Hill 512: The Man in the Moon
By Greg Doering USMC
It was late May 1968 when I was transferred into Fox Company, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines at Combat Base Ca Lu. I had been trained as a truck driver in the States, finishing at the top of my class and promoted to PFC, Private First Class, a few months prior. My destiny changed because the TET Offensive created the need for Infantry replacements.
My driving while at Fox Company was limited to the Mechanical M-274 “Mule.” I drove all over the combat base developing favor with fellow squad members and was given the nickname “Motor T” to express their sarcastic sympathy. Now I was facing my first combat experience, Hill 512, as an innocent nineteen-year-old. Charlie Company had been hit and overrun by “sappers,” NVA throwing satchel charges, creating a perceived mortar barrage. By the time the Marines figured out what was happening, another wave of NVA moved in and a firefight followed inside their perimeter.
My squad members, Warner and Ricks, helped me figure out what to load into my pack, and how to assemble all the gear I would need as an ammo humper. I figured I carried somewhere around 105 pounds with a flak jacket, helmet, rifle, and ammo included. Warner kept encouraging me, you’ll get used to it. Joe Bell, the comedian, yelled, “Hey motor T, see how high you can jump.”
Squad Leader Sandy yelled, “Move out!”
I felt like a deep-sea diver in slow motion trying to keep up in a dream.
Be just like John Wayne, I thought to myself, as I stepped up the chopper’s ramp, only to find I had the wrong chopper. “That one over there!” yelled Sandy.
I barely made it into the next waiting chopper without falling. It felt so good to sit until the chopper lifted and spun around for my first disorienting ride. Once we were airborne, all I could see out the window was jungle canopy. We didn’t land in the way I expected a chopper would land. Because of the steep terrain, the chopper had to back in and lower the tail ramp against the side of the hill without touching the rear wheels to the ground. Everyone scrambled off the back end as I followed, hoping my John Wayne attitude wouldn’t fail me now. The chopper didn’t wait a heartbeat before it lifted off, the evening ground fog swirling like cotton candy into its rotors. I couldn’t see anyone through the thick fog rolling in.
I shouted in a whisper, “Warner, where are you?” “Up here, Motor T,” Warner whispered back.
Warner said, “Follow my voice.” I couldn’t tell where Warner’s voice was coming from as I started having conversations with invisible people. I blurted out for help. “This shit is too heavy; I can barely move.”
Sergeant Klein appeared out of the fog. “Get your ass up the hill, Marine!” Ugh! That was good for another twenty feet or so, where I bumped into Sandy and the rest of the squad being briefed on what to do. As the fog dissipated and the moon broke through, we were split up into twos to man the perimeter positions that were set up by the Marines we replaced.
In the morning, we would be checking out the two-man sleeping holes the other Marines had dug, to look for booby-traps and places to hide or sleep. Warner stood the first watch with me to give me some understanding of sounds to listen for, and how to interpret what they meant. Warner was ready to crawl up to a sleeping area above; running out of patience, he told me to just listen for crickets. I was dying for a cigarette but didn’t know what the consequences might be of lighting a match. I listened for crickets, rehearsing over and over what I would do if attacked.
The next morning came without any indications of activity around our perimeter, so we got on with settling into our new location. Most of the day was spent watching the choppers making regular supply deliveries on a flat area below and packing the supplies up the hill.
As the amber light of dusk began, everyone was hunkering down for a night of expectation. It was my turn for watch as the peek-a-boo moonlight cast moving shadows against the bamboo canopy before me. It was dead quiet, and in the distance, I heard a barely discernable crack-creak. I started pondering my options. I didn’t want to wander over to the next hole and explain funny noises. The idea popped into my head: how about a grenade? I kept hearing what I thought were tennis shoes crunching leaves and twigs snapping off in the distance, barely perceptible. It must be down near Bell and Ricks. I rehearsed over and over pulling the pin, letting the grenade spoon fly. I could count to four and have 3 seconds left before it went off. I had a picture memory from when it was still light out and could imagine where I wanted the grenade to go. I imagined the arc of the grenade getting over the bamboo and dropping right where I heard the noises. I couldn’t figure out how to get the stupid cotter key out.
