Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam

We Never Promised You a Rose Garden

The vibrant young Marine warrior that fought in the Vietnam War is
getting long in the tooth now. Middle-age has already elapsed, seen through
his rear-view mirror quickly disappearing in a collage of marriage, kids,
heartache, and joy.

But though he may try not to, he still vividly recalls the suffering and
violence he was a part of, and at unexpected moments, suddenly a flood of
remembrances floating on a montage of long-ago images visit him.
He remembers no hot food, but he doesn’t care, because the Marines are
trapped in the hottest imaginable heat in Southeast Asia. He loses his appetite
while humping through the thick jungle, so he settles for a C-ration can of
fruit cocktail in syrup for minimal nourishment. He can’t bear the thought
of anything heavy to eat. If someone brought him a cheeseburger from paradise
he would retch in the elephant grass, so he lives on water and canned
juices and a piece of C-ration protein every now and again. He feels the
weight slide off his bones with glee because he does not want to go up into
the hills with one more ounce of weight. He can’t remember what ice is like,
but he would give a month’s combat pay for a bucket of it.

He remembers the rancid smell of buffalo dung mixed with primordial
black mud floating in a malodorous cloud above the rice paddies he sloshes
across, which are vividly green like the pictures of Ireland. But Saint Patrick
himself won’t be able to stop the terrible bullets streaming at him even before
he hears the sound of the firing itself. He remembers getting the heaves the
first time he smelled the putrid animal pens next to the village hooches. He
remembers the first shit detail the top sergeant assigned him to for a screwup
and how the awful black smoke smells when he lights the kerosene he has
poured into the waste below the wooden seats of the officers’ latrine at battalion
headquarters. He remembers the iron-tinged smell of the blood of his
dear friend sluicing through his fingers, which are pressed against the terribly
large hole in his buddy’s throat, too much blood, not enough time. He
remembers the campfire smell, finally back from another patrol, unwinding
in the comparative safety of the company base camp, the only civilized home
he has, which is more primitive than the ramshackle huts of the nearby peasants,
smelling like the burning oak smells back home, curling up past the dancing
red embers while a comrade strums some chords from Bob Dylan and
everyone finally feels safe. For a few minutes.

He remembers the sting of salt in his eyes from the constant sweat rivulets
washing down his brow. He remembers the sudden insect bite on his forearm
while lying under a poncho on the ground in a night defensive position
with monsoon water pellets slapping the olive-green poncho’s rubber surface,
and he prays it was not the bite of a scorpion. That makes him think about
all the snakes everywhere, and he gets petrified, remembering the dark brown,
exceedingly long, king cobra that slithered across the trail about 10 yards
ahead of the patrol point man, who was a few yards ahead under a canopy of
coconut trees.

He remembers checking out the interior of a Buddhist pagoda that was
collaterally damaged in a firefight moments ago, and he sees a new hole as big
as a basketball in the back wall, bricks blasted like eggshells, right next to a
breathtaking mural in coral and lime pastel shades of the Mother Goddess,
Quan Am, above an ancient altar, while loading a full magazine into his
rifle.

He remembers the precious water racing down his gullet, pulled from
its pool hundreds of feet below the quagmire of mud surrounding the base
of the village well in a rusty, tin bucket, tasting coppery as it flows from the
old, aluminum, vintage–Korean War canteens.

He remembers seeing the smoke. It is diesel-black or whiter than an
angel’s wings or the tan color of weak coffee, but it is everywhere he looks,
drifting into the turquoise Asian sky from a burning helicopter, or from a
thimble of C-4 plastic explosive lit under his C-ration can of ham and lima
beans, or belching from the mouth of a cannon, or from flames leaping from
thatched roofs of a village whose people have made the Marines very angry.
It rises from flames dancing on burning hedgerows and gates in villages
where Marines get wounded by booby traps, so they get payback. The Marine
Corps is known as the “Green Machine,” but in war do not expect it to be
an activist in the “greening” that saves the environment.

