October 16, 2015
September 30, 2015
The Asia Pivot, U.S. Militarism
and Agent Orange Relief
Written by Tarak Kauff
On March 11, 2015, U.S. Army Pacific Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks demanded that Viet Nam stop allowing Russian refueling jets to land in its Cam Ranh Bay military base. Brooks claimed Russia was carrying out "provocative flights" and that it was "acting as a spoiler to our interests and the interests of others." The following day Viet Nam rejected the demand in no uncertain terms, calling it "interference in the internal affairs of Viet Nam, a sovereign state that determines its own policies for cooperating with its friends and partners."
Viet Nam continues to trade with China, Russia and the United States. And while Russia supplies most of Viet Nam’s military hardware, the Vietnamese are not averse to obtaining sophisticated U.S. military technology as well. At the same time, since Viet Nam has long been able to get whatever it needed from its closest ally, Russia, it is doubtful that they will endanger that relationship by getting too cozy with the U.S.
Viet Nam also has a relationship with China to weigh in the balance, and there is concern among the Vietnamese about how China will react to U.S.-Viet Nam military dealings. The Vietnamese have not forgotten the 1979 border war with China which left 50,000 dead. China and Viet Nam have often been adversaries. In some respects the Vietnamese have more friendship and trust with the U.S. than with their powerful northern neighbor.
Viet Nam has a protective “Three-No’s” defense policy: no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no reliance on any country to combat others.
Nonetheless, the United States continues meddling, both overtly and covertly, attempting to bring Viet Nam into its orbit. Many Vietnamese are well aware of such U.S. machinations and watch closely such organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), both of which have a long history of less than benign covert operations.
In December 2014, police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested two bloggers for alleged anti-government postings. It turns out many dissident bloggers, and probably those two as well, are not simply critical of the Vietnamese government, they are funded by NED and represent U.S.-backed agents of sedition.
The United States, with such agencies as NED and USAID often working closely with the CIA, has wreaked havoc in many countries. Quite often however, they are exposed and by this time most politically sophisticated people are watchful of them.
The Vietnamese are no less so.
That being the case, USAID, in particular, although still watched carefully by the Vietnamese, has been on somewhat good behavior in Viet Nam since the end of the American war there.
The Vietnamese, as well as U.S. government operatives, recognize that if the organization pursued nefarious ends in all its “international development” projects, it would eventually lose its ability to further the goals of empire. In order to keep up their image, there are times when even the worst elements of oppressive governments actually do good. The Vietnamese are aware of that, as they are of the essential nature of superpowers like Russia, China and the United States.
Recently, there has been concern among U.S. activists over the Asia Pivot, U.S. military goals, and a perceived connection with USAID’s role in distributing increased millions of dollars in congressionally mandated funds for Agent Orange relief in Viet Nam.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pushed through $21 million over five years for expanded and improved disability programs in Viet Nam specifically to deliver services to disabled families that need the most help.
Chuck Searcy, a Viet Nam War veteran living in Viet Nam for the past 20 years, is a co-founder and now international advisor for Project Renew, which for 14 years has dealt with unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange (AO) Relief. Searcy, a member of Veterans For Peace states that “the unwritten message, communicated rather clearly from Sen. Leahy, is that this (new) effort should be targeted to the most severely disabled, with the greatest needs, i.e. families suffering from Agent Orange.”
|Agent Orange victim in wheelchair.|
USAID has been the conduit for years for distributing smaller amounts of money for disability programs, some $3 to $4 million a year. Still, many are suspect of USAID even more so now with larger sums of money to give, that it will do what it has attempted in many other countries – use aid money to subvert and manipulate or even overthrow governments that do not exactly conform to U.S. wishes.
But Vietnamese officials involved in UXO and AO relief have told Searcy, "We know all about USAID. We have watched them carefully for years. Don't worry about us. Our people need your help."
July 18, 2015
By Barry Ladendorf,
President, Board of Directors
Veterans For Peace
In a July 16 Associated Press article, “Atomic Bomb Test Marks 70th BirthdayAmid Renewed Interest,” Duane Hughes, retired physicist, is quoted as saying that the “history of the Trinity test is important because it helped end World War II and set the stage for a Cold War arms race."
No doubt the testing and use of atomic bombs set the stage for the Cold War arms race, but that we needed to drop the bombs to end the war is an ongoing American myth that needs to end now.
When the United States broke the Japanese code, the U.S. government was aware that on July 13, 1945, Japan had contacted the Soviet Union to express its desire to surrender and end the war.
President Truman was aware three months before he ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that, according to Swiss and Portuguese sources, the Japanese government,
knowing they could not win, wanted to begin the process of surrendering. The one thing the Japanese wanted was to retain the emperor. Presidential advisor Jimmy Byrnes convinced
President Harry S. Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to dictate the terms to end the war and let the Soviets and the world know we had the “bomb.”
What was the reaction of America’s top military leaders who led the allies to victory?
General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the allied forces in the Far East during the war, stated he was never even consulted about using the bomb against Japan. According to Norman Cousins, consultant to MacArthur during the occupation of Japan, MacArthur stated that had he been
consulted, he would have said that he saw no military justification for using the bomb and that if the United States would simply have agreed to allow the emperor to stay the war might have been over weeks earlier.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, when briefed on the atomic bomb tests in New Mexico and of their planned use against Japan, expressed his belief that there was no need to use the bomb because Japan was already defeated, and that the United States should not shock the world by the use of a weapon that was no longer necessary to save American lives. General “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps, and General Omar Bradley shared Eisenhower’s opinion.
Perhaps one of the strongest critics of using the bomb was Admiral William Leahy, chief of staff to both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman. Leahy said, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” In Leahy’s opinion, by dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”
Even former President Herbert Hoover weighed in, telling Truman in May 1945 that if he were President he would, “make a shortwave broadcast to the people of Japan — tell them they can have their Emperor if they surrender — that it will not mean unconditional surrender except for the militarists — you’ll get a peace with Japan — you’ll have both wars over.”
In spite of this considered and widespread opposition by senior military officials who prosecuted the war and from a former president, Truman ordered that Hiroshima and Nagasaki be bombed. On August 9, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and when the Japanese government did surrender, they were permitted to keep the Emperor. Hiding behind the myth may make it easier to accept the fact that we used this diabolical weapon in a senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Let’s end the myth and accept responsibility for what our nation did.
June 27, 2015
By Tarak Kauff
Not everyone has to be a political activist. There's a story on the back page of the summer issue of Peace in Our Times about a parrot who curses and gets into mischief which will make you laugh until you cry. There are many ways to make a positive contribution to life and living.
My friend Joe was not a political activist per se, even though he was very well informed and knowledgeable about history and politics.
Throughout his 56 years he crammed more life, living, and loving into that time than most of us would do in many lifetimes. He was a big man physically but gentle. I never even saw him raise his voice or argue with his wife Beth and I stayed at their place in Brooklyn many times. The only time I saw him get angry was when we spoke about how twisted this country has become. He was, to me, revolutionary in human ways that counted. That’s why I want to share a little about the man.
He was an athlete, a kayak racer, a surf-ski competitor, writer, filmmaker, husband, and a great dad. He did it all, and did it well. He traveled a lot, mostly off on his wilderness or kayaking adventures, but when he was home, he was totally there.
