My Very Own Court Martial

One of the dangers of war is that  daily you realize that the enemy may not be your worst enemy. When you return from a war zone, it is amazing to see the handwringing done in the nightly news over casualties from friendly fire, when we who were there knew that about half the stuff flying past our heads was from our own misdirected guns and bombs. Teenage soldiers racing their supply trucks run them off cliffs, heavy boxes being swung in nets from helicopters break loose on people below, and a guy who had just returned from patrol slaps his rifle down on the table. The gun goes off, and shoots his best friend in the belly. In a war zone, negligence is everywhere.

In early 1969, we’d just been reassigned from sleeping in the mud at night and smelling burning excrement in the morning and being glad at all times when the pop-pop of gunfire was happening somewhere distant on our hill. My last shower had been weeks ago, in a jury-rigged system consisting of a poncho catching rainwater overload and punctured to create small streams so you could wash yourself with a minimum of water. We’d been bargaining at dinner time for specific cans of the usual rations with the peaches and the pound cake, and passing the Tabasco sauce which flavored everything savory from those cans. A good bar bet now is on the contents of these C-rat packs that we ate over and over again until their variety was a tasteless routine.

However now, because we were reassigned to a ship, we were given silver napkin rings. Oh yes, silver napkin rings! Containing white linen napkins! How cool was that? They escorted us Marine officers to the Junior Officer’s Mess on the Iwo Jima, a helicopter landing craft which would a few years later pick up the lucky, resourceful astronauts from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. On this day, of our first meal afloat, the naval officers sidled down to their (clean) end of the linen tablecloth because our camouflaged clothes were worn and torn and were very grimy from the bush. They tried to make polite conversation and we tried to avoid wiping our mouths on our sleeves out of habit. Filipino mess stewards served us soup with silver ladles from fine china tureens.  In those days the Navy did things this way. Oh, I guess we Marines were part of the Navy, but they didn’t look too glad to have us. We were Special Landing Force Bravo, reconstituted from a shot-up battalion. We would be doing helicopter landings, hopefully by surprise, to help out when large scale shit sandwiches inevitably developed somewhere onshore in Vietnam. But meanwhile we were sitting 10 miles out on calm seas…safe and so big out here you could not feel the ship rock at all.

Real beds with real mattresses and little reading lights. And a desk. And my first hot shower in months. This was almost like R &R…until it wasn’t. I had a communications platoon this time, and much of my work shipboard was getting radios reconditioned and batteries inventoried and check-listing the hundred important little things. Important, because if certain tasks are left undone, no one can call for help. Radios could make sure everyone was where they ought to be. Without radios no one could replenish food or ammunition…what you had you had until it was gone (, and soon thereafter, you may be gone). And without radios, you were sometimes at the mercy of shouting distance in a storm of surround-sound. At battalion HQ, we practiced the radio checks, to be done every 15 minutes. Radiomen had little pads with duplicates to rip off when their radio check had been made. I thought it was a waste of time, but my gunnery sergeant told the men their ass was grass if they didn’t do a radio check every 15 minutes and so I didn’t make any contradictory statements. Chapter-and-verse is often a way for sergeants to maintain order and stifle a thousand pesky questions.

The Brigade even introduced to us a portable ground-surveillance radar with which an operator in the bush could sweep a quarter mile area at night and by listening to the length of the pings back he could tell if someone was out there. It was very much like submarines and destroyers use to detect each other by sonar waves, but this was on land and this could be carried on someone’s back. Later, onshore, we tried it out once. We were out looking over some area at twilight to set up this for a test, and we started getting some sniper fire.  We didn’t like to get caught out like that, with night falling. Anyway, we lay low while this operator pinged around, sweeping back and forth in the night, and finally he told us where the pings seemed most interrupted. I called in mortars from back in battalion on that place on the map where no one was supposed to be. The sniping stopped. The next morning they found blood trails away from that spot. The only person I ever killed that I knew about…and that was just a maybe. Strange feeling nevertheless.

So anyway, onboard with our first Special Landing Force there was fair amount of preparation work, but also a fair amount of leisure. The men were in tight but comfortable rows of racks below. One guy in my (intelligent) communications platoon was a chess hustler, and won thousands of dollars off the Navy sailors who thought no Marine could be that smart. At night, our battalion commander had the whole battalion out on the (small) carrier deck in red lights running laps of about a quarter mile each. Helicopter landing ships weren’t as large as the jet carriers by any means, but they were not small.

When the word went out, we had about an hour to saddle up and line up combat-loaded for the eight-person helicopters which would take us into Vietnam once again. As I remember, we were hoping to surprise a North Vietnamese Regiment that had some Army regiment pinned down. If they did not know we were coming, we could land and step off and skitter untouched to assembly points in the trees. That was ideal…a cold landing zone. If they knew we were coming, they would probably be shooting at us all the way in, and create a virtual screen of fire across the flat landing zone which might or might not explode the helicopter before it touched down – with us in it. So as we lined up eight hundred men through the winding passageways below deck, to emerge and run to waiting choppers on deck, nerves were pretty intense. It helped a lot that Joe Namath won the Super Bowl that day.

I’ll always remember that first landing, because the upstart New York Jets from the upstart American Football Conference were playing the old established Baltimore Colts of the old established National Football Conference. Joe Namath, a colorful quarterback at all times, at this time predicted the impossible, that his new upstarts would beat the Baltimore Colts. The world waited breathlessly for the outcome, and it came when we were in line for our first Special Landing Force mission to bail someone out of deathly trouble onshore. The whisper started when some Navy guy picked up the final score on the radio: “Jets won…Namath did it.” Those phrases were repeated mouth to ears throughout the catacombs of the ship where men and weapons stood in line to face death, and a little cheer swelled up. It happened! Somehow Namath beating the Colts made the whole day right, uplifted us all…

On the way to a mercifully cold landing zone, bullets from below went “pop” through the skin of the helicopter. We all pulled radios or other boxes, anything at all, to put under our seats to keep from the bullets coming up from below. Out the front of the helicopter we could see the beams of machine gun tracers 500 meters apart. Those guns had a tracer every 4 rounds so they could see where they were shooting. 500 rounds per minute. The tracers  formed a moving crisscross in the sky ahead, and we were flying right into the “X” of it. With experienced reflexes the pilot moved up and down to avoid the total concentration of fire as we clung to our seats and marveled at his skill. I suppose this is in some computer game now. Maybe it would not be as thrilling as an oaf with a chainsaw, but it was thrilling enough. We were all very glad to touch ground, even though we had no idea if our situation would be better or worse in the next minute.

