Thirty Years Ago Today

Today is my 48th birthday. Next year it will have been thirty years since this green 18-year-old kid off the streets of Jersey first set foot in Nam, streetwise but 'jungle green'. Most of the time spent there is now a blur. But certain facts linger, and not a single day has gone by these last thirty years that Nam hasn't somehow managed to creep into my waking or sleeping thoughts. As you wrote it, I feel it. I just never seemed to put it down on paper.

Dong Ha was the first place I set foot in Nam. Did that place during Deckhouse IV, I believe Sept '67 for 4 or 5 days. Operated a KY-8 (crypto) radio link between the 26th Marines battalion commander and the USS Iwo Jima. One of those things I'll always remember is listening to the CO on the line to the ship, late at night, the second day of the op, pleading in a broken voice, how the NVA were pounding his 'boys' to hell from within the Z, and how he was promised navy guns before the op started and then got none.

His broken voice left a lifelong impression on this 18 year old.

His plea must have worked because for the next three days, almost non-stop, I relayed sheet after sheet of coordinates for naval gun fire.

* * *
In the days before the beginning of the operation, bunking next to me were the 'recons.' Got to shoot the breeze with a couple of them, and remember one of them showing me a jar of ears. Must have been a day or two before the op started that the team was inserted. On D-Day minus one, the word came back: they got discovered, and the one I especially remember talking to had been hit in the leg. In sight of the chopper and wounded, he was left behind by the chopper which was under intense fire, for fear of losing the whole works. A couple of days later, a wounded NVA POW provided the exact burial location of his body. He had been surgically cared for by his captors, and buried, wrapped in white sheets.
* * *
I'll never forget the 3 a.m. STEAK and eggs, the Marine Corps' "last meal" breakfasts. Used to love it when D-Days were delayed for a couple of days due to inclement weather. Steak and eggs for breakfast, sometimes three days in a row.
* * *
The return trip to the Iwo via the Chinook was a beauty. Flew around off the coast of the Z for hours in pea soup, unable to locate the ship. Low on fuel, we were about to head back to Dong Ha when the pilot spotted it. The only problem: I looked out the chopper's window as the side of ship rose above us; the pilot missed the deck and we landed in the drink next to the ship. 'Nobody panic' was the word; no jumping out of the chopper, the rotors were still spinning. The chinook, I guess like a Volkswagen, will stay afloat for a little while. The engines were completely shut down and a restart initiated. The chopper lifted out of the dead calm of the sea and landed on an adjacent ship.
* * *
I can still see the expressions on the faces of my hut mates in Dong Ha, them stationed there, me visiting. I dumped my gear on the cot and all my 'pogey bait' spilled out. They looked at me as if I had a pirate's treasure; guess they hadn't seen anything like that for a long time. They looked at each other and surmised, "You must have just come in off ship." It had to have been the only place goodies like that could be from. I told them to help themselves.
* * *
I spoke to a Marine in Dong Ha who was just in from the Rockpile. He said, "Rockpile" and I asked "Where?" The look on his face was drawn and pale as he said again, with an underlying tone, "The Rockpile." "You are damned lucky," he said, "you have never been or want to go to." I must have been lucky, as I never did get there, and am glad I did not.
* * *
Operation D-Day One, on the 'net' I get an excited tank crew member who just saw the lead tractor of their convoy heading west from the beachfront take a hit from an RPG. The communication was broken into phrases as the tank crewman 'stammered' his thoughts as he searched the surrounding terrain for the source of the rocket. I remember him saying he spotted two NVA in a tree, and was readying the tank to fire. He must have been a FNG also, as his response after the round was fired was one of total amazement. The power of the round blew the two NVA into pieces, and he was 'speechless' for minutes afterward, making incoherent responses to the queries regarding the status of the two enemy soldiers.
* * *
Keith, with whom I walked many paddy dikes, stepped on a landmine and went home with both legs missing below the knees. My second cousin George, US Army, was KIA by a landmine in '64, a year before I enlisted. Nick's cousin, whose face I remember, but name escapes me at this moment (Sal, I think) -- KIA by a sniper. We went through boot together, so I can look up his name anytime in our platoon book.

I'll never forget....Maybe, when I'm 49 years old, I'll write some more.

Semper Fi
Dennis Quinn

Copyright © 1995 by Dennis Quinn. All rights reserved.

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