There are some things that are so insistent they cannot be recalled. The
human mind can only assimilate a certain level of pain until it finally just
checks out, a merciful circuitry meltdown. He may try, but he cannot revisit
the utter state of exhaustion he endures on the march in the heat, just one
step at a time, baby, try to think this is really not happening. He will never again
experience the incredible thirst after the last drop of water from his canteen
is gulped scaling a steep ridge in the green jungle or feel the jolt of a high velocity
bullet or of molten grenade fragments into his flesh; it hurts so much,
but the good news is he can’t feel the white-hot pain now like when he got
hit.

When it gets real hot in the summer now he tries to compare the heat
to that summer he spent so long ago in Vietnam, but it’s a fruitless exercise,
the combination of the heat and humidity in the jungle areas between the
rice paddies has no equal and thank Jesus he’s endured the last of that. He
can recall the arduous struggle to carry his heavy load, but today he can’t feel
the actual strain of patrolling on foot with suspender straps attached to a cartridge
belt holding magazines of bullets, canteens of water, a machete, a first
aid kit, a compass, a Ka-Bar fighting knife, a rifle-cleaning kit, a pouch of
hand grenades, plus a 12-pound M-14 rifle and two nine-pound bazooka shells
and a haversack with claymore mines, socks, C-ration meals, a poncho, extra
radio batteries, an entrenching tool, detonating cord, and paperbacks about
sex, violence, and Jesus.

But he does remember the sense of touch and yearning. He is 20 years
old and suddenly from his core the hormones race unsolicited, testosterone
on the run, and standing in a line to draw water from a well or to draw
grenades for the ambush patrol that will start just as darkness falls and out
into the countryside owned by Victor Charlie he will go, he suddenly becomes
erect. A blue-veiner has decided to arrive and is about to burst the cotton of
his green jungle trousers. It hurts so good; what’s a young Marine to do?
When he daydreams he revisits the file of each girl he ever yearned for, all
the way back to grammar school. He recalls how the ones he had success with
tasted when he kissed them and how they smelled and what they whispered
when he touched them. Then he daydreams about the ones he wanted but
never got and how he will pursue them and what he will do with them when
he returns to the world.

He remembers fetching 105mm howitzer shells and quickly screwing in
the proper fuse and, after jamming the round in the breech, turning away
from the artillery piece and covering his ears the second before his gun teammate
pulls the lanyard and the machine recoils as the steel shell is resoundingly
fired while the smell of tart gunpowder smoke swirls in his midst. The
report slams so hard into his eardrums there is only one numbing ringing
sound, and even today he hears that incessant ringing because the Marine
Corps didn’t issue earplugs to the cannoneers like the Army did.

The veteran remembers patrolling into a village with such stealth in
broad daylight that the surprised mothers, wheeling and spotting the advancing
Marines, fetch their infants off the hard-packed, recently swept clay floor
of the village where they were slicing freshly harvested cu cai turnips and
scurry under the shelter of a nearby thatch-roofed storage bin, looking back
one last time at the Americans while clutching their babies. Their faces are
contorted by such consummate fear it is matched only by the fear of deer on
the hoof trying to outrace a wind-blown forest fire, and the Marines feel
ashamed.

The radioman remembers suddenly halting when his lieutenant, who is
issuing hand signals to his squad leaders does five paces in front of him because
the man on the point thinks he has sniffed out a band of guerrillas on the
other side of a copse of trees with dead vines of brown, withered leaves fastened
to them. The radioman does not move despite the pain of the heavy
radio baseboard’s straps cutting into his shoulders for the last several hours
while walking through a glen of exotic bushes with glistening dark-green
fronds so large they are only found in the jungle. He is alert as a mother leopard
is when her cub falls to the ground from the crook of a tree limb and the
baboons approach with their big teeth shining. Suddenly there
is an eruption of gunfire, and he leaps to his leader’s side.

