Oral History: Chu Lai, South Vietnam, at the 3rd Battalion 7th Marine LZ

BSM and 1st ph July 23 1966 (source: Joseph P. Carey)
Joseph P. Carey
Joseph P. Carey

Chu Lai, South Vietnam, at the 3rd Battalion 7th Marine LZ

I do not really know if this is the right thing to do, but I was asked to write about how I received the Bronze Star by my kids. I thought about it, and I told them that I would be too embarrassed to do that, as it would sound like bragging, but one day I started typing and this is my story.

It was Zero Dawn Thirty (0530H), December 27, 1965. It was Chu Lai, South Vietnam, at the 3rd Battalion 7th Marine LZ. Merry Christmas! It was drizzling, and it was cold to the bone as most Vietnam mornings were. It was the start of Operation Humbug.

We were standing there at the edge of the Battalion area for some thirty minutes after I rejoined my unit, after I was released from Battalion Aid for the influenza where I had just spent a couple of days down time in a cot in the Med Tent, when the trucks finally arrived to pick us up.

The conversation was idle talk as we waited for the trucks. The Marines talked of letters they received from home; they talked of what they would be doing when it was they were finally returned to the world; they talked of girlfriends; they talked of sports; and, they talked about the last couple of days along the lines, but no one talked about where we were going to, or even why we were going. It was not a conversation that was wanted. Each time we went on an operation, it meant some of us may not return.

I looked around at the Marines who were waiting there. There was something very unique about each one sitting there. I mean, they all looked alike, and they were all dressed alike, and they were all pretty much that same age, but each was so very different. Some were humorous, and others were very serious, and each Marine had his own way at looking at the war in Vietnam, and each had expressed his thoughts in a few words or an image or two upon his helmet cover. Maybe, it was our way to protest, or just that famous Marine Humor coming to light.

There were different things written on the camouflage covers of their helmets that showed a great deal of their personality. Most of these writings were humorous in nature. One Marine wrote, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t swim here!” Another wrote, “You and me, God! Right!” Yet another would have “This end up!” The more serious of the comments were usually quotes of certain phrases from the Bible, or famous Marine sayings, or even ‘Antiwar’ messages. I saw one Marine with the phrase, “No one LIKES war, ESPECIALLY me!” There was also the always present, “Make love! Not war!” On some there were also cartoon characters drawn on the helmet covers, as well as there were religious images, both Buddhist and Christian, etched on their covers.

My thoughts were taken back to the present reality with the arrival of the trucks. These trucks were Marine Troop trucks. We called them ‘6x6’s’. The backs of these trucks were flat wooden platforms, and they had rails up on the sides. There were wooden benches on each side of the bed of the truck for us to sit on. In the front cab of the truck there was a machinegun turret over the passenger side of the truck, with a mounted machinegun on it. The assistant truck driver would stand on the seat, and he operated the gun when the truck was moving.

Our platoon filled three of these trucks. There was a squad in each truck. It was than it dawned on me, this was the whole platoon with Weapons Platoon incorporated in the squads. I knew that something big was going to happen to us this day.

When we got onto the trucks they lurched forward towards Highway 1. As the trucks traveled the open road, we usually sat leaning over the rails with our rifles pointed towards the outsides of the truck. This was done in case of an attack by ambush. We were taught to not be unaware of our surroundings, even in relatively secured areas such as Highway 1, just a quarter of a mile from the Battalion area.

We left the Battalion area and went east towards Chu Lai first, and than turned south onto Highway 1. This road was the main coastal road for South Vietnam, and it ran up the whole length of the coastline from the south to the north of the country. It was also a vital link for supplies for the ARVN, as well as the American and Korean Troops along its path.

We traveled the road all the way south to Nhuc Manh (I am not sure of the spelling of the town, but as best I could translate the town was translated to ‘Water Town’). There was a great deal of traffic on the road this day, more than the usual that I had seen before. Mostly, the traffic was made up of those little motorcycle type three wheeled vehicles painted in the brightest of Yellows and red colors. The Vietnamese seemed to like very bright colors in their clothes and their possessions.

