“Roll ‘Em Up – Roll ‘Em Down: Spit and Polish in the Bush”
It was I967. I was a PFC in Mike 3/3. It was the second day of a battalion-sized operation. The battalion commander separated Mike from the rest of the battalion and sent us on a mission to check out a hill where someone saw a flash of light the night before. Our company consisted of three rifle platoons, a weapons platoon, air and artillery forward observers and their radio operators and a hodgepodge of assorted hangers on. I would guess we numbered about one hundred fifty souls. We traveled in a column; one hundred fifty men walking single file strung out across the country side, at least 10 to 15 feet between each man. The standing order, repeated endlessly was "Spread out! One round can get you all"
It was hot that day; "Hotter than a mother****er" was the expression we used. Some of you may have heard the expression. I understand it is a bit warm in Iraq as well. It was a humid, sticky; fatiguing kind of heat. As we humped the hills, the gear we were saddled with made the heat all the more oppressive. We all wore flak jackets; we all had packs on. Not counting the weight of our helmets, ammo and individual weapons, our packs weighed between 20 and 30 pounds. On top of that, almost everyone carried some extra piece of gear that was either cumbersome or heavy. The truly unfortunate Marines carried gear that was both cumbersome and heavy. Here a man carried a hundred feet of rope wrapped around his torso like a sleepy snake (but never so sleepy that it didn't grab onto any branch or limb in the protruding underbrush tripping up its carrier at every opportunity). There a man carried a pyrotechnics bag, a dozen slender tubes of flares color coded to identify the hue the flare inside would take on when fired.
One man carried a demo bag. He had some special consolation for his job. The demo bag was a canvas pouch filled with C-4 plastic explosives, some fuses and some blasting caps. He knew that each night he would eat a hot meal made steaming in less than five seconds. He would peel off a small bit of the explosive and roll it into a ball the size of a big marble. When lit, the C-4 instantly hissed into life and flashed as bright as the sun for just a few seconds. We were sure the heat of it ranged into the thousands of degrees. That C-4 burned so hot and fast a meal or a cup of coffee would be steaming hot in less than five seconds. The thought of a hot meal at 1900 hours is only slight consolation at 1100 hours when you're lugging around 15 extra pounds of explosive shit to blow up bunkers you'll never find.
Every third or fourth man carried two hundred rounds of machine gun ammo. Others shouldered machine guns, or mortars or mortar rounds, or LAAW's (miniature one-shot disposable rocket launchers) or Claymore mines, a dark green plastic contraption about the size of a textbook and shaped like a rodeo trophy buckle. It had four little adjustable legs so you could stand it up in the ground and point it in any direction. It also had a very helpful warning sign on it which said (honest to God) “This side towards enemy.” It was important to know which side to point toward the enemy because when you fired it off, it would launch a huge volley of ball bearings that cut a swath several meters wide through anything that was in front of it.
So there we were, marching over hill and dale looking for Charlie and sweating our balls off. One hundred fifty men spaced 10 to 15 feet apart can take up more than a quarter of a mile. Depending upon the terrain, it can be damn close to half a mile between the point man and tail end Charlie. In the hinterlands of Vietnam, it is unlikely that the topography is the same over any given quarter or half-mile stretch of land. And so it was nearly always true that while part of the company was inching its way through dense thicket under a blanket of trees, another part broiled in the mid-day sun. While one man was sweating, slipping, stumbling and swearing his way up a colossus of a hill that fought him every inch of the way and cut him with its barbed bushes and razor sharp elephant grass, somewhere up the line his companion who preceded him was winging, wheeling and whistling his way down the smooth grassy knoll on the other side of the hill.
Some part of the company had the easy traveling that could be had under big cool shade trees free of underbrush. Only enough light passed through the upper leaves so that what hit us mixed with the lower leaves to cast a greenish glow on everything. (In spite of all the grief these operations inflicted on us, traveling through a forest like that could almost be a religious experience it was so beautiful.)
In any event, because of the length of the column and the variety of countryside this strange land offered, no ten men in Mike Company ever experienced the same condition at the same time. This fact however, seemed to have escaped our C.O. When a company travels in column, the order of march is usually one rifle platoon, followed by another, followed by the C.P. Group (commanding officer, company radio men, forward observers and their radio men, senior Corpsman, top or company gunny), followed by the weapons platoon with their machine guns and 60 mm mortars and 3.5" rocket launchers (which we were not allowed to call bazookas even though they looked and acted like bazookas – bazookas were 2.3 inch rocket launchers), and finally, the last rifle platoon. This means the C.O. is generally somewhere in the middle of the column.
