Ericson, B Co. 1st Eng. Bn. I arrived in-country in March
of 1967 as a combat engineer, 1st Engineer Bn. at Chu Lai, assigned
to B company 3rd platoon; B company in direct support of 5th Marine
Regiment; 1st plt. to 1/5, 2nd plt. to 2/5, 3rd plt. to 3/5. Incountry
at Hills 29, 39, 54, 63 as well as Chu Lai, Tam Ky, Da Nang, Gia
Le (Phu Bai ).
until December I had the honor of serving with all the line companies
of 3/5,throughout the summer campaign in the Que Son Valley. In
that time I participated in operations Union, Union 2, Calhoun,
Adair, Pike, Cochise, Swift, three no-names, countless sweeps, patrols,
and road sweeps. Last op was Dec. 67 ( no name ) with Lima Co. Was
then transfered to B Co headquarters as driver at Da Nang, then
to Gia Le to finish out tour. Rotated back to CONUS April 1968.
images to enlarge)
Tam Ky, just after Operation UNION, May 1967
Left to Right) Lief Ericson-WIA Operation
SWIFT; L/Cpl. E.G. Hilling, my teammate on every
operation and most every road sweep, from Jermyn, PA.; Sgt.
Pat Pennock, on his 2nd tour extension, 19 months into
a 25-month tour. A dead ringer for a young Errol Flynn (Errol Flynn's
son, Sean, MIA April 1970, Cambodia); Cpl. Ed "Popski"
Polaskis-WIA Operation CALHOUN, medevaced to japan after
being shot through both legs by an AK-47, Rehabilitated and sent
back to 1st Engineers to finish his tour; L/Cpl. Everett-Note
he is wearing sneakers from having trench foot, pretty common affliction
as your feet were wet from crossing rivers, streams and rice paddies.
time photo was taken we were in the process of setting up the base
camp. As you can see, the decking for the tent has been laid down
and the sand bag walls are about half built.
off Hill 63
be safe and warm if I were in L.A
California Dreaming, on such a Winter's Day"-10 months left
Aint Heavy, He's My Brother" This
is an article from the "Stars and Stripes," Hilling and
myself were paired up the Summer of '67 with India and Mike Companies,
3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. I rotated back to the States about a
month before he did. We hooked up at Camp Lejeune where we were
both assigned to 8th Engineers. When I first saw him at Lejeune
he had a scar that ran from one side of his forehead to the other.
13 months in Nam, not a scratch. A week after getting home he went
through the windshield of his buddy's car. Hilling was maybe 5'
'7" and looked and walked like a penguin, but he was absolutely
fearless. He was right beside me the 4th of Sept. in the Que Son,
Busting caps, Killing Japs.
Banes from Gulfport, Miss.
Lief and Banes' "house" while running patrols with 3/5
at outpost top of Hill 63, 25 miles south of Danang
Ericson, Hill 63
just before Operation SWIFT, Sept. 1967
of Purple Heart Medal for Sept. 4, 1967, Operation SWIFT
19 on Sept. 14, 1967, ten days after being WIA. On the 4th I wouldn't
have bet on seeing 19.~Lief Ericson
News Articles about Operation SWIFT
Tom Leisure, Lief Ericson, "Hippie" Byrd, "Loser"
just before my tour ended-April 1968
Ericson and Brad Reynolds (M Co. 3/5)
3rd Bn 5th Marines Reunion 2013, Cadiz, Kentucky
years ago (2011), I stumbled upon Brad and Debbe Reynolds' website,
"OUR MARINES, Dedicated
to the Marines of M Co. 3/5 and those who served with them in Vietnam."
What a revelation! After years of submerging that war and those
experiences, it all came flooding back. The heat, sights, sounds.
Memories. Through them I have met new friends, connected with old
friends. After 45 years, a miracle in itself. In talking to these
friends, both old and new, the years have fallen away, once again
I am 18 years old. Were we ever that young? It seems we were. I
cannot express my appreciation for what the Reynolds have created
except to say for that I shall be forever grateful.
"The best of times and the worst of times." A time I thought
none of us would survive. Without the superb leadership of young
junior officers like Ken Moore and J D Murray many more of us would
have perished in that valley.To them I will be forever indebted.
memories have returned I began writing of them, mainly as a type
of therapy. Cheaper than booze but the hangovers are just as bad.
I have shared some with these friends, old and new, and I would
like to pass them along to you. Make of them what you will.~Lief
Sometimes, when the light is just right, I hear a voice from the
faraway years. It seems to be saying, praying, there'll be a parade,
disguised as a charade, when the dead are done dying. Mothers, their
work undone, line the route. Fathers salute, in crisp new suits.
Overhead, Angels bear crosses of red. Leave empty spaces that once
contained the dead. As I stand hand in hand, words unsaid, tears
unshed, hearing a voice...praying.
Highway 1, the
main north-south route, ran the length of the country, through cities,
villes. Medieval villages, castles roofed, sided with flattened
Coca Cola cans. Serfs working the fields. Dragons overhead. Unknown
beast coursing the countryside. Ran past paddies, cut through mountains.
like I-95. Sounded like it should be a road to a destination. Fort
Lauderdale. Tampa-St. Pete. Sounded like it should be lined with
on ramps, off ramps. Billboards. "Only 250 miles to South of
the Border." " Virginia. It's for Lovers." "See
the USA in your Chevrolet."
it should be eight lanes. Sounded like it should be home to speed
traps, the Tappenzee, jumping rivers, past the petro -chemical swamps
of Jersey, running due south past the monuments of D.C... another
type of swamp. Sounded like it should be home to Holiday Inns. Texaco
The truth; it
was none of that.
And it was more.
More dirt than
tar, full of holes, pot holes, sink holes, bone shakers. Bone breakers.
When it rained, those holes filled with water, became kidney killers.
Ankle snappers. Became the field in which Charlie planted his crop.