“Big Joe,” as some of us referred to him, or, as he was known to his kayaking buddies, “Glicker” saw the best in people and just by who he was, inspired those who knew him to also live as fully, laugh and love as much as possible. His sense of humor (almost a constant) and love of people and life was contagious. He made people feel comfortable in his presence. And eventually his keen and insightful, but never pompous, wit had them laughing. There were so many times when we were talking either in person or on the phone, when Joe would have me literally gasping for breath laughing. He had a way of doing that with people that seemed effortless, like that other Joe—Dimaggio, who, as Ted Williams once said, “made it look easy.”
We first met 24 years ago in a gym in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I had recently moved from Queens and one of the first things I did was to join a local gym. I was at that time fairly strong for my 150 pounds, and I was on the pull-down machine pulling a lot of weight, actually the entire stack. I think that’s what got his attention. I was also wearing a well-worn marathon team t-shirt. As soon as I finished the set, he came over and just started chatting, as if we were old friends, asking me questions about myself and about running. After a few inquiries, he found out I had run marathons and triathlons, so he told me that he had cycled across the country and I responded that I could appreciate that, having done something similar, running through all 50 states.
That qualified me in his eyes as a “wild man” and we became friends and occasionally trained together, lifting weights, pushing ourselves to exhaustion on Concept 2 rowing machines and running loops in Prospect Park. He asked for my training advice often but as time went on and he got stronger and more fit and I got older, it was I who asked more for his. At the time we met, Joe was 33 and was just at the take-off point of more major outdoors adventures and transcending of physical and mental limits. Some years later, although he wasn’t a mountain climber, he decided to climb the highest peaks in each of the 50 states and write a book about it, which he did—To the Top with photographer Nels Akerlund. It was one of six great books and many articles he wrote.
As I got more into social justice issues and working with Veterans For Peace, and after I moved from Brooklyn to Woodstock, NY, we gradually drifted apart a bit, but he always appreciated and encouraged my activism as I appreciated his athleticism and adventures, and we stayed in touch.
Bush of course, and Clinton before him repulsed him. But he had some hope with Obama, then said to me after he’d been in office a while, “This administration has been so spectacularly disappointing, sadly, you told me so a long time ago. It’s just hard to fathom whether this president is that weak or this vile system so corrupting and strong. Maybe some of both.”
When Joe got into kayaking he trained like a madman. He was out training on Jamaica Bay even in the middle of winter! Soon he was competing and writing about the sport and getting travel expenses to compete and write about races and events. He wrote about a lot of things, articles appeared in National Geographic, Outside magazine, and the LA Times, and also had a few dozen columns in the New York Times called “Weekend Warrior.”
But he wasn’t just a writer. His training and competition were totally focused—the only things more important than training, racing, and writing were Joe’s daughter, Willa, and his incredibly supportive, wise and beautiful wife, Beth. But kayaking was a very close second, which was understood and appreciated by all who loved Joe and of those there were many. Like other endurance sports, it became a way of life, and a positive one. He became a two-time member of the U.S. National Marathon Kayak Team and did many, many other kayak and surf-ski races around the world. He won the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann, twice.
He was a great competitor but it wasn’t all competition with others. He competed with himself, with his own limits. He almost froze in a snowstorm one night as he was kayaking solo from Montana to Chicago and then to Brooklyn.
Joe had great courage. He was not fearless, but courage is facing, fear not being devoid of it. A little over a year ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Joe kept training, kept racing and kept making people laugh, as he always did. He even won a doubles kayak race while undergoing chemo!
He seemed unstoppable, but eventually the cancer caught up with him. I hadn’t seen him in years, our paths, though not contrary, went separate ways. We both “ran” in different circles but were mutually appreciative and we kept in touch. A phone call or email now and then always saying we had to get together, it’s been too long. It was good just to hear his voice and invariably he made me laugh...
I made it to the memorial in Brooklyn. Hundreds came from all over to honor and remember him. As soon as I walked in, I could feel it. We were all on the verge of tears but nobody was crying yet. We were all holding it together, saying hello to people, hugging, talking. I wandered off by myself. They had wine at the bar. I got a glass and drank it fast, hoping it would steady me. People spoke about Joe and told stories. It went on for a long time but the stories were never boring or tedious. We laughed and we cried. We had all lost something irreplaceable but the memories were there and would remain.
One of his dearest friends from childhood, Andy Zlotnick, whom Joe simply called “Z,” put it in a nutshell, “. . . he lit up every room he entered, how he held court, always the center of attention, regaling anyone who would listen to his long circuitous tales that made you laugh until you cried. Tales packed with meshuggenuh characters who performed improbable feats and got themselves in the most unbelievable of pickles. His own brand of magic which took a whole life to develop and market—the quips, the witticisms, that subversive slant adjusted to those of us fortunate enough to be so close to the bright lights of his stage, our laughter close to tears, and our tears to laughter.”
Another close friend, Chip, called from England when Joe was in the hospital. It was close to the end. Andy was there and put Joe, who was by then in a lot of pain from the cancer, on the phone. Chip said to Joe that he heard that he wasn’t having a good day. Joe said, yeah, it wasn’t good. Period. Chip replied that he had never known Joe to be the master of understatement, at which point Joe, through the pain, went into one of his riffs, adding with his classic humor, “Joan of Arc has nothing on me. Burning at the stake would be easy going.”
When one of his kayak pals asked what they could do for him, Joe said, “Just paddle another mile for me.” That became One More Mile for Glicker.” These days at kayak races you will see OMMFG! pasted on kayaks all over.
June 12, 2015
June 9, 2015
Warriors For Peace – Veterans Speak
A new video series by filmmaker Regis Tremblay (The Ghosts of Jeju), Tom Sturdevant Chapter #001Maine.
S. Brian Willson is the first in a series of veterans describing their experiences in the military, their subsequent realization that war is a lie and their commitment to working for peace. Ten profiles have been recorded with another dozen scheduled for filming. They will be released four to six weeks apart.
The series is a powerful and effective tool to counter war propaganda and the DoD sanitizing of the Vietnam War, and is an excellent vehicle for education and outreach. View the trailer here:
The cost for each profile is $10 plus $4 for shipping and handling. Send checks made out to Regis Tremblay, 209 River Rd., Woolwich, Maine 04579.
June 2, 2015
Dear Katie & Joe,
I’ve written this memoir about my war experience hoping it will shed a little light on why your grandpa is such a nut. The moral of my story is that I sincerely hope you, your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren’s children will always oppose war and actively work for peace.
All ya need is love, and a little bit of common sense.
IN THE MOUTH OF THE BEAST
- My Vietnam War Story -
Mark E. Foreman
US Navy Corpsman – 1966-1968
On May 8th, 1968 I was with eighty-three Marines climbing a steep mountain 16 miles north of Da Nang. At the top of the mountain we became surrounded by fifteen hundred North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers for six days. Most of us were killed or wounded on the first day. I was wounded on the second day while trying to reach a Marine whose arm was blown off. It took five days before Medivac helicopters could reach us. I was lucky.
This Is My Story
7 1/2% of the US population is made up of veterans who were once in the armed forces. But of that 7 ½%, only ½ of 1% actually experienced combat. It’s curious that I ended up being in that ½ of 1%. I’m sure timing and bad luck had a whole lot to do with it.
