What follows is another excerpt from “Sole Surviving Sons, a Marine Tanker in Vietnam“. The book is unpublished as of yet and is a Marine odyssey in Vietnam. Please comment if you would like to hear more…..
Although these short stories stand on their own, they suffer greatly from having the art and photos stripped out as well as being out of context. My book takes the form of months, not chapters and each month is prefaced by one letter that I sent home and paraphrasing of others….and then the real reality.
The following story has previously appeared as a chapter in an anthology of combat in cities as well as USMC Vietnam tankers web site and been cited in two PHD thesis. It was one of the high points of my combat experiences as well as my only memory blackout of all my time served. Excuse the profanity, but this is a Marine under fire in the field. Regards, D.
GYPSY VIBES AND CURSES
There was a very strange period of about a week that had various sweeps and
operations, mysteries and a vision of death in it. The biggest mystery is I’ve never been
able to remember part of the end of it. It’s just not there in my memory, like it never
We were out with the grunts for a few days cruising the tree lines, sweeping for
the bad guys. I don’t think I saw any daylight for three days running. I was eating,
sleeping, in the gunner’s seat, pissing into the hull bottom to be flushed out later. Sgt.
Mac did let me see the sun for about five minutes one day.
The infantry that we were assigned to, 2nd Battalion/3rd Marines, had a C.O. who
apparently didn’t understand the use of tanks, we had trouble with getting security
for the tanks when we were working in close to the tree lines. Tanks are a large target and
relatively blind so we required a few grunts to watch for and suppress RPG attacks. First
off we couldn’t get them to stick with us, then later on we couldn’t get them to back off
and get away when we needed to fire. Anyone who is in front of the main gun when it
goes off is asking for a major headache if not bleeding eardrums, from the side blast. We
had to sometimes cause some headaches to back off our own security, but usually only
once. All of that smoke, shock, concussion and side blast made them fast learners.
The rice paddies were a steaming swamp. We had been sweeping all day and
found NOTHING. The sun was getting ready to set when the advance stopped. Mac
came back from discussions with the Infantry Brass with the news that we were going to
hit the next tree line in the dark. We weren’t real impressed with this news. Mac making
the case for our tanks had tried to explain that the terrain was too unstable to operate at
night and we would probably get bogged in the mud. The Grunt CO wasn’t hearing any
of that and said we were going in. Our diesels cranked up, the hydraulics whined and we
moved off for the next tree line.
Within about the first five minutes we had two of our tanks buried to above the
road wheels in mud and the other two trying to pull them out. It was a nasty job to
recover a tank in the mud of a South Vietnamese rice paddy.
Well, those first five minutes stopped the night assault, and we set up a hasty
perimeter. Arty dropped H&I (harassment & interdiction) fire around us all night and we had fire flies and
gun ships cruising over us through out the night. Very spooky. Ominous, considering we hadn’t run
into anything that day. Someone was taking great care to protect us. Did they know
something we didn’t?
In the morning we had our Cs and coffee and saddled up to hit the tree line that
we had aborted the night before. Word began to filter back that the grunts were finding
fighting holes and abandoned web gear and other junk, but no contact. No people. We
swept through the next tree line, more nothing. The radios kept up a running
commentary of evidence of recent tenants.
Everything and everyone stopped to regroup. We were all scattered out in the
open paddies between the last and the next tree line. Mac got out and wandered off to
find out what was going on, and I crawled up top and got a little daylight. That’s when I
got those Gypsy vibes. My grandmother once told me that she was from Transylvania
and I believed her as she is the spookiest person I’ve ever known. My mother has had some
strange unexplainable things happen, and it must have trickled down to me, ‘cause
SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT!
I got back down on the gun controls and started to traverse the tree line, swinging
the gun tube from one end to the other, watching through the magnified gun sites. The
sites drifted past some banana trees, only they were sideways…..like a bunker? A few
feet past that anomaly I was looking down the tube of a 75mm recoilless rifle crewed by
about six NVA gooks getting ready to put a window in our turret. I squeezed off the main gun
and got a “CLICK” for the effort. Not very comforting. I don’t know what went wrong
but I didn’t have time to deal with it. I crawled back up into the TC’s hatch, yelled to
Mac what I saw and keying the headset, called the next tank down the line to fire some
big ones into where my M-60 rounds were going, and opened up with the machine gun.
From the opening note of my first round, all hell broke loose and continued for most of
the rest of the day.
We had run into about 750 NVA who were moving toward the Da Nang airbase,
loaded for bear and intent on ruining our day. We filled four Amtracs with weapons
captured as the engagement wore on, RPGs and AK-47s by the gross, light and heavy
wheeled machine guns, recoil-less rifles, you name it. They had brought them with them
The crew was talking on the intercom that we could wrap this up and get back to
the Company area for showers and some rest, but I had been listening to the radios,
monitoring the action down south. We had another platoon of tanks about twenty miles
south of us at Hoi An on the coast and it sounded like they were getting their ass kicked.
