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?”
“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.