Dad's emails to me of LZ Margo w/my commentary
|In August 2013 my father was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, he was told that he only had 6-12 months. Those doctors underestimated my father's determination and grit. He doesn't know what giving up or tapping out means, he never has as the following story will show you. Understand, that my dad and I talked about his time in Vietnam when I was a teen, and after, but he always kept the worst memories, and the worst pain back, held it to himself. In the following, in his own words (I've corrected spelling since he did quite a bit of this on his phone back and forth through emails with me, and I've removed some of the personal things between us as well). |
Our conversation, and this story picks up after I had asked my dad how a Vietnam Veteran I had spoken to that day could tell me how beautiful it was over there, and what a wonderful country it was, and how much he wishes he could go back for a visit. When I know the only way MY dad would want to go back would be um...NOT.
The other thing is that everyone's experience was different depending on their job. I have a friend who was a cook in the Navy. He has a photo album that looks like a vacation series, . Another friend was a jet engine mechanic. A lot of people saw many different areas if the country. It is beautiful in many places. One of the most memorable things I ever saw was the river running below Margo. Looked like a mountain trout stream. I saw the country from a very narrow point if view. I didn't eat the local food. Didn't talk with many natives. Didn't see a city or large town. Mostly I was hot when it was hot and cold, wet, and miserable during the monsoon. Spent much if my time humping through the jungle, digging in at night, being constantly short in sleep and always hungry or thirsty and either bored out of my mind or scared. Proud of the times I ate my fear and did my job. Wouldn't erase it but wouldn't want to do it again. Love you.
There were text messages, unfortunately I lost those I asked my dad what his unit was and if they had a name. Dad was with the 2/26 Echo Nomads. Dad's feeling was that their unit wasn't under any one command, their orders would come from the 9th, the 6th, the 2nd. He also felt (and wasn't alone) that because of this no one took responsibility for them which is why they called themselves the Nomads. I bugged him to tell me what happened and what he saw.
He sent me a link to a story about LZ Margo. http://nomad81s.com/test-page/the-dead-went-last/
Knowing dad's unit was decimated at Margo terrified me BEFORE I read that blog. After our conversation began in earnest.
I have an extra patch with Nomads below our logo. Will mail you one. In some ways writing might be cathartic and not just more sleepless nights.
That patch is being put on a hat for my son and I to share since we only had the one that belonged to my dad. Just like him, it's one of a kind in our home.
Early Sept saw us transitioning into a Battalion Landing Team. Which meant our rear base was a navy ship. I was aboard the Princeton for the most part. We made a number of amphibious landings in Mike boats. The WW2 landing crafts. A couple were in really rough weather. Those boats really rock. Then we moved into the Rockpile and guarded the perimeter and ran patrols. Some mine sweeps to Camp Carroll and back. Tiring and sometimes nerve wracking but largely uneventful. We moved down to Carroll in a driving cold rain and got ready for Operation Lancaster 2. The battalion began lifting off early in the morning around Sept 11. Echo would be last in. Eventually 20 of us ran onto a sea knight and off we went beating our way above rolling jungle. Then we hit the LZ. The usual noise and smoke and confusion that's any hot LZ.
Pilots didn't want to touch down so hovered about 20 feet off the ground and we jumped. Normally hitting jungle is mushy or springy. Margo was solid rock. 70 pounds on my back and it felt like my knees both went as I hit. We fanned out hugging rock until directed to our area. We'd be interior defense or palace guard I heard. Our area was a long ravine with a spring at the far end. I was at the open end of the ravine closer to the actual landing area and farthest from the water hole. We started digging in. I tried with my etool and pick and got nowhere. So I dug in instead of down. I tore into the side of the ravine where it had eroded a bit. I made myself a nice little cave. Grabbed a bite to eat and sat around. Thought this was where we'd be for awhile. Not so. Around noon Echo saddled up and headed down off the mountain and into the triple canopy jungle. It was time to go hunting. More when I can.
In between these emails there could be two to four days as dad would recover from what these memories brought back for him, but from our conversations, this WAS a help. He took this like he took everything, it was a challenge and he wasn't about to back down. Like everything else, he just kept going the best way he knew how.
So we started the long trek off Margo, transitioning from artillery blown trees and rock to dense jungle. At the bottom if the mountain we hit the Cam Lo River and waded across. The water was fast and fairly clear and about waist deep. Rising up from the river the jungle changed to triple canopy. Trees over 100 feet tall blocking out any direct sunlight. And very steamy. It was like walking through a terrarium. We moved slowly maybe 10 yards apart.
