Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Griping Keeps 'em Happy-Horseplay Brightens Life of All Marines

November 4, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--While paddling around in the mud here in the 3d Marine Division advance command post, I ran into a playful group of young Marines dressed in fatigues who had made it their immediate mission to consume a week's beer ration they'd just received.

It was a colorful group which featured a Notre Dame graduate nicknamed The Brain; a youngster from Detroit, Mich., by the name of Skater; a boy from Guthrie, Ky., dubbed the Squirrel; a boy of Swedish parentage who answered to the name of Hunk; and another lad they called the Porcupine.

It seemed that the group, all privates, were so busy consuming the beer supply that they hadn't taken time to give the rest of the group nicknames, at least printable nicknames.

All of them had been taken out of the front lines because they were too ill to function as soldiers. They were suffering from a variety of ailments...malaria, jungle rot, or dysentery. They were too ill to function as soldiers, but not sick enough to be bed fast, and certainly not too sick to indulge in horseplay, beer drinking, and the soldier's favorite pastime, griping.

Only in a military camp could such a cross section of America emerge. The Brain was Pfc. Richard A. Redznak, 27, Fort Johnson, N.Y. He was graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1961 and was a teacher at St. Mary's institute, Amherst, N.Y., before enlisting in the Corps.

Redznak has been in the Marines 18 months and has served in Viet Nam five months. He was taken out of the lines when he got jungle rot after 21 days of action.

The Skater was Robert J. Stanczak, 21, Detroit, Mich. Skater has been in the Corps a year and Viet Nam six months. He too, had jungle rot on both feet. He earned his name by somehow managing to escape virtually all of the work details assigned to privates in the Marines.

Terry Lyons, 21, Guthrie, Ky., somehow earned the nickname Squirrel. He's a pleasant, mild mannered kid who really gets a kick out of the way his buddies act up. Lyons has been in the Corps three years and in Viet Nam three months. He came down with jungle rot and a skin rash after spending 16 days in action.

Lloyd N. Kurtz, 21, Washington, D.C., was tagged with the moniker Porcupine because his light blond hair stands straight up. According to his pals, not even a shower will make his unruly mop lay down. He's been in the Corps 11 months and in Viet Nam six months. He was wounded by shrapnel at La Tho Bac, May 14 and received the Purple Heart. He was recently taken off the lines with jungle rot after 17 days duty.

Fens Johannes, 20, Richmond, Va., earned the nickname Hunk and he deserves it. It's very doubtful that any three Marines in the camp could have whipped Hunk. But he's so good natured it's hard to imagine him with a gun in his hands killing people. He too was a victim of jungle rot.

The rest of the group was comprised of David L. Jackson, 20, Mount Pulaski, Ill., Paul E. Petanbrink, 20, Scottdale, Pa., Richard L. Rice, 22, Lansing, Mich., and Kenneth L. Ray, 22, Natrona Heights, Pa.

None of them had kind words for America's role in the war here. To a man they believe that the Vietnamese people, or a large majority of them, don't appreciate what we are trying to gain for them.

The following quotes came from members of the group but will not be attributed to the men who spoke them.

"All of us have seen our buddies blown to bits by booby traps and mines in villages and have seen the villagers laugh about it. We've been sold booze by the Vietnamese that either has ground glass in it or has been poisoned. We know that we help these people out and they turn on us."

"A lot of them are spies. They report our movements to the North Vietnamese or the VC and we get chopped up."

Another man said, "for a hell of a long time we didn't have any beer in this camp. But the Vietnamese Army had beer. They'd send little kids up to the edge of the fence and sell us beer for $10 or $12 a case."

"We don't have much use for a lot of the Vietnamese soldiers," another Marine said. "They think we are fighting a 9-to-5 war. Some of them are gritty fighters, but too damned many of them run out when the fighting starts."

"They've told us, "'it's your war, not ours,'" the angry Marine said.

Another Marine said men in the ranks, the Grunts, are looked down on by everyone else in the Corps. "If they send fresh fruit, doughnuts or fruit juice to us out in the field, the officers and non-coms end up with about 90 percent of what is sent out. We get what's left. I've had a half a peach and some juice, lots of times, and that's if I'm lucky."

As he gestured around the tent another Marine said, "Look at this. A muddy floor, holes in the tent, rats running all over the place. It's filthy. And they think we're going to love them for this," the Marine snorted.

There's a military cliche which states if a soldier isn't griping he isn't happy. If that holds true, joy abounds in Dong Ha.

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