An interview with Ken “Dunc” Duncan
Thornton: How did you wind up in the Marines?
Duncan: A guy I was living with, by the name of Mike Harper, wanted to join the Marines. My number was about up as far as the draft went, so I said, “Yeah.” That was 1969, I guess the summer of ’69, because I went in November of ’69. Before that I worked at General Motors, assembly division, putting car parts together.
We went to boot camp in San Diego. There was Mike, myself, Terrell Hardgrave, Bob Reinier and Mark Fruend that all went in on the buddy plan. We wound up going through basic training together, went through ITR and all of that and then we went to Vietnam. Fruend and Reinier did not go to Vietnam, for whatever reasons. Hardgrave, Harper and I did. Harper and I actually went to the same CAP together up around Phu Bai.We got in country, I believe it was April of ’70, landed at Da Nang, went to CAP School for two weeks and then went right up to Phu Bai, which is somewhere up towards the DMZ. I was up there for approximately two and a half months, somewhere in that vicinity, because I got down to CAP 2-7-2, it seems like, sometime in July.
I don’t really remember what CAP I was in up at Phu Bai. I’m drawing a blank. I cannot believe I cannot remember hardly anything. The sergeant’s name was Noonan, he was Canadian and he was very good at what he did. At our reunion in Kansas City there was a couple of guys from 3rd CAG who were in that same CAP with me, at the same time. I couldn’t remember them. They said they vaguely remembered me. We talked about a couple of incidents that happened. They remember those incidents and I vaguely remember those incidents, but as far as saying, “This is what happened,” I couldn’t tell you.
I think it was July when I wound up at CAP 2(-7-2). I know I spent my 20th birthday there (July 21). You remember, Harper and I came in together. When they disbanded 3rd CAG we’d only been in country two or three months so they sent us down to 7th Company down there (2nd CAG). Harper and I came into 2-7-2 together, so we had basically been together since boot camp.
The day I got hit, I believe it was in August, Harper and I both had orders for the grunts at that time. I went to the hospital and then Harper went ahead and got transferred to the grunts and he went to the Que Son Mountains. I forgot what unit he was with.
What he told me was, there was no fighting it was just a matter of getting your ass picked off every day by snipers. Very seldom did they get to see the enemy. He likened it to a knight in shining armor clumping through the brush. He said you get 130 guys rattling through the jungle and the gooks knew for miles you were coming. They just sat there and picked them off. He said every day snipers would just pick em to pieces.
Thornton: What was the first thing that happened to you at 2-7-2?
Duncan: You found out I was an 0331 and you gave me the machine gun. And I thought, “I’m screwed from the start on this one.” I think Erp was carrying the gun at the time and he was more than happy to get rid of it. I got stuck with it.
Thornton: Who was your assistant gunner?
Duncan: My assistant gunner was Hucklebuck (Dennis Prock). I didn’t get the gun the first day, but after we’d been there for just a short time, somehow or another, somebody found out that I was an 0331. Harper was, too, but somehow or another I got screwed. That’s how that went down.
Thornton: Who was the actual when you got there?
Duncan: It seemed like Willie (Williams) was, because Mac (Ed McIntyre) was there and he was second and Doc (Doggett) was there and you (Roch Thornton) were there. Erp (Dennie Erpelding), Nelson (Kilmister) and I can’t remember anybody else right offhand. Zorro (Al Zarosinski). I remember him being there.
I remember something. I don’t remember when it was in my tour, but I was at 2-7-2 and it was a big operation and I can remember the Vietnamese soldiers torturing a guy that they had caught. They put a rag over his face and then they poured soapy water all over this. Now I don’t know what that was as far as what kind of operation it was. It seems like we got choppered to the back of our AO, or we did something, it’s a foggy memory.
Didn’t we come across a downed chopper on that BLT? In the very, very back there was a downed chopper back there. But it had been down for … it wasn’t just recently shot down … but everybody was surprised to see it. No bodies, none of that, just the carcass of a Huey. I remember seeing that. That’s the time I’m talking about when they put us to headquarters and choppered us out and we came back through. I remember they had this guy laying on a bench and he was gagging for all he was worth and they were asking questions. That was an operation. I’d forgotten. I remembered that guy getting choked on the soapy water but I couldn’t remember why that was going down.
Thornton: You got hit in August? How did that happen?
Duncan:You remember the day there was 40 NVA dressed as ARVNs? Harper and I had gone down to the river to take a bath. And we walked down the normal trail going down to the bridge there at the dam where everybody always bathed. We passed through that group. This was the strangest damned thing. They were on both sides of the river trail. Harper and I walked through there. I’ve got a .45 caliber pistol with one magazine in it and he’s got an M-16 rifle, you know, we’ve got a bar of soap and a towel. We were wearing shorts.
