Christmas Eve, 1966. Mitch sits under an upturned boat with two fellow marines. Rain batters the hull over their heads and water creeps into their boots.
His gung-ho, “get-some” attitude had drained away. Now the men in his unit are his motivation to fight, not the politics or ideology that had put him there.
“[There was] a lot of downtime,” Mitch wrote home, “where you'd be set up in base camp or walking in column formation. You'd often be waiting around in your tent. Then all hell would break loose.”
Company's rotated in and out and out of their forward HQ from Battalion HQ. Thirty days in and ninety days out. So for ninety days at a stretch the marines were in danger of attack 24 hours a day.
Mitch's company consisted of three platoons. Ideally each platoon had four squads of four men. In his experience there were never enough men to make up the full compliment.
Battalion HQ was outside Hoi An, a beautiful town boasting French, Chinese and Japanese architecture in its riverside homes, bridges and gardens. Mitch took the highway south from Danang where he arrived. On his left, rolling surf pounded the brilliant sand on China Beach. To his right, paddy fields and scattered palm trees abutted the road.
When my wife and I were there, it was difficult to imagine fighting around what is now a popular tourist destination. Now China Beach hosts plush hotels, mini-golf courses and souvenir emporiums; but fields still border Highway 1, still worked by inscrutable farmers.
There were generally two types of operation for the marines. One in which specific intelligence had been received of the enemy's location, with units sent out according to the size of engagement anticipated. Or, more commonly, patrols would go out from the company staging post in the hope of finding some VC to shoot at.
“A lot of the time you'd go out and wait to be ambushed. The VC would ambush or shoot at you and then flee the area.”
Mitch's platoon came under mortar fire on his first patrol. Within two months he'd been promoted to Corporal to replace his Squad Team Leader who'd been injured.
“It was a demoralizing war because you saw so many guys come back with no legs or no arms.” The VC collected the brass shell casings from spent artillery and packed them with explosives at mini-arms factories dotted about the countryside.
Some operations benefitted from several days planning, others were spontaneous engagements that developed with no preparation. Operation Stone in February 1967 fell somewhere between the two.
A “humungous” group of VC and NVA [North Vietnamese Army] were dug in around a village in a dangerous area known to the local marines as Dodge City. Dodge City was a “free-fire zone” which meant they were permitted to destroy all the life in that zone since friendly locals had been told to evacuate. Any remaining civilians were regarded as hostile, supporting the enemy, and therefore legitimate targets.
Mitch's Executive Officer, Steve Chupik got a call after midnight and was given fifteen minutes' to muster his four squads.
“We had the best platoon,” Chupik recalled. “I was very picky and only made squad leaders out of those I trusted and knew were good. Of course I was biased.”
His company were “Spare Op'd” - sent in to support a fire-fight already underway. One helicopter had already been shot down, so they landed 5km from the target village, approaching through heavily mined terrain in order to seal the enemy's entrapment.
Both Mitch and Chupik were high up the column as they left the tree cover behind and began to cross the paddy fields towards the thick bamboo fence that encircled the village.
Now exposed in the rutted field, VC soldiers opened up. “The blast of enemy fire scared the hell out of me,” another platoon member, Private Wylie recalled. The lead marines dove for cover behind a cluster of graves.
Explosions raised the earth. The cordite air became thick with splintering stone, slate and decorative tiles from the small pagoda-shaped tombs. Men were lifted and tossed back to the ground.
The company commander, Captain Lain, and his radio man suffered the full force of the detonations. Knowing the cemetery in the middle of the field provided good cover, the VC had laced the area with mines.
Mitch pushed himself back up and ran through the smoke to where Lain lay in the mud. Both the commander's legs were gone and his arms were badly shredded. Mitch crouched, tearing his pack open for the tourniquets as bullets cut the air around him.
Soon a medic arrived and Wylie followed up. “He [Lain] had his back up against the grave and looked very white. I could see that he had his legs blown off, and was covered in blood. A corpsman was working on him frantically trying to get bandages on his wounds.”
Machine gun fire, shouts of orders and wounded cries created a cacophony of noise. Mortars exploded in the bamboo fence and spotters elsewhere in the company called in artillery strikes.
Chupik ordered the men not to move around too much because of the likelihood of other mines. When the shooting moved from the cemetery into the village, the wounded men were stretchered to medivac choppers.
The marines burned houses, killed livestock and threw grenades down all the bunkers they could find. The operation lasted two days from the initial engagement as the marines swept back and forth over the cordoned area.
“They were dug in and we had to dig them out.” Mitch recalled. “When night fell I was given the task of going out and bringing the dead marines back. I remember the next day choppers coming back to pick them up. We had a hill-full of bodies.”
Nine marines were lost in their battalion and 76 were wounded, against a total of 291 confirmed VC/NVA dead, another 112 were listed as “probably killed.”
The success of an operation like Stone, Chupik noted, is problematic. “It was a numbers game. You killed more of them than they did of you. You take the hill and leave the hill and they go back again. If we weren't there, they were, you could count on it.”
While individual battles were won, territorial gains were not being held. It would be another two years before General Westmoreland's successor would try to address that. By then the battle for public opinion had been lost.
Such engagements were repeated, week after week, up and down the country. That month Mitch wrote home, “I have had to see a lot of things since I have been here but I have never let my mind be hardened.”
Every soldier counted down the days to the end of their tour, fearing as they got closer, the bullet, mortar or land mine that would end it all. “Every day could be the day you were going to get it.”
It was during Operation Union in the notorious Que Son Valley that Mitch's day almost arrived.
Armored Personnel Carriers were 12 ton vehicles used to transport men and supplies through enemy-held terrain. They were reinforced with 1.75 inch armor to protect against small arms and fragmentation explosives. This made the interior oppressively hot, and dangerous - were the vehicle to hit a land mine. Marines would sit on sandbags on top of the machine's hull, roughly six feet off the ground.
The APC Mitch was riding hit a 105mm howitzer shell that had been buried in the mud road.
When shot from a field gun, the kill radius of a 105mm shell is 30 meters. The vehicle took the full weight of the blast which knocked the marines from the top of the hull. The two soldiers inside were killed as the explosion tore apart the caterpillar tracks and lifted the vehicle off the ground.
Mitch suffered a severe concussion in the fall and lost his hearing for several days. These types of injuries were common. Around one-third of all casualties suffered were due to land mines. Mitch felt lucky to get away with only a few days in hospital.
As he began to count towards the end of his tour in days rather than months and weeks, a common and overwhelming sense of guilt began to take hold. Many soldiers in the field felt deeply conflicted about returning home, regarding it as a desertion or even betrayal of their buddies; meanwhile they would urge those same friends to leave at their earliest opportunity.
In order to lessen the pressure on getting new recruits, the Marine Corps offered soldiers who had completed their thirteen month tour thirty days paid leave back in the U.S., in return for a six month extension spent in a “safe” behind-the-lines role back in Vietnam.
“I should stay to get this war over,” he wrote to his mother before leaving. But it was a decision he was still grappling with as his plane took off.
“I remember flying out of Danang. It was like going back to heaven.”
Operations like Stone and Union were the mechanized extension of a battle that was being fought on many fronts. One of the least talked about lines of defense was the pulpit.
Next week I'll return to Tung's family and go into a little more detail than the book allowed about the status and effect of Catholicism in Vietnam. And another missed opportunity.