There were many Vietnamese women along the road this day. These Vietnamese women were very beautiful women. Usually, they were slender, and they looked taller than they really were. They had long black silky hair that hung down their backs to their waist. Their hair shown from beneath the conical bamboo hats they wore on their heads, or, in some cases, the hats had been thrown onto their backs, and hung there from multicolored ribbons tied around they necks. They were very pretty of face, and often quick to smile, and it was easy to see why these women were very much to be appreciated by any man.

On this day, the women all seemed to be wearing the traditional formal dresses of their country. These were gown like dresses with high silk collars, some had very intricate embroidery stitched into them, and others did not. The dresses split up the sides to the area of the waist, and were worn over their long silk pants, usually the same material as the dress. These dresses showed very well the curves of their women’s bodies, and the sight was very pleasing to my eyes. The colors of theses dresses, they too, were of some of the brightest blues, reds, and yellow colors I had seen for some time, and never seen since.

It didn’t dawn on me until that moment, the calendar date was just past Christmas Day, and most of the people in this area were of the Catholic Religion, and this was their Holiday Season. They had dressed in their finest clothing, and they went and they visited their family and friends in the area as part of their holiday duties.

There were also people dressed in the traditional ‘black pajamas’ as we called them. They were usually working along the roadways. They walked along the road carrying loads of wood and shucks of rice. They carried them on long flat bamboo slabs with rope holding baskets on both ends of this bamboo slab as they were the balance point in the middle of the load. The baskets were filled to the very tops with these various foods and implements of daily life for the Vietnamese people. There was one basket in front and a second basket in the rear. When the man or the woman carrying these loads would stand up, they looked like human weight scales, balancing the loads front to rear.

There were other vehicles on the roads on this date, such as bicycles and motorcycles, and small private trucks and cars, as well as military vehicles from the ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam), and US Marines, and the US Navy as well.

The town of Nhuc Manh was a military center for the ARVN. It was not a fort like the outpost I had been flown to near Qui Nhon my first couple of days in my unit for the Relief of Trach Tra Village, whereby we drove off a combined NVA and VC Regiment that was trying to overrun a Vietnamese Ranger Outpost there, When we got there, there must have been One Hundred Enemy Soldiers dead in the barbed Wire surround the base, and another 200 dead on the fields that surrounded the base, while Nhuc Manh was a town long before the war, as well as a regional and cultural center for the people in the area, I think that Trach Tra was nothing before the war.
The ARVN had a prisoner-of-war camp in the middle of the town of Nhuc Mahn that was surrounded with barbed wire and guard towers. We could see it from the raos as we passed. There were different military installations throughout the town, as well as shops and restaurants along the roadway, and some large brick buildings. There were guard posts manned by soldiers of the ARVN at the bridge leading into the town. I saw soldiers in all different types of uniforms walking the area of the shops, each of these men were carrying rifles, and wore gun belts around their waists. The town was busy, and the streets were crowded with all different types of people shopping and carrying on their daily life during this holiday season.

On the hill to the west of Nhuc Manh was a Marine outpost to guard the town from any serious attacks. The Marines called the Outpost ‘Bulldog.’ It was usually garrisoned by a platoon of Marines, and it was considered to be good duty to be sent there, as far as duty went in the Republic of South Vietnam, the reason being, because there were chances to socialize with the Vietnamese women, and to walk the shops of the town, and to feel like human beings for a short time, if only briefly, otherwise, we never left out lines around the airbase at Chu Lai, and the only time we had any association with civilians was when we were working doing our Marine thing.

As we turned toward the west, on a secondary road, just over the bridge of the Song Tre Bong River, ‘Bulldog’ appeared to be our destination. There was some low happy chatter in the truck by the Marines as we rode up the hill towards ‘Bulldog’.

I asked Cpl Arp, my fireteam leader, who was sitting next to me, what it was all about, and why did the men seemed so happy. He explained ‘Outpost Bulldog’ to me, including the part about fraternizing with the local women, and it made me smile too.

Unfortunately, this day for us, it was not to be our day to hold ‘Bulldog’.

The low happy chatter stopped as we continued past ‘Bulldog’ to a second bridge that crossed the Song Tre Bong River again, and than we turned farther west towards Central South Vietnam.

