Mud, Blood and Misery
Thomas Calabrese … It was late August and several Marines were sitting on their torn and barely upright canvas cots in the plywood and corrugated metal hooch on Hill 327 when PFC Kellen turned to Sergeant Hudson, “When are the monsoons coming?”
“Let me show you something,” Sergeant Hudson gestured to the front door.
Kellen followed Hudson outside, “See that big old mountain?”
“Affirmative,” Kellen replied.
The heavily foliated land mass was clearly defined as it jutted into the clear blue sky, “That’s Hill 1192 and when you can’t see the top of it, then you know the rainy season is on its way.”
Most of the Marines in Lima Company had arrived in Vietnam after last year’s monsoon so they didn’t know what to expect, but Sergeant Cale Hudson was on his third tour of duty in country and was dreading those rain soaked months.
There were a lot of things to hate about the monsoon season; the constant chill that never seemed to go away, changing from wet dirty clothes to wet clean ones, feet that stayed damp for so long that the skin turned ashen white and peeled away, and weapons that needed constant care just to keep them from becoming inoperable. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was also that pesky enemy to worry about. The monsoon season meant low cloud cover which in turn meant little or no air support. In a war where North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerillas knew the terrain much better than the Marines, being able to call in air strikes helped balance the scales. Losing air support allowed the enemy to move more freely in the flatlands, and in the jungle the rain literally drowned out the sounds of their movements.
Sergeant Cale Hudson knew that rain was especially tough on grunts, but since he was here out of choice, it didn’t make a lot of sense to start complaining about the weather now. The normal monsoon season for the area around Danang, Vietnam was usually from September to November, but there was no exact beginning or ending dates and once the rain started, it just didn’t stop for a very long time.
Cale hoped that 3rd platoon would be in the rear during that time period, at least that way his men would have an opportunity get out of the rain when they weren’t on patrol or on guard duty. When Captain Wentworth called him into Lima Company’s hooch, Cale had a bad feeling.
“I’m sending 3rd Platoon out to Hill 943,” Captain Wentworth pointed to an area on the map that was hanging on a bulletin board.
Cale looked at it, “That’s a pretty rough area, what are we supposed to do once when we get there?”
“Fortify the area with bunkers, run daily patrols and report any enemy activity,” Captain Wentworth stated without hesitation.
“How long are we going to be out there?”
“Until you’re relieved,” Captain Wentworth snapped back.
“When are we supposed to leave?”
Cale looked at Captain Wentworth like he was crazy, but forced himself to remain quiet.
“Is there something else on your mind, Sergeant?”
“This is a big mistake, Captain.”
Captain Wentworth wasn’t interested in Sergeant Hudson’s assessment of his decision, “Your concern is noted…dismissed.”
Throughout the history of warfare, there have been men in authority making decisions that should have been made by those with experience, but ignorance and arrogance are two sides of the same coin. ‘Theirs was not to question why, theirs was but to do and die.’ Technology has come a long way since Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote about the Charge of the Light Brigade, but the frailties of leadership have remained unchanged.
Cale was not the of kind the Marine that would ever lead the men under his command to their death or serious injury if he thought the order was stupid or reckless, so after he verbalized his concerns to Captain Wentworth, it was now his duty to take matters into his own hands. The occupational hazards of war are dangerous enough even when you are doing everything correctly and there was no reason to give the Grim Reaper an advantage.
HMLA-367 squadron was at the other end of the compound and Cale approached Lt. Mike Baxter, “Hey Mike, got any flights going out today?”
“Usual mail and supply runs,” Lt. Baxter replied.
“You think that I could hitch a ride, I need to get a visual of Hill 943 before they send my platoon out there.”
“Get your gear and I’ll wait for you,” Lt. Baxter offered.
“Thanks,” Cale replied, “I’ll be right back.”
Cale’s thoughts drifted as he sat in the CH-46 helicopter and there was really no logical reason why he should be here in this place. After serving his first tour of duty in Nam, the Corps would have probably assigned him to Camp Lejeune or Pendleton as an instructor and he could have skated until the end of the enlistment. Not only did he not take advantage of that opportunity, he re-enlisted for two more years so he could come back for a third tour. As a young teenage boy growing up in Bakersfield, California, he was just like everybody else his age looking for his place in the world. When a couple of his high school buddies wanted to go down to the Marine recruiting office, he tagged along out of curiosity.
“You know that you guys can go in on the buddy plan,” The recruiter smiled.
“What’s the buddy plan?” Brian Macklin asked.
