Sample of War Memoirs – A Southern US Marine in Vietnam, 1967-1968
MAY 28, 1967: A SMALL CEMETERY, PHU BAI, VIETNAM
I’m so weary, trudgin’ through the muck of a foreign country, a hard-driven Southern soldier…seven nights a week. Must protect mah buddies, I’m point man and tunnel rat for the Second Battalion 26th Marines Division. Eight young men on a mission, scoutin’ night after night, pushing tiredly through the jungles, rice paddies full of human urine, loading me up with jungle rot and foot fungus. It ain’t pretty, sure can tell you that! Well, now we’re pushin’ through the scrub brush around a local cemetery…it’s all sand underfoot, sticking to mah combat boots, drier’n a moonshiner caught by the p’lice!
We been deployed from base camp to this dark, moonlit place. We’re s’posed to be settin’ an ambush. This is better, kinda relief from the jungles full of leeches, hot and humid ‘most any time of year it seems, and the mosquitoes – it’s just a terrible place. In the monsoon season, it rains day and night for four months, I’ve seen it go 17 inches overnight, and we’re livin’ out here like animals, constantly in misery and pain.
I’m wet-soaked through all the time, and the jungle rot has me even in this dry, sandy place. I went to Hawaii a bit ago on R&R, had green rot on my feet so bad I borrowed a boy’s size 11 shoes, though I wear only a size 8, with my feet swolled up so bad I couldn’t get ‘em on. Between the leeches, the rice paddies, the swamps, Agent Orange and the Viet Cong…I’m in Hell for sure!
Being point man, it’s my job to scout ahead. As tunnel rat too, I have to scour the horrible, interconnected filthy network of tunnels the Viet Cong digs throughout Vietnam, ranging from darker than Hades to lit up with ‘lectric lamps, fulla supplies, hospital equipment, and men’s living spaces where the VC lurk underground…I have to continuously scout for booby traps, trip wires, 99 kinds of deadly poisonous snakes – and the enemy.
Some of those tunnels, nothing in ‘em; some have ever’thing. As the smallest man in my squad, I’m the automatic tunnel rat. It depends what part of the country you’re in, what it’s like…but these tunnels, small to big, we call ‘em West Virginia Road Maps – they’s got lotsa little roads, runnin’ all over. I’m shocked I ain’t been blown up yet, I been all over South Vietnam since they flew me to that hill up north near Dong Ha, where I met the 26th Marines.
I’m luggin’ a 40-pound backpack, damp with slimy dew from this morning. Or it may be from that nearby creek’s load of Agent Orange; I had to drink from around there. We try not to wash our muddy hands in it, but our planes flying overhead dump it on us, it’s been several times by now. Could swear I’ve felt it oozing down my helmet. I wonder if that shit’s hard on just plants…you can tell where it is by the acres of dead foliage, tons of trees falling over with horrible crashing sounds. I bet it’s hard on us, too, but who cares?
Dependin’ on how long we stay in the field, my pack’s weight varies from 30-60 pounds when fulla gear. It’s harder than Hell to wade through a mucky swamp with a 60-pound pack, and I’m also toting my M-14 rifle, we ain’t got the M-16 issue yet. It is 7.62 rounds, what you call a NATO round – by the Geneva Convention, every foot soldier has to use that. And I always keep my trusty .38 pistol snug on me. But for months, I’ve also been carryin’ a special US flag folded up triangle-style in my pack, plan on carrying it with me forever. They’ll find it on my poor ol’ corpse, when they wedge m’dog tag ‘tween my teeth.
I been prayin’ ever’ night ‘bout since I got here that I’ll get shot. Means they’d send me right home, or so I’m thinking. They can be funny ‘bout where they end up sending you, once they have you. Mostly, we wander nearly ever’where, scouting for the enemy; half the time I’m scared out my pants! Nothing’s happened to me, though I’ve seen good buddies go down, managing to wound and kill quite a few enemies myself – yeah, it’s impossible not to think of death, Hell and brimstone in a cemetery!
Vietnam is a long ways from my good ol’ country home in Groseclose, Virginia, and now the scenery is gettin’ purty weird. Here we are scoutin’ a cemetery on the road between Phu Bai and Hue, eight of us out on patrol, fetchin’ to set booby traps and ambush the Viet Cong, meandering like weed-covered fools afoot through the spookiest place I’ve ever seen…worse than those god-damn tunnels! First, we come over a hill, then I heard somebody in front tell my squad leader somebody was there.
