by Gary Stegmiller
My military experience began in late 1968. I had just returned from California and had begun the process of enlisting in the Air Force because I knew that soon I would be called up for the Draft. The war in Vietnam had esculated drastically during 1968, and local Draft Boards were scrambling to fill their quotas.
A couple of days after Thanksgiving 1968, my draft notice arrived in the mail in North Dakota. It had been first sent to my previous address in California, and then forwarded to North Dakota, so by the time it arrived, I did not have the standard 30 days to report. Instead, I had only a couple of days. I quickly got rid of my 1968 Chevelle, and got ready to go.
On December 1, I boarded a bus in Mandan for a trip to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Fargo. I arrived in Fargo late that afternoon, and slept there that night. On the morning of December 2, the induction process began. Of the 100+ inductees there, 4 were selected for the Marine Corps. The remainder went into the Army. I later learned that the reason I was selected for the Marine Corps was the simple fact that I had some education beyond High School. The Marine Corps had suffered such high casualties among their Officers during 1968 that they were desperate to find people to replace them.
We four Marine Corps inductees were driven to the Fargo airport that afternoon and boarded a plane for Minneapolis. In Minneapolis we boarded another plane to Los Angeles. There we boarded a plane to San Diego, where a Marine Corps bus met us and took us to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
One of the first things we did there was to take 2 days of aptitude tests. After the testing was completed, many of the draftees who scored well were offered the opportunity to leave MCRD and instead go to Quantico, VA for Officer training. I declined their offer because it meant increasing my 2 year tour of duty to 3 years. Officer training took longer than Enlisted training, so they wanted the additional year to recover the expense of the additional training. The bottom line, however was that a 3 year enlistment allowed time for two 1-year tours in Vietnam, while a 2 year enlistment allowed time for only a single tour in Vietnam.
I did my 9 weeks of Basic Training in San Diego, with 2 weeks of that time spent at the rifle range in Camp Pendleton just to the north.
After graduating from Basic, I received my orders. I was assigned a military occupational specialty of 0844, which was Artillery-Fire Direction Control, and was assigned to 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. The 9th MAB assignment was a group assignment for all Marines destined for Vietnam upon completion of training.
First I was sent to Camp Pendleton for 4 weeks of Infantry training (ITR). All Marines receive infantry training regardless of MOS.
After ITR, (early March), I was sent to Schools Batallion for 4 weeks of Artillery training where we learned how to compute aiming data and charges for the howitzers.
After artillery school, I was sent home for 20 days leave. In late April, I returned to Camp Pendleton and then was assigned to Staging Batallion for an additional 3 weeks of Infantry training. These 3 weeks were Vietnam specific training for all Marines headed for Vietnam. Many of the Staging Batallion instructers were young Marines who had just returned from Vietnam themselves. Most of them had Purple Hearts, and I remember one Corporal in particular. His right hand was mostly unusable from wounds he had received a few months earlier in Vietnam. He had planned on making a career out of the Marine Corps, but was wounded after a few months in Vietnam. The doctors decided that his hand and lower arm were too badly damaged to save, and should be amputated. He refused to sign the papers to allow them to do it, so he still had what remained of his hand. By accepting an instructor position during his recovery, he was hoping that future surgeries could repair his hand and arm enough so he could continue with his Military career. He was 19 years old, I was 20 at the time. Looking into his eyes, you would have thought he was 30. This was a look I was going to see again in many faces when I got to Vietnam.
Staging Batallion was the first time in the Marine Corps, that we were treated like human beings. We were now at the point where there was no point in trying to treat us as anything less than Marines. Seeing young wounded Marines trying to teach you everything they learned just a few months earlier gave me all the incentive I needed to pay attention.
I completed my training in late May, and the entire group was put onto buses and taken north to El Toro Marine Air Base in Orange County, CA. This base was only a few miles from where I had an apartment just a few months earlier when I worked for Collins Radio Co.
We arrived at El Toro in the afternoon, and our plane was not scheduled to leave until about 4AM. Military bases don't have the nice accomodations of a civilian airport, so we waited most of the night in a large building with no chairs, just a tile floor to sit on. I found room next to a young Marine PFC. He was from Texas. Beside him was a young Lieutenant from the East Coast. We spent the night talking and sharing fresh homemade tortillas that the Texas PFC had just received in the mail from his wife. We were at a point where it didn't matter anymore whether you were an Officer or an Enlisted man. I never saw either of these guys again, and I don't know their names, but I won't ever forget the night I spent with them.
