I arrived at Hill 55, south of Danang, and while I had been trained as a 0351 (infantry with a specialty of 106 recoilless rifle, flame thrower and 3.5 rocket) I still did not know where I was going. My unit had been assigned to cover a large area surrounding Danang and I could be assigned to any of these places. Prior to my joining the company, the 26th Marines had held Khe Sanh during the North Vietnam siege and so I was becoming part of a group that had a significant combat record.
When I arrived at camp and I checked into the Kilo Company Office, which was part of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, I was assigned a temporary barracks to sleep in and sent to the supply barracks. I was given all the camouflage clothes that we wore in Vietnam, a pair of leather boots with green canvas sides and holes near the sole to allow the water to drain out should we walk through some water. We were also issued a flak jacket with panels to protect us from hostile fire, a helmet and a lot of other stuff including an M16A1, multiple clips and bandoleers so that we could load and carry several hundred rounds at a time. All of our official Marine uniforms were stored in Supply until such time as we were to go home or leave for R&R (rest and recreation). We had no official duties until we joined our new unit. It seemed like the first thing that happened, even before being assigned to a regular unit, was that I was given a promotion to PFC (private first class). The Marines are very slow to promote, and I was still a private (the lowest rank) when I came to Vietnam. Our commanders felt that I had trained, come this far, and that I deserved to be promoted as a first step in my tour. I think that all that were new to our unit received this reward (and a little extra pay). We also got a combat pay bonus for being in Vietnam.
In the states it was always very important that your boots were shined and your uniform was cleaned and pressed. My first observation was that if you had just arrived, like I had, your uniform was new and your boots were very shinny. As I looked around at the others in camp, I observed that no one shined their boots. The finish wore off of the leather and they became a whitish gray color. The uniforms were clean but faded. You really wanted to look like a “salt” and not a “boot” (new person in-country).
I was given my assignment and was transported to the Esso Plant via jeep by the same guy that had brought me to camp just a couple of days before. I learned that our company, since the conclusion of the last Operation, had been given static positions in and around Danang to guard and patrol and that the Esso Plant was one of these. While we had different names for our gas and oil companies in the United States, Esso was one of the European gas companies. I was just a little nervous when I observed that there were 4 or 5 huge tanks at the area that we were assigned to protect and that these contained gasoline. To my knowledge, no one ever tried to hit this plant, though it would have been an easy target. I can only assume that the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnam Army) needed the gasoline, too. I was in the Weapons Platoon, which was part of the infantry. We did not have the specific weapons that I had been trained on for my MOS. I carried my M16 to assist me in my new occupation. Even though I had trained for six months there were quite a few things that I had to learn and become adjusted to because I did not know the routine. Our lieutenant at the new location was the first to greet me. After I dropped off my gear he told me that I was to have guard duty at the entrance to our camp. This was the road that I had come up on to get to the plant.
I said to our lieutenant, “What do you want me to do at the gate?”
He said, “Stand guard and check everyone’s ID. Don’t let anyone in if they are not a Marine or don’t have proper ID.”
I was a little apprehensive but said, “OK.”
In the next hour there were a couple of trucks that came and went and since they were Marine vehicles, I had no problems with my new duties. Then, I noticed that 4 Vietnamese civilians were approaching the camp. I asked them for ID. They spoke very little English and what they did speak was broken. They pointed into the camp and said something about coming in. They had no ID. I would not let them enter. Finally, another Marine saw my plight and came over to the gate. He said I should let them in. They entered the camp and walked over to a pile of garbage that was about 100 meters away. They climbed up onto the pile and began rummaging through everything. They began collecting food, clothes or whatever else had been discarded and putting it into bags that they had brought. I wished that this had all been explained to me before my first guard duties began but sometimes we must learn the hard way.
