January 22nd, 1969… Good Mawnin’ Viet Nam
So…on about the 22nd of January of 1969, I left 5th Hosp. Co. for 20 days leave, to be split between Oklahoma and Loma Linda with Gina. On the evening of February 12th I kissed her for the last time, and boarded my flight at Travis AFB, and began my journey to points West. We landed in Hawaii for refueling, and then again on some little island in the Pacific, then the Philippines I think, or it may have been Okinawa.
Then on to Danang, arriving at 0600 hours on the 18th of Feb. Two days later, it’s onto a C130 cargo plane, (hey no seats in this thing), and off to Dong Ha. I was advised before landing that I was to run down the ramp as it lowered and go to my right to the bunkers, as they had been getting incoming that day. Holy crapola!
The ramp lowers, and this one scared Squid runs down it and does a right hand 90 degree swere, heads to the bunkers. No one there seems concerned and are lolling about. Someone asks if this is Doc Hopkins, which I answer to the affirmative. He guides me to a jeep and bounced me a few miles to Quang Tri and the BAS at 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines. Now, this place looked damn primitive to me… mostly tents, and a few 20X40’ plywood “hootches”. Little did I know that in a few days, and for 10½ more months, this would be Shangri-La.
I was given a cot in a tent behind the BAS hootch, and noticed that it appeared to be in rather moth eaten status. Apparently, some jerk was trying to frag the Doctor, but fragged the Corpsmen’s tent in error only a day or so before, resulting in a million small holes in the roof and sides of the tent. One of the Corpsmen was badly injured. Well, sleep tight FNG Squid!
February 21st, 1969
Now, I’ve been figuring… I’m an E-5 now, so probably the closest I will get to the front is right here. WRONG AGAIN! Within a couple of days, after getting my necessities from Supply, and the .45 Pistol from the Armory, (here we go with that thing about guns again!), I’m on my way to someplace called Con Thien. Something is definitely wrong with this picture. Where is that bastard Recruiter? Fear insidiously begins to loom even larger!
February 23rd, 1969… Hello Con Thien
A long dusty ride later, I find myself in Hell! Jezuz… What has gone wrong with my plans? Here is a red dirt knoll, in the middle of nowhere, replete with sandbagged bunkers, and a bunch of really crude looking, hairy dudes all over, running around with loaded guns, and casting a wary eye at this FNG in fresh new jungle utilities.
Here am I, wide eyed in disbelief wondering, “What do I do now?” Somehow, I got sent to report to HM2 Ray Galant, the Sr. Corpsman with the Company, that I was there to replace, and to the CO, Captain Riley; a Mustanger who seemed quite old to me. And he wore a red bandana around his neck. I don’t believe I ever knew the reason or the significance. Ray was in no big hurry to leave it seemed, as long as we were in this great, secure place.
Now, I didn’t understand it at the time, but I would grow to really appreciate Con Thien and those rat infested bunkers. Ray farmed me out to the 3rd Platoon, where Doc Tim Roth was assigned, to get an orientation and a little field experience. I connected well with Tim, a Californian, who was pretty laid back, and had become well-seasoned by that point.
He introduced me to SSgt Roy Hoatland, an older Marine; he must have been 25-27 years old! This character had red hair, and a red handlebar moustache, and while proficient as a Marine, he didn’t seem to have that overbearing gung-ho attitude, at least with us squids. Another attachment.
On March 1st, some of the 3rd Platoon was sent out to rescue an Army re-con team a few clicks beyond the perimeter. Arriving in the area where this team was holed up, supposedly surrounded, I heard my first real live fire. That unique sound an AK-47 makes is something I have never forgotten. Almost immediately, the call for a Corpsman came. (Oh, shit... here we go!)
I scurried through the head-high bushes and grass and was directed to the casualty, the Point man, Frank Longhat, a fellow Okie. I found him, and was crouched over him, setting about my work of determining his injuries; the first of which was a wound in his left thigh, and he looked at me and said “Doc, get your ass down”, and pointing just ahead of himself, “they just shot me from right there!”
Working together, we managed to get him behind a small clump of grass, and I set about
getting a battle dressing on his thigh where he had been hit. He seemed more concerned
about his foot, which initially I had not noticed. He had taken a round in the left foot.
These injuries rendered him non-ambulatory.
We managed to get him back to an area with a huge bomb crater, when there was a funny
“thooop”…. “thooop” sound that I had never heard before.
TUBES! Was screamed out, and a bunch of guys jumped into the crater, we pulled Frank in with us. Now this was a huge crater, it seemed to be 30’ or so across and 6-8’ feet or so deep if I remember correctly, and there were maybe a dozen guys in it scattered around the perimeter, and me in the bottom with Longhat. Mortars started landing and exploding somewhere beyond that crater.
I started to worry that I would have more injured, and then it struck me; if there is a hit in
this crater, we are all gonna be f***ed up. Holy shit! But, luckily, the NVA’s aim was
poor that day, and no further injuries were sustained.
We radioed in for a MedEvac chopper, which arrived without much delay, but it received
small arms fire, was hit, and had to turn to head back to base. I believe that it went down
on the way back to Quang Tri. We were advised to move to a more secure area before
another one would be dispatched.
We rigged a stretcher, utilizing some limbs or bamboo and a poncho, and put that Recon team as the primary carriers of our Point man as we moved about a click and a half (1500 meters) to a more secure area. Another chopper was requested, and they got Frank out. I have never been able to find him, but then I have been searching for a “Gordon Longhat”, so a renewed effort, now that I have his correct name, may be more fruitful. (NOTE: in late April 2005, after having given up on Frank as deceased, we made contact. He is doing well, and I got to thank him for the great schooling he gave me that day in March 1969)
I was now initiated into the wonders of warfare! My baptism under fire! Now, I felt, truly a Doc!