About ten miles outside of Nhuc Manh to the west, we got off of the trucks, and formed into our units.

We were ordered to get on-line for a sweep of the area in front of us. We were on the north side of the River and the land in front of us was mostly rice paddy and some small villages. The area along the riverbank was a higher earthen dike, maybe two meters above the rice paddies. My team was ordered on the left flank to check the riverbank. We were told there was a small band of VC in this area harassing the farmers of the area, and we had to find them and destroy them.

It was still early in the morning, a little past 0700H, when we received our first sniper fire of the day, and Five VC could be seen running south out of Chau Tu, and, it was an hour after that when the 5 VC were captured near Tien Doa (1).

It was funny to me that most of these small hamlets had the same name, and how they were differentiated one from another was by a number behind the name. Once, while being a curious Eighteen Year Old that I was at the time, I borrowed my Sergeant’s map to familiarize myself with the area, and aside from not being able to pronounce the names of the villages, I could not make heads nor tails of the idea behind the numbers as different villages with different names seemed to be nestled into the middle of the numbered villages. I folded up the map and I handed it back to my Sergeant, a more confused Private First Class.

The area we were at was on the edge of the jungle near several villages called Tri Binh and Phuoc Thuan I believe. The rice paddies were around the villages, and with the recent rains, the rice paddies were filled to over-flowing with water. The farmers had been out to the fields earlier, and had opened the floodgates that allowed the water to flow into other fields around their villages. The mud was very thick in some of these paddies, and it caused us to slowdown so as to have the Marines in the paddies keep on line with the rest of us on the outside of the lines.

Our jump-off point was called line December, and we were nearing Line July. Company M was sweeping in from the North where they had been Helo-lifted into the area. We were about fifteen Hundred Meters, a click and a half as we called it, into the sweep when we came under fire, as some of our Company was removing fences that were constructed by the VC in the area. It was light machinegun fire, and we rushed the positions. There was a brief firefight, and the resistance ceased as the enemy fell back into the villages and the jungle growth.

We searched the dead VC we found, and called in to report the action. We were told to hold our positions on the edge of the jungle until a blocking force of Marines were in position behind the enemy.

We were in position for maybe an hour, most likely much linger, or even much shorter, as none of us had watches to tell how long a time it really was, when we saw helicopters on our very far right and left flanks and some moving to about Fourteen Hundred Meters in the front of our lines.

Arp’s team, my fireteam, was still moving along the riverbank, and it was Tanguay and I on the extreme left flank. Tanguay was watching the other side of the river for any enemy activity, and I was watching this side of the river’s bank for any enemy soldiers.

It was about 1300H when we were about another Four Hundred Meters into the renewed push, when I saw some movement in the water. I ordered a halt to the forward push of our troops, and Tanguay went onto the ground where he had stood up to that time, and the rest of the Marines to the north went to one knee ready to fire.

Corporals Arp and Brock came on-the-run to the riverbank where Tanguay and I were.

I had moved to position near the water down the riverbank, and I was watching the water for movement. Brock and Arp went to a low crouch as they approached, and than onto the ground and crawled as they neared my position.

”What’s wrong Why did you stop us?” Said Brock in a low voice.

”There is something in the water, Corporal Brock.” I pointed to an area where there was only a slight ripple of water now.

”Are you sure it is not a crocodile, or something like that?”

”No! I’m not! I would rather hold everybody up for a little while, and check it out rather than to have someone come up behind us. Let me go check it out, Brock.” I said.

”OK! Arp! You get Rickey, and Tanguay stay here, and get Barone’s team over here to cover Carey in the water.”

While this was being done, I removed my flack jacket, and web gear. I left my boots on, after Brock said to watch out for panji stakes and barbed wire in the water. He said it was a VC trick to put those things in the water where they could not be seen. I took my bayonet out of the sheath on the web belt, and I took off my shirt.

