Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
Life in the Bushby Mike McFerrin
Beginning with my first sunrise in the bush in Vietnam, the pattern of grunt life was established. Whether it was search-and-destroy, sweep-and-block, recon, or whatever other military maneuver the brass was calling it, for the grunt it was pretty much the same. An endless series of fierce firefights and booby traps day and night. Sometimes we won, that is we got more of them than they got of us, and sometimes we didnt. But in either case, grunts always died and were horribly maimed. It was as regular as a sunrise. Quite frankly, I did not believe that I would survive thirteen months of it. At least within my company, which was all I really knew, there were only 4 total who I would see do their complete tour in the bush and only two of those had not been wounded at all. Death, disabling wounds, or severe malaria would get the rest. Obviously, malaria was the best ticket to get. Choppers came in almost every afternoon to bring in the new guys and take out the dead and maimed.
There were so many ways to die. You could be the best bush Marine and never make a mistake and you could still get it. I wondered if it was this bad in the bush all over Vietnam. Surely, if it was I would have heard. Only after reading Stars & Stripes accounts of battles that I had witnessed did I begin to understand how they could cover up what was really happening. When I saw one battle described as "light to moderate casualties" for the Marines involved, I knew. Of the 120 Marines directly involved in the battle, 90 had been killed or wounded. But if you counted all 6 to 10 thousand Marines who had been involved with the supply chain to get the bullets to Vietnam and those Marines who had ran the EM clubs and movie projectors for them, then it wasnt so bad.
The other problem with the "support" Marines was that anything they found useful to themselves never made it to the bush until everyone in the chain had theirs first. This became severe when the Marine Corps first introduced camouflage utilities during the last part of 1968. Every Marine in Danang and An Hoa had a complete set because they looked good compared to the plain olive drab. And, of course they ran out of them before any bush Marine could get any. It would be three to four months before most bush Marines ever got outfitted with both camouflage shirts and trousers. I can only attest to the fact that whoever ran supply for the 5th Marine Regiment in An Hoa at that time was considered the worst American and Marine that anybody could think of. The man should be ashamed of himself to this day. While Marines in the bush were smearing mud and charcoal on their bodies and clothes to try and give them an edge to stay alive, the clerks, supply people, truck drivers, etc. were prancing around dressed like bushes.
Mostly, the daytime was a time of movement for the grunt. All gear was on your back, in your pockets or around your waist. These movements would be plagued with mines and booby traps and ambushes. Night was usually set into a perimeter somewhere with listening posts and ambushes put out for local security. Most large scale attacks on the bush Marines were at night. Occasionally, the Marines made a night movement or stayed in a static position during the daylight hours.
I only saw the "rear" for 5 days total during the first 8 months. The first time was a three day hold by the Battalion surgeon because we had spent three days walking in a typhoon that had caused rampant trenchfoot. The next time we spent one day there because an LZ was too hot to get into. The next one day was the only scheduled "rest" day we ever saw in eight months. The Marine Corps found it easier and cheaper to keep the grunts in the bush. The combat base at An Hoa became the "rear" for us. This was the same place that got mortared almost every night and now was also getting rocketed with large 122mm artillery rounds and even hit with ground attacks at least a couple of times a month. The fact that this was considered a place of safety and where a grunt could have fun can give you some idea of what the bush was like.
The Marine Corps was definitely getting their moneys worth out of us.
Of course, there was only a handful that was actually there for that entire eight months. Those who were beating the odds and not being medevaced in parts or as a whole body. In one particular 29 day period in what was called the Arizona Territory, the company averaged 8 men per day in the KIA or WIA categories. 29 X 8 = 232. Considering the company strength was generally between 100 and 120, it appears that it was a new company more than twice over. But most of those were 232 were the new guys who had a glorious career in the bush of a few hours to a few days.
A new guy was more or less anybody with less than two months in the bush at that time. If you survived that long then you had probably witnessed every kind of mistake and the results. No one needed to tell you where or what to watch for. Sometimes this time period was shorter. New guys got killed a lot and usually caused other people to die also. You had to keep your eye on them for your own sake. They would often hit mines or booby traps. It usually took a few days to a few weeks before they even realized that we were in danger every single second in the bush. It wasnt just while we were moving or on a local patrol. Though we had artillery and air support available, everybody could be dead before it got there and even when it got there the terrain offered concealment and protection and often the enemy was so close that the supporting arms would be as deadly for us.
Though most of us carried pictures of loved ones on us and mail delivery was surprisingly consistent in the bush, it was difficult to look or read because it only made you see how far you had gone from what you were before to this primeval person and that all could end at any moment. I felt very old and knew that whatever I had been before the bush in Vietnam I would never be able to be again.
Once every two or three months when we were in situation that would allow it, the Marine Corps would chopper out beer and soda. Of course you could only have two cans of whatever. There were a few who would finagle other peoples beer and get three or four which certainly would give you a buzz under the circumstances and heat. The three or four people inclined to do this were obviously alcoholics under normal circumstances. They would be treated as wounded by the rest of us until the buzz wore off. Even though the circumstances were relatively safe, no one wanted to see that man die if something happened.
During the few days in the rear, it seemed that everybody got drunk and smoked pot, even those that probably never did before Vietnam. Oblivion was the target that everybody shot for. It was all available at An Hoa. The convoys from Danang had a lot of enterprising truck drivers who made extra money delivering more than bullets and food. A few times somebody would try to bring some pot or booze to the bush. They would be quickly corrected about this by all around them. Death was waiting at every footfall and everybody wanted to live. It was too hot and heavy at that time in the bush to have somebody anywhere close to you in other than his full scared-to-death mind.
During the end of 1968, we received a new guy in my platoon who was not quite a new guy. I was the platoon guide but was temporarily serving as acting platoon sergeant. This new guy had been with the Marines up by the DMZ and had been wounded. After recuperating on a hospital ship, he had been sent to our unit. He came with pockets full of pot. This is when we learned that there were units in Vietnam that smoked pot in the bush. He thought everybody did. After learning that he had the pot and had smoked some his first night with us, I called him over behind some trees. I told him to give me his pot. He denied having it and I laid my rifle butt up against his head. He was sure I was a narc. I told him that I could care less what he did in the rear but in the bush his ass would be mine if I caught him doing any drugs or alcohol. He got rid of his pot but was scared to death of me even in the rear. He found it difficult to believe that we didnt smoke pot in the bush. After a couple of months with us, he understood. Most of the Marine outfits in the North spent the majority of their time in static positions and rotated patrols in their area. Down South, the Marine units were constantly on the move through enemy territory which dramatically increased their exposure and contacts. It would be months before we got to the rear and he realized that there were no narcs in the bush and everybody would actually get high in the rear.
The rights and wrongs of war, what we were doing there, and other such philosophical shit was only an issue between your first and second firefight. After the first firefight, all of the "What am I doing here?," "What is this about?," "Why are they killing us?,""Why are we killing them?," etc. hit you in gigantic waves as you groped for comprehension of the horror you had just witnessed. By the end of the second firefight, there was no room for these musings either psychologically or emotionally. Those questions along with everything else were in another world. This world was made up of other things that had their own logic. One does not worry or ponder the view of a right or left part to the hairline until after one has removed his fully attached head from the guillotine block.
The only "what" question that seemed to always be there is "What are they going to tell my family when they report my death?"