I’m working on a non-fiction book that’s part memoir / part biography. It’s about my dad’s time as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and how that war has continued to have implications for our family, the things he saw and did rippling down through future generations. It’s definitely going to have its funny spots, but there’s some dark stuff, too. Here’s a sample of the latter.
THE STREET WITHOUT JOY
He’d been in country thirty days before they threw him in the shit. His first posting in Vietnam had been the Marine base at Chu Lai. For a full month he had hot meals in a functioning mess hall where things like apples and bananas were fresh and plentiful. He slept in an actual tent, on an elevated cot. When he and his fellow Marines weren’t running drills they were playing beach volleyball as their machine gun nests held silent sentry over a calm South China Sea. The medical tents stood empty unless someone needed a little treatment for sunburn. One morning in early March as my father walked to mess he clapped another Marine on the back and said, “My God, if this is war, I’m okay with it.”
On the morning of March 19th, 1966, everything changed. In the midst of firing drills on the gun range, orders came down from Lieutenant Colonel “Sullie” Sullivan. Grab your gear. Extra ammo from the armory. A change of clothes. Pack light. Get up to the heliport. They were rolling out. The 1st Battalion 4th Marines’ fun in the sun was over.
As they sat on the heliport, baking under the scorching March heat, my father was flooded with conflicting emotions. He was about to see what war really was. This fight would take him to I Corps, the thick of it. He would not be stuck at Chu Lai, eating fresh fruit and waiting out the war. He would not be guarding Vung Tau, ensuring soldiers had a place to get drunk and get laid. He was 1st Battalion, 4th Division. The front line. The tip of the spear. My father had been raised on John Wayne. He was part of an entire generation of young men who’d been taught to think of war as easy. Point-and-shoot heroism. He wanted to charge the hill, take the flag, and march home singing victory songs. Part of him was itching to fight. He had all these guns and he wanted to shoot them.
But there was another part of him. The part that sent nervous fingers to check and recheck his pack. That made him count his stacks of ammo and worry whether he’d packed enough. That had him polish his sidearm, a government issue .45 that could blast a hole in a cinderblock wall. That turned his stomach into knots as the sun blazed down, as the hours stretched out and as the men of 1st Battalion 4th Marines waited for their rides. That part of him had a troubling sense that war was not easy. That war was, indeed, hell. And that he was about to find out for sure, either way.
That day the choppers never came. Late into the afternoon command called it off and sent the Marines back to base. They dropped their packs and grabbed a hot meal. They slept soundly on their cots. My dad drifted off quick and easy, unaware of the firefight exploding 150 miles to the north, across a small cluster of villages running parallel to a packed dirt road with a brutal, bloody history.
It was given its name by the men of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps during the Indochina War. The road ran past scattershot villages thrown across the countryside like grains of rice. Where the villages ended, swamps and paddies and bogs began. Bamboo trees and bushes provided improvised cover; Buddhist temples, pagodas and tombs sturdy bases of operation. The Viet Minh had spent years creating tunnels and trenches, a war-ready infrastructure that the Vietcong employed some 20 years later when the Americans came. On maps it was called Route 1. But the section that stretched from the city of Hue to the Quang Tri province had another name earned from the battles that raged on, across, over and around it.
And on March 20th, 1966, the 1st Battalion 4th Marines would add another bloody mark in the history of The Street Without Joy.
It was called Operation Oregon. A sweep and secure mission with the Marines tasked to secure the small hamlets of Ap Phu An and Ap Tay Hoang, where intelligence believed the Viet Cong were holed up, vulnerable and unprepared. After breakfast the orders came down again, same as the day before. The Marines geared up and humped their way back to the heliport, where things were already different.
“Form lines, eight men to a line!” came the orders. My dad fell in, his pulse quickening as he connected the dots – eight men was all a chopper could carry. As my father scanned the heliport and the sea of Marines with eyes fixed and jaws set, he saw a green swarm, a ready tide. There were over 300 Marines. They were rolling out. And the war was waiting.
Their rides came in a roar. 40 choppers from the Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. They came in hot, swooped down low, scooped up their men. 40 choppers carrying 320 Marines, heading north. He lost track of time. He was young, buzzing with adrenaline, and things like time or distance seemed of little importance. He didn’t clock the 45-minute flight time or see the topography change from coastal to jungle. There was no sense of the miles they were clicking. There was only his gear, which he checked and rechecked. His eyes scanned the other men in his chopper and his stomach settled. They were well trained, and he thought they were ready.
