(Die Laughing or Just Die)
Thomas Calabrese …… Third Battalion, Lima Company, Second Platoon was the bottom rung of the ladder for speed freaks, potheads, juicers and hellraising Marines with too much time in country and not enough functioning brain cells to quietly complete their combat tours or die patriotically in the line of duty. They just lingered on like jungle rot, an open festering wound that would not heal. They were a motley crew of rejects and brig rats who served only one useful purpose.
Sergeant Gunnar Claiborne got his “blood stripes” because of the casualties of his superiors in numerous confrontations with the enemy. He didn’t get promoted because of his leadership abilities, but because he was often the last man standing. Claiborne wasn’t just a hair trigger on a weapon, but more like a tripwire connected to a Bouncing Betty land mine. Office pogues and Bottlecap Colonels despised his existence, but were secretly glad that he was around, because when a combat assignment that was too dangerous for conventional units came down the chain of command it was dumped on him and his Marines. The men of Second Platoon alternated between being expendable on a good day and disposable on a bad one and were as unconventional as the Vietnam War itself.
Sergeant Claiborne awakened to find a two pound rat crawling over his poncho liner so he automatically reached into an ammo box and pulled out a stale “John Wayne” C ration inedible biscuit and held it up for the rodent to eat, “Anybody ever tell you that you look like officer material.” The rat grabbed the cookie and ran off, “Talk about being overly sensitive.”
Sergeant Claiborne swung his legs out of his cot then reached over and grabbed a marijuana cigarette from a stack and lit it. He took several long drags then quenched his thirst from a half filled can of warm beer and slipped on his tire track sandals or “Hanoi Florsheims” grabbed a faded green towel then stumbled out of his hooch and tripped over something so he bent down and picked up a passed out Marine and looked him straight in the face, “Is that you, Murray? I thought you got killed on the last patrol,” then dropped him back to the ground.
Murray mumbled, “It sure feels like I’m dead.”
Beer cans, candy wrappers and assorted trash were scattered about as Sergeant Claiborne kicked the debris out of his walking path. He saw a group of Marines playing cards on the hood of a jeep, “Police this area! It’s beginning to remind me of my old neighborhood and I don’t need any more memories of the world.”
A Marine replied without looking up, “We’re busy, you do it!”
Sergeant Claiborne walked over and pressed down on the horn and the Marines were so startled they scattered their military payment currency and playing cards when they jumped back. One of the Marines snarled, “You crazy or something!”
“Damn crazy, when I said police up the area, the correct response is; thank you for the opportunity, we’ll get it done, not do it yourself.”
The Marine aggressively stepped forward, “I’m a private, what are you going to do, bust me?”
“I’m on my way to the shower so if you’re going to get froggish then now is the time to jump, that way I won’t have to wash up twice, croak, croak, toadface.”
The Marine foolishly stepped forward to fight and Sergeant Claiborne knocked the belligerent Marine out with a crushing left hook that landed squarely on his chin. Sergeant Claiborne shook his hand and grimaced, “If I keep punching hardheaded Marines then I may have to give up my lifelong dream of being a piano player.”
The other Marines looked down at their motionless friend while Newberry picked up Barnes’ cards, “He had a full house and would have won the hand.”
Rader shrugged, “Luck is only going to get you so far in the Nam’.”
“What do you want us to do with him?” Garcindo asked.
“Put him with the rest of the trash and dump him off at sickbay.”
Sergeant Claiborne went to the makeshift shower facilities and washed the stink, dust and sweat off his battle scarred body then got dressed and went to chow. He called out to Sergeant Jackson Reddington, the Mess Sergeant, “Hey Ptomaine Jack, how’s the most dangerous weapon in the Nam’ doing?”
“Loving every minute of this wonderful Marine Corps dream,” Sergeant Reddington smiled.
“How many Marines have you put in sickbay today?” Claiborne joked.
“It’s still early, but if I had to guess, I’d say less than you do after one of your patrols.”
