Bad Times at Tuy Hoa

After being discharged from the hospital, I arrived back at Tuy Hoa, but the company wasn’t back yet. I had the barracks all to myself with no duty assignments. I wandered around the base to kill time, but something felt different about it. I felt uncomfortable being there, maybe because I didn’t know anyone. I was glad when the company returned within a few days.

The guys filled me in on what I had missed while hospitalized. They returned with stories and pictures of a helicopter crash site that they had to guard until another chopper flew in to recover the remains. They also told me about digging up graves, looking for stashed weapons. I was glad I missed out on that! I couldn’t believe it when I saw that one of the guys brought back a human skull and was using it as a candle holder in our barracks! He called it his headlight. I laughed and took a picture of it, but looking back now, I’m wondering if we were all sick!

 It was probably about a week or so after I was out of the hospital and back at Tuy Hoa that the sarge told me to report to HQ. They had received a call from the Red Cross inquiring about my condition. My mother had been desperately trying to find out what happened to me, and if I was okay. She finally got through via the Red Cross. I didn’t even know that she was aware of my malaria incident. I found out that at some point, while hospitalized, I did manage to write one or more letters to my family, but probably because of the delirious fevers, I didn’t remember writing them. So, as a result, it never crossed my mind to write back, informing my family that I was feeling better. Even though it was unintentional, I regret worrying my mother sick like that. That is the last thing she needed. The Red Cross people called her back to inform her that I was okay. I immediately wrote an apologetic and reassuring letter to Mum.

My recovery from malaria took longer than I expected. I was still feeling pretty weak and remained on light duty, but I couldn’t stand it. All of the other guys were out working at night. I had the whole barracks to myself and was able to sleep in my comfortable bunk bed, but I was bored as ever. I asked to be put back on the guard roster, but they refused without a release from the doctor, so I started going out to the perimeter with the guys at night on my own even though I didn’t have duty. I would go out to a bunker that was within walking distance of the barracks and hang out with the guys for a couple of hours until it got dark. Then I would walk back to the barracks unseen and sleep in my AO for the rest of the night. My idleness and boredom could have and probably should have gotten me into some trouble, especially since I often wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

One night as it was turning dark and was time to leave the bunker to head back to the barracks, I discovered a smoke grenade that somebody before us had left behind. I couldn’t think of any use for a smoke grenade in a bunker at night. The only time we ever used them was out in the field to signal our location to a chopper that was coming in for re-supply or to pick us up. Smoke grenades produced different colored smoke, and the lettering on the side of the canister indicated which color it was. The chopper pilot would call over the radio and tell us what color smoke he saw. That is how he confirmed that it was us signaling him in and not the enemy. I saw the letters “WP” on the grenade and wondered what color that stood for.

The other two guys didn’t know either. I was betting on white, and out of senseless boredom, I decided to pop the smoke grenade and casually tossed it out of the bunker window. Suddenly the night lit up like daylight! I was confused at first and didn’t know what had happened. Smoke grenades quietly make colored smoke, not bright burning light. There was this massive area of white-hot burning material, right outside of the bunker window, only a few feet away, between the bunker and the concertina wire where I had thrown the grenade. What a foolish mistake I had made. I should have known that “WP” stood for white phosphorous, but I never saw one before. That incident could have been tragic. White phosphorous is deadly. If I had accidentally dropped the grenade inside of the bunker or had not tossed it far enough away, we would have certainly all been severely burned or killed. As it was, it was way too close, the three of us were standing there stunned when the radios started chattering. The guys from the other bunkers were calling. They thought that we were hit and were under attack.

I thought we were going to be in trouble, and this was going to be hard to explain, especially since I wasn’t even supposed to be out there in the first place. We decided that we had to follow through with the fiasco to cover ourselves, so we fired a few M-16 bursts toward the perimeter. Soon all was quiet, and the WP burned out. We responded to the radio calls stating that we did not know what happened and that we didn’t see anybody, but we were okay, and nobody was injured. LT soon responded over the radio, saying that it was probably a dud round that had exploded and to stay awake and keep your eyes open. I walked quickly and quietly back to the barracks in the darkness, thinking to myself how stupid I was. Nothing more was ever said about the incident. I suspect that the official report stated that we had stopped a VC sapper from entering the perimeter.

