June 12, 2009

Marine Memories



Sudden flashback Philippines 1961...whole amtrack platoon de-tracked in shallow inland lake when tide out...mine only amtrack running...radioed me to go same calamitous route upriver they took instead of the road...little rocks stranded me middle of lake... 11 crippled amtracks...half-mile swim...3 days 55 marines diving nude 12 feet of water to retrieve 5,000-lb tracks; then off to Cambodia to offload Seabees...they built Udorn Air Base where heavy bombing of North Vietnam was launched throughout war...also where race riots and mutinies erupted after Martin Luther King was murdered...our unit couldn’t go up Bangkok River either... too swift...We went thru Bay of Siam as Asian night fell...it swarmed with poisonous snakes...and entered Bangkok River next misty dawn cookfire smoke on sleepy river mixed with fog on calm water...saffron-robed monks rushing down to drag canoes to safety from our mighty bow wave and wake...flying a UN flag!...JFK's Gambit “neutralizing” Laos didn't work either...North Vietnam took over southern Laos securing supply routes to the South Vietnam War.

As far back as 1957 Commander of Pacific Theater warned Pentagon: “Invade now or lose Vietnam!” when North Vietnam seized trails thru Laos for access to South Vietnam thru Cambodia...to establish famed supply line Americans dubbed “Ho Chi Minh Trail”...an ancient vast complex of trails under triple-canopy jungle over torturous mountain ridges...with man-eating tigers and snakes to kill you like a hypodermic of barbituates in seconds...traveling above and alongside and back and forth across swinging bridges over raging rivers that North Vietnam Army widened fortified covered camouflaged improved and repaired constantly and used constantly despite round-the-clock bombing of cluster bombs napalm white phosphorous bombs to supply NVA and Vietcong...Broadway at rush hour!...Third Marine Division took us back to Okinawa and a year later I got out and missed the war...God didn't want me killing anybody is way I see it...Thank you God...but nobody really missed it who was conscious...one way or another all of us were there and EVERYBODY SUFFERED FOR IT...someday I'll tell you about the PTSD guys I've known...you know I can tell a story...turn your hair white maybe...did I already write about the exploding elephants?



CIA BOMBED LAOS 10 YEARS IN A SECRET WAR...Air America planes smuggled heroin back to states...everybody knows this...WE KNEW IT THEN AND TOLD YOU BUT YOU DIDN'T LISTEN!...DIDN'T BELIEVE!...DIDN'T CARE!...heroin and wrecked men wreaked havoc on American cities ESPECIALLY THE GHETTOS...THEY MURDERED HALF THE POPULATION OF LAOS!...a million people goddammit!...some of the gentlest most-harmless and oldest people on the planet!!!...CIA bombed Plain of Jars where people had farmed continuously 13,000 years...DEPOPULATED IT!...farmers plowed their fields at night...did you know this???...it looked like the craters of the moon so many bombs...did anybody ever tell you this before???...look it up it’s all been documented...IT WAS ILLEGAL AS HELL!...WAR CRIMES!...has anybody been punished?...accused?...investigated?...are you aware there is no statute of limitations on war crimes?...has anyone proposed reparations and apologies to the victims?...OF COURSE NOT!...they don't have any oil...as long as the guilty bastards are alive they can be prosecuted legally...we not only signed the Geneva Conventions disallowing these things WE HELPED TO WRITE THEM!...And Henry Ass Kissinger is the biggest muckedy-muck left to answer for it...but the Press treats him like an all-American hero...our own esteemed celebrated Nazi war criminal dares not de-plane in Spain, Belgium or Brazil...THEY WILL ARREST HIM!...the former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor...chief plotter in assassination of President Salvador Allende and Chilean democracy!...other nationals caught up in his death traps their nations are pissed...do you understand this???...there are white people who want to hang Henry Ass Kissinger!





But I didn’t know any of this stuff then...I was a low-ranking marine...good worker gung ho and all that but on liberty I was a stupid belligerant drunk...busted for awol...busted for fighting...but squared away mind you...shoes shined...tropicals clean and pressed...regulation folds on my underwear...good salute...good work on the amtracks...good marcher...good hiker...good shot...passes all the written tests...pays attention in venereal disease class...good housecleaner...WE WERE TRAINED TO PASS INSPECTIONS!...but only incidentally to fight...when we were not fixing something on them we were painting those amtracks so many coats of paint and stenciled-on unit markings and other voodoo the taxpayers should ask why a hunk of metal needs so much paint...Jesus I remember sweeping pure dirt tank trails at Camp Lejeune...tanks and amtracks churn then up like plowed fields!...with street brooms to make them presentable for passing generals...marines and army were slaughtered first years in Vietnam...you know that movie We Were Soldiers Once PURE BULLSHIT...