Occasionally we'd bump NVA regulars and brief firefights would break out. They seemed to want to keep contact with us but not initiate a major battle. We paused often as the heat and humidity was overwhelming. During breaks we'd burn leeches off each other. The ground looked alive with them. We moved until near dark in that strange twilight jungle. The company stopped for the night but my squad was directed to continue up the trail about a 1/2 click and set up. We were to be protection for the company's uphill flank. Given the huge numbers of enemy troops nearby, a dozen guys on their own would have a real fight ahead if bumped. Fortunately for us my squad leader Kurt Walters, knew his stuff. As we walked he spoke to each of us and explained what he wanted. On his signal we all got down and found a tree or log to hide behind. There would be no digging of foxholes. We couldn't afford the noise. Also no smoking and nobody was to heat their C rations. It would be a long quiet night.
The light is odd during daylight with the high canopy overhead. At night it's completely dark. No light penetrates to the ground. You keep watch only with your ears. After what seemed like an eternity, it began to get brighter. When we could see pretty well we slipped back down the trail and rejoined the company. They'd had some contact during the night but just probes looking for weak spots. When everyone was saddled up we headed higher into the canopy.
I would like to thank Kurt Walters for keeping that squad safe, he did an excellent job, they all knew what to do and his experience, and confidence transfered to his men, my father included.
We started the long climb up the mountain early in the morning. We followed well used trails deeper into the canopy. It wasn't lost on us why the trails were so well worn. But it beat having to hack our way through the jungle with machetes like we had outside the Rockpile. Contact was sporadic. Enough to keep us alert but not enough to prompt an all out firefight. Late in the day the terrain leveled out and we dug in. This would be home for the next few days.
Now that we were staying put they began to probe us more aggressively. Just before full dark I was in the hole alone while the other 2 guys got a bite to eat. I saw a blur off to my right front as an NVA soldier jumped up and threw something at me. It hit about 2 feet in front of me. I hugged the dirt pile left from digging and waited for the explosion. Nothing. Waited a bit longer and still nothing. I finally reached out and felt around. It was a baseball sized rock. Sometimes a rock and sometimes a grenade. They were trying to draw fire to see where our machine guns were. They'd send out a couple guys. One to draw fire and one to try and map our positions. If they knew where the guns were they'd try to take them out with rpgs. I was slightly tempted to light up my rock thrower but had been trained well enough to leave the gun silent.
I'm not sure how many days we were dug in there. More than 3 I think but 5 seems too many. Nights were interesting. They started beating drums around full dark. Guys called them death drums. Periodically one of them would scream, "Marine you die." Oddly it didn't bother me. I slept well when I wasn't on watch. I figured if they were serious about hitting us they probably would have been really quiet first. Days passed with patrols and LPs (listening posts). We lost one guy to an ambush. We had to tie c4 to trees and blow a couple down to clear a spot for a chopper to get the body out. We didn't get resupplied either. I was running low on C rations. I remember a couple mornings when I'd have just a tin of jelly for breakfast. Lunch was the tin if peanut butter. In the evening I'd try to heat up something.
Water was a bigger problem. Water became precious. We'd stretch our ponchos at night hoping rain would collect on them. On our final night on that mountain I thought they might be planning an assault so I crept forward after dark and set a trip wire to a flare. Anybody coming straight at me would be lit up. Around 2am I heard running feet and my flare lit up. At least 3 guys running right at me. I flipped off the safety but didn't fire. Didn't look right. Thank God I held fire. It was our lp coming in. They were pretty shook up. They'd had dozens of NVA soldiers walking all around them starting right after they set up. But we didn't get hit that night. We'd send out 3 guys with a radio to sit and watch for enemy activity. I tried to avoid LP (listening post) duty when I could. You're to watch, listen, and report. You're not to fire unless fired upon. I never liked that part of it. Early in the morning of September 16th we started the long walk back to Margo.
This bit gives me a chill because I know he was right, they would have been quiet if they'd wanted to get them, but the mental attacks were so calculated to wear them down. Knowing my father was hungry hurt too, knowing how little there was for him to eat, then less for him to drink, only rain water or dew collected in a poncho? Hoping that there wasn't a bullet out there with his name on it so he could come home to his family, and the woman who would eventually become my mother. We have things easier, some of us know what it is like to be hungry or thirsty but not to that degree and then also knowing you have to function and MOVE and be at the top of your game just seems to be amazing to me.
