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By Joseph Giannini
For a long time Tom Connors, a buddy of mine, encouraged me to write about Nam. On one occasion, several years back, he asked me if I'd known a Murphy in Vietnam. I said, "I think so, but what's the chance it's the same guy?" We dropped it. Several months later, Tom was going through my Nam photos. There was his friend Murphy.
Quang Tri Province, Vietnam June 1968
I'm a short-timer. Less than 30 days to go In Country. Due back in the World on July 23. I'm still the Executive Officer of Charlie Company. Our battalion is hard on platoon leaders. Due to a shortage, I just picked up a rifle platoon, Charlie Three.
Letter written at Camp Carroll
June 25, 1968
I'm glad I have some time to write to you before we start our new operation. I just finished giving the Third Platoon their five-paragraph order. I'll have this platoon for this operation and until I leave. Two more operations and it's all over for me. One up by Alpha Three and the other by the Cua Viet River. Both areas leave a lot to be desired.
Right now we are in Camp Carroll standing down for the night. It's that part of the evening when almost everyone is writing a letter. The quiet that always descends upon us before we start another operation. For some reason I'm not apprehensive at all. I'll probably get some butterflies in the landing zone.
Tonight we sleep in hard tops. Some of us even have cots. It's a real morale booster to let these Marines stand down, even if it's only for one night. Some of these people haven't had a roof over their head for months. I think I'll even take my boots off tonight. Damn, it would be nice sleeping in the nude on a bed, of all things. The best part would be having you at my side, also nude. I'm getting real close now Babe. Every damn day is an eternity for me. Only a little while longer and it will be nothing but an unpleasant memory. Undoubtedly we'll never forget this past year. It's been a hell of a way of starting a marriage. I'm very proud that you decided to face it as my wife. That showed a lot of courage on your part. I love you babe. See you in a little while.
The odd thing is that June 25th is my 25th birthday and I don't even mention it. Some of the Marines in Charlie Company found out. They gave me a card made from an empty sand bag. I still have it
Less than a month to go and I'm back leading a rifle platoon. I don't sound upset but really I am. It's the most dangerous position to be in. The battalion is going up to the DMZ, aka the Dead Marine Zone, to make a sweep near a combat base called Con Thien. The base is famous for a siege it survived in September 1968. Con Thien means "Hill of Angels." It should have been named "Hill of Death." During the siege, 1,800 Marines were killed or wounded
We had been up there once before. We swept around Con Thien during the siege. My first memory is of when we choppered in. It was a hot LZ (Landing Zone). We came in during an NVA artillery barrage. I jumped out, ran a few paces and hit the ground. We were out in the open without cover. Finally, the incoming stopped. I tried to rise but fear held me down. I fought the fear, got to my feet and ordered, "Move out." Not a good first impression.
Charlie Company is ordered Point Company for the battalion sweep and Charlie Three is ordered point platoon for the company. Fuck. We chopper in without incident and move out. It's the dry season, really hot, 110, 120 degrees in the shade. We're moving through really rough terrain. Hacking our way through a jungle of vines and small trees. The heat is almost unbearable. We are constantly drenched in sweat.
I get word that a brown bars—a new second lieutenant—has joined our company. Actually the bars are gold. He is sent down to my platoon. We are still on point. I turn to look at the new guy. My replacement. He's a giant, well over six feet tall. A big, beefy Irishman. I say to myself, "Oh my god, he's not ready for this."
"What's your name?"
"Murphy. John Murphy," he replies.
As we're moving I intermittently glance back at him. He's beet red and struggling to breathe but he's keeping up. Not a quitter. I'm too busy and upset to give words of encouragement. I don't have any nice left. "Murphy. I haven't got time to talk. Just fall in behind me. Don't stay too close. Watch and listen up. I'll be turning Charlie Three over to you in a few days."
Finally we are ordered to hold up. The battalion digs in for the night. I watch Murphy lay down on his back in a small patch of grass. He's dry heaving. Looks on the verge of a heart attack. A corpsman goes over to him. I look away. I have too many other concerns.
Three days later I turn Charlie Three over to Murphy and chopper to our rear at Quang Tri. I'm entitled to a break. I've been on the line with three rifle companies my whole tour. Unusual, but I've been lucky. I'm hanging around. Taking it easy. While I'm there, the battalion moves west and gets into a nasty fight on Mutters Ridge. Word comes back that Lieutenant Keppert has been killed. A direct hit from an artillery round turned him inside out. We were in Bravo Company together. He took over Bravo Three from me. I helped break him in. Our Battalion personnel officer asks me to inventory Keppert's personal property. Amongst his belongings I discover a stack of letters from grade school children. I never knew he'd been a teacher before he joined the Corps. That explains his gentle nature.
I'm bored, getting antsy. Decide to go back out. Now the battalion is at LZ Stud by the Laotian border. Close to the infamous Khe Sahn. A Marine combat base that had recently been surrounded by 20,000 NVA troopers. The Marines held on but the base was abandoned.
I join the battalion. Bunk down in a large bunker. Dry and warm. Great, if sharing it with huge centipedes, rats, and scorpions doesn't bother you. They keep their distance and don't take up too much space. I stay on.
A few days later I get a message to report to the battalion command post. I walk in and the battalion commander says, "Joe, your orders came in." "What sir?" "You're outta here. Get on the next chopper. Good-bye and good luck."
I don't have time to say good-byes, not even to my replacement. I leave with Lieutenants Gregory and Ford. I chopper back to Quang Tri. From there I take a C 130 to Da Nang. At Da Nang I catch a commercial flight to Okinawa. On Okinawa I catch another commercial flight to California. In less than three days I'm back in the World. A day ahead of schedule. I haven't called home. I'm going to surprise everyone.
I get on a commercial flight for Kennedy. On the flight there are a few lieutenants that I know from Officer Candidate School and The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. They too are on their way home from Nam. We are all tan and lean. Wearing our summer khakis. The stewardesses get swept up by our proud friendly demeanor and ignore the other passengers. We drink and joke. Warriors home from war. One stewardess hands a rose to each Marine. The plane lands and I bolt for a cab to see my parents and sister Flo in Canarsie. During the short ride I realize that the war is behind me. I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of well-being. I'm home.
I ring the bell and I'm buzzed in. I bound up a flight of stairs to greet them. They're surprised and shocked. I hand the rose to my mom and drop my sea bag. Hugs kisses and tears. The last time they saw me I was just a boy. I've returned a young man, half gray. We talk for a while but I'm anxious to see Annette. I change into civvies: a pair of khaki pants and a madras shirt. Borrow my Dad's car and drive to her parents' home.
The last time I saw Annette was in December on RandR in Hawaii. The last several months have been unsettling. We haven't written much. I'm going to surprise her. I park the car. I'm walking up her steps when she comes out her front door without noticing me. She reaches the steps, starts down and sees me coming up. As I reach to take her into my arms, she stands back and says, "You look like a clown." Her words shoot into me. A sucking chest wound. After a few seconds I say, "Hi Babe."
Joseph Giannini is a former Marine grunt who fought in 'Nam 1967-68 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines.
He has been a member of VVAW since the first Gulf War.