Into no mans land, p.1
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       Into No Man's Land, p.1
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           Ellen Emerson White
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Into No Man's Land


  This journal is based upon actual events, but all names and certain unit and operational details have been changed, in order to protect the privacy of the Marines who actually served so bravely at Khe Sanh. Although every attempt has been made to present the story as accurately as possible, based upon public records, any resemblance to actual people (other than public figures such as President Johnson) is very much a coincidence. When recounting the actions taken by certain soldiers, students of the Vietnam War may recognize the people they represent. As a result, no identifying details whatsoever are given, when these particular incidents are recounted, based upon after-action reports and other sources. All Americans owe a great debt of thanks to the veterans of the Vietnam War — and every other war.

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Author Note

  Khe Sanh, Vietnam 1968

  December 25, 1967

  December 26, 1967

  December 29, 1967

  December 31, 1967

  January 1, 1968

  January 2, 1968

  January 4, 1968

  January 5, 1968

  January 7, 1968

  January 9, 1968

  January 10, 1968

  January 11, 1968

  January 12, 1968

  January 16, 1968

  January 18, 1968

  January 19, 1968

  January 20, 1968

  January 22, 1968

  January 23, 1968

  January 24, 1968

  January 29, 1968

  January 31, 1968

  February 5, 1968

  February 8, 1968

  February 9, 1968

  February 11, 1968

  February 14, 1968

  February 19, 1968

  February 23, 1968

  February 25, 1968

  February 27, 1968

  February 29, 1968

  March 3, 1968

  March 9, 1968

  March 14, 1968

  March 17, 1968

  March 23, 1968

  March 24, 1968

  March 29, 1968

  April 1, 1968

  April 3, 1968

  April 5, 1968

  April 8, 1968

  April 10, 1968

  April 13, 1968

  April 14, 1968

  April 17, 1968

  April 18, 1968

  April 21, 1968

  April 22, 1968

  Epilogue

  Life in America in 1968

  Historical Note

  Military Code of Conduct

  The Marines’ Hymn

  Acknowledgments

  Copyright

  December 25, 1967

  Golf Company, 3rd Battalion,

  26th Marines Khe Sanh Combat Base,

  Republic of South Vietnam

  Okay, so this was a really bad idea. Big mistake. Probably fatal.

  Great. Or, as my little sister, Molly, would put it, swell.

  A guy in my platoon was saying that you only have to be in Vietnam for about ten minutes to realize that you should never have gotten on the plane, gone through boot camp — or joined up in the first place.

  Took me about ten seconds.

  Give or take two or three.

  But, think you’ll hear me whining about it? Never happen, doggie. I’m a Marine. Semper fi, man. We love this stuff. War for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and a little more thrown in for a midnight snack.

  Even on Christmas.

  Yeah, it’s Christmas. I’m on a combat base, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, and jungle — and, as far as I know, a whole lot of enemy soldiers. Or, anyway, so you hear. I’ve only been here for a few days, and I don’t really know anyone yet. It’s bad enough for it to be Christmas, but to be pretty much alone on top of it all? With no friends? Forget about it.

  Lucky I’m so completely cool, or I might feel kind of sorry for myself.

  I really don’t want to keep a stupid journal, but — I promised. The Sunday before I shipped out (okay, okay, I flew), my father said he wanted to talk to me. Alone. But the Patriots were playing, and my uncles and a bunch of guys from Dad’s firehouse were there, and I really wanted to watch the game. The last thing I felt like doing was going out to sit on the porch in the middle of winter. But I just said okay, and went after him.

  So, we got outside, and it was really cold, and it looked like it was going to start snowing any minute. My father’s a big, jolly guy, but once we were out there, he started shifting his weight and not really looking at me. He was in the Army in World War II, and fought from Italy, to France, and all the way to Germany. Except for funny stories about getting drunk with the boys and that sort of thing, he never talks about it, though. But I’ve always figured he must have seen some pretty bad stuff over there, because sometimes, he just gets this look. The same look he has after a really bad fire, when they don’t get there in time to save everyone.

  Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, your mother’s really going to miss you. So you be sure and write her every chance you get.”

  I promised I would, because that’s what he wanted to hear — and maybe I’ll even do it. I wasn’t so great about writing from boot camp, so I guess he figured I’ll be that much worse in an actual war.

  Then, we stood there some more, and it was just plain cold out there. Just as I started to talk about how I thought the Patriots are going to do in the second half, he took this little blue book out of his pocket. It was called My Life in the Service, and I could see that he had written his name in the front. The book had these sections called “My Buddies” and “Officers I Have Met” and “Places I Have Been.” Stuff like that.

  “I want you to take this with you, Patrick,” he said. “Use it.”

  Sounded like homework to me — and if he thought it was such a hot idea, how come all the pages were blank? Turns out he filled up three of them while he was overseas, and this one was an extra.

  “Do you still have them?” I asked.

  He nodded.

  “Can I read them?” I asked.

  He thought about that, and then nodded again. “When you get back.”

