Today, graphical works are very much in vogue. So let me offer a bit of Lima 3/1 history in graphical mode, courtesy of Sgt. Hornsby, though I know he didn’t have us in mind. These recollections are tied to Operation Cochise and offer, at least to me, a kind of window into life in mid-1967 in the southern end of Military Region I of Vietnam.
Arrival in a hot and soggy LZ. As Bud Eckert and I described earlier, our landing into a (somewhat hot) LZ at the beginning of Cochise occasioned some worrisome moments as helicopter pilots reconsidered the wisdom of settling into the wet rice paddies chosen for our assault. We didn’t work our way down ropes to land, but the picture of uncertainty is clear enough in this cartoon. “Do we really want to put down here???” Well, we did, and we marched on.
Forced Provision of Food for NVA forces.As we moved through the mountainous terrain, we spotted signs of Viet Cong and NVA activity, some of which spoke to the suffering the VC and NVA imposed on the people of the region. Though this cartoon speaks to forced recruitment, which we did hear of, what we saw most of was forced levies of rice on farmers in the substantial stores of it we encountered along our route through 2nd NVA Division territory. These storage vats (about the size of the Pod storage containers one can rent these days) well exceeded the kind of storage farmers had for themselves. They could only have been intended for NVA troops.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness–So God Seemed Remote. The helicopter landing mentioned earlier in the Cochise story put me into a flooded rice paddy, up to my armpits in mud and rice seedlings. This was neither good for the rice nor me, as a bath and change of clothing was not in my near-term future and I doubted the seedling could be replanted. I was mud-caked and filthy. And so I would remain until my combat clothing actually began to come apart. Somehow new uniforms arrived weeks later. Still, the cartoon had my diagnosis–and that of others in Lima right. We were a pretty cruddy lot in this journey.
Put another way, I suppose we could have been said to be pretty skuzzy, witness the images left and right. But such is the way of war—not at all tidy. And so it was for many, many, many of us, Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers alike. Sgt Mike nailed it in this as in so many things. (More to follow, eventually.)
I generally thought of the Pacific Stars and Stripes as an official military voice of US forces in Vietnam and in the Pacific theater generally. I have made no attempt to confirm this–today’s official-sounding papers like the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps Times are commercial enterprises.
Stars and Stripes somehow appeared at our compounds in regular intervals. The most pleasurable aspect of the paper—beyond the occasional kind report on our operations (see earlier post on Cochise) —was the series of cartoons entitled “With Sgt. Mike.” Drawn by former Marine Corps Sergeant Michael T. Horsnby, the series featured the slovenly “Sledge,” the fresh brown bar “Lieutenant Frisby,” and the relatively seasoned “Sgt. Mike.” The cartoons, according to Amazon.com originally appeared in the Army, Navy and Air Force Times, Saigon Press, Okinawa Morning Star, San Francisco Examiner, and other newspapers. (Amazon forgot Stars and Stripes, which is where I clipped the examples you will see in this and the next posts.)
Horsnby’s cartoons spoke to my experience–and, I’m sure to many, many others–so very, very well. This and another post or two will feature a number of Hornsby’s drawings that spoke most directly to me.
The “Boot Loootenant” In the beginning of his memoir, Bud Eckert alluded to the new platoon commander (me) who seemed so remote. This first image on the left speaks to a “first impression” one supposes a new platoon commander is obliged to make. I went in with plenty of uncertainties. A couple I did have included the belief that I would have to care for my Marines in every way possible, but I could not grow so close to them that I could not bear to send them on missions that might cost them their lives. I may have been obliged to look tough—and remote—as this cartoon implies. But I also knew that others had been there longer than I, and I was obligated to learn from them.
“Don’t be Stupid, Loootenant!” I have no doubt Hornsby would have sketched this scene differently had he been with me and my First Platoon on my first major operation in January 1967, Operation Stone. Captain Gibbs had put Lima 1 on the point of a regimental (or so I imagine today–let’s say it was more than just Lima Company) walk to a position we had to occupy to block enemy forces being pushed into an anvil (us) by other units in the region. It was important we got to the right place at the right time, and so, in a moment of doubt, I pulled out a map to check our location. So what if I was out in the middle of an open rice paddy? Who would think to spot me (with map spread out before him) as anybody worth shooting at? Duh.
