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Soft Targets - Part Two
By Joseph Giannini
Quang Tri Combat Base
Feb. 3, 1968
Delta Company is OpCon to the First Air Cav. Why? beats. me. Means we'll get to use their Army artillery and choppers. New Hueys, we call them Slicks. Most important, hot chow in the field. And we'll be leaving the Quang Tri Combat Base. A welcome hus from the incessant rocket and mortar attacks.
Delta's first mission, assigned to the Cav, will be a Search and Destroy through the foothills west of the Base. The mission: to push the VC and NVA beyond their rocket and mortar range.
Dark, just before dawn. Delta Company boards the 10 Slicks lined up on the airstrip. Onboard, I face forward. Brace my back against a bulkhead. Hang my right leg out the open hatch. The Slicks lift off. Cool air rushes over me. The sun rises behind us as our formation flies west into a sea of foothills. Beyond them, dark green mountains shrouded in grey clouds, and the Khe Sanh Combat Base, where 5,000 Marines and ARVN Rangers are fighting off 20,000 NVA.
We chopper into a cold LZ. Jump off the hovering Slicks. Fan out to establish a perimeter. Still no enemy fire. We move out in a V formation heading west: Delta One and Delta Three abreast followed by Delta Two and the Headquarters Group.
Shortly after I joined Delta Company, several Marines took me aside. They knew of my rep. Trusted me. Were giving me a heads up. They planned to kill their Company Commander, Captain Hendricks. They were just waiting for the right moment.
I knew that Hendricks, who was known as Mad Dog, had been relieved of his first company command after one of his platoons made an unauthorized water run in the DMZ, or Dead Marine Zone. They were ambushed by the NVA while refilling their canteens. Seventeen Marines were killed. The platoon leader was also relieved of duty and Court Martialed. Captain Hendricks was given a second chance with Delta Company. He was unpredictable. Lacked command presence. Would get upset over nothing. Go off at the mouth. Couldn't make decisions. Blood in the air as Grunts circled, waiting.
As acting XO, second in command, I'm able to get Hendricks aside, give him a warning.
"Captain, stay in the center of the Company with the Headquarters Group. I'll move around, check the lines at night, report back."
He looks at me for a few seconds before responding. "O.K. Lieutenant."
Delta humps through hills covered with low scrub. Mid-afternoon, my platoon finds a hidden cache of 60mm mortar rounds. Our Combat Engineers blow the rounds in place. As the sun starts to set on the mountains to our west, Delta moves onto high ground to set up and dig in. The night passes without any enemy activity. But our own Harassment and Interdiction fire keeps us awake most of the night.
The next morning is overcast. Grey mist hugs the earth. Delta moves northwest through a steady drizzle. We're in a combat column. Delta One is point. I follow with Delta Three. Captain Hendricks is with Delta Two. In the rear, out of sight.
Mid-morning, the drizzle stops. Delta One moves onto the crest of a small hill. There is a village across a large stream to our left. I'm just starting up the hill with my platoon. Boom! Boom! I duck. Freeze. A large piece of gray shrapnel spins by to my left. I follow its flight. See several villagers running. Guilty knowledge taking flight: Delta One has hit two land mines.
From the crest of the hill, "Corpsman up! Corpsman up!"
I yell down the line to my Marines, "Stay in place. Face outboard. This could be an ambush."
I can't see the crest. Won't move up to take a look. Can't risk setting off other mines. My R.O. says Delta Six wants to speak to me. I take the radio handset.
"Delta Six, Delta Three Actual. Over."
"Lieutenant, move up to Delta One immediately. Give me a situation report. Out."
"Yes Sir, Out."
Fuck. Why can't Delta One Actual give Six a situation report?
I tell my R.O. to stay put. I'll use Delta One's radio. I start to ascend. Looking for hidden wires. Also for rocks or broken branches arranged in unnatural patterns. Then looking down at each step I take.
