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Oral History: Alan and the Water Buffalo
Oral History of Alan Michael Tanguay
Source: Joseph P. Carey
Alan and the Water Buffalo
The last day of Alan Michael Tanguay, a Private First Class of the United States Marine Corps (14 September 1946 - 10 March 1966, Bellingham, Washington. Panel 05E Line 135), was no different than any other day for any other Marine in Lance Corporal Barone’s Fireteam of the 1st Platoon of Kilo Company the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marines, in Chu Lai, Vietnam.
There was nothing very special that would differentiate Alan from the other Marines he served with, and the best that could be said about Alan was that he was a Marine, and that did his job so very well with honor to the very end. And, of course, there was the water buffalo incident.
Alan was not so overly impressive as human beings go. He was almost as tall as I was at 6 feet tall; he was skinny as most of us were in Vietnam from the diet of C-rations, called ‘C-rats’, and all too rather scarce cooked meals. What weight he, and we, did have was a combination of the ‘C-rats’ and the field kitchen whenever it was nearby, and what we supplemented our diet with by the consumption of goodies from home sent to the members of the squad in those wonderful ‘Care Packages’ from our Moms, and from our sisters, and from our girlfriends alike to let us know that they were still thinking of us in our time of need.
I guess it would not be fair to call Alan skinny, or any of us for that matter to be called skinny, we were lean, and we were mean, the Marine Corps breed us that way. We were the shorthaired Doberman’s of War. We may have been under weight, but we were able to walk up and down rain slicked and muddy mountains, and through water filled thick mudded rice paddies, and we worked our way through thick jungle patches, all in the same day while carrying the implements of war on our backs in a climate that would best be described as 88% humidity and 90 degree temperatures of heat all the time, that is when it was not pouring down rain on us, because then it got worst.
On March 9th, 1966, the day before we walked into Phu Le (1) with Alan at the point, he and I went down the hill from our positions at 0630 Hours just as light was just breaking in the Eastern sky over the South China Sea, Nam Hai the villagers called the mass of water, we called it the Lake. The sun would not show its face for another half an hour yet, but we could see it climbing into the sky already.
We wore our standard cotton olive drab utilities, an ammo belt with a loaded magazine of twenty 7.62 mm rounds on it, and we were soft covered being behind the lines so to speak; no helmet this trip. This was our appearance, while we tried to keep our M-14s on our shoulders as we carried water cans in our hands while walking down the mountain trail to the Battalion CP far below us. We, along with a FNG Private (What we called a brand new replacement), were carrying four Five-Gallon Water Cans, and we had a carry-board on the back of the FNG who would carry the ‘C-rats’ for the day’s meal, and any ammo and grenades that the Company told us to take up the hill to the unit.
We walked over the worn path with just enough light to see and to avoid some of the loose rocks that were in our way down the mountain, and by the time we reached the mountain stream where we would often bath and wash our clothing when time permitted, the sun was just poking its head up over the sea to take a look around at Vietnam. Maybe, it too knew the dangers of the country we were in, as it almost appeared cautious in its rise into the sky over Vietnam.
In fifteen more minutes we were at the front CP tent flap of the Company Tent, and the FNG and I went to the Water Buffalo to fill the water cans, and to get a drink for ourselves.
As it happens, this water-buffalo was the four legged type that roamed at his pleasure in the rice paddies of Vietnam. This was what we called the great green canvas bag that hung from a tripod and was filled with drinking water that you obtained from the series of taps at the bottom of the bag. Still, the water was still cool from the night chill, but it was still water out of a canvass bag, and it still tasted like a tent, but it was better than nothing at all.
As the FNG and I returned to the CP tent where Alan was BS’ing with the Company Clerk, whom he knew from back in Pendleton, we started to load the carry-board with two cans of M-14 Ammo, a can of M-60 Belt Ammo, two radio batteries, and two boxes of ‘C-rats’. It was one heavy load, but once on the back of a man, and the man under it was moving, it was nothing that we hadn’t carried before up the hill.
We really didn’t make the FMG haul the thing up the hill all by his self when we walked up the hill. We would switch loads so that each of us carried an equal amount of the load for a ways. That is the Marine Corps way of doing things.
