Chapter 2: Settling In
The runners of the Huey had barely touched the ground. Its rotors had decreased almost imperceptibly, kept at a razor’s edge from the speed sufficient for flight. A flurry of activity broke loose. Boxes of supply that were so carefully sorted and stacked for pick up in Da Nang were rapidly pulled from the chopper and thrown to the edge of the LZ. Jesse took this as his cue to jettison from the transport as well. He moved quickly, ending up near the disgorged boxes, minus his helmet. Just as rapidly as he had left the chopper, a canvas litter carrying a Marine was loaded in his place. The man’s IV bag was secured to an interior hook of the aircraft and the engine revved to airborne almost instantly.
Jesse began a visual reconnaissance for his steel pot. He spotted the helmet lying completely opposite to and in considerable distance from where he had landed. He ran to retrieve it in the settling dust, coughing a bit by the time he collected it. He admonished himself for not closing his mouth in the wake of the helicopter and for keeping his helmet straps too loose. A passing Marine who had been one of the bearers of the stretcher ambled by.
“Was he badly injured?” Jesse spurted.
“Heat prostration,” came the reply.
“Heat prostration?” Jesse repeated. “Oh. I see.” He cleared his throat. “Hey, would you point out HQ?”
Headquarters consisted of a bunker that extended from a dug out in a low hillside. It was lined with empty wooden ammo (ammunition) crates filled with dirt. Layers of sandbags lined the exterior of the structure for added protection. The entry was labyrinth-like before opening into a small room. The company clerk greeted Jesse with a somewhat cool undertone, “Welcome to Cam Lo, Doc. I’m Mack Davidson, Company Clerk. We have assigned you to 2nd Platoon. Let me get you signed in, then I’ll take you down to the company’s area and Lt. Lou Ray.”
Jesse had barely nodded in response before Corporal Davidson deftly shuffled through paperwork. He added some of Jesse’s into one pile while making masterful order of a rather hefty appearing second pile. All in all, it was quite a conglomeration of documents. He then opened a logbook and made a quick entry. He let out a sighing exhale before turning to Jesse: “O.K., Doc – it’s this way.”
Jesse had no way to know if the clerk had a beef with paperwork, new soldiers or Vietnam in general, so he simply nodded and followed behind him.
Lieutenant Lou Ray introduced himself and welcomed Jesse to the platoon. “Doc, you are going to have it rough in numerous ways. First, you are an ‘FNG’ (Fucking New Guy). Second, you are replacing our last Doc who the men respected. Hell, they loved him. It will be a big pair of shoes to fill. And finally, we are short medical personnel, so you will be working a lot.”
“All I expect from you is to be there when one of my men needs you. Look after these men the best you can and I guarantee you, you will earn their respect. It will take time and courage to earn their loyalty. Now, Corporal Davidson will get you situated for the night. Good luck son. Glad to have you aboard.”
“Aye, Aye, Sir.”
Cam Lo Firebase was set at the low end of a hill honey-combed with paths of darkened earth edged with ever-encroaching green plant life. Bunkers constructed from empty ammunition boxes and sand bags were dispersed within the vegetation. Jesse scanned the area and began familiarizing himself with the placement of the various bunkers when a nearby battery of 105mm howitzers sent a barrage of artillery on its mission. He dropped to the ground.
Corporal Davidson coolly informed him, “You’ll get somewhat used to it. It’s never totally quiet here.”
The new corpsman regained his feet and started instinctively to dust himself off. He didn’t need to. This would be the cleanest his uniform would be for a very long while. He picked up his Medical Kit and continued on behind the corporal, making a right turn on a transected section of the hardened dirt toward a bunker that housed a “fire team” (four-man combat unit). The inhabitants were cleaning their weapons.
Corporal Davidson started introductions, pointing to each man of the team in turn, “This is Lance Corporal Jackson Teff, he’s the fire team leader. This is Private Pat Byrne, Private Ashton Kann, and Private Flanders.”
The men took turns shaking Jesse’s hand, even though they were covered with oil from their weaponry cleaning.
The corporal continued, “Doc is going to be spending the night with you. Word is you’ll be about finished with the new bunker for the Aid Station tomorrow. Since you are the guys doing the job, I thought Doc should bunk with you and help supervise the work.”
