Copyright 2003 Kevin J. Coughlin. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission from the author.
CORPORAL ROGER “LEE” WILSON, USMC
The two men bore only superficial resemblance to each other. However, I could, without contradiction, say that they each looked like a "picture-postcard Marine". Both were tall and well built with blond hair and warm, sparkly blue eyes, but the resemblance started to diverge from there. Corporal Roger "Lee" Wilson had the perfectly even white teeth, aquiline nose, and the lean, smooth cheeks that bespoke aristocracy. His eyes were the sparkly blue of an azure Mediterranean sky. He was from Elgin Illinois. He was either engaged, or intended to be, to his girlfriend. I think her name was Diane. L/Cpl Bruce Wayne "Batman" (What else are ya gonna call a guy with a name like that??) Niles was a farm boy from Ohio. Overall he was bulkier than Lee, and whilst Lee looked like an Embassy Marine, Batman had the weather-beaten face with craggy brows over slate-blue eyes, and huge, hooked nose and bulky jowls that would have been terrifying under a Drill Instructor’s Smokey. Lee's smile was slow, deep and genuine. Batman's was no less genuine, but it was a crooked, smart-ass, happy grin that revealed a lot of crooked teeth. Whereas Lee was the scholar, and had attended DLI Monterey, coming to us speaking the local Patois like a native, Batman was the prankster and the rough-house who took 3 months to learn one phrase. Both were impeccable in the bush, with a “sixth sense” for what was ever about to transpire. Both men had the air of competence that engendered and even gently commanded respect. This short paper is written to, in some small way, honor Lee, and to pay homage to the great friendship that existed between him and Batman.
Lee used to get care packages. A lot of them. Of all the ingredients that came in his care packages, Lee was generous to share; except his occasional SpaghettiOs. Franco -- American SpaghettiOs. He and Batman were forever clowning around with each other. There was always a lot of good-natured ribbing going on. Occasionally, a lot of that focused on his SpaghettiOs. One of Batman's frequent claims was, "When Charlie zaps your ass, the first thing I'm going to do, even before we put your ass in a body bag, is I'm gonna come back to your footlocker and grab your SpaghettiOs." More on that kind of macabre “black humor” in a bit.
Lee was several years older than most of us, 23 to our 19 or so. There was a 26 year old in the squad that we called "Grandpa". We were, at least on paper, a small hardy band of 13 Marines and one Navy Corpsman living in a village on Highway 1 just South of Phu Bai, a huge Marine Corps base. I say, “At least on paper”, because shortly after this incident the Tet offensive began, and our numbers entered a cycle of being drastically reduced, and replenished. But never fully. There was no “Group Cohesion” after this night.
The village straddled the intersection of Highway 1 and the An Nong River, the bridge over which Charlie had previously blown the hell out of, but that is another story altogether. Our task was to live among the villagers with their local militia, the Ngia Quen, and teach them the basic "Art and Science of War"; basic village fortification & defense, basic sanitation and hygiene. They were under 16 and over 60 and armed with M1 carbines and BAR's. We ran patrols with them and set up ambushes. Sometimes Charlie got there ahead of us. This story talks about one of those times.
The night of this vignette was just like a lot of others. We usually indulged in a lot of "black humor" to alleviate the terror. That quip about the SpaghettiOs was only one example. While I can't say for sure that we indulged in either of these rituals that particular night, it would have been most unusual had we not. We used to sing a ditty to the outgoing patrol, to the tune of "Camp Town Races", that went "you're going home in a body bag doo-dah, doo-dah.", and/or we would repeat an old classic from Bill Cosby.
"See, this young cow was talking to this old cow and said,
yc "hey man, where we going"
oc, "well, we gonna to get shot"
yc, "get shot?"
yc, "get shot? What for?"
oc, "we got hoof-and-mouth"
yc, "hoof-and-mouth?, what's that?"
oc, "see that white foam around your mouth?"
oc, "That's hoof-and-mouth"
yc, "anyway outta this "getting shot"
oc, "Yeah, wipe that foam off from around your mouth"
and it was just as funny the hundredth time as the first. But we never said it again after that fateful night.
January 20, 1968
We had called in our pre-plotted artillery coordinates. Lee and Phuoc, his favorite Ngia Quen spent some time with the rest of the squad reviewing the proposed patrol route into the Northwest quadrant of our TAOR known as An Nong 1. Phuoc was a gem. He was “Gung Ho”, one of only four Ngia Quen that we could ever get to run Point. He did it out of love for Lee (who always walked “slack” to Phuoc’s “point”), and pride of his uniform. We Marines really understand that!. After wending their way Northwest through the hamlets they were to strike "The Bullshit Trail", so named because the children used to run the Water Buffalo down it and they would always leave their deposits. Upon encountering the Trail they were to turn West, alongside, but not on the trail, and go towards the well, which was to have been their first checkpoint, as well as one of the pre-plotted coordinates with Arty.