The CP, leastwise, the Clerk most of all, was where we got the ‘scuttle-butt’ for the day, and we would be told of what was happening around the Battalion CP area, and we would dutifully pass on the news to the other members of the squad when we got back up on the hill. The Clerk said that there were some operations coming up in the next couple of days, and it would be our company that would be the lead elements of the operation. He also informed us of the different enemy units that were in the area, or, at least, those enemy units that he had heard about, and had been identified by the locals to our intelligence people.
After our Private’s briefing, we turned toward the mountain, and we carried the water and supplies up the hill to the lines, as I said earlier, switching loads as we went up the hill.
When we arrived on the lines, we told Corporal Brock, the Squad Leader of First Squad, of what we had heard, and as he poured water into his helmet to shave and wash with, he told us to have the Fireteam leaders report to him for their water, and their ammo, and their chow.
After morning chow, Ham Steak for me, and after we had shaved and washed, we policed the area real good of papers and other trash and cigarette butts, and we took out our machetes to cut down brush in front of the positions. Alan and I had grabbed the machetes and we worked on the brush out to the barbwire, and we checked the cans in the wire to make sure they still had those tiny rocks and pebbles inside them so as when someone touched that wire at night, the rattling would give us warning of someone’s presence in the wire. We also went down the hill beyond the wire and we checked our flare trip wires, and we moved some from the positions that they were in to other positions. We checked the two Claymores to make sure they were in the right positions, and that some enterprising and stealthy young VC had not come up the mountain and turned them around on us. Everything was SOP!
Corporal Brock came around and he checked the positions for any trash, and he checked for brush in front of the position’s field of fire. He also told us that ‘we were out of here’ before first light in the morning, and to ‘stow away’ anything that we did not want the people that take our lines during the operation might steal. He said there would be a rifle inspection in an hour, and for us to make sure that our canteens were filled to the brim with water.
It was at that time that a second work party from the Second Squad had just returned from the CP with extra ‘C-rats’, and more ammo and grenades, and some more of the new plastic canteens for those that did not have them yet. Many of us still had our old aluminum canteens that were to be replaced by this ‘Matty Mattle Canteen’ because of the water gaskets that would not seal the canteen tops and because of the noise the canteens made coming out of the canteen cup at night on ambushed. Add to that that the old aluminum canteens would give off a reflection like a giant mirror, and you could understand why the old canteens were not so popular.
Brock came around an hour later to check the rifles as he had said he would, and he handed out some squeeze bottles of gun oil, and some tubes of gun grease for the bolt slide and the barrel of the rifle. He told us to put enough on so that there would not be any jams as we had experienced before from the sand and the mud of the rice paddies. He was actually pretty thorough in his inspection, and he even checked the gas piston for carbon any build up. Alan had too much carbon in his and he had to redo his rifle for a second inspection.
After all that was done, we sat by a small fire we had in a protected area, and we heated water for coco and coffee, and we played cards. We talked of different things, like baseball teams and of girls back in the states, and the cars, and the different bars we had known, and the older guys would tell of different duty stations they had been to around the world.
Alan and I were playing Rummy up to about 2100 Hours, and then we went out and we manned our positions for he night until 0200 Hours, until we were relieved of watch, and then we went to sleep, but we were awaken at 0430 Hours by Corporal Brock.
The water was already there by this time, so we washed in the dark and we shaved, and, when ready, we formed up and we were moved to the field mess where we received a morning chow. By 0630 Hours, we were mounted on Six-byes and we were headed south of Chu Lai on Highway 1.
SOP on the trucks was ‘rifles outboard’ as we moved down Highway 1, and somewhere around Chau Tu we were dismounted from the trucks to start our sweep of the area. We slogged westward to the railroad tracks through the rice paddies in knee high water, and than we turned south to the Song Tra Bong River.
