by Richard Dieterle
|Rev. Charles Morrison
and His Wife, ca. 1890
When I was a kid in the 50's, my father was an instructor of "Air Sciences" with the Air Force ROTC at Penn State University. He had been a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot during the War and had risen to command the 566th Squadron of the 299th Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force. We had led an idyllic life in the little town of State College, Pennsylvania, but in 1954 my father was called away for a year to take command of an air base in Korea just after the end of the war there. Although we had moved all over the place – Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Louisiana – I had considered myself a Pennsylvanian, and like all citizens of that state viewed Gettysburg as a kind of Holy Land. Before my father left for Korea, he took us down to Gettysburg and we went through every inch of the park. While I was there, I bought a Union kepi just to emphatically affirm my loyalties. After my father went overseas, my mother decided that we would all jump in the car and take a long road trip to Florida to see her mother, who was living in Orlando. It had been some time since we had had a family reunion, as it happened, not since I was born there in 1945. She was a very sweet person who had married a rather abusive Army warrant officer, but now she lived alone with her other offspring not too far away. I walked in wearing my Yankee kepi. This evoked a response of mock surprise: "Why Richard, I thought y’all were a Florida boy!" I could see that she just as soon that I didn't wear it, and I was anxious to please her, so I put it away for the duration of my visit. What I learned much later was that her father was a veteran of the "War atwixt the States" as it was sometimes called. He had been born about a hundred years prior to me, and in the general hellabeloo, had joined the "Wedowee Volunteers," Company D of the 13th Alabama Volunteer Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. His father had been a sheriff in Alabama, but Charles Morrison had taken more after his grandfather, who was a preacher in a now extinct sect known as the "Primitive Baptists." Young Charles could not read or write, but memorized the entire Bible by having it read aloud to him. He later became a preacher himself and founded a church bearing his name that still exists today in Montgomery, Alabama. As a young man he went off to war in the Southern cause, and not long afterwards found himself before the infamous Malvern Hill, which General Lee wanted to take by storm. When they assembled in their staging area, the Brigade commander, Gen. Archer, was sagacious enough to keep his troops out of range of Union artillery. Nevertheless, some of the solid shot cannon balls bounced off the grassy ground and came to rest inside the formation. Even a spent solid shot cannon ball packs a wallop due to its momentum, in this case largely attributable to its heavy iron mass. Charles was knocked out of action at this point. His injuries were described as a dislocated hip with "massive herniation." Quite obviously, he had not jumped out of the way quite fast enough and had probably been knocked through the air like someone hit by an automobile and with much the same effect. If that's what happened when the round was essentially spent, what must it have been like to have been struck by solid shot traveling at its full velocity? It was not a happy subject to contemplate.
Unlike Pvt. Morrison, I had not been caught up in the enthusiasm of war, since in my war there was very little enthusiasm in evidence. I was well read in the Civil War and had a realistic view of war that extended even back to my childhood, inasmuch as the first book that I ever read was The Iliad, a thoroughly gruesome Bronze Age war story. Nevertheless, I imagined myself to be an infantryman, so even though I was drafted, once I was in the Army, I volunteered for both Vietnam and ground combat. I think that this was one of the few really brave things that I had done. When I told the officer interviewing me for assignments that I wanted an MOS of infantry and to be stationed in Vietnam, he couldn't believe his ears and asked if he had heard me correctly. Fortunately, I didn't waver, and later I thought to myself, "These days there are plenty of ways that the enemy can do me in, but at least I don't have to worry about being hit by any of that damned cannister or solid shot."
