Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
(Going to Vietnam - up to arrival at first unit)
by Mike McFerrin
Mid-August, 1968. Realities begin to unfold on the bus to Travis Air Force Base to catch a flight. Final destination: War in Vietnam.
As with all other Marines in that time period, I had known since my first day in the Corps that Vietnam service was inescapable. And I had already seen that more than one tour could also be unavoidable sometimes. I had gone to 5th Recon Battalion at Camp Pendleton in late November of 1967 instead of Vietnam because I was still only 17. By late January, 1968, there were five of us in Bravo Company that were not 18 years old yet. The remainder of Bravo Company were Marines who had already served a tour in Vietnam and were finishing their time in the service there. The Tet Offensive came and there was a major mount-out at Camp Pendleton of several units including Bravo Company, 5th Recon. There was a six hour notice to pack a field transport pack and be ready to board cattle cars to El Toro for a flight directly to Vietnam.
The prevailing attitude about going to Vietnam was to get it over with as soon as possible since most Marines went there immediately after boot camp and initial training anyway. With that in mind, I had even attempted to board the bus to El Toro with Bravo Company. Nobody had said anything about age during the mount-out so I prepared to go and was actually boarding when a sharp-eyed admin sergeant saw me and jerked me off the second step. After numerous written requests to transfer to Vietnam at the earliest, orders came that would give me my 20 day leave, 7 days at Staging Battalion for final training, and have me in Vietnam about 1 week after my 18th birthday.
During the last days of the 20 day leave is when the reality first began to set in. Couldn't really party well because I couldn't get my mind off of where I was going. Then, during an administration process at Staging on exactly my 18th birthday, I was told that I was not going to Vietnam with the others. I would first be sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for a course in South Vietnamese. I tried to decline but was firmly placed with 92 other Marines to be sent to the school.
Now, after 3 months of constant Vietnamese schooling, we had graduated and were being bussed to Travis. Among the 93 Marines was one Viet vet, a Corporal with two fingers missing on one hand from wounds received in his first tour. Rodriguez had always been a source of information on the real Vietnam for all of us at school, but now the questions were becoming nonstop and, to us, he seemed very calm for a man about to endanger his life again. Stomachs were beginning to knot as we took this first leg of our trip to our destinies.
There should have been about a two hour wait at Travis. Our chartered Seaboard World Airlines flight was being repaired and the wait was estimated to be an additional 3 hours. There was another flight being boarded at Travis that caused an overcrowding in the terminal so the waiting Marines went outside and sat alongside of a wall on a walkway in the shade. As it turned out, the walkway was an exit area for arriving flights. We found out when a Medevac flight arrived from Vietnam and the legless and armless living body pieces were wheeled past us to waiting ambulance busses. The Marines, who had been growing quieter as the hour of departure from the U.S. came nearer, became stone silent as the stark visual scene screamed at them about what could happen to them. All 93 Marines had infantry or artillery functions which placed them in line for field positions in Vietnam where these kinds of wounds were sustained.
Late in the afternoon, the flight was postponed until the next morning for further repairs on the plane. The airlines put us up in a motel in Fairfield and bought us dinner. Through the 3 or 4 Marines who were 21, we bought the booze. It was obvious that the liquor was not for partying but for medicinal purposes.
I could hardly wait to get on the plane. I didn't feel good. We were flying the northern route. Seattle, Anchorage, Kyoto, and then to Okinawa for a 48 hour stopover before the final leg to Danang. I needed sleep. It was much better than being awake at this point. There were more delays but finally we were airborne. I slept right through Seattle and awoke as we touched down in Anchorage. We left Anchorage at about 5:30 in the morning and flew east, with over seven hours of spectacular sunrise to Kyoto. It was to be the last beauty I would be able to see and feel for many years.
