The commercial airplane had just landed in Okinawa. A Marine enters the opened doors and announces on the PA system, ”everyone can off board the plane now. However, this plane is continuing to Da Nang and anyone who remains on board can have their stay in Country in Vietnam shortened by 30 days”. That sounded great to me, so I was one of 14 other guys to remain onboard the aircraft. I only saw Okinawa from the airplane window. Similar to how I first experienced Hawaii. We were not allowed to deplane while it was being refueled. It was another 10-hour flight to Da Nang.
I landed in Da Nang on January 18th, 1969 in the late afternoon. I was shocked when I got off the airplane to see a Vietnamese woman squatting with her pants down, taking a crap on the dirt next to the runway. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing that. We were trucked over to the 1st MARINE Division’s motor pool waiting to catch a helicopter ride to An Hoa. My name didn’t get called so I stayed there for the night and caught my first helicopter ride, a CH-46, with 24 other green grunts the next late morning and flew from Da Nang to An Hoa.
When I arrived in An Hoa on January 19th, 1969, having been assigned to Hotel 2/5, I still had stitches in my mouth from having my wisdom teeth pulled, State Side at Camp Pendleton, CA, six days earlier. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get on a helo with the rest of the new recruits and fly out to my new unit yet because of the stitches in my mouth. I had orders to report to the dentist in An Hoa the same day. It was the first time I’d been to a dentist where they didn’t have running water. They placed a rubber diaphragm in my mouth, inspected all my teeth, took the rubber mask out of my mouth and then pulled my stitches out. I walked back to the Hotel 2/5 compound and got three days of light duty.
The next morning, my third day in Vietnam, I was assigned to burn the shitters each morning. That was fun! After hauling my first steel barrel of crud out of the outhouse (it takes two guys to lift them) then adding the kerosene, and lighting the thing on fire to burn the human waste, the Sargent in charge asked me why I was here in An Hoa and not out with my unit. I showed him my three-day light duty pass and he began cussing me out. I was supposed to stay in the tent hut or near, or on my bunk, not be out on a work assignment. So, that one barrel of crap was my only experience in the Marine Corps of burning and cleaning the shitters.
On January 23th, I was assigned to get on a helicopter, a Chinook CH-46, to fly out to a mountaintop to join Hotel 2/5. I was assigned to the 2nd platoon. Just before I got on the helo, I was given a big sack of mail in a huge red mail bag to take out to the troops. The bag was heavy with mail and packages.
This was my second helicopter ride. The first one was a CH-46 that I flew from Da Nang to An Hoa. It was crowded with a lot of Marines on board. This one, however, was the same type of helicopter but I was the only passenger. It was a re-supply helicopter full of food, water, and ammunition.
It was my first experience circling round and round as we descended upon the LZ. The gunner on the chopper told me that the LZ wasn’t cleared from the tree trunks so I had to jump 6 feet down out of the chopper as it hovered over the LZ. The first thing that the chopper did was drop his big net of supplies onto the LZ, then moved over another area of the LZ and lowered itself hovering closer to the ground. When I approached the back of the ramp of the helo, I saw two men standing on the LZ to greet me and the re-supplies. I was excited to see them and waved to them. They didn’t wave back. I was given a thumbs up from one of the crew to jump.
I grabbed that big red bag of mail, flung it over my shoulder with my backpack of gear, helmet, and flack jacket, my three full canteens of water, my M16 in my hand, and jumped 6 or 7 feet to the ground. I landed without spraining my ankle, or landing on a tree stump, and trying my best to not let the mailbag touch the ground. When I finally got my composure and stood up and looked at the two Marines, they were officers. I thought about dropping the mailbag, standing at attention, and saluting them, but then I remembered, I’m not in boot camp anymore, I’m in a war zone, and I don’t salute them. I just stood there like an idiot!
I looked around the cleared landing zone which was covered with freshly cut down and blown away trees that stood there only days before. The clearing was rather small at the time. Tree stumps were everywhere.
The two men were Hotel 2/5 Company skipper, Captain Ron Drez, and my newly assigned platoon commander, 1st Lieutenant Barry Broman. To my surprise, they began laughing at me hysterically, and I didn’t know why. I thought I must of really have jumped down off the helicopter the wrong way. I was a greenhorn, right from the States and had seen no action yet and certainly didn’t have any experience jumping out of helicopters. Captain Drez came up to me, reached out, and grabbed my arm to help steady the huge mailbag full of mail and packages so I didn’t drop it or drag it across a tree stump. The laughter immediately stopped when the crack, crack, crack of an AK-47 was heard. He gave my PC an order to quickly get me to a foxhole because the helo was taking on fire from the enemy. I ran as fast as I could with my Lieutenant with my gear and the red mail bag to a nearby foxhole. I was completely out of breath and really scared when I got to the foxhole.
I got to meet several guys in 2nd platoon within the first hour I was on the mountain, sitting in foxholes that I didn’t have to dig. The Marines were glad to see me because they hadn’t had any mail in over two weeks. I was proud that I was the one chosen to take the mailbag out to them. Later that evening, my Platoon Commander, Broman, came over and greeted me. He then told me that the reason the two of them had been laughing at me was that when I jumped out of the helo, I looked like Santa Claus with a big red bag across my shoulders and over my back. They were laughing because I was so very green as a Marine. I quickly learned that in the bush, you don’t wear or show any red colors. It makes a great target. “Charlie” was shooting at me with that big red bag and at the helo. No one had told me that I was supposed to have taken my green poncho out and covered the red mail bag before I jumped out onto a hot LZ. I didn’t learn that in boot camp or in Infantry Training (ITR). But I never did that again. (Delivered mail, yes, in a red mail bag no.) FYI, the new mail guy back in An Hoa was also green and had just arrived from the States and didn’t know that the red mail bags were supposed to be covered in green material before being sent to the bush.
This was my welcome and opening days in the war experiencing a real military operation, Operation Taylor Common, seeing a triple canopy forest with large snakes, huge-sized insects, and loud monkeys, and being in a real combat unit. This was my welcome to Vietnam and the war.
Larry D. Tyler