A Grunts Life Around Quan Loi

A large Army base fifty-seven miles north of Saigon and twelve miles from Cambodia, Quan Loi was built near a rubber tree plantation populated with deserted French buildings. Quan Loi supplied grunts with ammo, food, water, heavy artillery and air support, and medical care. Due to frequent rocket attacks, it was nicknamed Rocket City. GIs referred to its bright red soil as Quan Loi Red.

My old Alice pack.  A SOG friend notes they were phased out years ago.  Beneath the forty-five pistol, a LRRP meal.  To cook the meal, we added water to the anhydrous food, heated it with a small chunk of C4, and voila! The two pocketed canvas Claymore bag held bandages and morphine syrettes. To the right of the upright smoke grenade, a baseball grenade. ‘Frags’ we called them. Killing radius five yards. The paperback book is by Robert Gover, celebrated author of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. The sequel, JC Saves, is highly recommended.

Brother Al was a militant Black Power, stop the white-man’s war, son of a bitch. Well and good, but what do you say about a man who noisily drags the machine gun ammo while on patrol? I wasn’t alone hating that angry prick, but I’ll tell you this: the first dead American I saw was black.  After an ambush, fourth platoon carried his corpse onto a cold muddy base. It was raining, his open eyes unblinking, the body still warm as we passed it hand-over-hand, like a fire brigade bucket, steam rising from his jungle fatigues.  Dead weight is hard to carry; it’s not yet stiff. Finally we lay him down in the back of a truck–it was the saddest sight I’d ever seen.

First Row left to right: Shake ‘N Bake, a ninety-day-wonder. Gary William’s, before his ear drum got blown out by the M60. Jim Lamb on machine gun.  Back in the world he had seventy women under his belt. Melhop, squad leader.  Second row left to right: Mike Derrig; while waiting for a medivac after being shot, he tossed me a bag of dope. “Take it, Doc. I don’t to get caught with it in the rear.” Ray Williams, white cross in the helmet band, kicked a hand lume after a Mad Minute. The flare ignited, struck him in the face, ricocheted skyward, then hissed and burned as it floated down. Lawrence Knowles, aka Knuckles, should have made Spec 4, but Six put in orders for “Knuckles,” which the company clerks tossed out.  Roop the Troop ,at twenty-one the oldest in the squad. “No medivac for you,” I said to Joe Dorio, a teen age New York tough.  He’d taken Chicom shrap under both eyes but third platoon was down to nine men. “Sorry, Joe, can’t send you back,” I said. “Fuck you, Doc,” he replied.  Head medic Roye Abbott sent him to Quan Loi.

The smaller fire support bases were known as LZs–short for landing zone. A typical LZ contained Howitzer cannons, mortar pits, bunkers for the artillery crews, a mess tent, a heavily fortified communications bunker and tactical operations center (TOC), a well equipped aid station. As well, a jury-rigged shower, an outhouse, officers bunkers, an ammo supply depot.

The perimeter was formed by a wall of bulldozed earth, a ‘berm’ we called it, dotted every fifty meters or so with a sand bag, timber reinforced bunker. The berm was ringed with barbed wire rigged with grenades.  Then came no-man’s-land, booby trapped with barrels of jellied gasoline. ‘Foo gas’ we called it. Past this point, a free fire zone, where anything that moved was fair game.  Every few weeks, grunts pulled perimeter guard on Quan Loi or more remote fire bases. Our days were spent at menial chores. At night, we slept in or near the bunkers. After a week, we boarded choppers and went back to the work of jungle patrols.

We spent weeks in the bush, then choppered back to LZ Compton, to pullLarry Hunter in the bush. Papa San to his right. Song Be, Vietnam, 1969 guard. In dry season, Compton was deathly hot and dead bone dry. Monsoon rains brought mud, cold and general misery, though anyplace was safer than jungle patrol.  At least until rockets or mortars rained down from the sky.

Kit Carson’s were NVA or VC who had surrendered and swore to  allegiance to the Americans. They sometimes walked point, hard and fast, and saved lives. Some were better than others.  Dwee was good.  Jim Dumb was rotten. And Papa San, seen here to the right of squad leader Larry Hunter, Papa San worked for both sides, though we didn’t find out in time.

The aid station floor is clean, it must be dry season. Who’s sitting in the chair? It’s not the doctor someone tried to frag. It’s not Dave Berkshire, the 91 Charlie nurse/medic chased and Chicomed by a sapper on LZ Ranch in Cambodia when it was over run. It’s not beloved Lt. Dennis Noble.  One night, after a furious mortar/rocket barrage, Dennis lay dead, his glasses knocked off, his body intact. I found his daughter in 2001. She was six months old when her father died. He was twenty-four.  Her mom never remarried. Daughter and I traded emails, then spoke by phone. “What did he look like? What music did he listen to? What kind of voice did he have?” she asked. “What kind of man was he? How did he die?” She’s married with two kids.  She sent me a photo of herself.  She bears a striking resemblance to her dad.