Happy 232nd Birthday Marines! Our annual U.S.M.C. tribute. The day I got lucky in Vietnam.
Friday, November 9, 2007Seeing the elephant.
Like all soldiers from all wars, soldiers in the American Civil War had a special term they used to describe being in combat - and being face to face with the enemy: "Seeing the elephant." I first came across the term when reading Shelby Foote's excellent novel about the battle of Shiloh.
Origin of the term.
While there may be other origins, I like to think "seeing the elephant" originates from ancient battles when Greek or Roman soldiers came face to face with Carthaginian or Persian armies who used battle elephants. To actually see these monsters, the Greek and Roman soldiers had to be on the very front line and directly engaged in the thick of battle. Hence the term "seeing the elephant."
Quite often but especially during certain holidays -- particularly Independence Day, Memorial Day, the Anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the Marine Corps' birthday -- I find myself doing what soldiers of all conflicts often do: I flash back to the times when I "saw the elephant."
I joined right out of High School.
I joined the United States Marine Corps when I was 17. I went through Marine Corps training, and by late February 1969 arrived in Vietnam to join Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines - a combat rifle company operating in Quang Nam Province.
I was one of three replacements.
I was one of three replacements for the five open slots created when my-squad-to-be was ambushed at point-blank range a few days earlier, leaving four Marines dead and one wounded. The senior man was Corporal George - one of the finest individuals I've ever known. George was 19 years old and had been in the bush for a total of three months. As a result of the heavy casualties a few days earlier, George was now the squad leader.
We protected the area around Hill 190.
Delta Company operated from a hill called Hill 190, and was responsible for keeping the North Vietnamese Army out of the surrounding rice paddies, villages and rice supply. Every evening, with rare exception, each squad moved out a few miles or so into the bush to set up an ambush. Mostly we slept during the day.
A vivid memory.
I often flash back to a series of events that took place a week or so after I joined Delta Company -- when I permanently lost some hearing and was incredibly lucky.
The war was mostly fought at night.
It had just become dark and we were moving through a nearby village. Our point man spotted several North Vietnamese soldiers coming towards us from the opposite side of the village. Bullets started to fly immediately. We spread out in a rough line and concentrated all of our firepower on the enemy soldiers in front of us.
Proctor's rifle about blew my ear out.
The Marine on my right, Proctor, was one of the replacements who joined Delta the same time I did. Proctor and I were both just learning the ins and outs of being a combat Marine. When the firing started he was just in back of me to my right. So when he started firing his rifle, the muzzle was only a foot or so from my right ear. Each time he fired, I felt the full blast of his rifle's muzzle explode directly in my ear.
The repeated blasts were impossible to ignore.
When Proctor first fired his rifle it felt like I was being hit with a hammer on the side of my head. I tried to take the pain so I could keep returning fire. But it was close to unbearable, and it happened again and again. The pain became so sharp, I just couldn't take it anymore, so I pulled back next to Proctor and the pounding explosions in my ear stopped. It took me a few days to start hearing close to normal again from that ear. I never reported the damage and was never treated for it -- if in fact there even was a treatment. My hearing never returned to what it should be.
It only lasted for 10 minutes.
The fighting went on for 10 minutes or so. We threw all the hell we carried at those NVA soldiers, including fire from our M16 rifles, M60 Machine gun and M79 grenade launcher.
Then the NVA vanished.
A quick check by Corporal George revealed that none of us were hit during the firefight. The North Vietnamese immediately retreated and disappeared, and we swept down to look for any of their casualties. We found none, so we moved away from the village, out into the rice paddies to set up our ambush for the night. Nothing more happened that evening.
We returned to the village.
At daybreak we were ordered back to the village, to the spot where we had last seen the North Vietnamese soldiers. We were told to look for anything we might have missed in the dark, such as casualties, dropped weapons, etc. We were also told to search the surrounding bamboo hooches for weapons caches.
An incredible discovery.
A Marine named Pavlovich and I operated as a search team. The first hooch we searched was located in the exact middle of where the NVA soldiers had been during the firefight. The bamboo hooch had a wooden floor and in the back of it, there was a one-foot high step up to a second level. As we searched the second level, we found a small altar and, next to it, a small, 4-5 ft tall table, which held a large clay bowl. In the bowl - to our amazement - was a fired but unexploded grenade round which must have been fired from our squad's M79 grenade launcher that night. The launched grenade apparently hit the hooch and was slowed by the straw and bamboo roof and simply dropped into the ceremonial bowl -- without going off. The grenade had a small dent on one end, and without a doubt was a live round. It was just lying there in that bowl waiting for the right impact to cause it to explode and rip apart the hooch and everything in it.
And then it fell to the floor!
As we stepped up to look at the round, Pavlovich's footstep on the wooden floor caused the table to shift so the bowl tipped over - and the live grenade -- ready to explode -- fell to the floor.
One long moment in time.
Frozen in our tracks, with eyes wide open as saucers, Pavlovich and I watched the grenade fall, then bounce on the floor. When the grenade started to fall, there wasn't time to do anything. At that moment I thought for sure Pavlovich and I were going to meet St. Peter together. But....it didn't go off. We both gasped a huge sigh of relief and immediately exited the hooch, leaving the grenade where it fell, and reported to Corporal George what had just happened. Mostly because it was morning and neither Pavlovich or myself had anything to drink for quite sometime, neither of us needed to change our shorts.
There's a guy like this in every group.
Corporal George sent the Marine who handled the M79 into the hooch to check out the "dud" round. His name was Cook and he was the oldest of our group - I think he was 20. We were all astonished when he emerged smiling from the hut with the live but unexploded grenade inside the rubber band - normally reserved for holding bug repellent - on his helmet.
Crazy Cook walked alone.
We finished our search of the village and began walking back to our cots in our tent on Hill 190 to get some sleep. There was one thing different about our formation this morning. Cook, with the live grenade on his helmet, was told to walk about 20 yards in back of the man in front of him, and the man in back of Cook was even further behind him. Cook didn't care, but the rest of us felt better that way.
A happy walk.
I remember feeling very happy on the march back. It was new day, I was having trouble hearing but was still alive and no one was hurt. It felt good to be lucky.
Our special Birthday Tribute to the United States Marines.
November 10, 2007 is the 232nd birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Every year it has been our practice to design and release a special animated birthday card commemorating this day. To see this year's tribute please click here.
Why the Marine Corps?
November 11, 2007 is Veterans' Day. A special thank you to all of America's Veterans who served in our armed forces. To those of you who were not Marines, please forgive me for releasing just a tribute to the Marine Corps. Know that I could not appreciate your service more. Also know that the Marine Corps is the branch where I grew up and became a man. It's also the branch where my blood was spilled. So it will also be a bit more special to me. I hope you understand.
A very special message to Vietnam Vets.
And for those of you who served in Vietnam: I know that the war still lives on in most of us. Sometimes it's easy to have those memories. Sometimes it's not. But one thing is for sure: the war will be over for all of us someday. Until then, from the bottom of my heart and from all of us at Go Daddy, our message to you is "Thank you. And welcome home."
Until next time.
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