Our ammo and our fuel were running low, but despite those conditions, we soon got word
to head for Hoi An. We’d get re-supplied by truck when we got there. The trucks would
leave the Company area the same time we disengaged from our present shoot out..
The platoon, sans infantry, took off across the desert, headed flat out, trailing sand
rooster tails to the southeast. When we got there, we linked up with the ROKs (Republic of Korea
Marines) and also found out that our fuel truck had been ambushed and blown up en route, on 538, west
of the city. So we got out hand pumps and siphoned fuel and scrounged ammo from the tanks that had
already taken severe hits and wouldn’t be needing it.
What had happened at Hoi An that morning was happening all over the country,
the NVA had run across the Son Hoi River and not very politely chased the ARVN out of
their training camp and then taken over most all of the city, surrounding a small MACV
compound in the middle of it all. There were LOTS of gooks in that city.
It was decided that we’d take a few tanks up the east side of the city and a few up
the west side, then turn them into the city and if we had to, blow it away to get it back.
We were the second tank to the west as we moved north up the street supported by the
The lead tank had just started into its turn to the east, when it rocked up onto its
left side as smoke and flame shot out of the hatches. Then it sat there and smoked! I had
some time compression here while everything went into slow motion and it took forever
but the crew finally crawled out, intact but looking like chimney sweeps. Some of the
other tankers went up with their “grease guns” and gave them covering fire, to help them
get away from the line of fire and back to us.
Right then and there I said “Fuck this! I’m going home, fuck it, fuck it, fuck it,
goodbye!” and pushed up from my seat to leave, until I thought “Where the hell are you
going to go? It’s just as bad anywhere else out there!” In my mind’s eye, I was seeing
that next RPG coming through the turret wall and turning me into paste, I didn’t want any
I sat back down and determined to find that fuck with the rockets before he found
me. I traversed and traversed that street and burnt out both of my eyes, one at a time,
willing those sights to show me something. Anything!
An old man with a straw package, that could have been hiding a rocket, ran out of
the alley and hid under the tank that had been hit. I went nuts trying to get permission to
fire, and it was slow in coming, but we finally bounced some .50s under the tank to run
him off. There were a lot of refugees evacuating the city now and it was hard to tell what
the hell was going on. We were hearing reports on the radio that the gooks might try to
slip out with the evacuees. When the tank had been hit the ROKs split, but surprisingly
the ARVN showed back up and fought like hell. I never had much use for the ARVN. It
was my opinion that a troop of Boy Scouts would be of more use, but these ARVN were
literally fighting for their homes, they lived in Hoi An and so did their families.
After soaking myself down with nervous sweat and nearly going blind trying to
find out where those rockets had come from, I finally spotted a slot, down at street level,
like a storm drain. I told the TC what I had and in short order we dumped a load of .50
into it. It turned out later that there was a below ground room behind that slot and two
dead gooks with RPGs.
I know I left that spot in the street sometime, but I can’t remember much that
happened after that. We ran the NVA out, because later that night or maybe the next, we
had all of our tanks sitting in the gates of the MACV compound. Some of the people
from the installation had come out to the tanks to bring us food and a bottle of whiskey,
and share their tales of being surrounded. I guess they were glad to have us there after
the past few day’s madness.
Everything about Hoi An seemed a bit other worldly that night. We had never
worked within a city before, and this was an entirely different set of circumstances.
As if to punctuate this feeling, a jeep with a driver and a Vietnamese roared by us,
swerved out of the gate and down the street. It ricocheted off the building on both sides
of the street, like a ball in a pinball machine, and flipped over.
I just stood and stared. The Army driver was drunk and was taking one of the
Vietnamese civilian employees home. This was the capstone of the past few weird days.
They lay in the wreckage of the jeep moaning, and I was waiting for Rod Serling to step
out of the wings and explain all of this.
Strange days. I spent a lot of time later in Hoi An with the ROKS and the MACV
personnel. Someday, perhaps I’ll remember how I got from the street fighting to the
gates of the MACV compound.
The preceding story was the beginning of the 1968 TET offensive. Very serious combat took place all over Vietnam and lasted for over a month in some cases. Although the press widely reported that we had lost control of the war; at the end of it: the Viet Cong ceased to be a factor anymore at all, the NVA suffered horrendous casualties and US forces won EVERY battle of that period. The Ho Chi Min trail was depleted for a period of three years, because they had thrown so much at us……and they LOST.
The press and people at home, under false impressions, gave it up….we had a tremendous victory. For once they had come out and fought and lost, and the country let us down.