boot.
The Captain came over by my platoon and in a very gruff voice asked who that was that had run out to help the wounded from the other company. The other members of the platoon pointed us out before we could say anything. The Captain approached us and started yelling at us. Nobody had ordered us to go out there and who the hell did we think we were running off from our company to help another company, etc. I was dumbfounded. I guess I wasnt just a dumb new guy following a hero but a dumb new guy following a fuck-up. Later I learned that the Captain had basically frozen during the incident as much from the shock of realizing that the entire situation had been caused by the stupidity of the maneuver he had ordered as from fear. I think he was compensating by striking out at us trying to make us look like idiots to everybody.
Medevacs were called in. Later I learned that there was an attempt to call in air support but that the delay in getting it was unacceptable since it would stall the operational plans. We would pick up where we left off. We would assault the treeline with our wedge formation. No guessing this time. They were in there. Oh, shit!
After the Medevacs left we reassembled into the wedge and were told to walk fast towards the treeline and to begin recon by fire immediately. I tried to put a wall of lead in front of me more in hopes of stopping any bullets headed at me than killing any enemy soldiers. There was no return fire yet. At about the halfway point, I had to change magazines. I think two bullets fired out of the new magazine and it jammed. Whoops! Here I am walking at almost full speed towards the enemy and I dont have a weapon. I slowed then came to a full stop as I tried to unjam my weapon. This messed up the wedge so my squad leader ran up and gave me his M-16 while he cleared mine. I caught up to my place and began firing and this one jammed too. Shit! Still no return fire yet though. My squad leader ran up again with my now cleared M-16 and grabbed his to clear it.
We were now down to the last 100 meters and I think everybody started slowing down a bit expecting the worst. About 25 meters out from the edge of the island was a bamboo thicket with about a 3 meter radius and well over head high. This was in front of me so I began to sort of use it for cover as we approached. This was the only cover available if the shit hit the fan. As I neared it, I realized that I would have to step to one side or the other to get around it and I would no longer have it available for cover after I passed it. I walked right up to within two arms length of it not having made my mind up yet which way to go around it. I sort of hesitated and looked around to my left to make sure the rest of the wedge was with me.
As I swung my eyes, I saw something and quickly looked back at the bamboo thicket in front of me. Resting in between two of the large pieces of bamboo at about four inches above ground level was the end of a barrel. I squinted my eyes to peer through the slit and followed the barrel to the other end. Our eyes met and locked. My rifle was pointed off to the right of the bamboo thicket. His was pointed directly at my chest. I know I gasped. Im sure I paled. But the locking of our eyes apparently scared him, too, because I saw his eyes get real big and he ducked his head way down into the hole he had dug in the middle of the bamboo thicket. At the same time he opened up with what I now believe was an RPD machine gun. When he ducked, the barrel dropped and two or three bullets went between my legs before he started swinging it to the left to get the other Marines that he could see.
All hell broke loose. All the gooks back in the trees and vegetation of the island opened up. They tore up the advancing wedge. As the machine gun barrel swung away from me I fell flat to the earth directly in front of the machine gun. I was trying to swing my M-16 back forward when the barrel swung back towards me. I cringed expecting the top of my head to be split open. It passed right on over me and killed several people on my right. He must think Im dead. He did duck when he fired. As I listened to what was happening around me, I knew we were getting our ass kicked.
I rolled my eyes up to try and see in front of me. The grass was some eight to ten inches high and I could not see the slit in the bamboo where the gun was. And my rifle was still not pointed in that direction. I now know he probably couldnt see me either because of the grass but it did not occur to me at that moment. My predicament began to sink in and terror began to grip me. Just then the corpsman ran up and knelt down next to a guy off to my right. I tried to yell but could only squeak, "Doc, hes dead!," just as the machine gun opened up and put a couple of bursts into his chest. As he fell over the dead Marine he had come to help, I began to cry and my head spun as I prepared to die.
My first thought was of a Marine officer telling my parents that I had been killed. My second was that I had been killed in my first 24 hours in the bush which certainly didnt speak well of me paying attention in my Marine training and might even be embarrassing to my parents. It certainly was to me. Then my life began playing itself to me as vividly as any 3-D movie Ive ever seen. I was crying but not making any sound. Nor was I moving. I would rather live frozen stiff like this than die. Ants began to crawl on my head and face. Whenever they got close to my mouth I would try to bite them. I could see my home as I seemed to be floating at about mid-tree level around it. I saw my family and friends. And it just kept going.