NOVEMBER 9, 1967 — The story now jumps ahead to the month of November, a period, which on the whole, was rather uneventful. However, the ninth day of that month seemed to be something of an exception. Typhoon Frieda was due to make landfall at Nha Trang the next day, with winds and heavy rain, and the skies were already a foreboding gray. At 0930 hrs., the First Platoon lifted off in a flight of Hueys to an open field that formed a kind of notch in the sprawling village of Liễu An (1). This was only 2 clicks from the White Sand Dunes near where the "Mad 79'er" lived. A little before, the CP with the Second Platoon had landed just south of this village, and about the same time as we touched down, the Third and Fourth Platoons landed on the eastern side of the village right at a crossroads. The village having been thus sealed off, the National Police entered and rounded up the people there for interrogation. They had gathered up 207 adults and a hoard of 273 children. By 1:25 in the afternoon, the National Police had completed their questioning, and lifted off without any detainees. Around 2 o'clock, the Third Platoon had crossed through the village and joined up with the First Platoon about 100 meters to the west of where we had landed. Sometime before 3 o'clock in the afternoon, a giant 250 lb. white phosphorus bomb was discovered along the road that ran east and west through the southern part of the village. This is something that would require an EOD team to destroy, as even a grenade of "Willie Peter" was much to be feared for its burning hail of phosphorus pellets that it caused to rain down from the sky burning through everything upon which they landed. It's hard to imagine what devastation a bomb of that size could cause. After marking this site, the Company tramped about a hundred meters down this road, then set up in the open fields adjacent to the intersection with the north-south road on the eastern side of the village facing the hamlet of An Qúi (1).1
We started to dig in around 4 o'clock or a little before. We had a new Buck Sergeant who was now walking around checking how the entrenching was coming along. He was a good deal older than most sergeants of that rank. To us, he looked about 40 years old, although to youth everyone beyond their twenties looks rather old. He was what we called a "lifer," someone who was making a career out of the Army. He was not especially quick witted, but we counted experience very highly. Nevertheless, having an older sergeant superimposed over us rather than someone who had come up to that rank in the ’Nam, made us a bit uncomfortable. We were uncertain as to how he would react if we lit up a joint before we sacked out. By now he had come down to my position, conversed with me for a few seconds, then went on back up the line.
That afternoon a little after 4 o'clock on this cloudy day, we set up our prepositioned fire.2 These were locations specified in advance where the artillery was to fire if we were attacked during the night. In order to establish correct targeting, it was necessary to call in a harmless round and confirm exactly where it landed. It was planned so that it landed about 50 to 100 meters from our perimeter so that any force crossing the area in front of us in an assault would quickly come under intense artillery bombardment. That should be enough to insure that we would not be overrun. The way this was effected was to fire a smoke round. A smoke round was a shell that trailed smoke as it came in, and that was all it did. It didn't explode, and therefore was as safe as an artillery round can get. One could, and on rare occasions did, adjust fire using an HE round, but if there were a bad miscalculation, the round could well land right in the perimeter among our own troops. There are plenty of cases of this with many casualties as a result.3 Therefore, it was considered a sensible policy to call in the marker round as smoke. The smoke round wasn't strikingly different from an HE round, and to the naive observer, from the outside they looked pretty much the same. They were both big chunks of steel fired at high velocity from a cannon. You could not tell until they came streaking in whether the round was going to blow up or harmlessly trail smoke as its nose buried itself in the ground. And there was the catch. My grandma's father, Pvt. Morrison, was hit by a bouncing round of solid shot. It was, it must be conceded, a perfect sphere, and that it acted like a lethal giant bowling ball was hardly objectionable to those who fired it. Of course it skipped – it was after all a sphere. The smoke round was highly aerodynamic, shaped like a modern bullet, tapering to a point at its impact end. Consequently, they could be expected to bury themselves in the ground since they were pointed and came in spinning like a drill. Yet, as any kid knows, one can take a nice smooth oval stone and throw it across the surface of a pond, and it will skip, seeming to defy the physics of common experience that tells us that a rock should sink and not fly. The trick is in the angle, the speed, and the smooth surface. This is exactly what a smoke round possesses under the right circumstances. On its sides it is smooth and ovaloid, and the howitzer sends it at a velocity orders of magnitude greater than the speed of a skipping stone. There we were, set up in front of a large fallow field on the far side of which was a screen of trees that marked the western edge of the village of An Qúi (1) that lay behind them. The follow rice paddy was paved over in a kind of grass that reminded us of a putting green; others seemed to be covered in crab grass. We usually referred to these as "dry rice paddies," since they had not been flooded and planted with rice. However, this was the monsoon season, and really nothing was dry. This particular expanse of grass was covered in a thin veneer of water that gave it a kind of sheen.
