When the rear ramp of the C-130 opened, Vietnam rushed in. The heat and smell of the country were in sharp contrast to the cooler cleaner air that had been trapped in the aircraft passenger compartment during out transit from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Marines, most of them young, sat on the canvas seats that lined both sides of the aircraft. The seats were not padded, and the ride had been jarring and had not been kind to the sore buttocks of every Marine on the plane.
Each of us had spent two days in Okinawa being processed into the Fleet Marine Force, Western Pacific, or in Marine speak, “WestPac.” That processing included a painful gamma globulin injection which, because of the size and viscosity of the dose, was administered to the buttock. The dreaded shot was supposed to boost our immune systems. All Marines arrived in Vietnam with a sore ass, especially those that came on C-130’s.
We each had a sea bag with most of what we owned. The rest of our belongings, including all our uniforms except for one set of khakis and a couple of cotton stateside utility uniforms, were stored in a big warehouse in Okinawa. Stacked neatly several stories high with the ends with our names and serial numbers showing, they would be easy to identify remove it we were not coming back for them. It was around noon on an early November day when the human cargo of the C-130 filed out onto the tarmac in Danang with our seabass. We were directed to a building with a tin roof and no walls where a Marine with a clipboard led us to the 1st Marine Division processing on one side of the building or the 3rd Marine Division on the other side.
I carried my sea bag to the shade of the building on the 1st Marine Division side, along with several others. It was there than another Marine with a clipboard informed us of our various unit assignments. I was assigned to the 7th Marines. We were told that our Regiments would be sending transportation for us and ordered to wait at the spot where we were to be picked up.
I waited, sitting on my sea bag in the shade of the building while vehicles arrived. I watched as several vehicles, primarily the heavy 6×6 trucks, stopped and announced the units that sent them. I watched as the new arrivals climbed on board the trucks and set off for their new assignments. The vehicles from the units assigned to the area of the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division in Danang were well cared for. Those from more outlying areas, like the infantry regiments, showed more wear. I had been waiting for some time when a truck approached that appeared to have led a hard life. It was filthy with red dust and showed visible battle damage.
Please God, don’t let this be the truck from the 7th Marines! The truck came to a stop at the pickup point, and the driver yelled, “Who’s here for the 7th Marines?” A couple of other new arrivals and I climbed into the bed of the truck where a Marine in flak jacket and helmet waited. He handed us M16 rifles and asked if we knew how to use them. The M16 had recently replaced the M14 in the 7th Marines. He said. “You may need these.”
As our truck rolled out of the airbase and into the city of Danang, we passed through “Dog Patch,” the residential area of ramshackle buildings along the road leading out of town. Vietnamese people with conical straw hats and what seemed to be pajamas went about their business. They rode bicycles and mopeds, pulled rickshaws and walked. Soon we were on an unpaved road of red dirt heading south out of the city. Farmers in rice fields carried huge loads on each end of a pole balanced on one shoulder as they shuffled along the roadside.
A common sight was the Bubalus Bubalis, the Vietnamese equivalent of a tractor. More commonly known as the Water Buffalo, this animal which can weigh as much as 1200 lbs. and be over 6 feet tall at the shoulder. Children often rode or led these huge beasts as they pulled heavy farm implements through the rice fields. The Marine who had come with the truck stood behind the cab looking forward and resting his M16 on the top of the cab as his eyes scanned the road ahead and the rice fields on either side. There were two primary dangers in traveling by truck along these roads. Mines and ambush, often at the same time. Each morning a mine sweep team cleared the roads before vehicles were allowed to travel. Sometimes the mine sweep teams missed a mine. There was also plenty of opportunities for Viet Cong to plant a mine after the sweep team had cleared the road.
The mines could be activated by the pressure of a vehicle running over them, in which case the VC may be nowhere around when the device detonates. Mines could also be command detonated by a VC who is watching the traffic and decides when to trigger the explosion for a hiding place. Command-detonated mines allowed the VC to be more selective in their target selection and avoid accidentally blowing up a water buffalo that stepped in the wrong place in the road.
Ambushes were not uncommon. The VC knew that Americans could always be found using the roadways to transport material and personnel. Enemy troops, sometimes dressed as peasants, could open fire on a passing truck from concealed positions along the road, especially when trucks slowed or stopped. That is why Marine trucks did not slow or stop. The locals all knew to move to the side of the road when a truck approached. If they were in the roadway and moved slower than the truck, the truck driver would sound his horn in warning but would not slow down. More than one Vietnamese bicycle became a hood ornament on a Marine 6×6 truck. The truck drivers did not want to injure the Vietnamese but wanted less to risk ambush by making themselves and their trucks vulnerable.