The Marines began to pull back. They would call out the names of everybody who wasnt moving back with them to see if there were any wounded who needed help. They were calling six names out that didnt answer even after repeated efforts. The five dead on either side of me and mine. I wasnt about to answer this roll call. Then they left. And I was alone with the dead Marines and live gooks.
They pulled all the way back past where they had been before. Almost 400 meters and totally out of sight. As far as I knew they had gone to An Hoa. Or Danang. Or even back to the World. It didnt matter. Even if they knew I was alive, I was right in front of the machine gun that they still might not know is there. Even if they did, what could they do? I would be killed in the crossfire. I cried for my death at such a young age. What a harsh world. I began to pray. And I mean for real. I began to see the things I was allowed to see. Life was a natural event. Death was also. I began to feel as if I had been here before, dying on a battlefield. All of a sudden with a shock that convulsed my body, I understood. My tears stopped. My sorrow and self-pity evaporated in an instant. Whether it was here or in a hospital at 100 years old, I would experience Death. And it was not bad. I fully accepted my own mortality. The only measurement that would apply was how I had lived. I had been in front of that machine gun for over 45 minutes crying. I thanked God for letting me live long enough to arrive at this point.
I still believed that there was no feasible way for me to get out of this situation. I only knew that I would not lay there and die crying for myself. I decided that I could help my fellow Marines out if I could take this machine gun out. Then they at least stood a chance of recovering our bodies without another death. I remembered that I had been issued a little grenade pouch that holds three grenades and it was on my web belt on my right side. If I could get a grenade out and the pin pulled before he killed me then maybe the grenade blast would be enough to penetrate the bamboo and kill him too. I very slowly began moving my right arm back alongside my body. It mustve taken two or three minutes. Finally I could feel the pouch and I unsnapped one of the pockets and the grenade rolled out next to me. I felt for it, grabbed it, and spent another two minutes moving it up to the top of my head. Now I needed my other hand to pull the pin. Finally the deed was done. The grenade was ready and I wasnt dead yet. I decided it stood a better chance of getting him if it was right next to the bamboo.
With my arms extended over my head, my hand was only an arms length from the bamboo. I simply opened my hand and gave the grenade a little nudge. I fully expected it to kill both of us. I didnt even cringe. I was ready to die. The blast was incredible. It took my helmet off and felt like it split the skin on my forehead open. I couldnt hear but hadnt seemed to die right off in the initial blast. I couldnt feel any pain except the skin of my forehead. I wondered if the gook was dead yet. I was so stunned from the concussion I couldnt be sure how bad I was wounded.
Mike Company was calling in choppers for the wounded and dead that they had gotten out and were also attempting to get two "stacks" of air (4 Phantom jets) to do the island in. I was so new that I did not know that this was pretty standard in these type of situations. I had no idea that they were going to drop napalm and high explosives on the place then strafe anything that was left. I am really glad that I did not know. Fortunately for me, there was a great deal of action somewhere else in I Corps that day and they were unable to get the standard rapid response.
But people in Mike Company heard my grenade go off and knew that somebody was still alive up there. A squad came back and attempted to move up. The machine gunner in the bamboo thicket opened up on them. I almost shit my pants since he was firing directly over my head. Shit! Not only did I not kill myself with the grenade, I didnt even incapacitate the machine gunner. The thought crossed my mind that I was not very good at this. But I also decided that maybe I should try to get this asshole without killing myself. Again I reached back for a grenade from my pouch. I moved a little bit more confidently this time. I realized the grass must be hiding most of my movements. But when I began to move, a sniper up in a tree back on the island saw me and began firing. The bullets were single shot and began hitting three to six meters from me. This did not slow me down whatsoever by this point. I was right in front of a gun that could split my skull open. The sniper fired five rounds at me and I realized that the "plunging" fire angle that he had must be difficult and/or this son-of-a-bitch needed glasses. This time when I got the pin pulled I stretched my right arm out as far as I could and threw the grenade around the side of the bamboo thicket so that it provided some cover for me.