We walk between these guys … there were supposed to be 40 according to the radio report that came a little bit later. I would say that was a damned good estimate from what I saw, because we walked right through the middle of them. I remember speaking. “Hey!” You know me I was always talking and I “chao anh” and they just looked at me … not a word back out of them.
Harper and I got down to the river there and got our bath done and everything and I said, “Boy, you know for ARVNS they were damned unfriendly.” He said, “Aw, fuck em.” So we got our shower done, we were walking back up the trail there and … nobody. Those guys were gone and we’d only been there like five or 10 minutes, enough to get soap on us.
We got back to the day haven and everybody was gone except for the radioman. I don’t remember who was manning the radio, but we said, “What in the hell is going on.” He said, “Well we just got a call that there was 40 NVA dressed as ARVNs in our area. The guys went out looking for them.” I said, “Hey, get ahold of them on the radio, we just passed through the bastards not more than 20 minutes ago.” My heart’s going ba-BOMP, ba-BOMP!
So I picked up my gun, machine gun, I already had it at that time. And Harper and I loaded up and took off trying to catch up with the rest of the CAP. We went to the back of the AO there and crossed a rice paddy. Somebody had seen them go into the tree line over there. It was kind of like an abandoned part of the village, you know. There was a couple of little hootches over there, but nobody lived in em. We went across these damned paddies and I remember that was about the first day I had the gun and it kept jamming on me. Because we were trying to lay some fire down going across this open paddy, just making sure, if anybody was in the tree line, you know, because we had caught up with the rest of our guys by then.
We got across to the other side and there was a little bit of shooting going on, a couple of explosions and I got a piece of shrapnel in the hip and never did see a gook. Never did see anything. But I got hit in the hip and walked back to the red line. They wouldn’t even bring me a chopper. They made my ass walk. And that was it. I don’t know what happened. I was always thankful it got me in the hip because if I’d of been standing facing it I’d be less of a man than I am now.
They never did find the shrapnel. They figure it followed my leg bone down around my knee somewhere. They cut a swath in me and looked around for it and made a little bitty hole quite a bit bigger. And I get 10 percent disability from Uncle Sam. That’s my mad money. It makes me mad every time I see it! It started out at $28 a month and right now it’s probably close to a hundred.
I went to 1st Med there in Da Nang and they sent me down to Cam Ranh Bay. I was gone 17 days, Army hospital, hell of an experience for a Marine. They could give a shit less about discipline, I’m telling you.
Interesting story about that. Cam Ranh Bay, like I said, was an Army hospital and they smoked pot right out in the open. I mean they made no bones about hiding it, the Army guys that were there, the Army patients, whoever. I was one of the few Marines down there. I don’t know why they sent me there.
But they had a movie thing there. It was like a drive-in movie, a big screen outdoors and then just benches for you to sit on instead of your car. I remember sitting there watching these Army guys smoke pot and blow it through the sleeves of their jackets, you know, shotgunning each other.
I don’t know who the genius was that picked the movie for the night, but it was “Patton.” And when it got to the scene to where Patton slaps this guy who was shell-shocked, I’m telling you I thought they were going to tear the movie screen down, and they started looking for officers. There was a riot. They went ballistic, and I was gone, I loaded my ass up and got back to the bay I was in. But I always thought to myself, “Who was the genius that picked this movie!”
Nobody liked military life, you know, we were all draftees anyway, basically. And then to show a general slapping the shit out of some guy that was shell-shocked, I mean it was unbelievably absurd. I’m sitting in Vietnam and this goes on.
Thornton: They sent you back north after 17 days?
Duncan: Yeah, I flew back to the Da Nang air base and I said, “Well I’ve got to get back to my unit.” And they said, “That’s up to you to get back to your own unit.” I said, “Hey, we’re 20 miles out in the woods here,” and they said, “I don’t know what to tell you.” So here I am in Da Nang, I don’t have a weapon, and Da Nang to me is just as scary as out in the bush because I don’t know anything about Da Nang having never, really, been there. So I’m thinking, “How in the hell do I get back to my unit?”
And I remembered Dan Ziegelmeyer, high school friend of mine, was stationed in Da Nang with the Army and I knew he was at Camp Baxter. I remembered that, so I talked to this Air Force guy and said, “How do I get from here to Camp Baxter?” He says, “You call a cab and they’ll take you right there.” I says, “Yeah, RIGHT! I’m in New York City. I’m going to call a cab? Right?” He says, “I’m not shitting you.” He said, “You can call and they’ll come and pick you up and take you wherever you want to go.”
I said, “Okay, I’m going to stand here,” I was at a guard shack somewhere, I said, “Let’s call.” He calls, a Vietnamese driver pulls up in an American vehicle, wants to know where I want to go and takes me directly to the gates of Camp Baxter. Believe me I was paranoid. Once again, no weapon, right? Without a weapon in Vietnam I was naked.
