March 21st, 1969… Alpine (skiing not!)
We stayed at Con Thien through the 21st of March according to the Command Chronology, and were then choppered out to LZ Alpine (Fire Support Base - Alpine), a remote base with three 155mm canons on it for providing Arty support in the region. The hill was in the extreme NW corner of South Vietnam, a few kilometers east of Laos, and a few kilometers south of the DMZ. We were met there as we were landing with incoming 82mm NVA mortar fire. A fine little welcome! The commander of 1/4, LtCol Sargent, was KIA that day during the barrage. It was a bit of unnerving welcome, and rather busy.
This was another red dirt hill in the middle of nowhere. There was a slope to the west, though most of the rest of the hill was fairly rapid in descent, with trees to the east that were visited by rock apes, or monkeys of some kind. The North side of the hill, where my hole was positioned, was grassy down the steep slope into a valley, rising to an equally tall or taller, canopied hill. It was from across this area that we kept getting mortared daily, usually in the mornings it seems.
After about 3 or 4 days of this happiness, on March 24th 1969, a patrol was sent over on a search and destroy mission. Maybe they went out the night before, I’m not real certain. The cave where the NVA were holed up was found, at the cost of two of our Marines killed and one wounded.
The patrol, with Ron Playford walking point, rounded a big rock on the mountainside, directly in the line of fire from the NVA holed up in a cave. Playford approached it and was cut down. Coker rushed up to try and get him out of the line of fire, and was also hit.
A chicom or two was thrown out of the cave, and Coker tried to grab one and throw it away, but it went off; his hands and his eyesight went with it. He still struggled with what was left of his arms trying to get Playford out of range, unsuccessfully. As the rest of the squad came up, a hail of fire was directed into the cave, and the NVA were dispensed with.
Ron Coker received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the skirmish.
The citation is as follows:
Coker, Ronald Medal of Honor
COKER, RONALD L.
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps,
Company M, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division (Rein), FMF
Place and date: Quang Tri Province, RVN, 24 March 1969
Entered service at: Denver, Colorado Born: 9 August 1947, Alliance, Nebraska
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a rifleman with Company M in action against enemy forces. While serving as point man for the 2nd Platoon, Pfc. Coker was leading his patrol when he encountered 5 enemy soldiers on a narrow jungle trail. Pfc. Coker's squad aggressively pursued them to a cave. As the squad neared the cave, it came under intense hostile fire, seriously wounding 1 marine and forcing the others to take cover. Observing the wounded man lying exposed to continuous enemy fire, Pfc. Coker disregarded his safety and moved across the fire-swept terrain toward his companion. Although wounded by enemy small arms fire, he continued to crawl across the hazardous area and skillfully threw a hand grenade into the enemy positions, suppressing the hostile fire sufficiently to enable him to reach the wounded man. As he began to drag his injured comrade toward safety, a grenade landed on the wounded marine. Unhesitatingly, Pfc. Coker grasped it with both hands and turned away from his wounded companion, but before he could dispose of the grenade it exploded. Severely wounded, but undaunted, he refused to abandon his comrade. As he moved toward friendly lines, 2 more enemy grenades exploded near him, inflicting still further injuries. Concerned only for the safety of his comrade, Pfc. Coker, with supreme effort continued to crawl and pull the wounded marine with him. His heroic deeds inspired his fellow marines to such aggressive action that the enemy fire was suppressed sufficiently to enable others to reach him and carry him to a relatively safe area where he succumbed to his extensive wounds. Pfc. Coker's indomitable courage, inspiring initiative and selfless devotion to duty upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
The Marine mentioned in the Citation, was Ronald Playford, who was walking point in Coker’s stead that day. Playford was a shortimer, with only a little over a month to do of his tour, and probably shouldn’t have been walking on point. I heard over the radio that both were badly disfigured, so I suggested to Captain Riley that they be choppered out from the valley, rather than have to be carried up the hill for all hands to see, and morale suffering.
