Mike & H&S Companies 

Third Battalion, Fifth Marines

Veterans of the Vietnam War
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Grady Rainbow's Memoirs,  (Continued), Page 5

Remember Indoc school?  Well it seems I had missed out on some training that may have been helpful, like test firing my weapon.  This would prove to be almost tragic in the very near future.  I spent the next few days standing bunker watch, going on patrol or working parties building and rebuilding bunkers.  The construction of these mini forts was an on going process.  The sun, rain and general weather rotted the sandbags almost as fast as we could fill them.  I imagine Caesar’s Legions did the same, build, march and fight.  Then build some more, always fortify, and always improve your defense.  The heat was unbearable and the humidity seemed to sap the very life out of you.  Sleep became a rare jewel to be prized, we probably got four hours a night.  Work all day and stand watch at night; it took its toll quickly.


The company held a formation on the dusty street one day, I was given an extra rifle with bayonet and a helmet.  On command some of us stepped forward as names were called and planted the rifle in the ground by the bayonet, then place the helmet on top of the butt.  It was an effort to honor the recent dead from Taylor Common.  It was greeted with very mixed feelings from the Marines in the company.  There were many quiet comments about the leaving the bodies in the jungle.


  The snuffys in the company were pissed.  They felt betrayed, anything Lt. Mahlum heard he put a stop to.  The Lieutenant was very well liked by the entire platoon, I soon found out why.  He was understanding and went out of the way to take care of the troops, he wasn’t there to try to “buck” for rank.  But he was our officer and enforced discipline as needed.  We were then told to saddle up and prepare to mount out the following morning for a company size sweep of the area.  We were going to the bush and out of the camp with the constant working parties and watches.  We were headed out to “Get Some” as the Battalion motto said.


That night was filled with getting gear ready, picking through chow cans and checking gear.  LCpl Dewey went over my gear carefully and discarded any unnecessary items.  Then I got extra ammo.  A belt of 100 rounds for the M-60 machine gun, a 60mm mortar round and four grenades, M-26 type.  With my own gear it felt like it weighed a ton.  I suspected that as the cherry I was getting crapped on, I was wrong. Everybody carried this load, plus C-4 and claymores.  Looking around I saw everyone loading up on ammo, explosives and rounds for the mortar; we carried all our support on our backs.



     When I first got in country I was issued one set of jungle utilities, one shirt and one trousers, whatever size the Supply Sergeant happened to throw to me.  I wore them till they rotted off, (about 30 days later).  Later, when I was reassigned to Division Headquarters, I was issued four sets of jungle utilities that actually fit properly.  I never understood why personnel in the rear could get new equipment and not the grunts in the field.  In my later career I became a Logistics Chief in a Battalion.  I remembered these times well, God save the Supply Sergeant that held out on equipment issue to line Marines, his ass was mine!!


 Our field gear was WWII issue, M-1947 field packs and web gear.  The first thing any grunt hoped to do was make contact, waste an NVA, then capture his pack, theirs were

much better than ours were.  The Army had more up to date gear and we stole anything that wasn't nailed down when they were around.  Here we were the finest fighting organization in the world, and we had to wage war on a shoestring, treated like disposable property.  Most grunts took a perverse pride in the conditions we lived in; we were "Hard Corps" and damned proud of it.  To this day every Marine grunt I talk to that was there has an arrogant attitude toward any other service; they were all candy-asses as far as we were concerned. That's not right I know, but still that's how we felt.


Vietnam had more strange viruses, bugs and infections than I think the rest of the world combined.  The slightest cut or nick and overnight it was infected.  You would get a large ulcerated sore that oozed pus and refused to heal for weeks, we called these "Gook-sores".  The only cure was antibiotic creams and keeping the area clean, and being clean was impossible.  I remember taking a shower only twice in over four months, when we tried to clean-up in a river or pond we got clean, and we got leeches all over us.  Malaria and dysentery were common, you could be evacuated for malaria if your fever got above 102 degrees, if not you stayed and fought.  I weighed about 175 pounds when I reported to An Hoa, when I was med evac'd to the hospital I weighed in at 117 pounds, stress, heat, poor diet and illness accounted for the loss.  I can't really put into words the complete description of what it was like, I guess you had to be there.


