I arrived in Da Nang, South Vietnam, in early August 1967, aboard a Boeing 707 full of Marines, from Wake Island, in the mid-Pacific. I was a new Second Lieutenant, fresh from officer basic training in Virginia, artillery training in Oklahoma, and Vietnamese language school in California.
We had left our duffel bags of stateside uniforms at Wake and had been issued our “tropical utilities” and combat boots. (Marines call fatigues utilities.)
The Marine base at Da Nang surrounded the runways like a low brown city, and I have little impression of it except of heat and activity. Some sort of processing took place there, and I was told to go to Flight Operations and find a flight to Dong Ha, north of Da Nang. At Dong Ha I was to report to the 13th Marine Regiment’s headquarters. It was shocking, after my every action for my year in the Marines had been so precisely ordered, just to be told to find my way to this place I had never heard of, in wild and seemingly chaotic surroundings. At Flight Operations I was told that a C-130, a large four-engine cargo plane, was soon to leave for Dong Ha with a jeep, a truck, and a dozen or so Marines. Out on the airstrip, a sergeant with headphones lifted one long enough to hear me when I shouted “Dong Ha” and pointed to the plane, engines whining, its cargo ramp down. I ran to the ramp and aboard. The other Marines and I sat in webbed seats against the sides of the plane, most of them with their rifles between their knees, with the truck and jeep in the center. The noise of the engines was deafening, and it was impossible to understand the shouts of the crew. When the ramp at the back of the plane closed, it was dark except for dim lights along the ceiling. The plane taxied for a long time and then took off after a very short full-throttle run down the runway and climbed steeply before leveling off. The truck and the jeep were anchored to the deck, but they swayed and bounced alarmingly.
After a short flight, we landed at Dong Ha. The landing was steep and hard. After furious braking and a short rough taxi, the plane came to a stop, the ramp dropped, and we human cargo ran out into clouds of orange dust, blazing sun, and activity.
The Dong Ha base was much more primitive than Da Nang. It was mostly canvas tents, some of them with a wooden interior frame, most of them irregularly supported by ropes and stakes. It was the dry season, and the dust thrown up by airplanes and helicopters and trucks and jeeps colored everything a uniform orange-brown.
I somehow located the tents of the 13th Marine Regiment, and I spent the first night in Vietnam in a big tent with canvas cots, along with several officers, short-timers, who told me and each other their war stories. They all agreed that if they still had 13 months in Vietnam ahead of them they would definitely kill themselves. I wasn’t impressed; I knew it was just for the fun of screwing with the new guy’s mind.
In the morning, the Personnel officer cursorily greeted me and told me I would be assigned to Charlie Battery, First Battalion, at Khe Sanh. I should go down to the airfield and find a flight to join the battery there.
The Supply officer issued me helmet, flac jacket, poncho, pack, compass, binoculars, mess kit, and .45 auto pistol. “It’s the last one I have,” he said. “Should be OK—I had the armorer check it out.” Months later, the only time I really had a use for it, it jammed.
I found a helicopter going to Khe Sanh, a big twin-rotor chopper with a loading ramp at the back. It had open windows at waist height just behind the cockpit on both sides, with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted at each. The chopper was taking a jeep-mounted radio and several pallets of ammunition to the combat base. I stood by one of the windows on the way and saw the countryside change from flat fields with winding brown rivers, to hills, to mountains with roads barely visible and rivers glinting in deep gorges. Khe Sanh was in mountainous, jungle and grass-covered country, about 50 miles west of Dong Ha. There was a road through the mountains, but it ran through territory in which the North Vietnamese Army operated and was considered very dangerous.
The Khe Sanh Combat Base was on a small plain surrounded by hills and mountains. Some miles away to the west, the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through those mountains. The base consisted of a single runway parallel to a high ridge beyond a deep gorge, with regimental headquarters, a field hospital, and the artillery battery on one side. A perimeter of foxholes and machinegun bunkers with rolls of barbed wire 50 yards or so out in front surrounded the entire base. Two battalions of the 26th Marine Regiment operated from the base and secured it.