During the week we set up and dug in and coordinated with the Army unit which had been in trouble, we set up radio operators with command and the companies. We used code names. For instance, Command was Mystic Circle and the companies would be Mystic Circle Alpha, Mystic Circle Bravo, and Mystic Circle Charlie. We referred to each other remotely by those names and not by real names, if we knew them. This way if one operator went down and someone took his place, that station was still the same name. Sort of interchangeable parts.

On the other hand, the Army merely handed the radio to whoever was doing nothing else at the time. When we needed to coordinate with an officer, they said they would go get Larry. I kid you not. The troops called their officers by their first names. Some might consider that egalitarian, but experienced military called it deathly. One can only wonder if this breakdown in decorum led to the breakdown in discipline that led to Mi Lai and other ghastly mistakes. The military chain of command is not just there to make riff-raff fall into line and obey orders they may not wish to. The real chain of command is unspoken but realized through the sternly dedicated examples of officers seen all the way up the order of things. This command example empowers troops, clear down to the lowly private, to take initiative within the lines of proper decorum. It is one of the unwritten rules of war.

I recount this in such detail because it was at the roots of the time I was almost court martialed wrongly.  A few years before, Korean Marines had laid a minefield in a certain area  and then were pulled out without deactivating the mines, or even completing a detailed map of where they were located. The villagers, however, were watching closely when the Koreans placed the mines, and so knew exactly where not to walk. They wouldn’t let their kids play near these areas. They wouldn’t even let dogs run wild in these areas, because any shrapnel form an exploded mine travels a long way at high speed. The villagers knew where the mines were. However, they would not always be kind enough to tell a new generation of Army soldiers or Marines where the minefields were. It was not entertainment. It was loyalty to a family member who might be Viet Cong. And there were a lot of those.

One company of Army soldiers was planning on going into an area already secured and evacuated months before, and the wise thing to do was to find out from the previous Marine units where the mines were. The Army company was in a hurry and whoever was supposed to coordinate the minefield locations did not. Four soldiers lost their lives when they went on the wrong side of a village, and two more lost their legs. They wanted to blame that on the Marines for not getting them the information. Apparently they wanted to say they had no contact because our radio net was down when it should have been up. 

As the Marine officer in charge of the communications platoon it was my duty to set up and maintain a radio network with all surrounding parties and maintain that net through all 24 hour periods. I was called to a meeting in the Army compound two weeks after the unfortunate minefield incident. They would send a Huey Cobra helicopter to pick me up. Before I got on the chopper, my gunnery sergeant handed me a stack of duplicate radiocheck forms. They were about 3 x 4 inches, roughly the size of cards people used to make card files out of, before computers. I shoved them in the top of my camouflage shirt. “They may be after your ass,” he said. ”I’ve seen the Army work like this before. They’re trying to hang this on someone else.”

So the meeting loomed more than just a curiosity to me. Sure enough, I was brought into an Army tent, and three senior officers were sitting at the table, including my Battalion commander. “We need to have your testimony on the maintenance of your battalion radio net on March 27 of this year.”

“Yes, sir, we maintain a radio net at battalion 24 hours a day.”

“Well,” said the Army colonel. “We need to know specifically about the afternoon of the 27th. Some crucial information did not get to one of our units, and they say your net was not operative.”

My battalion commander squirmed a little, and said “I communicated over that net several times that afternoon.”

“Ah, but was in operation all the time, or were there significant lapses of hours, when we needed the coordination?”

I could see right now that they were trying to narrow me into a corner where I had to say I honestly did not know if the net was up and running that whole time.

“I was in and out of that area, but we always have someone manning that station.”

“We’ll need proof, Captain.”

And then I remembered, and felt for the stack of receipts my gunnery sergeant had handed me.

“I don’t believe the Army uses our radio net method,” I said. “So in the Army it would be difficult to have proof of constant operation.” The Army Colonel nodded, a bit smug, I thought, as I pulled out the stack of receipts. I showed the top one which was a 10:15 radio check from the pad.

“But in the Marine Corps we have radio checks noted by the station every 15 minutes, traffic or not. This is the day you want, I think,” and I began to lay the radio checks out on the table in front of the investigation board. The Army colonel’s eyes were big. My battalion commander’s smile was bigger.

“So you see,” I continued, slapping down the pieces of paper one after another. “We were not contacted by your people on March 27.”

The Army colonel waved his hand in despair, meaning the meeting was over. Many months later, back in a small ceremony in the States, they pinned a couple of medals from Vietnam on me.  To no one’s surprise, one was a Navy Commendation with a combat “V.” However, to everyone’s surprise, one was an Army commendation medal, undoubtedly due to their political embarrassment.

Some days are actually fun.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

With Bird at The Center of The Universe

In some government jobs, you inherit people and a raft of problems that goes with them. I had a temporary assignment at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with a battalion that had just come back off “the float.” This was a part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade that keeps a sizable strike force near distant trouble spots. “The float” was also a lot of very young men to keep cooped up at sea for a year with a few raucous stops in some various dubious port cities. In a day or so they had to store up all the girls and drinks and drugs and general trouble that would ordinarily come at a slower pace.

Most of the young men came back as older men who could say they “saw the world.” However, occasionally the world saw them first. At best, there would be casualties: broken arms and fingers from fights, and some diseases that have yet to be classified, and at worst, very occasionally, a truly broken spirit like that of Private Bird. Bird had fallen in with the most curious men who visited the darkest dens and swallowed the most potent of hallucinogens they could find. A very few died in some alley, stripped of money and clothing, but most stayed together and watched out for each other in this very different kind of combat. Most made it back to the ship, though often not without consequence.

When I checked in to my new communications shop, I learned about Private Bird. They had confined him to quarters with his wrists wrapped in gauze after two suicide attempts. No one knew what to do with him. Eventually they could give him a section 8 dishonorable discharge, but I thought we should look into it more, and maybe get him some help. I was that first line of help.

A number of these Marines knew a Vietnam tour of duty (, often a second one) would soon materialize. Many – especially but not exclusively the draftees — were not pleased with this. Some who could were running for the exits, and one of the only ways to keep someone who knew how to do a critical job was to promote them. They even offered me the Major rank, shortly after they’d dropped Captain on me. In the old days, it took 10 or 15 years to make Captain. I was anointed in three, but there was a rub: You can’t hide the rank once you’ve got it. You just have to learn to play that role. There was no one else to do it.

Bird, by his description, was “fighting for his soul at the center of the universe.” He told me things, and I listened. His father had beaten him a lot and berated him even more, but was pleased when his son chose to be a Marine. They put the smart ones in communications, and though he was only a wireman, he made lance corporal before the “float.” However, then he began wallowing shipboard in the drugs and depression. He lost his lance corporal rank when he returned to the States. Largely Bird stayed in bed, staring up at the upper bunk springs, at first missing several musters and finally unsuccessful at suicide.