     Unlike our forefathers in other wars, we didn't go into the lines for a campaign then withdraw to resupply and refit for the next battle.  We arrived "on the lines", were either under attack, on operation, or standing patrols and watch for attack from the first day, till you left country with a completed tour.  With casualties, illness and deaths the strength of our units was always severely down.  A full Marine Platoon in a rifle company was made up of four squads of 14 men each, (three fireteams of 4, radioman and squad leader) and the platoon HQ, 1 lieutenant, 1 SSgt, radioman, Right Guide, and two runners.  The most we ever fielded was two squads of 9 men per platoon.  We were supposed to have attached machine gun teams of four men each, in each squad.  Our teams were two men, Gunner and A-Gunner, no more.



     A tour of duty for a Marine was 13 months, not 12 like the other services.  The reason the extra month was tacked on was to allow for troop movement by ship.  As the war continued we started shipping replacements by air just like everyone else, but the Corps kept the 13-month tour.  They finally changed this policy in late 1970 or 1971.  We just felt it was another screw job by the Corps.



The average age of a Marine Infantryman in Vietnam was 19, average educational level 10th grade.  Our platoon was less than 10% black; the rest were white or Hispanic.  There was no race problem in the field, I never saw anyone even mention it, except in the rear areas.  We were all "green".  The crap Hollywood puts out about blacks bearing the brunt of the war, from what I saw, was just that, CRAP.  Every race, color, ethnic background was there.  We fought side by side as equals, we bleed and died as equals, the only segment of America I didn't see in the lines was the very rich. Every Marine I served with was a brother, even if we couldn't stand each other; we stood by each other.  No man ever let the others down; we would rather have died than had to face that shame.  We called it being "tight".




Well anyway we were mounting up for the patrol that lay ahead of us.  Mike Company left An Hoa in a staggered column north on the dusty road toward Liberty Bridge.  We humped in the heat it seemed for hours, then we turned off the road and started the slow progress across rice paddies.  I just fell into line and followed the man in front of me and watched the countryside for any sign of VC, (like I would have known at that time).


After a short while we set in a perimeter and began to dig in to emplacements.  As the cherry I got the pleasure of drawing another listening post away from the company.  This one ran like it should, with at least 50% watch and night discipline enforced.  We had no contact that night either, but in whispers in the dawn I began to be told how to survive.


  First lesson, if anything looks out of place don’t touch it.  If you smell fish smells; drop and take cover, (Charlie ate a fish sauce nuc mam and you could smell it on

him).  I had noticed many of the Marines wore enemy belts, leather or web with brass buckles and an enameled red star.  Some carried NVA packs or pistols with them.  I was given rule number two; “don’t take any souvenirs unless you personally kill the gook yourself”.  Most were booby-trapped and it was bad taste to wear gear you didn’t earn by making the kill yourself.  I saw pouges in the rear that bought gear off grunts to take home and prove what a hero they were, to us that would be like buying medals in the PX and claiming they were yours.  The only exception was if your fellow Marines presented you with something, like an NVA buckle, which was an honor.


In the morning we rejoined the company and started to hump out of there again.  About two hours into the march we broke for a rest when I heard a massive explosion.  Everyone hit the deck, then someone yelled booby-trap.  1st Squad was called up to provide security as we went into a 360-degree perimeter.  One of the other Marines in the company had hit a wired 155mm howitzer round, he was gone.  The Platoon Sergeant motioned for me to come over and told me to climb a small tree in the blast area, the Marines Flak Jacket was hanging in the limbs.  I climbed the tree carefully and reached for the jacket, it was hung up pretty well.  So, I seated myself in the crotch of the tree and really tugged, the jacket came free and so did its contents.  Into my lap tumbled the largest portion of the torso of the dead Marine, he had been ripped apart by the blast.  I dropped the jacket and puked my guts up from my perch in the tree, but I held onto the body.  Two other Marines took the torso from me and lowered it to a poncho with the rest of the remains.  No one laughed at my throwing up, no one laughed at all.


