Way Out of My Element
(How to Make the Most out of Your Hospital Stay)
On 12 October 1967, I suffered grenade wounds and about a half hour later, a gunshot wound, while serving as a Platoon Commander with 1stBattalion, 1stMarines (1/1) on Operation Medina. The good news was that it had been a concussion grenade. If not, I’d have been killed. The bad news was that concussion grenades are intended to kill through over-pressure and typically contain two to three times the amount of explosive as that in a fragmentation grenade. According to the Marines who were right behind me, it had detonated in the air just two feet above me as I lay on the ground. My upper back was protected by my pack; my pistol belt, canteens, first aid pouch, et al, protected my hips, but the small of my back had been fully exposed to the blast. The gunshot wound was initially believed to be only a phosphorous burn from a ricocheting tracer round though it was later discovered to have broken a rib before coming to rest in my upper right chest, under my right arm.
Medevaced to Delta Med at Dong Ha late the following day (13 Oct) and then on to Repose on the 14th, I was lucky. As best I can recall, the provisional diagnosis was myositis of the lower lumbar spinal area, nerve-root contusions and bilateral contusions of the kidneys. Though my lower back looked somewhat like a color chart you’d find in a paint store (yellow, pink, orange, red, and various shades of purple), to be candid, I really didn’t think I was that badly hurt, so I sort of understated my complaints of pain when queried by the doctors who treated me. I also knew my promotion warrant to captain had arrived and I was about to make the “big bucks” (an increase of $88.50/mo). I figured I’d heal just the same if I stayed with my battalion (and got promoted) rather than in some sterile, antiseptic environment where they’d wake me up in the middle of the night so they could give me a sleeping pill. After a week of so of “no duty” and then another of “light duty” back at the Battalion CP area, I told the Battalion Surgeon I was ready to return to full duty. Admittedly, I was aware that my battalion was about to participate in Operation Lancaster to be followed by Operation Kentucky II and Kentucky III. After that we were to move from Site X at Quang Tri to conduct a relief in place of 1ST Battalion, 9TH Marines at Con Thien (one of the four corners of Leatherneck Square) right on the DMZ, and I didn’t want to get left behind.
Reluctantly, the Battalion Surgeon told me he wouldn’t stop me but he didn’t think it was a good idea. He turned out to be right. Within hours of arriving south of the C-2 Bridge where we began to “hoof it”, my lower back started tightening up and then a dull pain set in. My pack was about the same weight as everybody else’s except that I wasn’t carrying any mortar rounds or ammunition cans. I’d guess that between my pack, poncho, shelter half, rations, pistol, pistol holster, pistol belt, ammo pouches, compass, K-Bar, canteens, flak jacket, etc, I was carrying around sixty pounds but it was enough to cause me considerable discomfort, enough so that one of the corpsmen gave me some Darvon. A couple of hours later I needed more Darvon. The next morning there was more Darvon but by late afternoon the corpsmen were out of Darvon and I was in a big hurt. The next thing I knew the senior corpsman started writing a medevac card. The battalion commander came over and told me I shouldn’t have tried to go to the field and they were sending me back for medical treatment. A half an hour later, a UH-34 landed on road that ran from Hwy 9 via the C-2 Bridge north to Con Thien. I climbed onboard and was taken to Dong Ha where I caught an Air Force C-123 Provider carrying about a dozen and a half full body bags headed south to the large morgue at Da Nang. Except for the sound of the engines (two turning and two burning), it was a quiet ride. After we landed, they lowered the ramp. There were some medical personnel there in addition to those from Graves Registration. I was loaded on a field med vehicle and taken to the Naval Support Activity Hospital near Marble Mountain. There I was examined by an internist (Navy Cmdr) and a Nephrologist (Navy LtCmdr) and told to expect an extended stay in the hospital. The upside was that I got to sleep on a real mattress, not that it did me any good. The first thing they did was place a ¾” by 36” by 78” sheet of plywood on top of that mattress and then a military blanket on top of the plywood and folded in half for minimal padding. It was all to prevent a curvature of the spine while my back muscles healed. Silver-tongued devil that I am, I was also able to talk my way out of evacuation out of country. Every Marine officer I knew did the same. We all wanted to return to our units and we would have suffered serious guilt pangs had we allowed ourselves to be sent home. Our fear was that whoever replaced us might not care as much about our Marines as we had.
