This is a time of the year that I call the “season of the siege.” Memories of Khe Sanh in 1967-1968 always flood my mind, but in the winter and early spring of every year the memories infest me with louder shouts from the ghosts of my history.
Those ghosts showed up to bother my memories yesterday when I read a piece from Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II titled, Brave Men. In his books about that war, Pyle rarely mentioned generals and admirals, politicians, global strategy. He stuck to the mundane inconveniences, joys and heartaches encountered by the snuffy, the grunt, the flyboy, the squid, the dogface. Particularly interesting to me was Pyle’s reference to candles, specifically to the need for candles on the Anzio beachhead just south of Rome, Italy, in early 1944.
In Vietnam, we needed candles, too, so I suddenly felt an affinity with those men trapped in Kesselring’s Steel Ring that surrounded the American 5th Army at Anzio. Sure, the very fact that I went through boot camp, got shot at by the enemy, shot at the enemy, slept in the mud and rain, lived in a hole in the ground, provides plenty of common experience with the warriors at Anzio. But that need for candles, that mundane luxury, and it was a luxury, puts our—theirs and mine—shared misery and fear on a footing so common and un-heroic that it makes me smile just thinking of it.
Candles were necessary and important because they allowed us to see in our hooches. We had no electrical power, we had no barracks, we had no lights dangling down from the sandbagged roofs of those holes we chiseled out of the hard, red ground of Khe Sanh.
We wanted light to read by and to fix our C-ration meals and to see the faces of the other men we were talking to. I don’t recall if the Marine Corps provided candles. They provided C-rations and chocolate and Big Hunk bars, they provided cigarettes and toilet paper and matches and heat tabs. But I don’t recall candles.
In my experience, the candles I burned on Hills 881S and 861 and at the Khe Sanh Combat Base came from my mother. A variety of candles, but mostly white, long and thin, tapered and not much bigger around than my thumb.
When packages from home didn’t show up due to weather or some other factor, we had to figure out how to manufacture our own candles. We learned the hard way not to throw out those mounds of spent candle wax that looked like the remains of lava that had run into a flat spot and pooled. After some nights of dark—the hooches were dark most of the time—without candlelight, we learned to save our spent candle wax so that we could make replacements.
The candles we made were never as effective as the ones we got from home, but they served in a pinch. I have clear images of two of us Marines bent over in the fluttering light of our last candle, with a thread from a piece of Marine Corps green canvas or two or three threads from a jungle dungaree entwined to create a wick, melting our stash of old wax so we could construct a new source of light.
Besides candles, mail from home brought us socks and books and Chapstick and goodies from our mothers’ kitchens. My mother and her friends sent me a lot of packages with so much stuff, I had plenty of goodies to spread around…cookies and hand-dipped bonbons and brownies, to name a few delights.
And after the siege heated up in February 1968, those packages became scarce and when they did arrive, they came in bunches and often the cookies were moldy and the candles had been taken out of our packages…by whom, we never knew.
As I look back on it now, what was more important to me, and probably a lot of the Americans and their allies at Khe Sanh, were the letters from our parents and our wives and our friends. Their expressions of love and concern helped harden our resolve to survive the horror of the siege.
The last month of my tour in Vietnam, I was charged with traveling up from the trenches to the company office to collect the mail for 2nd Platoon. I carried a red box that was full of letters written by Marines and Corpsmen in our platoon to someone back home. When I arrived at the office, I delivered the outgoing mail and picked up whatever was there for the men in our platoon. Since the mail arrived in fits and starts, sometimes if took me multiple trips across that deadly no-man’s land, so to speak, between the relative safety of our positions and where I picked up the mail.
The company office was an underground bunker that housed the Company 1st Sergeant and the office clerks. We usually met and gathered the mail in a big tent that was set up over the bunker. There was a hole that led down into the bunker from the tent.
I remember once, when I was diddy-bopping down the trench after sipping coffee and shooting the moose with some 2nd Platoon buddies, something slammed down onto the top of my helmet and jarred my head down into my neck. This was a feeling that wasn’t unusual, since all the times I had to traverse from trench to office I often found myself having to dive behind some kind of structure or into a hole with the arrival of mortars or rockets or artillery rounds. A lot of those times, I ended up jamming my helmet into a sandbag abutment or the wall of a fighting hole. After recovering from my initial shock, I saw that it was Staff Sergeant Alvarado, the platoon sergeant, who had bonked me on the head with that red mail box.
He said something to the effect, “It’s way past mail call, Rodgers.”
I was very familiar with Staff Sergeant Alvarado since I was his radio operator. He was a good NCO and did a fine job of helping lead 2nd Platoon. But right then, he’d gotten into my craw, and me, always looking for an appropriate moment to challenge authority, ripped into him about what he could and couldn’t do to me. I remember yelling at him that he could write me up or remove me from my duties, but he was not to ever touch me, hit me or assault me in any way. Of course, the vernacular of Khe Sanh required that I throw in more expletives than normal words, but I won’t go into those details here.
And to Staff Sergeant Alvarado’s credit, the only thing he did was grimace like I’d stung him in some way. I grabbed the mail box and off I went, highly irritated and not without some remorse for not doing my duty in the first place.
After the Payback Patrol of 3/30/1968, I remember (because I was so “short” I could walk underneath a short-legged table) taking my replacement up to that tent over the company office to get the mail. Men from all of the platoons were there, sitting around with piles of mail and a clerk in the middle calling out names of addressees. Bravo Company had so many casualties by that time—way over one-hundred dead and wounded—that it was hard to know who was where and who was alive or in Danang at the hospital or on a hospital ship or rotated back to the States.
Of all the things I recall about my time in Vietnam, this incident stands out in my memory. We hadn’t had mail for quite some time and all of a sudden piles were available and each platoon had a goodly heap of letters and packages, but the biggest mound was for the Marines not there.
As we were sorting the mail this way, three rocket rounds swooshed in and exploded outside. I had been in Vietnam longer than any of the other Marines sitting around that tent, and like a snake escaping a raptor, I was across the deck and down that chute into the bunker where the office was.
The top sergeant ordered me to get out, and for a second I felt like ripping into him for being a pogue and hiding down in that hole while us snuffies fought the war. But I didn’t. I climbed out and collected the mail, and along with my replacement, carried all that mail to 2nd Platoon.
When I got home, my mother was asking me if I got this, and if I got that, and no, I hadn’t, and since I was gone from the nightmare of that misunderstood war, I hoped that someone down there in 2nd Platoon ended up with my goodies and my white socks and my candles.
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