Conquering The Power Of Death details the journey of one Marine radioman through 1970-71 Vietnam in the face of ubiquitous death. Whether using radio skills to call in air strikes and artillery or to help Marines contact their loved ones through the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), the young Marine's encounter with death as a seemingly unstoppable force provides a glimpse into the horrors of war. Ambushes, daring rescues, poignant relationships, and civilian deaths compete with survival, maturity, and rites of passage to reveal life and death in a combat zone and afterwards.
The intricacies of a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel (TRAP) unit's day to day efforts to rescue downed pilots and the sometimes mundane routine of MARS personnel plying their skills to keep Marines in touch with the "world" only highlight death's ever present threat to mind, body, and soul. Death's presence on the battlefield, in the "rear", and in the ongoing lives of the Marines long after the war, however, begins to identity death's "Achilles' Heel"; unwavering faith, love, and humility prove potent antidotes to death's destructive prowess.
Enmeshed within the obvious need for the warrior Marine's physical survival lies the need of the Marine war veteran to cope with a life scarred by trauma and loss; a timeless quest for any veteran and one examined in depth by Conquering The Power Of Death. Death, mythological death, romantic death, and death defined by the artist's keen insight into the human condition provide the yardstick for the author's measurement of death's power while faith, scripture, discipline and love afford the author invaluable insights into the human ability to deal with a preordained force.
A highly personal plumbing of the depths where death resides and reigns in war provides a unique context for Conquering The Power of Death as well as an opportunity to unpack the emotions which travel with every combat warrior. It also provides a glimpse into Death stripped of its mystique, its presumed power, and its claimed finality.
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THE CONQUERING POWER OF DEATHA Vietnam survival story
By DAVID LEE FOSTER
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 David Lee Foster
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE SITUATION
Da Nang, Vietnam, today situated in the mid-coastal region, was "the rear" in early 1970, so much so that some Marines stationed there resided in "hooches" and even outside secured access compounds. Although there was a First Marine Division Compound and a First Marine Air Wing Compound, one could walk or hitch a ride to "Freedom Hill USO" or go across the airfield to the Fleet Air Support Unit (FASU) clubs for a burger, fries, pizza, or cheap alcoholic drinks, paid for in funny money called Military Payment Certificates or MPC. Some upscale hooches even had air conditioners and small refrigerators. Yet the weapons of war were never far away: a K-bar knife strapped to the body, a 45 pistol on the hip, an M-79 grenade launcher over the shoulder or an M-16 with multiple clips ready to be clutched - and always a bunker of sand bags close by. Death could still come quickly though by rocket or mortar or sapper or simply murder. But Da Nang was also home to Camp Reasoner, the First Marine Division Reconnaissance Compound, and helicopters unceremoniously delivered groups of six to eight Marines to and from the "boonies" for reconnaissance and death: sometimes Marines', sometimes the enemy's, but always death.
The juxtaposition of troops behind enemy lines or those deployed to no-man's land for brief periods of time with camps "in the rear" was unique to Vietnam because of the helicopter. A mere glance at the bottleneck topography of the 1970's boundary between South and North Vietnam provides insight into just how quick one could be "in the rear" one minute and "in the boonies" the next. Insertion or deployment to a nearby hill or valley could be a short helicopter ride away. But the relative security of one world (base camp) and the high, almost suicidal, risk of a hilltop a few miles away made for a roller coaster ride of emotions.
Fear, anxiety, and death could literally be a few minutes flight time away. At one moment, reconnaissance troops could be isolated, endangered, outnumbered, and on the defensive only to be "in the rear" and sleeping in a tent a few moments and a helicopter ride later - of such extremes are trauma manifested. The arduous task of reconnaissance required young, fit soldiers most likely lacking in the one thing that could make some life saving sense out of this flip-flop existence: emotional maturity. But if "necessity is the mother of invention", recon troops learned quickly to improvise, overcome, and adapt both physically, mentally, and spiritually, no matter what their age, to invent maturity.
Against this backdrop one could find nineteen-year-old, young-looking warriors, grunts and recon types who, notwithstanding their youth, were highly skilled fighters, truly feared and respected by even accomplished, battle-hardened NVA soldiers and dogma dedicated Viet Cong. That they were kids back in the "world", either going to college, working at some job, or just hanging out was of little moment; in the 'Nam they were an occupying force, the tip of the spear, and hence targets.
While certainly no where as dangerous as reconnaissance duties, radio duties for those assigned with MARS stations normally consisted of personnel being located off compounds and in secluded areas; so much so that getting to a mess hall, a club, or to any secure military installation involved unprotected travel and unprotected in Vietnam could mean ambush and death.
