he hill in front of us was lit up like daylight on this particular November morning in Vietnam. We could see an occasional burst of our artillery hitting its target off in the distance. The three of us sat peering out of the slits in our bunker. Despite being able to see an occasional flash from an enemy rifle, we did not open up with our secret weapon ... a .50 caliber machinegun. We chose not to do so since the enemy had not yet figured out where all of our heavy guns were located. After all, we had only just moved into position on the side of this small hill late the night before and our bunker had not yet been dug very deeply. Things had been quiet most of the night, and now, at 3:30 AM, the enemy had chosen to wake us up. We had 105mm howitzers behind us cranking off illumination and high explosive rounds at a rate of one every 15 seconds. It was getting quite noisy, and the three of us had to nearly shout in order to carry a conversation.
Things were beginning to get busy out in front of us. The grunts were starting to rock 'n roll. We could hear the familiar M-14 cranking off semi-automatic fire. We could hear the reports of the enemy's M-1 carbines and an occasional AK-47 assault rifle.
Earlier that evening, while things were still quiet, Gunnery Sergeant Tchaikovsky called all the outposts on the field phone and told us that intelligence reports were predicting an enemy probe sometime during the night. He told us that there was reportedly a battalion-sized Viet cong unit moving towards our position. He ordered a 100% alert! He didn't have to order that, believe me. We were all more than a little nervous about finally being baptized under fire. This would be our first battle since arriving in country several weeks prior.
Gunny Ski (affectionately known as "Gunny Godammit") was a big, lanky Pennsylvanian with a curious bit of wit about him. We gave him the respect he deserved for having been a veteran of the Korean War, but not much else. Just about every sentence he spoke would include the word "godammit" in it. I can still hear him in front of our morning formations back in California, "Alright, godammit, FALL-IN!" One afternoon, the gunny called a special formation. He had heard a complaint that several Marines in our unit had only been issued one wool blanket. "Alright, godammit," Gunny Ski bellowed, "some of you Marines have been issued two wool blankets, while others of you have only been issued one. So, I want the ones who have two blankets to give the guys with only one blanket one of their blankets, and then everyone will have two." I'm still wondering where the logic is in that one! Like an idiot, I gave one of my blankets to Lance Corporal Jimmy Jones. Gunny Ski was certainly tough on us, and he was a Marine that all of us loved to hate.
Jimmy was now my A-gunner on the .50 caliber machinegun. The other Marine in our outpost was Jake Barnes, a Louisiana man who spoke very slowly and deliberately ... and with a strong southern drawl. We heard Gunny Godammit off in the distance behind us yelling some obscenities. "Alright, godammit." He yelled, "Keep your heads down up front." No sooner did he say that when suddenly we were being clobbered by 40mm M-79 grenades, which were landing all around our bunker. About five or six of them landed to our right, and one hit the back of our bunker. We wondered if the gunny had been drinking. Jones picked up the field phone and tried calling back to our HQ to let them know that the gunny's aim was off. Our phone was dead, the lines probably severed by the rounds that landed in our vicinity. We started yelling back to the gunny to cease fire, but the rounds kept coming. Finally, after another dozen rounds were fired in our direction, we couldn't hear each other talking anymore, but the bombardment stopped. We breathed a little easier, for the moment, but then things began picking up momentum in front of us.
“My head felt
hit me with
...I yelled to
him that I
I was hit”
TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT! "That was an AK!" said Jones. We all agreed that it was very close to our position. TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT! A spray of dirt from the sandbags in front of us filled my eyes. TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT - TAT! ZING! My head felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer, and I fell backwards against the rear wall of our bunker. I reached up to wipe my eyes and feel my face, and it was all wet. At the same time, I felt a huge weight slump against my shoulder. It was Barnes. At first, I couldn't see what was wrong with him. I heard a gurgling sound and a sound like he was trying to talk. The cannons behind us grew more intense, and the weapons fire to our front was now murderous. I yelled to Jones telling him that I thought I was hit. I told him that something was wrong with Barnes, but I still couldn't see clearly what was happening.
The illumination rounds being fired from the 105's kept the night sky lit, and we were finally able to see Barnes, now lying on the floor of our bunker, and bleeding badly from the face, his hands clenching his throat. Still in a state of shock from having my own bell rung, I dug around in the darkness looking for a first-aid packet on one of our cartridge belts. Got it! I felt like I was all thumbs as I opened up a large field dressing and began working with Barnes. Still unsure of my situation, I asked Barnes if he could hear me. He nodded in the affirmative. He started to cry. Things were getting seemingly worse out in front of us, and Jones reported that he could see more rifle flashes pointed in our direction. He wanted to fire the machinegun, but I told him not yet.
Barnes was shaking violently, and was obviously already in shock. He was conscious of what was happening; yet there wasn't anything we could do to make the hurt go away. Jones tried the field phone again to get a corpsman down to us. The phone was still dead. He started calling back to the rear area where the cannons were still firing away. We could hear Gunny Godammit yelling down to us to answer our field phone, but it was apparent that he had no idea what was going on with us at that moment. "POST TWO, ANSWER YOUR GODAMNED PHONE, GODAMMIT!" he yelled.
I told Jones that one of us had to get back to the CP and get help. Barnes needed a corpsman before he bled to death. Jones volunteered to stay with him while I crawled back to get HM2 "Doc" Stewart.
Crawling out the back of our bunker, I followed the Comm wire towards the battery CP. Shortly after leaving the safety of our bunker, I felt very vulnerable to the rounds that were landing around me as I crawled as fast as I could up the side of the hill. Holding onto the wire, I came across the break, which was severed by one of the 40mm grenades Gunny Ski was laying on us. After searching around for the other end of the break and finding it, I twisted the wires together, and crawled back down the hill to the safety of our bunker and tried the field phone.
"Battery CP, Lance Corporal Toomey speaking," I heard the voice say. "This is post two ... Barnes is hit pretty bad ... send Doc down here NOW," I shouted into the field phone. Barnes' field dressing was completely soaked in crimson red, and he was still whimpering and shaking uncontrollably. I reached over to him and told him that Doc was on the way.
was I ever so
glad to see
Just as I was doing so, I turned around and saw this huge figure of a man come sliding into our bunker. "Alright, godammit, ... let's get this Marine outta here." Never before was I ever so glad to see Gunny Ski. He was the veteran Marine. The Marine that all of us sometimes hated; yet secretly admired because he was a seasoned combat veteran. Somehow, we knew we were going to be all right now. The Gunny came to our rescue. And, he brought with him a replacement for Barnes, who was now being carried back to the CP in the arms of this big, lanky, tough, dim-witted, loveable Gunnery Sergeant of Marines.
It was now about 0530, and the fighting began to taper down. The morning dawn was creeping over the hillside on which we were entrenched, and we could barely make out the outline of several water buffalo which were casually strolling across the meadow beyond.
"Time for "check-in," isn't it, Greene?" Jones asked. "Exec Pit, this is post two ... all secure," I reported.
I never saw Gunny Tchaikovsky again after that terrible morning in early November. He was killed about an hour after he carried Barnes out of harms way. He was killed while saving another one of his precious Marines from an almost certain death. The date ... 10 November 1966 ... my first Marine Corps Birthday in the Marine Corps.
I know where Gunnery Sergeant Tchaikovsky is today. Rest assured, he is taking care of our beloved Marines who have been called back to guard those pearly gates.
Happy Birthday, Marines!
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