Khe Sanh was refreshingly different from the hot, dry Dong Ha. It was cooler because higher and very green. It rained a couple of times a week, so there was little dust. The surrounding hills and mountains, sometimes with mist rising from the vegetation, were beautiful. There had been some intense fighting in the hills north of the base a few months before I arrived, but it had been peaceful since then.
The battery assigned me to be the Artillery Forward Observer, always called “the FO,” for one of the companies, Kilo Company, of Third Battalion, currently in the field. Three days after my arrival, a supply helicopter flew me to the company’s position in the hills. The FO I was replacing jumped on the helicopter as I jumped off. We never exchanged a word, and I never saw him again. A little orientation would have been welcome, but it didn’t matter; the company’s position was new and temporary. There was time for me to adjust defensive fire targets before dark, as well as to dig my foxhole.
To prevent the enemy from assembling forces to attack the base, as well as in hopes of finding and engaging them, the battalion kept one or more companies patrolling in the hills around the base. That’s what Kilo Company was doing when I joined them. Each day, shortly after daybreak, we would bury our C-ration cans and debris in our foxholes, making a half-hearted effort to fill them in, and begin the day’s hike. The three platoons, each of three squads of 12 or 13 men, took turns in the lead, the most dangerous and difficult position. Dangerous because the most likely to make first contact or to be ambushed. Difficult because of the need to find the best course, to break the trail, and to keep scouts out to the sides, while constantly mindful of the danger of ambush. Usually the company commander, the “CO,” and I and our radiomen were near the rear of the lead platoon, where the company commander could best control the company. Artillery Forward Observers need to be good map readers. The CO wanted me close, so I could consult with him about our location, as well as call for artillery support if needed.
Even in peaceful times these patrols would have been exhausting. The hills were steep and the days were hot, and the daily objectives were difficult to accomplish, having been assigned by Battalion Operations at the base. The Marines carried heavy loads, and there seemed to be an assumption that weight was not an issue. Each wore an armored vest and steel helmet and carried rifle and ammunition, entrenching tool (a short wooden-handled folding shovel), poncho, two or three grenades, bayonet, pack with two or three C-ration boxes and various personal things, and two canteens. In addition, very often, the riflemen would carry a belt of machinegun ammunition or a couple of 60-millimeter mortar rounds. The machine gunners carried the machine guns and ammunition, and the mortarmen carried the mortar tubes, tripods, and baseplates. Radiomen were spared the extra ammunition, but the radios were heavy and required extra, brick-like, batteries. I would estimate the weight of a typical Marine’s burden at 40 to 60 pounds. I did not carry a rifle, grenades, or extra ammo. I generally carried a spare battery or two (and my untrusty pistol).
In late afternoon, the company commander would select a piece of defensible ground, usually the top of a hill, on which to dig in for the night. He would designate sectors of a perimeter for each platoon, and later would review with the platoon commanders the placement of their machine guns and the most likely approaches for attackers. I would adjust artillery to establish known “targets,” places where artillery could hit without delay, in the case of attack.
The men, on being told they would be where they were for the night, would shuck off their gear, flop down, and start to eat. It was a clear demonstration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—they would satisfy hunger and thirst first, safety second, regardless of physical danger. The officers and NCO’s had to force the men to establish their defensive positions and dig their foxholes first.
The soil on the hills around Khe Sanh was a red clay, not hard except in the dry season. In the season of these patrols, when there was rain a few times a week, it was not particularly difficult to dig in. But to dig a hole deep and large enough to crouch in below ground level with some freedom of movement is hard work, even in ideal dirt, especially after a day of toiling up and down hills with heavy loads. When patrolling, a new foxhole had to be dug every late afternoon.
In rainy times, the holes caught water. We mostly slept on the ground next to them.
Sleep was another need that had to wait. Lack of sleep is a major factor that is rarely mentioned in accounts of military operations, fictional or historical. The reader/listener imagines the events described as if the participants were rested, but that is never the case. Four hours of uninterrupted sleep was rare. Each man would be on watch four hours each night.
To be added, sometime
To be added, sometime