Place: Arrival in Da Nang, Vietnam
Time: February, 1970
It was September 8, 1969 when I boarded a plane heading for what was thought to be a 13 month combat tour in Vietnam. The orders indicated something like “Ground Forces, WesPac”. It was believed that it meant Vietnam. The plane landed in Okinawa for processing. Well, it did not turn out the way I thought it would. The first assignment that was given was to the 9th MAB (Marine Amphibious Brigade). This was part of the 3rd Marine Division. The 3rd Marine Division was in the process of being pulled out of Vietnam. Shock was my immediate feeling! All the training and preparation that was gone through and maybe I would not get a chance to put it to use got me thinking. That was something that was ever considered.
The first assignment was to F/2/12 where I was to be the FO for I/3/9. It was a further training assignment. Mixed emotions were swirling in my head. Rumors had it that I might get the opportunity to be part of BLT 3/9 which was being formed. It was explained to me that the idea to go into North Korea to attempt to retrieve the USS Pueblo was being considered. There was a need to have a BLT acclimatized to cold weather to be prepared in case the decision was made to do so in the near future. BLT 3/9 was then sent to Camp Mt. Fuji, Japan to get prepared. I was assigned to take a Forward Observer team there to train for this contingency. It was cold; there was snow; we lived in tents; and it sucked! Bottom-line, the decision to take back the USS Pueblo never materialized and we went back to Okinawa. We were aboard a LST for 6 days and I am still not sure which was worse, Nam or the ship!
Soon after returning to Okinawa, a promotion came through to 1st. Lt. Wow! I was no longer a “brown bar”. You cannot imagine what that meant? Celebration was what was the call of the day. All of those that do not understand what a “wetting down party” is, I will explain. It is customary that when a Marine officer gets promoted, they are to take their first month’s increase in pay and put it on the bar to buy drinks. Eleven of us were promoted the same day. Our increase in pay was something like $130.00 per month. Do the math. There was approximately $1400.00 put on the bar of the Camp Hansen Officer’s Club that night. Keep in mind, a beer was less than $.25 and a bottle of booze was less that a dollar. Get the picture? I lost my ability to visually recognize a human being early in the evening. I was told it was one of the greatest parties the club ever experienced. I just have to believe them. The next day, I got orders to the 1st Mar. Div. in Vietnam. Mixed emotions were swirling in my mind, but I am not sure how much was the night before or my dream coming true to become a combat Marine.
The plane just took off from Okinawa heading for Vietnam. Well, the time had come and I was going to get the opportunity to live my dream. I was a Marine heading to do combat. Many reflections went through my mind. All the way back as to how my dad must have felt as he left San Diego, in January of 1944, heading for the Marshall Islands with the 4th Marine Division. My father was my hero and I so much wanted to be like my dad, and now the chance was there. There was one striking similarity even though there was 25 years difference. His first son was born 9 days after he boarded ship heading to eventually land on Roi Namur and my son was born 6 weeks after I left for Vietnam. Neither of us was to ever to see their first born until we completed a tour in combat. The thought that continued in my mind was “would I ever get to see my son?” Oh well, needed to put first things first. I have already jumped out of the plane; it was time to pull the ripcord.
1st Lt. Barry Burke, a fellow artillery officer, was traveling on the same plane and we talked about various issues all the way to Da Nang. It was a big unknown as to what to expect when we landed. Would it be necessary to run from the plane? Would we know what was supposed to be done? Would we screw up and do something really dumb? Time would only tell.
When the plane landed, it was just like any other landing. Outside, it was hot and muggy and nothing really other than the norm. As we were leaving the plane, there was a group that appeared to be waiting for us to get off so the plane get prepared to leave again and they could get on it. These guys were leaving the war, on a “freedom bird,” to head home, and we were arriving to take their place. It was somewhat of an empty feeling: They have done their time in “hell” and we were just beginning ours. Reality was beginning to be obvious. For some reason, I was beginning to believe the rumor that the enemy did not use BFA’s (blank firing adapters) in Nam!
It was known that both of us were going to be with the 11th Marines, but we did not know what unit or where we would be. It was thought that the first assignment would to be a Forward Observer (FO) with some infantry unit. That was the normal method to expect. It was like it was another progression in our Marine training. Kind of like a “live fire exercise” except the live fire would be aimed at us!
Well, Lt. Burke and I got to the headquarters for the 1st Mar. Div. and went to a place where we were assigned a place to stay for a couple days, issued more equipment and given a basic orientation of what was going to happen next. There was no sense of immediate danger so we had a degree of calmness about us. We agreed that it was not too bad, so far. We had no clue what was happening, so it was only normal to feel the way we did.
Barry and I walked around the compound a little just to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land. We ran into a couple guys from our Basic School class. It was an immediate reunion. They had been in country for about 4 months and were just getting there. We could see an immediate difference from when we last saw them. They had lost weight; they had a deep tan; they wore their equipment differently; their uniforms were dirty and torn; their boots were scuffed almost white; but the most noticeable aspect was their demeanor. While they smiled and acted friendly, they had a deep expression in their face we had never seen before. They were flat out, “dead serious”! Their eyes showed a degree of far reaching, meaningful, no kidding around business. The basic school cannot prepare you for what they experienced.
We left the reunion and then tried to decide what we were going to do next. Since neither of us had a clue as to what we should do, we decided to do what any good Marine would do. We found out where we needed to go in case of an attack and began to familiarize ourselves with it. We found our bunker, we went and got a beer and then tried it out for size. Ahhhh, war is hell!