This post is a brief account of an important slice of my modest experience in Vietnam as a Marine in 1968. I was only in country about 3 months. My point in writing it is to highlight the beginning of God’s revelation of Himself to me. I received Jesus Christ as my personal savior and surrendered my life to Him February 17,1976, eight years after this time period in Vietnam but I always look back to this moment in 1968 when GOD, “The Hound of Heaven” as a preacher (James Robinson) I heard once deem him began revealing Himself to me. He is tenacious and never forgot me but rather pursued me and overtook me in 1976.
I trace my salvation experience in my mind back across encounters throughout my life but this is definately a prominant one in my memory.
I am a 19 year old Marine in Phu Bai South Vietnam which is the rear of the 26th Marine Regiment and several other outfits. We heard a lot of scuttlebutt today but as always had time for PT. That seemed familiar as Marines we are constantly in Physical Training. After a couple days I found out where First Force Recon’s area is located and I went there today because I knew my friend from home R.D. Dorris was in First Force Recon. I found his hooch. It was easy to pick out with his large Confederate Flag displayed and pictures of our Greenbrier Highschool Football Team. Dorris had been the quarterback and I was a tackle and my favorite position on defense often the middle linebacker. We were very close. As it turns out he is out on a recon mission and isn’t expected back for 3 or four more days so I left him a note on his rack to let him know I had dropped by. On the way back to my area I saw a vehicle that had been ambushed and was riddled with bullet holes and totaled. It was an object lesson for everyone leaving the base and had a sign on it reminding all of us war is hell and it is here and the number of fatalities in that vehicle.
Over the next 4 days several of us would go to the airfield and wait to board a plane for our next assignment. We were told our destination was narrowed down to either Hue City or Khe Sahn. Weather seemed to be the determining factor for when we would leave. The first day we went no where. The next 3 days were identical as about 50 of us boarded a plane and set on the floor. We were told we were circling in the heavy clouds over Khe Sahn and that happened for about an hour and then we headed back to Phu Bai and replay it the next day.
The 4th try as we were circling in the clouds after about an hour the pilot turned off the engines. I’m not kidding, he turned off the engines! We continued circling with no power but descending rapidly. It was an eerie sound as we just heard the wind around the plane and then we broke through the clouds and heard the announcement to brace as we were going to land. We could hear the familiar thumps of mortars being fired and the sound of our engines cutting back on. Was I scared, well not petrified but I was relieved when the engines started back up and I did say a prayer. I often wondered how I would feel heading into a true badass fight. Well, things began to slow down for me. I have always had the weird experience when things get dangerous to keep my head while others panic and take care of what needed to be done. It was the same now. I was anxous but not afraid.
We landed and were told the plane would not stop but slow to a roll and we would run off the back gate of the plane and get as far away from it as possible. Try to get to the trench along the side of the airstrip and get down. We could hear mortars exploding as I waited for almost everybody to get off. I had gotten on the plane first so I was nearly last getting off. I’m not sure if there was anyone behind me. I just ran as hard as I could to get to the trench near the side of the tarmac as we had been told to do.
Fast Forward a week –
We have taken incoming all day, rockets, artillery shells, and mortars constantly hitting inside our perimeter. It’s March 1968. I don’t have a calendar; heck I don’t even have a watch so the only time I hear guys talk about is how many days they have left on their 13 month tour. I don’t have much experience in Vietnam either. I am at the Khe Sanh Combat Base. We are a seven or eight miles from Laos where NVA artillery is shooting at us and near the DMZ with North Vietnam. It is a serious place to be. I was assigned to a prestigious unit, Hotel Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. They were on Iwo Jima in WWII and highly decorated. I’ve learned that here at Khe Sanh is the first time since Iwo that all three battalions of the 26th Marines have been in combat in the same battle together. Below is a cleaned up version of me.