Thornton: What were you wearing at that point? Hospital pajamas?
Duncan: My old camouflage utilities, except for the pants. They had given me a new pair of pants. But I still had on the same boots I wore to the hospital, the same jacket.
It was evening when I got there, so I got to Camp Baxter, I asked the guy at the gate how I would go about finding this Ziegelmeyer guy. Well, he said, “Those are all the barracks right over there, where everybody lives, but I don’t know what to tell you.” So I had to start walking through all these barracks seeing if anybody could recognize or knew Ziegelmeyer, and I finally located him.
First of all they were having race tensions on Camp Baxter, and I did not know that. The barracks were segregated, I don’t know if by choice or that’s just the way it went down, but the first two barracks I walked through, I was the only white guy. When I walked through em asking for Ziegelmeyer I got a real bad look. But they could tell that I was not a normal Army guy. I had mud and dust all over my clothes, so nobody gave me any shit, but they wouldn’t help me, either.
So about the fourth barracks I went through somebody knew Ziegelmeyer and says, “Yes, he’s upstairs,” and told me where his room was. Well I marched my ass upstairs, found his room, and there was four bunks. And there was a letter from his Mom on the one bunk, so I figured this is his bunk, plus it was the only one that was made up. The other three were bare mattresses.
So I sat down and the letter was open and I read it. I knew his Mom really well. And so I laid down on his rack to take a nap. I didn’t know how long it was going to be and I was tired. I was laying with my back to the door and my face to the wall, and I hear footsteps coming up, and I hear the door open. And I hear this gruff voice, which I recognized immediately and it was telling me to get my ass off his rack.
I said, “You want my ass off this rack you fat ——, come and get me. And he did. He grabbed me and pulled me off the rack and got a look at me … it was the first time we’d seen each other in 18 months. He like to broke me in half hugging me. And the drunk was on.
Woo-hoo! Twenty-five cents for a screwdriver. I had like 20 bucks in my pocket. We drank all of that and we drank all the money he had and we borrowed some more money. And I remember him carrying me up the stairs back to his hooch and we had like a case of beer with us, too.
I spent two days there. I thought, “The hell with them. They don’t know I’m supposed to be going back.” So I spent all that day and the next day with him. Then he got me back to my unit. Then I told him to take me back the third morning. So I made a little vacation out of it, caught up on old times with him. He’s from Crystal City, (Mo.). Him and I went to school together, went to 8th grade and all through high school, played football together. And I still see him. Still lifelong buddies.
He got me back out to my unit. He was a truck driver so I just had him take me back to 7th Company, our headquarters. He just took me out there down Highway 1. He dropped me off there at our company headquarters and then they sent me on back out to the field. Harper was already gone by that point. He’d gone to the grunts. The rest of you guys were there, and you filled me in on what you hadn’t been doing while I was gone. You were waiting for me to get back.
Thornton: Well, we had to suspend operations until you got back! So you got back out in the bush around … ?
Duncan: I’m thinking sometime in September.
Thornton: The LAAW blew up Sept. 10.
Duncan: I was there. When was Doc hit? (Aug. 31) I remember when Doc was hit. Huck had seen the gook out there. We had just set up perimeter. Huck was coming back in from setting up claymores and I heard him say something and I said, “What?” and he didn’t answer me. And when he came back in he said, “I think I saw something out there moving.”
And it was later that evening that we were laying in between the rows in some kind of garden and I heard a thump and then the grenade went off. I remember that, so I was there for that. I believe we were just getting set up. Everybody was moving around and I can kind of see where he didn’t just shoot the guy because people are moving when you’re setting up. Once your perimeter is set and you’ve all come back in then there’s nobody out there.
But I believe Huck thought that it must have been an ARVN or something because the guy was so damned close to him. I remember we had not even got set up yet. Then we came back in and he said, “I think I saw somebody,” and then we kind of passed the word along that Hucklebuck had been socializing, you might want to keep your ears open. But that guy came back and chucked a frag at us.
Thornton: So it would have to have been sometime before Sept. 10, that you got back in the CAP?
Duncan: Seems like I had been back awhile. When did Gallagher come in?
Thornton: He was there about a month before it went off, maybe less. He would have gotten there sometime, early August maybe?
Duncan:Maybe he took my place? With Harper going to the grunts and me going to the hospital there was two guys shy.
Thornton: During that same period we also got Dwight Motley, Frank Pizz, and Art Yelder. Yelder we got from 2-7-10, we called him “Chubby.” He was a light-skinned black guy.
Duncan: Almost freckles? Who was the guy that snored? Was that Motley?
Thornton: All of em.
Duncan: No, no, no. There was one guy that actually got shipped out. It was a black guy.