I went down to the water’s edge of the riverbank. Freeman and Tanguay covered the other side of the river with their AR and rifle, and Barone and Rodriguez kept their rifles pointed ahead of me as I entered the water. Brock and Arp moved along the top of the riverbank looking for any thing of interest in the water below them. I slowly went into the water. I kept my eyes above water as I swam quietly toward the spot where I had seen the movement. The rest of me was well under water, and barely a sound was made as I swam.

In this area of the river, the banks were about two to three meters above the waterline. I knew if I were fired upon here, I was not going to make it out of the river alive.

Again, I saw some movement in a bush just above the water line, and I rolled on my back and I hand-signaled to Barone, and to Arp and Brock to watch that area, as I pointed to it from the river. I than went under water, and I swam to that area with the Bayonet in my teeth (Just like in the Pirate stories). I came up slowly out of the water showing only my forehead and eyes above the water, and I was very near the bush, but I could see there was nothing there, absolutely no one. I slowly went under water again, but the water was so muddy that I couldn’t see anything, and I knew that I did not cause all of that mud to fly up!

I came up slowly for air once more. I could just barely hear Brock above me on the banks, “Carey! Five feet in front of you, and I hope it is not a crocodile! There is something moving in that bush.” Brock said in a low whisper from the bank, as he aimed his rifle.

I slowly slipped under the water again, and I went right down to the bottom, and I quietly stayed there and looked for any movement, and I waited for the mud to settle.

Then, I saw them!

There was a pair of pair of legs in front of me. I looked toward the surface from the river bottom through the grasses growing there, and I could see a Vietnamese man with his face turned to the surface breathing air beneath a bush through a bamboo tube. There was an M-1 Carbine in his hands below the surface of the water pointed upward to the riverbank as he watched Brock looking in to the water below.

I put my feet under me on the floor of the river, and used the leverage to push myself into the man grabbing his rifle and putting the bayonet into him below his chest and pushing up with it while turning it the way I was taught. He was most likely dead immediately, but I pulled him further under water with me and to the middle of the river. I saw no air bubbles escaping from his mouth, and I let him drift away to the bottom of the river as I cut farther to open him. As I took the Bayonet out of him, while still under water, I swam underwater to where the Marines were on the bank waiting for me. As I did this, I thought I saw another set of legs in the water in the same spot. It might have been bushes in the water, but I was pretty sure it was a pair of legs.

There was absolutely no resistance from the man I had just killed, so I came up slowly for air. When my head went above the water, I saw Arp looking down at me, and I used my free hand to motion for quiet. I than swam to the low part of the bank that both, Barone and Rodriguez, were standing guard at.

I swam to the bottom again, and I waited for the water and the mud to calm down, and, than, I moved in to where I had seen the possible legs before, and saw there was nothing there. There were no legs! There were no Branches! There was just nothing there, but bushes! I came up for air again, and Arp was over me on the bank.

I took the bayonet out of my teeth, and said very quietly, “There was another one, but I can’t find him now! Damn! I would have had him, if I would have stayed a little while longer.”

I was so mad at loosing the soldier, I kicked at the riverbank, only, my foot didn’t stop at the bank. It kept going!

I fell beneath the water and into a hole. I felt someone else’s flesh touch my leg. By accident, I had found him. I had fallen into the opening of an underwater cave entrance, and, now, I was in the cave. I could see how I had not seen it before; it was well hidden in the tall grasses under the water.

At about a meter and a half under water on the riverbank was the start of the entrance to the cave. Below the entrance, there was a hole that went down approximately another meter, than there was a meter step-up, and than it was grated up inside the riverbank to a point above the waterline, where there was a level and large manmade cavern that went down a meter or two below the entrance water door.

At the time, it was more what I could feel about the cavern, rather than what I could see of it. It was pitch black in there, and there were a great many different voices around me.

Something cold and metal touched me in the back, and I turned and thrust the bayonet into where I thought might be a chest cage of a man, but it went through something very soft an pliable, and I felt the bayonet grate against bone at the end of the thrust. I did not have a chance to think about what I was doing. There were loud excited voices that sounded like fright-night at the local theater back home, and there was someone right next to me. There was a scream that came from behind me.