The squad leader remembers his eyes must be multitasking, glancing all
about for the safety of his 12 Marines, who are wading vulnerably across the
open rice paddy toward the only close haven, a dike about 30 yards ahead
between the Marines and the tree line they are headed to. Once past the dike,
hopefully uneventfully, and once inside that tree line, he must be wary of the
many dangers that exist and search for signs of them, the metal glint of an
enemy’s weapon, or freshly disturbed earth under which a mine could be
buried, or fighting holes below the earth with bamboo covers that a Vietcong
sniper could pop out of firing an SKS carbine round into the heart of one of
his Marines.

The captain commanding the rifle company remembers the ambivalent
nature of his responsibility, to lead his 150 Marines to kill as many of the
enemy as possible while at the same time safeguarding them with risk-avoidance
whenever possible to keep them alive. In the heat of the moment as contact with the
enemy begins the company commander must assess the enemy’s size, location,
strength of numbers, and types of weapons, then describe to his three
platoon leaders the tactics they must utilize to destroy the enemy. At the same
time he is describing over the radio to his battalion commander the rapidly
changing environment and simultaneously calling in artillery air bursts and
close air support, making sure the incoming medevac helicopters are not
harmed by friendly fire.  Even though surrounded by chaos and besieged with scores of details that he must immediately address, he marvels at how effectively his brave Marines fight and sacrifice for each other, not for the U.S. Constitution, not for the cause of democracy, not for God or the good old Red, White, and Blue, but for pride. Pride for
each other and for the exquisite pride in being a Marine.

The grunt remembers incessantly cleaning and oiling his rifle, which he
pampers more than his own body, for it is his lifesaver. Each time after ramming
an oiled cotton white patch down the bore to remove the carbon deposits
inside the barrel—because a malfunction could be the death of him in a
firefight—he releases the magazine and removes the live metal-jacketed cartridges
and wipes each one clean before loading them back into the magazine
he has cleaned the grit out of, which he inserts back into the receiver. Then
he moves the safety to the “on” position before opening his dinner in a tin
can, beans and franks.

The grunt remembers the special times he would remove his muddy, sodden
jungle boots and tug his filthy socks off and lay them in the sun next to
his poncho, where his rotting haversack and web gear and rifle are placed.
His feet are wrinkled and blue-white and the sunlight warms them. He pulls
his utility shirt off and sees white vertical streaks of salt on it that dried from
his sweat, and he strips off his trousers and lays on his back naked on the
poncho. His body tingles from the warm sun, and soon he falls into a slumber.
The grunt remembers going back with his company after long stints in
Indian country looking for Victor Charlie on search-and-destroy operations
to the relatively safe area of the battalion base camp. There are good things
there like a chow hall with hot food, showers, tents with wooden floors, mail
from home, chaplain services—Bless me father for I have sinned—vehicle runs
to the ammo dump in the rear and on the way back a quick stop at a skivvie
house—Maline I make you so happy!—but the flip side, too, when the motherfucking
first sergeant makes him fill sandbags for hours at a time on work
parties.

The grunt also remembers his backpack is not balanced, so one of the
straps is cutting into his left shoulder and it is one more nuisance he must
forget about because he cannot stop until his squad does. His soggy jungle
boots have created angry blisters on both heels and the sores on his thighs are
leaking pus. Everyone has some sort of infection if they are out in the boonies
long enough. So he returns to a favorite daydream, the one where he is back
home sitting in the living room with the air conditioner on 60 degrees, making
the windows stream traces of condensation, watching the Red Sox pound
the Yankees while eating the chilled chunks of watermelon his gal Vivian just
served him wearing only her pink panties and a snug little shirt she has just
put back on after they came together at the very same second.
An explosion at the front of the column wakes him from his reverie and
he is back on the march humping a narrow trail. He is comforted knowing
that each of the many more thousands of steps that will have to be endured
will lead to that final step of freedom as he climbs the top stair of the ramp
and enters the airplane bound for America.

Thanks to Franklin Cox for this excerpt from his new book: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966

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