Let me try this damn cotter key again, oh shit; it fell out, and I have no idea where it went. I knew it was safe if the spoon was closed but wasn’t going to sit there all night holding it. I used my mental picture of Bell’s position and was positive he would be okay. My heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear myself think-okay-click there goes the spoon with a snap; I knew the trigger had hit the blasting cap starting the fuse train burning; 1001 – 1002 – 1003 – 1004; with everything I had I let it fly. I threw it like a heavy rock, not hardball style. The damn grenade was heavy. I heard the grenade banging into the bamboo and bouncing back and forth. It didn’t go off in the air as I had planned; finding its way to the ground there was a loud thud. WHAM!!!! Cool! I could see a bright flash made of white-hot metal flying all around where it had gone off. I heard Warner clambering over to me. “Jesus H. F-n Christ Motor T, what the hell are you doing?” Warner asked.
Bell in the meantime had scrambled over. With his heavy Brooklyn accent, he blurted out, “Are you try-in to F-ing murder us over-der, you almost put dat F-n ting in our lap; Jesus Christ Mutter Tae, now you woke everyone up and Sergeant Klein’s on his way.”
Klein let Sandy have it; then Sandy gave it to Joe. When I heard Joe being read out by Sandy, I stepped into the middle. “Hey, dammit, I heard movement!” I said.
“Shit, now you woke up the whole company, nobody will get any sleep; these guys are freaked out enough,” Klein said. “I told you I heard movement!” I reiterated.
The Gunny stepped over to add his two cents, telling me I probably killed an F-ing rock-ape, and then blasted me with the “free fire zone lecture.”
We were not supposed to fire unless fired upon. “Next time come over to the CP and wake up Sergeant Klein before you decide to throw another grenade,” Gunny told me.
Klein looked at Gunny – “aw shit Gunny!” Klein didn’t want to be waked up, for any reason. Gunny retreated to his sleeping area.
Klein looked over at Bell. “If he wakes me up again, you’ll be digging latrines the rest of your tour, Bell!”
Everyone went nighty- night at the CP and left me feeling stupid. But as had become the case, there was always the kind word from Warner and teasing from Bell. “Okay Mutter Tae, you get two more watches for F-ing up.”
There I was on my second watch hearing noises again, except I had no grenades. Joe Bell took them from me and said I could only get them back with good behavior.
“Hey Warner, I hear movement,” I whispered. “What?” Warner replied in a sleepy voice. “I hear movement; come here!”
Warner scrambled over and listened. “I think you’re right, Motor T. Go wake up Sergeant Klein.” “Me?” “Careful, he keeps his 45 loaded,” Warner said with a grin.
I crawled over to Klein and tugged on his poncho liner, carefully watching the 45 he was sleeping on. Klein whispered. “What?” “It’s Motor T,” I whispered back.
“You again?” Klein grumbled. “Ah! You woke up the Gunny!” Klein scolded me. “What is going on?” Gunny whispered in a gravelly growl.
“Motor T’s here, and thinks he’s hearing things again,” Klein explained.
The Lieutenant, “Firecracker Man Pierce,” woke up, and hearing the conversation, inquired: “What’s going on, Motor T?” “Sir, I hear movement below my position and I need permission to throw a hand grenade.”
Pierce was interested in what I had to say. “Let’s go check it out, Motor T.” Pierce followed me to my position, and by now everyone on my side of the hill was awake. Pierce cupped his hand to his ear and gave hand signals to Klein to shut up, while Gunny rolled his eyeballs at me. The Lieutenant motioned to Klein and sent him to get a case of hand grenades. The Lieutenant popped out half a dozen or so grenades and told me to open them up. I was surprised when he handed me a grenade and motioned to get ready to throw in the direction he pointed. He nodded his head and we let it fly. Wham- wham! Gunny and Sergeant Klein joined in throwing grenades, as we unloaded the case and finished throwing what we had. Wow, it sure is quiet out there now, we all agreed.
The next morning, I caught up with Joe Bell. “Hey Joe, we must have thrown nearly two cases of grenades last night,” I proudly reported. “No kidding, we changed your name to “Motor T with a capital G,” for grenade,” Joe said, explaining we had everybody freaked out last night, convinced we were being overrun. “Next F’-n time pass the word before you start blowing up the side of the hill Motor T,” Joe instructed.
Later that morning, the Lieutenant put together a recon team to look for bodies. Evidently, because of being a non-free fire zone, we had to justify the ordnance used by finding bodies. I just stood around while the Lieutenant and Big John, the Lieutenant’s volunteer, were chopping holes in the dense canopy to make trails into the bamboo. We were standing around watching the show as I grasped my M-16, flak jacket, and helmet, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. Warner, Bell, and Ricks stood with me, providing color commentary.
Suddenly all hell broke loose, as the Lieutenant’s pump action over-and-under 12-gauge shotgun emptied. Big John opened on full automatic with his M-16, while another guy opened with his M-79 grenade launcher. To me, it was like the noises from a comic book I used to imitate. The Lieutenant was running back toward the perimeter. Big John was right behind him, stepping backward while firing his M-16. Joe and Ricks started over to add firepower. I hesitantly followed Warner just as the Lieutenant stepped inside the perimeter and yelled “Cease-fire!”
From the enemy’s positions came five round volleys of 82 mm mortars. We fired back around twenty 60 mm mortars at them. Then it became quiet. All the people in positions except me had emerged from protective cover and had begun milling around as if nothing had happened. I needed to be coaxed out of a sleeping bunker by Warner.
Most days could be amazingly boring, and some nights filled with sheer anticipation. Then there was the Man in the Moon, my friend, who could smile at me and light up my night with the remembrance of home. The same moon everyone at home was seeing; a comforting connection that touched my soul. My other escape was sleep and space just before I awoke, in which I dreamed I was back home.
On the worst nights, the moon’s light was totally obscured with layers of dark clouds, creating a sinister presence of opportunity. On such a night, we were probed at several locations at once. It was so dark that the only identifier was a familiar voice to follow while scrambling around on hands and knees. Chaos broke out and Ricks told me to grab some illumination rounds. Warner showed me how to unwrap and lay the rounds out for Bell to drop in the tube. Ricks was free handing the tube, holding it without tripods and firing rounds directly above us.
The illumination came down on small parachutes swinging back and forth, lighting the place up, followed by a whistling loud thud. The canister that contained the illumination function would break away and fall on us. As I scrambled to find my helmet, there were guys making a game of catching the parachutes to keep for souvenirs. We began pumping out HE, high explosive mortars toward Charlie’s position, about 300 yards from us. C-130 Caribou airplanes above began dropping huge illumination canisters, causing the night to become bright as daylight. Firecracker Man called in a fire mission with artillery rounds neatly walked around our position, followed by a deafening silence. I returned to my position.
The silence was golden around me, the man in the moon, and my new friends, the rock apes, so-called because of their habit of throwing rocks. The NVA hunted them for food. We believed that the rock apes, or orangutans as they were known, could smell the NVA and be quiet. If they came near our perimeter looking for food, we knew there would be no NVA nearby. There was a stump of a burned-out tree near our position where I would put out crackers and a couple pieces of chocolate. The rock ape would come and sit on the stump and munch on the crackers and chocolate and stare, conveying it was safe.
The next day First Platoon went down on a search patrol. We got our tube set up and I waited dutifully by my pack board of mortar rounds, awaiting instructions whether to unzip the string around the canister holding HD rounds. There was yelling and chatter about the patrol walking into an ambush. Lt. Pierce gave orders to Sandy, and Ricks and Joe set up the mortar tube and began firing WP, white phosphorous rounds to confirm distance. Warner helped me attach increments, little booster charges fastened to clips at the base of the mortar.
My friend Doc Woody was with First Platoon, toward the rear of the column, when enemy machine-gun fire hit several men at the front. Woody heard the frantic call, “Corpsman up!” and crawled on his belly through elephant grass that was being mowed down by bursts of gunfire over his head. The first man he reached was Litzler. Litzler had been struck by a bullet through his chest and lay near death. Woody crawled then to “Buzz” Caldwell and found the bloody remains of a face. Woody went to work on Caldwell, hooking up an intravenous line to pump in a pint of plasma. Woody worked while on his stomach as machine-gun fire creased the back of his flak jacket. Then, as abruptly as all the craziness had started, it seemed to end.
Warner tapped me on the shoulder. “Move it, Motor T, follow me. We’ve got to help E-vac.” The patrol was at the bottom of the hill as I stumbled and slid on the elephant grass. My eyes met the eyes of the dead man coming back from the ambush. I stepped closer to ask if I could help. He just said, “Oh no!”
The look in his eyes was haunting as I figured out he was dragging a body behind him. He had tied a poncho around the man’s head with cartridge belt straps to drag the lifeless body. I felt paralyzed with helplessness.
Someone screamed. “Motor T get over here and help carry the Corpsman!”
It was Doc Woody. Woody showed me how to support the leg of the Corpsman shot in the kneecap. Woody’s corpsman friend was lying face down on a poncho to be used to carry him up the hill. Woody tried to assure him he was going home with the million-dollar wound. The injured corpsman writhed in pain and screamed as the chopper landed at the top of the hill with its back door extended down. I couldn’t keep his leg in the position that Woody showed me, because the side of the hill was muddy, and I kept slipping. With every slip of my foot, the corpsman would scream louder.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I couldn’t stop saying.
He looked back at me with contempt as I stepped aside to let another man take over. I stood helpless as I watched him and the other seriously wounded being loaded into the chopper. Time stood still as I turned around and looked to find that I was the last guy at the bottom of the hill. I slogged and slipped my way up the hill and returned to my familiar space. Woody helped pull Caldwell’s body up the hill to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Woody didn’t have a scalpel or even a field knife. He pulled out a ballpoint pen and slammed it into Caldwell’s throat to open an airway. Then he turned to Litzler, whose body had been carried up the hill. Woody pumped on his chest and breathed into his mouth to no avail. Nearby, Caldwell stood holding what was left of his jaw with a 4 x 4 battle dressing.
There was no priority chopper for the dead. Dead were placed into body bags and carried to a plateau fifty yard below. Litzler’s friend sat close by the contents of the black bag, knees drawn to his chest. I could hear him talking as he sat with Litzler until another chopper came.
Lt. Pierce had another fire mission. We needed to mark where the bunkers were that the patrol had encountered earlier. I was unwrapping WP rounds then watch them being lobbed to nowhere. A small spotter plane flew around, firing rounds from a launching device on its wing into the same area we were firing at. I could see the pilot when he circled back around above me giving us thumbs up; we had the right target lit up. The next thing I knew, the Aerial Observer flew off into the distance and an F-4 Phantom came screaming in alongside the hill, firing his 20 mm cannons and dropping a serious load of bombs into the bunker complex area, to shouts of “Wahoo, get some!” Another jet came screaming by and dropped napalm, lighting up the whole jungle behind us. I didn’t understand why they were using airstrikes now, and not before the patrol.
We were told it was time to leave Hill 512. Not knowing what we had accomplished nagged at me, but following orders was my duty. We had to fill in all our holes and clean up the perimeter, assembling the entire ordnance that we had used. It seemed to take forever for the choppers to show up, allowing the feeling of combat to sink in. I became busy making sure all my gear was squared away: my rifle cleaned, every magazine cleaned. I was overwhelmed with the reality of Hill 512. I sat on the edge of a bunker and Warner took my picture. The reflection on my face would be frozen in time. We loaded the first wave of helicopters with all the gear we had gathered and waited for our troop transport choppers to arrive.
We sat together waiting and finding a spark of playfulness still left in me, I pitched a little pebble at Warner. Warner, surprisingly, got really pissed as the others in the circle noticed, excitedly encouraging Warner to attack. As Warner began to rise, the anger building on his face was something unfamiliar. I just held up my hand in a gesture of surrender and looked at Warner and said “sorry.” He sat down and said “yeah.” We knew nothing further had to be said.
Dusk drew near as we heard our choppers approach. They backed into the hill one by one, blowing dust over the empty hill as they departed. Sunset’s embers reflected off the valley floor as the moon peeked over the hills of Ca Lu. Under the glow from the Man in the Moon, Hill 512 began to fade to a bad dream.
This post originally appeared on the website: Together We Served and in their electronic magazine, Dispatches on September 18, 2018. For more information about this website or the article, please visit here:
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