He asked me, “Hamm, what do you think we should do?” Because I’m a good point man, always searchin’ ahead for our Marines ever’ time, my squad leader has plenty of respect for me, always needing my ‘pinions on our operations and other stuff. But now he was askin’ what we all should do – which was s’posed to be his decision.
I wanted to scream, leave, as I was shakin’ in mah boots, but I said we could go in and kick ass, maybe get our asses kicked. Bein’ a short man, I have my pride, and plan to prove myself as a U.S. Marine. I’ve been told I’m too small to be one! So anyway, there’s this big ol’ pagoda loomin’ in front of me, spiky, striped and colorful, a place of worship hidden behind some hedge bushes.
It’s tall, towers over me like the Russian Kremlin…I’m sneaking through the brush, keeping my head down as usual. It ain’t jungle, just flat sand, but really a lot of land in Nam is sandy, kind of like on an ocean beach. The head stones are real close together; these folks bury their dead sitting up, and sometimes they only stay there a time; then they dig them back up for some reason and move them somewhere else.
The Vietnamese are strange people to this small town good ol’ boy, coming from the backwoods full of moonshine, dirt roads and homestead farming. In a way, how we live in Virginia is similar to them, backwards and uneducated – but geez, they’re worse off! The village folks are 200 years behind us, and the ones that live up in the mountains, the Mountain Yards, are 300 years back! They can’t stand cameras pointed at them, they won’t even look into a mirror most times. They’ve never seen such things before!
The Mountain Yards are good fighters and help us out a lot, but damn all these dirt-poor people will eat anythin’ – cats, dogs, monkeys, snakes, bats – the Mountain Yards are gentle, know how to maneuver through the dense bush, teaching us plenty while fighting alongside us – but dang it, I won’t eat with them! I’m always gonna stick with my C-Rations, no matter how constipated I get! Damn! Well, ‘nuf day-dreamin’, where are we now?
It’s ‘bout one a.m., dark, spooky; most of these headstones are clear, you can see through them to the other stones. No moss on ‘em, the Vietnamese keep ‘em up regular, coming every year to parade in the cemetery, carrying on, jabbering and stuff. It is kind of weird to watch, I’ve seen ‘em at other cemeteries, they eat their food right there on the spot. Where I’m at is dry, but the all-pervadin’ jungle isn’t far away. We come out the bush when we come down the hill, and the bushes opened out into sand dunes, sticky brush and stuff. It’s like sand on a beach, but full of reminders of death, not summer vacation. Unlike what the folks at home seem to think, Vietnam ain’t no picnic. I get that real quick now…
…cuz the VC hurls a satchel bomb, from inside that big pagoda! Picked up by a massive hand and thrown away back’ards, I’m sep’rated from my rifle. I wasn’t firin’ it anyways, just watching and looking ahead for my men. But in seconds, I scramble to find my M-14, shooting and hurlin’ grenades all at once, a hot-headed wild man out of control! I’m fearless, brave, actin’ like a true Marine at last! But near six months into Nam, I get my daily wish: I’m shot! All eight of us’re wounded…me worst of all, our lone medic is screaming!
It’s an ambush, we were s’posed to be settin’ one, and we’re ambushed! Now we have to stay here all night, low on ammo, killing as much enemy as possible. Damn, I’m shot in the leg…face and body fulla shrapnel, arms and legs too! Somehow I’m able to think and move…radio’s knocked out, we’re unable to call for help. Base camp’s three miles away, we’ll need to hike back there in the morning…dragging mah wounded ass.
I’m dead now, or outa here! It’s in my chin, my face, there’s a bullet in my lower left leg…damnit! If I don’t bleed to death, medic, c’mon, help a poor fella…I got me my ticket home! Now I know I’m a Marine, I’ll die a Marine, not just a little country coward!
SAMPLE OF WAR MEMOIRS – Vietnam War
First time wounded: Richard got hit in the lower left leg with gunshot, about four inches below the knee, and also his lower jaw, arms and body, shrapnel much like BB pellets. End of his finger was cut off, his ring finger right hand.