Right after the explosion, the Mike Company people again tried to move up and again he opened up on them. But now they knew that I was somewhere in front of the thicket and that I was targeting the thicket as the source of enemy fire. I heard a yell in the distance from the Marines who were trying to get back up to the area, "Hey! Keep your head down!" I wondered what idiot thought he had to holler that to me from a couple of hundred meters away. All of a sudden there was a whoosh and a short sound of sucking air and then a horrific explosion as a LAAW rocket fired from that distance made a direct hit on the thicket. The blast and the shrapnel all moved forward into the thicket but the pure concussion that reached back for me was incredibly strong. My entire body, in the prone position was lifted above the top of the grass and dropped back to the earth banging my chin very smartly. It was a hell of shot somebody had made. Since the Marines had actually witnessed my body come up above the grass they now knew that I was not just somewhere in front of the thicket, but was literally right in front of it. I heard the same voice yell, "Hey! Dont worry! We wont fire another one."
To show them that he was still there, the enemy gunner immediately fired a short burst towards the Marines. Christ!!! I had no idea how he was not being affected. Boot as I was, I was not aware of all the weird holes and side holes they dug inside of large rooted plants and trees that gave them such good protection. But the other Marines knew. Somewhere with one of the other companies on Go Noi were a tank and an amtrac. This was the one and only time that I ever saw either with the bush companies in the bush. The tank was sent up to get me.
I did not know there were tanks out with us. Until I began to hear and feel the rumble. The tank approached the island straight ahead about one hundred meters to my right. I heard the yelling of the Marines to tell me that they were sending a tank to get me out. I suddenly returned to the normal world. I was no longer alone waiting to die. I was elated momentarily. Then slowly the elation began to die down as I tried to figure out how this tank was going to "get me out." I couldnt see any reasonable way. The elation dissipated but not the new found hope.
When the tank got to the same distance from the island that I was, it made a 90 degree left and came straight at me as if to drive between me and the bamboo thicket. Once it had made this turn, one of the crewman reached up and grabbed the 50 caliber machine gun mounted on top of the tank and began firing it as he swung it in a wide arc spraying the island from the top of the trees to the bushes on the ground. And the tank continued to come at me. I realized that the driver probably couldnt even see me laying in the grass and the guy up on the 50 wasnt looking at anything but the island. I was watching 52 tons of steel come at me and it wasnt slowing down or turning.
From some two to three hundred meters back, I could hear Marines yelling, "Run! Run!" It was becoming clear that my options were limited. I watched as the tank rolled up on me. I was waiting for the last second to get as much tank cover as possible from the snipers back in the trees and hopefully the closer it got the more likely the gook in the thicket would have his head down. Just then the Marine up on the tank firing the 50 cal turned and looked at me and yelled at me to run behind the tank. In the blink of an eye, I did just that. The tank stopped right in front of the bamboo thicket as I got behind it.
From behind the tank, I yelled up to the Marine telling him that the gook was in the bamboo. He yelled back at me to run straight back to the company keeping the tank between me and the island. He turned the 50 cal almost straight down and fired into the thicket. I began to run. As I moved away from the tank I knew that I was presenting a target to the snipers in the trees and so did my feet because they moved like they never had before. The last grenade in my pouch flew out somewhere in the grass as well as several other unidentified items in my pockets. It didnt matter what it was, I was not slowing or stopping for anything.
As I made my mad dash, I could see the heads of a couple of Marines as they yelled for me to come to where they were at. When I got close enough, I dove for them. As I slithered around in the dirt to bring my head up with the other Marines, I realized I was in the same shell hole that I had sought cover in early in the morning. But now it seemed like it was years ago. One of the Marines looked at me and asked if I was okay. I said that I was but asked, "Is it like this in Vietnam every day?" He responded with, "Nah. It only gets this bad two or three times a week." I lay there thinking of what had happened to me in front of that machine gun. I had been irrevocably changed. I had accepted my own mortality and was no longer afraid of it. And it was a good thing because it did not look like surviving 13 months of this at two to three times a week was a good bet.
