Vietnam Remembered

The following is an excerpt from Vietnam Remembered – November 1965 by Robert Peragallo.

I’ll try and describe what it was like to be in a rifle company in Vietnam in 1965. When I first got to Vietnam, the 9th Marines had been in Vietnam six months. They were the first official combat troops to land in Vietnam and the build up began after they landed. There was very little infrastructure when the 9th Marines came ashore. We eat C rations and drank water from what we called a water buffalo. A water buffalo was a large tank on wheels that was hauled into your base camp area and you filed your canteen from it. You were allowed only two canteens a day as water was rationed. The average temperature was over a hundred degrees every day. C rations were survival rations not intended for everyday meals. They were made for WW2 and everything was dehydrated and in little green cans. Every Marine had a P-38. It was the most important weapon any Marine could carry. It was a one inch foldable blade can opener. Every Marine wore one of these on your dog tag chain. Without it you starved to death. It opened any can of any size or variety. One of the best inventions of any war was the P-38 can opener.

Two canteens of water on an all-day sweep was not enough. What we ended up doing was writing home and asking our families to send us presweetened cool-air. We would fill our canteen from the local village wells add a purification tab, add the cool-aid to make it drinkable. Some of the water I drank on those sultry, sweltering days was the color of opaque ooze. No wonder we all suffered from diarrhea most of the time. Water was a constant struggle. Bugs were notorious. Fleas were the worst. Most of the Vietnamese had them and when you searched them for weapons or propaganda you were likely to get them. Sand crabs were another problem. A lot of our time was spent near the ocean (South China Sea) you always got them, they itched the worst. Snakes were a serious problem. I once killed an eight-foot Cobra that had slithered up to our fighting hole near what would later become know as China Beach, but for now it was just another beach near a fishing village that needed the local VC to be run out. That fishing village cost us two KIA (killed in action) and four WIA (wounded in action). Vietnam to this day has a way of destroying anything man-made. I’ve seen new construction look like it was built fifty years ago in a year’s time. Our boots would disintegrate within six months. I mean completely wear out; you could walk right out of them. Most of the time we had a good pair of utility pants and one pair in our ruck sack (our backpack). The material would become so thread bear that they would rip if caught on the smallest twig. It was so hot we would not wear a shirt just out flack jackets. They were the old fiberglass plate type only good for slowing down a bullet not stopping one. They were good for deflecting scrap-metal fragments. They were heavy, cumbersome and awkward. In a hundred plus temp, you can only imagine how hot they got. Back then all our utilities were made from cotton, not the newer jungle utilities that would come out later as the war and it infrastructure would improve. Towards the later part of my tour we got Jungle boots and jungle fatigues.

We were constantly moving, very rarely were we at base camp (battalion headquarters). We were in the bush most of the time. We would set up a company patrol base and a platoon patrol base. Most of these would be small hills that would overlook a village or specific set of rice fields that we felt were important to the local landscape. They would also be the “high” ground and made for good defensive positions to defend. One particular village that was a known VC village was named Viem Dong. This was always a hot village to enter or exit from, you were always shot at coming or going. In early November we set up our platoon patrol base over looking this village. The first night we set up, (that means we dug our fighting holes ten feet apart and made a perimeter to defend the top of this hill). Around 11:30 that first night the VC attached us with machine guns, automatic weapons and mortars. We returned fire and had a good twenty-minute firefight. We took no casualties and are not sure if we inflicted any. It was the local house warming committee giving us our welcome party. After that nights welcome wagon visit we redug all out fighting holes to be able to stand up in them and return fire. We would run a security patrol around our perimeter every night to make sure that no large concentration of enemy troops had snuck in during the day. On one of those patrols Cpl. Mike Wilson, who had taken me under his wing and was tutoring me into the rigours of combat, was wounded in the leg. We made a terrible mistake in that we came back the same patrol path we had taken when we departed for the patrol. The rule was you never came back the same route you went out. You changed things up to keep the enemy off guard as to your intended route. Mike was walking point (the lead man) and we walked right into an ambush. Mike was hit in his right leg just below hid knee. I took a bullet in my right side magazine pouch that spun me completely around. I felt bullets passing between my legs and right next to my neck and head. Mike was returning fire even thought he was hit; I finally recovered from the impact and got myself turned around and started firing back. What Mike and I both saw were three large men in Brown uniforms stand up (they were hiding in a trench in front of us) they started firing at us at point blank range. What stood out to me was the size of these guys. Vietnamese are small and have no mass to their bodies, these guys did. After the initial ambush within the first fifteen seconds of any ambush is the killing time and them you dee-dee (run). Mike was the only guy wounded. We were close enough to our company patrol base for them to send out another squad on a tank to reinforce us as we searched the village of Viem Dong.