those guys were traipsing through the boonies like a Sunday picnic all strung out laughing smoking joking and the point too nearthe main column...the battalion commander wrote the whole true story...We Were Soldiers Once, and Young... then they faked the movie...right into a defile where the North Vietnamese were hungrily waiting for contact...to learn how how Americans fight...it wasn't until 1967 the Corps started training under near-combat conditions...I was a mediocre marine compared to this fighting bunch they have now...today's marines are in much better shape than we were...it seems a tougher Marine Corps now with some very deadly weapons...some crazy bastards too...kids weaned on video games drugs and violent music...you thought we were insensitive once and young...bloodthirsty?...these men are listening to killer hip-hop music while kicking in doors...assassinating people in their path...I know our guys in Nam did the same thing only secondhand news...I wasn't there thank God...But we had Kissinger Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy...J. Edgar Hoover and Malcom X... Martin Luther King Abbie Hoffman Betty Friedan and Angela Davis... a million draftees who didn't really want to be there...and each other...we select privileged people who were paying attention...privileged to know the meaning of the Media Pa. FBI break-in...that's what they called it...somebody went in the way FBI does in dead of night when all were away...stole the files!...FBI files...emptied them out I bet...FBI went nuts...for the next five years packets of files would show up at some newspaper or radio station like Pacifica...underground organs willing to print them...files showed FBI had a network of paid and un-paid informers stretching from the doorboy in the local theater to the City Manager...everybody was calling them up all the time with information on their fellow citizens...do you get the import of that?...a nation of traitors...rats...snitches...criminals...all revealed in those files...nothing blacked out baby...names dates places and faces...anyway that's how I remember it but forgive me I'm old my memory is tricky...they were looking for communists...or anybody who didn't have the right...ideas...Ten years before I didn't have a clue about any of this.

Sometime in 1961 my marine amtrack unit was near Olongopo on Luzon Island in the Philippines on maneuvers practicing for a trip under our own power up the Bangkok River into Thailand for what we know now was an opening gambit of the Vietnam War. We knew nothing of the plans however. I must have been at least a Private First Class, because I was driving that $250,000 LVTP-5 with a crew chief and a gunner who had to defend us with a mere .30 caliber machine gun mounted on a revolving turret.



We hardly imagined that someone would actually shoot at us. We were the United States Marines, some of the world’s most-notorious badasses, we thought. Nobody really wanted to take us on, we thought. Nobody wanted to screw with us, we thought. Not only did we have the whole Marine Corps behind us, there was the U.S. Navy and Air Force too, and in reserve somewhere the backward cumbersome and probably retarded U.S. Army to come occupy the place after we had spent blood and talent to wrest it from a lousy dirty stinking communist that wanted to destroy our way of life. On top of that we had won two world wars and had thousands of atom and hydrogen bombs. We had kicked the shit out of everybody especially the Japs...see how nice they are now? We couldn’t be beaten. The planet had never seen anyone as powerful great beautiful and smart as the Americans. We were taught to think like this. The Marine Corps Hymn sends shivers up your spine the last day of Boot Camp or you are a suspect in the Marine Corps. When a marine is ordered to do something he or she must do it without question or argument. Ha! You bet. Charge that machine gun nest into certain bloody death? Yes sir!...You don’t get out of Boot Camp if you can’t follow orders. That, after all, is the whole point. You can't take a vote on a battlefield. You either follow the leader or the leader can put a bullet in your head…for an enlisted man following orders is the key to a successful career…for an officer it’s the same but he can resign if he doesn’t like it…an ordinary marine goes to the brig...on the battlefield can be summarily shot…that’s a fact guys if you’re thinking of joining up and staying a civilian too…there are no anarchists in the Marine Corps.




But after work you're pretty much on your own, as long as you don’t run afoul of the local law, or the Military Police, or any non-commissioned officer or officer you happen upon. Back then after a day or a week of hard usually backbreaking work on those iron monsters, we headed for town with liberty passes to get drunk and chase women. They aren’t that hard to catch around most military bases if you have cash. There are places in the world where you can wave a handful of cash and women will swarm you like flies. The Philippines was like that then. I don’t know how it is now but that is how it was then.