A box mine here, a 105 round there. Here a mine, there a mine, everywhere
a mine-mine. Old McDonald sowing the seeds of destruction, Barry
McGuire singing about it..."tell me over and over and over
It had its bridges
which the VC took pleasure in blowing up and we took an even more
perverse pleasure in rebuilding. Bigger, stronger, wider..Better.
Then guarding. Bunkers at each end, stood like toll booths. We,
the traffic cops, "license and registration, Ma'am'".....Lonely
outposts, manned by lonely boys, running on short rations and even
shorter sleep, with hair trigger tempers and no sense of humor.
"Your papers. Gimme your papers, you stupid gook."
Highway 1, like
the road to Hell, paved with good intentions. Paved with blood,
bone, bodies. Paved with stories instead of stone. Horror stories.
Sumner, sweeping the road into the dump off Hill 63. The road comes
in, circles around, over a hill, then out again. We're half way
around when a 6x enters, the driver either doesn't see, or ignores
the "Do Not Enter" sign. We're yelling at him when the
mine goes off. The truck, from the bed forward, disappears. The
engine, all 1200 pounds of it, is blown twenty feet out of its carriage.
There isn't enough left of the driver to fill a shopping bag. Road
The new guy,
been in-country less then a month, so new nobody knows his name,
is riding the running board when the mine explodes. The blast sends
him straight up, his skull shatters when he hits the headboard,
and not all the king's horses, nor all the king's men, can put him
together again. Gets shipped home in a box stamped : " Do Not
Highway 1, become
a killing field. No discrimination. Killed friendlies and foes alike.
Killed women, children, ducks, goats. Lined with graves, Blessed
by Buddha. Some, a few, Christian crosses marking them. More not
marked at all, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fertilizing the paddies.
Lending truth to the Communion's words: "This is my body which
was given for you. Eat this in remembrance of me." Fitting,
in a land that worshiped its ancestors, disowned its dead.
Markers on the
road. Hoi An 10 km. Different markers. Bits and pieces. Blown culverts.
Blown up vehicles. Lost lives. One legged, no legged . Men. Women.
Children. There but by the grace of God, go we.
We come upon
a civilian bus, the driver had gone past the team, tooting his horn,
racing the engine, late for his own funeral.
Now it sits,
split open like a beer can, the bodies, and pieces of bodies, would
sit there for a week. In the 90 degree heat. The smell...indescribable.
We walk by, gagging.
people. Why don't they clean it up. Clean it.. up."
Highway 1, carried
its share of traffic, 6xs, tanks, Mitey-mites. Carried peasants
on Mopeds, motorbikes, by hook and by crook. By foot. Mama-sans
duck-walking down the road, a pole over their shoulders, a basket
on each end, a trio of pigs in each one. "This little piggy
went to market, this little piggy stayed home." Walk by, eyes
downcast, trying not to invoke our wrath. Stopped. Searched. Sent
on their way. "This little piggy had none."
In their wake,
Princesses, dressed in white Au Dais, cut up to there, black pants,
straw hats. The rich man's daughters. School girls. Hurrying home
from class, running the gauntlet. We stand, watch. It's not murder
we have in our hearts.
And as always,
I'm in the back
of the 6x. Me, and the squad that provides security for the sweep
team. We come into one of the villes that line the road. Half a
dozen huts. Chickens. Pigs. Old mama-sans. Teeth as black as coal,
so black it looks like they are toothless. Blackened from chewing
betel nut. Betel nut, eases the pain of backbreaking 12-14-hour
workdays. Bent over at the waist, tending the rice crop. Work or
starve. The only mantra the poor need chant. "Give us this
day our daily bread. "Amen.
Out they come,
a half dozen little kids, the oldest, 12 or 13, beggars. Like all
the little kids in this country. "Chop Chop, Chop Chop!"
The grunt beside me pulls out a heat tab, lights it, tosses it to
the kids. Heat tabs burn with an invisible flame, much like Sterno.
One of the kids, thinking it's candy, grabs it, yells, shakes his
hand. "Marine number 10. Marine number 10."
The grunt pulls
up his 16, points it at the kids, they scatter. "F***ing Gooks."
The road was
a killer. Just how it chose to kill was another story. A story no
one wanted to hear. A story no one wanted to be a part of. War stories.
We're off Hill
63, me and a platoon of grunts. Going up the road a couple miles
before cutting cross lots and into the woods, paddies, hedgerows.
We get up a
ways, come to a bridge blown the night before, nothing for it but
to wade across. The water, almost waist deep, rushes through, the
footing...treacherous. One of the grunts gets halfway across, slips,
falls in head first, the flak jacket, pack, 782 gear, hold him down
like an anvil, he doesn't come up. One dead, and we haven't even
got to the bush yet. Non battle casualty. Just as dead. Just as
real. The Road was littered with them.
No need for
the early morning traffic girl here. "We have a rollover in
the northbound lane. Expect delays."
Watch the traffic
build up behind us. The more traffic, the better chance of a mine.
Someone knew something. Something you weren't privy to. Something
you learned. A little on-the-job training passed down, like father
to son. Call it wisdom. Call it experience. Call it blind luck......"What's
that?..Right there. See it, that depression. That wasn't there yesterday."
"Got it!" Box mine. Forty pounds of TNT. Dug out of the
ass of a dud bomb. Being killed with our own shit. Nothing more
personal then that.
up through Hai Van, me, the XO, a guy in the back holding on for
dear life to the swivel mounted '60. I'm watching the road, watching
the brush that overhangs it. Watching and waiting for the ChiComs
to come showering down on us. On my left the road drops 300 feet
to the sea. The slope festooned with the remains of the poor bastards
that took the plunge, 6xs, fuel tankers, M-37s. Strangest of all,
the remains of a spotter plane. One has to wonder what that guy's
last thoughts were. Before he turned Kamikaze.
Beside me, the
XO clutching the WW2 era grease gun. If the shit hits the fan, both
of them would too soon become useless. Another guy with visions
of glory drummed into his head. "I want to go to Vietnam, I
want to kill some Vietcong." Little did he know up north they
were singing their own fight song: "I want to go to Old Touraine,
I want to kill a U.S. Marine." Propaganda. Found on the side
of the road. "US Servicemen, do not fight Johnson's dirty war
of aggression. Do not rape and kill Vietnamese peoples." Back
on Pennsylvania Avenue more propagand: "Hell no I won't go."