I was given a cot in an old reinforced concrete, French bunker. This was my new home. Not only did we sleep here but we also had guard duty looking out the open widow areas. These faced towards the China Sea, which was south of us. We also had guard duty from a bunker back towards the hills behind us. These faced north. We had to watch the whole area. But, there were others to share this duty. I was impressed with the ethnic diversity of our group. We had quite a few blacks but the person that I was most often on guard duty with was from Puerto Rico. We also had a guy that was from Panama. He spoke perfect English and, in one of our conversations, I asked him how he had become a Marine since he was from Panama. He told me that he had joined because he wanted to be a citizen as he had friends in the US and this seemed like the easiest way. At 6 feet tall and 170 pounds I was a little taller than average but my Panamanian friend was about 2 inches taller than I and probably out weighed me by 30 pounds. I didn’t know anyone else from Panama, but he was not what I would have guessed they would typically look like. As fellow Marines, I considered them all my brothers.
I had only been at my new assignment for about a week when I had to face another new experience. A sniper was shooting at my Puerto Rican friend and me as we were on duty – and it was during broad daylight! The shots were not very loud as the shooter must have been a considerable distance away. We heard a rather faint bang but that was after we heard the bullets zing by us. It did not sound like any other shot that I had ever heard but it was the first time that I had a bullet directed at me.
Behind our camp, to the North, the hills were very steep. In the time that I was there I never went on patrol or hiked up in these areas. The only people I saw walking up there were Vietnamese women. We would usually see two or three in a group, almost every day and they would hike up the hillside. We would not see them again until they came down hours later in the early evening. Tied to their backs would be a huge bundle of twigs that they had spent the whole day gathering. These bundles would be higher than their heads and reach all the way down to their buttocks. They would be fastened tightly and I would guess weighed a fair amount even though the individual twigs were quite small. I was told that they used these twigs for cooking in some kind of stoves.
The day that the sniper was shooting at us there were no women on the hillside. We immediately ducked for cover and looked up into the hills where the shots must have come from. We could see no one. My buddy ran back to the big bunker behind us and our officer in charge, a 2nd Lt., came to where we were stationed and looked up the hillside with binoculars. We had seen no sign of the sniper and neither did he. The officer called one of the other Marines up from our French bunker and he brought a LAW (light anti-tank weapon). He was directed by our officer to fire the rocket at a rock outcropping up on the hillside where the shots must have originated. There was no sniper where the rocket was fired and I got the impression that our officer did not really believe us that we had been fired upon. However, the officer said that all was now ok and we could go about our duties. My friend and I continued to be on guard duty but we lay low for the rest of the day, as we did not want to give anyone another shot at us.
I went on my first night patrol or KT (killer team) just a couple of days later. There were six of us, all from our same unit and when it was dark we all slowly walked down the hillside towards the China Sea. There were a lot of rules that you had to remember while on patrol but these were all things that we had practiced in our training in ITR and Staging Battalion. One of these informal laws was that you had to keep a good spacing between each person or, “don’t bunch up”, as we were told. Another was to be very quiet and not talk as voices travel and will warn the enemy that you were coming. I tried to remember all the various rules as I went on my first patrol. As we went down the steep hillside we did not see or hear any other people. As we reached the bottom of the hill there was a railroad track that we walked beside in an easterly direction. It was skirting the bay. I looked behind me and saw that the rail line emerged from a tunnel. I was pretty sure that no one would want to go in there at night as it would have been just a little too easy for the enemy to hide in there and we would be sitting ducks if we entered. As we walked along the tracks, suddenly there was a sizzling sound and a burst of light. Our guy on point (the one that led the way) had hit a trip wire and a trip flare had been lit. Suddenly the whole area was lit up. There, sitting in front of us, were another group of Marines and they had set up the device because they knew that we were coming and they wanted to see if they could surprise us. Well, they sure surprised me, as this was my very first night patrol.
We continued to serve on rotating guard duty and continued to go on various patrols, though none were quite like the first. Finally, after about a month we were told that we were going to rotate to a new static position, Hai Van Pass. I was told that this area was a major infiltration route from the North. It was higher up in the hills than the Esso Plant and was further North, but still overlooking the China Sea.