  Since he had that look again, I didn’t push it. But I kind of had to remind him that it’s going to be hard to write anything honest, since Marines mostly only use one word — and it’s really obscene. Come to think of it, that word is pretty popular around the firehouse, too.

  “Pretend you think Molly’s going to want to read it someday,” he said.

  Molly’s my little sister, and she’s a reading nut. Never goes anywhere without a book. She doesn’t even brush her teeth without holding a book in her other hand. Smart as hell, that kid. Although she’s fifteen now, and hates it when I call her “kid.” So I do it constantly, just to bug her. Then, if I get bored, I think of stuff to bug my older sister, Brenda, too. Makes life pretty entertaining.

  Anyway, I put the book under my arm, and we stood around some more. I was freezing, and I started to go inside.

  “Patrick,” my father said, and this time, he looked as serious as I’ve ever seen him. “When you’re over there, make sure —” He stopped. “If things ever get —” He stopped again. “Don’t think too much,” he said finally. “Just do what you have to do.”

  I knew he meant it, and now I couldn’t look at him. The idea of war seems a lot less scary when
you aren’t about to go off and fight one. And I’m the dumb, gung-ho idiot who blew off three football scholarships, went down to the recruiting station, and volunteered.

  “Cold out here,” Dad said, after a while.

  So, we went back inside, and watched the rest of the game.

  The Patriots got totally wiped out.

  Later —

  We just had a pretty decent chow. There isn’t enough room for our battalion at the mess hall here yet, but they showed up with some containers of mashed potatoes, lukewarm turkey, gravy, and rolls. I tried not to think about the great dinner my mother would have made, and how we’d all be sitting around the Christmas tree, eating cookies and everything. Instead, I leaned back against some sandbags and ate next to my fighting hole. My squad was all sitting together, and I was close enough to listen, but not to participate, really. So far, I’m just the “new guy,” and no one seems too interested in finding out anything more than that. They just call me “boot” and pretty much leave me alone. Hey, fine with me. The one thing I’ve definitely learned in the Marine Corps is that it’s a lot easier to stay out of trouble if you keep your big mouth shut. Took me about ten thousand push-ups at Parris Island (in my platoon, we liked to call it “The Big P.I.”) to figure that out, of course.

  Every now and then, planes have been flying over the base here, playing Christmas carols over loudspeakers. The sound quality isn’t so good, but I guess it’s the thought that counts, right? The whole thing seems funny, but it’s also a little creepy, in a way. Maybe we’ll catch a break, though, and they’ll drop a load of sugarplums, or something. Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (yup, USMC), nestled all snug in their poncho liners.

  Anyway, I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to write in this journal. I’d always get back my school papers with stuff like “Poorly organized!” and “What is your theme?” written across them in bright red. And usually, right next to that, was a big old “C.”

  So, okay. Just to make Mrs. O’Leary and all my other English teachers happy, I’ll start off with a nice, little outline. Here goes:

  1. I was born in Boston.

  2. My parents named me Patrick.

  3. I got older. Also in Boston.

  4. I started playing football.

  5. Now I’m in Vietnam.

  Any questions? No, didn’t think so. Wonder if I’d get an A for that? Probably not. Most likely, another C, and they’d put comments like “Flesh out!” and “More details!” in the margins. I might even get Mom’s favorite: “Lazy work, Patrick! See me after class!”

  Dad might be right — maybe I think too much. And about pretty dumb stuff, to boot. Not even Molly’s going to be able to plow through this. But, hey, at least I’m keeping it clean!

  So far.

  I got in-country nine days ago. Which means I have 386 days to go before my tour is up. Not that I’m counting. Army mutts only have to serve a year, but Marines go for a full thirteen months. I figure that’s just to remind the doggies that we’re tougher than they are.

  Which we are.

  Goes without saying, right?

  I guess I could write that we landed in Danang, but the plane pretty much dove straight down onto the runway. The guy next to me actually puked. Can’t say I was too happy about that.

  Getting off the plane felt like having an entire offensive line slam into you at once. It was so hot I swear I forgot my own name, and my uniform went from dry to soaked — and I mean, dripping — in maybe a minute. I was still pretty flipped out by the heat, when I suddenly noticed that the place just reeked, too. Man, talk about funk. Smelled like the whole country was one huge, open-air latrine. Plus, gasoline fumes, avionics fuel, motor oil, cordite, and fish that had been left outside to rot for the last six months. Any nasty smell you can think of was probably mixed up in there somewhere. On top of that, the sun was so bright that I instantly got a terrible headache, and had to use my hand to cover my eyes. Didn’t help much. It was also really noisy and confusing, with planes and helicopters taking off all around us, artillery firing somewhere, and a bunch of sergeants and second lieutenants yelling orders at people.

  And that was my first minute in the Republic of South Vietnam.