The US already had 400,000 troops in Vietnam when I graduated from high school in1966 and the Defense Department wanted more. That’s when our government started drafting eighteen to twenty-six year old males who weren’t enrolled in college. Three million of us were sent to Vietnam between 1965 – 1975, and in those ten years, fifty-eight thousand of us were killed, and more than 300,000 wounded. Our military killed between two to three million Vietnamese civilians, plus one and a half million Vietnamese soldiers. WAR IS INSANE!
OK, so here we go. I’m starting with a little background information to give you a sense of what made me decide to join the military.
Before Enlisting in the Navy
(I grew up in Ames, Iowa)
A week after graduating from Ames High School in 1966 an article appeared in our local newspaper announcing that a resident of Ames had been killed in Vietnam…his name was Jim Laache. Jim was a year older then me. We didn’t hang out together, but I knew he was a nice kid from a really nice family. The article explained how he’d been shot in the head while setting up his tent somewhere in South Vietnam. His death made the war more real… more then just something we watched on TV.
Anti-war rallies were beginning to be organized on university campuses all over the nation, and Jim Laache’s older brother was one of the leading protesters at Iowa State University. He publically encouraged high school graduates to burn their draft cards and move to Canada. I admired his courage and commitment to try and keep other young men from dying in an unjust war.
Pro-war advocates, mainly World War II veterans, were accusing young war-protesters of being “cowards” and “draft-dodgers”. Personally, I agreed with the anti-war protesters. They didn’t think the United States had any right to invade Vietnam, and neither did I.
I had no wish to join the military after high school, but when I heard that President Johnson was going to start drafting young men who weren’t in college and between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, I realized I might be forced into joining. It was hard to believe that our government could actually force young men to either go to college, or join the military.
A few of my classmates started to enlist and others were waiting to be drafted. I decided to start looking for a job, hoping the government would somehow overlook me. There were lots of jobs available back then and it didn’t take long to find a good paying job working for Chicago & Northwestern Railroad repairing damaged tracks that went through the city of Ames.
I became an expert at swinging a spike hammer before the end of the summer and the pay was good enough to rent a small apartment, buy a nice used car, and enjoy myself at parties on the weekends. But as the summer moved into fall, the threat of being drafted began to weigh on me, plus the weather turned so cold that I decided to quit my job and move back home. Working outside all winter wasn’t my idea of fun.
I assumed my parents wouldn’t mind letting me move back home, but my mother had other ideas… she thought kids should be weaned from the nest as soon as they graduated from high school.
With the threat of being drafted, along with my mother’s attitude about me moving back home I felt forced into seriously consider joining the military. I knew I was sure that want to be a part of the Army or Marines because they were involved with killing, but I thought joining the Navy might be an OK fit for me. I mean, the closest a sailor would come to Vietnam would be on a ship off shore.
Both of my parents grew up in a small farm community in southern Iowa near the Missouri boarder. It was during the Great Depression and most people in that part of the country were religious fundamentalists. The Bible was extremely important to both of my parents, especially my mother. And since the United States is primarily a Christian nation they thought it was anti-Christian and anti-American to question our government’s decision to go to war. Vietnam was a non-Christian, Communist country, so God would certainly be on our side…right?
My dad was in the Navy during World War II, though he never had to go overseas, and he believed that joining the military was an honorable way to serve your country. Plus, the military was known for making “real men” out of boys and I knew I had a lot of growing up to do.
They both believed in the Ten Commandments “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, etc.,as well as the Golden Rule “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You”, but they also believed that killing non-Christian Communists was god’s will. The whole thing seemed a bit hypocritical to me, but maybe it was just one of those things that “real men” had to do for God and Country. I was eighteen years old…what did I know about worldly, grownup things?
We heard on the national news every week how many American soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and the numbers kept going up. I thought… who in their right mind wants to go half way around the world to kill people, or get killed yourself... and for what? Vietnam was a third-world country. How could they be such a threat to the United States?
Anyway, since my opinions didn’t mean beans to most adults, not to mention my government, I thought I’d better hurry up and enlist in the Navy before the Army or Marines got a hold of me.
Joining the Navy
The day after I moved back home I drove downtown and enlisted in the Navy. It was unbelievably easy…the recruiter said, “Sign here”, which I dutifully did (practicing how to take orders). Than he said I would need to drive to Fort Polk near Des Moines to take my physical, which I also dutifully did… that afternoon. Two days later I was on a commercial airliner headed for the San Diego Naval Training Center to begin three months of basic training. The military doesn’t mess around when they’ve got a war going on.
I was one of sixty new recruits to arrive at the Los Angeles International airport at 1:00 AM on November 24, 1966. A petty officer met us with a bus and took us to the San Diego Naval Training Center, two hours south of Los Angeles. During the ride, I couldn’t help noticing how loud and aggressive some of the big-city guys were. I assumed they were trying to prove how clever and tough they were, but I realized later that it was just nerves. Being around so many guys from so many different parts of the United States, speaking in so many different dialects, was really fascinating for me. I started looking at the whole experience as a sociological study.
Our bus pulled up to barracks #30 at 3:00am where we all piled out, dead tired. I’m sure the military had it planned that way because it’s much easier to control a bunch of 18 year old males when they’re dead tired. There were sixty empty bunk beds waiting inside the barracks. Each bed had neatly folded sheets and a pillow. There was a large shower room with ten sinks and ten toilets at one end of the barracks, and our Commanding Officer’s (CO’s) quarters was at the other end. The Petty officer told us to choose a bunk and get some sleep before our CO arrived in the morning.
Two hours later we woke up to the sound of a loud crash. Our CO had thrown a large garbage can down the middle of the barracks to wake us up and he started yelling, “YOU MAGGOTS HAVE TEN MINUTES TO SHIT, SHOWER AND SHAVE AND GET LINED UP OUT FRONT”. We jumped out of our bunks and ran for the showers. He didn’t stop yelling until we were lined up out front.
It was still dark when we followed him to a barber shop not far from the barracks. Four very sleepy looking barbers were waiting for us with what looked like sheep sheers. It took less than fifteen minutes to transform all 60 of our stylish hairdos into hairless, chalky, white skulls. Our ears seemed to stick out twice as far, making us look somewhat like maggots. I was embarrassed to look at myself in the mirror, but the other guys were just as ugly as me. It’s true… misery loves company.
Our CO then took us to a large supply shed where we were each given three pairs of bell bottom blue jeans with a belt, three pair of black socks, three white T-shirts, three long sleeved work shirts, three pair of white boxer shorts, a blue jacket, a tooth brush with tooth paste, a pair of black marching boots, two cans of black shoe polish, and a white sailor’s cap. We put it all in a duffle bag and marched it back to the barracks where our CO explained, in great detail, how we were to fold each item of clothing and carefully arrange them, in a specific order, inside of our footlockers. While following his instructions he would intermittently yell, “you guys are nothing but maggot- headed squirrels”. How nice!
When we finished folding and carefully placing our clothes in our foot lockers he then escorted us to a huge marching field where he began the seemingly impossible task of teaching us “maggots” how to march in formation. I couldn’t believable how many guys truly didn’t know their right foot from their left.
The next two weeks were physically brutal. We got up at 4:00am every morning, marched 10-12 hours a day in the cold, windy rain, and at the end of each day we had to clean our barracks before going to bed… even though we hadn’t been in the barracks all day. Plus, we were assigned guard duty for two hours a night between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am.
