Our helicopter lifted gently from the small flight deck on the aft of the hospital ship USS Sanctuary to deliver us back into the belly of the beast – wartime Vietnam. The U.S. Army UH-1D Huey chopper crew cordially welcomed us, their only two passengers, for the scenic flight. I was a 20-year-old U.S. Marine, and my fellow commuter was a Vietnamese boy, about 8 years old. His eyes bulged, and his mouth gaped opened in awe, as the chopper drifted away from the Navy ship and then swiftly picked up speed, soaring over the South China Sea, headed toward Chu Lai, South Vietnam. It was Jan. 29, 1968.
I’d been on the hospital ship about three weeks, recovering from a shrapnel wound, and was headed back to my unit, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. The young lad with me, who’d also been treated aboard the ship for some shrapnel injuries, was to be delivered to his family, and a Navy chief petty officer had designated me as the kid’s escort. I figured it would be easy, because it was time for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year’s celebration. The Tet truce promised a peaceable trek around the countryside.
The helicopter landed at a U.S. Army medical unit in Chu Lai. It already was getting late, so our Army hosts offered us a place to spend the night and said they would try to contact the boy’s family. Things looked good already.
My young friend and I picked out a couple of cots in one of the wards, where we could rest up for the next day’s mission of returning him home just in time for the Tet holiday and festival. But everyone’s sleep ended abruptly during the night from thunderous explosions, as enemy rockets rained in on the base. We scrambled out of the ward and dove into a sandbagged bunker right outside. So much for the truce.
Welcoming the new year
The 1968 Tet Offensive began at Chu Lai with a lot of fireworks, when those 122 mm rockets slammed into the base, exploding everywhere. At the same time, enemy forces attacked bases and cities throughout the region. The attacks in the wee hours on the eve of Tet, ironically, were a mistake and ruined the enemy's planned Jan. 31, countrywide, surprise start of the offensive. So, when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked full force on Lunar New Year's Day, hitting all the other regions, the element of surprise was already lost in those areas.
But in the early darkness of Jan. 30, all of that was unknown and didn't matter anyway. We were under attack, and the situation did not look good. I was in the middle of it with not even a handgun. I desperately wanted my sweet 16 – my trusty M16 rifle.
After daylight, I learned that the Army had accomplished my first mission for me. Despite the hostilities, my little friend’s mother and grandmother had made it to the medical unit. They were happy I had delivered their boy to them, but he seemed a little sorry to leave me and the adventure he thought we were going to have hiking to his home in Quang Ngai province.
Of course, that adventure now would have been hazardous, with the enemy’s offensive underway. Arriving medevac choppers attested to the fighting going on throughout I Corps, the military's northernmost tactical zone in South Vietnam.
I needed to get back to Charlie Company. Unarmed, I walked out to Highway 1 and stuck out my thumb. With the possibility of incoming rockets and mortar rounds anytime, anywhere, I wished I had at least a helmet and flak jacket. I decided that my lack of equipment would make my trip all the more adventurous. OooRAH!
A truck full of Army grunts stopped for me, and I jumped into the back. I was a Marine headed to Da Nang with a bunch of Army soldiers, who were glad to give a jarhead a ride. The interservice jokes flowed as we rode northward until I jumped out at Camp Reasoner, home of 1st Recon Battalion, nestled on the side of Hill 327, below 1st Marine Division headquarters.
Reconnecting with Charlie
I was home, but upon reaching my company area, I found no Charlie Company. Some other recon Marines told me Charlie had moved north to Phu Bai. Battalion headquarters confirmed the bad news. Indeed, Chargin' Charlie Company and 1st Force Reconnaissance Company had moved north and were operating out of Phu Bai.
In 1968 Lunar New Year’s parlance, it was the Year of the Monkey, and I was left hanging, with no company and no gear. Luckily, a battalion officer told me, a C-130 aircraft was scheduled to fly the next morning from Da Nang to Phu Bai, so I could catch a ride on that rumbling transport plane and be there in no time. In the meantime, the armory loaned me a rifle, and I spent the night on the line, expecting an attack.
No attack developed, daylight came, I turned in my rifle and hitched a ride to the air base, where I made it onto that beautiful C-130 Hercules. Halfway to Phu Bai, the aircraft banked around and returned to Da Nang. The airfield at Phu Bai was under heavy attack.
The following night and day were repeats of the previous. I procured temporary use of an M16, stood the line until morning, made it onto the C-130, got half way to Phu Bai and ended up back at Da Nang. Phu Bai was catching hell.
On the bright side, helping protect the Hill 327 area wasn’t so bad. The division headquarters and surrounding perimeter defenses weren’t being attacked as expected. And my air-travel fortunes had to change eventually.
They did change. My third attempt to reach Phu Bai was successful.
Missing the big battle
As I wandered off of the airfield tarmac at Phu Bai, south of the imperial city of Hue, a Marine lance corporal in a jeep saw the obvious confusion on my face. Where was I going? Recon, I answered. Hop in, he said, because he was going right past Chargin’ Charlie Company.
Sure enough, in no more than 10 minutes, we pulled up in front of the company office, where about six big trucks lined the side of the muddy street. It looked like the entire company was loaded aboard the half-dozen six-wheel-drive vehicles. My recon team, Team Mad Hatter, was in the first truck, and I quickly spotted our corpsman, who carried an M16 rifle and his .45-caliber service pistol. Doc told me they were ready to roll up to Hue and support the Marines who were trying to retake the ancient capital from the enemy.
“Loan me your pistol,” I yelled at Doc, as I began to climb onto the truck. He was trying to unfasten his pistol and holster from his cartridge belt, when I was pulled down from the back of truck by our company gunnery sergeant.
“You think your gonna liberate Hue with a pistol and two magazines?” he barked at me. “You WILL stay in the rear with the gear!”
The gunny quashed my last chance at a fighting role in the famous Tet Offensive of 1968. I would have no accounts of house-to-house combat, no tales of heroics, no sagas of the big battle for Hue, I thought, as my fellow recon Marines rolled off to glory, headed to the Imperial City.
I reluctantly guarded the gear in the rear. In actuality, that means I just waited – rather anxiously – for the return of my fellow Marines. Fortunately, all came back, maybe not all unscathed, but we lost not a single man.
And while I missed out on all the action in Hue City, and fired not a single shot during all the Tet fighting, my misfortune amounted to little in the larger scope of things. I served in Vietnam for 20 more months. That was time enough for many more adventures.