We started the long slog back early on the 16th of September. Unbeknownst to us, all the companies were being called back. Because of the way were moved out, my squad would handle walking point. Point is a demanding responsibility. Your eyes are mostly focused on the ground in front of you looking for a mine or booby trap or trip wire. It's the second guy who's looking farther ahead and on the sides looking for possible ambush. Time in the bush leads to heightened senses and changes in vision. You notice over time that your eyes rarely are at rest. Disconcerting the first time you see it. The eyes jump all over trying to see everything even while holding a simple conversation.
The lack of water took a toll on the return trip as it had taken a day and a half to hump out. It would take most of a day to make it back. I heard the whole move was due to B-52s heading our way on a bombing run. Normally we just dig in and wait for it to pass but not this time. We had a few encounters with enemy patrols but nothing serious. We were exhausted and very thirsty when we got to the bank of the Cam Lo river. Looking up the mountain toward the top of Margo I told someone they'd have to bring in choppers to ferry us to the top. I couldn't imagine we could climb that far. I don't know why I didn't think about the fact that we'd climbed down.
After a brief rest we crossed the river and started the long climb. I walked very slowly across the river dragging an empty canteen below the surface. The captain wanted us to cross quickly as this was about the only spot where we could be seen from a distance. He was worried about snipers. I wasn't eager to get shot but I really needed that water. I think everyone dragged a canteen during that crossing. I don't think we'd have made it all the way up without that water. The climb was grueling and took hours. We had to use our etools in several places to hack out hand and footholds. We took a different route on the return just in case the NVA had mined the first trail. Standard procedure to take a variety of trails and avoid setting a pattern. In many places the going was straight up. But gradually the top got closer. And at about 3:30pm I dragged myself over the edge and back to Margo.
One of the companies defending that side of the perimeter ran canteens of water to us from the waterhole. I drank until I couldn't take another sip. Good thing being first over the top. Lots of full canteens being offered. A friend I'd gone through training with joined me as I headed back to my little cave. I remember something in my pocket rubbing my leg and reached in and pulled out what had once been a stick of gum. Now a wadded, sodden piece of gum, paper, and foil. But it was probably the only piece of gum within a hundred miles. I tore the gum in half and my friend and I sat in front of my cave trying to separate paper from gum. While we fooled with our task I joked with him about his run in with Capt. Creager. One morning while we were dug in up in the high canopy my friend opened fire with his M-16 at movement in front of him. No fire was returned and none of the rest of us saw a target. Capt. Creager arrived quickly and wasn't real happy. He said he had a recon team out that way. He then told my friend he could keep a magazine in his 16 but no round in the chamber to cure his trigger happy tendency. I know this order was immediately ignored as I saw him pull his bolt back and chamber a round as soon as the Capt walked away.
We spent far more time than would for seem logical for very little gain on the gum front. Finally we each popped the goey mess in our mouths and got a little flavor. My friend headed for the waterhole and I relaxed for a bit. My socks and boots were soaked so I pulled them off and set them next to me to dry. You really can't avoid jungle rot on your feet but you can lessen the damage by trying to keep your feet as dry as you can.
I'd snagged a box a box of C rations on my way to my cave. I had to walk by the lz where there was a big pallet of them. I didn't look at the type of meal I'd grabbed but now saw it was labeled Ham & Lima Beans. This was the one type I'd never tried. The word was they were the worst of the meal options. But I was too tired to walk back and swap it for something else. So I opened the can, cut vents in a small can, tossed in a heat tab, lit it and set the larger can on top to cook. I was exhausted, hungry, dirty, but satisfied. We'd conducted a long range patrol along the DMZ and conducted ourselves very professionally, I thought. As my meal cooked one of the guys came over and dropped off 2 cans of machine gun ammo and told me Capt. Creager wanted me back with guns the next day. Ok with me. I felt pretty good overall leaning back in the dirt, barefoot, comfortably exhausted, waiting for my food to get hot.
I was glad at the end of this email, it hadn't been terrible, and I knew that terrible was coming because of how many men were lost in Echo, but this almost seemed like it would be ok. Leave it to my dad to have the only piece of gum that side of the DMZ, he always had something gum, or mints and all us kids knew it, when I was little his pockets were like gold mines. Evidently that started long before I was even a twinkle in his eye.