We cleared the area and called for a Med Evac to fly out the body and some other wounded.  Then we saddled up and started to move again.




     Later that day as we were humping toward our objective we moved in a staggered column formation. Each man alternated the direction in which his weapon was pointed so that half covered the right and half the left sides of the column.  I remember we were on a rice paddy dike moving toward a treeline where the forward part of the company was already setting in for a chow break.  As we got the word to switch weapons (change from right to left or vice versa) I brought my M-16 down and across in front of me.  Suddenly there was the sound of automatic fire and I felt my feet shoot out from under me.  I thought at first I had been hit then I noticed everyone getting up and looking my way.  The paddy dike had collapsed in front of me and dumped me in the rice paddy.


     SSgt Wagner ran over and began cussing me up and down accusing me of walking with my weapon off safe.  Contrary to Hollywood antics an experienced rifleman doesn't take his weapon off safe until ready to actually shoot.  I knew I had always been extra careful with weapons and knew the weapon was in fact safe, but I had to admit my M-16 had emptied a full magazine of 16 rounds (we didn't load all 20 due to a flaw in the weapon, I'll write down later).  I showed the weapon to SSgt Wagner and screamed right back at him, I think he was startled that a PFC would dare bark back.  He took the M-16 and loaded a fresh magazine and yelled for "Fire in the hole", ensured it was on safe and pulled the trigger.  I remember watching the other men and the looks of amusement on their faces as they expected the weapon to not fire, and expected me to really get ripped. They were wrong, the fault lay in the weapon.


  The selector on the weapon was faulty and in the safe position it again unloaded the entire magazine into the ground.  I shouldn’t have missed that part of Indoc training to test fire your weapon.  SSgt. Wagner never acknowledged he had been wrong, but did order that the only other weapon available, the M-14, be given to me.  The M-14 had belonged to the Marine whose body I had pulled from the tree that day.  If we hadn’t had that piece of bad luck there would not have been any weapon to give me.  The Skipper wanted each platoon to have at least one M-14 at all times for long range shooting.


     It was only through sheer luck the M-16 was pointed directly at the ground when it went off or someone could have been wasted in a stupid accident.  I had gone through infantry training using M-14's, I had little or no training on the M-16 till I got in country about two weeks before.  I learned two good lessons from this also.  One, never, NEVER, handle a weapon unless you are familiar with it and you are positive it functions exactly as it is supposed to. Two, a good leader will always acknowledge his mistakes, there is no shame in admitting to a subordinate you were wrong. But

Wagner had other things on his mind I’m sure. I always suspected he was the main reason I never seemed to get ahead in Mike Company, but I'll never be sure.  Of course the fact I was such a wise ass may have been the reason.


We moved on through a village we found and LCpl Dewey, tapped my shoulder; “Pay attention to what this looks like, we are coming through here tonight on ambush patrol”.  Sounded like good advice to me, little did I know I would be walking Point, one of the most dangerous jobs in the company.  We passed through the village, the villagers just stared at us, no one asked for chow, and no one smiled just hard eyes watching.  A few hundred meters past the village we set up a perimeter and started to dig in for the night.


     It was April 1st, 1969.  I was on my first long patrol with Mike Company in the Phu Lac's out side An Hoa.  We had moved through a village earlier in the day and as I have said the villagers were not friendly, smiling or at all pleased to see us in the area.  The entire Battalion was on a sweep of the area and searching for any sign of enemy activity. I thought I was doing real well, now.  I had been in country for about 16 days total, I didn't know anything at all really.  Our squad drew a night ambush patrol, we staged our packs in the Company CP and dropped our flak gear and helmets.  The night was sultry and hot, but we pulled down or sleeves and buttoned up our jackets fully.  This was to prevent the moonlight from shining off our skin and giving us away, we also darkened our faces with dirt.


     The squad leader informed me that it was my turn to walk point, one of the others complained about the fact I was "cherry" and shouldn't be on point.  The squad leader, LCpl Dewey, stated it was time I learned, either I got it right or I got dead.  I had to pull my own weight in the squad.  I was briefed on the route we would take and Dewey made sure I knew where I was expected to go.  Most times on a night move we weren't very far apart and we kept visual contact with the man in front of us, tonight was to be different.