I slowly move up. Reach the crest. The situation: to my right, seven Marines down. Serious shrapnel wounds, mostly to the lower body. Delta One Actual is standing off to my left. Facing away. I approach.
"Rob." No response. He continues to face away.
"Rob." Still no response. I reach with my left hand. Grab his left shoulder. He turns to me. Tears streaking his soiled face.
"Joe, I can't do this anymore. I won't take them one more step."
He falls to his knees. Wraps his arms around my legs. Rests his head against my stomach. I put my left hand on his right shoulder. Hold him firmly. Bow my head. Tears crease my own dirty face. His R.O. approaches to my right.
"Delta Six wants to speak to Lieutenant Giannini." I raise Rob to his feet. Release my grip. Take the handset.
"Delta Six this is Delta Three Actual. Over."
"Lieutenant, what's going on up there? Over."
"We're in a minefield. Seven priorities. Over."
"Lieutenant, what do you suggest? Over."
"We can't go forward. Get Slicks to lift us out of here. Over."
"I can't get Slicks. Over."
"Then we'll have to retrace our steps. We might be walking into an ambush. Over."
"Two Medevacs are on the way. Let me know when the wounded are on board. Six out."
"Yes, sir. Out."
"Rob, get your men ready to load the wounded onto Medevacs. We're moving off this hill. Your platoon will be tail-end Charlie."
He nods. Walks slowly into the midst of his downed Marines. I turn and move cautiously to the nearest one. He's lying prone on his poncho. On a slight incline, his head downhill. Tilted back. He's calm. The morphine has kicked in. I kneel down beside his right shoulder. Face his lower body. His jungle trousers have been mostly blown away. Each leg a color abstract. Torn slabs of white gristle. Torn slabs of red muscle. Broken, protruding bones.
I say to myself, "This isn't real. It's plastic and rubber." An attempt to suppress my emotions. Control getting sick.
"Marine, you'll be off this hill shortly. On your way back to The World.
"Sir, can I have some water?"
I look him over. Make sure he doesn't have any stomach or belly wounds. Then remove my canteen from my web belt and unscrew the top. He remains calm. His head still tilted back. I slowly pour water through his slightly parted lips.
"What's your name, Marine?"
"Bell Sir, Corporal Bell."
"Where you from, Bell?"
"Ocean City, Maryland, Sir."
Whomping to our east. I look up. Two Medevacs approaching fast.
"Bell, the Medevacs are coming in. Hold tight. We'll be moving you, O.K.?"
The first Medevac swoops down to the hill. Hovers about three feet off the ground. Trying not to set off other mines. I suppress my fear. We have to move. Bell is the furthest from the chopper. He'll be the last one out. Four men carry, then lift each wounded Marine onto the hovering chopper. The first one takes on board four. Then rises fast.
The second chopper comes in. Hovers in the same spot. Two more wounded are carried over. Then lifted aboard. We pick up Bell. His head is still back. He's still calm. We run with him toward the Medevac. Lift to put him aboard. His head goes forward. Then falls back. His eyes now locked wide open. Blood draining from his face. He's turning white. Saw his mangled legs. Going into shock. The chopper rises, and he's gone in a swirl of dust.
Fearing each moment, fearing each movement, we cautiously backtrack off the hill. The village, now to our right, is deserted. The villagers think we'll be coming for revenge. We call it Payback.
We make it out of the area without setting off any other mines or booby traps. Move west five clicks. Set up our Company perimeter. Dig in for the night. It passes without enemy activity. Next day Delta moves west six clicks without incident.
That evening we chopper back to Quang Tri Combat Base. We're setting into our Company Area when Battalion radios down. They give me a new mission. Tomorrow I'll go back out with my platoon and a section of 81mm mortars to establish a Combat Base in Indian Territory. Battalion intends to use the 81s as counter fire against enemy rocket and mortar attacks. I'm hoping we're not bait.
Joseph Giannini served in 'Nam, with First Battalion Third Marines, 1967-1968. Victim of Agent Orange. Writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.