So, wrong. Gunfire erupted from our right. An AK-47 round clipped my right eyebrow—resulting in a very bloodied map; a Marine on the right flank of our formation took a round through his neck; a corpsman collapsed unable to help, going down to the ground in fear—shouting a basic truth (straight out of Catch-22), “They’re trying to kill me!.” Irrefutable. Still, a cause for medical evacuation.
Maybe none of that would have happened had I kept my map in my pocket.
More with Sgt. Mike in a day or two. It’s almost midnight here.
Having closed Operation Cochise on the high note that we did on 17 August, who would have denied us the right to feel a bit triumphant? We hadn’t exactly taken Mount Suribachi, but it was a rare moment for us. Given the obligation of reporting on the outcome of engagements–with due regard for our own and enemy casualties—Cochise gave us a good number of bodies to count. The day stood in stark contrast to our mortar and rocket belt experience, in which we might have had one, two, or three bodies to report along with innumerable (real or imagined) blood stains.
But over the years, the triumphant feeling I felt in August 1967 turned into something less, and I began to question the importance of that day’s accomplishment. Instead, I came to wonder, over and over, if we had abandoned the opportunity to engage on our terms in a bigger and more important fight, one that might have precluded much more bloodshed later. Essentially, I came to believe—given the number of uniformed North Vietnamese troops we saw on the way to that mountain, the rice caches we spotted hidden in the hillsides, the troops we saw and fired on in the valley below, and the amount of fire we took as we moved through the region, that on top of that “boulder strewn” mountain we were looking down on the command center of the 2nd NVA , and we were on the edge of a much greater fight, had we only realized it and taken the opportunity. Instead, as Bud described it in our previous post, tired, thirsty, and somewhat depleted, and perhaps to meet another challenge perceived by higher headquarters, we abandoned that high ground.
Yes, we force-marched our way to a triumph, but, as Otto Lehrack described in his book, it was not long after we (Lima) left that the Fifth Marines we had been sent to help were again in fierce fights with units of the Second NVA Division. In what came to be known as Operation Swift, both sides suffered severe casualties, and I learned after Swift ended that Father Capodanno had been killed and LtCol. Webster had been relieved of command, apparently for something he did or failed to do during the operation. I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation of the reasons.
One story had him refusing an order from the regiment–he’d had two of his four companies of 3/5 placed under the operational control of another battalion, 1/5–not a happy situation for a commander at that level. Perhaps he protested to his cost; perhaps he was ordered to give up another one; perhaps he had been told to move units into untenable situations; perhaps some tactical decision he made was deemed to be a mistake. An alternative explanation suggested that he was held responsible for the death of Father Capodanno by giving him permission to accompany a company into combat. (Though I think a very much higher authority was responsible for that one.) I’ve talked to Col. Webster three times since seeing him during Operation Cochise. He has declined to address the topic.
Over the years I’d come to wonder if our departure from that mountaintop denied us the opportunity to prevent the events that followed in Operation Swift. I can’t confirm it today, of course, but the gnawing has persisted for a very long time, even with the knowledge we have gained in retrospect about the operational habits of the NVA in this region.
One source of such information many years later is an officer who went to Basic School with me, Andrew (“Andy”) Finlayson. On leaving Basic School and arriving in Vietnam, he became a special kind of grunt, a leader of so-called Force Recon Marines. As such, he and a handful of Marines were regularly flown into distant places to spot major enemy forces and either call in artillery or air strikes on them or simply report their movements for strategic and tactical planning. Andy would serve a second tour as an officer in the CIA-managed program to capture VC leaders known as the Phoenix Program. He would serve a full career in the Marines and retire as a full colonel.