I thought it would be best to check Bird in to the mental ward at the base hospital, but that was not as easy as it looked at first. It would require the signature of the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thibodaux, to effect that requested temporary transfer. To talk to the commanding officer you had to go through the executive officer, Major Marlind. Turns out Marlind had his mind made up about Bird before I came. He had turned down similar requests before they could even get to Lt. Col Thibodaux. Major Marlind felt Bird embarrassed the Marine Corps and wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge as quickly as he could push it through.

I counseled with Major Jack Mendez, the operations officer, outside the battalion offices, as to whether I could walk right past Marlind’s adjoining office and knock directly on Thibodaux’s door, a stark breach of etiquette. (Not too much later, in Vietnam, Mendez had been given a tank company, and in my stopover in DaNang he would offer me the communications job. It was tempting, but tanks sounded at worst like a creeping kind of claustrophobia, so I declined.) To my surprise, Mendez said Thibodaux probably knew of the situation, and would kick my ass if I didn’t do it. So I marched right past Marlind’s open door and knocked on Lt. Col Thibodaux’s. He said to come in and I related the situation and my recommendation. He was a kindly Southern gentleman who had been through Korea and affectionately called men in his command “peckerwoods.” I could feel Marlind’s ear on the adjoining door between their offices as I laid out my case for Bird. All that time when Thibodaux was listening to, and agreeing to, my recommendation, I knew I would never make it nonchalantly back past Marlind’s door. I did not.

Upon leaving Thibodaux, I started to edge past Marlind’s open hallway door.  He was waiting. He spoke out to me. “Hon,” he said, “You’ll need to come in here and close the door.” I did, and he chewed me out for 10 minutes straight, and all I said was “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” He immediately rose from his desk to where I was standing at attention, and he began a cool but vicious rage — his face inches from mine with bad, bad breath. For 10 long minutes Marlind seemed to need no explanation from me for my many character flaws and what seemed to him a flagrant betrayal of the chain of command. He knew he could not penalize me in any way, but he made it abundantly clear with colorful – and somewhat devastating – language that I was on his eternal shit list. Now that I am older I wonder if old Thibodaux’s ear was pressed to the other side the adjoining door, and smiling away at this education of a young officer.

So I was allowed to transfer Bird out of his confinement to quarters and in to the hospital. I took him and his gear in my car, and detoured out to my fisherman’s cottage on the stream that led to the beaches. My girlfriend was there, and made him lunch. Giving him that short respite was a mistake. I was in more of a spotlight than I knew for my defense of Bird, and I suspect now that it would have hurt him later.

I visited Bird in the hospital after about 10 days. He said it was OK here, but there were a lot of weird people and one, named Kohler, was a supremely intelligent patient who had been there some time, and he continually “worked on people’s minds.” Bird said Kohler convinced people of their low worth, and suggested that suicide in many cases to be the only solution. If there was any redemptive value to the psychiatric ward, Kohler was its evil antithesis, the devil within who unsettled those who came for refuge, and further confused those who came already lost in themselves. He showed me Kohler when he passed by, and even in his mannerisms I could see the almost psychopathic intensity Bird told me about.

I brought Bird a book I liked, The Plague by Albert Camus, which was sickening in its descriptions of the Black Death taking over a Middle Eastern port city, but finally redemptive of the human condition in a way I thought would help Bird. He kept it and returned it before I was shipped out to Vietnam. I left the book with some other possessions to be picked up when, and if, I returned. About six months later, in Vietnam, I dived into a deep ditch outside An Hoa to avoid what seemed to be a full afternoon of incoming rockets from near Cambodia. I recognized a gunnery sergeant from that “float” battalion, who was now with another infantry unit.

“You know your buddy Bird?” he said, opening a Snickers bar that had somehow escaped the penetrating Vietnam heat.

“Right…” I said, feeling remiss that I’d never checked back. I was now keenly interested. “Did he get back to the battalion?”

“Naw, did himself in. Was with some of the crazies who got to work in the garden, and cut his wrists with a rusty hoe. Bled out in some flower bed.” There was an air of righteousness to this sergeant, as if Bird had put the sergeant’s universe straight once again. It shook me until the next rocket, which hit very close and left curled bits of shrapnel in a post above our heads.

Vietnam informed me of other things of course, and sometimes messages came from other odd places. My peacenik girlfriend who gingerly chastised the war had run off with a soldier. (Go figure.) Also, back in 1967 at Quantico, I had demonstrated an experimental method of riot-busting — playing music favorites of the crowd so loudly in the streets that they could not communicate and organize — a win-win kind of protest-quelling not at all unlike a rock festival. Flushed with its success and dreaming of a kinder world, I had written the demonstration up and sent through channels to the top communications folks in the Pentagon. I learned from someone, who was  later transferred to Vietnam from that office, that my work had been very favorably received, but with some slight modifications they would use. Turned out they all thought it was a great idea to blow out protesters eardrums…Not quite my intention.

Waiting to go back in Camp Hanson, Okinawa, I was given a company for a few weeks as they transferred troops fresh from the States to postings with units in Vietnam. Basically I watched over where they slept and ate. I had no idea where they came from or where they were going, but I had a small staff to keep track of their orders and get them to where they needed to go every day. And then I saw Kohler – the evil spirit in Bird’s mental ward – there in my squad bay…and he saw me at the same time. He tried to turn away, but I got the duty sergeant and we went over to him. Kohler did not have orders with him to show he was attached to anywhere. He had somehow made it into the mainstream of troops headed toward Vietnam, and then in Camp Hansen managed to disappear from the group he was with, and totally unfortuitously nested in my facilities. Bad mistake, Kohler.

“Looks like AWOL to me, sir” said the duty sergeant. Kohler had that cool evil look as if he was sure of his next move. “Please take your weapon, Sergeant. This man may be dangerous.” I went and got a couple of MPs quickly, and sent Kohler to the Marine Brig on Okinawa for safekeeping. I was shipped home a few days later myself. I never heard what happened to Kohler. I’m sure he was partly responsible for Bird’s suicide at the Lejeune Hospital back in North Carolina, but what I did was official duty. It was not revenge. At least I tell myself that.

I boxed up my stuff when I got back to the States and they mustered me out within a few months. Some months later, after some adventures in a sailboat (including falling in love), I came back to L.A. and moved in with my friend Dale a block off Venice beach. I was trying to grow longer hair as quickly as possible to match the crowd in Hollywood and the Venice beaches. I went down weekly to stand in the most entertaining unemployment line in the world. Dale gave me a high row on his bookshelf for my books, which I had boxed before I left for Vietnam and never taken out until now. One of the books was Camus’ The Plague, which was returned to me before I left for Vietnam.