For example, living off a compound meant inherent risks in the early movement of an offensive, as the occupants of the American Embassy in Saigon found out during Tet, 1968. Although the embassy was guarded and constituted its own fenced in area, it was not a military base other than the presence of a few Marine guards, and a force of mixed American and Vietnamese military police. It lacked the operational security of a normal combat base with perimeters located within perimeters.
And travel to and from anywhere, whether emptying the trash, going to the PX, or simply leaving the radio station to go somewhere in the rear, was unlikely to include packing an arsenal and body armor – possibly a fatal mistake.
So it was that a simple walk to get a burger, perhaps even in civilian clothes, or a benign jaunt through the jungle to "the rear" to gather supplies might turn into a fight-for-your-life-survival odyssey. And the mistrust born of that scenario forever extinguished a genuine search for the enemy's heart and mind; the search rather was to know when and where to locate the enemy's head and center body mass with one, if not two, shots.
By contrast, those fighting on the front lines or in the trenches were understandably dismissive of a "fear in the rear" syndrome. While being on patrol, setting an ambush, or pointedly being on a search and destroy mission had its own grave dangers and attendant risks, the milieu, by its very nature, heightened awareness and brought the full force of arms to bear against the enemy. Death was real and could be expected as surely as a weekly body count of U.S. casualties. Rotation off the front lines, stand down time, and switching out individuals, even platoons, from repetitive duties all insured a sharing of risks while still keeping troops in the field. And even though the gun may have been locked and loaded, the enemy was not sighted in during such times; hence a form of false respite existed where the lull was an anticipatory one. The proof of this is that those troops were regularly given an in-country R&R to places like Da Nang and China Beach!
The sad truth was that death happened in the rear, it was still "the 'Nam" and death was in attendance; that was the reality - the real situation.
Chapter TwoTHE MARINES OF RECONNAISENCE TEAM EAGLE
Bone-rack was a 120 pound, nineteen year old Marine Lance Corporal from upstate New York, so-called because he looked like an emaciated, scrawny rack of bones. The Lance Corporal was not male-nourished by any means, just 5'8" of not so muscular Marine. But the gaunt teenager had a talent: he could direct artillery or call in an airstrike with precise coolness even in the midst of a raging battle, he could read a map, determine coordinates, and have the courage and conviction to rain hell down upon enemy just meters away. The other Marines wanted Bone-rack with them on patrol because very few had the courage to carry a twenty-three pound PRC 25 radio on their back and fewer still could use that radio deftly and efficiently to deliver death to the enemy. And oh yes, as a radio buff, a so-called Ham radio operator since his early teens, Bone-rack's part time job in the rear was to run "phone patches" though a military radio station back to the "world", a free call home to loved ones. Knowing Bone-rack often meant a ticket to calling home while "in the rear" and, at times, even in the field through the use of a PRC25 and radio relay.
Pig man's moniker, on the other hand, was no allusion to the young, native Pennsylvanian Marine's appetite, physique or sexual proclivities but rather, to his military occupational specialty or MOS. A 0331 MOS Marine carried a twenty-three pound M-60 machine gun that delivered a 7.62mm round hundreds of times a minute, usually from the center of an ambush. The pig man cleaned up the mess of enemy fire; he ate up everything that was left of a charging enemy - hence the descriptive name. And other than the radio man, he was ordinarily one of the first targeted in an ambush so as to deny the enemy force's firepower. As if Pig man needed any further liking by his fellow Marines, he just happened to be charged with laying down a devastating deluge of fire against the enemy so that others could re-group and carry out a counter-attack. The M-60 was not a usual weapon for a fast moving reconnaissance team but had found a place due to this particular team's specialized missions. It meant other team members carried extra ammo for Pig man.
Bone-rack and Pig man had much in common on Reconnaissance Team Eagle: they each humped twenty-three pounds of gear in addition to their own belongings and no one wanted their jobs yet everyone wanted their presence - preferably in good working order. They had something else in common: both Lance Corporals were 19 and had killed several enemy soldiers over their short time "in the 'Nam" with their specialized gear: Bone-rack with a radio and Pig man with a machine gun. And each knew his job well.
