A Gruesome but Fantastic War Story
The time was September 1968. The place was Quang Nam province in the mountainous northern region of South Vietnam. The people were the marines of Echo Company, "Two-Five" as they called it -- the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, which was my brother's unit. My brother was a nineteen year-old marine who grew up mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, New York City. Just before my brother joined the Marines, our family had moved from Astoria, Queens up to the "country" in Pennsylvania. My father, who had spent his whole life living in "the city", moved our family to a quiet little town along the Delaware River called Dingmans Ferry.
My brother had recently been promoted to the rank of lance corporal. He was a squad leader in an infantry unit, which meant that he was "in charge" of three or four other Marines on combat patrols and search and destroy missions through this beautiful yet extremely violent country. He had been "in country" for more than six months, after arriving in Vietnam in January on his 19th birthday. During that time he'd gone from being a "gung-ho" marine fresh out of marine boot camp into a seasoned combatant with the experience of many dangerous patrols behind him.
He had been in Vietnam long enough to make friends with a good many of those Marines who had already been there for several months when he arrived. He sometimes talked in his letters about the bittersweet feeling he would get when some of his close friends rotated back to "the world". He was happy for them to be headed home after surviving their 13-month combat tours, yet he was sad they were leaving. New, green, fresh troops would be sent to replace them, but he knew it would take time for them to become an asset instead of a liability on the battlefield.
Of course in 1968 there was no such thing as the internet. Unlike today where cell phones and other electronic communications allow us to communicate in real time with loved ones, most servicemen and women did not have access to telephones. Except for upper echelon officers who could sometimes call home, old-fashioned snail mail was the primary means of communicating with folks back home for most soldiers and marines stationed in a combat zone. My brother wrote most of his letters on Marine Corps issue stationary which had a map of Vietnam featured on both the writing paper and envelopes. In the top right-hand corner of the envelopes was a map of Vietnam, depicting both North and South Vietnam as one country. It was common practice for marines to place a dot on the map showing their approximate location in the country.
One of the "perks" of serving one's country in a combat zone was that service members were not required to pay for postage. I suppose this is a good policy, as I imagine it could be rather hard to find a post office in the mountains of Vietnam. I don't know how many letters were written and mailed because of our government's postal largesse, but I think this is a good policy.
One can imagine how important it was for troops serving in Vietnam to receive letters and packages from home. My brother mentioned many times in his letters how much he enjoyed reading letters from home and how much he appreciated it when people took the time to write and/or send packages. My brother was particularly fond of reading my younger brother Eugene's letters and he wrote that many of the other marines in his unit also got a kick out of these amusing letters. I remember my mother would often remind us to write letters to our brother which she would include with her own.
While the time it took for a letter sent from Dingmans Ferry, PA to Vietnam varied considerably, it generally took about ten days to two weeks for my brother to receive a letter from home. However, since his unit would often be "out in the bush" for weeks at a time, it sometimes took much longer than this. Likewise, we would often receive letters from my brother several weeks after he wrote them.
This meant that when my brother received a letter, the "news" from home was always a couple of weeks old, and we would learn of what was happening with him and his unit weeks after it happened. My brother's unit would often spend weeks at a time "humping" the terrain of Vietnam and he would have to wait until they came in from their patrols to mail his letters.
My brother was especially appreciative of "goody" packages that he received. Sometimes he would write to request certain things, like insect repellant or sand paper to clean his weapons with (which he said that he would get in big trouble for if he were ever caught doing in boot camp). He also requested things like jelly beans, tea bags and other treats like cookies, etc. which were hard to come by in the mountains of Vietnam.
While marines in Vietnam had considerable access to beer, which my brother complained was always warm or hot, hard liquor was a rare and precious commodity. One of my uncles sent my brother a package with whisky cleverly disguised inside a Clorox bottle. The reason my uncle sent it this way was because all packages sent to Vietnam were inspected somewhere along the way and prohibited items were summarily confiscated by authorities. (I'll bet the people whose job this was wound up with lots of "goodies" themselves.)
My brother would often write how quickly the contents of these goody packages would disappear when the other marines learned of them. My brother wrote after he got the surprise Clorox about throwing a big party and had such a great time drinking the whisky. Also, sometimes he would confess to "squirreling away" some of his loot to be enjoyed for several days.