The group of Marines nodded in agreement.
Davidson turned back to Jesse, “We had our old Aid Station take a direct artillery hit, so we’re putting it back together, but in a different location. The gooks had the thing all plotted out. Luckily, no one was in it.”
“Does the shelling happen often?”
Lance Corporal Teff answered, “Well, there is an NVA artillery position just over the edge of the DMZ. It’s called ‘Duc Duc.’ They’ve withstood all our airstrikes so far. After they get hit, it will be quiet for a while, then they’ll move their position and one day start lobbing them in on us all over again. So, yeah, we sort of have regular arty (artillery) duels.”
Private Flander interjected, “Yeah, the local barber down in the village was the FO (Forward Observer) for Duc Duc. He would come on base a lot to cut the hair of the officers. One of the sergeants started watching him and discovered he was pacing off different areas. Once he was taken into custody, their accuracy diminished.”
Moving the new Medical Bunker would help ensure that the North Vietnamese would no longer have its precise coordinates. Relocation would not end the shelling; both sides would intermittently fire on each other until one stopped. Usually the North Vietnamese ceased first, as without air superiority they had a harder time getting their ammunition into their site and had limited supplies.
Lance Corporal Teff pointed to a crudely made bed over to one side, “Doc, you can use that bed until we get your bunker finished.”
Jesse found a large nail appropriately placed into the earthen wall and hung his medical bag on it. He then threw his shelter half onto the rough wood to reduce splinters and folded up his flak jacket as best he could for a pillow. This is going to take some getting used to, he thought to himself as he tried to get somewhat comfortable for sleeping. What he didn’t realize was that from now on the fatigue that came with being in the field would speed the process.
He addressed the group, “Hey, guys, I’m going to try to get some sleep. Do whatever you need to, it really won’t bother me.”
Private Flanders remarked back, “Good luck on the sleep, J-Doc.”
Jesse thought the comment was made in a bit of a weird manner, but attributed this to his exhaustion and lowered himself on to the bed. As he began to doze off, the artillery group received a fire mission. The first salvo ripped over the hill and found Jesse jumping out of his bed and grabbing for his helmet.
Pvt. Kann reassured him, “That’s outgoing, J-Doc. That’s us firing at them, wherever they are.”
Pvt. Byrne added, “You never really get totally used to it, but it does get a bit easier.”
Lance Corporal Teff contributed, “We better get down. Tomorrow is going to be some work, so lights out.”
It was not a request.
It had been a full day for Jesse with a world of transition. He was ready for sleep. Being a Navy Corpsman stationed with the Marine Corps was great duty when you weren’t being targeted and shot at. Jesse would remind himself of this through the night as the Howitzer periodically shot off half a dozen rounds into the darkness.
There is order to everything, even in a chaotic war zone. No matter your rank in Vietnam, you were first looked upon as an FNG. In an unspoken type of acceptance ritual you were generally called by your last name for an unspecific amount of time. Once you had a few firefights under your belt, you were considered a more ‘seasoned’ troop (a survivor with experience). It was only then that a soldier was given a nickname by the other tenured participants. Jesse was being accepted in a shorter time because he was a corpsman. The bond between a Marine and a corpsman was tight. Jesse was monikered as “J-Doc” which still gave respect for the platoon’s last corpsman, whom the men had called “Doc” up until his death.
Morning brought conversation over eggs, that were somewhat green in hue, and coffee. Breakfast was obtained at the “Mess Bunker” which served its offerings onto each man’s own “mess kit.” Generally, the food was taken back to the soldier’s home bunker, and eaten there. On this morning, “J-Doc” and his team sat around the hole in the ground that the men had spent the last three days digging. They bantered back and forth, discussing how to best finish its construction. An explosion suddenly sent debris everywhere.
Cries rang out: “Incoming!”
Lance Corporal Teff darted into the hole and grabbed Jesse’s pant leg, pulling him in swiftly. For the next twenty minutes the men huddled in earthen corners while the base artillery volleyed in an ample exchange. Jesse and the lance corporal spent the time picking out twigs and miscellaneous debris from their breakfast.
Jesse leapt upright and started out of the hole.