I had wondered what Andy might have known about the events of Cochise and then Swift and the relief of Colonel Webster. Andy offered the following, which points to another kind of frustration that those of us in contact with the enemy would experience, an unwillingness or inability of higher headquarters to respond to information received from troops below:
I do not know why Lt. Col. Webster was relieved. In fact, I was unaware of his relief until you sent your email to me. I will try to go back an look at my participation in Operation Cochise, since it is in my OQR and I am sure I was patrolling during that operation. In fact, I think I may have confused it with Union II in my book Killer Kane since I was on a hill overlooking the area where both Capt Graham and Father Capodanno (both MOH winners) were killed. My team observed large groups of NVA moving towards the village where the incident took place and I tried to call in arty on them but the clearance was denied because of “friendlies nearby.” In the hours before the fire fight we observed groups of five or ten moving east, as I recall, all NVA with most having brush attached to their packs to make them hard to see. What was so frustrating to me was the fact that our reporting did not get down to the 5th Marines in time to warn them. If I had had their company frequencies, I could have called them and warned them. Instead, I relied on 1st Recon Battalion and the Division G-2 to relay our Salute reports to them. Never happened for some reason.
“Some reasons,” I’ve concluded are the stock answers to questions veterans of combat inevitably carry with them. The “what ifs,” the counterfactuals, and the unknown pieces prowl endlessly in their imaginations, offering explanations they will rarely, if ever, be able to substantiate. The questions need not be–indeed seldom would be–about grand strategy, the sort of thing generals and military historians ponder endlessly to endlessly varying conclusions. The hardest questions are the ones veterans direct at themselves and those immediately above them, “what if I had (or had not) done X?” or “Why wasn’t the sergeant or the lieutenant there when I needed him?” or “Why didn’t someone tell me that?” or “Why did I choose that route instead of the other?” and on and on and on. Post-traumatic stress—a game of Post-Traumatic 20, 30, 40, ∞ Questions.
But I would have little time for that game after Cochise. Lima returned to its 3/1 compound below Marble Mountain, where after some local patrol activity with First Platoon I was ordered to Okinawa to attend a one- or two-week course on planning and managing the combat loading of Marines and their heavy equipment onto amphibious landing ships–Embarkation School.
The Marines of Third Battalion, First Marines, a battery of 105mm howitzer cannons, a platoon of tanks and another of amphibious tracked vehicles and more–numbering about 1,100 Marines was going to get “special.” As Special Landing Force (SLF) 3/1, we were going to do what Marines did during World War II, launch attacks on the enemy from the sea.
And so, I was given a two-way ticket on military transport to Okinawa to learn how to put SLF 3/1, in fighting shape, onto the five ships that we would board, first for training in the Philippines and then back to war, this time in the north, by the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams.
I don’t remember the date I left, but it was surely in late September, not long after Operation Swift ended, that in Danang I boarded an Air Force transport with about 60 passengers. Apart from the flight crew, I was the only living person on board. The others lay in repose in aluminum caskets, with one-way orders home. Perhaps Father Capodanno was among them. Perhaps a Marine I knew. Perhaps a friend or two.
A historian whose book I edited some years ago said, “War stories are just war stories when told without any effort to explain their meaning.” True enough, I thought. But meaning can take years to emerge. Perhaps 50 years? So it seemed with that book, which marked the 50th anniversary of an organization. And so it may be with my piecemeal memoir.
I have often told myself and others that I could remember every day of my time in Vietnam, though not in any particular order—a kaleidoscope of war stories changing with every twist. I no longer believe that–at least not entirely. I now see the experiences as one might see a Chinese landscape painting, with lone figures or prominent features visible, though indistinctly, through fog and haze. Like the scene above—from a 54-foot long scroll depicting the entire length of the Yangtze River in China—strong impressions take shape, while details survive in pieces sufficient to offer, as a French artist/philosopher once wrote, clues to the “propensity of things.”
This way of looking or thinking about things is unsatisfying in some ways–for example, names and details others expect me to recognize have faded into the fog–sometimes embarrassingly–and the “facts” others proclaim may or may not ring bells with me. This feeling of inadequacy generally leaves me bereft and wishing for forgiveness, as though I have failed in a responsibility. I suppose I could challenge the “facts,” but mostly I am left to say I mean no disrespect in not seeing them and beg forgiveness for not knowing what I should.