Clump it all together, none of it meant anything to us. Not here.
Not then, not when you knew what lay beneath your feet.
We're on the
detectors, Sumner and me. The detectors here, in Mine Alley, useless.
The roadbed heaved, blown out. Successive detonations have left
it a roller coaster track. Left it full of bits and pieces. Left
it paved in iron, steel. Blood and bone. Made of our dreams, nightmares.
Behind us a jeep, a 5-ton dump, assorted other vehicles. Suddenly
there's a roar, the concussion wave from the blast, we spin, the
dump sits over a crater you could drop a Volkswagen in, flames licking
up the sides. The Lt. riding shotgun, blown through the windshield,
half in, half out of the cab. The engineers riding in the bed, protected
by the load of sandbags, come reeling over the sides, out the back.
Shouting, yelling. The radio operator trying to raise a chopper.
The corpsman, a couple others, pull the Lt. out. He's screwed.
Me and Sumner
grab a couple of grunts. Search the sides of the road, down into
the paddies. One of them yells out, holds a piece of Comm wire up.
Command Detonated. Some gook, and a 9-volt battery, sat, waited,
fingers trembling, touched wire to post.
We're not saying
it, but we're thinking it. Just like I'm thinking it now. If we
had found it, began probing for it, we'd be in Kingdom Come. Blown
Back home, on
the Village Green, Rolly's about to join the Corps. Bob Newton's
dead. Eddie Cormier's life is winding down. Joe's in the Army. Suzanne
is writing a letter......... And me?
on the side of a road in Vietnam, 18 years old, with a hole in my
guts you could drop a Volkswagen in and a scar on my soul that never
Que Son Valley, summer 1967, sat, crouched like a cat, fangs bared,
a malevolent entity that brooked your presence grudgingly. Cloaked
in emerald hues of every shade, a deception, a magic trick that
fooled the eye, hid and held it's secrets. An exotic place. Mountains
spilled into valley, valley bisected by hedge rows, paddies. Villages
as old as time itself. Beauty everywhere. A perverted beauty. A
deceptive beauty. Beauty with the soul of a serial killer. Walking
through it you were..watched..by unseen eyes. By something indefinable.
Ghosts. Spirits. Specters. The Hills looked down on you, spies,
that ruled the valley. Death's eyes, dark, foreboding, unmerciful.
It's face everywhere. Nowhere. Holding your fate . You could almost..almost..see
it. Look for it, it's gone. This was an ancient place. You had never
imagined a place this old, old when Christ walked Galilee, old when
Ganges Khan's hordes swept the steppes, and never wanted to see
one again. Nothing you'd read, seen, been told, could prepare you.
Violence seemed part of it, was woven into it, and you knew, given
the chance, would visit that violence upon you. You, before entering,
thought you knew what scared was. You Had No Idea. Constantly. Fervently.
Religiously. "Forgive us our trespasses." Nowhere had
those words meant more. Prayer. Oath. Parable. Here the flora and
fauna conspired against you.There were Things that crawled, slithered,
bit, scratched.. killed. Snake. Scorpion...Sniper. Things without
names.Things without fear of you... You may walk the valley but
you knew you weren't the baddest thing in this Valley. "Forgive
us our trespasses". No forgiving here. No forgetting. No absolution.
lay cloaked in mist. The Afternoons shimmered. Heat rising off valley
floor, mirages appeared, made of shadow. And substance. .The Nights..
The Nights that held the Unseen. Unknown. Unknowable. Night here
did not fall. Night, here, slammed shut. Left you with man's age
old fear. "As I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul
to keep". Your psyche twitched, mouth dry as a desert, sitting,
staring, waiting for Something to happen. "If I die before
I wake". Sometimes the Que Son answered. Most times. "I
pray the Lord my soul to take."
If you made
it out alive still, somehow, you were less..faded. Became Shadow.
'Till you couldn't go back again. As if you had a say. As if the
choice were yours.There were some who, gazing into it and all it
held, did, and worse..could do..became one with it. Stole a bit
of it for themselves. Not knowing it would never..ever..let go.
Not knowing it would come to consume them.
If it was this
bad for you then how bad was it for the Army of the North who trudged
hundreds of miles to shake it's hand. "Welcome. Welcome to
the Que Son," the ground anointed with the blood of thousands.
Lay down their lives on the altar. A sacrifice made. An appeasement..to
the elder gods. Still they came, give them that. Give them this,
when night fell and things unseen, unknown, unknowable haunted their
dreams. Still do, those few that survived and those of us who cheated
one death to be granted another, some future place and time, but
not there. Thank whichever god you wish. Not there.
There were Things
seen here that no one should ever need see. Demons were spawned
here. Silent movies that played on a screen that never closed. Things
that haunt dreams, crippled lives. Bad things happened here. Gruesome
I'm in my hole,
trying to dig myself deeper, when out of nowhere a corpsman appears,
leading a grunt who has been shot through the elbow. The round has
blown his arm apart, blood pumping three feet every time his heart
beats. The noises coming from him, a whimpering, like a kitten being
slowly stepped on, are blood curdling.
Me and Hilling,
running through the mortor barrage, running for our hole. I look,
a round goes in a hole, detonates. The grunt jumps out, runs, stumbles,
ten feet, collapses. He makes not a sound.
There were Things
heard here that no one should ever need hear. Things none had ever
heard before. Things heard still. Awake and walking. Asleep and
talking. Memories of things heard. Terrible Things....
the ville, serene, deserted. There's a roar as the booby trapped
gate explodes. Screams as the phosphorus showers over the grunt.
It's dark as
hell. Out of that darkness a voice, in surprisingly good English,
comes to us. "Marine you die. "You die tonight."
There were smells
here that no one should ever have to smell. Fear not the least of
them. Acrid. Pungent. As real as real can be. Vile Things....