Teff pulled him back, “Doc, the incoming is too thick! Give it a chance to settle down.”
The call came again, “Corpsman up!”
Teff cautioned, “Doc, it’s still too heavy!”
Jesse did not hesitate, “Lance corporal, it’s my job. It’s what I’m trained to do. I’m going.” Jesse jumped out of the hole just as the call sounded for the third time. A broken board waving from another bunker indicated where the injured soldier was located.
Jesse found him leaning up against the inside of the hole, cursing loudly, “Goddamn it!” He directed his plea toward the corpsman, “Goddamn it, Doc – I’ve got a fucking 2x4 shoved in my leg. Look at this piece of shit! You get this out and I’ll go ram it up Charlie’s ass. Get the Goddamn thing out, Doc!”
This was Jesse’s first patient under fire. He fumbled quickly through his medical kit searching for the morphine. In the seconds it took him to think to himself, Where are those damn styrettes?....I know they’re in here somewhere...Yeah! There they are! he managed to locate the pain reliever. He immediately injected it into the uninjured leg of the frantic Marine.
“Goddamn it, Doc – that’s my good leg! Are you working for Charlie or what?”
Jesse talked to the patient, settling him down while cutting the pant leg away from the area that had been impaled, “Sergeant, I know what I’m doing.”
The amount of splintered wood was considerable and had been driven deep into the soldier’s calf muscle. Jesse knew he could not simply pull it out as that could create more damage to the tissue. He would have to dress the wound around the protruding content and “Medevac” (medically evacuate) the patient to a surgeon for removal of the extensive debris. Jesse appropriated blood from the wound site and marked an “M” on the soldier’s forehead. This would signal the doctors and triage team in the rear that the soldier had been given morphine.
By this time, the shelling was dwindling. Jess peered over the edge of the hole for a quick bearing and dashed toward Lt. Lou’s bunker.
He ran in, almost breathless. “Sir, I have a sergeant with a serious leg wound who needs to be Medevaced out.”
The Lt. yelled to the radioman, Stoney Burke, “Stoney, get Doc a ‘dust-off’ (an airborne evacuation for wounded or dead) as quickly as possible.”
He then turned back to Jesse; “Now, Doc, I’m only going to tell you this once.” Jesse could see that the Lt. was extremely angered. “If I ever hear the same person call ‘corpsman up’ three times again, I might just come over and shoot you myself, because you would be useless to my men! Do you understand?”
“Then we won’t ever have another conversation about this!”
“Grab a couple of Marines to help you get the sergeant up to the LZ.”
Jesse left the bunker in a swirl of mixed emotion. He was angry with himself for not responding on his first instinct. He was also hoping this was not an indication that he was a coward. He had never thought of himself as cowardly, but could not escape the fact that he hesitated. He admonished himself: “This cannot happen again. It won’t happen again.” The next time he was called, he needed to prove to himself that he, indeed, was no coward.
Jesse directed Private Flanders and Private Kann to grab a stretcher and assist in getting Sgt. Rosen to the LZ. The men loaded the injured soldier with smooth precision.
As he was loaded onto the chopper, Rosen looked over at Jesse, gave him a “thumbs-up,” and exclaimed, “Doc, thank you!”
Jesse grinned, nodding back at the injured man. Morphine must’ve kicked in, he thought to himself. Dust flew everywhere as the Huey became airborne, making the surroundings unrecognizable until the bird and its resulting whirlwind cleared the area.
The new medical bunker was constructed by four young Marines. It was an engineering marvel worthy of “Battlefield Architecture,” should such a publication exist. Sandbags topped with empty wooden artillery boxes reinforced the inside walls. Beams donated from three large trees found near the base were spaced at a precise distance for roof support. More artillery boxes were set on top of the beams. These were filled with dirt and covered with two large tarps for water resistance. Another layer of sandbags completed the substantial roof.
Discussion ensued regarding which side of the fortress they should use for the entrance.
“Doc, it has to be on the east side,” asserted Lance Corporal Teff. “See how the ground slopes? If we put it on the west, the bunker will fill with water when the monsoons hit. Main artillery comes in from Duc Duc to the north; can’t be on that side. South side would face the river and that tree line over there. Charlie could use rockets from that position. It’s gotta be the east side.”