I never got to eat that meal. I don't even know what happened to it. My relaxing was suddenly interrupted by a distant "Thunkthunkthunk." It sounded like someone hitting a hollow log. Somebody yelled "IN COMING" and it was on. Mortars began shrieking through the air and crashing down around us. And these were their big 82mm mortars. I don't know how many tubes were firing on us. I later heard 11 and as many as 16. But the air was full of mortars and the impacts were so loud and constant it was almost deafening. I was tucked into my little cave looking across the ravine. One of our guys ran toward me and hit the dirt a few feet away from me as a round screamed into the ground. I'll never forget looking into his eyes. They were huge. He was really scared. That's when I knew this wasn't just a quick exchange of rounds. This was bad.
There was nothing I could do to help him. I barely squeezed most of me into my cave. After the round exploded to my right he was on his feet and running uphill to my left. That's where our 81mm mortars were dug in. I heard Hotel company open up with machine guns and M16 rifle fire that quickly grew in volume. The NVA was sending ground troops in under the mortar umbrella. To get ready for whatever came next I grabbed my socks and boots and started putting them on. I clearly recall forcing myself to run every lace through every eyelet in an effort to calm down. I don't know as it helped but it gave me a simple task to focus on.
About the time I got my boots laced I could hear someone yelling, "Ammo! Ammo!" I had been hearing a machine gun firing nearby, but hadn't paid it much attention. One of our gunners had moved his gun to the top of the ravine and was firing on the telltale puffs of smoke from their mortars. He'd run out of ammo and was hollering for someone to bring him some. I could see him on the top of the ravine to my left about 100 yards away. I could also see rounds landing almost constantly in between us. There didn't seem to me any way to make that 80 yard run alive. But he kept yelling for ammo and I kept looking at the 2 cans right in front of me. My job I guess. I took a deep breath and decided to go. I reached out both hands to grab the handles on the cans. There was an impact nearby and my hands felt like they were on fire. I pulled them back and saw the backs of my hands were covered in blood. Luckily the shrapnel went mostly across the backs of my hands and not into them. I pulled out a few pieces of jagged metal, put my hands under my arms for a second to try and stop the blood, and got ready for my second try. I grabbed the handles and levered myself out of the ground, then started running. I don't know how many rounds came down during that dash. I stumbled over loose rocks a few times and felt some stinging in my legs and back but I made it.
I flopped down next to the gunner and opened the first can and fed it in. He opened fire immediately. I could see the tracers looping into the white smoke in the distance. The great thing about tracers is that you can see where your rounds are going. The downside is that the enemy can see where they're coming from. We ran quickly through the first can and the second. And their rounds crept closer to us. Empty and bracketed, it was time to go. I took off for my cave with rounds still whistling in.
I was at the bottom of the ravine when a huge explosion went off above me in the mortar area. As I looked up I saw a mortar tube come rolling and tumbling down. A guy up above yelled at me to grab it which I did. I put it by my feet and began fielding and stacking wooden crates he was throwing down the steep hillside. Finally he skidded down and joined me. He told me he'd shoot and I'd aim. I could barely hear him above all the noise. Normally a mortar tube is mounted on a large and very heavy base plate. A metal stake helps hold it up. We were going to fire blind from the bottom of the ravine with me holding the tube between my knees. He pried open the first case, grabbed a mortar, dropped it down the tube, and then struck the firing mechanism near the bottom. A loud "Thump" and the round was away. We got one more off when the gunner I'd helped started yelling to aim farther out. From his vantage point he could see our rounds hitting. So I tried to hold the tube a little lower and we got off a couple more. Then the gunner yelled to move left some which I tried to do. It's not a very exact science. After a few more rounds he started yelling, "Pour it on 'em!" I tried to hold the tube steady as we fired out every round we had. At almost the same time we ran out, their mortars stopped firing.
I read this and my world stopped for a moment, not just for what he saw, and did, though that had a big part of it, but I could see his hands. My father's hands, the hands that helped me stand when I was little, the hands that held the back and handlebars of my bike when I was learning how to ride, the hands that held me when I was sick, hurt, or scared, the hands that held books at night to read to my brother and I. My dad's hands, how could I have not known they had been so hurt? A silly thought I know but it was the first one I had, immediately followed by, oh his poor hands! He didn't stop, couldn't stop, he could have hidden in that cave a bit longer, but that wouldn't have been him, it never could have been him, he always did what he had to even if he would have wished that anyone else could have stepped up.
Then I heard guys closer to me screaming for Corpsmen.
I started running down the ravine, past my cave, in the direction other guys were headed. I went by Corporal Schroeder. He was on the left side of the ravine floor, just standing and staring. I could see his eyes. He was seeing things no one else could see. I kept going and saw J. Hunter, one of our gunners. He was laying on his back with a huge smile on his face. I called out his name as one of the guys bent over him. They rolled him over and I could see 1/2 his back was gone. He'd died instantly. I think his real name was Joachim or Juan or something like that. Neat guy with a contagious smile. I forced myself to keep going as they carried him out.