As I reached up high to put the book in place, something fell from between its pages. Something metal. It clanked on the floor. I picked it up. It was a military “dog tag.” In the dim light as I picked it up, I could read the word “Bird” impressed into the face of it. What that was saying to me I cannot quite understand to this day, but Bird was there, and he was saying something. Maybe “thanks” or maybe “didn’t finish this.” I guess some profound secrets of the universe must remain always just out of reach, even when they fall right into your hand.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

A Sweat Sandwich in Indian Country

Not only are heroes made-not-born, I’ll swear many of them are partial heroes by accident. Someone walking the rails snatches a meandering child from an onrushing train. Quick thinking, perhaps. Maybe reflex. But the act only seems heroic if there was a split-second involved, when the option of most people would be to watch dumbstruck. In fact, my own bar is much higher. Heroism would, to me, require a few extraordinary choices leading to the dangerous situation, near despair by any normal person, and one person’s rise to action in the face of clear and distinct peril.

On the battlefield we had a clear assessment of such situations: sweat sandwiches and shit sandwiches. (Guess which is the most perilous.) If a few people were shooting at you and you could manage to make them go away, or get out of the area where they were shooting at you, that would be called a sweat sandwich, a random situation that you could probably extricate yourself from with known methods and assistance at hand, such as digging a hole where bullets could go overhead, and having other people or planes or bigger guns to shoot back. The report of action over your radio would be “sweat sandwich developing. Need some rounds on them half a click NW of us.” A click, by the way, is 1000 meters and a tribute to the fact the US military joined the rest of the metric world mid-twentieth century, while US civilians, almost alone in the world — kept the bizarre old feet and inches based from yore on the length of some of the King’s physical appendages. A sweat sandwich, then, was dangerous, but probably survivable with high energy and competent use of your own weapons (and the assistance of friendly weapons whenever possible).

A shit sandwich, on the other hand, was dire. There were usually a lot more people shooting a lot more stuff at you from all around you. Shit sandwiches mean possibly survivable with all of the above sweat sandwich remedies plus sheer unadulterated luck of these kinds: (1) Deep mud between them and you, instead of between you and your route out, or (2) some more attractive alternative to killing you, like the adoring crowd of local prostitutes who suddenly distracts them from their absolute possession of all your exits, or, (3) just a few times, it was the crazy, unexpected, demonic energy of a guy like Cage. Cage was this Marine from West Virginia and he never made more than private because his temper was hair-trigger and applied equally to all. He’d learned to control it except in a few cases when we were being attacked and some advance of the Viet Cong had put us in a shit sandwich.

One of my lasting images was of 6-foot Cage standing silhouetted against explosions, over a previously unseen ravine which was now literally pouring attackers out onto our hilltop position, and there was Cage standing in the middle of it all, frustrated with how slowly his rifle dropped them, grabbing bodies and throwing the smaller Viet Cong attackers with their rifles and grenades, and tossing them like bad rubbish with one arm and then the other, back down the ravine, collapsing the attackers onto each other like dominos. Cage was legend among the troops of the battalion. Though he might not easily blend with polite society, he was at home with Marines in Viet Nam. You might say Cage specialized in shit sandwiches.

True, the situations in which heroism arises are usually random. You don’t set out in the morning to become a hero, by anyone’s definition. Most Marines I knew just tried to do their jobs, and to be as dependable as possible to each other because, when all rationales are done, all the men I saw and respected were basically doing their jobs for each other. You occasionally hear football players on successful teams say they are playing hard for each other. I subscribe to that, and as an officer there was another level: of being loyal to your men. To watching out for them. To make sure they had beer anytime beer was to be had. To defend them against the idiosyncrasies of the military bureaucracy tangled in the battlefield, where orders came from somewhere to go somewhere you would not go in your right mind, and to do with no supporting reason whatsoever. I’m saying that there are a lot of mistakes made when the air of uncertainty is the only air you breathe all day. On one coastal operation, I sat in on a conference between our battalion commander and the head of a Navy SEAL team. Apparently there were tunnels that went down from a peninsula we were taking and some of the Viet Cong were thought to be escaping via tunnels that opened underwater at high tide. Our battalion commander was in the process of ordering the SEALs, ranking far below him, to swim into those small dark tunnels with guns and grenades waiting and intercept the Viet Cong.

“Can’t really do that, sir,” said the SEAL Team leader, respectfully but resolutely.

“Well, by God, sailor, that’s an order.”

“Sorry, sir, we can’t manage that one.”

The battalion commander was flabbergasted. He knew the Seal was right. Of the few VC intercepted, none would be taken alive in the dark tunnels, and there was a high probability that many of these highly skilled undersea technicians would have their lives wasted for nothing.

“You can’t do your job? That’s your job, isn’t it.”

“Well, sir, we’re a little short for this sort of thing.”

What I had just heard was someone with no power in the system standing up for his team of men against someone with great power over him. The battalion commander mumbled something about how this was going to be reviewed with his Chief, but he already knew he would lose this one. It didn’t absolutely need to be done, and this low ranking head of Seal Team was not going to let his men — some about to go home and thus “short” (for short-timers) — walk into a dark, inescapable pit of butchery. This was a kind of career heroism, (with his career at high risk) and the men who saw this organizational courage from their leaders became incredibly dedicated followers. Of course there were no medals handed out for this type of heroism.

The supply of medals often seemed merely a matter of supply and demand. In the areas where the fighting was constant and deadly and where the smoke rarely cleared, there were occasional allotments of medals that sat around until some lull of a few days where everyone was basically tired of fighting. We fired at each other across deep gulleys and then one side started to file down the pointed tips of the 7.62 mm NATO rounds that everyone used. The VC used AK47s and could use the same rounds as ours (or a Winchester .306 round, if you must), so they could use captured ammo. The filed down round would mash out if it hit you and tear your shoulder off instead of going through it. No one liked the filed-down rounds so our Civil Affairs guy white-flagged into the gulley and both sides decided not to file down again unless the other did. That would be called an extempore Rule of Engagement.

And the pause got better. The VC disappeared into the populace with their local girlfriends and the Marines retired to secure cantonments for some beer and steaks which magically reappeared, sometimes before ammo resupply. A net was strung up and we played jungle volleyball, the loose rules of which allowed any kind of hitting of the ball with your hand and any type of grabbing, kicking, or tripping your opponents under the net. Depending on how much and what kind of action there was, a certain quota of medals seemed to appear. They seemed to want to write up bronze stars and a smaller portion of silver stars to motivate the troops. Often, of course, a person had rotated out when the approval came through. But there was often some maneuvering for the quota of medals, especially within Officer corps.