 There was a full moon, (what grunts everywhere called a sniper's moon), so I started out about forty meters in front of the squad as an advance point.  I noticed as we walked back through the village there were no lights, fires or any signs of life.  I felt my stomach tighten, this felt very strange, like the whole Vietnamese world had disappeared.  I gave the hand signals to look around, everyone got the idea, it meant trouble.  When the villagers disappear and everything is deserted it generally means they expect trouble that night.  They probably were deep in their bunkers under the hootches.  We moved on quietly spreading out even more.


     We walked along close to a treeline so our movement wasn't so readily visible to any watching VC.  About 200 meters from the village the treeline turned sharply left and I had to cross an area of open rice paddies to the next cover.  In front of me lay a graveyard, mounds and monuments to the local dead dotting the landscape. I started out moving low and slow, the squad halted behind a paddy dike waiting their turn.  We planned to cross the open one at a time.  I don't know why, but things felt wrong.  The hair on my arms and the back of my neck literally stood straight up.  Everything seemed intensified, smells, sounds even the air seemed thicker.  I got down on one knee on a grave mound about 20 meters from the treeline.  I couldn't put a finger on it but something told me not to go any further.  I motioned for the squad leader to "come up" to my position.  Dewey came up quickly and asked what was wrong.  I whispered that I wasn't sure but things didn't "feel" right.  Dewey looked me in the eyes for a long time, then he noticed the hair on my arm standing up.  He turned and said I was the point, if it wasn't right to me then we weren't doing it, and moved back to the squad to let them know our change of plans.  I kept scanning the area around me looking for anything out of place. I felt naked squatting there in the dark, sweat poured off me and I felt every nerve in my body screaming; “Get out of there”.


 Suddenly I heard an unmistakable sound, the "click" and "ping" of grenade spoons flying off.  I looked up and saw two grenades sailing right toward me.  I yelled "Ambush" and flattened myself on the ground.  The explosions bucked me into the air and over on my back.  I was disoriented badly and in the open.  I had my rifle in my hands, but I couldn’t see or hear anything. Just my ears ringing.  I smelled the black earth and tried to discover which way was up, I knew not to stand for fear of more incoming.  I just couldn’t seem to get my bearings.  LCpl Smith, a friendly black Marine,(Smitty), came charging up and picked me up over his shoulder.  The squad was already pulling back for better cover, Smitty ran over 50 meters carrying me to safety.  I undoubtedly owe him my life, if he hadn't came out and got me the VC would have probably picked me to pieces.  Once we got back behind the paddy dike, Dewey decided to scrub the ambush and go back to the company CP.  He waited a few minutes until I could get my bearings and my night vision back. There was no further fire from the treeline and we moved out quietly and headed back, with me on point again.


     When we got back Dewey debriefed to the company commander. There were several other units in the area and we weren't sure we hadn't run up on another American unit instead of VC.  The Skipper checked the map and radioed back for pos reps on all other units, there weren't any "friendlies" in that area.  The Captain was almost convinced we had screwed up and was questioning Dewey real hard, almost accusing us of blowing it on purpose.


 I was huddled in a fighting hole waiting for further word when my arms and head started itching and burning.  The platoon corpsman saw me scratching and digging at my arms and came over to check me out.  I told him I thought I had gotten "into something" when I hit the dirt, maybe some kind of poison ivy or something.  The stinging was getting really bad.  Doc pulled a poncho over us in the hole so he could use a flashlight and when he turned it on I saw I was covered in blood.  I had several pieces of wire-like metal sticking in my arms and a piece in the side of my head.  Doc pulled the pieces out he could get at and cleaned the wounds up with an antiseptic.  An M-26 hand grenade used coiled and serrated wire for shrapnel, which is what I had stuck all in me.  I had been so shocked and disoriented I never realized I had been hit.  This was my first Purple Heart, seems the Sergeant Major was right; Med Evac Mike was where to get one.


