Hill 37: VC In The Hooch
Place: Hill 37, South Vietnam
Time: March, 1970
Lt. Jones gave me the assignment of being the FO, supporting I Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (I/3/5) who were currently located on Hill 37, near the village of Dai Loc. This was approximately 12 miles SW of Da Nang. This was considered a static position where India Company would run daily patrols and nightly ambushes around Hill 37, however it was a strategic location because it was on the Song Vu Gia, just a couple clicks (kilometers) from the Southeastern edge of Charlie Ridge, about 5 clicks east of Hill 65 and on the Western edge of Dodge City. There was plenty of opportunity to make contact with “Charlie” from Hill 37.
It was a bright and clear morning as I boarded a “Huey slick” for the short flight to Hill 37. There was a great deal of anticipation going on in my mind. There was more than one year of training that was finally going to get to be put to the test. The time had come. The chopper landed on a small helo-pad on Hill 37 and I jumped off and the bird took off immediately. I located a sign that said “India COC” which I soon learned that it meant, “Combat Operations Center.” It was a heavily fortified and centralized location where all the comm (communication) gear and maps were located and was where most of the important decisions were made. It would become my home because I soon learned that I would be bunking there.
Someone must have realized that I looked a little lost so they asked me how they could help me. I told them I was checking in and needed to speak with the C.O. I was told that the C.O., 1st. Lt. Bullock, was on his way to the C.O.C. and would be there in a moment. I bet I had a “deer in the headlights stare” when I heard the company C.O. was another 1st. Lt.. WOW! What was happening here? Anyway, Lt. Bullock came into the C.O.C. and we met.
We completed what formalities there were in a situation like this and then we started talking business. He gave me an overview of what they had been doing and what needed to get done. India had been without an F.O. for a period of time. He needed his Marines to be trained in the basics of, “calls for fire,” so they could utilize artillery support for there daily patrols and nightly ambushes. He showed me where the hill’s “observation tower” was located on the south side of the hill. I would be spending a lot of my time there. It was literally just above the village of Dai Loc. There was an old French fort on the west end of the hill right up against the river. There wasn’t much else of any significance. I asked him what kind of support would I have and he told me that I would have a radio operator and the list stopped there. He told me where the radio operator could be found.
L/Cpl Gary Bloom was my radio operator’s name and we were destined to be together for the rest of my tour in Nam. We experienced a lot of things together in the next 6 months. We developed respect for each other and a friendship that endures to this very day. There might have been a few times that Gary may have wondered what the hell he had done wrong to get assigned with me, but he persevered.
We need to fast forward a little. Lt. Bullock eventually got replaced by Captain Whelan; L/Cpl Bloom and I completed a fair amount of “calls for fire” training with a lot of the Marines that would be in charge of patrols and ambushes; and as a general comment, we did what we were supposed to do. Hill 37 continued to draw attention from the bad guys, as it always had from time to time. That usually meant we had night mortar attacks.
Well, one night, we had that mortar attack. The sound of an outgoing mortar has a hollow “womp” sound as it is being fired out the tube; however, the sound of an incoming mortar has a distinct “ka-boom” cracking sound as it goes off. Once you hear them both, you will never forget their sounds. Everyone knew what had happened when we heard the sound of incoming mortars. My reaction was to get to the tower ASAP in hopes of seeing where the mortars were being fired from and call some “arty” in on that position. I ran as hard and as low as I could across the compound toward the tower. Somewhere along the line, I got too close to a mortar blast. What I remember is that I felt myself falling to the ground, tumbling and rolling over. Everything seemed to be like, “it switched to slow motion.” It took me a few seconds to get my thoughts straight and to realize that I was basically OK. I got up and continued running toward the tower and started climbing the stairs. When I got to the opening in the floor, I saw a Marine with a rifle pointed at me!
Not a good situation, I thought. I found out soon enough that I did not identify myself to him to his satisfaction. I didn’t hear him challenge me! This Marine helps me get into the tower and he yells something like, “Lt., you’ve been hit!” I did not understand to well what he was saying. I did see that the right leg of my trousers were ripped and torn and there was some blood there. Nothing really hurt, everything was still working, so it must not have been too bad. What was beginning to bother me was that I had a hard time hearing what the Marine was saying.
We did what we could do to try and find out where the mortars were being fired from, but to no avail. What happened next has stayed with me for the rest of my life. I saw movement in the “ville” so I fired a pop-up flare and when it opened, the VC, or whomever, stopped and waved at me and then ducked into a hooch! He knew we could not fire into the ville without permission and he also knew it would take up some time to get it, if ever and he would be long gone. So much for the ROE’s (rules of engagement)! Normally I could call in a contact fire mission, but not in what was considered a friendly village.
I have often wondered if that guy is sitting around some place, with a beverage of his choice or chewing some betel nut, telling the story about the night he waved at a Marine, in the midst of his buddies attacking a Marine position, knowing that the Marine could not shoot back at him!
The experience was over just about as fast as it came upon us. This was very typical of the way things happened on Hill 37. I came down the ladder and I started heading toward where the Corpsmen were. They looked at my leg and determined nothing of any significance took place and all would be well. There would be a few minor scars, but no permanent damage. I considered that a victory. It was immediately apparent that it was not the same with my hearing. The corpsmen were almost yelling at me just to talk. I had no idea what all this meant. I had a lot of ringing in my ears. There was very little that could be done about that issue on Hill 37.
I am reminded of this incident very clearly, as if it had just happened, because I have the continued ringing in my ears while I am telling others about that night.