In one of those lulls I was tasked in my secondary occupational specialty as communications officer to go set up the optimal command post for a peninsula we were in the process of taking. I say in the process because as it turned out, the helicopter deposited me in an area I was told was secured, and as the blades flop-flopped away into the sky, I looked around and did not see a welcoming committee. Actually, after looking around a bit, I decided not to blurt out my position. Apparently we had not taken this area yet. How interesting. Now the question was: had anyone else taken it? Was I being watched from the bushes, a curious intruder into a peninsula full of enemies? I decided I’d better make my way back to the beach, and then perhaps find my battalion inland. I was in Indian Country, as we called any area we had not secured.

I was in Indian Country and it was too quiet. Either they missed my exit from the helicopter or, more likely, they were just watching me to see if there were more like me around. The best I could do is act like any action from them would cause stuff to rain down like hell on them. I pseudo-confidently made my way about half a mile to the beach. On the way, there was a 500 lb bomb crater courtesy of the Air Force, and in the bottom of it was a cow. Its rear end had been blown away, and it was lying there moaning. It looked at me with big brown eyes, almost pleading. I thought for a moment the best thing I could do in this world was to put the cow out of its misery with my .45, but I reached for it, and then thought better. Noise is not good. Maybe they were watching me or maybe not, but a blast from my .45 would change the game, and not in my favor any way I could guess.

If you can tiptoe in the jungle, I tiptoed back to the beach, and then worked my way down in the shadows of beachside trees until I heard an American voice. “Who goes there?”

Now that was a question. I tried to remember a radio code name for this flank of the operation. “Mystic Crystal Bravo!”

“Wrong” said a voice from a wall of sandbags. And then the helpful, “That was yesterday.”

“Hey, I was in DaNang yesterday,” I said.

“That you, Hon?” I recognized it as the voice of the Mustang S-3 operations officer who just happened to be walking the lines.

“Yes, sir,”

“Get over it, Hon.“ He was still behind the sandbag wall. Then I realized they all stayed down because the VC were probably right behind me. “What the hell were you doing in there?”

“Chopper dropped me in there…Setting up new command post.”

“Oh…too bad. We were planning to take those couple of clicks but something snarled. Guess the pilot didn’t hear.”

“Or me, sir.”

“Well, Hon, we better get you into a briefing now, because now a hell of a lot of people want to know what’s out there.”

The few staff officers a battalion had grilled me and then the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer grilled me and they showed me maps (one of which had never been given to me) and I tried to point out where I’d been and what I’d seen, which was not much of anything but a cow.

One of the onlookers was Lieutenant MacDonald, who I knew but never did know what he did, and he pulled me aside after one grilling. “We’ve got three more silver stars for this operation. You should get one for reconnaissance behind enemy lines.”

“It was a mistake. We didn’t know it was Indian Country. I’m not that brave, believe me.”

“But you were there, and you got out with vital information.”

“Information that there didn’t seem to be anyone there?”

“That’s valuable. And the way you got through enemy territory, that’s heroic.”

“It’s a joke.” I said. “It’s a big screw up.”

“But they probably would give you the Silver Star. There’s a case for it.”

Sometimes these things flicker past your head for second. A Silver Star would set you up for life in the military: it would always be foremost in consideration for promotions and — as the experienced Marines did in a sort of conspicuous understatement — you could wear only personal combat decorations in a slim but telling line above your uniform shirt pocket. The thought flickered, and then I could imagine being laughed at. I could imagine laughing at myself. I didn’t want a military career anyway.

“Give it to Cage.” I said.

“You don’t want it?”

“Naw, give it to Cage. Give it to him while he’s alive. There’s not a soul who’ll disagree.”

I don’t know if Cage did get that Silver Star, but he should have. He was certainly the hero I would never be and besides, I’ve since felt a little more right with the world if I did dodge a phony Star that was possibly tossed at me.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Warrior on the Road

Orders for Vietnam looked to some people like a death warrant, but I took it as permission to approach life with a different attitude. I was more open to things that could happen along the way, and I chose everything. The actual trip started, I guess, in New York City. I had received the orders in North Carolina, but in the Marines Corps rush to get me into combat they also rushed the shots I needed to set foot in Asia. The list of shots is like the World Health Organization’s list of the most deadly diseases, cholera, malaria, yellow fever…You have seen the list, but I needed to get those vaccines into my body in record time. So the various nurses lined up like a debutants reception line, each with an appropriate needle aiming for the appropriate spot.

The next day the yellow fever vaccine gave me Yellow Fever, like it was supposed to, but my body was too occupied fighting off the other vaccines to snuff Yellow Fever. The doctors caught what was happening and put me in the hospital immediately to sweat and barf for a few weeks. Maybe there were a couple of diseases at work; I do not remember even the daze I was in. Anyway, after about a month, they let me out, and re-cut my original orders to leave Travis Air Force Base in California in 14 days. A week of that was leave. Originally I was to join 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines in Khe Sahn right after the Tet offensive. However, while I was sleeping, 3/26 left Khe Sahn and encountered an extremely bloody battle in Hue.

So my yellow fever probably saved my life, or at least gave me much better odds. Of course, I did not know all that during the days I was driving across the US to California.

I decided to drive across the States from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and pocket the airline fare. First stop was New York City, where I had a girlfriend staying with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s boyfriend Monte. Monte was a brilliant prodigy who graduated from the University of Chicago at age 15, and then came back to be a super at his folk’s apartment building and moonlight driving a cab. He loved driving a cab because he loved talking with people of every variety, and often chatted up potential new girlfriends who were stewing alongside drunk beaus in his cab. (People live off the land in different ways.) I usually gave my car keys to Monte every time I was in New York City because he knew everywhere and almost everyone.

Monte offered to escort me as far as Cleveland so he could see his friend who was a leading brain surgeon at Case Western Reserve. We were invited to a brain operation for a motorcyclist who had hit the pavement headfirst with no helmet. We scrubbed up, and Monte’s friend introduced us to the operating room team as visiting doctors, here for observation. We stood on little stools above the surgery for about 5 hours, while the surgeons removed the top of the patient’s head and felt around with their fingers inside his brain. Nurses as a courtesy came by and showed us an assortment of scans or something, and we both nodded and said “Very significant” a lot. Finally Monte’s friend pulled out a huge pussball with his index finger from some lower level of the brain that had been putting some pressure somewhere, and now maybe the guy could probably walk straight again. Or even ride a motorcycle.