“I had three bullet holes in my britches leg, but only one bullet actually entered m’leg. One went through my pants and missed me.” Shrapnel from the satchel charge cut into his right leg, also going into his head, and both his arms were full of small pieces; one chunk in his back was left in until 2011. Richard didn’t even know it was there, until it came out all by itself, relatively painlessly. There was very little blood, he says.
“When you shot at the enemy, they didn’t see you and you didn’t see them; you and them just sprayed the whole area with ammo…” That’s why one lonely summit in Vietnam was renamed Hamburger Hill…U.S. soldiers there were literally ground into raw meat.
MAY 29-30, 1967: A HOSPITAL WARD, USS SANCTUARY, SOUTH CHINA SEA
Swimmin’ in-outa consciousness…they’s loadin’ me onto a chopper, medics swarmin’ like fruit flies on a hot summer Virginia day. I ask them where we’re goin’. “To a hospital ship, the USS Hope, I think,” one of the medics tells me kindly. These folks will kill you with kindness; they break their backs tryin’ to save the wounded ever’ time. So I think it’s the day after I was shot, I really dunno. First they fly me to Dong Ha, where I first entered this shindig, and now they’re flyin’ me by copter to the USS Sanctuary, they say.
I don’t know what’s goin’ on for a long time. I’m hurtin’, busted up purty bad, but they tend to me right there on the Sanctuary, bandaging me up, surgery on my left leg, sewing me back together and digging out the shrapnel from my poor ol’ body…this is a really good hospital ship! Purty big-sized, and they treat us real nice on it too. While I’m mendin’, the meals are plumb decent; only problem is they have me down below deck and won’t let me walk up the steps, on account of m’leg. No steps at first they say, then after it heals up they’ll let me walk up and down the stairs. Well, I won’t go too far exploring!
I go up on two decks above me, and that’s about it. It’s a colossal hospital ship, they take care of hundreds of people, ‘specially us Marines aboard. I want to get off in a hurry, though; I don’t like water, take to seasickness easily, and I wanna get back to my outfit fast and return to my buddies – I’m worried ‘bout one or two of ‘em gettin’ killed! It puts a big burden on my shoulders. I’m like a committee on their backs, I aggravate them and keep them occupied. Me and my squad leader carry on like reg’lar comedians, make them laugh, joke around. Ever’body says I have the best sense of humor they’ve ever run into!
I’m findin’ out some stuff about the Sanctuary: it’s a Haven-class Navy ship, serving in WWII and now also in Vietnam. Just last year in 1966, they re-rigged it and turned it into a hospital proper, modernizing it with a heliport so I was able to come aboard, three x-ray units, a blood bank, an artificial kidney machine, ultrasonic diagnostic equipment, a recompression chamber and other modern medical equipment, and adding a culinary space and a laundry to supplement the 20 open wards and four operating rooms. There’s some 300 medical personnel assigned on staff aboard, and they’re all perfessional as can be!
The Sanctuary’s mission shifted recently, from being an amb’lance ship carryin’ the wounded and the sick to hospitals in outlying areas, to becoming a full-equipped hospital ship carrying medical facilities close to combat areas, where the fightin’ for us Marines is thicker than fleas on a bloodhound. The ship sticks to sailin’ near the north provinces of South Vietnam, where the fighting is worst in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The Sanctuary moves constantly, always staying ‘bout 15-20 miles off the coast; when I came aboard, we were ‘bout 20 miles out at sea from Dong Ha, sailin’ on a rotating schedule between Da Nang, Phu Bai, Chu Lai and Dong Ha, along the coast of South Vietnam. Basically, the ship stays out in the ocean, mainly in the South China Sea – to keep it safe from artillery rounds. It doesn’t go up into North Vietnam, where the speedboats could attack us. But to get more supplies, the ship travels purty far, ranging from the Philippines to Hong Kong. For me, it’s practically a vacation…my own version of a Mediterranean cruise!
The ship’s motto, which I saw on an exterior bulkhead just for’ard of the help deck, is on a purty simple cartoon plaque: “You find ‘em, we bind ‘em. Open 24 hours.” Well, actually its real motto is officially, “Copiae Servamus,” meaning, “We serve the troops,” but ever’body only knows the other motto.
The first place I’m housed at is the biggest hospital ward I’ve ever seen, must be about 40 guys in here, moanin’, groanin’, dying even, while I lie in a bed being tended to night and day by the beautiful, caring nurses. Some of them are real young and nice; others are more businesslike and don’t talk much to a fella, but they all give us fantastic care. So anyways, I’m here about a week and a half, it is June 8 or 10, and one of the Red Cross nurses walks into our open ward. I swear, she waltzes straight past 20 guys, and heads right up to me.