The next five weeks were BORING except that the hospital chow easily beat the steady diet of C-rations I’d been on for the previous one-hundred plus days and there was a MARS station at the hospital so I was able to call home a couple of times and talk with my wife. I also had a visit from an officer from Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Mar Div. He was collecting statements from witnesses who had observed Cpl William T. Perkins Jr, on the night of 12 October 1967. Perkins, a combat photographer who’d been attached to Charlie Company 1/1 for Operation Medina, would become a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions that night.
Then, one week prior to my discharge from the hospital, some of my OCS and TBS classmates (Rob Renier among them) showed up. They were now pilots or RIO’s with VMFA-122 and dropped by the hospital to visit me. My wife had told one of their wives where I was and that wife wrote her husband in Vietnam. It was shortly after noon on 13 December 1967 and they were enjoying a one-day squadron stand-down. They’d been flying two and three missions a day or more and deserved a day off if for no other reason than safety. Members of the squadron had assembled down on China Beach, just a mile or so north of Marble Mountain. When they mentioned grilled steak and ice-cold beer, they had me. They spirited me out the back door of the ward and I’m sure it must have been quite a sight. Four men in various states of undress, bathing suits and tee-shirts for the most part, and all obviously aviators; you could tell that from their sunglasses and the enormous watches they wore on their wrists. And there was a fifth man, obviously an escapee from somewhere. You could tell that from his institutional pallor and the standard Navy issue blue and white striped hospital pajamas and robe he wore. There they all were, in a MAG-11 jeep, headed down the road to China Beach.
Shortly after being handed a cold beer and asked how I wanted my steak cooked, I was introduced to LtCol John Verdi, CO of VMFA-122. The first thing he asked me was my opinion of the close air support we'd been getting up north. After my glowing assessment, particularly involving those F-4’s with “WC” on their tails (Gee, what a “coincidence”…), he offered me a ride in one of his Phantoms and told the Scheduling Officer to put me on the flight schedule for the following day. Colonel Verdi said he wanted me to see the targets from where they see the targets, and added, I should carry that experience back to my battalion and share it with fellow officers who typically requested CAS in the absence of ALO’s or FAC’s. Instead of returning to the hospital that night, I went to the MAG-11 compound with the guys. The briefing for our mission was at daybreak the next morning. As luck would have it, the afternoon I was on the beach, Maj Gen Donn J. Robertson, CG, 1st Mar Div stopped by the hospital to hang Purple Hearts on some of his people. I guess there was some consternation when the hospital staff couldn’t account for a patient. It seems they’d misplaced one of the General’s captains.
I slept in Rob Renier’s hooch that night on a cot belonging to one of the squadron’s pilots who was on R&R in Hong Kong. One of the other RIO’s in the same hooch was 1stLt Guy Lashlee. He and I were about the same size so he loaned me his flight suit, G-suit, torso harness and survival vest. I borrowed somebody else’s helmet in preparation for our launch. We had a very early breakfast and then went to the briefing (all Greek to me) but I understood enough of the briefing to know it would be a flight of two aircraft headed somewhere to the northwest. Had I understood all that aviator lingo, I’d have learned we were going to be attacking a golf course driving range somewhere in that area. At least, that's what it looked like when all those orange and white balls came flying up at us a little while later. I understood what BAR-CAP, MIG-CAP, TPQ-10 and CAS missions were. No one told me what an “ST” mission was. The meaning of the code name “Steel Tiger” was highly classified back then. We were bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neighboring Laos.
We proceed to one of hangars on the flight line where I put my flight gear on and then was led to the aircraft, an F-4, loaded with seven 750 lb bombs. We were to be Dash-Two. Dash-One, flown by LtCol Verdi, was armed with four 750 lb bombs and a centerline gun pod.
Rob helped me climb into the aircraft showing me where the steps and hand-holds were located and then I seated myself in the rear cockpit. Rob started strapping me in, explaining what each connection was about (oxygen mask, G-suit, communications, leg restraints in case you have to eject, et al). He was particularly emphatic when he told me, "Don't touch anything, particularly not these yellow handles with the black stripes (the ejection seat handles).”
Shortly thereafter, Major Beatty started the engines, the ground crew pulled the chocks and we began our taxi out of the revetment to 17R.
When Major Beatty pushed the throttles forward and into the indent for the afterburner, the “Lead Sled” lurched forward forcing me back hard against the back of my seat, A few seconds later, we were airborne and beginning a standard rate climbing turn to the left and headed northwest. It was an overcast day but soon we popped up through the overcast and were CAVU, on top with a blue sky, lots of sunshine, and unlimited visibility.