A corpsman was working on another guy. He asked me and whoever was behind me to get the wounded man to the LZ for medevac. We carried him all the way back to the slope by the LZ with the other wounded and headed back to help the next guy. I got back to the same corpsman as he finished bandaging my friend. We then carried him back toward the LZ. I went by Schroeder again. He hadn't moved. I yelled his name right in his face. No response. He'd be okay later but for now he was in a different place.
We carried my friend the rest of the way to the staging area. We laid him down and he started yelling for somebody to help him. I got down next to him and told him he'd be fine. He got up and tried to run, but I got him back down. I lay sideways with one arm behind his head and the other on his chest. It kept him down and allowed me to shield him if more rounds came in. I told him he'd be going back to Philly. Told him a lot of gals would be impressed with his stories. Told him he had a million dollar wound. He'd be in a hospital soon. I kept babbling and he calmed down so I kept talking to him. Don't know how long we lay like that but I remember looking up and the same corpsman was treating a guy close to me. We made eye contact and he said, "He died about 20 minutes ago." I was stunned. I don't know if something wasn't bandaged or if he went into shock. Or maybe I held him down too firmly. Or he was hurt worse than the corpsman thought. But H. Rivers Jr was dead. And I feel like I've carried a debt for a lot of years. I've apologized to him at the Wall and at the Vietnam Memorial in Philadelphia. I don't know if I missed something or didn't do something. I just don't know. There was no time to mourn then. There was a lot more to do. I left the wounded area and headed for the lz.
I was stunned that he had carried guilt for something he couldn't have helped, he wasn't a medtech, and he couldn't have done more than he did do. He was willing to shield his friend with his body, and hold him and talk to him. He wasn't alone, and he was cared for by another soldier who wouldn't leave him alone. I told my dad that every place he went to apologize his friend was right there telling him he was ok, he was in a peaceful, and better place. Dad finally found peace about this, and even was able to call Mr. River's brother on Memorial Day 2014 he had tried for years but felt so bad that he hadn't been able to save his friend I don't think he quite knew what to say. He did this year, and it was good for him to close that circle finally after all these years. He told me my words helped him as he had never looked at it quite the same way I did. I believed and still believe that he did all he could, there was no malice in him or his heart he truly believed his friend was going home, he never lied to him, and I think that was the worst part for my dad he felt like he'd lied to a man who was dying and he didn't have a chance to make it right.
A chopper had dropped a sling load and I helped some guys unpack it. It was a load of black bags. We then began the awful task of loading our dead friends into body bags. I kept working on that until I didn't think I could handle one more body and walked away and had a smoke. I joined John Balaam, a guy I'd also gone through training with. We were both physically and emotionally exhausted. Soon the medevac choppers started in and we helped load the guys until everyone was outbound. I wandered back to my cave and salvaged what I could. My few cans of C rations had holes in them. My spare magazines were no good. The ammo might have been ok but I wasn't taking a chance. I scrapped it all. The grenades were ok, just nicked a bit. My cartridge belt and canteens were shot. But I grabbed what I could and went back toward the lz where I could see the Captain and some of the guys.
Capt. Creager saw me and started yelling for a corpsman. I looked a lot worse than I was. I'd never stopped the bleeding in my hands and wiping them on my shirt made it look bad. Plus it wasn't all my blood. But the corpsman got some powder on it and the bleeding slowed down. I refused battle dressings as it wouldn't allow me use of my hands for anything essential. The corpsman checked my back and bandaged my legs. He told the Capt that the shrapnel in my back would have to come out but he couldn't do it. The Capt asked if I wanted on the next chopper out. I told him I was fine. I'd stay. So we all sat there quietly, lost in our own thoughts. Phantoms had been bombing and strafing the area they thought the mortars had been fired from; getting some help from a few gunships. I don't know why but I always thought they were hitting the wrong place. I might have seen lingering smoke while I was on the lz. I don't remember why, just that I thought they were off a bit.
