J. Michael Green
Mike Green was born in Arizona but lived in Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska before he entered third grade. His formative years were spent in Antelope Valley, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. After his military service, he spent eight years in Anchorage where he married and started a family. Seattle held him for thirteen years and he has been in Tucson since 1990 where he lives with his wife of 41 years and three cats. He has held many titles over the decades although his favorites are husband, father, grandfather, and sergeant of Marines.
TEAM DIXIE DINER
Team Dixie Diner was more motley than the normal motley crew of Marines. Recon is an all-volunteer outfit and it attracted a variety of characters. Some thought they were the toughest men who ever walked, some needed to test themselves, and some just wanted to be the best. As bad as some of them were in Stateside billets, they were damned good Recon Marines.
Chester, our point man, was from Bar Holler, West-By-God-Virginia. Coal country. He grew up “huntin’ and fishin’ and just trompin’ through the woods.” A little over a hundred years ago he would have been a mountain man along with Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. He joined the Army after high school and spent a few years with 82nd Airborne. He went home and began working in the mines and was miserable. Vietnam was nearly at its peak so Chester decided he should compare the Army and Marine Corps. The man was a natural in the bush. He could read sign better than any man in the battalion. More important, though, was the sixth sense he’d developed during years of hunting. He was not a big man but appeared larger than he was because of his stature and confidence.
Ronnie, our “slack” or second point, was from Denver. A tall, gangly, loose-limbed sort, he displayed a lot of grace when we had time for sports. His family spent weekends in the Rockies, hunting and fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter. He had a strong baritone and sang in a high school band and always led our songfests when we had time for frivolity. He joined the Corps right out of high school and heard about Recon. He’s another natural in the bush and this was his second tour in ‘Nam. He had been a corporal twice and was a PFC for the third time. Booze and fighting were his undoing.
Herb, a Navajo from Arizona following in his father’s footsteps, was our radio operator. His old man had been a Code Talker during WWII and had earned a Silver Star on one of the Pacific Islands. Herb was a cowboy, more comfortable on a horse than on foot, but he could move through the bush like a spirit. The jungle was alien to him, but his childhood training in the scrubland of Northern Arizona had taught him how to hide and move gently without leaving signs. He also had the leg strength to carry the 25-pound radio in addition to the other gear we all carried.
Then came The Mule. A Louisiana Cajun from the Bayou country. The rest of the team was skinny, maybe 20 to 30 pounds underweight from too much exertion and too few calories. We ate canned C-rations instead of going to the mess hall since the cooks made everything they prepared taste like a mixture of boiled cardboard and dirt. Not The Mule. When we were in the rear he ate at the mess hall three times day and ate C-rats between meals. To save weight on patrol we carried one meal a day. The Mule carried a case – a case – of C-rats: twelve meals for a five-day patrol. This man had a physique: large biceps, big pecs, well-defined abs, even lats. We made him carry the M-60 machine gun. Our M-16s weighed about seven pounds and the bullets were .223 caliber. The M-60 was a 30-pound weapon and the bullets were .308 caliber. The difference in weight between 500 M-16 rounds and 500 M-60 rounds was a whole bunch. We calculated one time that The Mule carried about 125 pounds when we started a patrol, and the rest of us carried 90 to 100 pounds.
Larry was new to Vietnam and our team, Nicky New Guy in Marine slang. He was a lumberjack from Western Oregon, a brute of a man with hands that could squeeze a rock into pebbles. Like most over-sized men he was softhearted and kind. He had only been with us for a few weeks and no one knew him well. The Mule was due to rotate back to the World in less than a month, and we had Larry pegged as our machine gunner. He had the muscle to carry The Pig.
Our Tail-End Charley was a bantam rooster from New York City, a Puerto Rican by heritage and birth. Angel was a little man with the heart of a lion. He was always yakking and laughing and joking and playing practical jokes but could turn into a snarling fit of fury at the drop of a hat. The TC position was very important to the team and Angel was well suited for it. He had to watch our rear to make sure we weren’t being followed and that we left no signs of our passage.
Me? I was the team leader, third man on patrol right behind Ronnie. I’m a desert rat from California. My father owned an automotive repair shop, and I found I had an aptitude for mechanics. I spent two years at our local junior college and received my AA, but the war in Vietnam was heating up and I wanted my piece of it, so I enlisted. Naturally, the Corps made me a mechanic and sent me to Camp Pendleton. Duty in Southern California was good, but I joined the Marine Corps to fight, not repair motors. I volunteered for recon.
We were an eight-man team, but Glenn was doing the ritual partying on R & R.
Dixie Diner had been tasked with conducting a five-day patrol in the mountains south of Camp Rock Pile. This part of Vietnam was karst—limestone deposits eroded into deep valleys—and dense, triple-canopy jungle. The Rock Pile was a circular monolith about 1,000 yards in diameter and 1,000 yards tall. Camp Rock Pile, housing a Marine infantry company, was in the valley along Route 9 below the monolith.
We caught a convoy to The Rock in the afternoon and were assigned a bunker for the night. The following morning we walked out of the wire in the midst of a platoon during their morning sweep of their perimeter, hoping any NVA watching would assume we were part of the platoon. The platoon moved about 500 yards southwest into the tree line and turned southeast. We stepped aside and let them pass us, then stayed in ambush position for about a half-hour listening for anything unusual and watching the grunts’ back trail.
Once we were confident that the NVA weren’t following the grunts, I signaled Chester to move out. Stealth was our primary method of remaining undetected in the bush. When we spoke at all, we didn’t speak above a whisper. We didn’t cook because of the cooking smells; there’s nothing like a can of cold beans and franks for your only meal of the day. We moved slowly, sometimes less than one hundred yards an hour. Chester would move two or three or five slow, careful steps, then listen and scan the ground, the flanks, and the trees for anything out of the ordinary. Move a few steps, look and listen.