The dead are
stacked, wrapped in ponchos, laying at the LZ on Hill 63. Laying
where they've lain for a week. The smell permeates everything. Seeps
across the hill, flows like a river around the perimeter, invades
our sleep. Those of us that can sleep. And those that do, sleep
as the dead, catatonic, eyes open, unresponsive.Those that can't,
doze, the smell a living thing, clings to them. Left as a memory,
clinging, cloying. The whole valley a Charnel House. Catacomb. That
stalks us in dreams. Nightmares. Both awake and asleep.
Gruesome Things, Terrible Things, Vile Things, Heroic Things, Unforgettable
Things. Things felt here that would never be felt again. Things
felt that never should be. Things felt that can't be.. but were.
Love. Hate. Rage. Fear. Hope..the least of all. Missing Things.
Broken Things. Forgotten Things.
We're on line,
the whole company, ready to launch the assault . The area Illuminated
by artillery flares and fires from the napalm strike, seems eerily
familiar, a scene out of the Civil War..Vicksburg. Chancellorsville.
Our destination a small hill, 500 yards ahead, covered with knee
high brush, dominated by two small trees, nondescript, like a hundred
others. As we stand, waiting, there's a guy, flat on his stomach,
sobbing, shaking, speaking in tongues. One of the corpsmen. Lost
it. Could have been his first operation or his fifth. No telling.
The personification of what we all feel. No naming it but here it
is. In the flesh. Stark. Raving. Terror. I'm thinking...someone..should
put a bullet in him. Shut him up. Finish him off, before we all
run screaming..screaming. "Move Out". We move. The last
I see of him he's still laying there, sobbing, shaking, speaking
in tongues. For all I know he lays there still.
sky lightens, sun rising, we start to the hill, a call comes back,
"Engineer Up." Me, Hilling, Mollencamph, start forward
expecting a mine, booby trap, dud. The truth, this time, much, much
worse. The patrol from Delta Company sprawled where they died, ambushed
then executed. They lay..contorted. The dead here are not the dead
you know. Here the dead are 18-19-20-year- olds. Dead by extreme
violence. Bodies ripped, torn, shredded. If they had been in the
heat for even a little time it would do terrible things to their
bodies. Like the bodies at Vicksburg, Chancellorsville,..The Wilderness.
Worse still, the bodies that may be booby trapped, then it was:
We begin, a
shit job in a shit war. We start, trying not to jar them, running
hands over, along, under, searching the stiff, bloated...things.
A grunt comes up, hands us a two-pronged grappling hook. Fifty feet
of rope. We hook it through their belts, back off fifty feet, yank
them over, dead weight. It takes all three of us. When we're done
we carry them up the hill, stack them side by side, wrapped in ponchos.
Cord wood. Fuel for a river of tears. Every mother's worst fear.
A voice; "
Hey this one's still alive." Had lain there all night. Played
dead as the NVA moved among them. Imagine, if you can, his nightmares.
There's no imagining. Even we, who were there, cannot imagine that.
There were words
heard here never heard before, or since. Words never meant to be
heard. Except, perhaps in dreams. In silent conversations held with
ourselves. Words that invoked terror. "Incoming." Words
that summoned hope. "You're leaving.. Your orders are in."
Leaving. Was it possible? There was no leaving. No forgetting. How
could words ever make us forget. All we'd seen. Done. Felt. There
are no words powerful enough. Not on this side of the Veil....There
are no words strong enough, descriptive enough, none we can say,
that any can say, that could ever, in this life, make us forget.
None at all.
We are leaving
the ville, a collection of small, miserable, grass thatched huts,
deserted. Not a soul home. Pushing through eight foot tall elephant
grass, shadows following us,...ghosts. A haunted place, inhabited
by Spirits. As surely haunted as any place on God's good earth.
We feel it, them, closing in. Behind us the four-dueces begin slamming
into the ville, deserted no more. They have risen up, out of the
ground, wraiths born of mist, age and retribution, send shivers
up spines, fingers on triggers. As if mere bullets could stop them.
As if mere words could describe it. Geese walking over graves. Shadow
People. Closing in.
There were words
that told stories. Words that conveyed dreams. Words found in prayer.
Words that conveyed hope. And then there were these words:
Me and Bailey
are burning the shit. We're talking, rather Bailey's talking. Went
out on a patrol that morning. The squad jumped by, ambushed by,
annihilated by, a platoon of gooks. Bailey made it to a river, where
he hid, like an old Tarzan movie, tucked up into the reeds. Watched,
as the gooks searched the banks, gave up, left. Rescued, back on
the hill, in front of the Brass. Grilled like a piece of meat. Implying,
never saying, he ran, a coward. Better he had perished. Better for
who? Better for..them. Less paper work to do. Less explaining to
do. "We don't know what happened. There were no survivors."
Neat. Clean. Bailey was a ..complication. An embarrassment. A career
killer. When they were done they sent him out to burn the shit.
Not a bit of the old Esprit de Corps. No, none of that. The ..embarrassment..
was sent out to burn their..shit. "Those f***ers wanted me
Now.. I imagine
him, lurching up out of bed, heart pounding, pulse racing, the smell
of the river filling the room, VC staring out of the shadows, behind
the bureaus, breath coming in gasps, noises coming from beneath
the bed. Transported back to a time when there really were things
hiding there. When the VC weren't the only ones who wanted you dead.
There would be no leaving that world and no forgetting those words,
"Those f***ers wanted me to die." Soul crushing words.
He maketh me
to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me by the still waters.
He restoreth my Soul.
In the end
we are left with memories, words, bits and pieces, sounds and visions.
Memories that come to us unwanted, unbidden, yet come to us still.
None so bad that they but bear witness of who we once were and who
we would forever be. No accounting, no wage that does not want paying
that we would not gladly pay. Have paid. Still pay. Visions that
we would surely, as surely as sin, be rid of. Memories of that far
off Valley. In that far off Time.