     We hadn't returned fire because we weren't sure we hadn't run into another American unit.  The fact we knew it was M-26's that were used made us think we had made a mistake.  We knew it wasn't Chi-coms, (Chinese Communist Grenades), because we heard the spoons fly.  The next morning we made a sweep patrol back through the area, I was walking point again so we could trace the exact route we had taken.  I think the Captain still thought we had screwed up and wanted to be sure.  We moved very carefully back over the trail from the night before, the village was now deserted.  The wasn’t a villager in sight anywhere, someone said they all must have been VC sympathizers.


  When I passed the spot where I had been hit I started to feel leery once again.  Moving into the treeline carefully I found three booby-traps rigged to explode.  One of them I remember was an 81mm mortar round with a pressure release trigger hooked up.  It was placed in the only open break in the treeline, anyone walking there would surely have tripped it.  I called Dewey up to verify each device and we blew the booby-traps up in place with C-4.  When we had confirmed the VC had been there we reported to the Skipper, (Captain Burns), and circled back to the company area.  The enemy had moved between our position and the other units of the 5th that were in the field.  The idea was to get us to hit booby-traps, begin firing and catch each other in a crossfire.  This was one of their favorite tricks.  Our refusing to fire and pulling back ruined this plan.


     When we got back to the company position, Dewey made his decision.  I was to walk point every time the squad led the march.  We were all pretty superstitious, weather or not it was justified my squad leader had decided I was a "lucky pointman".  He thought I had the "feeling", meaning some kind of sixth sense.  I don't know if there was anything to it or not, but I got the "feeling" many times again.  Each time I found booby-traps, mines or an ambush ahead.  I have always taken pride in the fact I never had a single Marine wounded or killed when I walked point.  And I never got us lost.  I think all the times we played around Lake Texoma, in the brush and woods, when I was a kid taught me to orientate myself naturally.  Also later I learned that men with faulty color vision noticed subtle differences in foliage and camouflage, maybe sub consciously that is what was happening.


     That sixth sense business.  I have thought about it many times since Vietnam and think I may have an explanation. We stumble through life forgetting we are really just intelligent animals.  We have all the same senses any wild animal has, we have just forgotten to use them right.  I think the reaction was the result of smelling, hearing or tasting something so subtle we don't consciously recognize it.  Our survival system kicks in and warns us of danger with the "feeling", the hair raising and the heightened senses.  I've had the same thing happen in later years during training exercises, but only when I was really concentrating on it being real.  I maybe wrong, but it didn't happen to everybody.  Only those of us that seemed to pick-up on it, generally guys from the background of hunters and outdoor types.


Dewey had been right, learn fast or die quick.  Half the time he told me I would never finish my tour, at the rate I was going I didn’t stand a chance.  He wasn’t being cruel, just factual as he saw it, point wasn’t a place for long careers.


We finished that sweep patrol with no other incidents that I recall and marched back to An Hoa.  Our last stop was a position called “Red Hill”, a small rising mound north of the basecamp.  There we occupied a perimeter that seemed permanent, several holes that were used over and over again.  The Platoon Commander was careful, each hole was checked and inspected carefully for traps and we alternated holes as much as possible. The Skipper's radioman, Terry Householter, came over and helped me set in.  He explained they always stopped here to clear weapons and tighten up before moving back into An Hoa.  I said it didn’t make much sense, didn’t the VC watch and try to hit us each time, he laughed and said of course, but it was SOP.  Stupid I know, but I wasn’t running things either.


It started to get dark and I stepped outside the lines to take a leak.  I watched the countryside and like a dummy let my mind wander too much.  I was standing with everything out when I heard a thud, like a rock hitting the ground.  I looked around in the dusk, then heard it again.  As I looked down, between my feet I saw the fin assembly of a mortar round sticking up and another about three feet in front of me.  Before I could react someone in the CP screamed “Incoming”, shells had started to hit there too.  I dove for the hole and my helmet, thank God all the rounds were duds, not a one exploded.  The firing stopped, I guess because Charlie figured he had bad ammo, and we dug in for the night.  Dewey laughed and said they must have been using me for an aiming stake.  I was amazed at my luck, just one of the two rounds would have blown me into small pieces.  As it was the night went quietly with 50% watches and no ambush patrols.