It took a couple of weeks to adapt to the physical demands of boot camp, but I actually began to enjoy the challenge of it all. As long as I followed orders there were no problems.
However, I vividly remember a couple of incidences that made me ashamed to be part of the Navy. One of our guys, I’ll call him Dan, found it really hard to wake up in the morning, which made our CO angry. He decided that Dan needed to be taught a lesson, so he organized, what he called, a “Blanket Party” for Dan. He persuaded five, macho, idiot bullies in our company to beat the hell out of Dan when he was sleeping. The bullies waited until everybody was asleep, then threw a sheet over Dan, and proceeded to pound on him with boards. It was horrible. Dan was sitting on the side of his bed, quietly crying, when we woke up that morning. His sheets were soaked with blood. Our CO wanted the rest of us to see what would happen to us if we didn’t follow orders.
I was beginning to think that our CO was a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, but found out latter that “Blanket Parties” were common in basic training. He wasn’t the only sadistic son-of-a-bitch. They taught us that we’d have hell to pay if we didn’t follow orders, and that our fellow recruits would be the ones to teach us the lesson.
Dan was sent to the brig for two weeks of extreme punishment before the Navy finally released him from service with an “Undesirable Discharge”. It scared the hell out of me, and I wasn’t alone.
I assumed that southern California was going to be sunny and warm all year round, but November through January, which of course is when I was there, are the coldest, wettest, windiest months of the year. After a month of marching 10-12 hours a day, in that kind of weather, I came down with double pneumonia and sent to the infirmary for a week to recover.
A Navy corpsman met me at the front door of the infirmary and had me follow him to the pneumonia ward where I sat next to his desk with a large bucket of ice-water and a big glass. He told me to keep drinking the ice water until my temperature, which was 102, dropped to 98.6…then I could go to bed. It took four hours before my temperature dropped to normal and my stomach felt like a huge water balloon. My temperature went back up to 102 an hour after I went to bed.
I stayed in bed drinking ice water the whole week, but the experience gave me an opportunity to see what corpsmen were doing in the Navy, and I was impressed. These guys knew their stuff. They were thoughtful and had a lot of pride in what they did. Now I knew what I wanted to do while I was in the Navy… become a Corpsman.
After spending a week in the infirmary I rejoined my company and spent another month getting really good at marching. Just before boot camp ended, our CO gave each of us an aptitude test that was designed to measure our academic and sensory strengths and weaknesses. I assumed that I’d done well on the tests because when the results came back my CO called me into his office (first time) and asked me what I wanted to do while I was in the Navy. It was the first time in three months that he, or anyone else, had asked me what I wanted to do. It felt strange, but I didn’t hesitate… I told him I’d like to be a Corpsman. Two days later he informed me that I’d been accepted into Corps School and I would be sent to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego for two months of medical training. (This is when my CO should have, could have, mentioned the fact that Navy Corpsmen were being sent to Vietnam with the Grunt Marines. It’s interesting how the military doesn’t offer that kind of information) I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I was sent home for a week of R&R (Rest and Relaxation) after boot camp, but I couldn’t wait to get back to San Diego to begin my Corps School training. I hoped I’d do well enough that the Navy would than give me enough schooling to become a doctor. My very young, naïve, inexperienced, nineteen year old brain was seeing what it wanted to see, while the Navy was quietly preparing me for war. I was clueless.
They told us on the first day of Corps School that the next two months of training would be equivalent to one year of pre-med and that a third of us would drop out. We weren’t allowed to leave the base, except every other weekend, so there was nothing else to do but go to classes, 10-12 hours a day, and study until bedtime. I truly loved every minute of it!
A week before graduation, our CO called all two hundred of us into a large auditorium and announced that 90% of us would be going to Vietnam with the grunt Marines. WHAT THE HELL!!?? This was the first time I heard anything about corpsmen being sent to Vietnam with the Marines. I joined the Navy, not the Marines! This was the day I found out that the Marines are actually part of the Navy, and it’s a corpsman’s job to take care of Marines. Now I understood why the military recruits us when we’re so young and naive. Sure, I signed on the dotted line, but we weren’t told what to expect if we became a corpsman, that is, until it was too late. The military has a long history of deceiving young men into participating in the business of war.
Before leaving the auditorium that day, our CO warned, “If any of you guys decide to flunk your final exams to keep from going to Vietnam, you’ll be painting the bottoms of ships every day, all day long, for the rest of your enlistment”. (No coercion going on here!)
I felt trapped… not just by the military, but by my society. I was tricked into participating in a war that I didn’t believe in. To become what the military and a lot of society defines as being “a real man”. I wanted to become a “real man”, but not that way. I either had to accept it, or try to escape. But escape to where? (When military personnel try to escape it’s called “Going AWOL” (Absent Without Leave). We were told in boot camp that if we ever tried to go AWOL… we’d be hunted down, thrown in the brig for a few weeks of punishment, and given an “Undesirable Discharge”. An “Undesirable Discharge” means that society considers you a “loser”. You’ll never be allowed to hold a government job, or receive any kind of government benefits for the rest of your life.
I felt trapped, but I was sure of one thing… they couldn’t force me to kill people.
I was beginning to understand the true gravity of being in the military. They owned us… like a slave master owns slaves. I was government property.
Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital
I graduated in the top 10% of my class and was quickly given orders to report to Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital where I ended up working on a surgical ward for three months and then a pneumonia ward for four months. I loved taking care of sick and injured Marines, but after seven months working on the wards, I wondered why I hadn’t received orders for Nam. It was weighing heavy on my mind and I decided to nip-it-in-the-bud… I went to my CO and volunteered for Vietnam. I wanted it over with… but to be completely honest, a part of my nineteen year old brain wanted to see what I was made of, to see what kind of “real man” I could be on the battle field. Maybe I’d even become a “Hero”.
By now I was confident that I knew enough about medicine and first aide to actually save lives, and for the first time in my life, I felt a tremendous sense of purpose and meaning. I thought if I could save one Marine’s life in Vietnam then my whole life will have been worth living.
A few weeks later, I received my orders for Nam, along with thirty other corpsmen. But first we had to go through three weeks of battlefield training. They called it Field Medical Training School.
Field Medical Training School
The first two days of Field Medical Training were spent with the thirty other corpsmen sitting in a dark room watching classified documentary films of US soldiers who’d been seriously wounded during the Korean War. These freshly wounded soldiers were taken to field hospitals with horrible, life threatening wounds. They were missing arms, legs, faces, feet, eyes, ears, hands…any body part you can imagine. The films showed us how surgeons did their best to reconstruct the wounds by transplanting bone, blood vessels, muscle and skin. It was similar to watching an auto-mechanic put a car back together after an accident...but the big difference is that cars don’t have nerves and emotions. They couldn’t show us was how painful those wounds had to have been and how most of those guys, and their families, suffered for the rest of their lives.
The films were gruesome, but from a militaristic, “manly” perspective I wanted to believe that this is what it takes to become a “real man”. They showed us that no matter how badly a Marine was blown up, he’d have a good chance of surviving if a corpsman could get to him fast enough to stop the bleeding and keep him breathing.
We spent the last two and a half weeks playing war games with the Marines in the rolling hills of southern California. It was extremely hot out there during the day with no shade, but there was a lot of sagebrush that provided shade for the rattlesnakes. We killed five big ones one afternoon while out on bivouac. Those poisonous critters added real danger to the war games. They kept us on our toes twenty-four hours a day…especially at night when it got cold. Snakes look for warm bodies to curl up to when it’s cold.