I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
LAND IN BETWEEN
the Road and the Valley lay the Land In Between. It was here that
legends were born. Here where heroes were birthed. Here where heroes
died. It was a myth, a Shangra La, a fabled place with names soon
to be lost to time. Elephant Valley. Antenna Valley.The Sands, as
hot and unforgiving as Death Valley. For here every valley was spawn
of that namesake. It was the land of Mountains, pristine waters.
The land of punji pits, dead falls, helicopter traps. The Serpent
ruled here. The Tiger. Leach. Lotus. Land mine.
Death, here, was everywhere. There was no safe haven, no sheltered
shore, no place, time, or circumstance it did not own. That was
the one inescapable fact. Though none of us at 18-19-20 years old
ever thought..we..would be the one..we all knew.
That it could
take you..violently, selectively..without bias to age, rank, serial
number, color or country of origin: Australian, American, Korean,
or take you in your sleep-122mm rocket through the roof- we all
knew. That its odds increased dramatically for those out in the
bush..hunting it..did not lessen the odds of being killed by a 14-year-old
girl with a grenade in Da Nang. Right place. Wrong Time. Wrong time.
Right place. No place was safe. Here we were as much hunted as hunter.
Search and Clear. Search and Hold. Search and Destroy. The Children's
Crusade, gone mad.
To hunt, here,
was to hump. An everyday, day after day, week after week reality.
The miles built up,step by step, klick by klick. Weight falling
off till we all took on the aspect of skeletons, ribs exposed, eyes
sunken into skulls, shoulders bent, backs broken. To hump was to
hurt. To hump under a full combat load, in 80, 90, 100 degree heat,
100 per cent humidity, over hill, over dale, down mile upon mile
of dusty trail, was to suffer, silently,stoicly, step by unending
step. Pack straps cutting into shoulders, canteens banging off hips,
nicked and cut by brush, bamboo, hedge row thorns, bit by ants,
mosquitoes..malaria carrying bastards..feasted on by leaches. Salt
tabs by the hand full, sweated out, left your clothes stained white
and stiff, even as they rotted off your body. Ran into eyes, left
you blinking and blind. Left you with pounding head aches, just
this side of heat stroke. Left you reeling, like a skid row drunk.
To hump was
to fear. The wind rustling the bushes..or was it? The not knowing
, every part of it,every step of it. There were some to whom the
not knowing was bliss. "We're going out, walk around, come
back. Piece of Cake." The knowing was their enemy, "How
many gooks? How many?" Sometimes a walk in the park. But you
never knew. Could be a no contact nothing happened stroll. Well
,not nothing. You might be diddy-bopping along and trip a booby
trap, 105 round ,up in smoke you go ,round. Get bit by a poisonous
snake, Mr. One Step, Two Step, dead snake. You could drown. You
could be killed by a short round, 155 H.E. dead before the sound
reaches your ears, "Didn't know what hit him." "Lucky
Bastard." Given the alternatives that abound, not a bad way
to go. You could drink from a polluted well, cramps so bad you wished
you were dead. Even knowing what dead entailed. And those were the
good days. The bad days, well. The bad, bad days. Those days seared
into our minds, souls. Cause you never knew. Lone Sniper. Squad.
Platoon. Or the whole damned 2nd NVA division. Each and all out
to kill you. Make it quick. Leave me my eyes. arms. legs. Or kill
It was here
that tales were born. Many of them holding as much truth as any
told. Some as horrifying as any ghost story. Some of them, many
of them, may even have been true: "Yeah, the guy had a leach
that crawled inside his ass and swelled up to the size of a snake."
That one guaranteed to have you double checking after getting out
of the river. Some stories meant to inspire hope. "They're
cutting the tour back to 12 months." Only to crush it."Who
told you that?' Many spent their entire tours waiting for that fairy
tale to come true...Death here, was everywhere. Not only was it
everywhere , worse, you were given a time limit in which it could
take you. Thirteen months...395 days.Calenders marked off day by
day ended abruptly..36 days left..123 days..330 days..81 days. Time
stopped. The ride over. The price paid. The jigs up. 18 years..7
months..16 days. Life ended. Dreams died. Hope lost. Then you, me,
the living, went and marked another day off. Another day you were
allowed to be scared..and alone. No sense counting, though we all
did, it either would or wouldn't and everything you did, knew, dreamed
or dreaded couldn't change that fact. Take all the firefights, ambushes,
snipers, booby traps, mines, friendly fire, accidents, drownings,etc.,
etc. divide them by 395 days and what were the odds. Then add in
the intangibles, the stupid, simple, sacrosanct. No doubt who held
the high cards. It wasn't you. Bet on it. Some had death perched
on their shoulders. Looking at them you knew there was no way, no
way, that guy was going to make it. Surprise! Thirteen months later
he's sitting beside you winging back to the World. Bigger surprise;
the best guy in the world didn't make it. Death.. not a fickle bitch.
Held no favorites. Harbored no grudges. And you, me really, marked
another day down. Death preordained? Death and dying began the day
you were born, here it was accelerated. Here it hit the speed of
light. That was something, as you chalked another day off, you could
Off Hill 63,
on patrol,a reinforced squad, guns, rockets, two M-79's ,15 grunts
and me. The worse type of patrol. Just enough fire power which could
quickly turn into not enough fire power. We walk, the squad leader
checking the map, compass, terrain, come into a small copse of trees,
off the trail, on the side of a slight hill, the Sgt calls a halt.
We sit, wait, the Sgt. and radio operator side by side. The Sgt.
takes the mike, calls back to 63, reports our position, still we
wait, 10 minutes, 15, 20. "What the hell?" The Sgt. takes
the mike, looks at the map, calls in our co-ordinates. Not where
we are. Where we'd be if we had walked those 20 minutes. So it went
the next three hours. The Sgt. calling in, we taking this all too
brief respite. Taking it and holding it like a lover. Like a lover
some of us would never live to hold. Worn down, beat up. No heart
left for the hump, the war, the deaths, destruction. The constant
unrelenting terror. So we sat, all together, each alone. Lost in
a dream that we dream still. Back in the jungle, the mosquitoes
You may have
thought you had seen it all. After months of constant patrols,operations,
sweeps, what was left to see? Little did you know the surprises
still in store. Most of them deadly, all of them unreal.