The tank withdrew some 20 meters, swiveled its cannon around and blew the entire thicket away. Then it retreated to the CP area some 100 meters behind us in some trees. Shortly thereafter, the air support arrived. Four Phantom jets. First they dropped napalm on the island. This was my first view of an air strike. I was astounded. The flames rolled through and totally engulfed the island. Nothing could live through that and yet they did it again. And again. Four times they hit the island with napalm. Then four times they hit it with HE (high explosive) bombs that shook the earth and toppled the trees. Then, to my amazement, they began making passes to strafe the island. I asked one of the Marines what they were shooting at since I didnt think anything could have even survived the napalm, much less the HE. He said, "Ol Mista Charles aint dead. Hes just sitting in one of his tunnels waiting for the jets to leave."
While the strafing runs were still going on, the Captain yelled to my Platoon Commander to get the platoon ready to go get the bodies. He yelled to another platoon to set up a base of fire to cover us. As the last strafing run was made, we were told to move out running zig zag and get the dead Marines. I was still of the mind that there were probably no live gooks though. The other platoon laid down a very heavy volume of fire as we moved up. They kept shifting the fire as we moved into its range. We did not receive any fire from the island.
I helped get the body of the corpsman who had been killed next to me. Four of us struggled to run with this body some 300 meters. It was an ass kicker. He had a large pack on and one of the squad leaders said to carry him back with it on because it contained medical supplies that we might need. We put the dead next to a clear area that was to be used for an LZ. I could not take my eyes off the corpsman. This was my first in several ways. The first that I watched as he was killed. The first person that I knew, even if only for a few hours, that I had seen killed. The first dead body that I had clearly seen. I studied his face. The bullet holes in his chest. I thought of him as a person. His family. I had a sick feeling in my stomach.
The choppers finally came and took the dead and wounded. It was 1530 hours. We had been at it for about 8 hours now. I had been extremely exposed to death twice so far. I had undergone a psychic and emotional upheaval of the greatest magnitude in front of the machine gun. I hadnt eaten or drank anything since about 6 that morning. And it was over 100 degrees. I was totally wasted. My stomach was in such knots that I couldnt put any food in it. But I began to drink water ferociously. The Platoon Commander came over to me and warned me to stop drinking like that. He also seemed aware of what I had been through because he asked me if I thought I was going to make it through the rest of the day. I assured him that I was capable of continuing. But when I said that, neither one of us knew what the end of the day was going to be. If I had known, I might have changed my response.
After about a half an hour of cooling off, the Captain passed the word that we were going to "take the island." This did not seem to be much since it had been napalmed, exploded, and strafed and we had been able to get the dead without being fired upon. They were dead or had made their didi out the back. This time even the veterans believed that. To be safe, we got on line as a company and moved towards the island firing as we went. There was absolutely no return fire as we moved all the way up to where the point of the wedge had been earlier at about 25 to 50 meters out from the tree and bush line that marked the edge of the island. As we moved into this last space, the elephant grass began to get taller. By the time we were 10 meters out it was over head high and so thick that you could only see just past your nose and so stifling that you had to struggle for a breath.
And the shit hit the fan. Again. The AKs seemed like they were right next to us. We were blind in the grass. There were no targets visible. But we were not visible either. Everybody hit the deck where they were and began pumping out the fire. There was 3 or 4 minutes of sustained fire from both sides as each sought to put out a wall of lead to kill their invisible enemy. Then the fire slowed to an occasional pop or two from each side as each tried to assess the effect that their initial, long volley had. The Captain and Platoon Commanders were behind us and couldnt actually see us anymore. They yelled a couple of times about charging through the grass. No one responded to that. It did not take a Field Marshal to figure out that the gooks were sitting back away from where the grass ended at the edge of the island. As soon as a Marine poked his head out, every gook would be firing at him before he could even take in the view to see what was there. And even if he ducked back in the grass, there was no cover and they would concentrate their fire on the spot until he was riddled. There were some wounded Marines but they were able to back out of the tall grass and get to cover.
For the rest of us, the order to charge was modified by us to mean to keep crawling forward until we could see the edge of the island. Then maybe we could spot targets and assess what to do. But this was not easy or simple because the volume of fire became sporadically heavy as we tried to suppress their fire so that each of us could crawl up a meter or two then be sure the rest of the line had moved up as close as possible to parallel with us. This basically had to be done by voice since most of us could not see each other either. To get off line now could be disastrous. Without sight, we had to be able to assume that a 180 degree arc in front of us was the enemy and the other 180 degrees behind us was friendlies.