It is a rare circumstance, given hills, dales, jungles, and winding trails, in which anyone man can see much further than ten to twenty men in front of or behind him. There is always some point where the column drops out of sight behind a hill or is swallowed by underbrush reminiscent of Dante's fourth ring of hell. Occasionally our visibility dropped to one or two men in front of or behind us. That was when the bush was really thick and thorny and difficult to move through.
As I mentioned, on that particular operation, it was very hot and we were all very sweaty; our misery was compounded by the fact that our new company commander was on loan to us. He was not a genuine line rifle company commander. He was a seagoing bellhop. His regular duty station was to command a bunch of Marines who wore dress blues and served as MPs on an aircraft carrier. I suspect that to compensate for the fact he wasn’t a regular line officer, he also happened to be a physical fitness nut. We concluded he felt he had to prove he was as good as us real grunts. He did this by humping our asses off with few breaks. Before we even started marching that morning, the circles of sweat at our armpits and crotches started to branch out onto the rest of our shirts and trousers. Like dark green germ cultures on agar plates, circles of moisture spread out steadily in all directions; here defining the cracks of our asses in obscene black underscoring, there shooting damp feelers starting from both shoulders to meet at our breastbones in a tiny triumph of this perverse life form that was destined, in a matter of hours, to infect our entire bodies. Indeed, it seemed like an infection for the more we sweated, the more fatigued we became.
The C.O., perhaps experiencing some discomfort himself, passed the word along the column for the men to roll up their sleeves. He may have done it in a fit of "noblesse oblige" thinking we would note his lordship’s kindness and worship him all the more for it. I don’t think he really understood the concept of noblesse oblige. One day he actually said these two sentences one in front of the other, "From now on the men will go to chow before the officers whenever we're at the rear. By the way, Cordileone, have you finished digging my bunker for me yet?" As I was the one who had to dig his f***ing hole for him, that bit of hypocrisy was not lost on me. I remember thinking he could take his "noblesse oblige" and stick it up his "derriere."
Regardless of his reasons, the word passed forward and back from the brain center of the column. "Roll up your sleeves to cool off. Pass it on." "Roll up your sleeves," said the swarthy Greek Coutrakis to the thin black man in front of him. "Roll up your sleeves," said the thin black man to the pale Swede whose arms would be burned red within hours. "Roll up your shirtsleeves," said the Swede to the man in front of him. "Shirtsleeves up," said the next man. And on it went.
This Captain was absolutely insufferable. He insisted that everything in the bush be squared away just as it would be in the rear (a place where he had spent his entire Marine Corps career). We concluded that it was his most recent duty station, sea duty, that caused our temporary “loaner” Captain to be preoccupied with uniformity. Marines should always be in the proper uniform of the day he said. Somehow ensuring that you had your utility jacket on in 120° heat when you were burning a shitter because all the other Marines had to have their utility jackets on, didn’t carry the same importance for us that it did for him. He was sure that uniformity was what it took to build pride and character. Another convention he observed which was lost on the rest of us was the fact that he polished his boots. In the f***ing field! Our jungle boots rarely had any of the black dye remaining on the leather. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense as we generally wanted to look as much like the dirt and trees around us as we possibly could. But this Captain felt differently.
We learned from him that, under normal circumstances, a rolled up shirtsleeve is never, NEVER, the proper way to wear a uniform. He really felt that way. To us, that nicety seemed a little incongruous given the fact that poor resupply invariably meant that there was never a time in the field when at least two or three men were walking around with their balls hanging out of trousers they wore which had split from crotch to boot after getting caught on the thorns of the bushes. Never mind that we were thousands of miles from the critical eye of the public we were proud to serve.
A good Marine doesn't roll up his shirtsleeves. But today, in 120-degree heat, just this once, the skipper was going to throw away the Guidebook. Well, at least he'd tear out a few pages. However, he insisted on uniformity even in the way we were out of uniform. He concluded that proper protocol was that all the men must be dressed the same so that we were uniform in our appearance. That meant everyone had to roll up his sleeves. I am not sure who it was we were going to impress with our uniformity. The only people who were likely to see us were the NVA scouts who dogged our trail from time to time.
Walking point, to my way of thinking, is not a particularly good job. Fortunately, I was never good at it. Some guys seemed to like it, but then, the reality is that a certain percentage of men who joined the Marines are genuinely insane. That was the only explanation I could come up with for someone voluntarily walking point. The point man on a Company-sized operation is shown a map of where the company is to go. It's his job to lead the column there. As he progresses, his squad leader, who is four or five men back, directs the point man. The squad leader is, in turn, is directed by the radioman who follows him. The radioman is directed by one of the platoon leader's two radiomen. One man is on the platoon frequency and one is on the company frequency. The platoon leader is directed by the C.O.'s radioman who is directed by the C. O. Remember, he's back somewhere in the middle of the column. Sometimes a few of radio men are cut out of the stream when the C. O. himself gets on the horn, talks directly to the platoon commander and gives direction about where he wants us to go.