“The Marine Corps promises to keep you three together through boot camp.”
“What happens after that?” Chuck Vanson asked.
“That’s depends on you, the Marine Corps gives aptitude tests and will put you where they think you can do the most good,” The recruiter explained.
This was one of those situations where none of the boys were willing to make a decision, ‘what do you what to do’ got bounced twenty times between the trio and then that shifted to, ‘I’ll do it if you do it’ and finally to, ‘what the hell, let’s go for it.’
The Corps kept more than their promise, Cale, Brian and Chuck stayed together through boot camp at San Diego and when they were given the same MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0311, infantryman, they were also assigned to the same Basic Infantry Training and Advanced Infantry Training Regiments at Camp Pendleton. There was usually only one place that 0311’s went in 1968 after they finished training and that was South Vietnam. The three friends deployed on January 10th, 1968 and once again they were kept together where they were assigned to the same unit, 1st Battalion 26th Marines.
The young Marines were naturally apprehensive about going off to war, but found some reassurance that they had not been separated. It would not turn out well for the trio because the 1st Battalion 26th Marines was about to be surrounded by North Vietnamese forces. Cale, Chuck and Brian arrived at their unit on January 19th and on January 21st, 1968 the famous Siege of Khe Sanh began. By the time it ended on July 9, 1968, only one of the three friends was still alive. Brian was killed on February 23rd during the worst bombardment of the siege and Chuck died on March 30th while on patrol with Bravo Company. Cale was wounded twice and was one of the last Marines to leave the besieged base.
When he returned to Bakersfield on leave after his first tour, he was completely caught off-guard by the reaction of Brian’s and Chuck’s families toward him. It seemed that both of his friends had told their parents that it was his idea to join the Marines. The families had a natural resentment that he survived while their sons did not. At first, Cale wanted to tell them that he just followed their lead, but what good would that do now, it would just make him look like a liar or a coward, or both. After taking some time to re-consider the situation Cale had a different perspective, the families needed to vent their anger and express their grief and he was a convenient target. It was the least he could do for his deceased buddies. Cale had twenty days leave, but only took ten and lied to his parents when he told them that he got called back to duty. He spent the rest of his leave at Camp Pendleton and the Oceanside area until he flew out for his second tour. He harbored no ill will toward the Macklins and Vansons and he was pretty sure that while they would never admit it, they probably wouldn’t be too heartbroken if he was killed in action.
When they got to Hill 943, Mike Baxter called out from the cockpit, “Here’s your new home.”
“You think that you could touch down for a couple minutes?” Cale asked.
“I’ll drop you off then circle around; I don’t want to give Charlie a stationary target.”
Mike descended to five feet off on the deck and Cale jumped out and double timed around the perimeter while checking out the terrain and was ready for extraction in less than sixty seconds. Cale saw the traces of dark clouds in the distance and knew that the rainy season was not far away.
The next part of his plan would require him to be more devious and while rank gives authority, experience earns respect. Cale approached First Sergeant Dan Perino at the main supply depot in Danang who was also on his third tour and had also been at the Siege of Khe Sanh, “I need a favor.”
“I’m listening,” Dan Perino responded.
“I need a couple of empty conex boxes.” (a large metal cargo container used by the U.S. military for shipping supplies to overseas bases. Origin of conex came from con(tainer) ex(port).
Hundreds of empty metal containers were stacked as far as the eyes could see, “Take your pick.”
“I also need them delivered out to the bush,” Cale added.
“Before the monsoons,” Cale answered.
Cale pulled out a map that had a small area circled in red, “Hill 943.”
Dan Perino pulled out a requisition form, “I think it’s time for Captain B.A. Tuttle.”
“He’s the officer in charge that approves these kinds of supply orders, of course if you came looking for him later, you couldn’t find him. Since he’s giving the orders, I’ll just do what I’m told like a good Marine,” Dan winked.
“I don’t want to push my luck, but do you think you can toss in a couple eight man tents and some waterproof tarp?”
“Let me run that by Captain Tuttle, but I’m sure I can convince him.”
“Thanks Top,” Cale said.
As Cale turned to walk away, Dan called to him, “If you’re gonna’ stay in the Nam’, you might as well enjoy it, come work for me, I can get you transferred, just say the word.”
“I know, I know…I’m going to take you up on that offer one of these days.”
“Don’t wait too long… it won’t do you much good if you’re dead.”