And so I offer the peaks from my memory scroll of time as Lima One Actual, my call-sign as the commander of the First Platoon of Lima Company, Third Battalion, First Marines, from late January to September 1967, give or take.
The personal, touching, enduring moments of Operations Pike and Cochise
First, Lima’s assignment to reinforce Third Battalion Fifth Marines during Operations Pike and Cochise brought about a reunion between me and the Marine officer, Major C. B. Webster, who commissioned me as a Second Lieutenant into the Marine Corps on Major Ohanesian’s recommendation. (See my earlier posts on entering the Corps from the University of Rochester.) By August 1967, Webster had become a lieutenant colonel and had taken command of 3/5 in the Que Son Valley. Meeting him there was a special moment for me, though also a sad one. LtCol. Ohanesian had been killed, as had my good friend and classmate 2nd Lt. Tom King. Both died in bitter battles well north of us, near the DMZ, not long before this meeting. I would learn the details years later. The chance to serve with LtCol. Webster–in effect to show him that his faith in me as a potential Marine leader had been warranted–was special. That we (meaning the Marines of Lima 3/1) didn’t disappoint him made it even more so.
Second, how many of us can even imagine meeting Saints? Though I can’t know these things, I think I did meet a Saint in the person of Father Vincent Capodanno, the Jesuit Catholic chaplain of 3/5. Father Capodanno walked with Lima One, beside me, on a patrol during either Operation Pike or early in Cochise. In the months I led Lima One, no other chaplain walked through hostile territory with my platoon or any other platoon of Lima. I don’t remember our conversation precisely, but I remember the feeling, its “propensity.” Father Capodanno was warming and comforting and clearly unafraid. I am sure we talked of New York City—he was from Staten Island, I was from the Bronx–and other things. I just remember connecting. A presence I have never forgotten.
Father Capodanno would earn the Medal of Honor when he died in action during Operation Swift just a couple of weeks after he walked with Lima 1. A biography, the very aptly titled “Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Capodanno, Vietnam 1966–1967,” by Fr. Daniel L. Mode, would tell his full story quite well. More about that next, but for now I will note that the glass in the beautiful chapel at the Marine Corps Heritage Museum in Quantico, VA, was dedicated by friends in his name. It is a beautiful place of reflection. You don’t have to be a Marine to visit, and Wonder.
In mid-January, during his personal tour of 3/1 operational areas, Bud Eckert recalled Operation Cochise in some detail (I reproduce it below) and concluded with the following observation:
Operation Cochise was a perfect operation for Lima Company, so unlike any other operation we had participated in. No major casualties, beautiful countryside, without mines or booby traps, and a defeated enemy.
Corporal Santos Salinas—also of my First Platoon—was quoted in Otto Lehrack’s 2010 history of the many fights in the Que Son region, “The Road of 10, 000 Pains.” He said,
It makes all the humping worthwhile when you hit them like that.
Company Commander Gibbs remembered,
We had hand-to-hand combat and killed every one of them….We only had one walking wounded and no medevacs and no KIAs.
I called it “My birthday present” in the Stars and Stripes clipping, shown above, which I mailed to my parents. (Somehow, I thought, that would keep my mother from worrying about her only son. )
Portions of what Bud recalled in the brief account he shared during his January visit appeared in Lehrack’s book. (To his great credit, Lehrack went to great pains to get the perspectives of individual Marines in the long running battle against the Second NVA Division in the Que Son Basin.) As to my memories, Bud’s account pretty much accords with them, though I think he left a few things out—the biggest being that Cochise was a followup to another operation in the region, Pike, which some regarded as pretty important, though in my memory of it—the sweeps through one village after another; one hilltop climbed after another; all through blazing heat— Operation Pike produced little but scary moments and exhaustion. Other differences between us are relatively small, accounted for by different positions and different views in long lines and by the differing (and somewhat erratic) ways in which we all process and preserve memories of such things.
So following is Bud’s account of our success, such as it was in the larger scheme of things, that August. I will turn to my reflections on the operations of that month in my next round of rummagings. They are reflections that pretty much transcend the particulars of Pike, Cochise, or any of the operations we’d engaged in up to that point.
