THE DAY THE SERGEANT DISAPPEARED

(REVISED)

 

Sunday, June 23, 2002

 

INTRODUCTION

 

What I am going to discuss in this short story is a  phenomenon.  And what's that, you ask?  The definition I have chosen to use here is that a phenomenon is an occurrence that defies rational thought and previous experiential observation.  If you drop a raw egg from a second story window, and it breaks, that amounts to a confirmation of your null hypothesis that raw eggs dropped from second story windows shatter on impact.  In other words, it did what you thought it would do based on your prior experience with eggs.  On the other hand, if you drop a raw egg from a two story window, and it doesn't break;this defies your reason because it is antithetical to rational expectations.  You have witnessed a phenomenon.

 

Let's for a moment discuss what happens when a large explosion is tangent to human flesh.  For instance on the afternoon of 10 August, 1950, one of my squad leaders took a direct hit from a 90mm rifle.  How did I know?  I saw the tank fire, and saw the man "disappear."  Well, not really.  The human body is a very difficult thing to destroy completely, and I'd guess that I knew that long before anyone who is reading this.  There are almost always pieces of flesh, some blood, and bits of bone left so that they may be readily found.  There were in the case I describe here.  Another time, we were dug in on the lip of a ridge just west of the Iwa Women's University on the outskirts of Seoul on 27 September, 1950. 

 

We'd been squeezed out of the line the day before, and were in regimental reserve and enjoying it hugely.  Then Charley Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines fired from our rear and ruined our whole morning.  We heard the guns fire, and heard the rounds coming.  Just outgoing.  But wait! These damned things were too close! Four rounds of 105mm howitzer were whistling toward us, and we knew it, and everyone on that ridge went to ground.  Three rounds cleared the ridge.  Barely.  The other didn't.  It landed in a two man prone shelter, maybe two feet deep.  We ran over and saw that there were two legs, intact from the knee down, and two arms, intact from the elbow to the hand.   There was no head, just a strip of skin that ran up from where the neck had been.  The rest is better left not described.  We weren't sure if we were dealing with the remains of one or two Marines. 

 

The battalion galleys had come up the night before, and they had heated up some cans of Charley and made coffee.  Life was truly good.  Almost luxurious.  So at about the time that we were wondering how many Marines had been in that hole, up comes the second  inhabitant of the hole, with a canteen cup of coffee for his buddy and one for himself.  He sat down, trembling, in another hole and drank both cups himself.  I'm sure he reflected on the life saving qualities of a cup of coffee, because his going to the galley to get one for himself and another for his buddy surely saved his life.  Again, a direct hit with a known agent in a confined space on a human body.  But the body didn't disappear.  Parts were left to pick up and eventually bury in the cemetery at Inchon. 

 

Now, let me tell you about a phenomenon of the opposite type than I describe happening to the Sergeant.  The August 21, 1950 issue of Time Magazine, Vol. LVI, No. 5, p 52 quotes a dispatch from Keyes Beech, a war correspondent:  "In a dispatch last week, Beech quoted a young lieutenant who had unaccountably survived the almost direct hit of an enemy shell. I called Battalion Headquarters last night and my C.O. wanted to know who was talking. I said it was Sullivan, and he said, Why, you're dead. I said, the heck I am.'"

 

You see, I'd been on the 342 Massif overlooking the road junction of Ching Dong Ni with my company, and within a few minutes five officers were head shot, and that was the word passed on the Battalion Tactical Net..  The battalion commander knew that there were only five officers on the hill.  When only two were evacuated, Finn and Emmelman, the names Reid, Oakley and Sullivan were scratched from the battalion roster.  We were reported as "Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered."    None of the dead on that hill would be brought to the rear for another ten days when they were stretchered down by a Graves Registration Detail and Korean working party.  The were eventually buried in the 25th Division's cemetery at Masan.  How they were identified is a story in itself but beyond the scope of this writing.   I will only add that I am reasonably sure that my best friend ended up in someone else's grave.