“You got a letter from home,” she intones point blank. I’m speechless. It’s hard to get mail out there in the field, cuz of the way we move around. We might not get any mail for two-three months, and then suddenly we see a whole stack full, cuz we live out in the jungle and most always work in eight-man squads, teams of eight. When we stay with another unit, they make sure our letters go back home to our families. And we’re out there, day and night, ranging far afield to search for the enemy. We don’t have no permanent bases, we’re tasked to the 3rd Marine Division. And we just move around like wild animals, all the time.
Heck, I never write and tell my Mama and Daddy how things are! I always write my oldest brother Carl, who’s in the Air Force, and tell him what’s goin’ on. But I don’t tell the rest of my family anything; when I got wounded, I asked the military not to tell them. Mom has four boys in the services now, and I know it’s a burden to her. I heard they told them anyways, though I didn’t want them to know what was happening to me over here.
The military goes and does any dang thing they want, who cares about a poor ol’ Marine, and you’re pretty much completely at their fair mercies. They really don’t have any! I swear my service to this country is the only thing I value, but they don’t value you enough. I agree with this strange war, I fight in it, and I deserve more respect than we’re gettin’.
Anyway, my mother at least sends me newspapers. I mean, they ain’t but three or four pages long. “So-and-so visited so-and-so over the weekend…so-and-so is sick in the hospital” are major headlines in Groseclose. Just neighborhood talk, gossip and the like. If a town cop picks up a drunk on the street, that’s the news. Not much else, ‘cept arrests for moonshinin’, pot smoking and growin’ weed – town holds less than a hunnerd folks, out in the boonies – you can sit down and jaw your ass off all day long.
Those papers do cover the war occasionally, the huge war protests too. I sell copies to northern boys in our outfit, for $20 to $30 apiece, cuz they wanna keep them as souvenirs. Lots of our guys are from big cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. They laugh at our small town news, think it’s so comical, hillbilly stuff. But they wanna stow ‘em away, maybe they’ll be worth somethin’ to their kids. They ain’t nothin’ like the Roanoke Times or the New York Times, but they’s decent enough papers. I’m grateful Mom sends ‘em!
Goin’ back to my main story – I glance at the envelope the nurse gave me as she struts calmly away. It ain’t addressed to anyone in partic’lar, says it is for a wounded soldier on the…USS Hope! I almost yell at the nurse, hey, this isn’t for me! But when I look up, she’s gone. So I check out the return address, and it reads Cyndi Owen. Heck, I don’t know any such lady…but I get a right good feeling about this. Cyndi…she’s a grade-school girl, I reckon. Must be ‘bout ten or so years old, from the writin’ on the envelope. How cute can ya get? Laughing, I’m rippin’ it open careful-like…there’s a get-well card and a letter in it!
The card has a picture drawn in crayon, purty bright colors, of a U.S. flag. Looks a lot like the one I carry with me in the field, kinda silly drawing, not bad for a little girl – she’s got some talent here. I’m lookin’ at her letter, I can’t believe it; this kid cared enough and took the time at her church, ‘parently, to write me a letter and send me a get-well card.
I’m plumb flummoxed! “Well,” I think, “at least somebody back home cares what’s goin’ on.” It turns out Cyndi is a nine-year-old fourth grader from Red Bank, Tennessee, just outside of Chattanooga. I’ve never even heard of Red Bank, but somehow God sent me this envelope, this card and letter, from a sweet little child named Cyndi!
Here I am layin’ in my bed green as a dog, mainly from seasickness, and I’m readin’ her letter. It’s short, just one long page. But I read it once, and I’m hooked. I read it, and I reread it, over and over again. I’d seen in Mom’s newspapers ‘bout people protesting and blamin’ us fighters for the war, and this young lady is like an angel to me…forgiving, caring, worried about us wounded. She told me who she was and where she’s from. She wanted to know how I was feelin’, told me her church had them write letters to wounded soldiers, wrote about how she’s doin’ in school – just good honest kids’ talk. In her grade-school way, she laid things out simply, but clearly. She didn’t blame us Marines or soldiers for nothin’!