The route we took crisscrossed the trail leading into this vill. We knew this was a VC village, but were limited in what we could do to drive them out. The vill was silent and no VC were found. It was late night and not easy to search. We already knew that they were long gone. What a VC vill means is, the village is sympatric to the goals of our enemy the VC. The village is working with the local VC to give them information about our movements, strength, numbers and weapons information. They also hide ammunition and weapons for the local VC. They are ignorant when it comes to information about the VC when questioned by us, they know nothing. Other villages would give us information about when the last time the VC came and stole their food and other supplies for their use. The VC would also kill any of the villagers who they knew were giving information to the Americans. We would go out of our way to protect those villages that we knew were friendly to our cause. It was a civil war and most people do not understand that part of the Vietnam War.

Cpl Mike Wilson only missed a few days due to his wound. I went with him later that night to Charlie Med to have his gun shot wound treated. What they did (the bullet had not hit any bone) was take a cleaning rod with an alcohol patch on it and ran it through the wound to clean out any gun powder residue that might have remained and caused an infection. They sewed the entry and exit holes with a couple of stitches put a large band-aid on it and gave Mike a three-day rest at Charlie Med. Charlie-med was a field hospital that was intended as a first stop for serious wounds and a treatment center for minor wounds like Mike had. Later that year the NASA trauma Center would be built and in full operation right across the road from M16 near the original China Beach area. This would become the third best trauma center in the world.

On November 5th we went out on a long-range reinforced patrol. Sgt Cruz was our senior Sgt and seemed to get all the hard (dangerous patrols). He was the go to guy when you knew you were headed for trouble and needed someone experienced. We had gotten a new Sgt. by the name of Sgt. Golden. He was to relieve Sgt Cruz of this patrol and lead it out on the night of November 4th 1965. It would be a reinforced squad sized patrol with two machine gun teams and a sixty-mortar team. I had a secondary MOS as a machine gunner from my time at Quantico. I was told to be the second gun team on this patrol, which I was eager to do. Mike Wilson was to be point man and Sgt. Golden would be squad leader. We were also assigned a new Second Lieutenant who I never did get his name and never saw him again after the Nov 5th patrol. We were briefed that a suspected VC battalion was operation at a road junction in an area called the “Horse Shoe” about six clicks ( a click is a thousand meters on a map) down from Marble Mountain on the South China Sea. We were to intersect them at a certain village at the coordinates we were given. If we made positive contact, we were told not pursue but disengage and a full operation would be then put into operation to engage this battalion. How about that for a briefing. Fourteen guys two machine guns and a mortar tube to find a battalion and not engage them. The question that always arises is, “What if they engage us”? The answer, kiss your ass goodbye!

No one knew who this Sgt. Golden was. He had run a few patrols prior and was not a new guy to the battalion. He had been in some other billet and not attached to a grunt company since the original landing back in March. He appeared to me to be a leader and I was OK with it. We headed out that night at about ten o’clock and headed right down the waters edge of the South China Sea. I was nervous as all get out because my biggest fear was that if we got hit we had the ocean to our left and the enemy to our right. This was not a logical response to an ambush for me.