Bankhead, the lone Black on Reconnaissance Team Eagle, was a veteran of many wars: the racial one in his head, the south-side Chicago shithole he survived to get to the 'Nam, the prior battles of Vietnam which earned him his Sergeant stripes, and the personal one he fought daily to understand just who he was. He was a curious devotee of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King; two were dead – murdered - and the survivor had firmly stated that no Viet Cong had ever called him "Nigger". But Bankhead was also a Marine, and a Sergeant at that; the inner turmoil could not have been more apparent. But to the other team members of Eagle, he was not a Black Marine, a Black Sergeant, or a Black anything, he was "Sarge" and that meant everything to him. To Bone-rack and Pig man Sarge was a larger than life "reconner", even if he was only two years older. And neither Bone-rack nor Pig man knew much, if anything, of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, or Martin Luther King – maybe that one was a boxer, maybe.
LT, or the Lieutenant, was not 19 but a crusty 25 and on his second Vietnam tour. He was also a trained forward observer for spotting artillery, air, and naval gunfire. An Ivy League graduate from New England, he was prone to reading books the titles of which those around him could not quite discern or even pronounce. As if it were possible, a Lieutenant's life span in combat was rumored to be even shorter than the radioman or M60 gunner, even if only by a shot or two. LT was respected by his troops for he led by example but, unlike Bone-rack and Pig man, was someone who could order other Marines to their deaths by simply assigning duties, a trait which set less well with him than his troops. Team Eagle believed in him perhaps more than he believed in himself and Sarge knew it. LT had a penchant, though, for knowing his men and seeing things in them that others or even the men themselves did not or could not see. He saw ability and accomplishment, doubt and faith, and, oh yes, he saw good and bad. He saw these things and he knew that precious knowledge had been entrusted to him by some higher force - he was indeed the poet warrior. LT had so much going for him: his Ivy League credentials, his leadership, his acceptance by his underlings, that to die in Vietnam would be a huge and poignant loss; his classical education painfully reminded him that such was the anatomy of a tragedy - and war, an essential ingredient, was an overpowering force.
Ricky recon was a Macon, Georgia good ole boy that, if you believed him, had a member of his family fight in every war since the American Revolution. He had received formal training after Marine Corps boot camp in reconnaissance, hence the name Ricky recon. Gregarious by nature, he was the life of any party, especially one in a war zone, but, truly and ironically, his heart was known to none as they say. What was known amounted to a consensus; everyone was glad he was not on the other side. Large in stature and viscerally tough, he made an imposing point man for Team Eagle. A bit older than the rest of the team members at 30, and a staff non-commissioned officer (SNCO), he was what the troops called a "lifer" meaning that he made the Marine Corps his profession. If he could not be part of the Marine Corps, he just was not sure where he would fit in, if at all. LT looked up to Ricky recon which is another way of saying Ricky recon looked down on LT. Perhaps it explained why a senior NCO walked point while the higher ranking LT brought up the rear; or perhaps not – it was one of those 'Nam things and besides, Sarge walked wherever he wanted to. That was fine with Ricky recon, he only saw Sarge through Marine Corps green tinted glasses. For their part, Bone-rack and Pig man always wanted to be sure that LT's orders coincided with what Ricky recon or Sarge thought appropriate. No one wanted to envision a situation where the three did not agree on a course of action because it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to follow what the NCO's said instead of LT's direction. This was not a disparagement of LT, just a grunt thing - Marine Corps NCOs and SNCOs were the glue that made "Esprit De Corps" the sticky thing it was.
Other members of the strike force came and went as rotations back to the "world" occurred. Be they fire team members or forward observers along for the ride, they were still part of the team in the field, but the team was not always part of them in the rear.
What everyone was an integral part of, however, was the TRAP team known only as Eagle: a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel unit. In simple terms, pilots and crew went up and sometimes were forced to come down in unplanned areas. The TRAP unit assured their recovery, dead or alive, by being inserted as a group by helicopter, finding their "package", and returning safely to base with all. At times, it was a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a ruthless, committed, and determined enemy. After all, the enemy were nationalists on their home turf and the Marines travelled thousands of miles to get there as an occupying force. Team Eagle may have been disadvantaged by being on the enemy's ground and always numerically outnumbered, but the team had access to superior airpower and firepower and, the team members liked to think, superior skills. It was no mistake that the TRAP unit had a lieutenant, a staff NCO, and yet another NCO; the mission was a specialized one and required different talents and varied authority.