  Then they had us stand in formation — in the sun, no water or anything — for what felt like about a month. A bunch of really grungy Marines were watching us and laughing and all. Wasn’t too hard to figure out that they were on their way home. Their uniforms were all faded, they had on beat-up boots, and they had these unbelievable tans. Some of them seemed really hyped-up, or half-drunk, but most of them just looked tired. I knew they were probably about my age, but they looked older. A lot older. I felt like a jerk, standing there in my clean — not counting the sweat and vomit — stateside utilities. Might as well have been carrying a “Just Got Here and Don’t Know a Freakin’ Thing” sign. (See, Dad? I’m trying.)

  There were a bunch of civilians around, too. A lot more than I would have expected. Maybe they were waiting to fly somewhere? I don’t know. It was mostly women, avoiding our eyes and chattering with each other, plus a few children begging for candy and cigarettes, and some skinny little babies who were crying a lot. Have to admit, I envied the babies for being able to cry their heads off, without anyone looking at them funny. There were some South Vietnamese soldiers walking by, and I saw two of them holding hands, like they didn’t even think it was a weird thing to do. Worst of all, there were a bunch of caskets lined up in neat rows near the tarmac, each one covered with an American flag. Looking at them gave me a stomachache, so I just closed my eyes.

  We ended up on a bus, which took us to some reception center, so we could all process in. The windows were covered with these really thick wire screens. Turned out, that was so no one could throw grenades into the bus at us. Talk about giving you a nice, warm and friendly feeling about all of those civilians we were supposed to be here to defend.

  The reception center was this big metal building, and the tin roof trapped all the heat inside, so that half the people standing near me looked like they were about to pass out. For the rest of the day, we waited in lines. Lots of lines. Filled out paperwork, answered questions, exchanged all our cash for this fake-looking military money we’re supposed to use over here. They’re called MPCs — military payment certificates, and it’s like having a wallet full of Monopoly money. Don’t figure I’ll be shopping much, anyway, so who cares?

  Lines, and more lines. Signing papers to designate your next-of-kin, so the Corps will know who to tell if you get killed, requisitioning ration cards, checking little boxes to say how much of your pay you want to have sent home and whether you’re going to buy U.S. Savings Bonds — it just went on and on.

  I saw one guy from my Infantry Training Regiment, and we gave each other a wave, but his name was called for the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines before we got a chance to talk to each other. Hope he does okay, wherever they send him. Some clerk told me I was going to the Rockpile up near the DMZ (which is what we call it, instead of saying “Demilitarized Zone” or the border between North and South Vietnam) to join my unit, but then another clerk came over and started arguing with him, saying that my company was at Khe Sanh now, not the Rockpile. They bickered about that for a while, and ended up telling me to come back in the morning. The whole time, I was standing there wondering how many IQ tests you have to flunk to get to be a clerk.

  The mess hall had stopped serving right before I got there, and then I had a hard time finding a transit hut where I could rack out for the night. It made me pretty nervous that no one knew where I was — and more than that, no one cared. I also didn’t like walking around without a rifle or anything. If we got attacked, what was I supposed to do — throw rocks at the enemy? I have a pretty good arm, but, come on. Down here, I think we’re mostly fighting Viet Cong, but — yeah, we’re lazy — we just say VC. Like instead of saying “Nort
h Vietnamese Army” to describe the enemy forces coming down from Hanoi and all, they’re just the NVA. I was too tired to think about it much, though, and ended up in this crowded tent near the airstrip, lying on a stained canvas cot, surrounded by strangers.

  A lot of the new guys were asking the Marines who were either on their way home, or coming here for their second tours, all kinds of questions. I barely had enough energy to halfway listen, but it was nice to find out that the explosions we kept hearing were outgoing rounds, not incoming. Some guy gave me a beer, and even though it was really warm, I drank it in about two gulps. Then I fell asleep, using my seabag for a pillow.

  The next morning, after a lousy breakfast — powdered eggs, biscuits that weighed about two pounds each, and really bitter coffee — I stood in some more lines. Then, I ended up sitting on the metal floor of a C-130 plane with a bunch of other Marines, flying up to some base called Dong Ha. Once we got there, the lines and paperwork started all over again. At least I finally got issued some supplies — jungle boots, fatigues, flak jacket, the whole nine yards. The first helmet they gave me was all dented — I don’t want to know how that happened — and the supply sergeant wasn’t going to give me another one until I showed him that I couldn’t even get it all the way onto my head. He did some complaining, but found me a replacement.

  My “new” gun, an M16, had some black tape on the stock, but when they took us to the range to test-fire our weapons, it worked just fine. Still, it didn’t seem fair that they were giving us all of this secondhand stuff, instead of new equipment. I bet everything the Army gets is brand-new. I’m not so sure about the M16, anyway — stateside, we did all our training with M14s. This new rifle weighs a lot less, and feels like some kind of toy. I hear they jam a lot, too, if you’re not really careful. Or really lucky.

  We sat through some boring orientation lectures, and even had to watch a filmstrip about Our Wonderful Allies, and how we were going to help them preserve freedom and democracy. I figure that’s true — why else would we be here? — but I didn’t feel like seeing yet another film about it. We saw a bunch at Parris Island. Besides, I was still so tired that I just felt like sleeping.

 
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