|A Smoke Round Landing in a Field|
The artillery FO called in for a smoke round to land about 50 meters in front of our position. I stood there watching out into the open field. The round suddenly streaked in like a comet at a very low angle from the northeast. Instead of burying nose first into the slippery surface, it shattered, and some of the pieces skipped over the rice paddy like a stone skipping on a pond. One large piece of steel whooshed by Bailey's face while he stood by his foxhole. Bailey later told me that this solid chunk of metal blurred past his head, missing him by mere inches. While Bailey was trying to recover from the shock of Death's scythe passing right across his face like a meteor, we discovered our new sergeant lying on his back. He had been cut down by this steel scythe, this very same chunk of solid shot that had blindly spared Bailey. The medic had not been too far away and was soon at his side. I also came up and knelt on the right. The Sergeant's right arm was extended upward as though he were raising his hand, but it was turned in a way that would otherwise be physically impossible. It was cut right at the shoulder joint and held to the rest of his body by a thin strip of flesh. He wasn't exactly conscious. We had a self-serving saying in the infantry: "If it hurts like hell, then your okay; but if it's bad, then you won't feel anything." His was bad, and he had fallen into shock. He threw his head from side to side, and as he did so, he uttered an incessant "Uuuuhhh, uuuhh!" This was a very common occurrence with the seriously wounded, but one never sees it portrayed in war movies. It is often mentioned in accounts of the Civil War, where the seriously wounded lay on the battlefield overnight, creating a constant drone of moaning. The medic was that same blonde guy who we had had with us back in June after Doc Schouwburg had been killed. He had temporarily taken the place of our regular medic Doc Ferguson, or "Fergie" as we called him. I asked the medic, "How's he holding up?" and got the reply, "He's doing pretty well considering." In fact, since he was in shock, he wasn't doing well at all. Injections of morphine were rather besides the point. We should have elevated his legs to drain blood into his head, but this particular medic was rather ineffectual, and all we could do is gingerly transfer him over to a poncho and lift him out into the open field where the Medevac chopper could pick him up. They had been called at 4:23, and had arrived had arrived a swift 5 minutes later.4 We managed to stuff him in the open bay, and off the chopper went post haste to 15th Med at LZ English. He would end up at Qui Nhon like all serious casualties, and would soon thereafter lose his arm, as he hardly had it attached in any case. So here we were about a hundred years on from the Civil War, the last major war to use solid shot cannon balls, and we had just been hit with a spray of solid shot. It might as well have been grape shot. We tended to be just a little bit more cautious about smoke rounds now that we discovered that they could skip like stones on a pond – no doubt Bailey, especially, since he had quite the story to tell of how he almost lost his head to a "harmless" artillery round.
THANKSGIVING DAY, NOVEMBER 23, 1967 — Sanitation in the field was almost nonexistent. We once had a period of 30 days in the field in Bồng Sơn which meant that we did not take a shower in a full month, the only things resembling a shower was a brief wading through a stream, which hardly did much for anybody. Near the end of this period, we had set up in the boonies and the sun was still up, so many of us sat in front of our foxholes and took off our shoes to air our feet at. When Bailey and I both took our boots off, we could hardly stand the smell of our feet. The odor brought groans from everyone. Feet could be a vector for parasites, but since we kept our boots on even to sleep, diseases of the feet were a rarity. This is not to say they were unheard of. One of the guys I had trained with at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, had also been assigned to "A" Company. Not long after assuming his duties, he soon came down with some kind of inscrutible tropical disease of his foot, apparently an unknown fungus. No treatment seemed to work, and no skill of diagnosis could reveal its identity. Finally, out of desperation, they decided that if it was a tropical disease, one possible antidote would be to send him to the DMZ in Korea, where the winters would make his feet cold, and might perchance extinguish this unknown disorder. There were other vectors of disease. Dirt had caked on our bodies and had been so ground in that it was often mistaken for a good healthy tan, although I can't remember anyone coming down with a skin disease. The more immediate problem was the dirt on our hands. We could not wash our hands before a meal, since water was so valuable and hard to replace no one would waste it on some overly fastidious practice found only back in the World. Our hair was quite a mess. Going weeks without a shampoo meant that dandruff piled up. It got so bad that I counted as one of the greatest pleasures to merely scratch my head. Insects could be another source of disease, but we were able to keep mosquitoes and ants in check by using "bug juice," a repellent that worked quite effectively in keeping insects off of us during periods of sleep. Out in the boonies, there