 

I'd  guess that there were maybe a total of one hundred US dead on the hill the morning of August 8th, 1950.  There were dead Soldiers from two different Army Companies, dead from the 1st Platoon of George Company, 5th Marines and dead from our company.  It was impossible to tell if a Marine or US Soldier killed at 0800 in the morning had been colored or white by 1000 because of the heat and sun.  By 1600 the dead were swollen out of their clothes.  If body bags had already been invented we had none of them with which to afford respectful handling of our dead.  Many of our dead were impossible to reach without suffering more casualties, so they lay where they had been killed.  Those dead we could reach we assembled behind the Company CP and covered as well as we could with parachutes that had been attached to re-supply items, or ponchos. 

 

To add to this delightful scene is the fact that since this was the commanding terrain overlooking the road junction of Ching Dong Ni, some Korean entrepreneur years back had established a large cemetery on the crest.  The Koreans at least in that place buried their dead sitting on a chair at ground level and facing the sea.  Then they mounded earth over the corpse so that each "grave" had an 8' to 10' mound of earth with the diameter of the cone that surrounded each body probably 15' to 20'.  The reason that I am so intimately acquainted with the funereal practice of that part of Korea is that T-34s (medium tanks with an 85mm rifle) had fired at US troops on the massif and opened a number of these graves revealing the contents.  There were also four or five hundred dead enemy Soldiers from the 6th NK Division, most scattered around the base of the position, but not a few inside it.  These were excellent, well trained Soldiers, and deserved a better fate than they were allotted.  Taken in toto, the entire scene could probably only be replicated in Dante's innermost circle in hell.

 

Let's see now.  I have a problem.  How do you describe how that hill smelled?  I can't.  We could smell the battle area from the site that the company commander chose to spend the night of 7/8 August.  And that had to be a half mile away and down slope.  The closer you got to the top, the "thicker" the smell got, until when you got on top and over the crest it almost seemed that the smell was became testable and all but palpable.  That smell remained in my nostrils it seemed in full strength for at least six months and has never left completely.     

 

That afternoon when I reported to my battalion commander as described in Time Magazine over the SCR-300 which had come up the hill with an observer from the four deuce company (the company radio quit working half way through the attack that morning) as "Dog 6 Acting," it must have come as quite a shock to the old boy. 

 

In regards the "enemy shell" that War Correspondent Beech refers to, I want you to be aware that it was no plain old ordinary shell.  It was one of those damned 120mm mortar rounds, about a yard long and roughly the size of a garbage can, albeit a small garbage can.  I was later told that I had "disappeared" in the blast when the shell landed three feet behind me, but you couldn't prove it by me.  That fact I'll have to take someone else's word on because I don't know.  When I was found alive twenty feet uphill from the impact point of that 120, and seriously wounded, I was told later that those there considered it a phenomenon that I was still alive.  Well, actually I believe they used the word "miracle" but it means essentially the same thing.  Could have been worse, I guess.  At least it wasn't one of those damned 300mm "Flying Ash Cans" that the Japs had.  Those things would get your attention. 

 

Now, I'm sure that someone or other will check my bona fides and look up that issue of Time that I refer to above.  Be my guest.  And while you're looking at that issue, please turn to page 22, and the figure in the foreground is what I looked like 52 year ago before the head wound.  To my immediate left rear is my right guide, and just behind him a tall, gangling kid who had flaming red hair.   His name was Wayerski.  Neither my guide nor Wayerski would survive the next week.  Why do I remember PFC Wayerski's name but not that of my guide?  More phenomenology.

 

Another question that I should deal with before it becomes a monumental flap is that all five officers of a rifle company went down within a few minutes of each other.  Other Marines of a pay grade much higher than mine asked the same question.   Marine's who directed Officer Training began to wonder if there hadn't been too much emphasis in our schooling about "leading from the front."  So the title "Platoon Leader" was changed to "Platoon Commander," as though that would make any difference. 

 

 I was there and I'll tell you it was pure serendipity.  Well, actually not pure serendipity.  It was serendipity and our first encounter with a particularly deadly NK heavy machine gun (Maxim 1904, w/splinter shield and wheels) technique.  They'd lay in their guns at maybe 2,000 meters range so that they'd achieve grazing fire over a vast amount of forward slope.  You couldn't even hear the guns fire, but suddenly the air would be full of lead and sounds of bullets impacting flesh.  Damned good machine gunners they were, and they could put a mortar shell in your back pocket on their first try.  They held school on us and I have the scars to prove it.