But you could never be ready for it.
The choppers plunged to the deck, a growl of metal glinting in the hot afternoon sun. The door gunner opened up, sending rounds roaring across the rice paddies. Unsure and naïve, my father assumed it was covering fire, a spray of confidence and intimidation meant to clear the way for a safe, soft landing. It wasn’t until the door gunner turned and locked eyes with my father that reality crashed through.
The door gunner tried shouting, but the engines swallowed the sound. Instead, he raised a hand and curled his fingers around an imaginary magazine, tapping his knuckles against the stock of his weapon.
Lock and load.
The helicopter touched down with a bone-rattling thud and the door slid open, revealing a wind swept rice paddy. The door gunner pinwheeled an arm and the Marines charged out the door, dropping into the muck. My father bent low, clearing the whirring blades and ran, following the jabbing finger of a commanding officer he could only see, not hear. Everything was chaos. The rotors whipped, slashing the air to ribbons. The engines roared, swallowing up every sound in their path. The sun was too bright, the humid air too stifling. His head bent low, he kept running. The water in the rice paddy rippled in tiny, violent bursts. Ripples caused not by wind, but by bullets. They were under fire. All around him Marines dove for cover or screamed in pain or fell down dead. Hundreds and hundreds of rounds pinged and plunged and sought. And all he could do was run.
He found cover behind the helicopter, diving into a ditch. He propped himself up on elbows, sighted his weapon and squeezed the trigger. In one muzzle flash he became part of an exclusive club: For every ten soldiers in the Vietnam War, only three would ever fire their weapon in active combat. As the helicopters lifted up and away, the roar of engines was replaced by the sounds of the firefight. My father sprayed bullets across the rice paddy, aiming blindly at the village in front of him. He couldn’t see the enemy. They were too dug in. The Marines had expected a simple, quiet landing. An easy approach toward the village of Ap Phu An. They had counted on the element of surprise. Instead, they hand landed in the middle of an enemy force who’d been lying in wait for them. In bunkers camouflaged so completely as to be all but invisible, the VC fired small arms, grenades and mortars, barraging the invading Marines in a non-stop onslaught. My father was dug in on the rear of the battle. Ahead of him he saw his brothers strung out and pinned down, the VC hammering their positions. Behind him, medics had taken control of a Buddhist temple, the wounded and the dead pouring through the doors in a steady stream.
Thousands of years of human evolution and it’s still the best we can do. We draw lines on a map and call the ground ours. We send children off to kill those who disagree. He was 19 years old. And, when the firing started, there were no thoughts of his country. No noble defense of freedom and democracy behind the screaming and shooting. He just didn’t want to die. They all just didn’t want to die.
A Corporal slid into the ditch next to them. Out of breath, bloody and muddy, he pointed a shaking finger at my father and his buddy Ron Baldwin. “I need you guys!” he shouted over the thunderclaps of rifle fire blasting over their heads. He swept the finger at the other 4 Marines in the ditch behind them. “All of you! On your feet, we need stretcher bearers!”
They did as they were told, moving their feet before their brains. My father sprinted ahead of the rest, hot on the heels of the Corporal, as he led them up and onto a small, rut-filled dirt road running smack into Route 1. They turned a sharp left onto The Street Without Joy, sprinting from a crouch. Ahead of them, bodies were everywhere. A squad of Marines had taken heavy fire, the air thick with smoke and screams.
My father and Ron Baldwin snapped open their compact stretcher, sliding to a stop at the feet of a young black Marine. His stomach was ripped wide, his intestines slipping through his desperate fingers and coiling onto the red soil. As they lifted him onto the stretcher he screamed for his mother.
John Wayne was nowhere to be found.
After setting the man onto a gurney in the Buddhist temple, they sprinted back up Route 1, stopping next at a Marine lying face down in the dirt, a compression bandage wrapped tight across the back of his skull. They lifted the unconscious man into their stretcher and got moving. Suddenly, the ground erupted in violent red bursts. The VC had trained their sights on them. They ran with the stretcher, getting to the far side of Route 1, ducking low and into the ditch, then further into the rice paddy, their legs submerged to the knee as they tried to run, tried to escape the rounds peppering the air all around them. Ron Baldwin, at the head of the stretcher, ducked low, dipping as he ran. The front of the stretcher plunged into the rice paddy, submerging the Marine’s head completely. My father opened his mouth to shout a warning, but then the bandage peeled loose and floated away across the rice paddy. This Marine was not unconscious. The back of his head had been blown apart by the exit wound. They kept running for the temple, the dead Marine’s head plowing the water like the prow of a ship.