were no outhouses. A call of nature was answered by merely digging a small hole called a "cat hole," and squatting over that. When we were done, we simply scraped the dirt back over the hole. One might ask, "What about privacy?" The answer is, "There was none at all." No one could afford to wander off into the wilderness or into unseen areas along the trail for the simple reason that the enemy could be lurking there and you would be made an easy target. One simply went out front about 15 paces, and took a dump in a cat hole. Even this could be dangerous. In our platoon there was a famous incident that well illustrated this fact. Marciso Alcala, way out in the jungle, had gone out front to relieve himself. He dug his cat hole and squatted over it. While thus engaged, some figure in the dark came up to him and said a few inscrutable remarks in Vietnamese. This was truly in the middle of nowhere, so this individual no doubt came from an NVA unit that had by sheer coincidence set up almost right next to ours. Alcala, needless to say, had no reply but shocked silence. The stranger wandered back to his perimeter no doubt puzzled by his presumed colleague's inexplicable rudeness. No doubt Alcala experienced one of nature's greatest antidotes to constipation, and was done in record time. The Vietnamese had solved the privacy problem, at least to some degree. When they squatted, their buttocks rested between their heels. This was their accustomed way of "sitting," which seemed to me as about as unrelaxing a posture as one could assume. Yet for defecation, it made it possible to conceal that actual process of excretion from view. Once we were set up on a beach when a tall girl we reckoned to be about 19 years old, came out in full view in broad daylight to take a dump. She slipped down her "pjs," as we called their typical clothing, in one swift motion as she squat. Nothing could be seen except her upper thighs at waist level. As one can image, she was the object of many a cat call, but seemed to think nothing of it. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, even the little children, thought the American way of going about this was nothing short of barbaric and the object of intense humor. One time "Truck" Schmidt was taking a crap over his cat hole when a bunch of little kids from the nearby village came up. They thought his inability to squat properly to give himself an element of privacy reflected a degree of ignorance that was truly hilarious. They laughed and laughed making Truck more than just annoyed. We ourselves thought the whole affair was funny. When he was done, of course, he did not wash his hands, and I suspect, neither did the Vietnamese in similar situations.
|Burning Shit Behind an Outhouse|
|1st of the 61st Infantry|
My Civil War ancestor, Pvt. (and later Rev.) Charles S. Morrison, belonged to a company which later in the war was singled out by an Inspector General as being one of the most unsanitary in the Army. The relationship between sanitation and disease in those days was only loosely grasped, and as a result, casualties from disease often exceeded those from battle. It would take the discoveries of Pasteur and others to establish the germ theory of disease, and with it modern practices of hygiene, but they were a couple of decades in the future. In our time, the relationship was well understood. Nevertheless, not everything was perfect. On our forward LZs, there were no flushing toilets, so we had to slip back into the XIXth century and build outhouses. To a visitor from the field, who lived as we did in the Stone Age, these edifices seemed like little Taj Mahals. These were not the standard style of outhouse which was situated over a deep hole resembling a well. Such holes eventually filled up, necessitating the moving of the outhouse to another locale. The Army could ill afford to constantly reposition outhouses on a crowded LZ, so they came up with removable receptacles. They were large metal drums cut in half. The use of such a system required that the human waste be disposed of somehow, yet this would seem to generate the fundamental problem all over again. The method of disposal, therefore, was to burn it right in the semi-barrel. Every outhouse had a set of trap doors behind them, one for each barrel. The trap door was opened and the barrel was dragged out a suitable distance from the outhouse. As one can imagine, big heavy gloves were used for this delicate operation. After that, jet fuel in Gerry cans was poured into the barrel, then ignited. The honorees of this duty referred to it as "burning shit." Afterwards, the ashes could be dumped, and the barrels returned. One of the things that I noticed is that the dung very frequently contained hoards of squirming worms. This was puzzling, since guys in the field almost never had worms in their dung. This is because in the field the primary source of food was C-rations, which were eaten out of cans. The food was not as valued as the cooked food in thermoses flown in on rare occasions replete with paper plates and plastic utensils. This was the food eaten by people in the rear. That was the essence of the problem, because this better food was subject to corruption in a way that canned food was not. It had to be prepared in pots and pans, then loaded in thermoses and conveyed to the chow line. A lot of bad things can happen to food in this chain of custody. Apparently, the acquisition of worms was one of them.