Finally, we headed inland and Wilson was leading us at a very fast pace. We literally ran through some of the villages we had to go through. We ran across rice fields at night luckily we had only a parcel moon. Imagine walking just below the pace of running with close to seventy pounds of gear on your back from ten at night until five in the morning. At about 3:00 am we stopped to find our bearings and Mike Wilson walked up to me and showed me a can he was holding; it was a large tin can with a bunch of spent shell cartilages dangling from it. It was the local VC noisemaker that would alert any lookout to our arrival. It was set with a trip wire and when you tripped it it would spin and cause the shell casing to bang against the tin can alerting the lookouts to our activity. Mike had tripped and gathered it up in his arms to silence it. As we examined it, we found that it had a hand made VC grenade inside of it. We freaked. Wilson cut the trip wire and immediately dug a shallow hole and buried it. It was obviously a dud and we thank God for that. We finally arrived at what we thought was our trail junction and set up on top of a large sand hill over looking two large trails that met in front of a village. The sun was just starting to break first light. We were right on schedule. I was told to set up my gun to cover the trail junction and wait for any movement. Remember we were to observe not engage. An hour after sun up we started to receive small arms fire and the occasional shot that was off target. This was what we called carnival time when the local VC decided to take a pot shot at us (we were like ducks in a shooting booth at your local fair). About thirty minutes later we were engaged in a full out firefight. I learned something that (I learned a lot that day). In front of me about fifty yards out was a small hut. I saw a guy run out from that hut and run across the road and jump behind a straw stack. As he was running I opened up on him and this made him dive into the straw stack. This was rice straw and used for Water Buffalo food. I’m not sure if I hit him or not. I did not see any weapon on him. But he was running and that made him a target (this was what we called a free fire zone).

What I learned was the enemy had pushed this guy who was probably a farmer out of the hut to draw our fire. By doing this they now knew where our automatic weapons were located. Within in minutes of this incident I became the main target of the engagement. They now had located the machine gun position and were intent on taking it out. Our mortar guys were now firing and I was ducking. I was in a somewhat exposed position and this was not good. Sgt. Golden told me to move the gun to cover our rear as we were taking fire from the front and back of our position. The firing had slowed down somewhat and I made my move to the other side of the sand dune. A Marine by the name of Duchnowski (“Dutch”) took my position. He was an automatic rifleman. He jumped in and I jumped out. The M16 has a carrying handle on the top of the barrel. As I was running towards my new position, I heard a loud shot and I knew what it was. A sniper uses a high-powered rifle and not the AK47 or the M1 carbine like most local VC. Those weapons have a distinct sound to them.
A sniper round has its own sound. The sound is much louder and very distinct. I turned and saw Dutch sink into the hole. I knew he was gone. He took a bullet right through the head. He died instantly. I did not stop, but saw Sgt. Golden run over to Dutch’s hole and begin to drag him out. The corpsman knew as well that he was KIA.

This happened within minutes of me leaving that position. I know that that sniper had me in his sights and intended to take out the machine gun by taking me out.
That sniper must have been sighted in on me and was ready to fire when I moved out of that position. This has always been one of my worst feelings from the
Vietnam War. Why Dutch and not me? I had no time to consider this that day but in the days ahead I would brood over that question, and do still today. Sgt. Golden was crying and hollering Dutch, Dutch. I know it was his first KIA and he felt responsible. He was on the radio now calling in artillery fire to blanket the area around us as we were now fully engaged. We had one KIA and two WIA and beginning to run low on ammo. Sgt. Golden ordered the fire mission and told us to lay low as arty (artillery)was on its way. They always fire a spotting round prior to the main barrage and then adjust the coordinates from that first round. This was a war without any GPS’s. You actually had to know your location on a map and that was tricky. Most of our maps were from the French war and not very accurate.

We never saw or heard that spotter round. We all saw Sgt. Golden on the radio giving new coordinates and talking very fast and furious. The radio man had a look that said it all, “he doesn’t know where we are”. The Company commander back at headquarters cancelled the artillery fire because he did not know our exact location. We were told they had sent two tanks down the South China Sea to reinforce us and withdraw us. Sgt. Golden told Cpl. Wilson, myself and a Marine named Lavelle to make a break for the beach and set up a position, hold it and guide the tanks into us when they arrived. The Tankers did not know our exact location. I learned from this experience to always know your location on a map. Somehow we had gotten off track and were in the wrong location. Wilson, Levelle and I made the break for the trail that would lead us to the beach area a good three thousand yards east of our position. We came under intense enemy fire, within minutes we were pinned down. I honestly do know why I was not killed or wounded. I saw no targets to shoot at. We were low on ammo so I did not want to waste any with unnecessary suppressing fire. Wilson had signaled for us to halt and wait. If we had tried to move towards the beach we would be easy targets. We had moved a good thousand yards away from our patrol position on the little sand dome. About a half hour had passed and we heard what sounded like a fifty caliber machine firing small burst of fire. Wilson jumped up and started waving his arms and we saw two massive hunks of steel (tanks) loaded with Marines coming up the trail towards us. The gunner was firing that fifty at everything that moved. That tank quieted down the enemy firing. We climbed aboard and went straight toward our position. I saw Sgt. Golden waving his arms and standing straight up on that sand hill. The two tanks took position on top of the hill with the barrel of the cannon pitched down towards the village that had been our enemies hiding place. Those tanks have what is called a canister round. It is like a shot-gun shell and shoots out ball bearings and covers a wide area in a single shot. Sgt. Golden was pointing out positions for them to fire at and they did.