The most deadly danger was a combination of command detonated mine and ambush. Hidden wires from the mine would be connected to a handheld control switch which would send an electrical current to the blasting cap of the mine. In that scenario, the enemy would explode a mine just as the target passed over it. An enemy force would then open fire on the damaged vehicle with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades to kill the stunned and injured survivors.
After an hour of travel through the rice fiends and occasional villages, the truck came to a large mound of red dirt surrounded by rolls of barbed wire, known as concertina wire. Around the perimeter, inside the concertina wire were bunkers made of sandbags, including the roofs. The fortification was for a good reason. Only 3 months earlier the enemy had attacked and overrun the hill.
A marine with a rifle stood by a guard shack at the entrance to the compound and motioned the truck forward as we approached the opened wooden gate that was covered with barbed wire. A wooden sign announced that we had arrived at Hill 55, home of the 7th Marines.
The Marine in the back of the truck collected the M16’s he had loaned us as we offloaded in front of a building with plywood sides and a tin roof. Inside we presented our orders to a clerk, reporting for duty with the regiment. We were sent to chow at the plywood mess hall and provided a bunk in an open squad bay, in another plywood building with a tin roof.
During chow, we sat among other Marines who were assigned to Hill 55 and took the opportunity to gain information about the regiment, the units where we might be attached, and additional information that might be helpful, especially if we were to have choices to make.
The 7th Marines was one of the infantry regiments of the famed 1st Marine Division. The regiment had a distinguished history, having served well at places like Guadalcanal in World War II and the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. We were proud to become members of such a regiment and understood our duty to honor that history and continue its reputation. Maintaining an honorable tradition was important to Marines having been instilled in us since boot camp.
We were all anxious to learn about what our assignments would be. There were three battalions in the regiment, designated simply as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Each of the battalions had 4 companies identified by letter beginning with A or Alpha. In addition to the rifle companies, each battalion had a Headquarters and Support company, known as H&S.
After our first wake up in Vietnam, we had breakfast and reported to the admin building as instructed. Since our arrival, the staff had been deciding where each of us, based upon the needs of the different battalions and our military occupational specialties (MOS), would be assigned. My assignment was the 1st Battalion.
1st Battalion Hill 10
The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, expressed simply “1/7” was based on Hill 10, between Hill 55 and Danang. The mission of 1/7 was to *language here*. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) utilized Russian built 122mm rockets as their artillery. The range of the rockets allowed the VC to attack the vital complex in Danang, including the sprawling airbase, from over 12 miles out. The area from where those rockets were launched was known as the “rocket belt.”
The units of 1/7 were distributed on small combat bases from which they patrolled the rocket belt. Delta Company was on Hill 41, another rifle company was on Hill 22, and two companies were housed along with battalion headquarters on Hill 10.
On my second day in Vietnam, a truck dropped me off at Hill 10 where I reported to battalion headquarters to be assigned to whatever unit within 1/7 fate would send me.
My military occupational specialty code was 0351. I was trained as a jack of all trades in the infantry. In addition to being a basic infantryman, as were all Marines, I had been trained in demolitions, flamethrowers, 3.5-inch rockets, and the 106 recoilless rifle.
Flamethrowers were not used much in Vietnam although some 0351’s were still assigned to that weapon. The 3.5-inch rocket, which some would describe as a bazooka, had rendered obsolete by the disposable, one shot, light anti-tank weapon or LAW. Most demolition tasks were handled by engineers. The 106 mm recoilless rifle, however, was very much in use. In fact, I could not help but notice one mounted on the top of a 70-foot observation tower on Hill 10.
The 106 Recoilless Rifle
The M40 106 Recoilless rifle was developed in the early 1950’s. Its primary purpose at the time was as an anti-tank weapon but could also be used in an antipersonnel role. It is a single shot, breech loaded, direct fire weapon with a maximum effective range of 1100 meters. A .50 caliber spotting rifle is coaxially mounted on the top of the barrel and bore sighted with the main barrel to ensure that the spotting round will impact precisely where the 106mm round will impact. The spotting round is a tracer with a white phosphors tip which produces a white puff of smoke upon impact.
At 462 lbs. Its portability is limited. It can be delivered by helicopter or truck and quickly set up in the field or mounted on mobile platforms like tracked vehicles, trucks or jeeps. It is a crew served weapon with a team of three. Gunner, assistant gunner and someone to direct fire.