We didn't get any artillery support from the big 175s at the Rockpile, which I thought was odd since we had some forward observers attached to us. I found out later they'd been killed early in the barrage. It was getting toward sunset and suddenly the quiet was shattered by the distant, "ThunkThunk" of more incoming. I had been sitting on the edge of a shallow hole guys had been using to dump trash. It was the only shelter around so I folded myself into it. The hole was so short and shallow I had to hunch up to fit. It left my rounded back above ground but there was nothing I could do about it. Rounds were hitting all around us. One round hit really close on my left. I took a hit in my side that knocked the wind out of me. I think I passed out for a few seconds. I was sure I was hurt bad. I slowly reached my hand toward the wound hoping to stop the blood loss. I felt broken panels on my flak jacket but no wound. The barrage stopped as suddenly as it starred. I lifted my head and saw a chunk of rock the size of a softball resting against my side. Thank God a rock and not steel.
As I stood up and tried to take a deep breath, an odd thing happened. A guy came up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me. It was actually his foxhole I'd jumped into. He'd run up, found me in it and run to the next hole. Before he got there he was hit by shrapnel in his left arm and shoulder. Not terrible but bloody. He thanked me because that wound gave him his third Purple Heart which meant he was headed out of country.
He walked off to get bandaged and I started helping other wounded Marines. The Capt told me it was too close to dark. There would be no more choppers today. The wounded would have to hang on all night. He also wanted us to move over to the south perimeter. We needed to cover the open downhill slope. Only a move of 100yds or so. I got my gear and moved out. I was the only one left in my fire team so I found a spot that offered good concealment and a good field of fire and dug in. I just finished my foxhole when Capt. Creager found me again.
He said he wanted me to move in with Cannon and Shepherd. They were down a guy. Fine with me, so I headed across and uphill to their location. It was close to where we had the wounded holed up. We decided on watches as night fell. We were in a pretty secure spot. Anyone approaching from below would have to cover a 100yds with no cover. Not likely to happen, but you still keep watch. When it was dark we moved a few yards and joined the guys waiting for morning medevac. We shared cigarettes, water, C rations. Whatever we had. We all clustered together and talked quietly for hours. We were all spent but nobody seemed to want to go to sleep. We were very comfortable just being together. Finally conversation petered out and we got some rest. That ended, what to this point, was the worst day of my life. But Margo wasn't quite through with us yet. Tomorrow we'd face more challenges.
Hard to believe that it wasn't over yet, that day was a nightmare, and knowing that more was coming just was hard to face, I know now that he HAD to finish it when he go this far, just like I HAD to know. It just blew my mind that it couldn't just be OVER after everything that Echo Nomad had been through that day you would think they would finally be able to fly out, but no, it wasn't done, and the next day was coming.
The 17th dawned sunny and hot. Shortly after full light you could hear choppers coming. One big Sea Knight for the wounded and two gunships to ensure their safety. We got our guys to the lz and saw them off as soon as the chopper touched down. The bird made it in and out without drawing any fire. Shortly after that we got the word to saddle up. Echo was moving again. We crossed the perimeter and took over the positions previously held by Golf Co, I think. I ended up sharing a foxhole with my buddy John Balaam. There were so few of us left the Capt had us spread thin, two men to a position. Around noon we watched Staff Sgt Sanchez start down the hill in front of us and outside what we considered our perimeter. There was virtually no cover on that steep hillside below us and he was not only visible to us but to enemy gunners.
Unfortunately, he happened to look up and see us watching him. He motioned for us to join him. Rats. I was perfectly happy just sitting. I remember I had my shirt off as I'd tried to wash it with water from my canteen and had it hanging from a bush. We grabbed our rifles but he yelled at us to leave them. I leaned mine against a small tree and headed downhill. We were almost in the exact spot where we'd climbed up the day before. The hill was very steep with almost no cover for 100yds in any direction. There were a few downed trees artillery or mortar fire had blown down as well as a few trees blown apart with only a waist high stump remaining. We got to Sanchez and he told us what he wanted. He'd brought a machete and was looking to chop a few limbs off to put over his foxhole. You put tree limbs, then a tarp or poncho, and then cover with dirt. Might save you if you took a direct hit. We were chopping away at limbs I thought were way too big for a machete to hack through. We were taking turns and taking too long in the open when the dreaded "Thunkthunkthunk" started again. We dropped where we were and laid against a good sized tree that was laying perpendicular to the perimeter. The base of the tree was downhill and the top uphill.