We, the whole
company, dug in, snug as a bug, dark, like dark you had never seen,
the sky pristine. No moon, stars in their millions, dark, pierced
by bright constellations. Gods eyes. Word comes down; "Saddle
up. We're moving." Keep the noise down, pick up our gear, head
out. Single file. Can't see the guy in front of me and I'm dead
nuts on his heels. Walking, stumbling, cursing under my breath;
"What the Hell, nine o'clock and we're moving." So it
goes, the watch, with it's radioactive dial, glowing green, state
of the art, Timex, all the light you can see, that, and the million
stars, which give no light at all, ticking away. Thirty minutes
later it's, "Dig in." A slow, steady rain begins to fall,
we sit in our holes, poncho's over our heads, dozing, for damn sure
not sleeping, two hours on, two off. 10, 12, 2, 4,5 a.m. Breakfast.
A miserable meal. spam in a can, hot chocolate, suns up, mist rising,
the temperature with it. " Saddle up."
We start out,
across paddies, from one dike to the next, feet soaking wet, water
squirting out of the drain holes, squish, squish..squish, come to
the base of the mountain. The place, yesterday, we got in that fire
fight. Two gooks ran up the mountain. One of the 60 gunners, walking
the tracers in an arc, ran the stream up the trail, up the backs
of both gooks, probably 1000 yards, dropped them in their tracks.
Now we're off to investigate, see what we can see, see what we might
find..see what might find..us. The company, spread over three- four
acres of real estate, start, one behind the other, up the near vertical
slope, the point and those following, look like ants.By the time
we reach the base the trail has turned to mud, the red clay as slippery
as ice. On hands and knees we climb, tugging at fist fulls of grass,
sweating, swearing, sliding, covered in slop. At the front, four
guys with machetes, hacking away, breaking trail. A bitch of a job.
We climb, two hours, three, all frigging morning, the mountain looming
over us, clouds swimming across the sky, finally we reach the top,
a small plateau, covered with waist high grass, the view...spectacular.
To our rear, left, right, the sisters tower over us, the gooks would
have to be crazy to climb them but if they did we'd be sitting ducks.
Mortor's fired straight up would fall straight down, scattering
shrapnel through ranks, shredding flesh like tissue paper. "Dig
We dig. Dig
like dogs, the primeval assaulting our senses, rising up out of
the earth, like the smell of a fresh dug grave. A chore we have
been spared so far..so far. Except for the ones we've pulled out
of theirs, dug straight down six feet, Nyugen's stuffed in feet
first, buried standing up..boots and all. Bizarre rituals of the
the night, above the fruited plain, bombs bursting in air. Puff..miles
away.. competes with Orion for our attention. Orion loses. Dig.
Get that hole deeper. Get it bermed. Get the gear, the E-tool, K-bar,
grenades, stacked and ready to go. Sit there, hunkered down in your
own sweat and wait. "A thousand stars in the sky make me realize
that you are the one love that I adore," sung to myself every
night for 300 nights as I gaze up into the past. To the north, flares
fall through the night, illuminating some where, someone, like fire
works. A grand sight tempered by the cold truth. Out there someone
Dig. Dig Dig.
Where do we
come out? Not China. Maybe Ann Arbor.
if there were any, would point out the places, the names that become
faceless, places we'd run, the dead forever young, with us still,
a reminder, each a star lighting the heavens, a thousand stars in
the sky, illuminate the path that runs on before us. Ends in one
last hole that we don't have to dig.
Out here, there
were Wonders that would bring you to the far edge of sanity. Mysteries
that Sherlock would be hard pressed to decipher. Mysticism ruled
here. Soothsayers. Portents. Cryptic codes found in the entrails
of butchered boys. And sooner or later you would become a disciple.
Reading the future, your future, in every hedge row, tree line,
blade of grass and rice stalk. A future dim at best. A future condensed
to your next step, next breath. Last breath. Till you became a twitching,
prostrate, priest of all that was rumored. Whispered. Became a shaman.
An M-60 gunner
runs past, flat out, firing the pig from the shoulder, one hand
on the trigger, the other feeding the belt into the breach. Madness
in his eyes.
There were certified,
documented, happenings here, that would be strange even in the furthest
corners of that most strange place. Haight-Ashbury had nothing on
what your mind, in all it's psychotic glory, could envision. No
magic mushroom, there or in Wonderland, could hold a candle to what
your 18 year old eyes would see or imagine. And there was little
you could not imagine. No psychic ever saw more. There were those
among us who could surely see the future. Eyes rolled back, stuttering,
drooling, idiot savants, more then willing to share that future
with you. Welcome or not. Some took those visions, those..truth's..shaped
and molded them into a religion. A religion none would forsake.
For to forsake was to surrender faith, to succumb. That religion
had it's icons, rituals,devotees. It's spread facilitated by the
miracles, visions. The unbelievable. The surreal.
have got us pinned like moths to the sand. One of the M-79 gunners
raises up, snaps a quick shot off, The round arcs up, down, spiraling
the whole way, hits the lead gook in the head. His head...disappears.
Dissolves. We cheer.
Me and Hilling
are at the village well. There to fill our canteens, drained by
the 90 degree heat, the 90 per cent humidity. Suddenly there comes
a wailing, the sound of drums beating, chanting. We look, across
the paddy come monks and mourners, come to bury one of their own.
They are dressed in yellow, pink, robes of sky blue. The colors,
after months of seeing peasants dressed in black and white sear
our eyes. As if we have been blind. As if we have been living in
a monochromatic world. Black.White. Green. Gray. No mescalin induced
trip would ever produce a reaction more enlightening. More..religious.