The term “recoilless” refers to the fact that the rifle, which sits on a tripod, has a breech that is open to the rear and allows gas from the explosion of the powder charge when the gun is fired. It is the same principal as a bazooka, there is a back-blast but no recoil. When the weapon is fired, fire comes out the muzzle in the form of “muzzle blast,” and a huge “back blast” comes out the back. The back-blast can be fatal to anyone standing behind the weapon. The first time I fired a 106 recoilless rifle I thought it had exploded. Flame came out the muzzle and the breech, wrapping around me. It was so loud that it was physically painful. My ears felt a sharp pain. I have not heard anything in the high frequencies since that time in 1967. It is a big rifle which fires a large round with an explosive warhead. The gunner aims and fires it directly at the target which allows the gunner to get a round off within seconds of identifying a target. The Marines cleverly re-purposed the anti-tank weapon to counter rocket artillery used by the NVA and VC.
A rocket attack lasts only a very few minutes. The rocketeers know that their position has been broadcast to every American within 20 miles by the brilliant trails of fire streaking almost a thousand feet into the night sky by the departing rockets. Observers of the rocket launch could estimate the position of the launch site on a grid map and convey the information to an artillery battery. The artillery battery converts the coordinates to settings for their guns, which are then applied. By the time the first artillery round lands, the attack is over, and the enemy rocketeers have fled. The 106mm Recoilless rifle observing a rocket launch can get a round on the way to the launch site within seconds, while the launch site is active and providing an excellent visual target. To maximize the effectiveness of the 106, Marines mounted them atop observation towers as high as 70 feet. That not only provides a 360-degree field of fire, but it also increases the range and gives the crew an excellent observation point.
The Marine Corps was known for its “flexibility” in assignments, which meant that it was not uncommon for a Marine to spend months being trained in a skill and find himself assigned to a completely different role. I had no idea what to expect as an assignment, other than that it would be in the infantry.
The basic Marine rifleman, the backbone of the Marine infantry, was assigned the MOS of 0311. After being trained as a basic rifleman, some were selected for additional specialized infantry training. Those qualified to operate the M60 machine gun were assigned the MOS 0331, mortar men were 0341. Anything MOS starting in 03, was infantry.
Marines who had been trained in the special infantry weapons were often sent to rifle companies as riflemen to fill manpower gaps in platoons that were understrength because of high casualty rates. Every unit in 1/7 was significantly under strength and badly in need of 0311 riflemen.
In addition to its 4 rifle companies, 1/7 had a Headquarters and Support (H&S) company. The various weapons platoons were assigned to H&S. The members of that platoon could then be attached to where the need for their specialty was greatest. Navy Corpsmen were also assigned to H&S to be allocated where they were most needed. I was assigned to the 106 recoilless rifle platoon in H&S Company. The 106 platoon would send me wherever a 106mm crew person was needed most.
I reported to the 106 recoilless rifle platoon located in a bunker made of sandbags and wooden ammo crates filled with sand. The senior Marine there was a staff sergeant. I was sent to supply to draw a rifle, jungle uniforms with boots and 782 gear. Marines refer to their helmets, flak jackets, ammunition belts, canteens, packs and other similar gear as 782 gear after the Department of Defense form 782 on which they sign for that equipment.
I stood in line with other newbies at the supply bunker on Hill 10. There was a dirt walkway leading to the bunker and weeds growing on the sides of the walkway. I noticed several articles lying in the weeds. One was a helmet with a camouflage cover. The bottom of the helmet faced up so that I could see into it. It had a whole the size of a bullet in one side and a pool of blood coagulated in the bottom. Flies buzzed around it. Nearby were a couple of bloodstained flak jackets, also attracting flies. The reality of war was becoming clear.
As I waited for word on my assignment, I asked the Marines around me about the various units of 1/7, where they were, and which would be the best and worst assignments. Hill 10 was the largest of the bases with two rifle companies and the headquarters element and an artillery battery. It was also the most secure. There were two remote bases, Hill 22 and Hill 41, each having one rifle company. Hill 41 could be seen from Hill 10 and was the patrol base for Delta Company. The consensus of opinion that duty on Hill 10 was preferable, Hill 22 was the next best choice, and that Hill 41 was to be avoided. “They get hit every night” was the comment one Marine made about Hill 41.
The only place more dangerous than Hill 41, by consensus of opinion, was a Combined Action Platoon (CAP) where Marines lived in the village with local Popular Forces (PF’s) as advisors. There were 6 CAP units within 1/7’s area of operations, one of which had a 106mm recoilless rifle assigned to it. Each CAP unit had only a squad of a dozen Marines and a platoon of PF’s. They were often attacked and sometimes completely wiped out. Fortunately, new arrivals were not assigned to the CAP unit. That left the most dangerous place that I could be assigned as Hill 41 with Delta Company.
