Thursday, May 21, 2009

USMC Sanitation, Monkey-Marble Mountains, Danang, VN

I don't remember if I ever shared this "war story" with you all before but I recently passed it along to another friend. Harry is my oldest surviving friend: we went together through the Marines initial training for commissioned officers, The Basic School, which in 1965 was geared to graduated 2Lts ready to lead infantry. Harry opted to go to Ft. Sill to be trained as an arty officer. When I got back off the USS Repose from my first WIA adventure, Harry had joined our company, Lima 3/1, as our Forward Observer.

This little article tells a lot about my friend. He's a terrific writer and observer of life, being an Alabama lad, grad of Auburn. I thought it not an inappropriate article as we embark upon the Christmas season, ponder our foibles, the never-ending attempts of man to understand his world and meet the challenges presented, and give Thanks.

Semper Fi,
Tom Eagen

Field Sanitation

By Harry Hooper

In mid-September of 1966 I was ordered to an observation post called Crow's Nest. It was on top of Marble Mountain south of the airstrip at Danang. It was the mission of the Crow's Nest observation post to protect the airstrip, and to keep the Viet Cong from damaging the air-conditioned trailers of the aviators, and the nice barracks of their support troops, by firing rockets or mortars at them. The aircraft were a concern also. The mission was to be accomplished by raining artillery fire onto the heads of any VC who had the temerity to attack the big base and the Marine air base which was north and east of the mountain.

Marble Mountain was actually several spindly shafts of rock. The highest one rose 105 meters straight out of the sand just west of the South China Sea and it was upon this rock that the Crow's Nest sat. The mountain was mostly made of marble except that the marble became karst at the higher elevations. The entire mountain was full of caves and tunnels. Most of them were too small for a man to enter. I think if it had been possible to saw it in half it would look like a plank eaten by termites.

At the summit was an area which was 20 feet at its widest and in length, it was perhaps 150 feet. This was occupied by a wooden platform upon which was emplaced a 106 millimeter recoilless rifle. The plan was that anytime the wily Cong fired rockets at the airstrip, they would be engaged immediately by the 106 while the FO, me, would send a fire mission to my artillery battalion which would blast the offending VC into rubble. Since the VC only fired rockets at night, and usually moonless nights, exactly how we were to accomplish this was never revealed to me.

Life on Crow's Nest was not unpleasant. There were eight of us up there. There was the 106 crew, a couple of machine gunners manning a single M-60, my trusty radio operator, Lance Corporal Papkin, and my wireman, PFC Clapp. Once a week a CH-34 helicopter would appear slinging beneath it a cargo net containing C-rats, beer, and cigarettes. Prior lifts had delivered timber and corrogated tin which had been used to construct a comfortable hooch.

We had all of the comforts of home and unlike home, we could wake up mornings to a splendid view of the South China Sea and enjoy spectacular sunsets over the Annamese Mountains. Moreover, we felt safe. The climb to the top of Crow's Nest was quite difficult and entailed shinnying up a hawser for part of the way. At night we would pull the hawser to the top and we felt pretty sure that no VC could get to us, at least not without working up a substantial sweat. Occasionally, at dusk, a sniper would crank off a round or two in our direction and we would answer with a short blast from the M-60. If we were feeling particularly surly, or if a round holed our tin roof, we would reply with a 106 HEAT round.

It did occur to me that my military career would be in serious jeopardy if some enterprising VC got to the top, swung the 106 to the north, and proceeded to blast away at important people's command posts and trailers. Consequently, every time we heard any strange sounds from the side of the mountain we tossed grenades at them.

Days were spent eating, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and listening to a tape player which had a single Beatles tape. The album was called "Revolver" and Eleanor Rigby was the featured song, or at least the only one I remember. We must have heard it a thousand times. After enough beer I would actually began to worry about Eleanor's plight.

On a typical day we would watch air traffic circling and landing at Danang. One day we saw a B-52 make an unsuccessful emergency landing. Crow's Nest must have been at least ten miles from the airfield but nevertheless, when the wind was favorable, it was possible to hear C-130's revving up. At night we would watch F-4's and F-105's scream overhead with their afterburners flaring. One night we saw an F-4 get hit by an errant 105 millimeter illumination round and watched in amazement as the pilots parachuted from the plane. More astonishingly, a little Kaman helicopter was there to pick them up almost as soon as they hit the ground.

When vehicles traveled the MSR heading south, to what was then the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines CP, we would watch closely for snipers shooting at them. Occasionally we would see a small firefight between the Marines in the vehicles and the VC. The 106 gunners, who were truly crack shots, would fire at the snipers, undoubtedly scaring the bejesus out of the truckers, and perhaps erasing a few VC.

The 106 had a .50 caliber rifle on top of the weapon. This was called the minor caliber. The 106 itself, was called the major caliber. The gunner, when he found the target with the minor caliber, would yell, "fire the major caliber." The explosion from the recoilless rifle was like the crack of doom. The difference between the minor caliber and the major caliber was like the difference between a hand grenade explosion and the atom bomb.

We also had a dog which provided some entertainment. The dog was named Boom Boom, either out of respect for the 106 or after entertainment of the same name which was available for a few piasters from one of the professional women who plied their trade in the village of Nui Kim Son. It was a nice little dog and probably lived its entire life on top of Crow's Nest since I am sure the OP was occupied by U.S. troops until the pullout. That is not a lot of running room for a dog for an entire lifetime but it probably beat becoming rotisserie dog.

One of the problems with eight Marines on a small piece of real estate was that of field sanitation. This had been temporarily solved by placing a 106 ammo box, with an appropriate hole cut into it, over a shaft in the limestone which was at least 12 to 15 feet straight down. It seemed to angle off to the side after that and we suspected that it continued deep into the mountain. When relieving oneself of C-rats washed down with beer, the alimentary canal produced a product which resounded with a satisfying splat as it bottomed into the abyss of the pit.

In time, the OP, especially at night, became redolent of sewage. As a highly trained second lieutenant, having been a recent graduate of The Basic School, Quantico, Virginia, I resolved to solve this. Someone could have become ill as a result of this situation, or at least gag. Accordingly, I contacted the S-4 on the radio and requested gasoline so that the offending matter could be incinerated. In due time the supply helicopter arrived with its cargo net and with it, four jerry cans of diesel fuel.

It may have been a product of our boredom or the excitement of having something new to accomplish, but in any event, as soon as the cans were unloaded, we removed the ammo box and poured twenty gallons of diesel fuel into the pit. With great anticipation we threw a match into the pit. Nothing. Then we lit a pack of matches and tossed it into the odoriferous hole. Nothing. Then we lit a large splinter from an ammo box and tossed it into the maw. It made a nice little fire for a while but the diesel didn't catch. Next came an illumination grenade. The pit remained as fireless as a tenderfoot with flint and steel. That is when we learned that diesel doesn't burn, at least, it didn't on Crow's Nest. Our disappointment was palpable.

Story continued here.

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