In Okinawa, current news of the various places of the war was almost always available since it was where all Marines stopped for plane assignment before going to or from Vietnam. This particular year was the war's peak and much was happening. Due to "urgent manpower needs", our 48 hour stopover was reduced to 24 hours. The following morning after arrival at Kadena AFB we sat on the tarmac awaiting our flight to Danang. It was delayed due to a rocket attack on Danang Airbase which had reduced the available runways while repairs were being made. To us new guys, it sounded like Danang had been overrun by enemy troops. Finally, that afternoon we were headed for Vietnam.
As the coast of Vietnam came into view, I could see lots of green and mountains. In fact, it looked like we were approaching a tropical paradise. But as we got closer, this mirage faded. The landscape was heavily scarred. This country looked like it had been bombed to death.
After taxiing to the deplaning point, the airplane door was opened. In an instant, the heat and humidity seeped in and began to suffocate. And the smell. Was that the stench of rotting death? Sweat poured off everybody. We could not deplane until the Marine NCO in charge came aboard. He made us wait until we were near dropping from heat exhaustion.
Here at the Danang airport was where the Marines that had been together for the last three months would end their relationship as classmates. About 12 of us were going to the 5th Marine Regiment. The rest were going to units all over the I Corps region. All of us were to stay in tents along one of the airstrips that night and would be transported to our units in the morning. This scared the crap out of us since we were already catching snippets of real information on the previous night's attack. This airbase was obviously a major target and if they could hit it then they couldn't be far away and we didn't even have rifles yet. We were now in the shit and knew it. If anything comes down here, there's going to be over 90 unarmed Marines trying to grab weapons that aren't theirs, even if the owner hasn't fallen in combat yet.
They began to take 12 marines at a time to the tent area and assigned tent space to them. Then they would come back and get 12 more. I was in the last set of 12 and there was no more room left in the tents. They trucked us a couple miles away to 11th Motors compound to spend the night and leave from there. We were relieved. We felt that we had gotten lucky to avoid staying the night at the airbase. And as it turned out, we were lucky though not as lucky as we thought. The airbase was rocketed that night but only two or three came in, landed far from the tent area and hadn't actually hit anything.
Early in the morning there were both helicopters and truck convoys leaving 11th Motors for various units throughout I Corps. A large number of those who had spent the night at the airbase were brought to 11th Motors for transport that morning. We heard the stories of the rocketing and the near panic that had set in with the first distant impact. All 12 of us and some 30 others were sent to the helipad for transport to An Hoa, the 5th Marine Regimental Headquarters and combat base. A CH-46 was used and it took three trips to get everybody to An Hoa.
I was on the second load out. I did not particularly like helicopters. My first helicopter ride in training had been an old 34. I was sitting on the pull down canvas seat directly across the helicopter from the open doorway. We were flying from the beach at San Onofre in Camp Pendleton up the valley to Camp Horno. A combat ready team does not wear seatbelts. The pilot went into a banking turn and my side of the helicopter rose as the other dropped. Enough that I went out of my seat facing the valley floor hundreds of feet below. As I began to fall across the helicopter, the crew chief who was sitting next to the open door facing me and had a mike to the pilot, yelled to the pilot and stuck his arm out, catching me as the pilot righted the craft. Now I could add being shot out of the sky to my list of fears of ways I might die in a helicopter.
The chopper kept a very tight spiral until a safe altitude had been achieved and then headed south towards An Hoa some thirty odd miles away. As we left Danang we saw much green area with lots of trees and shell holes. Then about 20 miles south of Danang the number of shell holes per square mile increased dramatically. And they looked newer. The door gunner began a constant scan and began to swing the barrel of the gun, prepared to fire in any direction.
An Hoa appeared as a dirt blotch on the southern end of a long valley full of rice paddies with a river bisecting it. There was an airstrip, two artillery units, and some tents and bunkers. The helicopter spiraled down and the door gunner sweated profusely. We took that as a good cue to break into a sweat ourselves. We landed next to the runway which was long enough to accommodate a C-130 cargo plane. We were divided there to go to various battalions. Three of us from language school and 18 others were sent to 3rd Battalion HQ which was a tent just off the airstrip area.