“What’s on the powdered menu this morning?” Claiborne asked
“Actually we got a shipment of fresh milk and eggs today,” Sergeant Reddington replied, “Somebody must have got our address mixed up with the Air Force’s.”
“Fresh eggs and milk, still remember how to make an omelet?”
“How about my infamous Cong Special?”
“That’s sounds appetizing and deadly at the same time, what’s in it?”
“I put tomatoes, cheese, ham, bacon, potatoes and anything else I can find. I call it the “Cong” because it sticks to your ribs like a punji stick through the lung.”
“Then I’m your next target,” Claiborne replied.
Sergeant Claiborne was enjoying a large glass of milk when Colonel David Laughlin entered and a Marine called out, Attenshun!” Everybody stood up except for Sergeant Claiborne who remained seated.
Colonel David Laughlin walked over to the table where Claiborne was sitting, “Don’t you stand up when an officer enters the room, Sergeant?”
“Is that a trick question? This isn’t really a room, it’s a tent and I was getting ready to, but the legs don’t work as well as they used to. Give me a couple minutes and I’ll get there.”
“You’re a colossal pain in my ass,” Sergeant Claiborne started to stand up and Colonel Laughlin pushed him back down, “Save your energy, you’re going to need it.”
“It’s good to see you too, Colonel, and speaking about backsides, why don’t you park yours.”
Colonel Laughlin sat down as Sergeant Claiborne called to Ptomaine Jack, “You got a white tablecloth for the Colonel?”
“Sorry, Mama-San hasn’t returned the laundry yet; I’m still waiting on the alterations on my camouflaged tuxedo for the rice paddy prom.”
“If you got a pair of clean skivvies, that will have to do, Claiborne countered.”
“I drove through your area and saw some of your men doing a police call, didn’t know your men did that kind of thing,” Colonel Laughlin joked.
“They usually don’t like to flaunt their hidden and useless military talents.”
“It was looking pretty ragged,” Colonel Laughlin commented, “I was wondering how long it was going to take you to do something.”
“I could give you the cleanest area in I Corps if some field grade officer whose name I won’t mention didn’t keep sending my men into the bush.”
“Don’t blame me, blame Victor Charlie, he’s the one causing all the trouble,” Colonel Laughlin shrugged then got up to leave, “meet me at the CP after the 1700 news briefings.”
“You mean the Five o’clock Follies? What garbage are you shoveling today to John Q. Citizen?”
“When you get dusted, I’m not sure whether I’ll cry or spit on your corpse,” Colonel Laughlin said calmly.
“Save your tears for those who matter,” Claiborne smiled.
Colonel Laughlin turned back to Sergeant Claiborne, “Try and keep your area policed, I’m tired of the rats and maggots requesting mast about the unsanitary living conditions.”
“Nothing like putting a bunch of Marines in one place to aggravate the local residents and bring down property values.”
“Don’t tell that to the Stars and Stripes reporter, I’ve almost got them convinced that we know what the hell we’re doing,” Colonel Laughlin left the mess tent.
Sergeant Reddington brought a six egg omelet that filled the plate and set it in front of Claiborne, “Bad news?”
“When’s the last time that an officer ever came to see you with good news?”
Sergeant Claiborne returned to second platoon’s area after he finished breakfast to pass the word to his men, “I’m meeting the “Old Man” after the Five O’clock Follies and I’m taking odds that he’s going to brief me on our next mission so if you’ve got anything you need to do then get it done because I want everybody back here by 1800 hours.”
Colonel Laughlin was briefing the reporters about the status of military operations as Sergeant Claiborne sat nearby and snickered at the proceedings and marveled at the amount of bull…s that was being thrown around. Major Burns a thoroughly squared away Marine Corps officer walked by and saw the unkempt Claiborne and immediately got on his case and proceeded to tear him a new one, “What unit are you with?” Major Burns snarled.
“The United States Marine Corps, what unit are you with? I mean what Boy Scout troop?” Sergeant Claiborne replied.