Jesse was impressed.
He smiled, jumped to attention, and replied, “Yes Sir, Lance Corporal Teff, Sir!”
Teff grinned and shook his head. Construction continued.
By evening, one crudely constructed bed had been made within the bunker for the corpsman. This would be Jesse’s home for tonight, and home for any corpsman thereafter that would stay back with the unit while Jesse was in the field.
“Doc, we’ll be back tomorrow and work on a couple more beds, tables, stuff like that.”
“Great,” Jesse replied. “Thanks for all your hard work.”
The smiles of the tired Marines revealed that Jesse’s acceptance for a job well done was all the thanks they needed.
Charlie owned the night. They kept the artillery group on the hill busy with numerous fire missions. Some nights were extremely intense as compared to the others. This night was one of those. Jesse quickly came to understand that this meant that a unit was heavily engaged with the enemy (what the soldiers commonly referred to as being in a “shit sandwich”). He remained restless throughout the night, worried for the Americans in the fight, and wondering how anyone on this end of the battle could get used to the constant loudness ringing through the darkness.
Early morning brought more noise as an H-53 “Sea Stallion” helicopter delivered a cargo net loaded with boxes of artillery rounds. Another followed with a 105 Howitzer strapped underneath it. With a few moments of careful hovering, the great bird lowered the weapon into a designated vicinity. Two more helicopters followed in succession with more artillery rounds. A final Huey appeared. It brought three FNG’s and two sacks of mail, and left with one sack of outgoing mail from the troops. It was a busy morning on the hill.
Sending a letter from Vietnam was no more difficult than doing so in the States. In fact, it was somewhat easier, as soldiers could place their letter in an addressed envelope and simply write, “FREE,” where a stamp would normally be placed. Paper and envelopes were usually accessible via the company clerk. Occasionally paper was hard to get; C-ration cartons torn into postcard-sized pieces worked just as well.
Private Kann once utilized a scrap piece of wood left over from construction of the medical bunker. It measured about 1”x4”x6”. He addressed one side to his parents along with his return address; “Pvt. Ashton Kann, Golf Co., 2nd Batt., 3rd Marines; FPO San Francisco.” On the other side of the scrap he relayed the short message, “All is fine here. I am with a group of really good Marines. I miss you a lot. I only have 10 months and 16 days and I’ll be home. Love, Ashton.” He then flipped the wood over and wrote “FREE” in the upper right hand area and sent the “letter.” Mail usually arrived stateside about a week from when it was sent.
Far more difficult than sending a letter was deciding what to say in it. Most soldiers, including Jesse, tried to write home about the beauty of the landscape, the unusual conditions they encountered or how tired they were. Leeches, blisters and dysentery were also fair to report. As an unwritten rule, however, dangerous or tragic events were rarely included in correspondence. For instance, one could write home about a village being destroyed, but describing how some of the people or animals of the village were killed was generally not acceptable. It was certainly not “cool” to write home about how many men standing next to you were blown into x-number of pieces. Under no circumstances did Jesse observe a fellow soldier writing to Mom and Dad of horrors such as the ravages of napalm or the human mutilation befalling innocent civilians – including children – at the hands of the Viet Cong. Some events were practically and understandably indescribable.
Yet, compliments of the evening news, coverage of the war in Vietnam was unique. For the first time, visual images from war were brought into American living rooms on a nightly basis. What was not broadcast for most of the war was the sight of thousands upon thousands of American flag-draped coffins coming off of C-141 (Starlifter) cargo planes. At the time, the country’s administration believed that images reflecting the true cost of war to its sons and daughters would not provide for good public relations, let alone presidential ratings. Numbers were represented, just not personally.
For men serving in the field, the lack of acknowledgement of their reality was confounding. Failure to recognize the sacrifices made by them and their fellow soldiers beyond “the numbers” could be devastating. Those who returned alive faced homecomings that were rarely heralded and often unpleasant. If profanely affected by what they had experienced in the war, a lack of supportive services led to the bottling of feelings, trauma that was minimized or swept aside. And though “Shell Shock” had been identified in World War II and “Combat Fatigue” from the war in Korea, the condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had yet to be discovered.