Operation Cochise-by Bud Eckert, 12 January 2015 [with my notes in italics every now and then]
A number of major battles took place in [the Que Son] area in 1967 between the 2nd North Vietnamese Army Division and elements of the First Marine Division. As a result of these battles, the 2nd NVA was largely destroyed and was unable to fulfill its primary mission of cutting Vietnam in half during the Tet Offensive [still some five months or more away, in early 1968]. Over 900 Marines were killed in these battles. Various studies concluded that more than half of these Marines were killed as a result of malfunctioning M16s. [As Bud suggests, this is arguable, though there is no doubt malfunctioning M16s cost lives.]
When Lima Company returned to the 3/1 base in early August, we were excited to learn that we would be opconned (sent to reinforce) to the 5th Marines and that we would be involved in a major operation in the Que Son Valley. We were overjoyed to be getting out of the 3/1’s normal area of operation, which was full of booby traps, ambushes, and an ever elusive [evasive] enemy. [Most of us were also acutely aware of the fact that Lima Company had sat out two of the most substantial engagements of the war, Operations Union I and Union II that spring, while we occupied the relatively placid defensive perimeter surrounding Danang.]
[After the short-lived Operation Pike. See the map on left for a very, very rough approximation— drawn from ancient memory—of the operational areas for Lima Company of Operations Pike and Cochise. I stand ready to be corrected in a heartbeat. ] After a few days of rest we were told to saddle up and head to the area where helicopters would pick us up—it was early morning when we flew into a small clearing. It was a hot landing zone and we were taking heavy fire—I was in the lead helicopter and the crew chief started yelling “out, out, out.” The helicopter was hovering about 12 feet above the ground. I was the fourth Marine to exit the ramp when i heard the crew chief yell “stop, stop, stop.” It was too late as my momentum carried me out of the aircraft-four of us felt pretty lonely for the next 10 minutes as gun ships flew overhead trying to suppress the enemy fire. [I’m reasonably sure that Bud’s squad was in the same CH-46 helicopter I was in, and, I was actually the first one out, jumping into a flooded rice paddy, submerged up to my armpits in mud. It was a scary few minutes, as I turned over and over in my mind how I would get us out if we were, as it seemed, being abandoned] We were joined by the rest of the company a short while later and started a trek which seemed to last forever. (From left (west) to right (east) in the red ellipse on the map.] Up and down jungle-covered mountains, which were at the same time beautiful as well as foreboding.
At dusk we set up near the crest of a large mountain. A company from the 5th Marines occupied the other side of the crest. The next afternoon a fire started on the top of the hill due to incoming enemy fire. Someone yelled out to throw grenades to put the fire out. It was a pretty stupid idea as a number of men from the Fifth Marines ended up receiving small shrapnel wounds.
it was amazing what Marines were expected to carry. Besides our weapons, ammunition, grenades, water, flares, explosives , mortar and machine gun ammunition, it seemed there was always something else to carry. I remember once having to carry a 45 lb. triangular shape charge [an explosive device—very finely designed and in no way improvised—to explode on command and direct shrapnel in a specific direction] for what seemed like miles…. A Native American Marine was carrying a green box with straps, which had to have weighed 60 pounds. Nobody knew what was inside this sealed metal box, but carry it we did. The Marine fell down the side of a hill and badly wrecked his knee. I ended up carrying the metal box for the next three days until a resupply helicopter inexplicably flew it out.
For days and days we continued our trek. On one particular day we were taking heavy fire. We had been out of water for hours and were really feeling the effects of dehydration. A Marine who no one recognized,someone said he was a forward air controller, had been killed and four of us were carrying his large body up the side of a boulder strewn mountain, when machine gunner PFC Jack Atkins went down with heat exhaustion. I started dragging Atkins up the hill when i noticed an old rice paddy with a film of mud on top 40 meters to my right. I momentarily dropped Atkins and crawled under fire to the paddy and scraped mud into one of my canteens. When we finally reached the top of the craggy mountain I took a sock off and used it to strain the water from the mud. Each squad member got enough liquid to wet lips and tongue.