On his final trip up Route 1, my dad wrapped an arm around a Marine with a minor head wound. The bullet had grazed the side of the man’s skull, but he was lucid and on his feet. He draped an arm across dad’s shoulders and together they ran for the Buddhist temple, the Marine collapsing against the outside wall, his head lolling and his eyes rolling up white. A medic hurried up to them, sweeping a flashlight over the Marine’s pupils, fingers probing the gash on the side of his head. The medic uncapped a pen with his teeth, marking a dark black X on the back of the Marine’s hand.
“Keep him here!” the Medic shouted, getting to his feet and racing back inside the temple. The Marine leaned back against the wall, pitching his weight into my father’s legs. Minutes piled and stacked on top of each other as my father saw medics treating Marines shot in the leg, the arm, the buttocks. The temple was a blur of stretchers and bandages, glucose and IVs. He glanced down at his wounded Marine, whose closed eyelids were fluttering. Whose skin had turned ashen. My father snagged the arm of the next Medic that passed.
“This guy’s hit in the head, you gotta help him!” he shouted.
The Medic glanced at the Marine’s head wound, at the black X on his hand. He looked my father in the eye, settled a hand on his shoulder.
“Marine,” the Medic said, “We help those we still can.”
The Medic turned and hurried back into the Temple. The Marine’s eyes under the dark maroon gouge were glassy and distant. Dead. The bullet had grazed the skull, causing the brain to swell. There might have been some way to save him in a hospital back home. But here? He was dead the moment the bullet sliced his skin.
Shaken, my father dug back into the ditch at the rear of the battlefield. He slid a fresh magazine into his weapon and sprayed fire. Commanders raced by, tossing him and his fellow Marines fresh clip after fresh clip. There was nothing more they could do. For the next two hours, they kept their fingers pulling their triggers.
In late afternoon the Calvary finally arrived. Someone up the chain of command had made the call: there was no stopping the VC by firefight. They were too well hidden. Too dug in. They’d have to burn them out. The first F4 streaked across the sky, clipping treetops as it flew over the village of Ap Chinh Anh, canisters tumbling from the bomb bay doors.
Napalm was born of the labs at Harvard. Louis Fieser, an organic chemist and professor emeritus developed the weapon as part of a secret wartime collaboration with the U.S. Government. Named for naphthenic and palmitic acids, the aluminum salt gelling agents that are paired with a fuel like petroleum, Napalm was first produced on Valentine’s Day in 1942. Two years later the Air Force dropped the first canisters on Berlin. By the time WWII was over, Napalm had incinerated over 60 Japanese cities. The Korean War came next, and America deployed over 30,000 tons of Napalm between 1950 and 1953. Somewhere along this timeline Napalm moved from an incendiary device used on structures and buildings to a full-fledged anti-personnel device. Napalm spread like lava and erupted like an atom bomb. It generated temperatures ten times hotter than what was needed to boil water. It turned the air poison and clung to exposed skin. It flowed into foxholes and burned through bunkers. During the Vietnam War, U.S. forces deployed over 350,000 tons.
When that low-flying F4 tumbled twin canisters of Napalm onto the village of Ap Chinh Anh, the Marines took cover and waited for the blast. But the plane had come in too low, not giving the canisters enough altitude to arm themselves. Instead of exploding, the canisters shattered apart, coating the village in thick petroleum gel. The second F4 didn’t make the same mistake. It climbed higher, dropping its canisters from far above the village. My father watched these canisters tumble down, spinning and whirling in a graceful dive. These canisters were armed. And when they hit the village, they erupted, the force of the blast igniting the contents of the first two as well.
A single canister of napalm can incinerate 22,000 square feet. Two canisters were already overkill. The Marines unleashed four on the tiny village of Ap Chinh Anh. Nothing survived. Almost immediately the firing slowed and stopped. The Napalm bloomed, a thundercloud of fire swallowing the village and the jungle and the rice paddy. As evening fell, the flames licked at the charred remains of homes and bunkers and trenches. The Marines bunked down for the night, sleeping in shifts and keeping weary, wary eyes on the smoldering village ahead of them…