As it happened, 3/5 had not even been to An Hoa yet. They had been up north of Danang since before Tet. The Regiment was in the process of moving to the combat base but only security and the administrative portion had actually arrived. The rest were out on operations. We were split up equally at Battalion HQ, 7 to each of the three companies. All three of us from language school were sent to Mike Company. Chris Sipes, Eric Jorgensen, and I. It felt good to have these familiar faces with me as I entered the Unknown of Combat. This familiarity would turn out to be worthless in bush terms but I didn't know those things yet.
Mike Company office was a tent with a bunker next to it. There was a First Sergeant and a clerk. Our records were given to the clerk. We were sent to Supply for our gear. We put our duffel bags on a pallet in a tent and changed into our jungle fatigues. This was before camouflage in the Marine Corps. They were plain olive drab with leg pockets. The T-shirts were jungle green though and I heard that the boots had metal plates in the bottom. It felt good to have a rifle. I knew if a guy didn't have a rifle, he was newer than me. Then I noticed that all of us who had just arrived could be seen easily clear across the base. Our clothes were greener than everybody else's. And up close the leather part of our boots were blacker than anybody's.
We were to attend a one day indoctrination class here at the combat base and then be sent out to join the company in the field. We were told to stay close to a bunker during the night hours. And they were right. Within minutes after sunset, the mortars began.
This mortar attack became my first inkling of what combat was to be like. As I made a mad dash for the closest bunker, I found myself in a swarm of about 15 other frightened Marines heading for the same bunker that was designed to hold 6 people comfortably. If packed tight, maybe 10 to 12. The mortar rounds were being "walked" across the base. As they came closer to the area we were in, the fear increased and the Marines began elbowing and shoving to get to the bunker doorway that was only big enough for one man at a time to pass through. Though I was scared, I was not panicked to the point of participating in this fighting scramble to get in the bunker. I allowed the panicked Marines to shove past me rather than fight back.
Each Marine that made it into the doorway was immediately pressed into the bunker from the weight of those behind him. There were screams and yells from inside of the total darkness of the bunker as people were stepped on and crushed from the ever increasing weight of bodies. And to further complicate the situation, there was about 4 inches of water and mud in the bunker. The rounds were almost on top of us when a certain scream began to rise above the others. Somebody had his face shoved into this water and could not get out because of the weight. A Marine was starting to drown. This did not slow the rush in the least. I was one of the last to the bunker doorway. The next mortar round was sure to fall on or near the bunker. There was no more room and the scream about the Marine drowning was in front of me as I faced the doorway. There was more panic in the darkness of the bunker than there was from the screeching of the incoming mortar round. I turned and went to the side of the bunker and flattened out on the ground beside it as the mortar impacted about 10 feet away. Two more rounds fell near the bunker and then moved on across the base. The attack ceased within a couple of minutes. Nobody died in that bunker but almost.
I learned a couple of things in that attack. Panic can kill and being flat on the ground can save one's ass even from a very close explosion. And now the war was real for me. I was a target. The next two nights at An Hoa were the same but not quite, since no mortar round landed as close to me as the first night. My world of care and concern had now been reduced to the kill zone of a mortar round.
Late in the afternoon on the third day we stood on the helipad at An Hoa waiting for the helicopter that was to resupply the battalion. It would take all 21 of us to the bush. We would now face all of the other ways the enemy had to kill us. The mortar attacks at An Hoa had given us some preparation for what was to come. All 21 were scared but then we had been scared every night since arriving. The only difference was now we could remain scared 24 hours per day.
About 4 that afternoon the helicopters arrived. We were being choppered to Go Noi Island. It was not really an island but was a large tract of land that lay between two rivers that ran all the way to the ocean some 20 to 30 miles away. It was incredibly hot. Everybody was soaked with sweat. Added to this discomfort was the fact that all 21 of us were carrying gear that we did not need in packs that were arranged and sitting in a way that was not suitable. These lessons would be taught to us when we arrived at our home squads. And the fear of the Unknown. Would the LZ be hot? Would the helicopter be shot down?