We were back in An Hoa the next day.  The march back was hot, dusty and tiring.  We hoped to get back in time for some hot chow, we didn’t make it.  As we stacked our gear and headed for the messhall, we were five minutes late.  The messhall closed and the only place we could find any food was the trash dump.  I feasted on C-Rations that had been thrown away by other grunts.  Nice treatment for our Marines of Mike Company.


We found later we had been taking part of an Operation called Muskogee Meadows, a sister Op to the 7th Marines Operation Oklahoma Hills.  Although we hadn’t really kicked any ass, the 7th Marines had been very involved in the area. We continued to patrol in and out of An Hoa in support of this operation for a few more weeks.  We were not part of Oklahoma Hills, but we sure caught the fallout from that operation on Muskogee Meadows.


It was sometime during this month, April of ’69 that the Da Nang Ammunition Dump was destroyed.  I was manning a bunker, as usual, one night when the very air pulsed against me hard.  Looking to the North I saw what appeared to be arc lights blazing in the sky, pulse after pulse of light rising up into the blackness.  Then the sounds arrived, heavy booms crashing in our ears.  At first we thought the Air Force was running an “Arc Light” operation, B-52 strikes; then we got the “word”, they were hitting Da Nang. We were about 26 miles South of Da Nang and could feel the impact of the explosions shock waves.  I don’t know if terror is the right word to use, but it seemed to fit.  If that much firepower was hitting Da Nang, what would hit us next?  We manned the lines 100%, all hands and all on watch. 


I sweated the entire night, watching the fields around the basecamp, waiting for the enemy to rush the wire.  An Hoa was a point the NVA wanted badly and if they had that much to throw at Da Nang surely we would feel the brunt of it next. The night passed with no attacks or probes into our perimeter, daylight came and with it the order to stand down.  We were informed the ammo dump had accidentally caught fire and the ammunition had cooked off, destroying a large portion of the Da Nang area.  There had been no enemy involvement in the accident.


That ammunition dump had contained everything from rifle ammo to 2000-pound bombs for aircraft, tons of explosives going off for hours.  The area must have looked like hell itself during that night; for once I was glad I wasn’t a pouge in the rear.  That night the bush seemed safe compared to duty at headquarters at Division.


Mike Company left the rear again for more of Muskogee Meadows and the bush.  As usual it was a relief to escape the mundane working parties and bunker watch.  Although we had been blessed with a touch of humor during our stay, concerning the lesson taught a young Lieutenant.


     The M-79 grenade launcher was a very excellent weapon; it was like a squad leaders’ artillery.  Each 40mm round exploded with the force of a hand grenade and had a kill radius of 10 meters, very effective in the right hands.


     One of our local V.C. apparently got his hands on one of these pocket-artillery pieces and a supply of ammo; we called him the "Phantom Blooper".  The slang term "blooper" comes from the sound of the weapon firing, it didn't bang; it went BLOOP!  Then you could expect the sound of an explosion shortly there after.  Anyway for about 6 weeks this little fellow made living at night a hell around An Hoa.  Just after dark, if any light flickered in our camp you would hear "bloop" and a round was on the way.  No matter how many sweeps we held around the area we could never find any trace of him, or where he hid out.  I remember being on lines one night and we had a brand-new 2nd Lieutenant as Officer of the Day.  Around 8 or 9 O'clock here came the OD, out to check lines.  I guess he wasn't very well briefed because he turned on a flashlight to light his path and the fun began.  "Bloop" "Ka-Boom" "Bloop" "Ka-Boom"  The Lt. started running down the airstrip and Mr. Charles was lobbing rounds right at his light.  Someone finally ran out and tackled the Lt. and broke the flashlight, the firing stopped.  No one got hurt that night, thank God, but it could have been tragic....if it wasn't so damn funny.


     I guess the "Phantom Blooper" finally ran out of ammo, or someone wasted him during a firefight, because suddenly as he appeared he disappeared and never came back.  Just a footnote in a war, nothing important.

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Copyright 2001 by Grady Rainbow