Toward morning, we boarded a United Airlines Boeing 707 for the first leg of our 20 hour flight to Vietnam. Sometime later that day, we landed in Honolulu, Hawaii. There we got off the plane for an hour or two while they refueled the plane and prepared a new flight crew.
Then we took off for the island of Okinawa near Japan. As we neared Okinawa, we got into a typhoon. The weather got increasingly worse, and the flight got much rougher. When we got to Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa, the weather was so bad that luggage was flying out of the overhead compartments and coming loose from under the seats as the plane pitched and rolled. I was seated on the left side of the plane just over the wing, and the wings were being bent so violently up and down that at times I had to put my nose to the window just to see if they were still attached to the plane. The wingtips were bending up and down 6-10 feet as the plane was thrown around.
As we finally came in on our approach, the visibility was basically zero. The first thing I saw when we finally broke through the low clouds and pouring rain was a row of airplane hangers directly below us. The instrument approach was not accurate enough, so were were not even over the airstrip. The pilot pulled the plane into a violent climb to get us out of there. We circled, and made a second attempt. This time I saw a row of B52's parked below us when we first saw the ground. It looked like we were just a few feet short of hitting their high tailfins. Again, the pilot pulled us skyward. After this attempt, the pilot came onto the intercom and announced that the Military wanted us to make a 3rd attempt, and if we were not successful, we would go on to Tokyo instead.
The third attempt was almost as bad as #2. The first thing I saw was a long line of B52 tailfins out my left side window. But, this time, we were clear on the right side, so the pilot managed to slide the plane sideways as we came in so we were far enough over the landing strip so we could land. The landing was rough, but under the conditions we had, it was perfect. We landed on a strip with 6-12 inches of water on it.
Once on the ground, we deplaned into that water and waded in ankle deep water. Our seabags with our clothes were taken from the cargo bay and dropped onto the runway into the water. The water gushed out of them as we picked them up and carried them in the pouring rain to a nearby hanger where we would await the end of the typhoon.
Welcome to Okinawa! The rest of my stay was to be much nicer. In an hour or so, the typhoon moved off the island, and buses arrived to take us north to the Marine Base, Camp Hansen. Once at Camp Hansen, we were put into barracks, which were the nicest accomodations I had during my entire stay in the Marines. They were real waterproof buildings with tile floors, real beds, and a bathroom shared by 30-40 guys.
I spent my time on Okinawa like every one else. The daily schedule consisted of getting up for breakfast, standing in formation around 8AM where they would call out orders for anyone leaving for Vietnam that day. If you were not called, you went back to the barracks and read books until noon, had lunch, and spent the afternoon killing time. After supper, there was a bus into a nearby Okinawan town that was full of bars and tourist shops. Or, one could spend the evening at the Enlisted club on base where drinks were 30 cents each.
Within a few days all the guys I had flown over with had their orders and were gone. My orders took a few days longer, and finally my day came to board another 707 headed for Da Nang. I was amazed to see that this flight was another commercial United Airlines flight. United had a contract to fly Marine personnel, so they flew us into Da Nang. On the flight, I asked the stewardess how she came to be on these flights. She just shrugged her shoulders, and said that somebody had to do it, so she volunteered. The entire crew was volunteers.
We landed at the airstrip in Da Nang, and I half expected we would be shot at as we got off the plane, but all was quiet.
As I stepped out of the plane, I was shocked by the intense tropical heat and humidity. Okinawa had been mild in comparison. My first breath of air was filthy smelling air that I would learn to accept as normal as time went by.
We were met at the plane by Marines in a pickup to take us to our units. I again saw that distant, stare in the eyes of the young Marines there.
I was taken to Headquarters Battery, 1st Batallion, 13th Marines compound located on the west side of Hill 327 to the west of Da Nang. There I found some of the guys that I had been trained with, but who had left Okinawa a few days ahead of me.
The 13th Marine Regiment is part of the 5th Marine Division, which is activated only during times of war when more personnel are needed. Most of the 5th Marine Division was at Camp Pendleton in California in 1969. The 13th Marine Artillery group was in Vietnam supporting the 26th Marine Infantry Regiment. These units of the 5th Division were attached to the 3rd Division which covered most of the area from Da Nang north to the DMZ. The 1st Division had the rest of the area of Vietnam assigned to the Marine Corps, and had most of Da Nang and to the south.