 

Now let's go from phenomenology to just plain spookiness.  The All Hands - The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin, October 1950, Number 424, has a picture on page 9.  The picture shows a group of Marines who had stepped out of the boxcar they were moving from Pusan to Masan on August 3, 1950 passing out candy to two Korean youngsters.  There is only one visible marking on the train, and that is a chalk marking "#3" about 18" high.   Under the "#3" I'm standing, in a hard hat, web belt on, and shouldering an M-2 carbine.  I'm looking at the camera.  Interesting.  I'd be wounded three times in the Korean Conflict.  A precursor of things to come?  Some kind of premonition?  You tell me.

 

Yeah, I know.  Some of you birds are muttering in your beer and saying that for supposedly a front line soldier I sure got my mug in the newspapers a lot.  Why, yes, of course.  But didn't you know that a Marine squad is made up of twelve photographers and one rifleman?  (Just pulling your leg a bit, here.)

 

With the foregoing as an introduction, let's get to the story.  Please read it carefully.  In one part I use a long quotation from John W. Thomason.  A portion from that quotation concerns a bayonet held at a "thirsty angle."  I wish I'd said that, but Thomason beat me to it.  For those of you who dislike such literary allusions, read no further.  The bayonet that Thomason describes was not in the Nam.  It was on a battlefield of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines, 2d Army ("Indian Head") Division, then commanded by a Marine Corps Major General, John A. Le Jeune.  The battle took the name of the most prominent terrain feature, Blanc Mont, and happened in the late summer of 1918, several years before the Nam.

 

To ascertain the influence that Thomason has made on me, please consider the following.  Thomason, in his story re Blanc Mont includes the following dialogue:  "I do not like this place", declared the captain of the 49th  Company to his juniors.  "It looks like it was just built for calamities to happen in."  Now consider this quotation from p. 64, U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966 - An Expanding War. "Colonel Sullivan, now at Phu Bai with the two companies of his battalion, remembered that their units remained on alert for several days for an operation in the [A Shau] valley.  Sullivan described A Shau 'as a place for disasters to occur in!' and recalled!"

 

Please remember another thing.  I state very clearly that the battle occurred on a "sand dune."   Why many missed this the first time around is beyond me.  This wasn't rock or hard ground.  Could the crater I refer to have been made by some other device than that reported to me by the EOD people?  Of course it could have been.  It could have been two 155 shells used as one mine, or any other types of permutations and combinations of explosive and metal.  The island had been subjected to nine months of TPQ strikes, normal H&I fires (and we had 8" howitzers at Chu Lai), or for all I knew naval gun shore bombardment.  What I will testify to is that the fragments dug out of the hole were what I associate with heavy caliber guns, with fragments half the size of your hand in the mix.

 

Now let's deal with the size of the crater.  A tape measure was not one of the devices that I normally carried on a mission of this type.  What you have is a horseback judgment based on having seen it.  I know that the Marine that jumped in the hole had to be retrieved by another Marine whose legs were held by two more Marines so that hands could mesh and the jumpee recovered.  That made it pretty deep.  But maybe it wasn't as large as I stated.  But then again, maybe it was larger.  I gave my best estimate, not an exaggeration or literary device and if anyone wants to make a federal case of it, be my guest.

 

So remember what we're doing here.  I'm about to describe a phenomenon, an occurrence that runs against previous human experience and rationality.  Don't ask me to explain what happened, but it did happen just as I describe it.  Several commentators thought that I was using literary license or exaggeration to make my point.  Not a bit of it.  How and why could a story like this be embellished?  What could my motives possibly be?  In my estimation its pretty good straight from the bottle.  I've changed not a single factual event in what happened the day that the Sergeant disappeared.  I have, as I do with everything I write add fillips which I hope make the story easier to read.

 

Should you choose not to believe the story, I can readily understand why.  I'm not sure I'd believe it myself if I hadn't witnessed it.  But common comity demands that you not call me, or anyone else, either a bullshitter or a liar.  Not at least until you've read what you're criticizing very carefully so you know what you're talking about. 

