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Spooky Action At A Distance

A Grunt Corpsman's Memories Of Vietnam

By Joseph Hoepner

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais
Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais

1

These memories begin New Year's Eve, 31 December, 1968. I'd arrived in Vietnam earlier in the month, assigned as a hospital corpsman with the 3rd Platoon of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. On the job less than a month, this day I would become senior corpsman with the platoon.

We were operating out of Mike Tower, situated between Hills 10 and 62 about 18 miles southwest of Danang along Charlie Ridge. I remained at the tower while my senior, Doc Rep, accompanied a patrol from the platoon. Returning to the tower, Doc Rep crossed through a tree line and tripped a booby trap, injuring himself and the Platoon Sergeant. The call for corpsman went out and together with some of the Marines I rushed to the area. Doc Rep had a fractured arm and the platoon sergeant had shrapnel to the head. Neither wound was life threatening, but both would result in a shortened tour in Vietnam.

After attending the wounds and seeing to the medevac to Danang, I returned to the tower. The lieutenant reminded me I had a med cap to treat local civilians for minor cuts and ailments. I was so mad told him I wouldn't do it; that the civilians could go to hell as far as I was concerned. He wasn't happy with me as this was a public relations deal.

A short while later someone notified me that a child was being brought to the tower. He and a friend were setting out a booby trap when it exploded. The eight year old boy lost part of an arm; his ten year old friend was less lucky and lost his entire head. I remember the stoic little old boy not crying at all as I applied a tourniquet to his missing limb. I called in a Medevac to transport him and his grandmother to Danang to have his wounds treated. My anger cooled with the sadness of enough maiming and killing for everyone.

After being relieved at the tower, we returned to Hill 10 for resupply and a little cleaning up, a chance for a bit of rest before returning to the tower to join a larger operation involving the entire company and South Vietnamese police to search for those responsible for killing three Marines a few nights earlier. The target was a small village below Hill 10.

New Years Day the new corpsman, Boettcher, joined our platoon. We were both from Wisconsin. I'd been in country slightly less than a month and now I was senior. Boettcher was greener than I. He hadn't experienced a wounded grunt yet; I was on my fourth.

The platoon formed up at Mike Tower and we were informed we would act as a blocking force for the sweep of the village at the base of Hill 10. We weren't to let anyone escape. Once our grunts were in position, Boettcher, Lt. Mason and I settled in to an area removed from them and sat down to game of Old Maids, the only game Lt. Mason knew. We didn't get far before the shooting started and the call for a corpsman came in. The lieutenant knew it was one of our grunts and asked me to go out to him. I crawled down a trench line to see if I could find some cover between me and the wounded marine, but when I stuck my head out bullets whizzed past close enough I could see the grass move.

Deciding it was not a good place to attempt a rush to the wounded marine, I crawled back to the lieutenant who asked why I hadn't gotten to the marine. I reminded him that I wouldn't do that marine much good if I were dead. I asked for some cover but we couldn't shoot as the fire came from friendly forces.

The lieutenant assigned a corporal to go with me. I don't remember much of the run across that open fire field, but I do remember arriving at the side of the grunt who'd been shot in the chest and abdomen. His lung had collapsed and I needed to plug the leak or we'd lose him. Before I could proceed, I found myself staring down the barrel of a Browning Automatic Rifle held by a South Vietnamese policeman, pointed at my head. They were shooting at almost anything that moved. I had to convince him to let me treat my grunt. I yelled bacsi, Vietnamese for doctor, numerous times to no avail. Finally I emptied my medical supply bags onto the ground and he left.

My wounded marine had a collapsed lung, and I feared the other might be not far from it. I sealed the sucking wound with cellophane from cigarette packs and applied numerous battle dressings to further seal out the inrushing air. He looked bad, so I gave him a unit of plasma as we awaited the Medevac. I accompanied him to the chopper and that was the last time I saw him. All I knew about him was his name, Birmingham. You didn't get too close to grunts: I operated in what I later described as robot mode, compassion taking a back seat to emergency care.

After all this, we retreated to Mike Tower and watched the 105mm howitzers pummel the village at point blank range. How anyone could survive that was beyond me, but survive they did and they streamed to Mike Tower for medical care for injuries. Primitive medicine at its best. A band-aid was greatly appreciated. I managed to get a few of the villagers referred out to Danang for evaluation of lung burns caused by the heat of the explosions.

Days had no real meaning for me unless something significant happened. January 2 was one of those days, bringing a challenge I would live to regret. We were on a daylight mission when our squad came upon a couple of Vietnamese women. Both of them began to run, but we captured one. She turned out to be a North Vietnamese nurse and she was placed in my custody while we proceeded to a local Combined Action Platoon (CAP). Once we arrived, we turned her over to the South Vietnamese Police. I didn't think I'd ever see her again, but on the morning of the 5th of January I stopped at the Battalion Aid Station when she was brought in for treatment. The damned South Vietnamese Police had brutally beaten her. I didn't like what I saw and felt it would have been better had I shot her myself.

January 3rd and 4th went by without wounded or contact with the VC or the NVA. I remember going on routine patrols. On one of them, one of the grunts tossed a cigarette onto the roof of a hootch which immediately caught fire. The locals tried to put it out but it burned too fast and was completely destroyed. Needless to say, we didn't help in any attempt to put out the fire as the munitions that were stored in the roof went off like fireworks.