As a souvenir, Monte’s friend gave me something to stay awake after I left them both late in the day to drive through to Minneapolis and see my family on the way. It was Methedrine or some other speedy concoction that caused all the taillights ahead to dance and merge like tracers. Certainly an ominous vision at 70 miles per hour. It was 600 miles and after a couple of hours that night I pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. I awakened early the next morning and did the last 500 miles.  My days with the family were somewhat reserved, given that my mother had been through this before when my father went to war. I guess I was a little insensitive, and realized later when I had my own sons what a toll this must have taken. While I was there I called some friends in Seattle to whom I had willed my ski gear and stereo setup in case I did not return. We willed and left a lot of prized possessions when we were headed to Vietnam, and funny, I never saw most of those things again when I returned. They weren’t as important. Most of the friends were not either.

Next stop was California where I would leave my Volkswagen, and in those final days traded it, with some money, for a VW bus. My friend Dale kept my bus in his garage on blocks for the year I was away. Two years before, Dale had been a grad student at the University of Tulsa where I did some graduate work. He had been a philosophy major and a collegiate 125 pound wrestler. He and I marched in early March of 1965 for Martin Luther King in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 10,000 people marched down the streets of Tulsa on the Saturday shopping afternoon. King did not show up but we were all told by the organizers to say we had marched with Martin Luther King. (Symbolically I guess.) I had done some background material for a journalism class that I thought the Tulsa Tribune was going to use. Instead that whole march got one inch of copy on the back page of the Sunday paper. That pretty well convinced me not to be a journalist.

Later that month Dale wanted me to go to Selma for what was supposed to be a really big march, and I had a midterm the next Monday. I didn’t want to blow that test just to have something cancelled again – or so I said – so I skipped the weekend trip down to Selma. Also the image of the rednecks in overalls with baseball bats did stick with me, so I wonder to this day if a lack of courage kept me from going to Selma with Dale. (If some dates had worked out right, I could have been the only one most people knew who had been in both Khe Sanh and Selma. Could’ve been a major start on a bucket list, if one is into those.)

Cut to: two years hence. Now in Los Angeles, Dale had since been admitted to the UCLA film school from Oklahoma, and he wanted to involve me in his semester film project before I left. I was going to bus the next day to Travis Air Force base to fly to Camp Hanson in Okinawa for Vietnam staging, so the afternoon and evening were free. In Westwood, an L.A. sub-city, the UCLA film school students had a $1 double feature theater nearby, stocked with two of the more recent movies. We went in the afternoon and heard a constant buzz of movie critique that no sane audience could bear with. “Close up, now why did he do that there?” “This tilting and zooming and panning is endless, but what is it saying?” ”Hey watch for the soft focus in this next scene, I saw it yesterday.” Dale recruited extras from this crowd.

That night, the scene we were shooting was a narrow alley in Los Angeles. Dale had it well storyboarded. A car full of drunks was to roar up the alley at high speed, with a motorcycle hurtling at it head-on, but the rider dodging over the hood of the car at the last second, leaning over like some bullfighter but with no cape. As the cycle slipped through the slim gap between the hurtling car and the alley, the drunks in the car would throw out a basket of empty beers cans at the cyclist. The timing had to be perfect. Any collision would be at 80 miles per hour. But the storyboard looked great.

For some odd reason, Dale could find no one to play the motorcyclist, so I volunteered. I’d ridden a few bikes, so I thought I could handle it. In a somewhat surreal mood, I heard Dale shout action and I gunned the motorcycle and watched the car come at me very quickly and at the last second swerved my hips and leaned over the onrushing hood and slipped between the car and the concrete wall on the right side of the alley. Then the guys in the car threw the cans at me, a split-second too late.

“We’ll have to do another take.” Dale said, totally professionally and with no apologies whatsoever.

Once again, I sped toward the oncoming car, and dodged over the hood just as they threw the empty beer cans out. Too early this time. They fell in front of my wheels.

“Another take, everybody back in position.” He confided to me, “I’ll be out of film if we don’t get this one.”

I accelerated toward the oncoming car once again. In slowed-down motion somewhere in my head I thought what a wonderful, spectacular shot it would make if I kept going straight and hit the car splat. But I chickened out and dodged the car — and got a face full of empty beer cans.

“Perfect. Let’s wrap that.”

The big, full 747 from Travis to Kadena and the processing at Camp Hansen and the big, full 747 into Da Nang air base and the helicopter ride to Phu Bai, were a set of steps that disappear in the sand. I joined 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines at Phu Bai, when they were pulled back to a safe place to recover. It was a safe place except for Russian rockets brought down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia to catch us from that backside.

There were lots of jokes about the rockets arriving before the warning sirens, and I remember that being hilariously funny in the midst of daily rocket attacks. Incoming artillery and outgoing artillery sounded the same to me and everyone laughed when I grabbed my helmet after an outgoing round and when I laughed at an incoming round they grabbed me and pulled me into a bunker. It was 115 degrees and every bit of clothing was sticky on me — and finally it dawned on me.

I was in Vietnam.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

A Court Martial for Corporal Connelly

The good soldier, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, told us that “War is politics by other means” but he should have known better. Politics, in my days and perhaps even in his, was certainly war by another means. In 1968, we witnessed the assassination of two dynamic political leaders in the space of a few months, and the disintegration of a political party at the Democratic convention in Chicago, that summer.

It was hard to know how to be a good soldier in Vietnam. I had fancied myself as a poet during college, and when I was in Quantico, I discovered that a famous poet was working in Washington D.C. as the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress. James Dickey, who had received the National Book Award for his poetry (and later author of the book Deliverance) had also been a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War. So early the summer of 1968, with my orders for Vietnam in hand, I made an appointment with him at the Library and shared some misgivings. I asked him how, with his grasp of the terror and the beauty and the ironies, he had managed to stay sane in that environment. “Be dependable,” he said. He went on to say how being dependable was all he could hang onto, and all that those around him could expect of him. It seemed too simple. I was looking for profound from the poet. Perhaps I got it after all, and perhaps the great truths are that simple. The question was to become: Dependable to whom?

I arrived in country in time to join the 26th Marines after the first Tet offensive and just after the taking of Hue. We moved south and I was transferred to another regiment in DaNang, in a communications company that handled all the high-level communications for the 1st Marine Division in DaNang. My company commander was a Major Abercrombie. I was executive officer and as it turned out, the only one in town. Abercrombie caught helicopters to high stakes poker games all over Vietnam, and told me that I would be running everything. I should check in with him once a week if he had not returned. I had a feeling that during those weeks away he was stacking up a large amount of winnings.

The Marines in the communications specialty had the highest IQ scores. This resulted in two possible directions in Vietnam. Either they were in supreme danger in the bush, where every radio operator was a prime target, or assigned to a “Comm Center” where messages came in for Generals and other high-ranking staff officers around the clock. The Comm Center was pretty safe, until it wasn’t…if a VC rocket attack from Indian country was anywhere near accurate. There were some days it was safer in the bush.

