The Mad 79’er

by Richard Dieterle

The Sand Dunes, as they were called, actually had some wider fame than the recollections of those who were there: they were featured in an article in Life Magazine which I later saw when I returned to the World. They were a very strange geological feature. They were well enough inland, there being some considerable distance between them and the coastline. Yet the land thereabouts was quite flat otherwise and was surrounded with the ubiquitous rice paddies. The Sand Dunes rose 12 feet or more from the surrounding plain and were composed of the purest bright white sand I have ever seen before or since. It was made up of a series of sand ridges that looked like miniature mountains of sugar. Through the middle of this formation ran a very small creek narrow enough to jump over and not very deep. In the bright light it sometimes appeared blue or even green. There was a small village or hamlet maybe 150 yards distant. We liked to set up in the Sand Dunes, even though it is almost always a bad idea to set up in a spot that has been previously occupied. Digging in was an easy chore compared to anywhere else and it had the further advantage of being the much desired high ground.

We first set up in the Sand Dunes in June or July, 1967. It was a brilliant cloudless day and the sun was still out in force when we took up our positions. Digging in was so easy we made ourselves a very luxurious foxhole with a prone directly behind it. It felt good to take off my heavy web gear. The prone was set up with ponchos over it as a tent to shield out the sun. I was lucky enough to get first guard and had taken my place in the wide foxhole we had dug for the machine gun and crew. One of the Brothers, whose name I have forgotten since he was so short at the time that I did not know him for very long, sat down beside me and we talked for awhile. I had expressed an interest in sampling some of the local grass (marijuana), and he happened to have some with him. It was a pronounced green in color, very unlike the usual brown that I had seen the few times I had tried grass back in the World. Since the unit was still largely airborne we had to be discrete about smoking dope. All the officers of the company, or so I was told on good authority, had smoked it, but only to show they did not habitually decline its use out of any weakness, such as fear of being overcome by its intoxicating effects. The airborne people remained devoted to beer, which was a bit harder to get and a good deal heavier to haul. The Brother gave me a small joint to smoke, then retired to the prone directly behind the so-called foxhole, which was really a small trench. The sun was still up when I decided to give it a shot and lit the joint up. As a non-smoker, it was hard for me to keep the hot smoke in my lungs, but with a considerable force of will I was able to do so. I exhaled with a vigor known only to devotées of this drug, and followed it with a few obligatory coughs of a kind which might be mistaken for whooping cough. I kept on toking my small joint which was soon exhausted. The next thing I knew, I felt something like a wave moving through my feet: it was as if I were standing on water at the edge of a lake and my feet were rolling like soft plastic with the onset of every wave that passed on to the shore. I stood up and felt like I was some kind of dirigible that had come off its moorings and was now floating free. After a day of humping heavy machine gun ammunition the sudden lightness made me feel as if I had escaped gravity altogether. Then I was overcome with the sound of an uninvited inner music that was almost an hallucination. My memory and imagination exploded with colorful free associations. I was seriously dinky dau. I had to turn to the guys in the prone and tell them I was so "fucked up" that I could not pull first guard. There was some mild annoyance, but it was not too difficult to find someone who wanted first guard, and I soon "crashed" into a deep sleep. This was by far and away the most intense experience I ever had with grass. I eventually ended up quitting the habit of smoking marijuana in 1976 or 77, since it had begun to affect my memory. At the time I labored under the supposition that my brain could perform some useful function for me in the future and that I might do well to safeguard it. In the Sand Dunes it was important to have someone pulling guard who was not rollicking in an acid-like high, since this area, although something of a natural fortress, was the home range of a strange character known as the "Mad Seventy-Niner." Fortunately, in spite of all, we passed an uneventful night.

     
Sgt. Larry Douglas and Edward House   The M-79 Grenade Launcher

I remember that day we did a long hump through the Bồng Sơn area on our way to the Sand Dunes. I recollect that I spent most of this time looking at my feet as I walked, as that is about all I could remember when the Sergeant Larry Douglas suggested that I could take out an OP that night. He said, "Do you remember that [such-and-such] that we passed just before we got here?" In truth I could not remember this feature, so his desire to have me take out an OP was frustrated. Someone else led about three guys back to that spot. We set up a nice trench style foxhole in the dunes complete with a luxurious shelf for our grenades, which we all set out in a neat row. The prone was connected by a small passage to the foxhole. I went to sleep very comfortably. The next thing I knew, my dreams were interrupted by the sound of an explosion, and I felt a sharp sting in my right shoulder blade. We had been sleeping with our heads pointed towards the foxhole, and I suddenly bolted upright and grabbed my right shoulder blade with my left hand, reaching over my right shoulder. Someone asked me what happened, and I said it felt like I got hit with a small fragment off a 79 casing. I suspect that it was just a coincidence, a bug had bitten me exactly at the critical moment. For just as I awoke to the noise and the bite, the guy in the foxhole said we were under attack by the Mad Seventy-Niner. We scrambled into the foxhole in time to see a round shot off in our direction form the edge of the long open field in front of us. Per usual, it exploded harmlessly somewhere behind our line of foxholes. Knowing that our artillery would be fast upon the scene, the Mad Seventy-Niner never spent too much time firing at us before running off to his home, presumably in the hamlet that lay off to our left. He had gotten his name from his weapon, an American M-79 grenade launcher. This weapon broke open like a shot gun to load, but instead of the normal barrel, it had a large but short tube of a diameter to accommodate a 40 mm grenade shell. Its stock was heavy and short with a pad at the end to help absorb the strong recoil that resulted from firing such a shell. You had to be careful not to wrap your thumb over the stock, since the recoil had been know to break people's thumbs. You could fire a shell several hundred yards, and this made it a convenient weapon for a sniper, since he could stand back 100 yards in the dark and fire off a couple of shots and still get out without being clearly spotted. As a result he had carved out a little niche for himself as the premier sniper in Bồng Sơn, the only one so equipped. I think we had a strange, paradoxical affection for him, and considered him to be mainly a nuisance to our sleep more than a really effective foe. Just the same, you had to admire his balls, as attacking the Cav always got a massive retaliation of artillery, even if we ourselves never bothered to fire small arms back at him. I hope he survived the war. He no doubt has quite a number of hair-raising stories to tell of his numerous narrow escapes.