Well, we are spending a lot of time in bunkers because of the sege and heavy incoming every day. Most of my friends who were in training with me in staging battalion at Camp Pendleton and Los Pogos some who were with me at Parris Island are scattered all over I Corp which is the section of South Vietnam from near Da Nang north to the demilitarized zone, the border with North Vietnam. I just met the guys here in my 81 MM mortar squad. I feel like the way Marines did it in WW II was better. A lot of companies trained together and were deployed together and already knew their brothers and were more stable (I think). What do I know though? I am so low on the totem pole, I don’t get a vote about anything. It probably is a false argument anyway because this war is very different. We come to join units already here in the fight and we come for a limited time as a tour of duty in a war zone for 13 months. Our handle is appropriate. As “grunts,” we strain and sweat all day digging or lifting crates of mortar shells and listening for those unmistakable sounds of incomming and warning so we take cover in our bunker.
Today is March 13, 1968 I learned from some of the guys because this is the anniversary of the day the NVA defeated the French. We’ve been told to stand by for an attempted invasion. I don’t think they will overrun us but I’m sure we’ll put up a hell of a fight. The day was quieter than most. What happened to Mr. Charles? I think he’s still here cause incomming continues. No serious attack came that day though. Phil, my bunker buddy says scuttlebutt is we will be breaking out of here in a few weeks. They say there are 20,000 NVA surrounding us and we are about 6,000 strong on this Combat Base and the surrounding hills. I wrote home today about the overwhelming amount of air power we are flexing here. I watch B-52 strikes, Puff The Magic Dragon firing bullets so fast they sound like a high hum, and the tracer rounds make a red glowing column from the plane to the ground. Puff, as it’s called, is an AC-47 air force plane with a gatling gun aboard putting out a lot of fire power. I am told it fires enough rounds to put one in every square inch of a football field in a matter of seconds. When you see it rip up trees and everything else in it’s path it sounds believable. I watch Fantom Fighter Jets thunder overhead and drop napalm on the enemy positions and huge balls of fire explode all over them. It doesn’t let up much, day and night we are pouring it on them and they are pounding us right back from “the Rock Pile” which is the name attached to the area across the Laocian border where the NVA Artillary is based. I’m told their artillery is set into areas of a rock faced cliff where they are pretty well protected. Recently, the big bombs, 500 and 750 pounders I believe from B-52s have been running arch lights near our parameters, maybe 200 – 300 yards away from me. When they hit, our bunker shakes, and the ground where I am Lying rumbles.
I woke up this morning to 2 surprises. Number one I was awaked by intense itching all over my head. It turns out I had giant termites all in my hair and they were moving around. The floor of our bunker is largely dirt even though we have put down a little bit of matting.
We keep a piece of plywood over the doorway every night. When I slid it off this morning the outside of it was covered with small metal arrow heads imbeded in the wood and our sand bags on the exterior. We took a lot of incomming last night but I don’t think the gooks have anything like this. I asked around and showed the plywood to some of the guys and the best guess seems to be an air burst of a beehive round from our artillery. Where we are set up near our artilery which is behind us and shoots directly over us. That sounds reasonable. Thank God we had that bunker and piece of plywood. They say the NVA are digging tunnels to get to us like they did to the French in this same area. The close bombing is caving the ground in on them. We are told thousands of them are being buried alive very near our peremiter and their guys are not even trying to dig them out.
It’s like watching an intense war flick on the “Big Show” back in Greenbrier TN except on a huge screen and hundreds of Marines around me have been mamed or killed. It sure looks like hell all around here.
We left our bunker today to get some mortars ready to fly and we chose to sit down in the mortar pit for a while and eat our C-rations outside the bunker and have a smoke. The mortar pit is deep enouugh we can sit inside and lean against sandbag walls and not be exposed to a line of sight from NVA positions. That was a luxury as we are generally out of the bunker only to prep and/or fire mortars and back into the bunker. Each C-ration has a small pack of four cigarettes accompanying the food. We heat the can of meet over a small very hot flame when we burn C4. C4 is a plastic explosive thats easy to roll a pinch of it into a small ball and light it.