I was just as happy to be out of the bush, and I began by instituting four 8-hour shifts, three for the segments of the clock and one on call for peak loads of message traffic. Traffic gets very busy during operations where trucks are running into ditches, and the Army is dropping artillery by mistake on the Marines, and shipments of rations arrive at the wrong ports and, somewhat ironically, planeloads of ammunition are unloaded and become planeloads of bodies for the return trip. I ran the communication center in DaNang for those couple of months, and in the course of the day inspected the living areas where the men slept. Connelly was a most interesting Marine. I noted from his books that he and I both read Dostoyevsky, but he read it in the Russian. Turns out, he had a Russian grandmother who raised him.

The communication center had sandbags high around its walls and over the ceiling, because rocket attacks from the Viet Cong were frequent, and the message center is critical to running a war anywhere. The quarters of several Generals and Colonels were nearby, with the comfort of wooden doors in the wood frame that held up canvas walls. The men came in on their shifts and I usually managed to be around at least a short time on each shift. Other times I was in my office or around in briefings. Connelly was especially good with top-secret cryptographic messages, which took careful decoding from a daily book. Occasionally those messages were between Generals on where they would golf on their next R&R, but that was secret information as well.

At the end of August, we rapidly got all the news about the Democratic Convention and its riots in Chicago.  It left an atmosphere of some consternation among the troops who wondered if America was coming apart, and a slightly different attitude of abandonment among the Generals, I think. I was somewhere in the middle. My college friends were rioting back there against many things, but mostly against Vietnam. Certainly I understood, and in some ways even supported them. There in DaNang we all watched from our separate eggshells,  but did not venture many opinions. Except Connelly, who was on the night shift.

The CID people called me in the middle of the night. CID was the Criminal Investigation Division and they were usually out of sight unless something bad was going on. “We’ve got your man Connelly here,” they said. Apparently they had been going through the burn bags from the communication center, which were to be burned in the morning. They had been looking for the mimeograph master for hand lettered signs that around midnight had been stapled to all the Generals’ doors. The sign had a Peace symbol, the round one divided in thirds. Its bold lettering said “What are we fighting for?”As there were few mimeograph machines in this combat zone, the CID did not have far to look.    There were only three Marines on that Comm Center night shift, and Connelly admitted to it.  When I got down to the CID headquarters, they had Connelly in handcuffs. He was looking pretty guilty.

“Sorry sir,” Connelly offered. There wasn’t much I could ask, and not even much I could say. I turned and told the CID people that I would take charge of Connelly and they said no I would not, and that I would be receiving a call from the General, which I assumed was the three star General of the 1st Marine Division, who I had never met and never wanted to meet. “Sorry, Connelly.” I said.

Just as I got back to my sandbagged office, intending to look up this situation in the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual, the phone rang.  It was indeed the General.

“Is Major Abercrombie there?”

“No sir, the Major is at a conference, in Chu Lai I believe. This is his executive officer.”

“Hon,” he was looking at the organization chart, I guessed. ”Well, Hon, I know all about Connelly and his posters and this has to be taken care of immediately. I want him written up on a sedition charges. Now.”

“Yes, sir.” This hit me like walking straight into a half opened door. Gulp. Sedition. And a General court martial for offenses in a combat zone.

“I will call you back early tomorrow morning. I want everything it takes to begin a General court martial immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered. A General court martial in a combat zone could mean a firing squad for Connelly, especially in this tense atmosphere. I could see that the General might even be envisioning a mutiny of confused troops, and he was moving decisively…through me.

“Early in the morning, Hon.”

“Yes, sir.”

The fact was, I kind of liked Connelly and didn’t think this General court martial and maybe a firing squad would do anyone any good. Unlike most opinions  about soldiers among the college crowd, I did believe we were being paid to think, so I opened the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual…and studied. And studied all night. I went through everything that could possibly relate to Connelly’s case and sure enough it looked like sedition. So I had to get the exact wording from the UCMJ manual. As I studied, (and studied,) I realized that if I did not find the right passages for a court martial, the General and his legal staff would certainly do so in the next few days. I had to find something, something that made the situation better, but something legal, and more legal than anything else, something that I had no idea how to find.

And then I read the several definitions of sedition…and glory be…there was only one that applied. “Sedition can be defined as spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers.” I swear, it was the only one that applied. Maybe the statement is there like that, even to this day. Connelly was not distributing this to any peer. I checked and double-checked the UCMJ for hours, and that was the only true statement. I could not go any further. I fell asleep at the small set of crates that made up my desk.

Early in the morning, the weak little phone rang in my ear. It was the General, as promised. “Ok, Hon, I need to start the court martial today. What have you got for me?”

“Well, sir, Connelly can be written up on sedition charges. But there’s one thing…”

“What’s that?”

“The UCMJ says it has to be spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers. We’d have to promote him to General.”

I swear, there was a full thirty seconds of silence as the General took this in. Thirty long seconds began to seem as if the wire had been cut.

“General? Sir?”

“I’m here, Hon. Now listen up, you’ve got to do something, anything that can stick.”

“Yes, sir, “ I said, “But it may not make a court martial.”

“Well…well…” He was entirely flustered. “Do something…today.”

“Yes, sir, I will find something.”

He hung up with no further questions and no further directions to me. I assumed he would find some legal personnel to go over this and if he did, that person should come to the same conclusion I did. I was relieved that no one called with a further interpretation, and in the afternoon I wrote Connelly up on a non-judicial punishment for misuse of government property. His penalty — by the book –was one month’s pay and confinement to base (, which in a combat zone was relatively the safest place for him anyway). The CID reluctantly released Connelly to my custody and I chewed him out royally and docked his pay. He never knew the rest of the story.

My belief is that the General saw to it that I was transferred out to a combat unit, and then after that to another bush battalion near the edge of Cambodia. One day I was sitting there eating captured rice with my canned rations, and lo and behold who should report in to my platoon but…Corporal Connelly. The same Corporal Connelly. Sometimes the good news just never stops coming.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Run up Dai La Basin

Just as Hamlet had a “play within the play”, there are often business within businesses, and “wars within wars.” Hamlet wanted to win the conscience of the King, as I remember. Likewise, there are many ways to “win” within a business that have nothing to do with profit. Wars also stress winning, (at least until recently) and at Dai La Basin we had a little war within a war. This war was over my mustache.