LT, as a forward observer, could coordinate close air support with the air wing or call up specialized firepower like naval gunfire. Ostensibly, a trained officer lent a measure of insurance and accuracy to this highly complex art-form of coordinating the trajectory of naval gunfire and the closeness of air or artillery support. In the heat of battle, however, the radioman became the nexus between the trained officer's directions and ordinance provider. But when the officer was otherwise engaged in the battle itself, the onus of obtaining firepower often fell upon the on-site radioman. And sometimes, there was no ability to communicate at all, as when the team itself was simply engaged in stealth, evasion, or escape.
There was a time when over four hundred NVA regulars simply walked over the top of a highly concealed and extraordinarily evasive Team Eagle in the still of night only to find deadly ordinance rained down on them at first light - a feat which brought praise for each team member's accomplishments. The evasion, the deadly artillery barrage, the expertly led plan, and the courage of all buried in the undergrowth as deadly, booted and sandaled feet walked over them, spoke volumes of the team's cunning and ability. Not a shot was fired, not a man was lost; the team carried their package to the extraction point and then inflicted literally hundreds of deaths upon an unsuspecting enemy.
Somewhere in the waning moments before daylight, the teenagers became older, the package became a believer, LT found himself forever indebted to God for delivering his men safely, and, while Ricky recon cast a slightly higher glance at LT, he continued to insist that if the unit had been discovered there would still be four hundred dead NVA; Sarge knew better – miracles rarely, if ever, happened on the south side of anywhere, be it Vietnam or Chicago.
And somewhere in the moments after Team Eagle's reprieve, Death looked back up the hill and promised to return; Team Eagle needed no reminder, each member was acutely aware of Death's presence. But Sarge also knew these Marines were a cut above the rest; they were, in fact, the Marines of Reconnaissance Team Eagle.
Chapter ThreeMARINES FROM MARS
MARS, or more appropriately, Navy-Marine Corps Military Affiliate Radio System, was an irregular group of communication specialists engaged with their civilian counterparts in phone and message traffic to and from the troops and "the world". Early on in the Vietnam Conflict, the Marine Corps sought to harness the skills of Ham or Amateur Radio Operators within its ranks to form an alliance with volunteer hams for the purpose of providing communication between the troops and their loved ones at home.
The organization was "irregular" in the sense that the normal chain of command was all but dispensed with in favor of first names, off-base or off-compound radio stations, the wearing of predominately civilian clothes instead of uniforms, and a very close camaraderie between the operators. In essence, MARS members thought of themselves and their civilian counterparts more as family than members of a military unit or quasi-military operation, often to the consternation of the normally tradition poised Marine Corps. Master Sergeants, privates, corporals, lieutenants, and even an occasional general, worked in close proximity to one another on a first name basis as ham radio operators more than as Marines.
Excerpted from THE CONQUERING POWER OF DEATH by DAVID LEE FOSTER Copyright © 2012 by David Lee Foster. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPROLOGUE....................Page 1 CHAPTER I THE SITUATION....................Page 7 CHAPTER II THE MARINES OF RECONNAISENCE TEAM EAGLE....................Page 10 CHAPTER III MARINES FROM MARS....................Page 15 CHAPTER IV SIX MONTHS EARLIER....................Page 19 CHAPTER V TWO YEARS EARLIER, MCMLXVIII....................Page 27 CHAPTER VI QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS....................Page 31 CHAPTER VII A GLIMPSE OF TEAM EAGLE....................Page 34 CHAPTER VIII TRAP TEAM AT WORK....................Page 37 CHAPTER IX DEATH IN THE REAR....................Page 41 CHAPTER X REST AND RECUPERATION; LIES AND MURDER....................Page 43 CHAPTER XI GREEN....................Page 45 CHAPTER XII RECON AT ITS BEST....................Page 47 CHAPTER XIII DAY-TO-DAY or NEVER CHALLENGE WORSE....................Page 55 CHAPTER XIV MEANWHILE, BACK AT HOME....................Page 60 CHAPTER XV REACTIONARY FORCE....................Page 64 CHAPTER XVI DEATH BY SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY....................Page 68 CHAPTER XVII LIFE GOES ON?....................Page 73 CHAPTER XVIII A HYMN TO YARILO....................Page 75 CHAPTER XIX WHISPERS....................Page 78 CHAPTER XX THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL IS NOT A TRAIN!....................Page 82 CHAPTER XXI CONQUERING THE POWER OF DEATH....................Page 85 CHAPTER XXII RIGHTEOUS?....................Page 94 CHAPTER XXIII RESURRECTION....................Page 98 CHAPTER XXIV POST MORTEM....................Page 101 CHAPTER XXV SU CHET....................Page 106 CHAPTER XXVI LIFE?....................Page 109 EPILOGUE....................Page 113