Sanchez was the farthest down, then me, then John. Our heads were pushing against the feet of the guy above. The rounds began hitting right around our holes and started working downhill. They'd spotted us and decided to take us out. Felt kind of personal. There was a brief lull in the explosions and I jumped up. I thought I could make it back to my position. Sanchez yelled, "No. Get back down" and I did. He saved my life. I'd have probably gotten half way when more rounds started landing. Some rounds were falling further away, near our old positions in the ravine. I heard one hit and then a huge explosion as the ammo dump went up. Then rounds started working their way closer and closer to us. Suddenly something told me to move. I got up, jumped over the tree and dropped on the other side. John stuck his head up and asked me what I was doing. I told I didn't know but I had to be on this side of the tree. I crawled a few feet to my right where a small tree had blown down. It also faced uphill. I pushed my head into the roots as we'd also left our helmets up top. Rounds kept screaming in and getting closer. I put my arms along my sides to try and protect my organs. The rounds were exploding so close to me that I was being covered in dirt and rocks. I began to recite the Hail Mary. The impacts were so loud I ended up shouting that prayer over and over. Then I heard Sanchez scream. I crawled back to the tree and looked over. John was on his side facing me. I asked if he was hit. He was. His butt had taken several hits. He said Sanchez was bad. I told him I'd be back and took off running uphill for a corpsman.
I didn't make it very far. A round landed just the other side of a waist high stump. It felt like I was hit in the throat with a bat. Luckily the green towel we all hung around our necks in the jungle absorbed the cutting edge of the rock that hit me. I was on my knees but got up and tried again. No better the second time. I hadn't gone two feet when there was a big roar and I felt like a giant hand grabbed me and threw me straight back. I remember my boots kicking the back of my head. Because the hill was so steep I fell a long way. I think I was unconscious for awhile. I came to on my back with my head downhill. My back was killing me and I couldn't seem to get my feet under me. So I started crawling back up. I'd flown far enough that I was well below the tree where John and Sanchez were. I finally made it back where I started and again looked over the log. John was startled to see me. He said he thought for sure I was dead. Told him I was fine. Not a scratch. By this time the mortars were still falling nearby but no longer seemed aimed at us. I told him I still had to find that corpsman. I crawled and kneed my way to the top and scrambled into the big bunker the Capt was sharing with our two corpsmen. I explained the situation and started back down when the Capt grabbed me. The mortars were again close and he didn't want to lose anyone else. We'd wait it out. One of the corpsman, Kennedy, I think had been hit in both legs. They were both broken. I tried to make small talk about his hometown, but it felt forced. I wanted to get back to John.
The impacts slowed and then stopped altogether. Somewhere between the two I was out and down the hill. I got John on his feet and with another guys help got him back to our foxhole. I put a battle dressing on his butt, told him to hold it tight, (The strings on the bandage weren't long enough to go around his waist.) gave him his rifle, and headed back to help Sanchez. He was badly hurt. But we carried him up to the top. Fighters and choppers were on the way. The corpsman took over with Sgt Sanchez and I headed back to my position. Some firing broke out. Cannon and Shepherd, in the next hole to my left were firing. I found my rifle in several pieces so took John's and started firing at the few NVA troops who were testing our line. They finally pulled back. A lot more of them stayed where they fell.
I helped John make it to the lz. He was the last good friend I had in ee him leave. Soon a big Sea Knight came in and loaded all our wounded. The bird was badly overloaded. It got up but couldn't seem to gain any altitude as it headed for the trees. Then jet fuel began pouring out of the side tanks and up they went. The pilot thought fast and dumped fuel to lighten the load. That was the only time I saw that done. I wandered back to my hole, found my shirt, now full of holes, and walked back downhill. I had to see where I'd been before the voice told me to move. It wasn't a pretty sight. I'd have been very badly hurt. Likely I wouldn't have made it. By the time I got back to my position we got the word that Sgt Sanchez died on the chopper. I remember that he was married and had a little girl.
I remember being thankful that my dad is one of the people I knew that listened to his intuition (if he hadn't I wouldn't be here), and I remember telling myself that I needed to follow THAT example and set the same example for my child. I also remember feeling terrible knowing that Sgt. Sanchez didn't get to go home to his family, he was in another country doing his job, and he didn't get to return to his wife and daughter, their lives were changed forever by something none of them could control. I thought about our service men and women who make these decisions every day and their families who are fighting every day of every single deployment, and I'm in amazement of them all.
The rest of the day was pretty quiet. Occasionally rounds would hit in the open area where we'd been yesterday. And at one point one of their big machine guns got a firing position and tore up a lot of rocks and dirt in the same area. I noticed they used green tracers. Late in the afternoon Capt. Creager came over and sat down with me. He asked how I was doing and we chatted for awhile. My back was feeling better as I moved. After more small talk he got to the point. It seemed the night before when he'd moved me from the hole I'd dug, he'd taken it over. And the last chopper in that day had dropped off supplies. Among them a case of beer. He buried a case in the mud in front of the hole. He said we could split it if I'd retrieve it.