You may have
been baptized into your faith, a squalling babe , two months old,
or the light may have found you here in a jungle clearing, light
streaming down through the canopy, halo's around heads. Some abandoned
ideals that would arise from nowhere, some incident, some remembered
word. Here it made no difference. The here and now would drive your
faith from you, drive you to your knees leave you with nothing but
visions, miracles, wonders. Left you humbled, hallowed, hollow.
Left you to ponder the concept of original sin, then dismiss it.
Left you more than ready to commit it. Madonna and child, pushing
rice stalks into Mother Earth left you to choose which cult, which
personal zealot you would throw your faith to. Left you to spurn
through the hedge row when the sniper opens up. One shot. One lucky
shot. The grunt in front of me jerks his hand back. The round goes
in one side of his hand out the other, throws blood on me, the ground.
Anointing us. "Christ on the Cross!" Too close. Too bloody
O' Lord?" asked a thousand times a day. Every day. No answer,
Like a phone ringing off the hook, no one home. No answer to that.
Leaving you to invent your own answers. Your own litany. Your own
beliefs. Left you to ponder was it Faith, Luck, Divine Intervention,
which held the most truth. Which would be your protector, salvation.
Which would bring you through it, deliver you out the other side.
Safe. Whole. Intact. Alive
Me and Sumner,
sitting, cigarettes glowing. The big come down, the big crash setting
in.The aftermath of every big battle the same, After hours of a
sustained, full blown,adreniline fueled rush, you couldn't drink
enough water, smoke enough cigarettes to calm your nerves. Your
arced out, shorted out, overloaded nerves. Twitching, shaking, space
cadets, just back from a suicide mission. Come first light breakfast
would commence, provided of course, the gooks weren't around to
kill you. No IHOPS here. None of mom's home cooking. No over easy,
crack the yolks, side of bacon. Wheat toast. Here, if you were lucky,
maybe pound cake. If you were real, real, lucky, peaches in heavy
syrup. Some of the hot chocolate cooked over a c-rat tin stove,
fueled by a ball of C-4. There were times it tasted better than
any Thanksgiving Dinner you'd ever ate. And really if you were still
alive to eat, that was reason enough to give thanks. Though to who
you gave those thanks to could present it's own diliema.
We sit, each
of us spent. A morning that found us lugging the dead to the LZ,
loading them on the 34's, trying not to look at their faces. Enough
to haunt us without that. Still we can't help but look. Look to
see if we know any of them, if they were with us last week on that
patrol, road sweep. We die.. when they are. A death we die over
and over and over again. All we lack is the burying, and that is
no lack at all. Just words, a cold deep grave, and a blessing. That's
all that's missing from these deaths we die.
We sit drained.
Me, I'm wondering if there is any way I'm going to make it through
the next 314 days. Survive all that lays before me. All that hides
out there. Sitting, thinking, it's not going to happen.
down in the paddy with the rest of India company, been there for
hours, minutes, days. Forever. Me and Sumner up tight behind the
paddy dike, expecting the foot of soil to shelter us. From the tree
line, tracers, like mad lightning bugs, reach out for us. They take
an eternity to get to us then leave like rockets going by. Snap.
Crackle. Pop. My old childhood friends. Friends no more. A shout,
"Lets go, Marines!" Some guy who had watched far to many
John Wayne movies, jumps up expecting us to charge the tree line,
charge into that, gets shot and screams like you've never heard
anyone scream before, His screams carry over the din, go on endlessly,
over and over. The skinny little grunt next to me who had been alternately
trying to clear his jammed '16, cleaning rod down the barrel, something
you expected to see in the Civil War, and trying to buy my '14,
"I'll give you a hundred dollars for one of them 14's"'
looks out across the paddy where the guy lays screaming and says,"Dumb
sound of rotor blades, two 34's spiral down,come to pull out the
wounded. Hilling, Mollencamph, join a hand full of grunts, ready
to make the run. The choppers touch down one behind the other, the
loading begins. Suddenly there's a bang from the tree line and a
boom as the recoilless round hits the lead chopper. The round blows
the whole nose apart, the pilot, co-pilot hang motionless in their
harness..f**ked. Yelling, the wounded, along with the pilot and
co-pilot, are pulled out, carried to the second ship, stuffed in.
The 34 brings up power, spins, and tries to lift out of the zone.
Tries but can't . Too many bodies. Too much weight. The ship begins
jumping down the paddy, looking like a giant green grasshopper,
stops, the crew chief and gunner pulling wounded off. Me and Sumner
waiting. Waiting for the next round to come screaming out of the
treeline,"Get up you bastard, Get up." Finally, finally,
with all the power he can muster, the pilot pulls the ship up and
Now, the push
into the tree line. The area softened up by air and arty. 105's,
launched of the hill, slam H.E. rounds into the line. Phantoms,
A-4's drop napalm and 500 pounders, dust, smoke, fire, pieces of
trees, pieces of bodies, arms, legs..heads, blown skyward, darken
the day. Beat the earth, and with it our senses, into submission.
We start, out
of the paddy, into the tree line, eyes open, fingers on triggers,
hot wired, hooked up, jumper cabled, bust through into a small clearing.
Serene. Light filled. Beautiful. Ahead of us the 60 gunner, A gunner,
ammo humper get within forty feet of the next tree line, within
forty feet of the NVA, dug in, invisible, ghosts. They sit, as hot
wired as we, fingers slowly embracing triggers.. ..unleash hell.
We hit the deck, rounds so close if we sneeze we're dead. The gun
team down. Lay in front of us..twisted. From the corner of my eye,
a Corporal runs, slides, grabs the 60, runs towards us yelling,"Pull
back, Pull back." We're up, Sumner goes left, I go right, bust
through the brush, rounds snapping branches off, and I'm..flying.
Ran off the end of the banking, the fall to earth, like a fall from
grace, seems to take eons. I hit, sprawled, out of wind almost,
but not quite, out of time. Managed, somehow, to cheat death. Get
up, look around, I'm alone. All alone. Allmost back to the paddy
Scared witless.Shitless. Hear the guns rattling away,to my left
and forward, sneak towards the sound. Sumner. Sumner's still alive.
"Don't do that again. There could have been gooks back there."
