Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Red Tough, But At 23 An Old Man

November 5, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--At the age of 23, Marine Cpl Edwin C. MacRossin Jr., is an old man.

He has no close friends, but he wants it that way.

At night, he has trouble sleeping. He keeps having nightmares reliving the battles in which his friends have been killed.

He has one reason for being in Viet Nam. He wants to kill Viet Cong.

Known as a tough Marine, "Red" MacRossin is a machine gunner in E company of the 9th Regiment of the 3d Marine Division.

The freckle-faced corporal calls himself a hillbilly farmer from Roosterville, Mo.

He's been wounded three times and has received two Purple Hearts. The third wound would have been his ticket home but he didn't report it.

"It was a piece of shrapnel in the hip. I dug it out and doctored it myself," he said. "It was a cheap wound, not a stateside ticket."

MacRossin quit high school in his freshman year, after nine members of his family died within a few months time of various causes. On his shoulder fell the responsibility of providing for the rest of the family.

In 1965, MacRossin and his partner purchased a 108 acre spread and were building up a herd of Angus cattle and raising hogs. One night during June 1965, MacRossin came home after a hot, hard day of cutting hay.

The radio was playing as he cleaned up for supper and a newscast was in progress.

"I heard about a whole bunch of our guys getting shot up and killed over here," MacRossin said, "and it made me madder than hell. I thought about it all night. I was still mad the next day and I went downtown and enlisted in the Marine Corps."

MacRossin is still angry—at the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese, and practically everyone else who has anything to do with running the war. Initially, Red was tight lipped about his personal experiences. But men who fought with him didn't hesitate to say, "He's a helluva Marine."

Red hasn't seen much action lately. A shrapnel wound he picked up in May in his left knee is acting up and he can't hike with his company. The inactivity is driving Red out his mind. He wants to get back in action.

After a few cans of beer, Red finally quit fidgeting and sat down on a cot on the mud floor tent to shoot the breeze with some of the other walking wounded.

In time, he began to talk about his experiences, and a bitter string of his dislikes about fighting in this war poured out.

"Say, you know you can't trust anybody over here unless they're American. Little kids and old ladies are spies for the Viet Cong. They'll booby trap and mine everything, lead you in and then blow a lot of guys away and then try to shoot up everyone else," he said in an anxious drawl.

"I hate this place," he said with a gesture around the tent. "I want to get out of here and get back to fighting. I want to get this war over with and go home so I can get married. I'll never pick up a gun again," he said with a sad, serious expression.

In the dim, candle lit tent, Red pulled a knife from a sheath and ran his forefinger over the cutting edge. Not satisfied, he produced a hone and began putting an even finer edge on the steel.

As the hone moved rhythmically over the blade, Red began to speak. "I've thought about going over the hill. I'd run away in a minute. There's only one thing keeps me here. I've got a score to settle. I'm going to kill 100 of them for every one of my buddies that got it. I'd like to kill them all. I wish I had my gun here. I'd show you some shooting."

Red was quiet for a while, honing his knife and thinking. When he began talking again it was somewhere in the middle of a story, but no one interrupted.

"My best buddy died in my arms. I lost a couple of others too--but I can't talk about it. I'd bawl like a damned baby."

Red shook his head in disgust and hurled the knife across the tent. It stuck in a tent pole. Nobody said a word. They all expected Red to do something like that. Red shoved the hone into his pocket and took a drink of beer.

It was obvious he had something he wanted to say, something difficult, something he had not said aloud before to anyone.

Slowly, angrily, he began. "He was only 18 years old. We'd known each other about 30 days. We were swimming in the river, I met him, and we just hit it off. We were good buddies from then on. We were both wounded at La Tho Bac by a gook mine. He was nearly blown in half. I couldn't fight anymore. He died in my arms in the chopper. Before he died he kept yelling. 'Red, Red, give me my rifle. There's fire on your left. They'll kill you.'"

Red hesitated. There was total silence in the tent until he began to speak again. This time he spoke more softly.

"I couldn't kill any more that day, but I've made up for it. I've killed plenty since."

Again silence gripped the tent.

Red stared straight ahead and his next words were directed to no one particularly. He did not notice he was the focal point of every one's attention.

"I don't make friends out here anymore. I like guys but I don't try to get close to them and really get to know them."

"There are too many nights I can't sleep because I see the faces of my buddies who are dead, every time I close my eyes."

Red finished his beer and tossed the can into a mud puddle. It was the only sound in the tent. He glanced up at the serious faces which surrounded him. For the first time all evening he seemed to notice them. He smiled and asked the crowd: "Did I ever tell you guys about the first time I drank moonshine whisky when I was 10 years old?"

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