Considering the chaotic circumstances, my brother wrote quite a few letters back home. My mother dutifully tucked each letter into a shoe box in one of the kitchen cabinets of our Pennsylvania home. I suppose at the time the reason she saved all of my brother's letters was so that when he came home he could look back and read them to refresh his memory of the time he spent in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, that time never came. To the best of my knowledge, to this day my mother has never looked at any of these letters. One day several years ago I was visiting my mother and I happened upon the old shoe box with my brother's letters in it. I started randomly taking them out of their envelopes where they had sat undisturbed for over a decade. I remember being surprised at how my brother described what he was experiencing so candidly. I was surprised that he hadn't "sugar-coated" what he was going through more, considering the fact that my mother was quite close to being a nervous wreck already knowing that her son was fighting in some far away war.
This makes me wonder exactly how much more horrific his experiences must have been. And I wonder what other stories he could have told of had he returned safely to tell them. Not to brag or anything, but I would say that my brother Pierce was really quite eloquent and very mature for a young man all of nineteen years old. He was educated in the New York City Catholic school system and this is evident in his smoothly flowing longhand penmanship in his letters. He had graduated from St. Francis Prep school in Brooklyn the year before joining the Marines. He was the vice-president of his senior class and an outstanding athlete in several sports, including swimming, water polo, and baseball. He was a giftedly coordinated boy with a friendly yet fiercely competitive spirit. If it was any sport and you were playing against him, chances are you would lose (unless he let you win). Pierce was a "lefty" in more ways than one. He had a contagiously mischievous manner about him that is hard to describe, but he was the kind of person that you could not be around for long without laughing. I have scarce few memories of him, since I was only 11 years old when he was killed, but the memories that I do have of him are all happy ones.
He had this great way of making a game out of everything. I remember one time he came home from his job of working as a lifeguard with a bag of red pistachio nuts. Of course me and my two other brothers and two sisters wanted some. Next thing I remember was he had all of us kneeling down and begging him for a nut.
Another memory I have is one time when he came home from his lifeguard job with a pretty severe sunburn. Being very fair-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes, the skin on his back was peeling off in big pieces. So he makes up this game where he lies face down on the bed and me and my brothers and sisters are having a contest to see who can peel off the biggest piece of skin from his back. Whoever won the contest would also win a quarter (which in 1968, you could buy a lot of stuff with a quarter).
In many of his letters, he described the sheer beauty of the country of Vietnam. In one letter, he told of staying at a former French villa that was situated atop a high mountain. He remarked how he sat there trying to imagine what the place must have been like in more peaceful times. He loved the country of Vietnam and its people and he went there hoping to help make life better for them.
But there was no peace there in the summer of 1968. It was a place where danger lurked around every corner, since the American military presence in this beautiful but violent land was hardly welcomed by its inhabitants. Both the North Vietnamese regulars who wore the uniforms of combatants and the often sympathetic South Vietnamese locals who saw plainly that the Americans' presence brought only violence and death to their land had no love lost for American marines.
While I am sure that my brother must have sugar-coated much of what he wrote in his letters to avoid worrying my mother even more than she already was, his letters were surprisingly graphic in describing his experiences in the far away land.
In one letter my brother wrote to our cousin Joyce who was living in Manhattan, my brother described an incident in which his unit discovered several Viet Cong (VC) fighters hiding in an underground tunnel. Here is his undated letter which was probably written in early September of 1968:
I received your letter today, and needless to say, I was glad to hear from you. You should have heard from me by now, and I can only repeat, my R & R was great and the Thai girl I me, very sweet. When I get home I will show you the pictures I took, and tell you all about the whole venture.
Yes, I can imagine how all my brothers and sisters have grown since I have been away. I know how uncomfortable I will feel when some kid comes calling on my little sister for the first time I am there" I'll have to check him out and if he meets the inspection, then she can go out with him. I agree, she is too plump! Glad to hear Eugene [my younger brother] is keeping up his usual games. If someone left that out of their letters, I would worry he was sick. Don't knock Mike's [my older brother] serious outlook toward baseball -- someday he may be great!
