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

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