My bad knee is not getting better, I know it’s really bad. I blew it out the day I got to Khe Sanh when we ran off the back of the plane during incoming as the gooks tried to hit the plane and us. We were in a dead run after coming off the runway and suddenly, a hot blast from behind me hit me and I was slammed to the ground, my knee and back twisted and I felt a deep painful snapping and tearing in my knee. That knee has swollen to what appears double and I’ve been hobbling around here for the last week, it ain’t getting better. My shin below the knee wobbles, slides forward and when it does it hurts like hell. To get around, I have to hold it stiff and as straight as I can and put very little weight on it because if it wobbles I’m down for a few minutes from the ripping pain. The corpsman took hold of it and saw the instability in it and said they will have room on a medivac sooner or later for guys with non life threatening wounds and they will be sending you on it. There are a couple of aircraft lying on the side of the tarmac blown to pieces and burned black. So, I’m ok to wait a while before trying to fly out of this hell hole plus I guess even my limited ability right now is better than nothing when we get fire missions. We chunk mortars at Mr. Charles and get back in our bunkers as we hear incoming when he fires back at us. My bunker is probably 20 feet away from our mortar pit. I can hack it hobbling or dragging it that far. The guys are putting together a list of stuff they want me to bring back whenever I go to Dang Ha or Phu Bai for treatment. How can one guy bring that much beer back to the bush? HA, but I’ll try. I have no idea what they can do with this busted knee but I look forward to stopping the pain.
I found the little new testament with Psalms and Proverbs today. The ladies from a Baptist Church in San Diego handed it to me as I boarded the plane in El Toro California headed for Vietnam. Khe Sahn is red clay and very little more. My little Bible is sprung open to a Psalm I found. It wont close because of the red clay on the pages where I have gone back to it so many times. It’s a permanent page marker at Psalm 91. Wow! this was written for me for right now!
I made a promise to God today. If He gets me through this I’ll do whatever He wants me to do the rest of my life. I am deadly serious. Read it here below, It is awesome. Jim@savley.com
The Protection of the Most High Psalm 91
1 The one who lives under the protection of the Most High
dwells in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say[a] to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,
from the destructive plague.
4 He will cover you with His feathers;
you will take refuge under His wings.
His faithfulness will be a protective shield.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
the arrow that flies by day,
6 the plague that stalks in darkness,
or the pestilence that ravages at noon.
7 Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
the pestilence will not reach you.
8 You will only see it with your eyes
and witness the punishment of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord—my refuge,
the Most High—your dwelling place,
10 no harm will come to you;
no plague will come near your tent.
11 For He will give His angels orders concerning you,
to protect you in all your ways.
12 They will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
14 Because he is lovingly devoted to Me,
I will deliver him;
I will protect him because he knows My name.
15 When he calls out to Me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble.
I will rescue him and give him honor.
16 I will satisfy him with a long life
and show him My salvation.
Well I have the grocery lists from 7 guys and I’m being taken to the medivac chopper today on what we call a mule. It is a flatbed small motarized cart. Kind of like being carted off the football field hoping they don’t hit too many bumps. My couple of weeks here may be the last I see of Khe Sanh. If skuttlebut is right I’ll catch up with my guys somewhere else after this knee gets better. I don’t know what to expect again, unknowns are commonplace.
I was the last guy on the chopper today and the corpman on board just handed me 3 bags of blood and told me to get on my good knee and mash the blood out of the bags he just hooked up to a Marine lying next to me. This man has 5 holes in his chest that I can see, and maybe more. Shrapnel has eat him up. The holes are oosing blood faster than the IVs can put it into him. They don’t seem to be into his lungs because they aren’t sucking air as far as I can tell. I’m squessing the bags to force it into him faster and helping hold a bandage on the biggest hole. I can’t tell if the blood is actually going into him any faster. The corpman is using this teaching moment about wearing my flack jacket all the time when I get back here. Heck I’ve got it on now but open down the front just like this guy with the holes in his chest. I won’t forget this lesson. The field hospital at Dong HA is where we are heading but not this guy, he’s destined for a hospital ship out in the bay the corpman says. I hope he makes it. He’s not conscience but I’m telling him we are lifting off and he’s going to be at the hospital soon. I don’t know if that is true but it’s what I would want to hear. I can’t help thinking we are a sitting duck hanging low in the sky as we take off. Wow the whole plateau of the fire base looks like a snap shot of a piece of the moon except red. Craters and bare red clay. It doesn’t look like anyone could be alive down there but they are.