Maybe a half-hour after they cleared the gate, we heard the distinctive spitting rattle of an AK-47. I said "oh shit, that's an AK-47", and began to strap on my radio, knowing that Sgt. Hendricks would have us going out on reaction. My sphincter performed a “pucker factor 10”. We could hear a flurry of gunfire increasing as the M-60 and the M 79 joined the response, along with the various M-16s, and M1 carbines. I was humping the prick 25, and Rick Gatewood was out on the patrol with one of the prick 10’s. I tried unsuccessfully to raise them, and the Sgt. said to belay that and wait for them to contact us. They came on the air shortly thereafter in gave us a sitrep.
They had been ambushed and returned fire. They were reporting two friendly WIA's, one of which was a possible KIA. For the life of me I cannot remember whether Doc was with us or on the patrol. The odds were something like 80 percent in favor of him being on the patrol, simply because he cared so much for his Marines. What a man! However, we ran one or two day-patrols and one night-patrol just about every day and it was simply not feasible for him to be on every single one.
It turns out that just before they had reached the well they encountered a small group (2-4) of Charlie, who had evidently been hiding behind a stand of bamboo, who opened fire and then booked.
Anyhow, when we got to the scene, the Sgt. called in artillery illumination, and we secured the area. Lee was declared KIA, and a crude litter was formed with rifles and a poncho to carry Phuoc, who was bad gut-shot. Milligan, a huge black welterweight contender from Philadelphia on the machine gun, got on one end of Lee and I got on the other. We propped Lee up, with his back to my chest, and I got my arms under his, and around his chest. Milligan took his legs, one under each of his brawny arms. It was to put a strain on my lower back and send shooting pains down my left leg, a sciatica from which I still suffer today.
The Sgt. had already called for medevac. We had about 150 yards to go to the LZ. It arrived just about the time we did at the LZ. The Huey landed while the Cobra gunship circled our area. I had always had a proclivity for Doc, partially because he was responsible for my recruitment to the CAP unit (also another long story), but also because I was attracted to his medical acumen and his attitude. I come from medical family, my dad was a doctor and my older sister was a Navy nurse. I had no desire for the odor of hospitals, but was attracted to the technology. I had also picked up the language, and combining that with my proclivity for Doc, I used to help him on things like baby-deliveries and his MEDCAP calls into the villages.
Doc asked for somebody to do mouth-to-mouth on Phuoc, while he tried to hold his guts together. Phuoc was already lying on the floor of the chopper, and the next thing I knew we were airborne. The pilot canted the beast such that the door I was perched in was facing the ground. The only thing I could grab at to avoid falling out was the patient. So I did. So did Doc, and the machine gunner on the other side grabbed Doc. Somebody, I think it was the crew chief, grabbed the collar of my Flak Jacket. It was precarious for what seemed like an hour, but was in actuality probably only 10 to 20 seconds. The flight to Phu Bai was very brief, as it was only about three clicks away.
Phuoc vomited his fish & Nuoc Mam & rice & blood right into my mouth. I lost my cookies. I helped with the litter (now a “regulation” one from the chopper) carrying him in to “Charlie Med”. I was on the left corner near his head. He died anyhow. And some Navy Commander is standing over me like a Drill Instructor, giving me a load of shit about wearing hand-grenades in the hospital! I was already defeated! I had done a lot of running and heavy lifting (carrying Lee’s body with Milligan) in full gear scared shitless after midnight, almost fell out of the chopper, vomited up Phuoc, and lost two good friends. I was overwhelmed with adrenaline depletion, the after-draining of fear, shock, and what I now know to be “survivor’s guilt”, and this pacifist Conscientious Objector asshole with rounded vowels ala Major Winchester on M*A*S*H wants to ream my ass for bringing “weapons of war” into his sanctum sanctorum. In a flash, I saw one of two things happening.
Option A would be to kill him. And either die young or spend the reminder of my life in Portsmouth. Fortunately I already knew Sgt. Hendricks’s story. He had been serving as a guard at Portsmouth, and the brutality was “so severe” he extended his tour in the Crotch and volunteered for a second tour in ‘Nam just to get out of there!! So I took option “B” and slunk away.
The next day was anticlimactic, as Doc and I rode back home in a Deuce-and-a-half with Phuoc’s body in a bag, after we ID’d Lee for the Graves and Registration detail. Sgt. Hendricks had to survey Lee’s gear and write “The Letter”. The squad was on “hyper-alert”. Batman stalked away, muttering, “Fuck a whole bunch of SpaghettiO’s. “