During the day, machine gunners fired blanks over our heads while we belly-crawled under barbed wire toward Marines who pretended to be wounded. Tags were tied around their wrists and ankles describing the wounds they were suppose to have. We pretended to stop their bleeding. They had pretend wounds like:
1. Shrapnel in right thigh with fractured femur and severed femoral artery.
2. Multiple sucking chest wounds from a grenade blast.
3. Left arm blown off below the elbow
4. Stomach wound from shrapnel
5. Head wound from an AK-47
6. Legs blown off from a landmine.
7. etc, etc.
It seemed pretty silly and unreal at the time, but I still wanted to believe it was preparing me, somehow, for what I’d be doing in Vietnam.
A few days before our training ended, a couple of Marines took led us down a trail that went into a dense woods. They called it “The Ho Chi Min Trail”. There were more than two thousand handmade, Vietnamese killing devices in that small wooded area… all of the devises were either dug into the ground, or attached to the trees. Most of them were made of bamboo, sharpened at one end, with a grenade or landmine attached at the other end. When a Marine unwittingly stepped on one, or brushed up against it, the sharp end of the bamboo would go right through his foot or leg. When that happens, your natural impulse is to pull away from it, which of course pulled the pin out of the grenade…that was the last sound you would ever hear. I was sick to my stomach for the next two days.
The reality of actually being in the war, in the jungles of Vietnam, was becoming more and more real. But I felt confident I’d be able to save lives over there… as long as I didn’t get killed or wounded in the process.
We were given a whole month of R&R after training ended and lots of the guys flew down to the Bahamas to party. I went home.
Heading for Vietnam
My mother, both of my sisters and my brother’s wife drove me to the Des Moines airport to see me off. My dad had to work that day. I wonder what was going through his mind.
When it was time to get on the plane my sister-in-law came over to me and demanded that I give my mother a good-bye hug and kiss. I doubt that my mother and I would have hugged if my sister-in-law hadn’t said something. There wasn’t much expression of love or nurturance between us, but under our thick, stubborn skin was a very deep love.
I flew to Oakland, California to spend the first night in a huge barracks with 200 empty bunk beds. It turned out that I was the only person in the whole building that night. There was nothing to do but think about where I was going, so I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that night.
A driver picked me up at sunrise and took me to the airport. From there we flew eighteen hours to Okinawa on Continental Airlines with lots of Marines and four attractive stewardesses.
I stayed on the island of Okinawa for five days… very long days, waiting for further orders before being flown to Da Nang, Vietnam on March 30th, 1968.
Stepping out of the air conditioned airplane into the steamy tropics of VIETNAM was like walking through a hot, yellow-green curtain. The entire landscape was yellowish-green from the fumes of so many jets, helicopters, and transport planes that were constantly landing and taking off. While walking down the steps of the plane I saw thousands of US troops, in large and small formations, marching across the huge tarmac. I was definitely in the war zone now and there was no turning back.
A squad leader met me at the bottom of the stairs and pointed for me to join ten other Marines who were waiting near the plane. I didn’t know any of these guys, but they knew each other from training back in the states. All of us were new in-country, except for our squad leader who was on his second tour.
As we marched across the tarmac, he told me I’d be issued an M-16 as soon as we got back to the barracks. But I told him I wasn’t going to carry a machine gun…I was there to save lives, not take them. I thought he’d bite my head off, but all he said was, “OK, but you have to carry a “45”.
We spent the next two days going to orientation classes on the outskirts of Da Nang. Our squad leader mainly emphasized how important it was for us to accept the fact that there were a lot of Marines getting killed over here and that luck had a whole lot to do with who would live and who would die. It was hard to wrap my mind around the concept that luck would have so much to do with what was happening over here, but it didn’t take long to experience what he was talking about.
On the second day we followed him around the outskirts of Da Nang where he showed us buildings that the Viet Cong (VC), or North Vietnamese Army (NVA), had recently blown up with rockets. He told us how many Marines were killed in each of those buildings…no fault of their own. Those Marines were some of the best trained troops in the world, but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time…just bad luck! The “luck factor” was sinking in, and the notion of becoming a hero was fading. Just being in Vietnam was a whole lot of bad luck...for all of us.
On the third day, our squad leader announced that we were ready to go into the bush, so we packed enough supplies for five days and headed out.
Over the next four weeks we climbed mountains that were covered with dense jungle foliage, walked over white sand deserts, rice paddies dikes, and occasionally walked through small villages. I had no idea where we were, but it became obvious that we were sitting ducks for any Vietnamese who wanted to kill us. Our job was to draw fire so we’d know where the enemy was.
Monsoon season hadn’t start yet, so humping through all of those different landscapes wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, but the heat and humidity was something else. A lot of the guys were losing weight and getting bad skin infections that would turn into boils, mostly on their knees, thighs and butts. I lanced and drained quite a few of those boils, not just to relieve their pain, but to show them that I knew what I was doing. They started treating me like a god.
We’d bed down on the ground every night listening to machine gun fire and mortars and rockets exploding in the distance. I never took my boots or glasses off, fearing that the VC would sneak up from behind and slit my throat. Snipers shot at us a few times every day, but none of us ever got hit. The possibility of getting killed was always present, day and night, and as long as I was awake I was on full alert.
We knew there were a lot of Vietnamese out there who wanted to kill us, but it was impossible to know which ones. We were told that even women and children were killing US troops. While humping through the bush every day, I spent a lot of time imagining the kinds of wounds my Marines might receive, and how I’d go about treating them.
One day our squad leader kept us on the move until around midnight when he finally let us bed down in the middle of a large open field of short grass. The moon was full, so if there were any VC out there hiding in the trees they could easily pick us off. I was really pissed at him for doing that. I couldn’t understand why he was having us sleep out in the open. I thought, maybe he was bored and wanted a little excitement, or was he given orders to put us in harm’s way to draw enemy fire? I didn’t know why he was doing this and I was too tired to argue with him. I had to follow his orders, so I started looking for a low spot to lie down in. I found a deep tank track full of water and felt pretty stupid lying in it, but at least most of my body was below ground level where I wouldn’t get hit by a sniper. Plus, it was so hot that the water felt refreshing. Thankfully, there weren’t any VC in the area that night.
Two weeks later we got orders to join another squad that was in a bad fire fight the day before. They lost a couple of guys and their squad leader was angry and nervous. But it gave me the opportunity to meet another corpsman, his name was Harry Bowman. He and I hit it off right away. It felt so great to finally have someone I could talk to.
We followed our new platoon leader halfway up the side of a mountain where we were suppose to settle in for the rest of the day. But when we got up there, Harry told me we didn’t need to waste time digging a foxhole because we were in friendly territory, and besides that, he was getting really hungry and wanted to hitch-hike back down the mountain to get a hot meal. He was sick of eating C-rations, and so was I. He knew where there was an army camp at the base of the mountain that served hot meals, so he asked if I wanted to hitch-hike down with him. Half an hour later we were sitting in a shaded army mess tent eating hot chicken, buttered corn, and mashed potatoes with gravy. It was the first time I’d been away from my squad, which felt a bit disconcerting, but I figured Harry knew what he was doing. It was the best meal I’d ever had, plus Harry and I had time to get to know each other.