Pandemonium had broken loose in the cavern. Someone tried to put his arm around my neck, and I stabbed again, and again, and again. I was going to die, but I wasn’t going to die alone. I grabbed the two nearest to me, and I pushed my way out of the cave with them in my arms, and I delivered them twisting and fighting me back to the riverbank. One of the men broke free, and he tried to escape across the river to the other side of the water, and either Tanguay, or maybe, Rodriguez, one of them, shot him. I think it was Rodriguez that jumped into the water to get the perforated escapee.

My bayonet was still in the cave, and I went back to get it. I found it by the entrance, and I saw a pair of legs there. I picked up the bayonet, and I grabbed the legs I saw, and I swam, and pulled my way back to the bank, and to the safety of my Marines with the VC in tow and screaming all the way.

I went back to see if I could get another one! I went under water, then, I thought I did die!

There was white light, and I could not hear anything any longer. I had no feeling in my body, with the exception of the electric shocks running through places on my body that I did not even know I had places. My whole body felt like it was on fire. Than I felt like I was air and fire both at the same time. Than, everything went blank, and I was nowhere. I thought, is this death?

As I think about it now, I remember, when I kept coming up for air from beneath the water, and even when I brought up the VC soldiers, I felt there was something that was missing. At the time I could not put my finger on it exactly, because I was too busy, but something, or someone, was missing. I later found out it was Corporal Brock.

Corporal Brock, he was a good NCO. During the time I was in the water, he had found the air vent for the cavern below the riverbank, and had gotten a group of engineers attached to our unit to blow up the air vent with C4 explosives. Little did he know, that I was inside the cavern when he ordered the air vent blown-up! The concussion of the explosion knocked me out.

It was Arp that told me what had happened during that brief time I was missing the action. He said that he was sure I was dead, but he said I walked out of the water under my own power, and I just fell down on the bank.

Arp told me, when the explosion settled, and everything stopped falling around them. They came up on the hole in the ground that had taken the place where the bank was once before there was the explosion, but that they took another 14 prisoners out of the hole, somewhat shaken and cut up, but alive none the less.

He said they saw bodies all over the place in the crater of the explosion, but, he said, he was most surprised to see the VC alive. He said, he and Barone, and others jumped into the hole and pulled the VC out.

It was Doc Thunder that said I was all right, and that I would live. He told me I could have a mild concussion, but that I would be all right in a short period of time. Saying that I was just stunned by the concussion of the explosion. Add to that, a coupe of small cuts and bruises. I was fine. Although, I never got a Purple Heart for that action, I often wondered if I should apply for one, but unlike the likes of John Kerry, I guess we just took it as part of the work we were doing, and not a reason to run away from the action.

Brock was sitting there near me by this time, and he asked me how I was feeling. I could hardly hear him, because of the ringing in my ears. He gave me a ‘thumbs up’ sign, and he told me we would be leaving in an hour. He asked Doc if I would be ready to go by than. I heard this and told him, “Of course I will be ready.”

The reason that we hung out there was that we had a badly wounded VC that we had dragged out of the river, and although Our Doc worked very hard to save the young man, Soc finally said he was dying and there was nothing that we could do for him; we could not even get a Medevac in for him in time to save him. So, we waited with him until he died, and we tried to make him comfortable. I guess no man, even VC, deserves to die without someone looking over him and to take care of him.

The Lieutenant asked me about what happened at the cave later that day? And, he asked, why was I in that cave?

I told him what happened, and I left out a couple of things, because I thought that I was in some real trouble now. I thought to myself, I should not have done it, and what he didn’t know would not hurt. After all, there was a lot of confusion going on all at once, and he may not have understood what was happening. It was not for weeks later that I knew that the ‘LT’ had put me, and the squad, in for commendation awards. At that time, the Marines didn’t hand out metals for bravery as a policy that often in the beginning of The War in South Vietnam. The ‘Official Word’ was that we are all doing our job just by being there, but to my surprise, General Fields, The Division Commanding Officer, on July 26, 1966, decorated me for bravery in this cave incident, with the Bronze Star with a Combat V, and Corporal Brock and the others of the squad all also received the Navy Marine Corps Commendation medals with Combat V’s on that date. I was very proud of my squad, and my LT, maybe I should have trusted the LT more than I did!