Sometimes travel is easy because there is a trail, but more often, there is no trail or the point man is directed to veer off the beaten path and blaze a new trail with his machete. Remember also, most of the time the C.O. can't see where the head of the column has been until he gets there himself. This often leads to him giving orders to backtrack or cut across vicious terrain to get back on the course he originally intended. Other than problems of direction, the point man had only to worry about spotting booby traps (not all that common in the DMZ). The two men who followed him usually kept an eye peeled for the enemy. This freed the point man to hack out a hole in the underbrush and overhanging vines.
Most often, the point man was very small, or very agile, or both. He cut a path only wide enough for himself. Because he was the point man, he was not burdened with any of the extra cumbersome or heavy pieces of gear. Each man following, with all the gear on his back was expected to widen the hole as much as necessary to get his own self through. Based upon personal experience, I concluded that all the extra gear we were issued was designed for the sole purpose of snagging on vines and bushes. On this particular operation, I was convinced that the point man proceeded with unerring accuracy to lead us through the thickest, thorniest, most painful jungle ever to curse any tiny nation seeking democracy and salvation from the Godless communists.
As we tore our way through the jungle, the vines and thistles, bristling with barbs and thorns, ripped at our forearms now exposed by the fact that we all had our sleeves rolled up. Each man clawing his way through the thicket winced as the jungle came to life and the barbs gouged out flecks of his skin. Ho Chi Minh, I think, posited the metaphor of the mighty elephant brought to its knees by a swarm of ants, no one ant could ever take a bite large enough to cause the behemoth to bat an eye. The cumulative effect, however, devastates the animal. Traveling through the dense jungle, each individual Marine became a microcosm of the metaphor. But our ants, our enemies, were not the NVA.
Our enemy was the land itself. The jungle rose up against us. For every thorny vine or branch, which fell to the point man's machete, a hundred others remained to rip tiny jagged holes into our flesh. The jungle barbs relied upon their tiny allies the germs to infect our wounds. A scratch on the arm takes weeks to heal in Vietnam, months if cellulitis sets in. You know you have cellulitis when you see that, although the scratched skin has scabbed over, the flesh underneath remains infected and continues to fester. After a time, the scab breaks open (or is torn off by another thorny bush) to expose the pus and bile that has been roiling under the surface of the scab. Then a new scab forms up covering a larger area. Before we ever had a spit and polish Captain loaned to us from aircraft carrier duty, even though we were free to roll our sleeves up, it was very common to find, when we were humping through thick jungle, that we kept our sleeves rolled down no matter how hot it was in order to prevent our forearms from getting ripped open.
This was our new C.O.'s first operation. He was unaware of the fact that rolled up sleeves deep in the bush would take a toll on the arms of his men. But he did learn that day. This is because eventually the center of the column, the part containing our new C.O., arrived at a place where the bush began ripping up the forearms of the command group, including the C.O. He learned firsthand of the discomfort caused by his edict that everyone roll up his sleeves.
With the tactical mind of a Clausewitz, the C.O. developed a new strategy to deal with this impediment he had not foreseen. He concluded that if his men rolled their sleeves down, the chances of being scratched by the vicious underbrush would be drastically reduced. He ordered that the word be passed up and down the line to roll those sleeves down. Not only that, that there was no longer any need to have our sleeves rolled up because the cover of the jungle lowered the temperature. In the underbrush, the C.O. discovered it was not nearly as hot as it was when he was hiking out in the open (back when he first passed the word for everyone to roll up their sleeves). "Tell the men to roll down their sleeves and button the cuffs tight," he ordered. "Pass it on."
"Roll your sleeves down," said the swarthy Greek Coutrakis to the thin black man in front of him. "Roll down your shirtsleeves," said the thin black man to the pale Swede whose arms now had a pinkish glow to them. "Roll down your shirtsleeves," the Swede said to the next man. "Shirtsleeves down," said the next; and on it went. By the time this order worked its way forward to the point man, he was out of the bush and boiling in the sun. He was already scratched up and had nothing to lose; nothing except the time it took for him to fart around unfolding his shirtsleeves and buttoning his cuffs.