Pratt, myself, and another guy whose name I’ve forgotten, merely waded across the Olongopo River one night from where our platoon was camped to meet with three Filipino prostitutes who accepted as payment and knew what to do with the bagful of brass pipe fittings Pratt had pilfered from a pile of them on the ship that carried our platoon of 12 amtracks. Pratt said they were probably going to sell it to the HUK, which was the acronym of the Philippine communist insurgency, to melt it all down and make bullets to shoot at us someday. (They lost.) Who cared? All we wanted were the women and the rum they brought. I think there were even a transistor radio, a couple of blankets, and a long drunken night of making love on blankets spread on rocks. Suddenly it was dawn, and time to return to the tractors just a hundred yards distant. But Pratt and I were drunk as hell.

We staggered across the clear rock-bottomed fast-flowing knee-deep river and greeted Sgt. Pound with a raucous hello. He was drinking coffee and peering at us with amusement and resignation.

“Havenar and Pratt, get in your tractor and sleep it off. Keep the radio on. We are going upriver and you can join us later.” The other guy was sober enough to go with the rest of the platoon. Pratt and I gratefully accepted his leniency. He could have thrown us in a Navy brig. We crapped out on benches in the tractor, and turned on the big trans-oceanic radio.

Pratt was a funny little guy from Kansas City. He was full of schemes. He wanted to get back to the Philippines after we got out, buy an ocean-going boat, and smuggle cheap Marine Corps cigarettes (dollar a carton) from Okinawa to places around the Pacific Rim; a real adventurer. He wanted me to go in with him, and I was considering it along with my plan to be a great wealthy and famous writer someday. Why not a great writer AND a smuggler?

We couldn’t have slept long. It was hotter than Yuma. About noon the radio crackled and snapped out my tractor’s call sign. When I answered, it was Sgt. Pound telling Pratt and I to round up every piece of spare track we could find and bring it upriver. That was all.




LVTP-5 (Landing Vehicle Tracked Personnel Model 5) amphibian tractors had two tracks composed of 135 thirty-five pound blocks linked together with two six-inch stainless steel pins that had to be driven in or out with a 30-lb sledgehammer. The track sat flat on the ground, but each link had an inverted paddle, pointed upward, which propelled the tractor through water. Changing one link—“breaking track”--was a routine but heavy job; replacing a whole track was a much bigger job; building whole tracks from pieces was an enormous one, requiring a good number of men to wrestle them around.

Any number of things can snap a track. Barbed wire or smooth communication wire can be dragged into the final drive sprocket and wound around it so thickly it can break track and pop outer retaining plates, and foul up other things as well; wire of any kind is a real pain in the ass to cut out with a pair of wire clippers. If it's barbed wire you have to cut out you want to simply ignite that 390 gallons of pure gasoline and be done with it. A boulder hit too square with the 35-ton vehicle can snap track like a matchstick. In this case it was round rocks the size of softballs that natural erosion of running water had smoothed and rounded over millennia which did the trick. But we heard nothing about the rocks until too late.

Pratt and I worked like hungover horses struggling onto our tractor spare track stashed at the camp. Each tractor carried 30-link spares weighing about 1,050 lbs. which can break your back lifting it 10 feet to the top of the amtrack, so we had to break each package in thirds first. This in itself is a bit of a job. It was a big job, but by the time we finished we had the equivalent of more than one whole track atop our vehicle, which made it heavier by more than five thousand pounds. This caused the tractor to ride lower in the water of course.




We radioed that we were on our way and somebody said come on. The trip up the flowing river was wet and wild. Water splashed over the bow and soaked us through. We were used to that. We operated in the heaving ocean and the pounding surf. If things were too wet or cold or visibility was impaired we needed only to lower our seats, close a water-tight canopy, and peer ahead or behind through stationary periscopes.

Every now and then I could feel the tracks scraping bottom on what I assumed were sandbars. A couple of miles upriver we entered a long narrow lake. We happened onto a strange scene.




In the middle of the lake amtracks like iron green islands floated aimlessly. Around the edge were others, some floating, some half-ashore, and one that was rumbling around on higher ground; it was the only tractor other than my own which was not disabled.

Within a minute of entering the lake, a frantic message came over the radio telling me to head for shore. I began a left turn when I lost control of the steering. One of those softball-sized rocks had found a way between a track and final drive sprocket and snapped our track like a pretzel. It had simply rolled off into the lake bottom. With only one track all a tractor can do is spin. I idled the engine to keep the bilge pumps working, but there was no leak nor therefore any need. Orders followed to swim ashore so I shut it off.