We moved west up the river in a column to the area where we had conducted Operation Humbug in December of 65. I, as usual, walked the point in the area. We stopped for an hour near the village of Tan Phuoc, and there, Alan had a close encounter with a water buffalo at one point while we were walking through the village Well, he was pretty shook up by almost being hit by that train engine sized animal as it jumped out at him from between two village huts, and when it was all over, we were all laughing at the sight of him drawing down his AR on the animal and how he was ready to pump the poor dumb beast with a mag of 7.62 Ball Ammo. I even had to stop him from throwing a M-26 at the retreating beast, but we all continued to laugh at the thought of it all, and he too laughed when he finally clamed down, but not without some mild oaths of what it would be like to have a Water Buffalo Burger.
With the exception of the water buffalo incident at Tan Phuoc, and the rain and the humidity, it had been a pretty uneventful day up to that point, and we went on line and we swept through the village of Phuoc Thuan, and Tien Dao (1) as we neared Phu Le (3), and there we split into two units, one on each side of the railroad tracks just outside the village.
We had moved back across the built up area of the railroad tracks, and we moved to the pathway between Phu Le (3) and Phu Le (1) west of the tracks, when we received our first rounds of sniper and mortar fire for the day. The rest of the company turned towards the south, and they went in search of the enemy towards the Song Tra Bong River, and we were ordered to clear the village of Phu Le (1).
Brock called me forward to take the point, but Alan volunteered to go in first. He said that he wanted to get a good shot at the next water buffalo he saw, and he didn’t want anyone in his way this time. We all laughed at that. and Brock told me to maintain a good sight contact with Alan, and to keep on his ass through the village. We had already seen signs of VC Units in the village what with some new excavations and trench work on the outskirts of the village. We knew they were around.
Usually, walking point was the safest place to be in the unit. It wasn’t often that the VC would take down the lead man, in favor of getting more people in the main ranks of the column. I guess that is why I enjoyed walking the point more than anyone else ever did.
The south entrance to Phu Le (1) was at an intersection of two paths, one coming off of the rice paddies and the mountains to the west, and the one, the one we were on, from Phu Le (3). There were three or four huts near the entrance and there was a growth of bamboo along each side of the village pathway with more village huts yet to come up along the pathway to the north. The path turned a little to the left, and, for just a brief second, I lost sigh of Alan, and than I heard the shots, and they weren’t M-14’s, they were AK’s.
I ran forward and I saw Alan on the path with his hands to his chest. I called for Doc, “Corpsman Up!” While a second look at Alan showed he already looked blue in the face, and there were three holes in his chest that was plain to be seen and I heard as he sucked air. I put my hands over two of the wounds, and I looked around, and I saw Doc running up the trail, and when he took over, already Alan looked much worst. I went to look for the VC!
I followed some pushed down brush, and I was headed out into the paddy after the VC, when Brock called to me to hold my position right where I was. I wanted to pretend that I did not hear him, but I held my position all the same.
Squads two and three came on line, and my squad, minus Barone’s Fireteam spread out around me and then we pushed through the village. It was at about one hundred meters to the north that we came across two young males hiding in a dugout, and we pulled them out of the hole, and, just then, we received some incoming small arms fire from just ahead to the north, and it was about this time that a squad from the 2nd platoon came running up the trail with the Vietnamese interpreter, Chong, in tow, and he settled down to interrogate the two VCS we had, and he found carbon on the hands of one of the VCS, and they had no ID Cards.
As the questioning was going on, I saw a Chopper land and take off again, and there afterwards Barone’s Fireteam and the Doc came up. They let us know that Alan was dead, and he was being taken back to Battalion Aid.
The rest of the day, we continued on in the search, and eventually, it became an operation called Operation C&H, and we never had a peaceful day after that until we were lifted out of the area on the 14th. We had a couple of wounded, but no other KIA, and we were not done with this area for a while to come. It was a few days later that Operations Utah and then Texas were to find a regiment of VC and NVA in the area, and many more of our Marines were lost, including me to wounds, but the story of the water buffalo at Tan Phuoc was told over and over again. I guess it kept Alan alive in our minds just a little while longer. It kept him in the unit. He was no longer laid down in the middle of that path in the middle of a rain shower, while with each telling of the story he was with us again.
Here’s to you Alan!