“Do you think you’re funny?” Major Burns asked.
“Funny strange or funny ha ha?”
“Get down and give me fifty!” Major Burns ordered.
Sergeant Claiborne burst out in laughter, “I left my fifty back in boot camp, but I got five in MPC if you’re short of cash.”
Major Burns got so angry at the disrespectful Marine that the veins in his neck started throbbing and his face turned beet red and just as he got ready to speak, Colonel Laughlin put his hand on his shoulder, “I’ll take it from here, Major,” and when Major Burns just stood there, Colonel Laughlin added, “You’re dismissed.”
Major Burns walked off and you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears. Colonel Laughlin turned his attention back to Sergeant Claiborne, “You need to stop provoking your superiors.”
“Who is that guy anyway?” Sergeant Claiborne asked.
“Major Allan Burns, he just got here from the Pentagon.”
“Just what this war needs…another by the book Pencilneck.”
After getting his assignment, Colonel Laughlin offered, “The Bob Hope USO show will be here in a couple weeks, I can’t think of any Marines who need to go more than yours…”
“If you’re going say hope for the hopeless then please don’t, it’s bad enough dealing with officers, it’s cruel and unusual punishment to listen to their bad jokes.”
“So you’ve heard that one before.”
When Sergeant Claiborne got back to his unit’s area, his men were lounging about, “We’re going back into Death Valley.”
“Death Valley, that’s a relief, we were worried that maybe they were going to send us to China Beach for some rest and recreation,” Corporal Montoya’s voice was heavy with sarcasm.
“You know the drill, carry as much ammunition as your puny bodies can handle.”
Next morning, Second Platoon was loaded up and waiting for their choppers next to the LZ. Lance Corporal Raymond struggled to stand upright and turned to PFC Grimsley, “I’m from Texas and I wouldn’t put this much weight on a packhorse.”
Corporal Watson interjected, “Don’t worry about it, as soon as we get into our first firefight, you’ll be fifteen pounds lighter.”
The men of Second Platoon each put one hundred dollars into a plastic bag and handed it to Sergeant Claiborne who counted it and passed it to Corporal Montgomery, one of the office pogues from S-4.
After the two Ch-46 helicopters took off, PFC Baxter approached Montgomery, “What was that money for?”
“The Marines of Second Platoon put money in a pot and those who survive divide it up when they get back.”
“That’s too creepy even for me,” Baxter replied.
As soon as the two choppers approached the top of Hill 1127 which was located in the heart of Death Valley, an affectionate term coined by Marines for an area filled with battle tested North Vietnamese regular soldiers, incoming fire forced the CH-46’s to divert out of harm’s way until four F-4 Phantoms strafed the area with 20mm cannon fire then dropped several Napalm bombs to incinerate the mountaintop.
The original strategy was to drop Second Platoon at the base of Hill 1127 and have them fight their way up the heavily foliated slope. Sergeant Claiborne convinced Colonel Laughlin to let them land at the top and fight their way down. The main advantage was that it is easier to shoot down than it is to shoot up, but the disadvantage was equally obvious; once Second Platoon landed on the top of 1127 they would have to either defeat the enemy or die because there would be nowhere to retreat.
Once there was a lull in enemy fire, the choppers quickly dropped the Marines off and the pilots “Got the Hell out Of Dodge” a common expression for a hasty exit.
Sergeant Claiborne called out, “Machine gun squads cover left and right flanks, Go!”
Two squads went left and two went right and the rest of the Marines focused their attention forward. Second Platoon might have been a combination of dopeheads, drunks and rejects, but they were also whirling banshees when it came to combat. Sergeant Claiborne had his twelve gauge shotgun loaded with double aught buckshot at the ready, five other Marines got alongside him with their shotguns and the Marines moved out, literally blasting their way down the trail while the machine guns cut everything to shreds. Second Platoon only managed to move two hundred meters as the North Vietnamese soldiers fought tenaciously to hold their ground.