If Cale took Dan’s offer he’d be sleeping in dry hooch with mama-sans coming in every day to keep it clean. He’d always have clean utilities to wear and would be chowing down on three hot squares a day. It was more than a tempting offer, it was one that he shouldn’t refuse…then why was he?
Sergeant Hudson and thirty five Marines landed on Hill 943 with as much personal gear as they could carry. Two more CH-46 helicopters followed with a cargo of two thousand empty sandbags, one hundred cases of c-rations, five hundred gallons of water and two dozen cases of ammunitions and claymore mines.
“Why do I have the sickening feeling that this is not a short term mission,” Corporal Hanson commented.
Lance Corporal Leland looked around at miles of nothing but jungle, “Who wouldn’t want to be here?”
PFC Devers joked, “San Francisco, New York City, Miami Beach…now you can add Hill 943 to those vacation hotspots.”
Cale marked several areas in the dirt then ordered his men, “I need you to start filling sandbags and place them along these lines…I want them ten high and three wide. Leland, take two fire teams and clear fields of fire in a 360, I’m going to take a patrol out and see what’s out there.”
The patrol went down the hill until they came upon a stream then followed it south for five hundred yards. Cale noticed the distinct impressions of sandals two inches deep in the soft dirt which meant that Charlie was heavily weighed down, indicating this was probably a supply route. As they were returning to the top of the hill, Cale felt the light sprinkles of rain on his forearms then looked up at a gray cloud above him. He hoped that everything would be ready in time.
When he got back to the top of 943, Cale saw that his Marines had not done much. Most of them were sitting around reading paperbacks or chowing down on c-rations. “What the hell! What part of filling sandbags didn’t you understand?”
When Leland came back from cutting brush, looking exhausted with a machete in his hand, Cale turned to him, “Not good enough, ten more yards down the slope.”
Leland’s shoulders slumped and he turned around and walked back down the hill followed by the other Marines.
“You do not want to be filling sandbags in the rain. We’ve got more five hours of daylight…no breaks…nobody stops until sunset…got it?” Cale called out.
The Marines kept digging, filling and stacking sandbags until sunset, then set up their claymores and defensive perimeter for the evening. By the afternoon of the next day, 3rd platoon had filled and stacked one thousand sandbags. None of the Marines knew why they stacking the sandbags in this way. Cale didn’t want to build up their hopes and then have his plan fail.
PFC Dorsey wiped the sweat from his brow, “What the hell are we building?”
“If Sergeant Hudson wants you to know, then he’ll tell you,” Corporal Pultaski snarled, “keep filling those sandbags, Jarhead!”
Three hours later the distinctive images of two CH-54 Sikosky Skycrane helicopters appeared with a conex box dangling beneath each one. As the pilots hovered above the hill Cale guided the metal containers between the stacks of sandbags, unhooked the cables then waved off the pilots.
“Now does it make sense to you?” Pultaski asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Dorsey responded.
When Cale opened the conex boxes, they were filled with a variety of items including a case of socks, hammocks, cots, water proof tarps, large tents and a propane heater with extra fuel. He whispered to himself, ‘Thanks Top.”
The platoon added two more rows of sandbags around the top of the metal containers and put a canopy over them, Two M- 60 machine guns were set back to back so the each one had a 180 degree field of fire. The large tents were placed in front of the openings of the conex boxes to keep the rain from blowing in and sandbags were stacked alongside the bottom flaps to secure them. Marines rigged hammocks and set up cots inside the containers and while it was cramped, the main thing was that it would be dry. A small section in one of the tents was partially sealed off and the propane heater was placed inside it.
When he heard the incessant pounding against the container early the next morning, it could mean only one thing; the monsoon season had officially arrived. Cale walked outside and saw the torrential downpour and the rivers of mud sliding down the hill. It was a good thing that the conex boxes were placed at the highest point of the hill because everything was washing away from them. Cale assigned four Marines to be on guard duty at all times and they situated themselves on each corner of the conex boxes and faced in a different direction down the hill. They would be relieved every hour to avoid boredom and carelessness. Sergeant Hudson did everything that he could think of to keep his men safe, but there was one variable that was hard to plan for, was how the enemy would react to them being there.
“You did a hell of a job,” Doc Hancock, the platoon corpsman commented as he sat on his cot with his poncho liner over his shoulders.
“What happens from here is the real question,” Cale replied.
The regular mortar bombardment started the next morning and it immediately reminded Cale of his time at Khe Sanh. In between the attacks, the Marines rushed outside and restacked any sandbags that were knocked out of position by the explosions.
