Ghost of Khe Sanh
Thomas Calabrese …. Captain Matthew Munday could have been forged in the steel mills of ancient mythology to stand beside the Gods of Aries and Zeus on Mount Olympus. He also could have been finely stitched by a master leathermaker to be rawhide tough and ride the trails of the Wild West, but instead he was born to lead while others were cursed to bleed in the war torn country of Vietnam.
I first met the iconic company commander at the Siege of Khe Sanh in February, 1968. I was as green as the moss on the north side of a tree on the inside and as pasty white as a bleached sheet on the outside. Captain Munday approached me and several other replacement jarheads after we triple timed off the airfield while under fire from entrenched enemy gunners who had locked in on the airfield’s coordinates.
“How old are you?” Captain Munday asked.
“Twenty three, sir,” answered Second Lieutenant Ron Synder.
“You’re old enough to be dead by now,” Captain Munday grinned then added, “Two things will keep you alive in the Nam’, luck and skill. You can’t do anything about luck, but you can do a hell of a lot about the skill part.”
It took me a while to decipher the “You’re old enough to be dead by now,” statement, but when I did, it had a profound and lasting effect on me. Death is the ultimate equal opportunity advocate; it doesn’t care about your age, sex, religion or political affiliation, it will take anybody without hesitation or remorse.
I haphazardly stacked sandbags as I built a protective wall near the southern boundary of the base when Captain Munday approached, he took one look at my work and stuck out the heel of his muddy boot and pushed it over with minimum effort, “Own it,” and walked off.
Once again I was at a loss to understand the terse two word comment until I began to use my head for something else besides a place to put my helmet. “Own it” meant to take responsibility for the quality of my work and a poor effort was my fault and nobody else’s. From that point forward I made sure that if I was assigned a task, that I took pride in its completion, regardless of how insignificant I initially perceived it to be.
I grew to understand and respect Captain Munday more and more with each passing day, but I couldn’t say the same for everybody in the unit however. PFC Adam Schumer had just arrived at Khe Sanh and immediately was given the worst details, as which was the customary indoctrination for “boots” in country. He wasted little time in approaching Captain Munday and voicing his discontent, “How come I’m doing all the work and everybody else is sitting on their butts?”
“Trust and respect are earned…not given,” Captain responded.
Pfc. Schumer didn’t concept the nuances of Captain Munday’s leadership policies, so when he complained about equal work distribution policies a second time; he was immediately transferred to the messhall and assigned permanent kitchen duty. We were under constant bombardment while we were inside the perimeter of the base and under routine attack while out on patrol so every Marine was vital, but only the right kind of Marine.
We would have cracked under the stress of the situation if it had not been for the presence of Captain Munday who also had the uncanny knack to make just the right statement at the precise moment to relieve the tension. It wasn’t like he told jokes or tried to be funny, but his wit saved our sanity on many occasions. For example, one evening when the mortar bombardment was especially heavy and we were digging into the terra firma like anti-social gophers with altitude sickness, Captain Munday came by and looked into our bunker, as casual as if he was out for a Saturday stroll in Pleasant Valley, America. He was holding a Star and Stripes newspaper in his hand and looked down at us, “Does anybody know a nine letter word for scared?”
“Huh?” I commented as dirt fell into my eyes.
“Never mind…I got it…it’s petrified. I’ll come back if I need any more help.”
The fact that Captain Munday was able to verbalize what we were all feeling, but afraid to admit was all that we needed and when I looked at my fellow Marines, we burst out in laughter.
We were out on patrol one morning and I had a bad feeling that something was going to happen, but since my arrival at Khe Sanh, that feeling was not that unusual so I “owned it”. I upped my game a couple notches and put my perennial fatigue on the back burner and switched to ultra-alert. I would have been elated to have been found incorrect about my feelings of impending doom, but my suspicions were confirmed when I saw Captain Munday move from the center of the column to the point man, “I’ll take it from here.”
It was very unusual for a Company Commander to walk point, but nothing surprised me about Captain Munday by this time. The winding trail led us to the base of the heavy foliated hill and when we started to move up the incline, the whole sky rained hellfire down on us. The rifle and machine gun fire was so thick that a mosquito couldn’t fly through it without getting its wings shot off.
I hit the deck and crawled to Captain Munday’s position, “Any orders, sir?”
Once again, Captain Munday’s one word supply spoke volumes to me.
While I was trying to keep my head from being shot off, Captain Munday’s scanned the area in methodical fashion and after a couple of minutes, he called out to Lance Corporal Summervill, the machine gunner, “Bring me that M-60!”
When Captain Munday got the M-60, he crisscrossed a few ammo belts over his chest.
“You can’t go up there!” I said without thinking.
“Why?” Captain Munday replied.
The answer was so evident that I couldn’t force myself to insult the intelligence of my commanding officer by saying, “You’ll get killed,” so I kept quiet.
Captain Munday commented, “It’s time to put a smile on the Grim Reaper’s face,” and raced up the hill, firing as he went. In a few moments, he disappeared from view.
I heard the distinctive sound of a Douglas AC-47 propeller aircraft, affectionately called “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It got the name because it carried three miniguns and had the ability to fire 18,000 rounds per minute. The tracer rounds gave the impression of a continuous red light extending from the aircraft to the ground and it riddled the ground with deadly fire.
Moments later, two A-1 Skyraiders zoomed overhead and dropped their entire payload of bombs on the top of the hill and the ground shook so violently that I bounced off it. They were followed by two more jets that dropped Napalm and turned the hill into an inferno. Suddenly it was completely silent and the company cautiously moved out. When we got to the top, the entire area had been obliterated; the trees were sheared off at trunk level and the foliage was disintegrated. I saw some charred clumps that I assumed were bodies and setting on a large boulder was the M-60 machine gun with a set of dog tags dangling over the barrel. I took them off and stared in disbelief.
Lt. Snyder approached, “What is it?”
I handed him the dog tags and he commented, “They’re blank.”
When we got back to camp, Colonel Joe “Doc” Hancock, the battalion commander was waiting for us and when we debriefed him, he looked at us with great puzzlement, “There’s no Captain Munday in this battalion. The C.O. of Lima Company was killed during the first day of the siege and we never got a replacement for him.”
As I looked up at the clear blue sky, something flashed across my line of sight, Lt. Snyder must have saw it too because he placed his hand on my shoulder and smiled, “God created the world in six days then rested on Sunday, but when it came time to get back to work, he needed a Munday.”