Around Christmas 1968, I was a junior officer transferred into a Marine battalion that was guarding the perimeter of Da Nang City and its airfield. This battalion had been in heavy combat south of Da Nang, and its battalion commander, call him Lt. Colonel Robbins, had driven his men to take hills in the old Marine Corps fashion. A lot of lives were lost and then the hills were handed over to the Army which promptly lost the hills and the Marines had to take the hills back, losing even more men. This was a sore point among junior officers, who hated losing good men to salve a battalion commander’s ego.

Of course the rumors abounded about Col. Robbins and how he got his Silver Star. Apparently one night his command post on a hill was being attacked and he was parading around shouting meaningless orders and showing he had no idea what to do. In the mayhem of rockets incoming and Viet Cong sneaking up unprotected ravines, the operations officer, a major who was a Mustang (which is the name of someone who was promoted from the enlisted ranks) did know what to do, and told the battalion commander to shut up and get in his ass in his hole, and he’d take care of this. With precision this Mustang major readjusted useless fields of fire and called in artillery too close for comfort that kept the enemy off the hill. When Colonel Robbins peeked out of his hole, it was all over, and the command post was saved. Then Robbins stood up and strutted around and surveyed the situation and called it good, while the Mustang major reached for a much-needed whiskey flask. Robbins told the Mustang major he should watch the insubordination stuff, and the Mustang major said he would. They both received Silver Stars.

The battalion I was joining was called in to plug a hole in the perimeter around Da Nang. Two nights before the North Vietnamese broke through straight into the streets of Da Nang, which was an old French city and the second largest Port in Vietnam. The NVA were having a riotous good time shooting the place up, because anyone who could defend the city was out on the perimeter and not inside. But there was one thing they had not counted on: The First Marine Division Band.

The 1st MarDiv Band played a lot of John Philip Sousa pieces at military receptions for visiting US Senators who wanted to say they had seen the war. Of course one war within the war was the maneuvering for more funding from Congress, and so the 1st MarDiv Band was essential to that task.They were career Marines, and all Marines have to qualify once a year with their basic weapon, in this case an M-16 which was clean as new because the Band had little use for them. Until now. It looked like these musicians were the only ones inside Da Nang with any weapons. So they laid down the trombones and bass drums and grabbed their clean, clean weapons and piled into jeeps and took off for the NVA. Meanwhile, the NVA invaders couldn’t really achieve anything, and the sight of the 1st Marine Division Band coming down the street at them weapons blazing made them think it was indeed time to leave.

So that was the story going around with great pride in those guys in the Band who had never picked up a weapon. They’d run the NVA out of Da Nang when there was no one else to do it.

Dai La Basin was the carved out inside of a hill that overlooked Dai La Pass. In the year before during the Tet Offensive, NVA troops in large numbers had broken through at Dai La Pass. This was a devastating dishonor to the career of any career officer in command. When the action was over, the commander of that Battalion called his troops to attention, and then to “order arms”. The troops thought it was odd that they would have an inspection now, but stood rigidly with their weapons to the front. With stiff military precision, in front of the whole battalion formation, the dishonored battalion commander drew his own .45 and blew his brains out.

The inside slopes of Dai La Basin were where our troops made hooches out of panchos and slept on the ground next to holes they had dug for the surety of incoming mortars into that Basin. One of the other junior officers showed me the switch backed trails that were cut into the side of the basin. They said Robbins ran that 3 mile course every day, up the switchbacks, across the top just below the ridgeline, and back down. He had the record, they said. None of the junior officers had beaten it.

I was an extra officer for the moment as they had no open platoons to lead, so I just found the Officer’s Club, which was a slightly better constructed group of boxes with a thatched roof. I had already heard about Lt. Colonel Robbins, who held court for his junior officers there like some medieval Baron. All of them had been drinking quite a bit when I walked in. I told him I was reporting in and he immediately noticed my mustache.

He spoke with a broad accent from the Virginia hills. Some said Robbins was a hog farmer who couldn’t make it there, so he joined up. “Are you a fairy, Hon?”

“Uh…No, sir.”

“I think you are probably a fairy. You know they are a lot of fairies have mustaches. But none of my officers have mustaches. I think I’d better not see that mustache on you next time I see you.”

“There is a problem with that, sir.”

He squinted through his whiskey glass. “Son, I’m your battalion commandah, and I don’t see any problem at all when I order you to take off that mustache.”

“It’s about the Geneva Convention sir. My picture on my Geneva Convention card has a mustache, and the fine print says the card is not to be modified.”

“But it doesn’t say your face can’t be modified.”

“Well, I was thinking, sir, you really don’t want any fairies in your battalion. And someone who could beat your record running Dai La Basin certainly couldn’t be a fairy.”

Everyone was really drunk, and now they were really entertained. He stood up, wobbly, and started to tower over me as I sat. “You’re saying you can run faster than your battalion commandah. None of these here can.”

“If I beat it, I keep the mustache.”

He reddened; he was incensed. I wondered if my short career was on the decline. But then he decided he liked the idea. “Hell yes, Hon. But when you lose you not only have to shave that thing, but you come back here and tell everyone you are indeed a fairy.”

We set the next morning for my run and although no one had announced this to the battalion, in the hooches up and down the Basin trail they were all up and standing alongside the trail. There was more to this than the run. They hated this battalion commander for the way he wasted lives in battle, strutted about as if he were their lord. Just the fact that I had challenged him made me one of the safer officers in Vietnam, one of them told me in confidence.

Robbins was holding a stopwatch as I started up the switchbacked trail. I had done the required running in officer training, but I had also been left wing on the college soccer team. The left wing is always racing down the full length of the field and it is estimated that they sometime sprint 9 miles within a game. Some game, this.

I dug dug dug like a goat to get altitude and all along the way troops were saying “let’s go, sir.” “Let’s get him, sir.” And as I was cruising along below the ridgeline on the top someone along the top said I was 10 seconds behind his time. Then it was down, down, down the switchbacks, letting my legs stride out and glide and make up time time. And all way the troops were clapping and cheering. As I neared the finish a huge cheer filled the basin, the cheer rolled through all the hooches and buoyed me as I finished. The troops were jumping up and down and shouting. I’ve had applause a few times, but this was crazy jubilant applause that welled on and on as I crossed the finish line.

“I didn’t get the time. The watch stopped.” Robbins was trying to welch on this in the face of the deafening battalion voicing their revenge in an unmistakable din.

The Mustang major sidled up to Robbins, with his own stopwatch. He showed the result. ”That’s OK, sir. I’ve got it.”

Robbins shook his head. “What is it.?”

“He beat your time by 8 seconds.”

“So I’ve got a fairy on my hands,” said Robbins, glowering at me.

“Looks like it, sir. But I’ll keep it trimmed.”

Wars come and wars go, but this mustache was hard-won, and I kept it for a while.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved