Introduction to War

(jeremkin/iStock)

By Skip Nichols

 

Six black body bags lay in a row, splattered with the red mud that stained everything on top of the small hill south of the DMZ in Vietnam.

Fred Cleary whistled while Bobby Erl Baker remained silent as they struggled to pick up the bodies, Marines killed at nearby Con Thien during a massive bombing siege by the North Vietnamese Army. When they finished loading the bodies on a UH-34 helicopter, Baker was visibly shaking.

“What’s the matter?” Cleary asked. “At least it wasn’t you.”

Baker didn’t answer, but he wondered if someday someone would one day load his body on a chopper. The war suddenly seemed very real.

* * *

Bobby Erl Baker could only be described as a screw up. He’d drank and dated his way through high school. The only good decision he’d made was his senior year, when he turned down two college admissions and joined the Marine Corps.

Only now he was questioning that good decision.

* * *

“Y’all going to Camp Carroll?” a tall, lanky Marine with a slow Southern drawl asked Baker. “They’s a deuce and a half we can hitch a ride with so we don’t have to sleep here in the mud.

“By the by, my name’s Fred Cleary. I’m going to one-three.”

“Hey, that’s where I’m going, too,” Baker said, happy to make a connection with another southerner. “I’m Bobby Erl Baker from Texas. Glad to meet you.”

The two tossed their seabags in the back of the truck and, within minutes, they were heading north, into the foothills of the Annamite Mountain range, south of the demilitarized zone. The year was 1967 and, although neither man knew it, the conflict in Vietnam was fixing to heat up into a full-blown war.

The two tried to talk over the roar of the truck’s straining engine and the deluge of the monsoon. Baker found out this was Cleary’s second tour in ‘Nam. Both men were radiomen, dangerous duty in the field, but not so back in the rear. Unfortunately, they weren’t going to the rear.

“Why’d you come back for another tour,” asked Baker, knowing full well that’s what he intended to do —  if he survived his first 13 months.

“Best grass in the world is right here in the Nam,” answered Cleary with a wink. “Besides, I got nothing back in the world — no girl, I’m too poor to matter to anyone and my folks are both alcoholics. ”

Baker told Cleary he’d never tried grass, instead choosing booze over weed. Cleary said booze was almost impossible to get where they were headed, but grass was easily available in the villes where they’d be patrolling.

The rain increased in intensity and the two huddled in silence for the remainder of the ride to the combat base.

* * *

It was dark when they arrived. A weary gunnery sergeant assigned them to the same hooch with four other Marine radiomen. Everybody was silent as they viewed the two soaking wet, tired newbies. They all spent a miserable night as the tent had leaked like a sieve and the monsoon didn’t let up until dawn.

They’d barely gotten any sleep when Baker and Cleary were told to report to the gunny for their first day’s duties.

“You two head to the clearing and help load bodies on the incoming chopper,” he said.

* * *

Baker was still thinking about the bags of dead men that evening when Cleary signaled Baker to go with him to the sandbagged bunker outside their tent.

“I’ve got just the thing to ease your mind,” Cleary told Baker, producing a plastic bag with something resembling a dull green tobacco — marijuana. “I scored it in Dong Ha when I got there. Now let’s get high.”

Cleary rolled a couple of joints and soon the two friends were, well, mellow. No problems, no war. Baker thought of his girlfriend who had sent him a Dear John letter a couple days before he had left the states. The calm evaporated when a high-pitched whine signaled incoming — rockets and mortars were smashing into the fire base from an NVA company not far away.

Cleary seemed to throw off the effects of the weed and headed for the nearest fighting hole at the perimeter. Baker couldn’t shake the grass, sitting at the bunker entrance watching the incoming rounds as if it was a Fourth of July fireworks show. The attack ended as quickly as it began, with only one Marine getting a slight wound when shrapnel from a rocket sliced through his left ear.

The next day, while trying to gag down his C rations of ham and lima beans, Baker thought about his response to the attack. The fact he had failed to fight in his first battle in Vietnam filled him with guilt. He vowed never to use marijuana again.