After morning chow at the mess hall on Hill 10, I returned to the 106 “hootch” where the Staff Sargent Tod me to catch the daily supply run truck to Hill 41, I was assigned to Delta Company. Every morning a truck arrived from each of the two outlying companies of 1/7 to pick up supplies and transfer personnel. It was a Tuesday morning. Tuesday was the day that newbies like me arrived on Hill 41. There were several of us newbies on the truck. Delta Company, like the other Marine line companies, had a high attrition rate.
After about a 20-minute truck ride, we arrived at the gate of Hill 41, which would be my home for several months. The truck stopped just inside the entrance to discharge its passengers. I climbed down from the bed, pulling my sea bag with me, and looked around at my new neighborhood.
Like other bases in the area, the hill was a mound of red dirt surrounded by rows of concertina wire and ringed by bunkers made of sandbags. There was a 70-foot tower that had been determined to be too rickety for a 106 to be mounted on it. The 106 was mounted on one of the sandbag perimeter bunkers. The place looked desolate and stark. There was almost no vegetation, thanks to the Dow Chemical Company product known as Agent Orange which had removed any foliage that could hide an enemy who might make it past the concertina wire.
It was the base of Delta Company, known as the “Delta Death Dealers.” Delta Company was known for leaving the ace of spades playing cards on the bodies of dead enemy soldiers. They even had special cards printed with their unit name. In addition to the 3 platoons of 0311 riflemen, there was the 106mm recoilless rifle unit of which I would be a member, an 81mm mortar team, 0331 machine gunners and Navy corpsmen. The Marine Corps does not have medical personnel. Those services are provided by the US Navy. The corpsmen and machine gunners participated in the daily patrols and ambushes conducted by the rifle squads.
The 106mm recoilless rifle and 81 mm mortar tube were crew-served weapons too large to take on patrols and remained on Hill 41 from where they could provide supporting fire to the patrols and counter battery fire against enemy rocket sites. That of course was a great benefit to me as a 106 crewman. Instead of having to spend my nights on patrol, walking miles and sitting in ambush positions, I would remain with the 106 at its fixed position on Hill 41.
Hill 41 was a small place, so it wasn’t hard to locate the 106 recoilless rifle team in a tent near the front gate. I entered the tent and introduced myself. The senior person was a Buck Sergeant. I was welcomed by the team and assigned an open bunk. The dozen or so members of the squad who shared the tent slept on government-issue canvas folding cots in one big open area. Cabinets made from ammunition crates held personal gear and were adorned with pinup girls and calendars with months and days marked off.
My new colleagues in the 106 had names like Panda Bear, Opey, Wisenheimer, and Moose. Like most other Marine units they came from all over the United States. Some had only been in Vietnam for a few weeks, some were in, and one would be rotating home in a week.
The living conditions on Hill 41 were not bad for being in the Marine Corps infantry in Vietnam. I certainly had it better than the 0311 riflemen. One thing that I missed, however, was the ability to take a hot shower. The shower consisted of a 55-gallon oil drum sitting on a framework constructed of 2×4 boards. You stood under the drum and reached up to hold open the valve to release water from the drum that would trickle onto your head and run down your body. To fill the drum with water, it was necessary to climb a ladder and pour water from a bucket into the drum. The water had to be transported from a water supply off the hill. The only water on the hill was in a large tank on wheels, which the Marines called a “Water Buffalo” and could only be used for drinking.
Determined to find a way to have a hot shower I began to experiment. My first method was to drip gasoline into a submerged chamber where it would be ignited by a flame there, much like the devices we used to heat water to clean our trays at the mess hall. I was behind the “hootch” dripping gasoline from a C ration can into a bucket with flames in it when I was distracted and allowed the drip to become a stream. Fire from the bucket ran up the stream toward the gasoline-filled container that I was holding. Seeing the flame running up the stream of gasoline I threw the can which caused a fireball of flaming gasoline, some of which covered my hands and arms. I ran into the “hootch” flailing both arms to put out the flames.
The guys in the tent looked up from their card game in amazement. The gasoline burned off without causing any permanent damage. Someone referred to me as “Genius.” I don’t think it was meant to be flattering. Any negative opinions were overcome when, a few days later, when I perfected the hot water heater and the residents of our “hootch” were standing in line for hot showers. The name, however, stuck.
The 106 team on Hill 41 now included a Lance Corporal known as “Genius.”