In Sharp Focus
by James Glaser
February 21, 2016
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These things I write about war are never easy. What is so amazing to me is that I have had to carry them around for decades and probably will my whole life. There are millions of veterans that have this same problem.

It seems strange to me that I have a hard time remembering my college days with any sort of detail, but my time in Vietnam is filled with crystal clear images and almost verbatim remembrances of conversations. I wish the reverse were true.

So, as I slip back into my time in Vietnam while in the Marine Corps, much of what I write will be in the vernacular of that time. Some of it you will understand, and some you won’t, and maybe it is better if you don’t.

* * * * *

Dong ha combat base was about 15 miles from the DMZ in the northernmost area of South Vietnam, and it was hot and windy. Back in 1968/69 I lived in a small bunker next to a huge bunker that was filled with radios for Asrats—which somehow took control of jets out of Da Nang until they dropped their bombs, at which time control of the plane went back to the pilot. At least that is how it was explained to me.

My job? I was the guy who took broken radios down to Da Nang or Phu bi, or any other place the Marine Corps sent me, to swap them out for working ones. The radios were black and heavy, but they had handles on the front, and I didn’t have to be careful with the broken ones, but coming back, I had to be kind of gentle with the good ones. There were other jobs too, such as taking good radios or parts to LZs that had Asrats, or just taking equipment to places that didn’t make any sense to me. How did I get around? I would go down to the LZ and hitchhike on any chopper that was headed in the direction I was going. Sometimes, in mid-flight, their destination would change, and I would end up some place I never wanted to be. I was an E-5 Sergeant, so I didn’t get stuck doing jobs like burning the shitters, digging trenches, filling sand bags, or any mess duty which at the time seemed like a blessing. Although, now that I think about it, I did have to burn the shitters some times.

So, from my bunker where I slept to where my unit’s officers lived and worked was about three quarters of a mile past the showers, the mess hall, and the airfield. Right now I can picture that walk. As I left the bunker there was a field with long deep trenches, and at times that field was filled with an Ontos unit or some armored personal unit with all their vehicles, but mostly it was empty. Then there was a dirt road, and along the road were mules filled with water for the showers, and if the sun was out and nobody had taken a shower, you might just get a warm shower, at least for a while, until the cold water mixed with the warm in the tank. I don’t know how they pumped the water up, but the shower was gravity fed.

As I walked down that road, there were small bunkers on both sides you could hop in if an attack started. On the left was a huge Air Force compound that had tall metal sides filled with earth about four feet thick. I was never allowed to get inside and see what they had. They didn’t like Marines and never allowed any of us in there.

Moving down that road I remember several large supply metal buildings on the left and would see guys moving stuff in and out of them, loading and unloading trucks. Farther up was the chow hall—a big metal roofed screened sandbagged building with tables down the length. There were deep trenches outside in case a rocket attack started. That is the place Sergeant Christianson won his Bronze Star for carrying a guy out of that hall after the attack had started. He got a piece of shrapnel in the forehead as he lowered the man down into the waiting arms of the Marines in the trench. He could have just tossed him in, but that probably would have hurt not only that guy, but also the guys in the trench. So he lowered the guy down easy like and exposed himself longer, and that got him a Purple Heart, too.

From the mess hall to the officer’s hooch I would have to go to get orders was about another hundred yards, and that area was filled with officers. It was not an area any enlisted guy liked to hang around. The officer’s hooch had sandbagged walls about three and a half feet high on the sides with screens all around and a metal roof. They had a few nicer bunkers close by that they could go to if there was an attack. Dong ha was noted for its red dirt and red dust. It was a hot dirty sweaty place you could get killed at, or it could be a hot dirty place where you lived pretty good if you were an officer. I wasn’t.

So I’m giving you all of this, to give you a picture of the setting and to get me ready to tell the story that has been hanging around my neck for forty some years, and maybe the only way I’ll get rid of it is to put it down on paper. At least I hope I do.

* * * * *

It all started in one of those bunkers between the showers and the chow hall. I was walking over to our CO’s office to tell him I had gotten in from LZ Stud, actually Signal Hill above LZ Stud, down highway #9 from the Rock Pile late the night before, thinking he might just say to take the day off. I always had those thoughts, but he never seemed to. Right then, I heard that special noise that told me something bad was inbound and not outgoing, and I had better hit the closest bunker right now. I dove into one of those small bunkers on the side of the road, and yes, it was a bit muddy but that helped me slide in faster.

That bunker was filled with smoke, pot smoke, which is really a very nice smell, and then I heard a loud “whoop” outside that told me whatever was coming in was coming in pretty close. Maybe it was a short round the gooks were hoping would hit the chow hall.