Cale would have preferred to have his men hunker down in the conex boxes, but when enemy patrols started probing their perimeter, he made an educated guess that a major assault was coming soon. Ambush teams went out every morning and evening and found concealed positions in the valley below. The gentle stream had now become a fast moving river due to the heavy run-off from the surrounding hills and North Vietnam soldiers were now using rafts to transport their supplies instead of carrying them. The Marines did their best to find cover from the rain while staying hidden from the enemy, but it was cold, exhausting and dangerous duty. Cale made sure that returning ambush teams had as much time as possible to dry out and rest up before going out again. The Marines would take off their soaked clothing and water logged jungle boots and wrap themselves in poncho liners and blankets and go to sleep in the warmest place of the metal containers. The propane heater helped dry out their gear for the next mission.
Enemy gunners had locked in on the Marines’ position so re-supply choppers had to come in quickly, drop their loads and get airborne to avoid being hit. This was a lesson that was learned from the Siege of Khe Sanh. Unable to destroy the fortifications of the Marines on Hill 943 and with one of their major supply routes severely compromised, North Vietnamese commanders knew that they had only one option.
When there was a lull in the weather from a steady downpour to a light drizzle, the visibility, improved enough for Cale to see NVA soldiers in the valley with his binoculars. The good news for the Marines was that while the rain had slowed down, it would also allow a large enemy force to make it up the hill.
This was the first time that Cale saw the enemy in one place so he immediately got on the radio and called in the coordinates for artillery and air strikes. It had become too dangerous to send out killer teams and set up ambushes in the valley anymore, so the Marines diverted all their efforts preparing for the impending attack.
He would have been more than happy to admit that he was wrong if the North Vietnamese soldiers did not attack, but Cale was too good at his job, and that night the bombardment started and hundreds of enemy soldiers started up the hill. Several Marines popped illumination flares over the slopes while the others laid down deadly and suppressive fire. For three hours the battle raged on and the results remained in doubt to the very end, but eventually the Marines were able to beat back the superior force.
The rain still did not returned and the wounded Marines were medically evacuated at first light. The following night, there was another attack, but this one was much more intense in ferocity, but once again the Marines prevailed. The wounded were medivaced the next day and now there were only fourteen Marines left on Hill 943.
Doc Hancock surmised, “If we get hit again like we did last night, we won’t be able to hold them off.”
“Yeah, that’s probably right,” Cale responded.
“So do you have a plan?”
“Fight on,” Cale smiled and went about his duty.
The third night eventually came, but the rain still did not and the Marines tried their best not to dwell on what was about to happen.
“At least when this is over, I hope they’ll remember us as the Marines of Hell Hill!” PFC Califaro pondered.
“Who is ‘they’? I don’t want anybody to remember me when I’m gone. Bury me deep and when you spit on my grave, don’t tell me it’s raining,” Corporal Gundy growled.
Cale looked at the sun setting behind the hill and the clear skies and then commented to his men, “Good luck.” What else could he say, they were now seasoned veterans and he knew they would do their duty down to their last breath so why waste words.
The North Vietnamese threw everything they had at the embattled Marines including mortars, rocket propelled grenades and heavy small arms fire. Every time a flare illuminated the slopes, it seemed that there were more enemy soldiers than a few minutes before and just when Cale thought that they could not hold off the advancing hordes any longer, the monsoons returned without notice like an avenging waterfall and swept the Vietnamese soldiers down the hillside, bouncing off trees and rocks until they disappeared into the raging river below. The powerful rain pounded the mountaintop for twelve long hours and when it did stop, the Marines staggered out of the conex boxes and through the mud, blood and misery into the warm sunshine.
Three days later, Captain Wentworth landed with several other officers from Battalion and his first question was not how the Marines survived or even how they were doing, but who approved the conex boxes.
“Captain B.A. Tuttle,” Cale spit out his answer in disgust, “Why don’t you give him a call.”
Only one of the fourteen Marines was not wounded during the fighting. It was a credit to Doc Hancock’s medical expertise and heroism that he was able to treat the wounded in the midst of bullets flying and bombs exploding so that they could keep fighting.
When it came time to leave Hill 943, every Marine knew that he owed his life to Sergeant Hudson. While it was nice to have the respect of the men under his command, Cale found something else on that mountaintop that was even more important to his survival and future well- being. It was how he felt about himself, it only took him three combat tours and numerous encounters with death to understand one very important fact; all he could do was his best and everything else was out of his control… but what the hell…
Monsoon-er RatherThan Later.