Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Why In The Rain?-Angry Marine Has Toothache, Red Tape Blues

November 25, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--Pfc. Robert Blackwell was seated in the rain by the flag pole, cussing and kicking rocks in the direction of the general's quarters.

The 21 year old Marine from Detroit, Mich., looked as though he was preparing to assault Gen. Lowell English's office.

When I asked what was troubling him, he cussed non-stop for nearly five-minutes, then looked at me and demanded, "What the hell are we doing sitting in the rain?"

We chatted a few moments. Aside from being obviously mad, he had a toothache, he didn't have any clean clothes, and needed socks and boots. He was frustrated by a maze of red tape trying to get clean clothes and new boots and socks from supply sergeants who did not know him.

I showed him where the press hut was and invited him to come in. "In a little while," he said. He walked off and I did not expect to see him again.

In about 20 minutes, he entered the press hut carrying a case of beer, and sat down on a cot.

Two Marine lieutenants looked in disbelief at the cruddy private, and were obvious eavesdroppers. Blackwell was so angry he didn't care when I warned him the lieutenants were listening.

"What can they do to me...send me to Viet Nam?"

Blackwell is a machine gunner assigned to the Third Battalion of the Fourth Marines in the Third Division. He is married and has no children. He's been in the Marine Corps 11 months and in Viet Nam since May. He has taken part in several operations, including Operation Hastings.

He said he'd been sent to Dong Ha from Phu Bia for dental work a few days earlier. But his aching tooth was abscessed and could not be pulled for awhile. Meantime, he was taking all the liquid pain killer he could swallow.

He said his clothes were supposed to be sent to him from Phu Bia, but they had not arrived. And when he tried to get new ones, all he got was double talk.

"I've had these same clothes on two weeks," he said. It was easy to believe him.

I suggested that we leave to see if we couldn't get a pair of boots and some clean clothes for him.

Our first stop was Regimental Supply. The room was filled with new boots and clothing. Blackwell explained his problem and a young private said, "We don't have any boots here for issue. You'll have to get a requisition from your supply sergeant and he'll have to pick up the boots"

The private directed us to a company supply sergeant's tent. Blackwell again explained his problems. A corporal said, "I'm not the sergeant. I can't sign a requisition. You go to that hut over there. The supply sergeant is in there."

Blackwell obeyed, and once more told his story to a trio of privates who listened patiently. When he was finished, they said in chorus, "The sergeant isn't here. You can wait for him. We can't sign a requisition."

Blackwell sat and fumed, cursing under his breath for about 25-minutes.

"Nuts to this place," he said. "Come on, let's get out of here."

Blackwell turned and walked away. For the next few minutes he busily darted in and out of tents asking time after time, "Hey you guys, got an extra pair of boots, socks, shorts, or fatigues in here? "

Within a half hour, Blackwell had bummed a set of clothes, minus boots. We went to his tent where he peeled off his old clothes and bathed.

"I think these pants were made for the Jolly Green Giant," he said has he tried to adjust the baggy new pants to his thin waist.

When he put on the new fatigue shirt, the sleeves completely hid his hands.

Then he put on his clean socks. "Boy do they feel good," he said. He reached over and picked up his old socks which were worn through...heel and toe.

"Look at these things. They're at attention. I'm going to have a little ceremony and burn these things."

As I walked out of the tent, Blackwell had opened a can of beer. In front of him he had lit a C-Ration heat tablet, and he held his socks over the small fire.

He sipped his beer and watched his old socks burn, but he was still wearing his old boots.

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