It was mid-afternoon when we made our way back to camp. We spent the rest of the day sitting high up on the side of the mountain talking about our family and friends back home. We were about a thousand feet up from the valley below, looking out over some of the most beautiful landscape you can imagine. The view was spectacular, with Vietnamese families and water buffalo, quietly working in their rice paddies. Vietnam was exotically beautiful at times and this was definitely one of those times.
It was the most relaxing day I’d had since arriving in Vietnam … that is until machine-gun fire erupted in a clump of trees about a half-mile away in the valley below. It was a small clump of trees, only about two acres, so whoever was fighting down there was in extremely close proximity to each other. I assumed that a squad of Marines must have stumbled into a group of VC. I imagined that they might even be engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The machine-gun fire continued to get worse, but our platoon leader told us to stay put. Fifteen minutes went by and we spotted two Huey helicopter gunships, armed to the teeth, flying over one of the mountains, heading straight for the trees. Both choppers slowed down when they neared their target, and than hovered about 300 feet above the trees. Each chopper was armed with fourteen rockets, seven on each side, plus a door gunner was on each side. One of the pilots continued hovering parallel to the ground, while the other one tilted at a 45 degree angle, pointing straight at the trees. He very slowly descended toward the trees and launched two rockets, then the machine-gunners opened fire. The chopper than pilot flew back up to his original position above the trees and the second chopper went down. Both of them repeated their attacks seven times.
Shortly after the choppers flew out of the valley a jet streaked over the trees and dropped two 500 pound bombs. I thought, what the heck… how could any of our Marines live through something like that? We never heard what happened to those Marines, but it made me start to wonder if we were killing our own troops over here?
By now it was getting dark, so Harry and I rolled our ponchos out on the rocky ground and prepared to get some sleep. The air was extra hot and humid that night and there was no moon. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A few minutes went by, when all of a sudden there was a bright flash of light, followed by numerous loud explosions. It was about 100 feet up the mountain from where Harry and I were. My first thought was… we’re being attacked? But there wasn’t any machine gun fire… just a bright flash of light and a number of loud explosions. We could hear Marines moaning up there and knew we had to get up there. It was pitch black, so I started feeling my way up the mountain with my hands leading me toward the sound of the moans. I found one Marine entangled in a bush and asked him if he was hit. He weakly said, “all over Doc”. It was too dark to see where he was bleeding, so I began feeling his head and face for blood. There was a thick clump of blood just below his left eye, so I tied a battle dressing over it, than I tore his shirt open and found six sucking chest wounds. Air gurgled out of each of the holes when he took a breath. I put Vaseline gauze bandages over each hole to keep his breath from escaping. Next, I found a deep laceration on his right wrist, but it wasn’t bleeding. I knew then that he was in deep shock and his circulatory system had shut down. The rest of his body was OK.
My platoon sergeant was able to find us and I told him the extent of the injuries I found on him. He said we needed to get him to a helicopter landing pad at the foot of the mountain, where he could be medivac’d to a field hospital. But first, we had to get him to the jeep, which was about fifty yards away. My platoon sergeant grabbed his arms and I took his legs. It was exhausting carrying him in the dark, but we finally found the jeep and lifted him into the back. I checked his vital signs and discovered he’d stopped breathing, so I initiated mouth-to-mouth resuscitation just as the driver started heading down the mountain. However, when I blew air into his mouth, I could feel a mist of warm blood spraying into my face. The air that I was blowing into his mouth wasn’t going into his lungs. It was coming out through his left eye socket. The air wasn’t getting into his lungs because his throat was clogged with blood. I realized then that the thick clot of blood I felt on his cheek earlier was actually his left eye ball. His throat was so clogged with blood that air couldn’t reach his lungs and was coming out through his eye socket. I knew I had to do a tracheotomy on him… and fast. I yelled at the driver to stop the jeep again. I found my scalpel in my bag and quickly cut a small, deep slit in his throat, just under his Adam’s apple. I then took a ballpoint pen out of my back-pack, took it apart, and inserted the hollow cartridge through the slit in his throat and began blowing air into his lungs. It worked... his lungs were filling with air and the Vaseline gauze bandages were holding. We started driving down the mountain again.
We got about half way down when I realized his heart had stopped. Again, I yelled for the driver to stop the jeep. My sergeant took over the breathing while I initiated closed cardiac massage. Again, we resumed driving down the mountain. We came to the helicopter landing-pad and lifted the Marine out of the jeep onto the ground where we continued to give him mouth-to-trach resuscitation, along with closed cardiac massage. I tried to start an IV numerous times, but his blood vessels were totally collapsed.
We didn’t stop trying to keep him alive until the medivac helicopter arrived, three hours later, with the doctor. The doctor checked him over and said he’d been dead for a couple of hours.
I didn’t know when to stop trying to keep him alive. We weren’t taught to diagnose death in corps school.
On the drive back, my sergeant explained what happened up there on the mountain. The guy that I was working on was a squad leader teaching his squad how to set up a trip-flare in the dark. The flare went off accidentally, exposing our position. The squad leader threw his flack jacket over the flare in an effort to smoother it, but forgot he had three grenades attached to his flack jacket. They all exploded. All five members of his squad were badly injured and had to be medivac’d to a field hospital that night. Having Harry there to talk to when I got back was quite a relief.
Harry was two years older then me and finished three years of college biology before joining the Navy. He was smart, sensitive, and had a great, dry sense of humor. Here’s an example of his humor: We were working our way through some thick brush one day when one of the guys spotted a big, colorful bug. He knew that Harry knew a lot about biology, so he asked Harry what it was. Without skipping a beat, Harry made up some ridiculously long scientific name for it, explaining that this particular kind of bug actually mated with small birds and mammals. He said it was important to keep them away from our ears. Under the circumstances, it was hilarious. Harry never smiled… but he loved to make us laugh.
Harry had been in a couple of major firefights before he and I met, so he had some experience with being in combat. Once in a while he’d become really serious and start talking about what it’s like to be in a firefight. He said the main thing a corpsman needs to do is stay calm and just do our job.
A few days later we received orders to fly north, by helicopter, to a small village at the base of a mountain near the notorious Haivan Pass. The Haivan Pass was considered one of the most dangerous sectors in Vietnam at the time.
Our platoon boarded a large Chinook helicopter and flew to the base of a mountain near the Haivan Pass where we joined seventy other Marines. Now we were a small company of eighty-three Marines. Normal company size is about two hundred, but because of so many casualties during the Tet Offensive earlier that year, all units were reduced to less then half their normal size.
Our small company had eight corpsmen, eight radiomen and eight machine-gunners. Each machine-gunner had a big M-60 machine gun with a tripod. The rest of the Marines had M-16s, grenades, rockets, and landmines.
Military Intelligence knew that there were NVA (North Vietnamese Army) camped near the top of the mountain, but they didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell us, how many. My nerves were firing on all cylinders, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
We spent the entire day being resupplied with newer weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and food. All of us corpsmen received five times the normal amount of first aid supplies, such as: four dozen large battle dressings, two full boxes of morphine, three bottles of IV fluid, and a box of suturing kits. We stuffed it all into our backpacks, shirts, leg pockets…anywhere it would fit. Our captain had to have known that this was going to be one hell of a battle.