Napalm was exploding all around us. It sort of looked like the mother of all Fourth of July’s. Later that night, 2nd Platoon was tasked with collecting all canteens and humping a couple of clicks [kilometers] to a small stream. To this day i do not know who ended up with my dirt-encrusted canteen. [Good bits of this do not exist in my memory or exist in different order—though it is not really important any more. I do recall the climb up the boulder-strewn mountain, under fire. It fell to me to do a bit of my own hauling of a human being, this one living. Our interpreter, afraid to face the gunfire, refused to go up. Needing him, I just picked him up and threw him over my shoulder and hauled him up to the crest (In a sense he was my “brother,” and he certainly was not heavy.) Near the top, we dug in as best as we could for the night. That place, that hillside and the valley below it, haunts me still. I’ll explain later.]
[The next day, after a medevac helicopter took out the heat exhausted, and the interpreter, we were ordered to leave rapidly, and Lima was assigned to the point, First Platoon in the lead.] Lima was leading three other companies. I was point man for the whole shebang—we reached a large draw that looked spooky as hell–a decision was made [I ordered it] that my squad would sprint across the 200 meter draw, climb a hill to the point where we could lay down a base of fire for the rest of the Marines as they ran through the open area. [The trail we were following actually took us through the right edge of a small valley/gully (a couple of hundred yards deep to our left). We had high ground immediately to our right and high ground to the left beyond the little flat space–with no protection if we came under fire. It was perfect ambush territory if we were not paying attention.] Sure enough, as the rest of the column made its way across open ground, the NVA started to direct heavy fire at the crossing Marines. The squad was in a perfect position and we were able to lay it on the NVA and largely suppress the enemy fire. The only problem was we were not able to see the crossing Marines and did not know the last Marine had gotten past the draw. We felt pretty lonely as we ran for a good 20 minutes trying to find the end of the column with virtually all of our ammo expended. [That was on me. I had understood that another squad from the platoon behind us would replace Bud’s as it arrived. I also understood that we would reconnect in short order. Neither happened and the squad was furious with me–can’t say that I blamed it.]
As the operation was drawing to an end, Lima Company had its most glorious moment of the war [at least as we knew it in 1967 and early 1968]. Second platoon was out on a patrol and was about a kilometer away from the company position. A resupply helicopter flew over its position. A few hundred yards away, one stupid, stupid NVA shot at the helicopter and gave away the position of some 45 NVA hunkered down in a perfect ambush position. [I think they were spotted for other reasons, as well.] The rest of Lima company was called up. [Captain Gibbs set up an assault of two platoons on line, First Platoon on the right] I was on the extreme right flank of the company line with a Marine named Patton. We received the word to attack. We did not receive the word that the company was going to run halfway to the enemy position and lay down a base of fire. [Have to admit, I don’t remember such an order being given. My recollection is that it was a nonstop affair.] Patton and i kept running not knowing that we were alone. As we slid into the gully where the enemy were located we almost bumped into two NVA soldiers. Everyone except for me fired at once. I had the M79 grenade launcher and the round would not detonate from that distance. Without thinking, i rolled on my back,pointed the barrel straight up, gave it a little Kentucky windage, and pulled the trigger. As i watched the round fly skyward it looked like it was going straight up which meant it would be dropping right back on us. It was a long few seconds with my wondering if I was the stupidest Marine on earth. It ended up being a miracle shot. We ran past the two dead NVA and Patton was able to pour fire into the back of the enemy position while the rest of the company rushed into the gully from the front. All of the enemy were killed. Lima Company suffered only one wounded.
After the fighting was over, the resupply helicopter and a major stepped out of the aircraft and asked our skipper if he could shake hands with the two Marines who had so boldly run ahead of all the Marines to confront the enemy. While the major was commending our actions and shaking our hands neither Patton nor I ventured to explain that we thought everyone else was running right with us.
So, Bud—we all—had good reason to feel good about that day, 17 August 1967, that operation, that “present” of a one-sided firefight. We had made a contribution. I didn’t doubt it then either. Hence the smiles on our faces as we returned to our base area in the shadow of Marble Mountain just below Danang.
Eventually, I came to see it and Operation Cochise differently.