By Paul Cox
In 1968, draft notice in hand, I joined the Marines. Since the Marine dress blue uniforms are the best looking, my addled teenage brain reasoned that they must be the best. So I joined on the basis of a fashion preference. Six months later, me and the other 71 volunteers in my boot camp platoon were shipped to Vietnam (the 8 draftees who were shoved into the short-handed Marines were all made clerks–much to their relief).
I spent 10 months in the area of South Vietnam just south of the DMZ, humping jungled mountains, eating c-rations when we could get resupply, burning up or shivering depending on the monsoons, and basically functioning as bait. We did not know where the enemy was, but when they jumped on the bait, the theory was we could bring our endless and massive firepower down on their heads. Sometimes worked, mostly didn’t. But we had 250-500-1,000 pound bombs, white phosphorus, napalm, 20mm cannons, and snake-eye missiles delivered by fighter bombers; B-52’s flying in from Guam, each dumping 60,000 of high explosives; 4,000 rounds/minute miniguns–four at a time–from AC-47 ‘Spooky’ aircraft; fifty-caliber machineguns and 90mm cannons on hundreds of tanks; thousands of armored personnel carriers; 105, 155, and 175 mm howitzers firing from hundreds of firebases; and 16-inch naval guns–to name a few toys at our beck and call.
On the ground, we carried a minimum of 20 magazines with 18 rounds each for our M16s, several grenades, mortar rounds for the mortar team, machine gun rounds for the machine gun team, claymores, M-79 grenade launchers, and sometimes a side arm. We could tear up some SERIOUS countryside. But finding the enemy was infrequent unless he wanted to be found. Then he would say what he had to say and split before, say, naval gunfire could be brought to bear. It made wandering the jungle a risky thing. We had choppers that brought us to the scene, resupplied, if not our every need, all that we had, and carried us, our wounded and our dead from the battlefield.
The enemy–the few times we could evaluate him–carried maybe two magazines of ammo for his AK-47, one or two grenades, a blanket, and a few balls of rice. He also used his mortars effectively, so presumably had to carry a few rounds for the mortar team. He and all that he had walked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail on bicycles rigged to carry as much as 500 pounds of goods.
In spite of these obvious large discrepancies, the NVA acquitted themselves well, getting the drop on us far more often than we did them.
By the end of 1969, Nixon’s Vietnamization was starting to drain US troops from the country, and that unit was sent back to Okinawa. I transferred to another unit west of DaNang, and for the last 2 months of my tour I became a clerk. In the rear with the beer and the gear was a substantially easier gig than being a grunt, so, I extended my tour for 6 months thinking I would just stay in Nam until my enlistment was over. I came home on leave to see my folks and by the time I got back to Vietnam, that unit had been withdrawn. I found my records with a third unit. Unfortunately, they did not make me a clerk again; I was sent back to a grunt unit, where as a newly minted sergeant, I was again made a squad leader.
This was a very different war. Instead of fighting North Vietnamese regulars in unpopulated mountains, we were in the rice paddies and low hills, confronted with Viet Cong irregulars–farmers by day and fighters by night. They wore standard peasant clothes, lived in the villages, farmed the rice, and looked like the peasants they were. They were fighting for their land, the land that was the only means of sustenance for their families, the land that greedy landlords were trying to claim, the land where their ancestors were buried. They had even fewer resources than their NVA allies, so they did not confront us directly—at least during the 6 months that I was there. Instead, they would occasionally snipe at us, but mostly they put out boobytraps that made it much more dangerous step for step than the jungle.
In areas the South Vietnamese government could not control, they and the US took the position that we must remove the civilians from the potential influence of the VC so that the only ones left will be the commies. If that sounds fishy, it was. Saigon had 300,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the war in 1960; by 1975 it had 3 million internal refugees, and the same ratios held for all cities in SVN. In addition, 32,000 ‘strategic hamlets’ were created throughout the countryside that were essentially prison camps for displaced peasants, surrounded by barbed wire and gun towers. In the meantime, their homes, 10 to 40 miles away, had been declared ‘free fire zones’—anyone living there was presumed to be VC or VC sympathizer.
Our operations were called ‘Pacification’. In those areas we rounded up civilians, put them on trucks or choppers to be sent to strategic hamlets, destroyed their villages, killed their livestock, and poisoned their wells. I was disgusted. President Johnson had said were there to help our allies in the south resist the marauding hordes from North Vietnam, and while I was along the DMZ our activities appeared to conform to that mandate. Down in the paddies near Danang, however, it was a very different scene. It all came to a head for me on April 15, 1970, when a squad in my platoon took it upon themselves to gun down 15 unarmed civilians once they had been informed by the company commander that we were in a free fire zone. When the company commander did not react negatively, nor did any of the other officers, I suddenly realized that killing civilians was not considered outside normal operations. There was even an investigation by Naval Intelligence after some survivors filed a complaint with the government—but nothing came of it. I will not forget, nor will I ever forgive the Marine Corps for its easy ability to ignore war crimes. As a young man, I trusted that our leaders from the president on down were doing the right thing, then I found out that they had no idea what they were doing other than giving young men guns and teaching us to kill.