We moved about 2,000 yards and gained about 2,500 feet in elevation the first day and found a sheltered thicket to spend the night. We were now in our Recon Zone and could begin searching in earnest for evidence that NVA had been through the area. Our briefing two days before had reported the presence of an enemy regiment somewhere in this area, and it was our job to find them.
Before noon of the third day we found a small recently-used trail and Chester soon found a spot where we could observe the trail without being seen. We watched three groups of four to ten men moving east along the trail. We decided to follow the trail a bit and see where they were headed. We never used trails because many of them were booby-trapped. Plus, we could easily bump into NVA coming the other way. Instead, we moved parallel to the trail, silently moving between trees and brush and rocks.
We followed the trail about 2,000 yards and stopped when Chester heard voices. We found a decent observation post above the voices where we could see a little piece of the trail. It sounded like a base camp below us. Sounds of laughter and wood being chopped for cooking fires indicated that our presence wasn’t known. We watched four more small groups moving east along the trail, all carrying AK-47 rifles over their shoulders.
It was miserably hot, what we called the 99s – 99 degrees and 99 per cent humidity. Sitting still in the shade helped but sweat continued to bead on our foreheads and run down our backs and arms. Our camouflage paint itched like a case of poison ivy. Most of us draped olive drab bath towels around our necks to both cushion pack straps and allow us to wipe sweat from our faces.
It was getting late and we hatted out for a less-crowded neighborhood. We climbed the ridge behind us and found a small clearing where we could shoot a couple of sights with the compass and confirm our position. We called in the co-ordinates of the base camp and requested an artillery fire mission for just before dark when we would be out of the area.
We moved about 2,000 yards north and found a harbor site just as the cannon-cockers fired the mission on the base camp. There were probably some irate NVA back there.
At first light we continued through our RZ, not finding any fresh signs. We were moving north and west in the direction of Camp Rock Pile, knowing the mission would end the next day. Chester signaled for us to stop and waved me forward. He had found a small trail that had recently been used by a few men. The men were moving north and were probably in an OP watching Camp Rock Pile. We knew there were NVA all around us but not where or how many.
We continued moving north and west and had traveled nearly 1,000 yards placing us near the crest above Camp Rock Pile. The jungle had become quiet, which usually indicated the presence of humans although our slow movement and lack of noise seldom alarmed the local fauna. The terrain had steepened and we had to ensure each step we made was stable before we placed weight on that leg. We entered a flat area with little ground vegetation, a steep drop to the left, and a ten-foot high rock outcrop to the right. Chester stopped to scan the area and decided it was safe. He moved along the base of the outcrop to where the foliage began to thicken.
Once we entered the thicker brush we had to reduce our intervals from about 15 yards to less than five yards to retain visual contact with the man in front of us. We had moved about 25 yards inside the foliage when Chester stopped and waved me forward. Another trail, this one not used several weeks.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Someone fired an M-16, a full magazine on automatic. The muffled sounds of someone yelling filtered through the dense brush. We all hit the dirt and wondered whether this was to be the day we died. I whispered to Chester to back off, watch the trail, and protect our front, then began to crawl toward the noise. There was no more gunfire but the yelling continued. No, not yelling, I thought. Screaming… it’s someone screaming! Every Marine on the team was doing what I was doing: crawling toward the sound of a firefight. As I neared the outcrop, the screaming grew louder. Then laughing. Laughing? Now I was confused.
I reached Ronnie, who had left the trail before I had. He was on his stomach, his rifle on the ground, and his head on his arms—and he was laughing! My other teammates were on their knees, and they were laughing too. The whole damned team was laughing. I struggled to my feet and moved past the foliage.
Angel was doing pirouettes around the little clearing, screaming at the top of his lungs with a wild look in his eyes and plunging his Ka-Bar, first over his right shoulder and then over his left, at a little brown mass sitting on top of his pack. The little brown mass was dodging the Ka-Bar and banging on Angel’s head.
A friggin’ rock ape.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
I was leery about getting close to Angel the way he was flinging his knife hither and yon. I stood at the edge of the clearing and waved my arms but he made three circles before he noticed me. Angel had to be exhausted after several minutes of dancing, leaping, and thrusting his knife. He weighed maybe 125 and was carrying at least 90 pounds of assorted weapons, food, and water in addition to the monkey on his back. He finally stopped dancing and screamed for me to shoot the NVA although he used a considerable amount of vulgarity to get his point across.
I had to do something before those nasty looking claws or teeth made Angel into a medivac. Since the little monkey had no intention of jumping off Angel’s pack, I had to prod it several times with my rifle barrel before it shrieked and jumped back onto the rocks. The monkey was maybe three feet tall and sixty pounds. It seemed to be berating me for spoiling its fun and even threw a couple of loose rocks at me.
It was a good five minutes before Angel was calm enough to tell us what happened. Turns out the monkey had jumped on his pack as he walked past the rock outcrop and he thought it was an NVA. He’d pointed his M-16 over his head and held the trigger down until the magazine was empty. When that didn’t work, he pulled his Ka-Bar and started stabbing at the monkey. The monkey was beating on Angel’s head with open palms the whole time.
It was another ten minutes before everyone was calm enough to become a Recon team again. We reported our position and beat feet out of the area since any local NVA would know we were there and would be looking for us.
From that day on Angel was known as Monkey Boy.
©Copyright 2010 by J. Michael Green
(Last revised: July 2011)
Author’s Note: This story was e-published in “Nicky, Sasquatch, and Pink Elephants”
available at Smashwords and many e-tailers. Click on the “Smashwords” logo above for more information.