Pratt and I stood atop the tractor, considered the distance, stripped to our waist, removed our boots and dove in. This is when I learned what a lousy swimmer this would-be smuggler was. Pratt was winded after fifty yards, and I had to swim alongside and support him the rest of the way.

When we waded ashore, Sgt. Pound ruefully imparted the news he should have sent over the airwaves, but could not for fear that communists in Moscow might hear it: the tide was out, the Olongopo River was low, and there were rocks on the bottom that the tractors had sucked up from the mud, which had disabled nearly the whole platoon. Who knew? Who should have?



We were the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) for the Pacific Theater then. It was a rotating job, and there was always a BLT afloat with a squadron of ships an amtrack unit and a battalion of combat-ready marines for an amphibious landing to secure a beachhead wherever sent. The job of our armored amtracks was to land the grunts (infantry)in the first wave and carry them their ammo and other supplies, as they presumably fought their way inland to conquer communists, who wanted to destroy our way of life.

Yes, it was the same then as now, only now it is “terrorists” who want to “destroy our way of life.” After them, who knows? The French? The North Koreans? The Germans again? The lesbians and gays? Rest assured, there will always be an enemy who wants to destroy our way of life, for as long as weapons-makers need profits.

We didn’t know or care about any of that then. All we knew was the Navy was ready to sail with our secret force, and our breakdown was delaying the whole operation. We were ordered into a 24-hour-a-day effort to retrieve as much sunken track as we could, and to get all 12 tractors operational. The only other option was to send off to Okinawa for more, an expensive and intolerable delay.



We began by diving where it was thought each tractor had lost track. We swam out following directions shouted from shore, and buoyed likely spots with inflated life jackets and cork lifesavers roped to weights of all sorts for anchors. There was nothing else to do but dive and poke around blind in the muddy bottom with hands and metal rods. By the time we reached this phase, it was nearly dark.

We treaded water in a circle and took turns diving to the bottom to sound and feel for the lost tracks. After hours of this, we located a few. Then the trick was to get a one-inch braided cable to it, fasten it with a clevis, and signal the one working amtrack to haul it ashore.

That meant two marines swam out to the spot dragging a long rope, and the rest of us heaved, having nothing but water to brace against with flipper feet, until the rope pulled a one-inch cable into our hands from the bottom directly beneath. Then a clevis (a u-joint with a bolt and nut) would be attached, and we would take turns diving onto the track until one of us connected it. If you can imagine five or six guys treading water and trying to keep a heavy cable on top of the water while another marine, 12 feet down in muddy water and sightless, slipped a clevis and bolt onto it, you can see the scene. The shore tractor hauled out the first track to general cheering. But it was only the beginning.

It worked like a charm, but it was a long and tedious job. We had begun the operation wearing only skivvies, but before a half-day was done, the skivvies were floating around the lake and we were as naked as Adam. This was nothing to a bunch of marines who had been showering together since boot camp.




When night came we stayed on it. We had two operating tractors by now. They parked with their lights trained on the water, where marines were swimming and shouting to each other in the dark. I seem to recall mosquitoes sucking out our vital fluids. And the water, flowing as it was from higher elevations, turned colder. When we managed to get out and stand around a fire, our skin was water-logged and wrinkled like a baby’s.

Somebody smuggled in some beer. It had to have been Sgt. Marino--whose story I will relate at another time--who had been smuggling beer since WW II, and who knew how to keep his men happy. By midnight, some were feeling no pain but working non-stop. It didn't matter. Nobody drowned or even came close to it. Get a bunch of marines together with an emergency, relax the rules some, and watch them work.

No one is going to tell me that Americans when they are needed and trusted won't exercise steadfast surprising and creative initiative. My whole time in the Marine Corps conditioned me to be this sort of person: if they come back and say both pilots are dead, can anybody fly a plane? and nobody raises their hand, I am headed for the cockpit.

When situations like this occur real camaraderie can be born. That camaraderie is the one thing that I have always missed about the Marine Corps. The sense of closeness and cooperation I felt with other marines in an emergency like that. Even in normal times marines work as two-man teams. Want to see something funny? Watch a bunch of civilians organize themselves to unload a big truck or warehouse, when things must be done hand-to-hand.

We had one thing in mind: retrieve the track and get the tractors back to the ship. We were holding up the war, if one came along.

It went on all night long and into the morning, when we were ordered to break and cook our own breakfasts from C-rations, our first hot grub since it began.

We relaxed for about an hour and sat around around eating, drinking hot instant coffee and smoking. Some of us stretched out and slept for a few winks. Some men collapsed from exhaustion and laid out on flat rocks to get their strength back.
Then it was back to the work.

