"Don't forget your hat lieutenant," teased the cheeky SPC4 recorder as I was about to climb the stairs of the underground XO bunker on my way to breakfast. "Damn the hat," I thought to myself. I'll be too late to get any bacon if I waste another minute looking for it. Still, the SPC4 was right in cautioning me. We had all received a tongue-lashing from a visiting Marine general a few days earlier for not "setting a good example" for the men by going hatless. So I turned on my heel and groped around for my hat until I found it before running up the stairs into the early morning light, two steps at a time. That diversion may have saved my life. I heard the rocket come over head just as I reached the top of the stairs. It sounded just like everyone says a 122mm rocket sounds - like a freight train rolling over you at full speed. There was a loud explosion, and a puff of black spoke appeared just above the mess bunker, which stood between me and the mess hall. I knew there would be casualties; the mess hall would be packed for breakfast.
Our new first sergeant was lying on his back just to the right of the screen door to the officer-NCO mess. His eyes and mouth were open wide, his hands lying limp on either side of his body. There was a large piece of jagged steel protruding from his chest through his fatigue shirt. It was hot and smoking, and I could smell burned flesh as I stooped down to help him. I felt for a pulse; there was none.
Top had only been in country a week. He left a wife and five children behind. The night before his death, I invited him to a Vietnamese dance performance held by the ARVN armoured cavalry battalion assigned to FSB Charlie One. It was in celebration of the summer rice harvest. The girls dancing were young, willowy and beautiful, The first sergeant told me they reminded him of his daughters -- with their long, shiny black hair flowing in tempo with their smoothly executed head and arm movements. Top was Hispanic.
I left him where he lay and entered the mess hall. The mess sergeant was lying just inside the door, up against the partition separating the officer-NCO mess from the enlisted mess. His eyes were open, pupils dilated and his tongue was hanging out slightly. His chest, stomach and upper legs were peppered with small holes and pieces of wood and screen that had been carried into him with the shrapnel. He must have been standing at his usual place by the door, where he greeted us each morning as we entered. The rocket impacted just a few yards outside the door.
He was still breathing and had a pulse. I ran back out the door and yelled for our medic, and while he put the mess sergeant on a saline drip, I rang up a Marine adviser to the ARVNS and asked him to call in a medivac chopper. It arrived soon thereafter but not in time for our mess sergeant. Like Top, he had a large family at home.
There were 11 others wounded, but none seriously. A few required short stays in the field hospital at Quang Tri but were soon back with us at C-1.
I flew down to Quang Tri later in the morning to identify the bodies of our dead. A US Marine lance corporal working for graves registration took me out behind the hospital there and into a refrigerated shed. The lance corporal unzipped and zipped a few of the many body bags there before he found Battery B's dead. It was a sad task and for the first time brought home to me the personal cost of the war to all our fallen men and their families.
Ashley W. Wright