On another of those days that I refer to as no-time days, we entered an area with a school with a class in progress, an old man teaching a bunch of young women. I knew by their dress that they were virgins, as they wore white; the marines on patrol with me wanted to rape some of them. I told them I wouldn't permit it and reminded them how mad they'd be if someone raped one of their sisters. Situation avoided and this doc may not have been too popular with the marines, but I knew it was morally wrong and I knew it would have brought reprisals.

January 4th began a string of events that would carry over into the 5th. On the afternoon of the 4th, the Lieutenant selected a group of grunts to set a night ambush. He gave the killer team leader the route that he wanted them to take and told the six man team they could take one corpsman and four machine gunners. I was the designated corpsman, as the newest in the group had not yet been tested in the field with killer teams and I'd been on previous night missions.

As I prepared to leave, the platoon sergeant asked me where the Lieutenant had wanted us to go. I pointed out the route on the map and he told me to let the corporal know that the selected route would take us into a heavily booby-trapped area. The sergeant knew that I could get by with telling the corporal this without having to answer to the Lieutenant.

Exiting Mike Tower, I relayed the message to the corporal and we decided to sandbag the patrol. (Sandbagging means to not go where told without letting higher-ups know.) This could have been a very deadly move on our part, as we could have been discovered by other marines and mistaken for the enemy, but it was a gamble worth taking.

We stopped at a CAP unit and were informed that they could supply mortars if we needed them. They gave us their radio frequency just in case. We had no idea where we'd set up but ventured down the red line (road) until we came to a cemetery beside the road. It seemed a good place, as it had a defined trail on one side. Site chosen, the corporal decided where to place the teams: machine gunners facing the road, grunts facing the trail and claymore mines along the other two flanks.

I took the 2200 to 2400 watch while the others got some needed rest. Just after turning my watch over to one of the grunts, all hell broke loose on trail. We got one, we got one! Let's get some illumination here! Someone switched to the CAP frequency and the radio operator called for illumination mortars. Then silence. I was asked to confirm the kill.

Usually when a VC or NVA took a hit they booby trapped themselves by lodging a live Chi Com grenade beneath their bodies, so I asked the grunts to drab the body closer with the grappling hook. Once the body was moved, I went to check it. He was definitely dead. He'd been hit with a beehive M79 grenade round in his abdomen and the whole left side of his head was gone. In the adrenaline rush of a kill, I thrust my fist into the hole created by the M79 round, I jumped up and down on the young man's chest and I fired a couple rounds from my sidearm into the body. I attempted to re-chamber a round and the gun accidentally discharged, narrowly missing my right foot. The marines took away my .45 and emptied the clip.

They wanted to mutilate the body some more and I told them that we had already left our mark, that inscribing our unit name on the body would only insure further reprisals. During the chaos, the company captain came on our radio asking what the hell was going on out there and why had we changed frequencies? He instructed the radio operator to get back on the originally assigned frequency. The radio operator acknowledged that he did not remember the assigned frequency. The Captain gave him the words "turkey loaf" to decode to go to the correct frequency, but the radio operator couldn't decode it. The Captain was getting madder by the minute and out of frustration gave us the correct frequency. I knew we might catch major flak over the whole situation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, neither the radioman nor I would ever have to face the Captain.

The machine gunners, unhappy at not being able to fire a shot, took out their frustration on a hootch across the road and up on a small hill. We blew our claymores, I grabbed the dead NVA by the arm and dragged his body onto a poncho, and we vacated the site. We headed back to the CAP unit and left the enemy body outside the concertina wire. We placed no guard on the body, and that caused further grief with the lieutenant and the captain. I felt it was nit picking, but officers were always that way.

At dawn on the 5th of January we reunited with the rest of the platoon. I and a few of the grunts asked the lieutenant's permission to return to the hill for a change of clothes and to resupply. Our ammunition was expended and I was covered with the NVA's blood. We would go back to the hill and reunite with the platoon at a spot designated by the Lieutenant before noon.

After my C ration luncheon of turkey loaf, the platoon moved to an area we had visited before. Same old trail, different day.

We paused for a break while the Lieutenant designated a corporal, our radioman and another grunt to check out a prospective area to set up a night ambush. I took off my flak jacket and got comfortable. It was quiet for a short while before we heard the call for a corpsman. My new man took off like a bolt of lightning and I casually put my flak jacket back on and walked toward the area where the call had come from. When I arrived, I saw the other corpsman staring at the wounded Marine. I yelled at him that we needed to get to work. The Marine's right leg was missing the entire back side from knee to foot and left leg was fractured. I knelt beside him and tied a tourniquet on his right leg, fashioned a makeshift splint for his left leg.

During this time, I moved not an inch off my knees. One of the grunts asked me what kind of Medevac I wanted and I told him an emergency one. I'd noticed what I thought were three choppers circling the area; the grunt threw a yellow smoke grenade, meaning clear LZ, come on in. The lieutenant went ballistic as we had no radio com with the choppers. They were Army Huey gun ships. I remember telling the Lt. to go fuck himself as the Huey landed, armed to the teeth and a beautiful sight. As usual, I got up to accompany the wounded Marine to the chopper

As I turned to face the chopper, I placed my left hand on the ground in front of me, brought my right leg up under my chest and kicked my left leg out from under me. I heard a muffled poof and instinctively knew that I'd tripped a booby trap. I remember saying "OH SHIT, I hit a booby trap." I felt my left leg blown from my body, the sensation of falling into a deep hole and trying to claw my way out of it.

Cruxifiction by Aleijadinho, Congonhas, Minas Gerais, close-up