As I write this blog, the date is June 7, 2014. Recognition of the date leads me to ponder a June 7 forty-seven years ago.
Not long after returning from Vietnam in April, 1968, I was cruising the streets of my home town with one of my high school friends who looked at me and said, “Rodgers, you could fall in a bucket of manure and come out smelling like a rose.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to that comment but now I remember thinking that, yeah, I’d been lucky in my life.
During the Siege of Khe Sanh I was one of the lucky members of Bravo Company. I didn’t go out on the Ghost Patrol and my platoon, 2nd, wasn’t in the first wave of attackers as we assaulted the NVA on March 30, 1968. Yes, I had to deal with incoming and snipers and going out on listening posts at night, but for the most part I was pretty lucky. And yes, I learned to tell where incoming was going to hit by the sound it made leaving the tube and yes I didn’t stick my head up so a sniper’s round could rip the top of my head off, but sometimes you didn’t hear the incoming leave the tube and sometimes you had little choice, you had to stick your head up. So you needed some luck to survive.
Some folks say that luck is only being prepared but in the case of the Marine Corps, you really don’t have any choice about when you get picked to go into action.
I was pretty lucky before the Siege, too, because I didn’t go out on the Bravo Company patrol of June 7, 1967. Two squads from 2nd Platoon went out on a company-minus patrol which we thought would be a routine exercise off the north end of 881 South that morning. The squad I was in was chosen to remain behind and man the lines. I was pretty new to the outfit, so I remember that it seemed like just another day in my tour. Instead of humping the hills outside of Khe Sanh, I’d fill sandbags and stand watch.
It wasn’t long before we could hear activity going on and it wasn’t the kind of activity that you want to hear. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the guys in our platoon very well, I can still remember feeling empty. Empty and a little frightened, too. Our squad leader was monitoring the action on a radio, or trying to, and gave us some confused information about what was going on. It all sounded like a lot of chaos to me. Bravo Company hadn’t been lucky and had walked into a well-planned ambush, or at least that’s what I remember.
Eventually the battle was ended and our men came back in. There was only one problem. We were short 18 Marines and Corpsmen. And I knew some of them.
I had never felt anything like what I felt as I heard the list of names of our dead and saw the blank look on the faces of the men who returned. I knew well enough to keep my mouth shut and not say anything stupid. I wanted to apologize and to sympathize and to…I wanted to reach out to them but I realized that wouldn’t do much good.
The men of 2nd Platoon who didn’t go out on that patrol sat there and talked in hushed voices. Inside, in my guts and my chest, I felt drained, like something had vacuumed my innards. I couldn’t imagine what the men who had been out there felt like. (Later in my tour, during the Siege, I would get firsthand experience.)
One of the things I remember best from that day is my fireteam leader’s reaction to news that his best buddy was KIA. They’d come over from 3/26 about a month before. My team leader was the most stoic man I ever knew but on that day he cried. He didn’t try to stop the tears. He didn’t try to hide them. He let them go and they streamed down his brown face. I wanted to reach out and hug him but we didn’t do that kind of thing back then, or that’s what I believed, anyway.
A few days later we reorganized the platoon and within several weeks we acted like we had forgotten all about what happened on June 7. But we hadn’t. We were just trying to move on, hoping to be lucky enough not to end up like those good men who hadn’t come back from that action.
The names of those men:
Lance Corporal James Blaz
Lance Corporal John Chase
Corporal Ronald Crooks
Lance Corporal Ronald Enderby
Corporal Edward Furlong
Private Gale Gotti
PFC Thomas Healy
PFC Kenneth Johnson
Lance Corporal Kenneth Keefer
PFC Steven Millett
PFC Larry Morris
PFC Wayne Pitts
PFC Frank Shovlin
PFC Philip Van Deusen
Lance Corporal Edward Vercouteren
HN (Corpsman) Gregory Vercruysse
Corporal Walter Ward
PFC Larry Worthen
Semper Fi, Marines.
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