I decided it was time to see the doctor to request an early release from light-duty before I got myself into more trouble. I didn’t think about it at the time, but that request was probably viewed by the officers and lifers as a commendable action on my part, volunteering to get back to duty to help out our shorthanded unit, or something like that. I only did it because I was bored and was trying to stay out of trouble.

The days and nights were dragging on slower than ever. Things were quiet, too quiet. The older guys were going back to the world, and very few new replacements were coming in. We worked for weeks straight without a night off. Finally, to give us a break, they started using some of the air personnel from the base to augment the perimeter guard duty, and that did help. We did get a few more nights off. I never thought about it before, but a lot of those guys never left the safety of their on-base barracks or offices or shops, or wherever they worked all day. So, when they were required to go out on the perimeter bunker line at night, they were uncomfortable about it. I always tried to reassure them that everything would be okay, but I could tell that they were nervous about being there, as all of us were at first. I instructed them on where our field of fire was, the location of the claymores, how to use the hand flares, and all of that kind of stuff, and lastly, I instructed them not to shoot anyone while I was asleep! Always wake me up first if you see anyone. I’m sure that didn’t help calm them any, but I didn’t want them to shoot the sergeant of the guard or an officer that might be checking on us or have any other friendly fire incidents occur. I always asked them if they preferred the first two-hour watch, or would they rather sleep first. I remember one of them saying that he wouldn’t be able to sleep at all that night, so since he was going to be awake anyhow, I may as well sleep. I said okay, wake me up in two hours, or when you get tired. He nervously stayed awake all night, allowing me to sleep uninterrupted. Therefore, I got more sleep when they were helping out than ever.

Drugs became a problem. Smoking a little weed while off duty is one thing, but for some of the guys, it went way beyond that as they were getting hooked on heroin. There wasn’t a lot of them, but it only takes a few to impact the unit negatively. Any guy who was addicted to heroin had an unmistakable look about him. The blank stare, the lack of emotion or caring, the eyes gave it away. I hated being around them. Some of those guys used to be okay guys that I spent time in the field with, but now they became unreliable, and you couldn’t trust them. The Battalion started a drug-testing program in an attempt to weed out the users.

I pulled guard duty one night with a heroin addict. Not wanting to identify the guy’s name in this story, I’ll call him Joe. He would get so stoned that his eyes would roll back into his head. I tried keeping him awake on his guard shift, but I had to get some sleep too. I kept waking up to check on him, and every time I did, he was asleep, passed out. The next thing I knew, the LT was outside our bunker waking us both up! That meant serious trouble. Sleeping on guard duty is a severe and dangerous offense that could cause people to get killed. LT asked us who was supposed to be awake. I kept my mouth shut, hoping that Joe would be man enough to speak up and tell the truth. Joe said that he didn’t know. I wasn’t going to turn him in, but I wasn’t going to lie either. LT looked at me and asked if it was my turn to be on guard. I shook my head and replied, “no.” LT nodded and said that he would speak to us in the morning. Following that night, Joe went away, gone from our unit forever. I don’t know if he was court-martialed or was sent to rehab or received an undesirable discharge or what happened. I never saw him again, and I was never questioned further about the incident. So, I guess LT believed my single word answer to his question that night.

It seemed like things were getting worse by the day. Racial tensions were on the rise. The blacks would walk around the base, doing their dapping type of fist thumping while wearing black braided wristbands and raising their clenched fists in the air, symbolizing the black power movement. The whites began to resent what they perceived to be blatant open racism. I don’t want to elaborate on the racism that was going on, but it was there, and it was ugly, and I hated it.

Careless accidents were occurring. One guy was killed in his bunker from an accidental M-79 round exploding. Another guy died from a freak accident when a large artillery type of flare canister dropped on him. Another one suffered severe burns from a hand flare that ignited due to an accidental fall to the bunker floor. There were a couple of fraggings that had occurred. Fragging means tossing a fragmentation grenade with the intent to wound or kill officers. It is technically murder or attempted murder. I know of at least two fragging incidents that took place on base while I was there, one in our own Company B headquarters where the tossed grenade hit the door frame and bounced back outside of the building rather than falling inside where it would have wounded or killed some men.

Those were some terrible times at Tuy Hoa. As crazy as it sounds, I wished that they would send us back out to the field to get away from all of that insanity.

Headlight

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