 

This I know:  I am sure that there are others on this side of the grave that were on that hill that morning who are still as spooked by those bits of Kevlar raining down as I am.  We discussed this the totality of this event as long as I was in the battalion.  The disappearance, the bits of Kevlar, how the front of the helmet was cut so cleanly, the complete lack of tangible evidence that the Sergeant had ever been on this earth.   How could that happen?   It was an event beyond usual human comprehension and certainly beyond mine.

 

Shakespeare has the following lines in Hamlet:  "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Maybe what I describe is one of them.  So believe the following or not.  That's your choice, and no skin off my rear one way or the other.  The guy who writes my check the first of every month will write it for the same amount regardless.  And, as Rhett Butler said to Scarlet:  "Frankly, My Dear, I don't give a s____."

 

 

THE DAY THE SERGEANT DISAPPEARED

 

This is another story about another Hill 10, however, this Hill 10 was on Hoa Xuan, which I've called "Snaggletooth" elsewhere in other writings which lay at the northern extreme of my assigned TAOR.  It got its name from its configuration plus the fact that it had bitten 1/4 many times before.  It was to become my personal nightmare for the slightly over two months I commanded that AO.

 

U. S. Marines in Vietnam - An Expanding War - 1966" states on p. 19:  "Although reporting a marked increase in reconnaissance and probing activity by the the VC A19 and A21 Local Force Companies, the thinly spread 1st Battalion, 4th Marines found itself hard pressed to engage the VC in significant numbers. Lieutenant Colonel Sullivan, the battalion commander, later stated [in an Oral History interview] that his main concern during the period 'was that the VC would bring 120mm mortars onto Hoa Xuan Island,' located just northwest of Ky Hoa Island, and thus bring the Ky Ha airfield within mortar range.  He explained that he was 'two hated,' serving as the Ky Ha Defense Commander and that two of his companies 'were tied by order to manning the swath on Ky Ha during hours of darkness, we were too troop poor to occupy Hoa Xuan.' Sullivan declared that his requests for a fifth company to 'sit on top' of the A-19 and A-21 VC LF Companies, who were active on Hoa Xuan, were denied. The battalion commander several years later remarked:  Hoa Xuan, according to my mission, had to be patrolled each week.  It made no difference if I sent a platoon up there, or exercised the whole battalion,  Hoa Xuan was exerting an average toll of one KIA and several WIA each week! The island was literally nickel and dime-ing us to death whenver we set foot on the place.  He contended that "Occupation of Hoa Xuan, I remain convinced, would have cut our casualties, and virtually eliminated the northern 120mm mortar threat to the Ky Ha Peninsula and the airfield at Chu Lai."

 

So, another week, the necessity to plan another "search and destroy" on my personal bugaboo, Hoa Xuan Island.  Who would I lose on this one?  This would be about my fifth or sixth trip to the island, and we'd done everything in the way of tactical approaches except burrow up from the ground.  This time my S-3 came up with a plan to land two companies from the east side in LVTs, wait for contact, then land two additional companies under the XO to the west of the contact and try hammer and anvil movement, sandwiching the enemy between the two forces.  I would have my moving OP and small command element with the LVT landed force to the east.

 

So on the assigned morning I embarked with two companies in LVTs on the Ky Ha peninsula, and chugged up the lagoons, and up the Truoung Gang waterway until reaching a point about halfway up Hao Xuan, then turning east as rapidly as possible and landing on the beach.  We would then go on line toward Hill 10, which was a place we almost always made some kind of contact, from a full VC Company to a few scattered riflemen.  So with both companies on line, with the BnCmdGrp in the center of the line, we moved as rapidly as possible across the sweet potato fields to the base of Hill 10.  Strangely, not a round was fired at us.  So, still on line, we started up the small hill.  As the BnCmdGrp reached the topographical crest, all hell broke loose.  My right company was on line, but the left company, having a slightly steeper climb up that sand dune, had lagged behind.  Suddenly, we were hit with fire from maybe 10 BARs, and maybe two or three times that number of M-1 rifles and carbines.  The fire was coming from another dune, maybe 100 meters to the west, and to our left front.  Suddenly a platoon of Marines from the left company came over the crest of the dune, and were immediately engaged by the small arms fire.  I'd swear that I watched a BAR stitch the ground of the Platoon Sergeant leading the platoon without hitting him.  At that point the Platoon Sergeant waved forward one of his squads, and there they came, led by the squad leader.