Go Noi Island was flat as a pancake with knee high to over head high elephant grass every where except for a few islands of trees and shrubs that dotted the landscape of the interior and followed the river banks. The helicopter began to spiral down to what looked like the exact middle of a sea of grass. There were dots of olive drab running around in the grass, jumping on things that were starting to move from the helicopter's rotorwash. Nobody shot at us.
Upon debarking, it seemed like mass confusion on the ground. We could not tell who was who since nobody was wearing any rank insignia. People seemed to be scattered everywhere without any order. We soon learned that this was the battalion command post (CP) group. We were told that the CP was moving out immediately to join up with the companies somewhere. There were booby traps and gooks everywhere so be careful. This scared the crap out of us. And then to add to that they took the seven of us that were going to Mike Company and told us we would be walking flank for the column. Somehow I was put in charge. They pointed out to where the grass was over head high and told us to go out there and stay 30 to 50 meters out and parallel with the column and, again, to watch out for booby traps. Oh, my God! We were now in the bush. The real bush.
As we moved into the tall grass, we left the air behind. It was like an oven. Sweat was pouring off of us and getting into our eyes. We were taking baby steps as we tried to see through the stinging sweat and grass for a sign of anything that could be indicative of a booby trap. Then there was somebody yelling to me to keep the flank moving with the column which I couldn't see. After about an hour of this we broke through the grass to a small wooded area and there was Mike Company. The seven of us on the flank were dropped off there and the rest continued on to nearby wooded areas that contained the other two companies. At the company CP area, the captain introduced himself, the company gunnery sergeant, and the corpsman. Since third platoon had taken the most casualties in the last few days, three of us were sent there. Second platoon got 2. First platoon got 1 and 1 was assigned to be the new company radioman.
We sat around waiting for the platoon to send somebody up to get us. The corpsman was the only one who talked to us, trying to calm us as the stress of the unknown dangers was obvious in our faces. He told us that the company had been moving across Go Noi on search and destroy and that they had made contact with the enemy every day. We should listen to our squad leaders and try to learn as quickly as possible if we were to stay alive. He was very comforting in his calmness. We felt like he cared.
Soon somebody from third platoon arrived and took three of us to an area on the edge of the wooded ground. Here third platoon was responsible for a section of a perimeter that was being established by digging foxholes about 20 meters apart in an arc that connected with the foxholes of the 2 other platoons forming a rough circle. We met the lieutenant, platoon sergeant, platoon corpsman, and all three squad leaders. One of us to each squad. People seemed genuinely awed that I had been taught to read, write, and speak Vietnamese.
I was immediately assigned to help dig a foxhole. One of my squad was searching an enemy bunker nearby and tossed a wooden plank out the doorway. On it were the Vietnamese words for "Danger: Mine." I wanted to show I knew Vietnamese so I told the guy I was digging the foxhole with what it said. He looked at me and his eyes got real big and he ran over to the bunker yelling at the guy that was entering it. I was stunned since the reality of what I had told him didn't hit me until he ran over there. I got a lot of attention from my new fellow Marines. I knew something that could help them and they seemed to treat me a little better than the other new guys.
Before the sun went down, my squad leader gave me a class on nighttime perimeter defense. How to watch, what to watch, where to watch, how to sleep, how to hold my weapon while awake and asleep, how to prepare my grenades, when to use my grenades, and how to light and smoke a cigarette without being seen. So much to learn. But I was now at the end of the pipeline and it felt good to have a home and new friends. This seemed to help face the dangers ahead. Nothing happened that night and I felt like I was settling in. I would face this war with my fellow Marines.
What I didn't know yet was that although seven new guys had arrived that day in Mike Company, before twenty four hours had passed, there would be eight dead, which included the other five members of my squad, and 14 severely wounded leaving Mike Company. I hadn't yet learned what a "friend" was in Vietnam.