I got news for you, Cuz, that four months [the amount of time he had remaining on his tour of duty in Vietnam] sounds a hell of a lot shorter than thirteen [thirteen months was the total length of a marine's tour of duty in Vietnam at the time]. Actually, it's about four and one-half or 140 days. That's what I liked about your letter, -- the party talk. When I hit N.Y.C. while I am home on leave celebrating, it will be more than ever before. I often lay awake at night and look at the sky, thinking just how wonderful it will be when I see my family again -- each and every one of you, and you know something? I can picture every little thing the way I want it to happen. And I know it will be the happiest days of my life. If nothing else, Joyce, Vietnam has shown me how lucky I am to have the family I do, and the relatives who have cared for me far more than they ever had to.
That package is probably waiting in the rear for m. You see, we are supposed to spend the next thirty to forty-five days out in the bush. It has been very quiet lately, and as you can guess since I am writing, that the enemy has not been bothering us. Our mission this time is to search for buried supplies and destroy all bunkers.
Yesterday, my platoon captured five VC who were hiding in a hole. We talked four into coming out, but the fifth one, who was the leader, killed himself with a grenade. Something gruesome but fantastic happened. We dragged this VC out and his legs were blown off and he was presumably dead. All of a sudden, he raised up and looked around, talking all the time. Well, he lasted forty-five minutes, but dying for the cause he thought right. Poor fool. The other four were sent in for questioning, and they should have some valuable information.
Thanks for the package. It will be good to have some Stateside chow when I get home.
I took your advice and wrote Eileen. She had better answer my letter. I don't care if it's in Chinese and all misspelled. Better slide on now, Cuz. Remember" party time is getting closer!
P.S. Bangkok is groovier than New York
To make a long story short, party time never came. My brother was killed on October 8th, 1968 by an enemy mortar.
From conversations with two of my brother's fellow marines (his platoon sergeant and a Navy corpsman who also witnessed the above tunnel incident. assigned to my brother's marine unit) I've since learned a little bit more about the tunnel incident my brother described in this letter.
They described it as follows:
Upon discovering a tunnel which was occupied by an unknown number of Viet Cong soldiers, one of their Vietnamese interpreters shouted down from the top of the tunnel to tell those inside to surrender and come out of the tunnel. Four soldiers came out of the tunnel and were unceremoniously "taken into custody" by the marines.
Unsure if there were any more fighters remaining in the tunnel, their company's "tunnel rat" was called to explore the tunnel. Acting according to what was considered standard operating procedure for such operations, the marines "fragged" the tunnel, that is they dropped a grenade down there to take care of any stragglers and clear the way for the tunnel rat to explore the tunnel system. They waited for the recommended twenty minutes or so to allow the dust to settle and the fumes from the grenade to subside before lowering the tunnel rat head first down into the hole. Two other marines held the tunnel rat's feet as they lowered him into the tunnel with a flashlight and pistol at the ready.
They lowered the tunnel rat into the hole and he proceeds to walk about six feet along the tunnel when he stops abruptly and makes for the exit. "Holy sh*t! There's a gook down there!", he tells the others as he emerges from the tunnel. He tells them that he saw a bloodied either dead or severely wounded man in the tunnel.
The tunnel rat tells the other marines where on the surface the man is beneath and start digging to get down to him from the top. They dig several feet down and then suddenly the earth in the hole they are digging collapses into the tunnel. The next thing that happened was a grenade comes flying up out of the hole. The marines on top all dive for cover onto the ground and brace themselves for an explosion. The grenade, which was thrown straight up out of the hole, came straight down, exploding on the wounded man who had thrown it.
The marines then reached down into the hole and pulled the man out. He was unconscious and they assumed he was dead. However, he regained consciousness and began launching a vitriolic tirade in Vietnamese at the marines. The marines asked their Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) translators what he was saying. They tell them he's saying, "The Marines are number ten, and the VC (Viet Cong) are number one". [Those of us old enough to remember the 1960s may recall the practice of ranking things on a scale of one to ten, with number one being the best and number ten being the worst. Apparently, this ranking system was also popular in the Vietnamese culture.] He also said that the Americans had no business being in Vietnam and should leave the Vietnamese people alone. He proceeded to continually berate the marines for the next forty-five minutes, until he breathed his last breath, finally succumbing to his multiple injuries.