"What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies....you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes every story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it SEEMED."
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
As the middle of August rolled around, the good duty we enjoyed starting at the beginning of the month quickly changed. Our entire battalion was relocated to the south, in the Chu Lai area. We took over the Tactical Area of Responsibility that had been handled by the Army's Americal Division until they were reassigned. The challenge we faced concerned the fact that the army units tended to patrol by air, and used artillery strikes when enemy activity was discovered. They tried to employ technology and firepower as a substitute for the only strategy that really works--living in the bush, in and among the enemy. As a result of their negligence, the NVA were very well dug in around the area and operated with seeming impunity.
Suddenly, we were very busy. Mike Company was choppered to the east of LZ Baldy, our new headquarters in Chu Lai, and we landed on Barrier Island. During our first day on the island, as we humped to a staging point, it became apparent from the sniper fire and visual contact, that the enemy was tagging along with us. I was assigned to a squad going out on ambush that night, and we found it difficult to secure an appropriate site as the bright moon and white sand made us stand out like targets at a boardwalk shooting gallery. We didn't take turns on watch that night; everyone stayed wide awake, listening carefully as the NVA seemed to be hosting a cocktail party, complete with chatter and music! When we suspected activity close by, we threw hand grenades into the area in attempt to disguise our already shaky cover. While doing this, we demonstrated great confidence in the five-second fuse as we actually pulled pins and "peeled" the spoon from the grenade so that it wouldn't go clattering to the ground.
The next day, August 20th, we humped to another part of the island to hook up with one of our sister companies and the battalion command post. This lasted into the night and was a real ass-kicker because of the heat and humidity. We were also humping full packs and most of us hadn't slept for more than 24 hours. We were told that we would begin a complete sweep of the island the next day. In the morning, before the sweep began, a Marine artillery battery on LZ Baldy registered its fire on Barrier Island to soften enemy positions prior to the operation. The battery used data provided by the Army unit they had replaced; the data were inaccurate and the company's first two 155mm rounds landed smack in the middle of Mike Company's command post, where I happened to be located.
All of us were startled by the first round that came screaming in; most of us thinking it was enemy fire. I heard the Forward Observer screaming into his radio handset, "check fire! check fire!" Unfortunately, by the time this was transmitted, the second round was already on its way. The result of this mistake was ghastly. Five Marines were killed, and seven more wounded. Fortunately for me and a few others, we were situated in a fox hole and had some protection from the blast and shrapnel. Among the dead were my machine gun squad leader, Major (his name, not rank) Morgan and Chuck LeBosquet, the company radioman and a really good Marine. I saw the medical personnel working on Morgan, who was sort of sitting upright, against his gear. He had a huge hole under his right eye, but appeared to be conscious. For a while, we couldn't find LeBosquet and finally realized that he had taken a direct hit from the first round. Not much was left of him. The other dead Marines were bundled in ponchos and placed on the medevac chopper that had arrived on the scene. The down draft from the chopper blew off one of the ponchos, revealing what appeared to be huge lumps of hamburger meat and jello.
Morgan died before he could be loaded into the chopper and all of us were devasted by the news. At twenty-four, he was the oldest of the regular grunts, and one of the most popular. This hit me particularly hard as he was one of my closest friends, and someone for whom I had great respect.
Before we could even begin to recover from the chaos of the friendly-fire incident, we were confronted by another piece of disturbing news: One of our Navy corpsmen was missing. Apparently, he drifted off to sleep during one of the breaks in our night movement, and wasn't missed when we moved out. By this time, our battalion commander had arrived on the scene and we were ordered to retrace our steps in an effort to find the missing medical man. We found him shortly--dead--his weapon and gear missing and his body stripped naked. The NVA had booby-trapped the guy's body and began to snipe at us when we tried to recover him.
Demoralized, we were finally choppered back to LZ Baldy. Little did we know, but things were about to get worse.