Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: 'A Little Trouble' For Hard Corps Type-Marine Not Prepared For Hero-Heel Role

November 8, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam—Staff Sgt. R.F.M. Bardon has been in the Marine Corps 20 years. In Korea he had frost bite on both hands and feet. He's been in Viet Nam eight months and fought with his unit through a string of Viet Cong infested villes in La Tho Bac, to Phu Bia, and into Da Nang.

He's a fighter, and he's been in the Marine Corps long enough to be a good judge of other men. We'd been in his tent talking of some of his exploits during a hard rain. He asked me to stick around because there was someone coming he wanted me to meet.

Bardon stepped to the flap of his tent and looked down the muddy path between the rows of tents. A young man in clean clothes and new boots was trying to pick his way around the puddles.

"Hey Marine...I want to see you," Bardon said. He wasn't smiling, and the tone of his voice did not indicate friendship. But upon hearing the voice, the young man smiled and hurried his steps to the sergeant's tent.

Once inside, Bardon put his arm around the boy's shoulder and said, "This is the guy I wanted you to meet. He's one of the best damned Marines in the Corps. He was in my weapons platoon when we came from La Tho Bac into Da Nang. He's hard Corps."

The sergeant produced a canteen cup and began making coffee. "This is Florian and he's in a little trouble."

The youngster didn't say a word. Bardon handed him a cup of coffee and sat down on an ammunition crate. Then he said firmly, "I know if there's one guy in the Corps you'll talk to it's me. Now, I want to know the whole story. Why did you go over the hill? The word's come down that you are going to take the point on a patrol that's starting an operation. Chances are, if you do a good job, charges won't be filed, or they won't be so rough on you," Bardon said.

Florian took off his hat and wrung it out. "I didn't run out, Sarge. I was under straggler's orders, on liberty. I just didn't report back to the hospital ship."

Bardon's stern expression and manner did not change. "You know as well as I do what the Corps calls that—unauthorized absence. They don't give a damn if a man has two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star either."

"What were you doing in the Philippines," Bardon demanded.

Florian bit his lip.

He had expected something else, perhaps sympathy from his old sarge, and he was beginning to get angry.

"Do you remember me putting you on the helicopter after you came down with malaria?" Bardon inquired.

"No, sarge. They told me it was five days before I woke up on the Repose (hospital ship). I really don't remember a thing," Joe said.

Bardon is 39 years old, married, the father of eight children, and calls his home Quantico, Va. Pfc. Kerin Florian is 25. He is married but has no children. He's been a Marine nearly seven and a half years and is serving his second tour in Viet Nam. His home is Buffalo, N.Y.

Florian began sipping his coffee, trying to ignore Sgt. Bardon. Bardon sat and stared at the private a moment and then insisted, "Tell me about those 27 days, Florian. How'd they catch you?"

Slowly, Florian began talking. He'd been taken out of the field with malaria August 12. He came to aboard the Navy Hospital Ship Repose about August 17. Within a few more days, he was given liberty, with the provision that he return to the ship each night.

On Aug. 27, he didn't return to the ship. He hopped a plane for the Philippines to visit some friends. He said he stayed with the friends until Sept. 25, when he was arrested by the Philippine Secret Service.

"My buddy and I had just left his house to go to the store. The police stopped us. My friend had his identification but I didn't have a thing," Florian said.

"I told them I had ID in the house and they took me inside. When I couldn't produce ID they started shoving me around."

"I told them they didn't have to shove me, I'd go with them. One of them hit me and I slugged him. Then they really worked me over. They did it in the house and a couple of other times later."

"The U.S. Consulate finally got me released. They sent me, under guard, from the Philippines to here," Florian said.

Looking squarely at the sergeant he said, "Sarge, I tried to get a plane out of there three or four times before I got picked up. I was coming back, but there was never any room on the planes."

Bardon, who's heard every tale of woe ever spoken, true and false, from Marines for 20 years, smiled broadly. He believed Florian.

"OK kid," Bardon said. "I'll get you some new gear ready. Go eat. I'll see you later." Bardon left the tent.

I walked outside with Florian and told him I'd like to talk to him later. He invited me to come to his tent after evening chow.

That evening, we met in a tent with several other Marines who had fought with him but had been pulled out of the front lines to recuperate from jungle rot, malaria, and injuries.

From a seat on his cot he said, "I quit school in 1958. I was always day dreaming. I went to work for a department store as a stock boy. I didn't like that job so I joined the Marines."

Florian's first tour of Viet Nam in 1964 was with one of the most rugged of all Marine outfits, the Long Range Reconnaissance Team. "I've lived in these hills and swamps for weeks, surviving on snakes, lizards, and fish," Florian said. "I didn't mind it a bit."

After his first tour, he returned to the states to Quantico, where he worked as a weapons and tactics instructor for nearly every weapon in the Marine Corps arsenal. "It sure got old," Florian said. "I volunteered to come back here in October, 1965."

"When I came back, they put me in the snipers for about six months. Then they moved me to Sgt. Bardon's weapons platoon."

"I was glad to get out of the snipers," Florian said. "I killed a lot of people and it bothered me. I started putting myself in their shoes...You know, there you are walking along. Then, all of a sudden, you're on your back hurting and wondering...How'd I get here? What happened to me?"

Florian was wounded twice, once in March, and again during July in battles near the Da Nang airfield.

In March, his outfit was pressing through a small ville south of Da Nang. When night fell his company set up camp in a cemetery. They stayed there three nights, and each evening the commanders sent out a patrol to explore the area for Viet Cong.

"We sent the patrol out the same time each night. The VC had us timed. On the third night," Florian said, "the VC launched a mortar attack. A lot of the officers and men were wounded. The company began to fall back."

Though he was wounded, Florian took charge, regrouped his men, and with the help of artillery fire beat off the attack. He received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his role in that fight.

On July 2, south of Da Nang, Florian said he was seated on the edge of his fox hole on guard duty. "I'd pulled a blanket around my head to light a cigarette and a mortar round lit right in front of me and blew me back into the hole. The blanket landed over my face and the first thing I thought was...My God...I'm either dead or blind.

"I found out I wasn't dead real fast. It hurt too much when a bunch of guys jumped in the hole on top of me," he said chuckling. (He received his second Purple Heart for those wounds)

Florian lit a cigarette and stopped talking for while. He stared straight into the flame of the candle between us.

"Do you believe in being prepared," he said. "I do. I won't go out unless I've got a hacksaw blade, a fish hook, a safety pin, 50 feet of fishing line, and a small knife with me. If they capture me, I can escape and still live off the land."

Florian then showed how and where he'd concealed each of the items he mentioned, in his clothing.

Anger was in his voice when he said, "So they want me to take the point on this one. Fine, I'll come through. You know we were human mine sweepers in Booby Trap Alley. (the La Tho Bac area south of DaNang). We lost 106 men in there in six weeks. I've been in ambushes before. I've been hurt before and I'm still here," he said determinedly.

Sgt Bardon entered the tent un-noticed by Florian. He listened to Florian talk for a long time. When Florian stopped talking, Bardon walked over and sat down beside him.

In a low, almost gentle voice Bardon said, "I checked something kid. If you'd stayed on that ship, you were going home as soon as you were well. Your orders were cut."

I left them sitting together in the silent, candlelit tent, contemplating an irony of war and life that the sum of their combat experience could not defeat.

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