Supply helicopters landed behind Second Platoon and dropped off crates of ammunition and medevac’d the dead and wounded. This process was repeated several times over; fight, resupply, remove the dead and wounded and fight on. The battle raged on for two days and two nights and when it was too dark to see, flares were fired to illuminate the area or dropped by circling aircraft.
Two Marine Corps rifle companies were waiting between the base of Hill 1127 and the rice paddies to intercept the retreating enemy once they hit open land. With their mission completed, the men of Second Platoon collapsed in collective exhaustion along a dirt road as Sergeant Claiborne slowly walked down the row of bone weary and bloody warriors and said calmly, “That was fun, all those who want to do it again, raise your hands.”
The remainder of Second Platoon could do nothing, but burst into uncontrollable laughter and when the Six-By trucks arrived, the Marines used their remaining strength to climb aboard the vehicles. After returning to their base camp, the men went back to their area while Sergeant Claiborne headed to the Command Post to debrief Colonel Laughlin. When Sergeant Carlson passed by, Claiborne said, “You seen the old man?
“He got killed yesterday,” Sergeant Carlson responded.
“His jeep blew a tire while he was on his way to Division, it flipped over and he was crushed.”
Sergeant Claiborne found a crate to sit on and he put his head in his hands, unable to move or even process what he was just told. Major Burns approached, “I’ll be taking over for Colonel Laughlin and I’m putting you on official notice that things are going to change around here. You’re going to start acting like a Marine. I’m….”
Sergeant Claiborne could see Major Burns’ lips moving, but couldn’t understand a word he was saying so after a couple minutes he stood up to walked away. Major Burns grabbed him by the shoulder and Sergeant Claiborne spun around with rage in his eyes, “I’m tired, hungry and wounded and I just lost fifteen of my men then found out that the best damn Battalion Commander in this war is dead. The last thing I need right now is to hear is some “boot” in country lecture me so if you want to throw me in the brig, then do it, I could use the rest. The MPs’ know where I live, send them over. If I was you, I’d go to the Officers’ Club, drink a few Gin Fizzies or Singapore Slings and chase them down with some Shirley Temples, talk about the good old college days, but come the crack of dawn tomorrow, you should do two things; first one, try to be half the Marine Corps commander that Colonel Laughlin was and two, GET ME A DAMN MISSION!”
Major Barnes saw the trail of blood on the ground from the arrogant Marine’s wounds and reconsidered his position. A strange thought flashed through Claiborne’s mind as he shuffled and stumbled backed to his area; The Grim Reaper should be touring with Bob Hope, for he had to have a sense of humor to keep a reprobate like him alive when he should have been dead ten times over than take a honorable man like Colonel Laughlin in a freak auto accident.
By the time Claiborne got back to Second Platoon’s area, he was already at the brink of total despair as he walked through the front door of the plywood and screened in hooch of his men. Barnes handed him a beer, a few steps further and Marengo handed him another. Sergeant Claiborne didn’t even break stride and just as he was ready to walk out the back door, he called out for all to hear, “If anybody disturbs me before tomorrow morning…I’ll shoot them.”
When Sergeant Claiborne got back to his hooch, he sat on his cot and watched with disinterest as the blood dripped from his upper arm wound then reached for a “Chu Lai Bomber” which was a large Marijuana cigarette laced with opium and took several long drags. He guzzled one beer and crushed the can in frustration then began sipping on the other. When he looked to his left he saw the same two pound rat staring at him with curiosity. Sergeant Claiborne snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute to the rodent, his way of showing how far down the evolutionary chain of command he felt that he had fallen. He looked at his watch and saw that it was almost 1700 hours and when Sergeant Claiborne didn’t think things could any worse, he felt a shiver run down his spine when he came to the undisputable realization that even if he did survive long enough to leave the geographical boundaries of the blood, mud and stench of death of South Vietnam that he would never escape the absurdity of his own version of the Five O’clock Follies.