"Whoa, thought it was a nightmare,
Lo, it's all so true,
They told me don't go walkin' slow
Cause devil's on the loose."
John Fogarty, "Run Through the Jungle"
I broke my combat cherry on July 20, 1969 in a firefight near Hill 10, southwest of the city of Danang, Republic of Vietnam. My unit, Mike Company, 3/7 Marines, was responsible for conducting search and destroy missions that would dissuade the enemy from troop buildups that would threaten the city, and compromise the safety and security of the airbase there.
At the time of this action, my unit was being rebuilt after a difficult operation in the previous months that reduced manpower by nearly 40%. I was part of a group of draftees that was assigned to Mike Co. to help bring it back to full strength.
Because I was drafted, I had very little to say about what "job" I would get once boot camp was over. As it turned out, the powers that be thought that I would make a good machine gunner and that I could best serve my country by joining the "WestPac Ground Forces" in Vietnam. This despite my two years of college, ability to type 70-80 words per minute, and take shorthand! During machine gun school, we trainees were constantly reminded that the life expectancy of us poor bastards was about four seconds during a typical firefight. This bit of "motivation" turned out to be more than hyperbole.
On the day in question, guys were going about the typical routine. It was the middle of the afternoon, and several squads were out on patrol. Those who weren't out in "the bush" were either standing watch on the perimeter of the outpost, filling sandbags, or doing other chores such as "burning shitters." (Don't ask). I was shoveling sand into burlap sacks along with a few other marines, when a sudden flurry of activity near the company headquarters got our attention. We were shortly summoned to meet with our platoon commanders and informed that we would be heading--very quickly--into an area adjacent to our base where enemy soldiers were spotted by a recon team.
Moving fast, and in an almost surreal quiet, we began to gather the personal gear and weaponry that we would need to react in defense of the hill. For me, that meant strapping four boxes of M-60 machine gun ammo around my body, with 100 rounds in each. (Bandoleering looks macho, but compromises the cleanliness of the rounds). I also secured six hand grenades, my sidearm, three canteens of water, my flak jacket and helmet. Somewhat fortunately, we would not have to hump our backpacks as we were nearby good re-supply, and weren't expected to be out for very long.
Once organized, two squads of eight men each left the perimeter and moved at a very quick pace toward the area of suspicion, about two "clicks" west of Hill 10. Despite traveling light, the mid-day sun, high humidity and quick pace began to take its toll. One could never bring enough water on these occasions.
Funny, I don't remember being terrified as we stopped to deploy, but I was scared enough to feel my heart beating through my chest. At the direction of the squad leaders, we spread out and began a sweep through the area. Suddenly, we began to take fire from the right, and, as promised in training, the call for "guns up!" came while everyone else was seeking cover and beginning to return fire. My assistant gunner and I began to scramble to the point of the action, rounds whizzing over our heads. (This is indeed a unique sound, reproduced accurately in the film, Forrest Gump, by the way). We were able to take a prone position near an irrigation trench and began to open up with the gun.
Honestly, we had no visual contact with any enemy, but could see muzzle flashes in the treeline across from our unit's somewhat exposed position. We would fire intermittent bursts; the automatic weapon from the treeline would respond. Just like the old west, we traded volleys. In the meantime, our squad leader (like most of us, a 19 or twenty year-old kid), began to call for artillery support, a strategy that usually ended these episodes in our favor.
While I was firing our weapon, the a-gunner began to link together our ammo so that we wouldn't have to reload. However, one of the links separated, which caused a short delay in our ability to lay down fire. As I lifted the feed cover to allow my buddy to load the gun, there was a sudden loud explosion, seemingly right in my face. I felt a burning sensation on my face and neck, and my ears were ringing to the extent that I was rendered deaf.
As it turns out, the feed cover to the gun was shot off while we were reloading, and one of the tracer rounds (coated with phosphorus) had a "cook off," which accounted for the explosion. Later, when the pieces of the story were clear, unclouded by the so-called "fog of war" and adrenalin-induced hyperactivity, we realized how lucky we were that the few pieces of shrapnel that hit us created wounds no more significant than shaving nicks, and the burns no more serious than one would get after spending too much time in the sun. (We did not, of course, turn down the Purple Hearts we were awarded).
It seemed to me that the firefight went on for the better part of an hour; as it turns out, it lasted for less than ten minutes. Also, at the time of the feed cover being shot off, the first of the 105 mm artillery rounds were inbound, and they successfully encouraged the enemy to withdraw, leaving four dead comrades. Logistical and communication requirements were fulfilled, and we gathered our stuff and returned to our company area on Hill 10. Congratulations were offered all around, as we suffered zero casualties, got credit for the kills, and tried to recover from the adrenalin hit.
Those of us involved were released from duty for the remainder of the day. We repaired to the Enlisted Men's Club, a plywood-sided tent, really, and drank beers. I was amped up, and incredibly happy to have survived the Four Second Rule.