Then the first call from one of the Marines that was a signal of incredible significance. He called for somebody to throw him some ammo. It was then that I, and everybody else Im sure, looked at their own ammo supply. Shit! Out of the two bandoleers of ten magazines each, I had four left. At the rate that I was firing, theyd be gone in a couple of minutes. The squad leaders began calling to their squad members to get a count. The story was pretty much the same for all of third platoon at least. This meant that we would not be able to continue advancing the way we had. They ordered the squads to stop firing and hold their place where they were. If the enemy decided to assault us in the grass, we needed a straight line and ammo to be able to repulse them.
We couldnt be more than 5 or 6 meters from the edge of the island. We tried to move up one by one another meter but every time the enemy heard the rustle of grass they poured out huge volumes of fire. And we were unable to respond and put their heads down. We tried several times to have many M-16s firing single shots but it couldnt even be heard over the din of the AKs and RPDs. This went on until darkness began to arrive. It was decided to hold the ground gained for the night. To do this, the squad leaders had us inch sideways into groups of two or three that were close enough to touch each other even if we couldnt see each other. These groups were our positions for the night. As the sun set, it became incredibly dark in the sea of grass that we lay in the bottom of. All firing from either side stopped and dead quiet set in.
The word was passed that more ammo would be choppered out in the morning and to redistribute remaining ammo between Marines in each position to insure all had some. I had a little over one magazine left and a magazine and a half after redistribution. As it cooled down my hunger grew. I began opening cans in the dark not being able to see what I was getting and not caring. I ate 4 cans of whatever before I started guzzling water. My body was thankful.
As the food and water worked its way through me, I lay face down in the dirt and pondered the new world I had entered. Sometime late in the afternoon, I had passed the twenty four hour mark in the bush and was now in the second day. My first firefight had lasted since before 8 that morning to almost 9 that night and was, in fact, still not over but just in a timeout due to darkness. I was just a teenager yesterday. Now I felt like an old man. People had been killed and wounded all around me for hours now. I had escaped a sure death situation. But the words of the Marine earlier in the day about this happening like this 2 or 3 times a week rang in my head. How could I, or anybody for that matter, survive thirteen months of this? It didnt seem like a very good bet. I became pretty well convinced that night that I would not finish my tour before becoming WIA or KIA. I wondered how the war could have been going on for three years now at this level and I had not heard how bad it really was.
I did not sleep much even though I was totally exhausted. There were 3 Marines in my position so we had it relatively good. A potential of 4 hours of sleep. But the fear of the enemy crawling through the grass and the visions of the dead Marines that kept floating through my head made that impossible for me at least. In reality, the night was uneventful but in my head everything that twitched from the ants to the sleeping Marines was a full frontal assault on my position that was about to take place. I was still determined to die fighting.
In the morning, the company CP group moved back to the area where the choppers could safely land and got a load of ammo that was sent in. They moved off to the right side of the island and approached the edge of the very tall elephant grass on their bellies from there. They began throwing boxes of M-16 rounds into the grass and adjusting their throws based on voice commands from those of us in the grass. There had not been a single shot fired yet by anybody but all the blood stained ground and grass was there to remind one of what would happen when it did begin. Once everybody had reloaded, we waited for the word to move forward.
It didnt come right away and we could hear the officers talking behind us somewhere. It seems that the Captain had used his binoculars when they were back getting the ammo and had spotted what appeared to be a bunker just inside of the trees of the island. After conferring with the Platoon Commanders, the decision was made to focus on this one bunker rather than a company wide assault. If the one bunker could be taken then the company would be able to get into the trees on the island and inside the enemy perimeter. I guess that sounds pretty good tactically speaking. But then the orders to implement this were passed down and I almost shit my pants. The bunker was situated in dense vegetation that would only allow for a few men to assault it at once. The seven men closest to the area would be designated a "new" squad since the squads were pretty well decimated anyway and they would assault this bunker. Sure as shit, I was one of them. I couldnt believe it. I was the only one of the seven who had been in front all of yesterday. What the hell?