Right away, I learned that most of the guys at HQ battery had, like me, just recently arrived. Headquarters Battery had been overrun on February 23 by a sapper and subsequent rocket attack and suffered nearly 50% casualties in KIA and wounded. I never did hear complete details of that night, because the fellows who survived it could not talk much about it. I know that 83 young Marines lost their lives across Vietnam that day, and hundreds more were wounded. Since the Army outnumbered the Marines by many times, their casualties that day surely were many times higher, too. A day in Vietnam is a long time.
We were a bunch of new "green" Marines learning our way here. My job consisted mostly of working in the Fire Control bunker where we calculated the aiming data for Alpha and Bravo batteries of 105mm howitzers, and a battery of 155mm howitzers. We also had a battery of four-deuce (4.2 inch) mortars, and a battery of 175mm guns. The 175s didn't fire many missions. They were kept in reserve for their long distance capability. Although we were positioned near the east coast of Vietnam at the South China Sea, the 175s could reach to the Loatian border on the western edge of Vietnam with their 29 mile range. The 105s were the workhorses, often firing hundreds and even thousands of rounds per night. Many times each night we fired illumination rounds for anyone who needed light to assess their situation.
Besides our artillery, we had Navy ships sitting out in the South China Sea with their 8 inch guns, and an aircraft carrier with F4 Phantoms. The Phantoms were used mostly in daylight fights where they could see their targets.
At night, we also had the "Spooky" gunships, and "Puff the Magic Dragon". Spooky was a helicopter equipped with gatling style miniguns that fired 30 caliber machine gun ammo at a rate of many thousands of rounds per minute. This belted ammo was the same stuff we used in our M60 machine guns. Every 5th round is a tracer round so you can see where you are hitting. When Spooky passed by at night, the red tracer rounds created a continuous red band of light many yards wide from the gunship to the ground. It was an eerie sight and sound. I was told that if Spooky passed over a football field, every square foot of soil in that football field would have a minimum of 3 bullet holes in it.
"Puff" was a similar setup using a C130 airplane. It, too could totally devastate any path it crossed over.
When anyone in our TAOR (tactical area of responsibility) need artillery support, it was our job to get those artillery rounds where they were needed in minutes or seconds. When not on duty, we had to stand guard at our perimeter. If we could not protect our compound, we would not be able to deliver the artillery support.
The FDC bunker was a large (about 25x50 ft) built into the side of Hill 327. It had many layers of sandbags over it, so it was a quite secure place. As long as we could keep our perimeter secure, we would be quite safe inside the bunker. Small arms fire could not penetrate it, and when we were rocketed, only a direct hit could have done much damage to it. None of the rockets that landed inside the perimeter while I was there did any damage to the bunker.
When standing guard duty at night on the perimeter, we had many foxholes. Near the hootches were more foxholes, just one jump away. On a good night you slept in the hootch in relative quiet. On a bad night, you slept in the foxhole. One night we were taking intermittent incoming small arms fire. It was not safe to stay in the hootches. The preceding week had been rainy. My foxhole had 6-12 inches of water in it. I tried to sleep sitting up in the water, but that didn't work. Finally after a few hours things calmed down, so I climbed up onto the row of sandbags ringing the top of the foxhole. There I stretched out wearing my flak jacket, helmet, and all and tried to sleep. I awoke later with something bouncing on my chest. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw a rat sitting on my chest. He wanted a dry place, too. I swung at him as hard as I could with my fist, and sent him flying. He didn't return the rest of that night.
Another part of the job of an 0844 Artilleryman is to act as a land surveyer. In order for us to be able to calculate where to aim an artillery piece, we need to know within a few feet exactly where that piece is parked. So, every artillery piece must be surveyed in. Any time a battery is moved, more surveying is required. Whenever any of our batteries moved, we went out in the daytime and surveyed their new locations. I went on survey parties south of Da Nang into the area around Hill 55 where one of our batteries was located for a while, and also to the north as far as the Hai Van pass area.
Sometime in the Fall of 1969, the 3rd Marine Division was pulled out of Vietnam and sent back to Okinawa. The 13th Marines were not really part of the 3rd, so we were left behind and reassigned to the 1st Marine Division. Somewhere in that same time we moved from Hill 327 to the north to an area called the Northern Artillery Cantonment. This put us due west of Red Beach, and nearer Hai Van pass. It also put us farther away from the 11th Marine Regiment, which was the Artillery regiment for the 1st Marine Division. They remained on the outskirts of Da Nang.
At the Northern Artillery Cantonment we built a new larger FDC bunker. As I remember, it was 40x80 feet. The framework was 18x18 inch wooden beams, and the entire structure was covered with layers of sandbags. At NAC, we were out on a flat sandy plain with a clear view of Monkey Mountain to the east, and a mountain range to the west and north. The flat plain we sat on probably made this bunker more vulnerable to rocket attack, but the location out in a flat area probably also lowered the chances that the NVA could get near enough to use rockets.
