When you are in the Marine Corps, the very first thing that you learn is to follow orders. There are some very good reasons for this, not the least of which it may save your life and, since you are you brother’s keeper, it may save his life as well. In combat it is not a good time to ask your officer if you can do it “your way” or not at all. But, there are orders and then there are “orders”.
In 1969 and 1970, when I was in Vietnam, I had never seen or heard of bottled water. Maybe the French had Perrier but I had never heard of it. If you were lucky enough to be in a rear area you had water to drink. I have no idea where the water came from and I don’t think I really wanted to know, badly enough, that I would have ever asked. Since it was so hot, you really had to drink something to keep hydrated. We drank coke, warm beer, if we were lucky enough to be close to an LZ (landing zone) where they brought it in, or anything else that we could find that was not H2O. We also had mess halls where we had hot food and hot coffee. We all know that coffee has a pretty strong flavor but even the coffee could not mask the strong chemical flavor that was present in the water. In fact, it tasted so bad that I could not drink the coffee, even though I have always been a strong coffee fan. The water that we had in our camps was chemically treated to make it safe to drink. You just did not want to drink it if there was an alternative.
In the field, you would usually carry a couple of canteens of water and if you were “humping it” over hill and dale you really had to drink the water. It almost tasted good when you were really sweaty and 98 degrees and 90 percent humidity spells “sweaty”. When the canteens were empty, and this did not usually take too long, it was necessary that they be refilled and this is where we were told that we MUST add our little water purification tablets, the little reddish ones, to the water that we would find in the field. It was not usually hard to find the water – it was everywhere. There were rice paddies, rivers, streams and even little vills (villages) and towns where we could sometimes get some water from the villagers. There were even some ingenious kids that would sell us a cold Coke for a dollar. There was no electricity out there but they would find a CO2 container and spray the can with the gas, which would make it instantly cold. Believe me; you were happy to pay the dollar to get the cold drink.
We still needed the water and those water purification tablets were really vile. They contained iodine and if you have never tasted iodine, I suggest that you not try it. They made the chemically treated water in our camp taste great by comparison.
This is where my contrary nature and my subtle insubordination led me to ask myself if I really wanted to use those water purification tablets or if there was an alternative. As I look around at the Vietnamese villagers I did not see them using them. Maybe they had built up resistance to the germs that must be present in the water but they seemed to do OK without the little pills?
It would be nice if we could have stayed in camp and drank coke or beer but we also had to do Marine things. This meant that in addition to rotating guard duty at night in the bunkers that usually surrounded your base camp or static position, you also were called upon, from time to time, to go on day patrols and night patrols or KTs (killer teams) as we called them. There were also longer combat assignments, which could last a day or a month, and these were called operations or Ops. The Marines do not sit in camp and wait for the enemy to come to them or to find them but; rather, we take a more aggressive stance which means that we were out looking for the enemy.
We were on a day patrol one day in the area surrounding our base camp. There were about 10 of us and we had no specific goal other than to search the area and see if we encountered any enemy. I really relished the chance to get out and look around a bit. Oh, did I mention, it was really a hot day? The areas that we were patrolling were south of our base camp and it was largely agricultural. There were huge rice paddies that I would guess covered several hundred acres. The area was relatively flat and there were dikes that surrounded these paddies. They were probably not over three feet higher than the paddies but they effectively contained the water so that the rice would flourish. These dikes separated the various paddies and they were square in configuration. There were not really any roads or trails that crossed these large areas so if you wanted to get from one place to another, diagonal across this area, you had your choice, either you could skirt the area and walk on the dikes or you could cut across the paddies diagonally and get pretty wet in the process. Sometimes you want to avoid the easy way as there could be mines or booby traps but we took the easy option this day. We walked around on the dikes so we would not get wet.
We skirted a rice paddy and came out onto a dirt road that passed through a small village. There were half a dozen small houses. Along the road were standing all the villagers that were there to greet us as we passed though. I did not get the feeling that they were happy to see us. We were in full combat gear, including flak jackets, and the least that we all carried in the way of weapons were our trusty M-16s. One of my buddies was carrying a belt fed M-60 machine gun. I am pretty sure that they felt intimidated by our presence. As we passed by this line of villagers there was a dog standing in the line and he was barking like we were the worst enemy that he had ever seen. I don’t know what the breed of the dog was but he looked like a small Shepard type dog. There was saliva dripping from his mouth. I felt a whim of regret at this moment, for both the dog and the villagers, as it was obvious that they were terrified.
One of the female villagers came forward to me and asked if we would like a drink of water. I did not know how to answer as we still had water in our canteens and I was not sure just exactly what kind of water she was offering. She asked me again and pointed to a well that was not 20 feet behind her. My buddies and I all followed her and saw a round stone paved well that was about six feet in diameter and only about 15 to 20 feet deep. At the bottom of the well was a spring of flowing water. We all knew that we were not supposed to drink this water without adding that little insidious water purification tablet…but it looked so inviting. As I turned around and looked behind me I noticed that there was a very large water buffalo standing in a rice paddy no more than 30 feet away. Is it possible that the effluent could be draining into and polluting the well?
The lady that had offered us the water took a wooden bucket that was attached to a rope and lowered it into the well. When she raised the rope the bucket was about half full. At a time like this one must make a command decision. I opted to drink the water, as did all my buddies on this day. I felt like I was indulging in the most decadent sin on the face of the earth but I must say that the sweet, cold water was the greatest reward that I had in many a day.