Lance Corporal Teff’s fire team returned early in the morning to finish the bunker. Artillery crates were hewn into furniture and also used as heavy reinforcement to the door of their creation. The doorway served two purposes: one, it was angled to allow the men inside to have light inside the bunker that would not escape to reveal their position to the enemy at night. Secondly, the opening included a layer of sandbags which would serve as added protection to penetrating artillery. Jesse was extremely pleased with the shelter. He had Stoney radio a request into Da Nang for extra battle dressings, I.V. supplies and newer stretchers to be stored within it, then went about deciding where the supplies of his trade would best be placed in his new “home.”
That evening, light rain moving east off the China Sea provided a satisfactory first trial of the bunker’s roof. The storm was gentle. In Arizona, the Navajo referred to the gentle winter rains as the “Female Rain.” Jesse found himself almost waiting for the familiar fragrance of wet sagebrush. The scent lingered with the moisture back home; he could not help but miss the soothing smell. A rare break in patrols granted too much time on this evening to think of such things. He was 8,000 miles from his memories and felt a million miles more from anywhere. He walked through the rain to the mess bunker and tried to focus on filling his canteen cup as fully as possible with strong black coffee. He paired it with “mystery meat,” reconstituted potatoes, and rehydrated green beans before taking it back to his earthen hideout.
Just as he sat himself down, dinner was interrupted by a young private appearing in the doorway. “J-Doc?” the Marine ventured. “I’ve got a leech bite on my kneecap that’s rubbing on my utilities. It hurts like hell, and we’re going out tomorrow.”
“Let me see it,” Jessie responded, putting aside his dinner.
The private dropped his utilities to expose an inflamed knee complete with a considerable pustule socket.
“O.K., private, how long have you had this bite?”
“About a week.”
“How long has it been infected?”
“About a week.”
“Why haven’t you had someone look at it before now?” Jesse challenged.
“Well, you weren’t here yet and I really didn’t know the other Docs. They’re not with our outfit.”
“Yes, you’re right. They’re not directly attached to the 2nd, but they would’ve given you treatment. Think about it. If they would help a wounded NVA or Vietcong, don’t you think they’d help you too?”
“Well, I can’t get you excused from the operation tomorrow but we’ve got to get this cleaned up, get some antibiotic on it, build a protective pad, and then bandage over it. I’ll give you some Darvon for the pain.”
“That would be great, Doc,” the private said appreciatively. “I don’t want to stay out of the field tomorrow.”
“Alright then – we’ll get it set up for you.”
Jesse worked on the soldier’s knee between quick bites of dinner. This kid’s really gung-ho, he thought to himself as worked on the wound. He was finished about 45 minutes later.
“Thanks, J-Doc! It feels so much better. How can I thank you?”
“Well,” answered Jessie, “first off, you need to see me every evening so we can change that dressing. Secondly, you could run over to the mess and get me another cup of coffee while I clean this up.”
The private smiled. “Sure, I’ll do that.”
“O.K., and if I’m going to be treating that knee every night,” Jesse continued, “I probably should know your name.”
“Private Mark Parra. I don’t want to miss the operation because I’m up for lance corporal soon. I don’t think missing this Op would make me look good, you know?”
Jesse nodded. “I think I have a sense of what you’re talking about. How ’bout that coffee?”
Collecting the infected swabs and gauze, Jesse put them in a bag to be added to the latrine material the company burned with kerosene. Pvt. Parra popped back within moments, coffee in hand.
“J-Doc, thanks again,” he repeated.
“Well, thanks for the coffee.” Jesse raised his cup.
Jesse was young – nineteen-years old – and not affected by drinking considerable amounts of coffee at this point in his life. This would change as he got older, as so many things do with age, but for now the only thing keeping Jesse awake was worrying about artillery barrages. If they were outgoing, he would jolt awake but try to return to sleeping as soon as possible. If, however, they were incoming, he and the rest of the men would have to speed down to reinforce the main perimeter and be prepared to suppress any further attack. Thankfully, tonight’s interruptions would prove to be minimal with just three short outgoing salvos to awaken him. He needed the sleep. At first light, he and many others would be headed into the jungle.