But this was Vietnam. He had plenty of time. He had 136 days and 13 hours before he was scheduled to rotate home. (Each man kept track of things like that.) I was closer to the end of the column on that particular day and only about one third of the way through the underbrush when the C.O. found himself again out of the jungle and marching under a hot sun on a cloudless day. Of course, being in the open on a 120 degree day, he was immediately struck with the heat and was soaking in sweat. Ever versatile and willing to adapt to any environment, he passed the word up and down the line (for he was concerned with our welfare and Guidebook be damned). "Tell the men to roll their sleeves up. It'll help 'em cool off. Pass it on." "Roll up your sleeves," said the swarthy Greek Coutrakis to the thin black man in front of him. "Roll up your sleeves," said the thin black man to the pale Swede whose arms would soon go from pink to red. "Roll up your shirtsleeves," said the Swede to the man in front of him. "Shirtsleeves up," said the next man. "Oh for Christ's sake!" said the next man. And on it went.
You see, the Captain had been on sea duty and was preoccupied with uniformity. Occasionally, the word went slowly, or the thickets were closely interspersed with open ground and twenty or thirty percent of us actually had our sleeves up (or down) when they should have been up (or down). Nevertheless, except for the Captain and those fortunate few close enough to him to be in or out of the bush when he was, it was never the same twenty or thirty percent. After three or four hours passed, we were all scratched up and the pale Swede was beginning to blister in the places where the blood hadn't caked over the skin to form a protective screen from the sun.
The C.O. finally stopped his stupid f***ing yo-yo sleeve game when the point man, with 136 days and 9 hours to go, brought his machete down on a trip wire hidden among the vines. Some thought he might have seen it had he really been looking, but the fact is, booby traps are rare in the DMZ and most of the time, you didn’t really need to look for them.
It took the C.O. the rest of the day to figure out how to call in a med-evac chopper to get the point man's body picked up. He could have asked any of his platoon sergeants, or the company gunny, how to do it, but he didn't want the men to think he was stupid. He should have asked what we thought. It would have been a lot faster if he just let the gunny call it in. Whether he could read a f***ing map or not really didn’t have a lot to do with how stupid we thought he was.
Randy McPhee remembered by two of his buddies:
Randy was funny. He was also a teacher, although I'm sure the Corps wasn't happy about what he taught. He loved the Corps and loved to poke the Corps in the butt. Here's a story Randy told me about what happened to his 1st tour in Nam.
One night, Randy dozed off while on guard. He had just laid his head down against the sandbag in front of his hole. The XO was walking the perimeter and came upon the dozing McPhee.
"Who's on guard here?" the Lt. asked. No answer. A little louder "Who's on guard here? Marine, you'd better answer me!"
McPhee, instantly awake didn't skip a beat. In a single motion, he popped his head up, shushed the Lt., motioned him to duck down and then laid his head back down on the sandbag and closed his eyes again. The Lt. hit the deck. "What is it?" he asked. McPhee opened his eyes again, drew the Lt. near and whispered, "Out there, in the wire. He was sneaking up and I thought if I pretended to be asleep I might be able to capture him." Then he paused and gave the Lt. a disapproving look, "I hope you didn't scare him away."
The XO's eyes widened. "VC?"
"Yeah," replied McPhee, "it only sounds like one or two.
They could either be scouts or suicide sappers. Don't alert anyone yet. It might only be rats."
"Oh, uh, okay. I'm going back to tell the captain. You keep me posted if anything else happens."
The Lt. crawled away on his stomach. McPhee went back to sleep.
We all loved him and we missed him when he was killed.
I joined Cpl Daniel A. Wilsey's 2nd Squad in the first part of January 1967. I was assigned to LCpl Thomas C. Wheeler's 2nd Fire Team. That's when I first met Randy, who was also in Wheeler's Fire Team (PFC Milton E. Prescott, Jr. was the other Fire Team member). It wasn't long before Randy and I became very good friends.
I remember best his sense of humor. If our trek through the hot, steamy jungle was exceptionally wearing, Randy would cut loose with his well articulated one-liner (which only he could annunciate correctly), "First I'm gonna go to Hong Kong (referring to R & R), and then I'm gonna go to The Zoo (referring to Vietnam). Yak, yak, yak!" That always seemed to make the load we were bearing immediately lighter.
Once, when we were in the "Fish Bowl" near the "Razorback" and the "Rockpile", it was our squad's turn to unload the resupply trucks fresh in from Dong Ha. The day was blistering hot as we slowly shuffled through the dust passing by several of our officers on our way to the parked trucks near the middle of the compound. One of the officers called out to us to "straighten up and look like Marines" - going on to say that we looked like a mob.
Randy immediately retorted, without missing a shuffle, "We're not a mob. A mob has a leader."
All of us continued on as if nothing had happened, so the officers dropped it. But we were all keeping our lips tight in order to hold in our laughter.
I couldn't be with Randy on Hill 881 South when he and Prescott were killed (30 April 1967 - The Hill Fights). But I look forward to the day when we can be together, again.
It's not just his sense of humor I remember. He was a fine young man.