For the rest of that day and on into night we worked furiously. Once track had been dragged ashore, it had to be unrolled and dragged to the spot and laid out so a tractor could roll straight onto it. They were all ashore by then. Then the remainder of the track must be pulled by hands over the idler rollers and the final drive sprocket, fastened together with clampjacks, and linked with the aforementioned pins. It took hours to accomplish this for each vehicle.

Nobody griped. Of course enlisted men gripe all the time about the stupidity of officers and sergeants. How smart was it, for example, to tell me to follow the same disastrous route? Why didn’t someone notice that a road ran alongside the river? Don’t they read maps? Why didn’t they know the tide was out? Had anyone studied the composition of the bottom and the likelihood of such a thing? Hadn't anyone figured that even if I were driving in on a higher tide I was more than 5,000 pounds heavier than normal? Were we the first amtrack unit this had happened to in a lake where marines had been operating since WW II? And why didn’t they tell me the trouble before I started out so I might have avoided their fate?

A 32-ton vehicle like that, solid steel, with a 12-cylinder Continental V-12 engine,29 feet long 11 feet high and 10 feet wide, can flatten whole trees and blaze a trail through the forest if it must. An LVTP-5 could go 35 miles an hour on a paved road, climb a 70-degree grade, go sideways on a 60-degree grade, and descend a 70-degree grade.It could only proceed a modest 6.5 knots per hour in water, however. Slow enough for mortars to zero in from shore. When I drove one, 390 gallons of gasoline fueled it from 12 rubber tanks beneath the deck. Someone told me amtracks "went up like roman candles" in Vietnam, and the Marine Corps had installed baffling in the tanks and switched to slower-burning diesel fuel.




Most of us were hyperactively exhausted if there is such a thing by the time a regimental general arrived on the third day. He drove up the road in a jeep with a driver and stopped at the edge of the scene: naked marines everywhere; no evidence of rank; tools and tractors strewn all over the place; men working like hell, shouting, arguing, cursing, and laughing their asses off.

A naked lieutenant ran over and saluted.

“What the fuck is going on here?” inquired the one-star Brigadier. I was working nearby and heard it. A few of us nearly busted out laughing. Ha, ha! Fifty naked marines running around shouting and working their butts off.

The lieutenant began explaining, but by then the captain and a major had pulled on their uniforms and were making a report. Of course the general already knew, or he wouldn’t have been there. We hardly ever saw a general except at inspections. Then one would appear with a retinue of lesser-officers, sometimes wearing white gloves, to spot-inspect our weaponry and ourselves. Then he would be gone until the next time. Sometimes it was a bigger general with two or three stars from the Inspector General’s Office in Washington; which was when the shit usually hit the fan. I have seen one of his lackeys stand on a high stool and run a white-gloved hand over 10-foot high molding looking for dirt.

The general walked around looking at things for about an hour, took and delivered a lot of salutes, did a lot of talking with officers, then got in his Jeep and spun back toward the fleet. We were close to finishing. By the time we did get it wrapped up, it was night again. We convoyed down the sensible road the few miles back to camp. Across the river we parked and ate, then began packing for the trip back out to the ships, which were a half-mile offshore. We loaded onto our LSD (Landing Ship Dock) soon after dawn and dogged the tractors down on the filthy well deck still soaked with seawater.




Then we went where only the officers were privileged to know. Several nights later we anchored within sight of a city 10 miles distant whose lights were alluring but not on our itinnerary. Someone said it was Saigon. The next morning we sailed for Thailand, but no one told the common marines where we were, until our ship sailed almost silently up the Bangkok River toward Bangkok.

They couldn't use us after all. We were meant to go upriver with Seabee supplies, but it turned out that the river flowed faster downstream than we could drive upstream. Our ships offloaded the Seabees and other units who proceeded upriver to build Udorn Air Base. It was years before I learned what that voyage and that time on the Olongopo River were all about.

After studying military matters as an amateur a dilletante and antiwar protester for years, even I know that the Marine Corps of that day was saddled with cumbersome unproved equipment like the LVTP-5, antiquated rifles like the M-1, tactics suited for WW II, and a rigid class system between officers and enlisted men, all of which served to make it a second-class force.

But the truth is that my loyalty has always been not to the Corps but to the men who served with me and the men and women who serve in it now--though I am an adamant opponent of both these wars. I'm still in close touch with four of the guys I served with and know where four others are. The Corps is the Crotch. The marines are something else again.












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