So I moved on over to the side and sat with my back to the sandbagged wall or maybe it was a dirt wall as this bunker was dug into the ground. I sat there trying to see as it was bright outside and dark in that bunker. There was one guy, a Lance Corporal, sitting on the other side with a big grin on his face, and he was stoned to the bone.

So, we sat there for a while hearing shells hitting, and then he started talking about how he had just gotten back from R&R in Hawaii where he saw his wife and their new baby daughter. He handed over a photo. His wife was beautiful, and the daughter even had a little grin. It was a nice picture. He told me he was short, only had about three months left on his tour, and he would be heading back to be with them, and probably go to school.

We sat in there talking, I think to keep our minds off what was landing close by, and after a while, it got quiet. Probably ten minutes after the last incoming round hit, we heard a truck drive by, so we parted company.

A couple days later I saw that same Lance Corporal at the chow hall, and we sat together talking. He seemed pensive or nervous. I told him to stop by our bunker that night, and he did. The communication bunker next to where I slept was big, and it had thousands of sand bags covering it. My unit would sit up on the top at night, and guys would smoke joints or just sit and talk for hours. The senior enlisted men knew that everyone up on that bunker was armed, and who knew what would happen if somebody tried to sneak up there to bust a Marine for doing drugs. Heck, you could walk just about any place on that huge base and smell pot being smoked. So sitting on the top of that bunker was a safe place to sit and talk, at least as safe as any place over there could be.

So, he told me his story, and maybe it was the strangest story I ever heard over there. About seven months earlier, just after he got to the Nam, he was at our unit’s headquarters in Da Nang. He got orders to move up to Phu bi—that was a couple miles south of Hue. He had all his equipment and his sea bag and walked out to a waiting 4x4 which is like a big pickup. He hopped in the front seat to get a ride down to the airfield. Earlier, just before he had left his hooch, this spade dude stopped him and asked if he would take this small hand bag up to Phu bi and give it to another guy who had forgotten it when he had moved up there a few weeks before. He thought nothing of it and took it along. He had thrown his sea bag in the back of the truck before he got in, but had that small bag in his hand as he got in the front.

Well, our Commanding Officer had to go to the airfield about then too. So he walked out and told that Lance Corporal to hop in the back, which he did right away, but he forgot that bag. He wasn’t paying attention when the CO said, “Hey, is this your bag?” He didn’t say anything right away, and some time on the ride the CO opened the bag to find about a thousand rolled joints in ten packs. The driver was not about to take the fall, so he pointed at the corporal and said, “It’s his bag.”

The corporal is 18 years old, has a wife and a baby either just born or on the way, and he is scared. So he drops the dime on the spade dude and gives the name of the guy he was supposed to give that bag to. The CO believes he really was just a pawn and didn’t know what was in the bag. However, dropping the dime on another Marine, or in this case two Marines, in a war zone is not really a smart thing to do. Those two Marines were busted and sentenced to six months in the Da Nang Brig, which from all reports is a real hell-hole. Worse than that, time in the brig does not count as time in either the Marine Corps, or more importantly, time in Vietnam. Yes, those guys were pissed.

Moving this tale up about seven months to the top of that bunker, that Lance Corporal had just seen one of those spade dudes he dropped that dime on, a private now, working in supply in our unit right here in Dong Ha. He didn’t know if that guy knew he was the one who dropped the dime, but we were in a small unit. He didn’t know if the other guy was sent up here, too.

About a week later that Lance Corporal was out on perimeter duty at night in a bunker. Even though there were no small arms fire or any kind of attack, somehow a gook cut his way through many coils of concertina wire that had tin cans attached with rocks inside to make noise if somebody was messing with that wire. Then that gook snuck all the way up to that corporal’s bunker and lobbed a grenade right in and snuck out without anyone seeing him. At least that is the report the two spade dudes made who were in the bunkers on either side of him.

The sad thing for sure is that corporal’s wife and daughter. But at least they got a nice letter from the Marine Corps telling how brave their husband and dad was, and a Purple Heart Medal. Who knows, maybe they threw in a Bronze Star, and promoted him to Corporal.

I never even knew his name.

Oh yeah, CID, Criminal Investigation Division came up to our unit and questioned everybody, but nobody knew anything, and the investigation only lasted about a day.

Me? I figure those two guys offed that corporal. Life is pretty darn cheap in a combat zone. And yes, I wish I could just forget that Corporal and those spade dudes, but like a lot of things I experienced over there, they just don’t seem to fade from my memory. I always wonder if those two guys did off that corporal, and do they still think of him like I do? Did they even know about his wife and child?

You sign your name on those enlistment papers, and you never think you might be signing your life away, but there are so many ways to die or be maimed for life in your body and your mind in our nation’s armed forces. But then like they say, you are young and dumb, and nothing can hurt you.

But it can, and it does.

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