Gently, I place the letter beside my bed; the next morning I get up. And the first thing I done is I’m picking it up and rereading it, lovingly again. Then I hand it to one of my buddies on the ward, and let him read it, and he hands it to the other men. Once I get it back, I fold it up like it’s made of pure gold, and I think, “Well, I’m gonna write her a letter back!”
I mean, I wonder a long time ‘bout what I’m gonna say, decidin’ to tell her where I’m from, how many brothers and sisters I have. And I write about how my brother Leonard is coming to Vietnam soon, after tryin’ so hard to be a Marine. You know, he got down and begged them on his knees to get in – they thought he wasn’t good enough either! But in 1966, I was only drafted in, a gangly short kid with long blonde hair and a bright yallow shirt, one of three young men special chosen from the crowd to become U.S. Marines.
So during the next three-four months on the Sanctuary, I write Cyndi five or six times…and she writes me back a couple times! I’m amazed at what this young lady says and does! I find a friendly boy out on the sea-deck when I’m leanin’ against the railing, ‘most heaving my guts up again, and he happens to have this Polaroid camera; so I ask him to take my picture, sending that to Cyndi in one of my letters home. In the photo, I’m a kid mahself…a skinny li’l young’un, boyish-lookin’, no beard. Lots of military brass doubt me, as I’m so small; but I’ve proven myself time after time. I’ll die before I quit!
With luck, though, I am going to go home. Well, it’s September now, and I’ve spent 89 days on the USS Sanctuary. About two months into bein’ on this hospital ship, I had my Purple Heart ceremony, after they switched me to an inside private room down below decks. I was layin’ in a bunk bed in my sweaty ol’ pajamas, and the captain of the ship walked in, asking if I was Richard Hamm. I got out of bed and stood on the floor; he shook m’hand and thanked me for mah service. The aide handed him the medal, the captain gave a short speech about me bein’ wounded in combat, and then he just pinned it on my pajama top.
My heart was fixin’ to beat a mile a minute, I was so damn proud of serving our country! I didn’t care it was only a Purple Heart, the usual award they give any wounded soldier. To me, it was good as the Medal of Honor, and it means so much to me. I’ve never had a prouder moment in my life as a U.S. Marine. They say you keep that title forever, once you’ve earned it. Only the people who fight with honor are truly Marines, and I’m one of them now, in spite of my small size – I feel like I’m six feet tall, proud of my Purple Heart!
The brass claims I’m goin’ home, the Red Cross nurse says. They’re gonna send me to Camp Lejeune, back in North Carolina. So I tell that little girl, my angel Cyndi…I promise her…I write, “I’ll come and see you when I get home.” But instead, when I get better and only have scars to show for that cemetery ambush, they chopper me back to Nam for several more agonizin’ months. During a century, four days really, of wadin’ through swamps in full gear, naturally I lose my backpack in one partic’lar foul swamp. I get serious foot fungus and jungle rot, needin’ to head off to Okinawa for a few days…fortunately, m’pack didn’t have my special U.S. flag in it…but it had alla Cyndi’s letters…I’ve lost her address!
How will I ever find her ‘gain? I’ll never meet mah little angel!
SAMPLE OF WAR MEMOIRS – Vietnam War
When you’re out in the jungle, you run into anythin’. One time, I was walking point, and I laid my hand on the nose of a water buffalo. I thought m’heart would stop! ‘Nother night, I had a large snake, don’t know what kind, crawl across the trail in front of me. In Nam, they call those serpents “man-eaters,” claim they’ll swallow you. I just tripped over it!
I often wonder if I’m lucky ovah here, or if God has sent an angel to watch over me…maybe I have one named Cyndi. A purty little angel, one I’ll never see again, who wrote to a poor sick ol’ Marine in his time of greatest distress.
Combat in a war, ‘specially one without clear battle lines – where the scenery changes frequently; where little kids stroll up to you, wearin’ bombs strapped to their bellies; where the enemy can be beside, above and even underfoot – it all works on a soldier’s mind. Changes you, always indelibly, ebony black tattoos you can never remove. You’re out there in the middle of the night, and you have to get down on your hands and knees and check the muddy trail. Agent Orange, God only knows what that is really, rains down on you from the sky. Men die beside you in combat, I’ve lost many good friends…and the enmity we feel often seems to come from, of all places, back home. From our own folks.