Within ten minutes it was all quiet on the western front. All the VC had retreated. We were not to pursue them, that was still our orders. We were to load up our dead and wounded onto the tank and head back to the Marble Mountain to our company area to regroup. I have vivid memories of that day. Duchnowski was wrapped in a poncho and we laid him on the flat back deck of the tank. When we unloaded Dutch for the med-evac to the morgue in Da Nang, we noticed that his arm had been burned due to the heat from the exhaust from the tank. We were all sickened by it, and it added to our agony about Dutch. I waited with Lavelle for the helicopter to come and pick up Dutch’s body. Levelle and I sat in stillness and never said a word to each other while we waited for that helicopter to arrive. When it arrived we gently loaded his body onto the helicopter. The door gunner was sympathetic towards us as he saw tears in our eyes as we loaded our friend onto the floor of his helicopter. We never were told anything about that day, the fire fight that ensued. We were never told who the bad guys were, if they were local VC or crack NVA troops that had moved into the area. We never heard a word from anyone about it. Sgt. Golden was never seen again. He must have been transferred to another billet or platoon. We never knew what happened to him. I’m sad to say that years later Sgt. Golden committed suicide while living in Nevada. “Pop” Levelle’s son was in contact with him many years later doing research for a book he was writing about the Ninth Marines in Vietnam. Duchnowski had two sisters, and after his death both of his sisters joined the Marine Corps and one became a career Marine and retired. I live with a continuing nightmare of riding that tank with our dead and wounded. My nightmare is all of us on that tank are in skeleton form except me. I’m a live flesh and blood person. I wake up many a night with the shakes and sweats riding that tank. It’s been over forty years since that day, but I still dream that horrible dream. I’m told it is due to survivors’ guilt. I am a survivor so I guess I qualify for it.

We were back to normal the next day with regular patrols at night and continued search and destroy operations during the day. A week after we had lost Dutch we were coming back from a clearing operation near a group of villages near what we called the finger lake a known area for VC infiltration and activity. The coastline of Vietnam in the Central Da Nang area was unique in many ways as it had a sea side appearance with beautiful beaches and White sand dunes with Arizona cactus growing in it (due to the terrain we called this area Dodge City). This ocean real estate would abruptly end and you would then enter a maze of rice fields and small villages placed in the center of the surrounding rice fields. This was some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. When you came to the end of the sandy part and entered the rice fields you walked on a sandy ledge that dropped into the rice fields. This was the way you entered the village of Viem Dong, my favorite VC held village. As we were approaching the village of Viem Dong we surprised four VC regulars setting up an ambush for us. They were using the same trench that they had used to ambush us when Wilson was hit in the leg. The lead elements of our patrol had caught them with their pants down. Lavelle and Apache (who were point men for the patrol) caught them with weapons slung over their shoulders digging firing position and escape routs in the trench line. Lavelle and Apachie open up on them and killed two of them instantly, the other two took off running across the rice fields and others behind them were able to catch them in a cross fire and kill them. By the time I came up on line as I was a machine gunner on this patrol the action was already over. We had four dead VC by body count. This is important, because the VC always drag their dead off the battle field and leave no bodies for us to count. What we often find after an in tense firefight were blood trails where they had drug their dead off the battlefield. This was a tactic that was to demoralize us by not letting us know how many we killed or wounded. They used meat hooks to drag their dead and wounded away. They would get the local villagers to bury them later and with threats of torture if they told the Americans where the bodies were buried. We had four real dead VC with full field gear and weapons. One had a M1 Grand 7.62 MM rifle the one used in WWll by the Americans, the other was a French 9MM blow-back automatic weapon with a magazine that held twenty rounds. The other two weapons were the M1 Carbine. Two of them carried pistols and grenades. We also found on them packs of cool-aid. It appears they did not like the water either.