We were sitting about 200yds from the beer across the open ground where all the rounds were landing. We kicked it back and forth and I decided to go. What the heck. A beer sounded good. I asked him to write a letter to my folks if it became necessary but leave out the part about beer. Would seem stupid to have your family know you got killed going for beer. He said he'd have the team cover me. I took a few deep breaths and took off. I ran all the way, took some time to rest, dug up the case, and hauled it back. To my knowledge there wasn't a shot fired the whole time. I took a couple beers and we passed out the rest to the guys. I sat on the edge of my foxhole, sipping a beer, and watched the sun go down. A lot to think about.
I laughed aloud at this one, because I could actually see him doing it. I could see the thought, then I could see it take root, then I could see that nothing would do until he had the beer in his hand, this is a beer run from hell, and I thought mine were when I was younger. I gave him a ration of crap about taking a risk like that, but after the days he had been through hell he'd more than earned it, and then some, though personally I would have been wishing for some Tennessee Whiskey myself a damn good belt!
I was pretty sure we'd be leaving Margo in the next day or two. Choppers were coming in and picking up sling loads of unneeded gear. Load after load of M16s, flak jackets, packs, cartridge belts. None of it needed any longer by its previous owners. Very sad to watch. Those same packs had been humped to KheSahn, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, and dozens of other nameless places by some good Marines. I took one machine gun, got someone to take the second one, but still had one left and no takers. A joy to shoot, but a lot of guys don't want to hump one. They weigh 23 pounds and tend to draw a lot of enemy attention when they open up. I carried the extra one over to the Capt. He really surprised me. He said he'd carry it. Not many officers would have taken on the load. We spent one more uneventful night on Margo.
Early the next morning Sea Knights began circling the hill. Our lz was so small only one bird at a time could come in. Since Echo was last in, we'd be last out. It felt odd watching group after group run onto choppers and leave. It wasn't lost on us that soon the entire hill would be held by only 20 of us. My platoon had hit the ground with 58 guys, I think. We were down to 20 now. What had been a platoon was now a large squad. The choppers were landing near where the other units were dug in. The Capt was on the radio with the pilot and wanted the bird to land much closer to us. Capt asked if anyone had a smoke grenade or flak panel. Nobody had any smoke left but I had a panel. It was an orange nylon panel about a yard square. Placed on the ground it gives the pilot a target. I'd seen it laying on the lz and picked it up, folded it, and tucked it into the liner of my helmet. He told me where he wanted it and I took off. I weighed it down with a few rocks and trotted back. One of our guys yelled something like, "Good job rook." Capt.Creager took that time to let everyone know that I was no longer to be called a rookie. Made me feel good. I'd been there about 3 months and graduated from new guy or rookie.
The Capt came over while we waited for the bird and told me I'd made it through a tough one and did my job. Made my day. I hadn't realized until then that of all the guys who joined the unit over the last few months; I was the only one still standing . Anyway it was finally our turn to go. We hustled on the big bird and lifted off. The pilot hovered just over the trees and dropped down into the river valley with the engines screaming. It was an exhilarating ride traveling at high speed just above the water. We were headed to a new lz, one deep in the jungle about 2 miles away.
I'd be in the field for a few more days before the Capt told me I was taking a medevac out. My throat wound was getting worse. I could barely form words. Eventually they'd find my vocal cords were paralyzed. And my back was getting worse. It was stiffening up and the scraps of metal were getting annoying. I'd catch a medevac to a small base camp called LZ Stud. There the metal was cut out of my back. From there another chopper took me to the hospital in Da Nang. There I had my legs bandaged. Only time in my life I ever had my legs shaved. After that I was flown out to the hospital ship Sanctuary where I'd spend 21 days. Most of that time I'd carry a note pad and pen as I wasn't able to talk. On day 22 I flew back to my unit and joined them at Red Beach. Through one of those odd quirks of fate the first person I saw upon arrival was Cpl. Shroeder. He was surprised to see me as he said he thought I'd been killed on Margo. It's still hard to believe that everything that happened took place in less than a week.
On September 13, 2014 my father's last battle ended, he is finally beyond any of the battles that take place in our world, and now can find the peace that he didn't get to enjoy here unless he was hunting or fishing. I'm sharing these memories to honor his memory, and all those in the 2/26 Echo Nomads who stood that bitter ground and kept fighting.