Another foray out from Con Thien a week or so later found us on Tanks! Now this was great! No humping! I was atop the 2nd tank in the formation as we bounced our way out to whatever the objective was. The tank I was riding had a bad turret brake, and the turret kept slowly turning to the right. They would swing it back around to the front again numerous times, and on one of those occasions, the barrel caught a dead tree limb, knocking it loose, and down onto us passengers. Then a bit later, the forward tank took a left turn over a berm, possibly a long abandoned rice paddy dike. As our tank followed and was astride of this low berm, the air suddenly turned black around us, the tank bounced and stopped dead in its tracks.
I somewhat remember the concussion, and the air turned black, and I dropped from atop the back of the turret down to on top of the engine area. Our first reaction was to dismount and seek cover, but that was delayed momentarily due to the uncertainty of more mines in the immediate area.
Actually, we didn’t know for sure if it was a mine, or an RPG; or if there were snipers, or if we had any enemy in our proximity. One of our guys, who had been sitting directly over the left side of the turret and directly above the explosion, was briefly knocked unconscious.
I remember that Joe Dilaqua was on that tank, and many years ago, I had corresponded
briefly with a Marine from the Midwest who was the one who was knocked out. I no longer can recall the name. In early 2004 I talked on the Internet with a third Marine, Al Vogeli, who was with us on that tank. The track was broken by the blast, and had to be repaired; then we moved on for a short while. That night, we stayed over out in the bush, because apparently the transmission was also damaged and we had to wait on a tank retriever to come out the next day to pull it in.
We had not brought any provisions with us, since it was only to be a short excursion. The tank crews had a couple of cases of C-rats on board which we shared, and my bed for the night was the damp grass, and my blanket was an empty C-rat case, unfolded. It was cold at night still, since it was early March. (Ah, lovely thoughts of my recruiter that night!)
Later that night that an RPG was fired into our little perimeter, fortunately causing no wounds; but the poor NVA schmuck who fired it was opened up on, and there were mere fragments of him left the next morning. That, and his AK-47. The tank retriever finally arrived the next day, and of course was so damn heavy it could barely move itself in the wet soft ground! So the broken tank wound up being towed in by another tank. Now why didn’t they do that in the first place on the day before?
While at Con Thien, we made various patrols daily, finding tunnels, etc. Also, there were the Mad Moments! These exercises were conducted at various times, I guess to let the NVA know we had lots of firepower. You could sit atop the bunkers at Con Thien and see the Red flag of the NVA compound across the river to the North. We were at the northwestern extreme of “Leatherneck Square” as I recall, and basically at the Northernmost base in VietNam (with the possible exception of Alpha 3). A virtual stones throw from North VietNam! (Then again, I believe the northernmost post was the bunkers just below the DMZ above Cua Viet.) The “Mad Moments” consisted of a sudden barrage of machine gun fire, mortars, and artillery, etc. being fired at a non-existent force. A readiness exercise as it were.
Some were daytime, some were at night. Quite impressive! At night, aerial flares were fired, lighting up the whole area. I was with a mortar crew during one of these, and it was kind of exciting. There were some quad 20’s on the perimeter, and the rhythmic booming of their fire, and the tracers were something to behold! Tanks with xenon searchlights would patrol the areas beyond our perimeter occasionally at night, searching for movement that was detected by the motion detectors that had been placed all around the area on and near the "Trace".
I also remember stacks of hurricane fencing, which was part of McNamara’s Line, but which was never completed, to my knowledge. Another night, we spent the night as security on some small bridge a click or two down the road from Con Thien, I think is was the "Washout". The routine was that every 15-30 minutes, I forget exactly, an M-79 fragmentation round was fired out to the north of us.
Well, intrigued by this little weapon, the Marines allowed the Doc to fire that thing. It was a partially moonlit night (quarter moon I think), so there was some ability to aim it. (Hmmm, he momentarily musta forgot that no guns thing!) It was a gas! And the Doc got pretty good with it!
Eventually, Ray called me up to show me how to run a sick call one morning. I showed up at his bunker, and he met me outside. “Hoppy, whatever I do, play along with it.” He said, and I agreed, not knowing what was in store.
I was to become aware that there was a rash of P-38 “rat bites” going around, particularly amongst the FNG’s (F***ing New Guys) and some slackers. Ray began sick call, and took on the “Rat bites” and weird “pains” first. They, of course, mostly had these vague anomalies to complain about, in an attempt to get sent to the rear at Quang Tri.
Part of the Sr. Corpsman’s duties was to identify malingerers, give them some aspirins or
whatever, but keep them on duty, and the unit strength maximized. I did not want to be
there any more than they did, but we all had our jobs to do.
Ray began to talk to these "kids", and recognizing what they were up to, he went into an
effeminate lisp, with accompanying gestures, (weren’t all Corpsmen supposed to be a little fegilah?), and I joined suit. All of a sudden, guess what? Right! … these “problems” seemed to disappear,and the bench was cleared of the flakes! Then with the more seasoned Marines remaining who had legitimate problems, chuckling and laughing, we continued sick call in earnest.
Now, I thought this trick was really cool, and used it a few times later on! I got the “routine” down pretty good, and can still evoke it on occasion.
Another memory of Con Thien, was this one Machine gunner who would not go inside of the bunkers. He was always sleeping on top of one. I just figured him a little Nam crazy, and didn’t really get to know him. I have in the last few years.