 

For those of you who have never read John W. Thomason, Marine writer extraordinaire, let me give you a snippet of how he wrote:  "There was hard old non-coms of many battles, who went forward beside him.  His face was very red, and his eyes were very bright, and his lean jaw bulged with a great chew of tobacco.  His big shoulders were hunched forward, and his bayonet glinted at a thirsty angle, and his sturdy puteed legs swung in an irresistible stride.  Then there was, oddly audible through the din, the unmistakable sound that a bullet makes when it strikes human flesh and a long, crumpled, formless thing on the ground turned to the sky blind eyes in a crawling mask of red.  There were five men with a machine-gun barrel and mount and ammunition boxes and a girlish, pink-cheeked lieutenant went before them swinging a pair of field-glasses in his hand.  Over and a little short of them a red sun flashed in a whorl of yellow smoke, and they were flattened into a mess of bloody rags, from which an arm thrust upward, dangling a pair of new, clean field-glasses by a thong, and remained so!"  (From Marines at Blanc Mont.  Blanc Mont was a battle in which 1/5 participated, the parent unit of John W. Thomason, the author.  Time of the battle was in the summer of 1918, and the place in France.)

 

(Now my job, as I see it, is to attempt to approach Thomason's ability to explain what a disaster looked like.  Note also that there is a bit of phenomenology in the quotation above.  How could a pair of field glasses escape unscathed from a shell burst that had pulverized six men?   Is that how it happened?  Did John Thomason simply invent this, since he was a prolific writer of fiction as well the best teller of Marine tales I've ever read.  I don't know.  You'd have to ask Colonel Thomason, but that would be difficult to do since he died in 1945.)

 

As the squad leader moved forward, maybe twenty-five meters to my immediate left front, there was a sudden flash of red, and an instant later an ear popping explosion that bowled over everyone within a fifty yard radius.  I saw the leading three men disappear in this "whorl of red," to borrow from Thomason.  All of us were slightly dazed, but quickly got to our feet. And then!I could see a gigantic crater, with two bodies lying just aft of it and strangest of all, minute pieces of a protective body vest rained down on us for an estimated minute like an early and hellish snow.

Corpsmen, who are always good, had run to the two bodies that were visible, and were dragging them to the reverse slope.  Both were, thankfully, alive, and would recover.  The fire fight was going on apace, with now my two companies quickly gaining fire superiority, and I pulled the string on my reserve to try to get in behind them and cut off their retreat.  The VC began their usual retrograde movement when confronted with superior fire power, a wise move indeed considering the circumstances.

 

It may have been ten minutes before I could approach the crater where the squad leader disappeared.  An engineer jumped in the 10' deep hole,  12' long and 13' long, and probed for fragments.  He held up one and announced that the explosion had been caused by a 155mm round, probably fired on an H&I mission, which the VC mined in place.  The Sergeant's body had disappeared.  Not a hair or a drop of blood.  A half hour later, his helmet was found some 100 yards and to the west of the explosion.  The helmet cover was still on, and the straps intact.  But the forward 1/3 of the helmet was gone, as though cut by a torch.  As clean and smooth as though done in a welding shop.  I've seen men who took a direct hit from artillery rounds on a number of occasions but never witnessed the complete disappearance of the remains.  There was always something left, maybe the legs from the knees down or an arm from the elbow to the hand, or maybe a piece of flesh at the nape of the neck where the head was at one time.  There was always something.  Not this time.  We always carried body bags, but had no use for it on this occasion.

 

And there is always paper work.  That night I sat at my field desk in my tent on Ky Hoa, and signed necessary paper work.  My Sergeant Major brought in the Sergeant's service record book for my signature, forever closing it out.  He had been, and would always be 24 years old.  He was on his second four year enlistment.  He had been selected for Staff Sergeant but not promoted, so I spot promoted him, which battalion commanders were empowered to do, and backdated the promotion one day.  He had a wife and three girls, the oldest five years old.  He was our blood sacrifice to Hoa Xuan that week.  God Almighty, war is terrible.

 

Copyright 2002.  R. E. Sullivan, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.  piedpiper6@gmail.com