One of the legacies of the Civil War was Thanksgiving, declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. It was the kind of holiday that, paradoxically, must have appealed to my Great-Grandfather Pvt. Morrison who was something of a religious fanatic. The high point of this almost uniquely American holiday is a great feast in which a large turkey is the center of attention. The Battalion Commander wanted the best for his men on this holiday, as it tended to remind everyone of the missing family gathering that left a profound void in their lives on this day. The lucky Fourth Platoon was allowed to fly back to LZ English for Thanksgiving. The First Platoon was off by itself, and was dug in within a small perimeter.5 So it was arranged to have the cooks rustle us up a fine turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and this unique feast was packed up in thermoses and sent out by chopper. To give the cooks a break, much of this was done early in the day, on the theory that things should keep well enough in a thermos. As we were in the middle of nowhere, security didn't seem like too profound a problem, so we grabbed our paper plates and plastic utensils and filed through the chow line helping ourselves generously to what had by now become delicacies. We sat down by our foxholes in our Paleolithic world suddenly invaded by a welcomed time machine. The meal was great, or at least it tasted great. It grew dark, and the meal settled into our grateful GI tracts. Not long into the first guard shift, one of the guys in the foxhole to our right said in hushed tones, "Going out front." "Roger that," I replied in similar tones, then told the foxhole on my left, "A man's going out front." Eventually, he came stumbling back, but no sooner did he return, than the guy to my left made a similar announcement, and he too went out front. Soon I began to hear the loud whispers of other guys all over the place. I did a 360° survey, and to my surprise, there were people scrambling out front all around the perimeter. Soon I began to feel a GI imperative. I made the obligatory announcement so that I wouldn't get accidentally shot, but the risk of that had fallen considerably. It was all I could do to get the damn cat hole dug before I let loose. Soon I saw guys rushing forward in strange postures and gaits without even bothering to let anyone know they were leaving the perimeter. Soon there were more guys out front than there were in the prones and foxholes of our proper position. It turned out that the Special Meal was special indeed. The Army likes to call a meal a "mess," and that pretty well sums it up from beginning to end. You might say that we had two mess calls that night. Such was Thanksgiving in the field that by the time midnight rolled around we were truly thankful – thankful that we had survived the high point of the holiday without being hospitalized.
1 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division Association Collection, Daily Staff Journals, 1965-1969; Virtual Vietnam Archives, Texas Tech University, Collection 369, Daily Staff Journals 1965-1969, for 9 Nov 67 (3690128009), Items 23-24, 26, 29A, 30, 32, 37, 43, 51, 53, 55, 58 (q.v.).
2 DSJ for 09 Nov 67, Items 63-64.
3 A serious incident of exactly this nature, with 4 WIAs, befell "D" Company one day around 1900 hrs. DSJ, 21 March 68 (3690203021), Items 30-31.
4 DSJ for 09 Nov 67, Items 63, 65.
5 DSJ for 23 Nov 67 (3690129008), Item 89.
Liễu An (1) and An Qúi (1) — for a map showing these two villages and the situation at 1620 hrs., see An Qúi (1), 9 November 1967.
Bồng Sơn and LZ English — seen on the following maps: Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan; Bồng Sơn, LZ English, LZ Two Bits.