The machine-gunners were given a lot more ammunition than usual, which meant they would have to carry all of that extra ammunition, as well as the big machine gun and tripod up that steep mountain. I didn’t envy them at all.
Just before sunrise the next morning, all eighty-three of us quietly formed a straight line and began the climb. Ground cover was so thick with vines and small trees that we had to use machetes to get through it. I was in the lead squad, so it was our job to clear a path for everyone else.
After about two hours of climbing, we found a small stream that we were able to follow most of the way up the mountain before it petered out. The stream made our climb much easier, and to my relief, much quieter. But when the stream ran out we again had to resume making a whole lot of noise with our machetes.
Into the Mouth of the Beast
As we neared the top of the mountain there was a short burst of gunfire that came from the rear of the company. We all hit the ground. A few minutes later, word came up the line that the radioman in the rear platoon had been killed. We stayed flat on the ground until orders came up the line to move forward. But as we stood up, there was another shot, this time from the trees in front of me. Again, we hit the ground. The radioman in my platoon was killed. Whoever was out there was smart… they were knocking out our communications.
Our platoon sergeant got really nervous and told our squad to follow him to the top of the mountain where we could get a better look. But when we reached the top he yelled, “we have to do something god-damn-it” and told two Marines to follow him down the other side of the mountain. A few minutes later, all hell broke loose down where they went. We heard a lot of machine gun fire along with rockets and grenades. When the firing stopped I saw one of the Marines running back up the mountain and blood was pouring out of his ears. He screamed, “they got the Sarge, they got the Sarge …they blew his back out”. He was in shock and couldn’t stop describing what happened down there. Then, like a scene from a John Wayne war movie, our captain stood up and yelled, “we’re going down there.” I thought he must be crazy. It was an obvious trap! But I was with the Marines and Marines are trained to go straight into the line of fire. So we all stood up in single file and slowly made our way down the far side of the mountain.
A few minutes passed when we came to a well-worn path that would lead us straight into a North Vietnamese Army training camp. The camp was built in a bowl-shaped part of the mountain with huge trees growing in the middle it. Steep cliffs surrounded most of the camp and the huge trees created a canopy that hid their camp from our reconnaissance planes.
It grew eerily quiet as we followed the trail into their camp. Water trickling down the face of a cliff was the only sound I could hear. Even the birds knew they had to get the hell out of there.
The huge trees were over a hundred feet tall with thick, tentacle-like roots anchoring them to the rocky ground. The roots would provide good cover for us if the NVA opened fire.
All of the lower branches of the trees had been stripped… probably used for firewood. Visibility was clear, but the thick upper canopy blocked so much sunlight that it looked like early evening when it was actually mid-afternoon with no clouds.
As we entered their camp we walked past a small hootch (wooden shack) that had a small fire smoldering next to it. The NVA obviously tried to put it out, but a thin line of smoke was rising straight up from it. I’ll never forget the unbroken, straight, blue line of smoke rising all the way to the top of the trees. I thought, if the NVA were bold enough to build a hootch with a fire, there must be a lot of them.
While the rest of the Marines were making their way into the center of the camp, I was getting angry that we were bunching too close together… like sheep in a pen. Our captain never should have let that happen. The ground was way too rocky to dig foxholes, so the only cover would come from the tree trunks, roots, and big rock boulders.
Finally, when we were all gathered in the center of the camp our captain ordered two Marines to scout the area and report back in ten minutes. He then told the machine gunners to start setting up a defensive perimeter near the outer edge of the camp. I was finally beginning to feel a little more confidence in our captain…maybe he actually knew what he was doing.
I couldn’t stop trying to second guess what the NVA were up to…did they get the hell out of there, or were they quietly surrounding us from above? If they were still out there, why would they allow us to enter their camp and give us time to set up a defensive perimeter? Did they kill our two radiomen to slow us down, giving them time to escape? I couldn’t stop trying to figure out what might happen next.
The two scouts came back and reported that they’d found two huge underground chow halls, and an underground hospital, with wounded Vietnamese soldiers lying on cots. “HOLY SHIT--THIS IS A HUGE CAMP!!!! Where are they????
The sun was beginning to set and the machine-gunners were in position. Everything became absolutely quiet… just before fifteen hundred NVA opened fire on us with everything they had. We were in the bottom of the bowl and they were firing down on us from all directions. Thousands of red tracers filled the air and the roar of that many machine guns firing at once was unbelievable. I truly thought my brain was going to explode from the noise.
Harry and I jumped between some large roots to wait it out. We knew Marines had to be getting hit out there, but it would have been suicide for Harry and I to run around looking for wounded Marines with all that gunfire.
After ten minutes of horrendous noise, the firing stopped all at once, as if an orchestra conductor brought down his baton. Now we could hear the gut-wrenching screams from our wounded Marines. It was almost dark now, but Harry and I climbed out from the roots to look for wounded Marines. It didn’t take long before I spotted one Marine sitting with his back against a big rock. His arms and legs were flailing as if he was being swarmed by bees. Something white was covering the top of his face, and as I got closer I could see that it was a large portion of his brain. He’d been shot through the top of the head, splitting his skull wide open. I couldn’t believe he was still alive? My training never showed me anything like this. I crawled next to him and wrapped my legs around his torso to keep his arms secure while I tied two battle-dressings over the top of his head, and two more over his face. But when I let go of him, he ripped the bandages off. I knew he couldn’t live much longer, but I called out for help. A Marine crawled over and I asked him to hold his arms down while I replaced the bandages.
It was completely dark by the time I finished working on him and there were still Marines out there screaming. It’s hard to admit what happened next… I became paralyzed. My whole body was buzzing and I couldn’t move and I lost my hearing. I was in some kind of shock.
I didn’t regain full consciousness for quite a few hours and by then the screaming had turned into low pitched moans. I was able to feel my way back to the tree roots and Harry was there. Neither of us said a word and fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours latter when the sun was just beginning to give form to the trees and boulders. Ten minutes later the NVA opened up on us again with every thing they had. Again, the roar of the machine guns was unbelievable. We knew it was going to be a lot more dangerous this time because the increasing sunlight would make us sitting ducks.
Again, all of the shooting stopped and our wounded Marines were screaming for help. Harry crawled out from the roots one way and went the other way. A few seconds later I heard a lot of machine-gun fire coming from behind me and one of the Marines yelled, “Doc Bowman’s been hit…they got Harry”. I turned around and saw Harry lying on his back on top of a big rock. He was about thirty feet away from me. His arms and legs were hanging motionless over the rock. I crawled to him and grabbed his wrist to feel for a pulse. Harry was dead. I saw the bullet hole that went straight through his heart. I felt no emotion. The world had become insane and Harry was lucky to be done with it.
Harry was trying to reach a Marine whose left arm was blown off. The Marine was lying about six feet away on the other side of Harry. He was bleeding really bad and we both knew he’d bleed out if I didn’t get a tourniquet around his arm, and fast. I told him, “You’re gonna be all right, I’m coming”. He said, “I’m OK doc, but I’m bleeding bad…you gotta stop the bleeding”.
But first I had to get around Harry’s body. So I started crawling around his head, but machine gun fire slammed into the ground in front of me. I turned to go around his feet and that’s when I got hit. The impact sent me tumbling head over heels down the mountain. I felt like I’d been hit by a cement truck and electrocuted with 50,000 volts of electricity, all at once. As I was tumbling head over heels, everything began to move in slow motion. I could see my right leg slowly spinning, as if it was made of soft rubber. That’s when I knew I’d been hit in the leg.