At Hill 327 we sat on the side of a mountain, and to the southwest of us there was an opening in the mountain range called Dai La pass. That seemed to be the alley that the enemy needed to send rockets into our compound at Hill 327.
We settled into our new home at NAC, and Fall rolled into Winter. Bob Hope came to Da Nang for his annual Christmas show, but 1/13 was able to send only about half of our Marines. I was among the half that stayed back to "mind the store" that day.
New Years 1970 came and went without much ado, and after the first of the year, we started hearing rumors of more pullouts.
In March, we got orders to pull back with our guns and equipment to the 11th Marines compound. Now we were back near Hill 327 where I had started my tour. We spent a week or so with the 11th Marines, and then we were moved to a staging area near Monkey Mountain. Another 2 or so weeks were spent here cleaning and readying the guns and trucks for the trip home.
In late March, our ship arrived. We were trucked to Deepwater pier on the Monkey Mountain peninsula, and a US Navy ship LKA114 was just pulling into the dock. The Captain of the ship gave us the option of loading the ship working 8 hour days, or going around the clock until we were done. It was almost a unanimous decision. We worked non-stop, 8 hours on duty- 8 hours off, and were underway in less than 24 hours. The ship departed shortly after 1 AM, and by 6 AM we received commumnication by radio that the Vietcong had rocketed the pier less than 2 hours after we left. They, too, thought we needed more time to loaded and get underway.
The first day out, the sea started getting rough. Sure enough, another Typhoon. I was going to leave just like I arrived, in bad weather. The ship pitched and rolled for three days getting through the storm. We were not allowed on deck for those three days because the heavily laden ship was riding low enough in the water so that the bow was going under water as it pitched in and out of the massive waves. During this time we had to stand "guard" duty 24 hours a day on the trucks and equipment in the 3 lower levels of the ship to ensure that nothing broke loose from where we had moored it with chains, cables, and straps when we loaded the ship. Apparently we did a good job, because everything stayed in place.
Before we got to the Philippines we were well out of the typhoon, and the Pacific Ocean became as smooth as a sheet of glass for the rest of the 18 day trip home. The long trip home was really a blessing, because it gave us some time to "decompress". I don't remember much of that time, probably because I just turned my mind off to try to forget everything of the previous year.
We arrived off the coast of California one day ahead of schedule. The Commanding General of 5th Marines was scheduled to meet us at the dock for a "Welcome Home" ceremony, so we sailed slowly up and down the California coast from early evening until mid-morning of the day we were supposed to arrive. The lights of the California cities were visible all night.
The ship docked at Long Beach harbor, and after a short ceremony, the Marines were loaded into buses and taken to Camp Pendleton. I think this is when the shock really set in. So little had changed in California while I was gone, and yet it seemed like I had been gone for a lifetime.
When we arrived at Camp Pendleton, they lined us up in formation, and started calling out orders for our new duty stations. Anyone with 9 months or less to serve was pulled aside into a separate group. I had 8 months left, so I went with that group. Then our group was told we had the option of going to the duty station listed on the orders they gave us, or take an "early out" and go home. My orders said "Camp Lejune, NC". I never got to Camp Lejune. Of the 125 or so Marines with the "early out" offer, only 1 chose to stay. The rest of us were sent to the processing area to be processed out.
We went through 3 days of physicals and paperwork, and then were officially civilians again. I went to Orange County to visit some old friends and to stop by my old employer, Collins Radio Company, to let them know that I would not be returning to work for them. The next day, I went to the Los Angeles airport and got a plane ticket home.
While waiting for my plane in the airport, a young Marine PFC came over and started talking with me. He saw my Vietnam ribbons on my uniform and asked if I had just returned. I told him that I had just been back for a few days, and he told me he was returning from 30 days leave in Montana, and had orders to go to Vietnam. He was an Indian from the Flathead Lake area in western Montana. When I told him that I was from North Dakota, he looked at my skin, tanned from a year in the tropical sun, and asked me which tribe I belonged to. I don't think that I convinced him that it was just a suntan. We talked a while, and I wished him the best of luck. I wonder if he saw that look in my eyes.
I boarded my plane and flew to Denver. There I got another plane into Bismarck. My plane landed at the Bismarck airport that night in a beautiful early April North Dakota snowstorm. It was a nice way to start living my life again.
The command chronology of the 13th Marines for this timeframe.