Seems everyone else had pulled back forty feet.
stricken, his mortality tied to mine. Mine to his. A belief we all
held. You stay alive. I stay alive. The only religion many of us
would carry out of that place. Baptized, Anointed. Blessed.
my blood which was shed for you."
As surely a
truth as any we would ever hold. Blood Brothers. All the psalms
you'd ever read, subscribed to..believed.. held no truth greater
Later. We have
driven them out, away. The M-60's, mortars, LAW's, 16's, 14's, M-79's,
guts, glory, grenades, blood and human sacrifice have won the day.
Now we sit in our holes, night falling, lost in our own private
reveries. Our own private hells..none of our own making. A shout.
A shot. Bring us back to the here. The now. The NVA, like Phoenix
from the ashes, have risen. Like spyders from there holes they are
among us. Here inside the perimeter. AK's vs 16's. Good vs Evil.
Life and Death. Run rampant..till the grunts kill them all. Our
enemies dead along with there false gods. As dead as our own.
The witching hour upon us. Time to cross fingers. Time we all take
the midnight fright. No moon. Things that never worshiped any god
would have you praying to them all. Praying, chanting, silently,
quietly, awaiting whatever was out there.
A shot. A scream.
post coming in, the new guy leading, doesn't call out, the sentry
shoots. He'll live but he'll never see out of his right eye again.
Truly an eye for an eye, More truth in that than all the words spoken
after the act.
At the end we
were all left either more..or less..spiritual beings. Either we
believed or we didn't. And what you did or didn't believe was the
least of all things.
In the end there
was no one, mortal or immortal, spiritual or secular, to answer
the only question that mattered. Would you survive the next hour,
the next day. The next 314 days. And to whom should you pray. Where
did the truth lie?
Perhaps it lay
in the one place we were too afraid to look.
maddened eyes of an M-60 gunner.
Or the ones
that stare back at us from the mirror.
B Company 1st Engineer Bn. Viet Nam 1967-1968
dedicated to Purple Heart veterans
Barre, Massachusetts, July 22, 2013
Fleming, organizer, Walter Hayes US Army Korean Veteran awarded
a Purple Heart, and Lief Ericson USMC Veteran, awarded a Purple
Heart for his injuries in Vietnam, unveil the long awaited sign
for the Purple Heart Bridge dedication. (News staff photo
by DONEEN DURLING)
a span previously known as the Singing Bridge, a dedication ceremony
with about 40 on hand was held Saturday to formally dedicate the
bridge over the Ware River to Barre’s veterans, past and present,
who were awarded the Purple Heart.
from the American Legion, Boy Scouts, The Patriot Riders Motorcycle
Club, and others joined State Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, and
State Rep. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, for the dedication at the bridge
— which is located at the intersection of Adams and Wheelright
Road, spanning one of the most peaceful and picturesque sections
of the Ware River — to those who shed blood for the nation.
Lief Ericson, a Purple Heart recipient and town selectman,
said he was raised in an extended family of World War II veterans.
His father and uncle served in the Marines, and an uncle flew with
the Army Air Force over the skies of Europe. His “Uncle Jim”
died in Germany. “If
you were to visit my Uncle Cossie back in the late ‘50s and
early ‘60s, back in the days of console TVs — on top
of his sat a glass dome, and in that dome hung the first Purple
Heart I ever saw, awarded for wounds sustained in the fighting on
Iwo Jima.” Mr.
Ericson spoke of growing up in the shadow of Korea, the forgotten
war, and of his cousin who came home and suffered nightmares, unable
to forget the horrors of that war.
he spoke of his own service to his country; “On Sept. 4, 1967,
I was an 18-year-old combat engineer attached to Mike Company 3RD
Battalion 5th Marines.” On the day his country celebrated
Labor Day with picnics, 170 men of Mike Company flew into Que Son
Valley, walked onto a knoll, and into a throng of 2,000 North Vietnamese
army troops. “When that day was over, those men would be awarded
two Medals of Honor, three Navy Crosses, four Silver Stars, three
Bronze Stars, one Navy Commendation Medal...would suffer 98 killed
and wounded, and be awarded in excess of 100 Purple Hearts. Four
of those killed were 18-years-old, five were 19, and four were 20.
None old enough to vote.”
Ericson named many of those who fought alongside him that day, and
spoke of the wounded that returned to fight another day. He named
those who would never fight again. “Sept. 4, 1967 was a good
number of years ago, and yet the war remains, It remains as a reminder,
as the wars before it did and the wars after it do, that the freedoms
we so readily take for granted are indeed paid for at a terrible
price...a price symbolized by the Purple Heart...a price paid in
the lives, blood, and tears of America’s children.”
Rep. Gobi called Barre one of the “most patriotic towns”
in her district, and said she was proud to sponsor the bill along
with State Sen. Brewer. State Sen. Brewer spoke of George Washington,
the designer of the Purple Heart, and its meaningful history. “It
means you shed blood for your country,” said the senator.
“We are the land of the free because of the brave.”
Senate Bill S-1724, which designated the bridge on Old Furnace Road
and Adams Road as the Purple Heart Bridge, was co-sponsored by State
Sen. Brewer and State Rep. Gobi with the help of Dennis Fleming,
a veteran who served with the US Army, Mass. National Guard from
1974 to 1980. Mr. Fleming was commended for his efforts and organization
that culminated in the bridge’s dedication to the recipients
of the Purple Heart. Mr. Fleming said there will be a plaque placed
on the bridge with the names Barre veterans who were awarded the
Purple Heart. He is seeking to include all names besides those he
has gathered which include, Walter Heyes, Sam Palano, Mike
Ryder, John Edwards, Diamond Trifilo, Gerard Spinney, Evan Proctor,
Reid Dahart, Howard Dahart, Leif Ericson, Domanic Fracoise, John
Baker, Harold Dorsey, William Throng, Fredrick Throng, James Culver,
Charles Cummings, William Harty, Francis Allen, John Edwards, and
Edward Cormier. (Doneen Durling, News Staff Writer)