War does something to your sense of morality. It distorts it and brings out all that is wrong with the human psyche. When I first arrived in Vietnam the Vietnamese were not my enemy, they were the enemy of the United States government. I had no reason to view them as personal enemies. I was following orders from my government to fight them and keep South Vietnam free from communist oppression. After a few months, it changes, you become personally involved with the enemy. He has now truly become your enemy and you become enraged at him for what he has done to your fellow Marines and friends. It’s like a sporting event when two teams begin the game they are simply rival teams but when the intensity of the games increases and cheap shots begin to happen you get angry and start to want revenge. At some point, you actually want to hurt the other players. In some sports like hockey that can even become part of the design of the game. War brings this emotional response to a much higher level and what you under normal circumstances would never consider doing you are now capable of committing.

Anger was building in all of us. We had seen and experienced the brutality of combat and the scars of it were building. I am not proud to say that I had succumbed to this state of depravity myself, but I did. As we were searching the dead VC soldiers for paperwork, weapons and any other usable information. I drug one of the dead VC up against a rice paddy dyke. I told Apache who had shot him that I wanted to see the exit wound that his M14 had made in him. So, we rolled him over and saw a gaping hole in his back with parts of his lung having been blown out through his back. I asked Apache whom I greatly admired what he though a 45 cal pistol round would make in him. I then proceeded to shot the dead body with my 45 pistol. I only shot once and he was already dead (which does not take away from the brutality of what I did). Yes, it made a rather large hole upon exiting the human body. Years later I would spend a lot of time in counselling over that ludicrous, inhuman act of violence. No one knows how they will react to the horrors of war and the crimes it makes us commit against our fellow man. It proved to me my utter depravity as a human being. This would be something that I would struggle with, but yet understand. It helped me to understanding the lowest state of the human personality. War brings out the worst and yet the best in the human soul. Acts of bravery and acts of moral break down all stem from the same source. Like the tree in the Garden of Eden we contain both the knowledge (or capacity) for good or evil.

That next day a general came out to congratulate us on the fine job we had done in catching the VC in the open and securing a good body count. For us it was simply pay-back for Duchnowski. One more memorial even was my sex education in Vietnam. Later in November we were back in an ambush position over looking the village of Viem Dong. It was early morning around 3:00am we were over looking the village from the high ground of the sand dunes. We began to hear horrible screaming. It sounded like someone was being tortured. This went on for some time and Sgt. Cruz told Wilson, me and Levelle to go down and find out what all the screaming was about. We very carefully entered the village and followed our ears to the sounds of the torture. It was coming from a small hut. We could see that candles had been lit inside and other than the screaming no one was doing much of anything but watching this young girl scream. We opened the hut door and to our surprise we found nothing but women inside. We had entered the birthing room of the village. A young woman was giving birth and the village mid-wives were helping her with the birth. What apparently had happened was it was a breach birth and the baby would not turn. Somehow Levelle knew this. He was in his mid thirties and a veteran of the Korean war. He had also seen women give birth (his sons). We had what was called a Prick 6 (no joke intended) which was a small hand help radio that we could call our radio man on, but it was only capable of short distances and was never used for long range communications. We got ahold of our corpsman and informed him of our situation and Sgt. Cruz order him to come down into the village and help deliver the baby. Our corpsman was a Navy corpsman by the name of Doc, Brooks, which I would many years later reacquaint myself with and travel together to several 9th Marine reunions. Well, Doc Brooks had never delivered a baby and I’m sure the subject was never covered in combat trauma medical school. I had to go up and get doc and bring him into the hut. Somehow with the help of the midwives and doc Brooks ability to administer Morphine that baby was born. It was a girl. I had never seen anything like that before and I saw it all. That young girl could have not been more that seventeen years of age. We saw the head emerge from the birth canal and all that goes with it. It was high energy for sure. We left momma and the baby with the village midwives and returned to our ambush site and we went back to our platoon patrol base, never ever wanting to have sex again. I can honestly say that my real sex education was taught in the village of Viem Dong, south of Da Nang.