As best I can remember, it didn’t take very long to get to the target area. The first indication we were there was when Major Beatty rolled the aircraft up on it’s right wing and asked me if I could see the “white cross” below which was silhouetted against the green canopy landscape. We were at 14,000 feet but I could easily see it and told him so. He told me that it was an Air Force “Covey” plane, an airborne FAC aircraft that was painted white on the top surfaces so it could be seen easily by the aircraft it was supporting from below and it was about to mark our target with a 2.75” WP rocket.
Within seconds of the bright white manifold version of a fleur-de-lis exploding on target, Dash-One rolled in hot. Our two aircraft would hit the target in a racetrack pattern. As one rolled off the target, the second rolled in on the target. Dash-One released two D26’s on his first pass, then it was our turn. As we descended, the landscape changed. Orange and white balls (37mm & 57mm AAA) came flying up in our direction. Major Beatty pressed on and two D26’s came off the centerline MERS. Unfortunately, all three were supposed to have come off. After another pass, Dash-One got on our wing for AAA suppression. We released the bombs on our wings and were rewarded by a large secondary explosion that I could see over my right shoulder as the blood drained from my brain and everything I saw quickly became gray. No one had bothered to tell me to tighten my stomach muscles as we pulled the 6.5 G’s at the bottom of the ride and pulled upward. My Airdale friends would have their laugh at my expense. We made a third and fourth pass to shake loose the bomb that did not release on the first pass but it would not separate from the aircraft. Having already exceeded the Wing SOP for runs on the target, Dash-One flew around us and gave us the once over looking for damage but saw none. What he did see was that the hung bomb appeared to have released on the front end but not on the back end. We would have to take that large piece of explosive-filled, green-painted pot metal home with us.
When Da Nang Bay finally came into view, we learned that 17L was full of at least a dozen Air Force F-4’s about to head north. Runway 17R was temporarily closed. A Navy E2 had blown a tire on landing and was waiting to be towed. We couldn’t get a straight-in approach and there wasn’t a lot of time to spare. That centerline bomb hanging down at an angle had added to the drag on our return flight and between that and the busy runways, our fuel was running low. After orbiting over the bay, we got clearance to land and descended toward 17R. It was then that it occurred to me, “What’ll happen if that bomb decides to come off when Major Beatty makes the standard Navy carrier landing”. Had it been up to me, I’d have opted for a full-stall landing, but that’s an unmanly thing for a Naval Aviator to do.
Fortunately, we landed without incident. We cleared the runway and stopped by the ordnance pit where the errant bomb was removed by the ordnance people. We taxied on to the “hot refueling pit” where our aircraft was fueled for its next mission. When we arrived back at the revetment, there were my “friends”, waiting with buckets and scrub brushes, a signal that they expected the back seat to soiled with vomit and other bodily fluids. Actually, I did pretty well except that I consumed three times the oxygen as my pilot did. It did feel good to be back on the ground again, an environment much more familiar to this “grunt”.
That night I was carried into the O’Club on the shoulders of my friends where I was made an honorary squadron member, and then after an hour or so around a table drinking still more beer, they returned me to the hospital. Everything was the same as when I left except for the stern faces of the medical staff.
One week later, I was issued a brand new set of jungle utilities, a new utility cover and a new pair of jungle boots. My nurse, a very forgiving female Navy Commander on her twilight tour, talked some of her Lieutenant nurses into sharing three of their excess “tracks” (Navy Lieutenant’s/Marine Captain’s bars) with me. I grabbed my medical record, my Red Cross shaving gear and toothbrush and hitched a ride back down the road to Marble Mountain where I managed to find a Marine CH-53 headed for Dong Ha. The next morning I made my way back to Con Thien where I learned we would move back to Quang Tri on Christmas Eve. Three weeks later, I left for Hawaii on R&R. 1/1 was scheduled to move up to Hill 881 South when I returned, but Tet in Hue City, 1968, caused a temporary change of priorities. I was now the Commanding Officer of Bravo Company.
On a sad note: As I wrote in this short story, the flight gear I wore belonged to 1stLt Guy Lashlee. He would need it eight days later. He and Capt Gary Fors were in another VMFA-122 F-4 on a mission in the same area when they were hit by AAA fire and were forced to eject. Guy was rescued about a half hour later. Gary was never found and was declared KIA effective 7 August 1980.
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