I don’t remember how I stopped my fall… maybe I grabbed hold of a rock, or a small bush. I looked around and quickly realized that I was lying out in the open. I assumed the NVA would finish me off now. I hoped it would be a good, clean shot. It would be a quick way to get the hell out of this insanity.
I could see a few Marines hiding behind some trees about a hundred feet from me, but I didn’t expect them to crawl out in the open to get me. It would have been suicide, and we all knew it.
Judging by the amount of blood I was losing, I was pretty sure that my femoral artery was severed and I’d bleed out in less than an hour. I couldn’t tie a tourniquet around my leg because the wound was too high up on my hip.
About thirty minutes passed before everything became quiet again. A few minutes later I saw one of the Marines crawling toward me. It was Frank Ford, an African- American who I barely knew. I felt sure he was gonna get shot… and for what…I was uncontrollably bleeding out. Why should he even try? The world became meaninglessly stupid! Nothing made sense. What a hellish, stupid waste.
Unbelievably, Frank was able to crawl all the way down to me without any shots being fired. He grabbed my wrist and slowly started pulling me back to the center of our perimeter, about a hundred feet. Not one shot was fired. A few other Marines saw what he’d done and crawled over to pile rocks, about a foot high, around me for protection. They left me with a full canteen of water before crawling back to a safe place between some roots.
The whole right side of my body was soaked with blood. I put a battle dressing on the wound and began to apply lots of pressure. An hour later I looked at the wound again and saw that the bleeding had reduced to a slow trickle. My femoral artery wasn’t severed, and I wasn’t going to bleed to death. At that moment I had the most overwhelming sense of ecstasy, and I mean ecstasy. I knew everything was going to be alright. All I needed was to get off of this damned mountain and into a hospital. I KNEW EVERYTHING WAS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT. It was the first time in my life that I actually knew anything.
Point of interest: Shock is an amazing phenomena that happens to us when we experience extreme trauma. It slows our bleeding, keeps us calm, and keeps us pretty much pain free. Shock is a beautiful thing (IF IT DOESN’T KILL YOU)
We were into the second day of the battle now and most of us were already dead or wounded. The carnage from the night before, along with the early morning attack was starting to have strange affects on some of the guys who weren’t wounded. I saw one Marine walking around as if he was taking a stroll in the park. Why he didn’t get shoot is a pure mystery. He must have been completely catatonic, or maybe he was suicidal. I saw a few other Marines who weren’t able to move at all. They must have been in the same kind of shock that I was in the night before.
The bullet that hit me entered the front part of my right hip, about two inches straight over from my groin. I remembered from field medical training that when a bullet passes through your body there won’t be risk of getting lead poisoning, so I reached under my butt to feel for the exit wound and found two small exit holes. I knew then that the bullet must have hit bone and exploded. Not good.
A few hours later the sound of a helicopter was coming towards us. I assumed our captain radioed for a gunship to start pounding away at the NVA. But it wasn’t a gunship, it was a medivac chopper. Our captain called for a rescue attempt? “What the hell was he thinking?” We were surrounded! He must have been in some kind of shock himself.
The upper canopy began to sway violently back and forth as the loud medivac chopper positioned itself directly above the trees. We couldn’t see the chopper, but I thought I saw a rope ladder unfolding down through the trees. I thought, was one of us supposed to climb one hundred feet straight up a rope ladder… with fifteen hundred NVA shooting at us? What the hell is going on over here? Is everybody crazy?
Of course the NVA opened fire on the chopper, and it crashed somewhere on the side of the mountain. Half an hour later, another rescue attempt was made, and the same thing happened. The commanding officer of the helicopter squadron radioed to our captain and told him that they wouldn’t attempt another rescue until we blew up enough trees for them to land. So over the next five days engineers attached plastic explosives around the base of one huge tree at a time and blew it up. The engineers were getting shot at while placing explosives around the trees, so they had to be extremely careful. It took nearly a full day for them to prepare one tree for demolition.
I was close to those trees when they fell, and thought… well, if the NVA couldn’t kill me, maybe one of these big trees will land on me and get the job done. It was pure luck that I didn’t get crushed by one of those monsters.
Shortly after the second rescue attempt was made, a jet screamed overhead and dropped two 500 pound bombs. One landed inside of our perimeter, killing seven of our Marines. Our captain was furious. He radioed to the pilot saying “You stupid, motherfucking idiot… you just killed seven of my men”. I’m sure the pilot really wanted to hear that. It wasn’t his fault. Some idiot top brass sitting in an air conditioned office somewhere in Da Nang was probably the one who gave the order to send in a jet. It was obvious to me and everybody else that we were in too tight of a spot for them to be dropping bombs from a jet flying 300 miles an hour. But to be fair, I’m not sure what I would have done under those circumstances. If I had been the one who was responsible for figuring out what to do to try and save our lives I might have done the same stupid thing. What a mess!
Finally, our captain radioed for artillery support, which turned out to be a whole lot more affective then dropping bombs from a jet. The artillery was doing a great job at keeping the NVA in their holes during the day. You’d think with so much firepower that it would have killed all of them, or at least force them off the mountain.
By the third day we were running low on food and ammunition, so the captain radioed for more supplies.They packed the supplies in large 4’x 4’x 4’ boxes and dropped them from a slow, low-flying plane. However, only one out of five boxes managed to fall inside of our perimeter. The NVA got the rest. And once again, I was lucky that none of those boxes landed on me.
Finally, on the morning of the sixth day, one hundred reinforcement Marines found their way to the top of the mountain. The NVA must have seen them coming, because they all vanished.
While the reinforcement troops were coming into the camp, a medivac chopper slowly descended through the opening in the trees and began loading the wounded. The pilot wasn’t able to land because of all the debris from the blown up trees, so he had to hover about six feet off the ground as the wounded were lifted into the chopper. I was extremely impressed with that pilot as he descended straight down through the trees without hitting a branch with his propellers. I was one of the first of the wounded to be air-lifted out, probably because I was a corpsman.
After being in the hospital for three days I woke up from my first surgery. I was told that the second medivac helicopter, which was much larger then the one I flew out on, was loaded with thirty-six wounded Marines and flipped over when one of its blades hit a branch as it was pulling up. The co-pilot was killed and all thirty-six Marines were more severely injured.
The battle lasted a total of six days and five nights, and when it was over, only twenty of us were able to walk out of there. The rest of us were either dead, wounded, or gone mad.
When I woke up three days after having the first of many surgeries there was a two-star general walking through the ward handing out purple hearts like candy to children. I wanted to throw my purple heart in his face as hard as I could, but I was too weak to move.
Hind-sight: Painting the bottoms of ships for four years would have been much smarter then passing my final exams in the last week of corps school.
Website: The battle that I was in was called: Operation Houston II. If you want to see the website concerning the battle you can google: Operation Houston II. It describes a lot of what happened on that mountain from the perspective of a few other Marines who were there.
This is my favorite quote about war, written by Chris Hedges; acclaimed war journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner:
“War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans, calls for sacrifice, honor, and heroism, and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in privilege under divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. War, from a distance, seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a small bit in the great drama of history. It promises to give us an identity as warriors, patriots, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits”.