Even Cleary stopped using weed because of the constant threat of attack. Nonetheless, despite daily rocket and mortar strikes, the war became routine. Two days humping on patrol, three days back at the combat base, two days humping.

* * *

Three days after they arrived, Cleary and Baker headed out on their first patrol to The Rockpile and Razorback Ridge. It was a dangerous patrol, but Baker felt slightly better when he found out Cleary was walking point.

Baker sensed the patrol was being watched on the first day as they moved carefully around a village, but nothing happened. They set up a perimeter as darkness closed in around them.   Cleary asked Baker if noticed the patch of marijuana they had walked through outside the ville.

“Nope, I wasn’t looking down,” he said. “I was looking for gooks.”

All night, Baker felt a sense of foreboding, but, again, nothing happened.

The second day, as they headed back in, Baker’s premonition came true.

One minute had been quiet and the second moment bullets were flying through the patrol. Viet Cong  had set up an ambush in a narrow gap near The Rockpile. Baker, carrying the PRC-25 radio,  dropped to the ground beside Lt. Marsh. The patrol’s machine gunner, “Tiny” Johnson and Cleary began pouring rounds into the thick brush around them. Cleary pulled two wounded Marines to safety as the firefight continued sporadically. Less than five minutes after the ambush began, the VC had mysteriously disappeared.

* * *

Baker and Cleary were about halfway through their tour when the NVA and VC launched the biggest offensive of the war — Tet. It was the first day of February, eight days before Baker’s birthday. He would be 21.

The attack began as usual, with mortars and 122 mm Russian-made rockets. Baker and Cleary had been in the line for a shower when all hell broke loose. A wave of NVA soldiers emerged from a treeline and the Marines unleashed a deadly barrage of rounds that slowed, then stopped the enemy. The NVA melted back into the jungle.

A rocket had landed 10 meters behind Baker and Cleary’s fighting hole midway through the battle. Baker awoke with loud ringing in his ears and a pounding headache. Cleary was slumped against the sandbags.

Baker shook his friend and then saw a wound in the back of Cleary’s neck. As he pulled him back, Baker saw a gaping wound in his buddy’s forehead. He was dead. Baker pulled the deadly three-inch piece of shrapnel that had killed his friend out of the blood-soaked sandbag. It was a piece of the war he would keep forever.

* * *

Baker was groggy from the morphine. He lay in his hospital bed and tried to focus on how he’d gotten here. All that kept coming to his mind was the face of Fred Cleary.

Cleary started talking to him.

“What’s the matter?” Cleary asked. “At least it wasn’t you.”

That’s when he remembered. Fred Cleary was dead, killed right next to him during the opening moments of Tet. His best friend, who had earned a silver star for saving the lives of two wounded Marines on their first patrol near the DMZ.

His foggy brain slowly cleared and Baker remembered it was 2017 and he’d just had his third surgery for his aggressive cancer caused by Agent Orange., the deadly defoliant sprayed on them by his own  government. He laughed when he thought of how Cleary had reacted when they were enveloped by the spray.

“Tha’s some nasty shit,” he had said. “Can’t be good for gooks or Marines.”

Baker also remembered the VA surgeon said he’d been unable to get all the cancer. His time was limited. Maybe six months, maybe two years, said the doctor.  “We just can’t tell. But we can keep you pain free with the right medicines.”

The “right” medicines never worked or worked so well they caused other problems. So Baker decided to break his 50-year vow. The legal marijuana he bought in Washington, where he now lived, brought him relief from the intensely painful, deadly disease.

He found it had an added benefit.

The marijuana gave him a measure of peace from the torture of PTSD he suffered because of horrific memories of war.  The nightmares disappeared. The flashbacks disappeared. The anger he felt waned. The war never ended in Baker’s mind, but at least now he felt he had made the right decision.

 

Skip Nichols is a Marine combat veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967-68. He and his wife, Paula, live in Walla Walla, Wash. They have two daughters and two grandsons. Nichols’ hobbies include writing and scuba diving. He has a degree in wildlife biology and worked as a newspaper editor for 40 years.