We were told to inch our way sideways for about 10 meters. Then we were to inch our way forwards to the edge of the grass. No one was to open up unless the enemy did. I guess the idea was to not announce our intentions. This whole process started out very, very slow but speeded up a bit with the lack of fire. In about 20 minutes, I was able to see through the last blades of grass and spot the bunker. As it turned out, the available lane of approach was even narrower than thought so two of the seven were to stay back and fill in when somebody fell. Of course, I was not one of the two. It seemed like the Marine Corps was arranging this entire thing just to get me killed. Every time I escaped with my life, they came up with another reason to put me out front.
I heard some voices behind me and the Platoon Commander called to the squad leader to hold. They were bringing up the tank that had saved my life yesterday. I was told to keep moving to my right. I had one person on my right who had to move with me. The other 3 moved to the left. The tank pulled up between us. The Platoon Commander yelled to us that the tank was going to fire its cannon at the bunker and that he would give us the order to charge. This felt like a reprieve for sure. The tank lowered its cannon and fired. It was a deafening roar and explosion but it only scratched a little dirt on the bunker. The tank was ordered to fire 2 more times. It shook the shit out of the bunker but again there was no visible damage.
The tank backed up and we got on line and were told to charge. Oh God! Here I go again. Immediately the Marine on my right fell to the ground. I looked at him and his eyes were as big as plates. He said that his rifle was jammed and hed catch up later. I knew that he had just chickened out and nobody was moving up to take his place. All I could think was the son-of-a-bitch was deserting me under fire since he was part of my cover fire as I was for him and the other guy next to me. There were now 4 of us assaulting the bunker. We only had about 25 meters to go. We yelled and screamed and laid down automatic bursts as we ran forward. Since I was a boot though, I wasnt familiar with the enemy bunkers yet and had no idea that there were multiple entrances. I kept my fire focused on the only doorway that I could see and the gun slot in the front. I fired back and forth. We kept bullets pouring in and no one fired back. As we got right up to it one of the Marines leaped forward and threw a grenade in the slot and yelled at us to get down as he dove to the far side of the bunker.
He let out a scream simultaneous with the explosion. This scared the shit out of the other three of us since we thought that we were being assaulted from the other side of the bunker. We leaped on top of the bunker facing to the rear of it forming a hasty arc of defense to repel the assault. Off to the side we saw the Marine who had thrown the grenade rolling around on the ground. There were no gooks assaulting us. The Marine who had thrown the grenade had leaped in front of one of the exits to the bunker for cover and had caught a piece of shrapnel from his own grenade in the shoulder. As the situation became clear, we threw a couple of more grenades into the bunker and called to the rest of the company. They then flooded into the area moving some 50 meters or so beyond the bunker to set up a defensive line as we entered the bunker to clear it. Things were beginning to go in my favor as I did not have to enter the bunker first. There were 4 dead gooks and one severely wounded in there.
We spent some four more hours on the island securing and searching it. We took no more fire and found no more live gooks. Some 29 hours after my first firefight had begun it was over. The quiet and lack of "electricity" in the air was disconcerting. Everyone kept looking and waiting for something to happen but it didnt. We then were ordered into a column to move out the back side of the island. No destination was given. Just follow the man in front of you. As we left the island, I was overwhelmed with awe at what was happening. After over 24 hours of combat and all of the spilled blood to take the island, we were all just walking away from it. I groped for comprehension of what this was about. I turned to fellow Marines and asked why we were just walking away from this. Why werent we leaving Marines behind to hold it?
"Thats the way it is in Nam. We dont hold nothing here, man. We just roam around out here waiting to find Charles or waiting for him to find us. We kill some of him and he kills some of us then we go do it somewhere else."
I was totally stunned as I thought of all the horror that had transpired and the near sacrifice of my life. It boiled down to this. The only prize to be won was my own life. And it was the same for all of us Marines. At least the other side had the illusion (or maybe not so much of an illusion) of us as an invading army to motivate them. We didnt even have that. If there had been any traces of the illusion of fighting for Freedom, Truth, Justice, the American Way, or any of that other John Wayne movie bullshit in me, it was completely erased as the island faded into the background behind the column.
The near death experience in front of the machine gun had transformed me emotionally and psychically. The realization of what was happening here did the same for my wisdom and political maturity. I was not who I had been nor could I ever be again.
Over the course of the next couple of years, I would come even closer to death many times. I would be in battles that surpassed this in length and ferocity. But none would ever match this first one for the totality of effect that it had on my life in total. All that I have ever done since then has had the stamp of that experience on it.