He concurred and the remainder of the patrol was held in the valley for a short while until a helicopter arrived to evacuate them. Some of the names I remember were Cpl. “Tiny” Foley, and J.D. Murphy, and Warren Vanaman were on that mission. J.D. was a machine gunner. Foley was killed in an airplane crash a few years ago.
It was somber on the hill after that, for the most part.
During our stay there, which was through Easter Sunday at least, I received my Dear John
(remember I said I kissed Gina for the last time…). Well, that’s life in Viet Nam, and in retrospect, I’m sure it was the best decision she ever made.
I went up to do a sick call, and was toward the south side of the hill, and an FNG came up with these white festering circles on his arms! That damned Jungle Rot! I believe I mentioned my observance of this, from back in the ER at Chelsea, and now one of my Marines had it! Not to be!
I grabbed his left arm, firmly about the wrist, reached down and unsnapped my K-Bar (one big combat knife!) from my right lower leg where I kept it strapped. Now it was so dull it wouldn’t cut butter, but this kid didn’t know that! I placed blade across his arm at the uppermost point of the numerous lesions, and swiftly scraped down his arm! His eyes got as big as saucers, and he started trying to jerk his arm away. I kept a solid grip on his wrist and sternly said, “Hold still Marine!” Needless to say his arm was bleeding now from the areas that had been covered with puss filled rings, not badly, but oozing and trickling downward.
Others waiting to be seen were as wide-eyed as my patient!
Then I got out my big Corpsman size bottle of “Monkey’s Blood” (Benzalkonium Chloride, an antiseptic with a sting akin to iodine), and proceeded to pour it on these freshly scraped lesions. This stuff stung a little, on a small cut, but on a bigger wound…. It was fire! Again, he attempted to escape my hold on his arm. Well, after letting this soak in to his memory for a moment, I applied a sulfa salve, and dressed it with gauze bandages.
I had figured out that Jungle Rot was a staph infection, and had a bottle of 250 capsules of an Eli Lilly product (the exact name escapes me, but it seems they were red and cream colored) that was specific for staph infections. I gave him 15 capsules and instructed him to take one, three times a day until they were gone. Also to return to me the next day, so I could change the dressings. The look of sheer terror in his eyes, upon this demand of returning to see me, was really something. I assured him if it was clean and healing, no further “treatment” would be necessary. He came back the next day, I changed his dressings, and let his platoon Corpsman handle it from there.
By that evening, my Corpsmen were coming to me needing the small individual tubes of Monkey’s Blood for their Platoons. I had to have the CP radio the BAS, and a case of it was sent out. Also, in spite of the sometimes-sweltering heat, sleeves and trousers legs were down, and orange daubs appeared on the arms and faces of the Company. No one wanted to have to go see that crazy Doc with the K-Bar, with lesions on themselves! Worked like a charm, and no more Jungle Rot! No scars to carry the rest of their lives, due to something that was so easy to prevent.
On Easter Sunday, a Company from 1-4 (?) was humping in from Laos, as I understood, and the CP group had a 5-gallon jerrycan of coffee made for them when they arrived. This was not an easy feat. Water was brought onto the hill by chopper in “water bulls” (wheeled tanks of about 300 gallon capacity), and the water had to be boiled in canteen cups, and grounds added and then strained off into the jerry can. It was an all night effort by the duty radioman and watch. It was unseasonably cold that particular night and day, teeth chattering cold! And of course we are in tropical uniforms, and only a poncho liner for warmth.
These guys came up onto the hill, filthy, hairy, and damn cold and tired! I remember giving a couple of their corpsmen shaves…. With my surgical prep razor! This was accomplished with a ½ canteen of water, heated, and put in a helmet, for a basin effect. This razor of course, used single edged disposable blades, and I’m sure by the time I finished shaving their faces, it was gettingpretty dull and I had changed the blade a few times in the interim. The unfortunate side effect of this was that now their faces were cold! But they looked almost human again. Gung friggin’ ho! But Corpsmen must set an example in hygiene right?