Thornton: Motley got shipped out because he got wounded in the LAAW explosion, including a head wound.
Duncan: It wasn’t Motley. This guy almost … I don’t remember this guy’s name. We recorded him one night. Whoever was in charge had told them back at the rear about it and they brushed us off, and one night somebody recorded him. We told them he was going to get us killed. I mean this guy, it was ungodly how loud he snored. He wasn’t faking it. He had a deviated septum or something and this guy had no business being in an ambush unit. It was terrible. And we sent the tape back and that afternoon he was gone, completely out of the bush.
Thornton: The only person that I recall having a tape player/recorder in CAP 2-7-2 would have been Dan Gallagher. And the only reason I recall that is because I wrote to my folks about that time (Aug. 24) saying that I was going to make a tape to send them because we had a new guy in the CAP who had a tape recorder, tape player. And when I wrote to my folks afterward I said that his tape recorder had been stolen when he was killed.
Duncan: We almost came to shots over that, over his equipment. Don’t you remember?
Duncan: I had a running joke with Gallagher that, “If anything happens to you I will take care of your equipment,” and it was a damned joke, that’s all it was. The gooks, our so-called comrades in arms, before we got his body on the chopper, had stolen everything. And the next morning we confronted them about it. And I mean it was to the point we had locked and loaded on each other.
I really, truly thought we were going to come to shooting, just like over that B-40 rocket launcher, over Gallagher’s camera equipment. Because I took it quite personal that I did not do what I said I was going to do even though I was saying it jokingly. But they stole everything, all of his camera equipment and everything, the little rotten bastards. That really pissed me off. A guy loses his life in your country and before his body is even cold they’re stealing everything he’s got.
But we did, that next morning we were standing there and I mean weapons were loaded and leveled at each other. And finally I don’t remember who had the cool head, thought that this might not be a real great idea. Stole everything the boy had.
Thornton: Do you remember being evacuated to LZ Baldy during the typhoon?
Duncan: Yep. And having to pick plates out of the trash cans to eat off of because they weren’t prepared for us coming back there. I remember that. I remember my pistol damned near rusting shut on me. We were chest deep in water. You remember, we got on the red line, the chopper came in to pick us up, it was the big one (CH-53). And the little chieu hoi was hanging on the ladder and they finally decided we were carrying so much gear that we couldn’t get on, so we had to move south on Highway 1 because there was a crest and you could just see the road.
The little chieu hoi hung onto that ladder while this big chopper makes a big wide arc to go up and set down where we could get to it. The crew guys in that chopper when we finally got up there, they said they like to never got his hands pried from around the ladder. They were pulling him up on this big old aluminum ladder swaying back there and this little chieu hoi was like a spider monkey on that.
And then we have to walk up this ribbon of highway and the only thing we can do is focus on the high spot where the road goes up and was exposed. We’re this (chest) deep in water and we’re all carrying at least 100 pounds of gear. And off either side of this road I would say it was, what, 15 foot to the rice paddy level? Enough to drown you if you stepped off. That bothered me walking through there and it was a good thing the road was just as straight as straight could be. If it had had some crooks in it, it would have been a real nervous one. Let Roch walk point. Oops! He’s off! Don’t step there!
That high point on the road was what was going to happen, because we couldn’t get in (the chopper). There was no way we could climb up five feet. When we finally got in the chopper and got up (in the air), as far as the eye could see was water. I mean there was no dry ground anywhere. That night before they picked us up, I was beginning to wonder if we was going to make it.
They weren’t ready for us (at LZ Baldy). We were picking plates out of trash cans so that we could get fed. We didn’t carry mess gear with us. It wasn’t that kind of deal. We ate out of cans and boxes. I remember digging a plate out of a trash can, slinging whosever excess food was on it off and I was a happy camper, man. I was going to get me some hot chow. They had cold beer, too. They gave us an empty hootch and we slept on the floor. To us it was great. It had a roof, it had a floor, it wasn’t soaking wet, it wasn’t six inches deep in mud. The Hilton. Well-appointed for a bunch of CAP Marines.
Thornton: Do you remember how we got back to our area?
Duncan: We flew back in. They dropped us off back at (CACO 2-7) headquarters. They didn’t drop us at each one of our CAPs. Apparently the gooks didn’t know we had come back in. We got back in and everybody had been gone, I mean everything had been under water. So we came back in and all of us were there, every CAP in the company was back there at the rear. Well I don’t know if it was the first night we were there … it was probably the only night we were there because we got redeployed the next day.
They started shooting rockets at the Da Nang airport. There was an arch out there in this grave mound and they popped a rocket at the Da Nang airport. Well, this was within spitting distance of our compound. They didn’t know we were there. It’s the only thing I can say. So we looked out through there with a Starlight scope and you could see a big NVA banner stretched in between this arch. The captain said, “Get to the armory and load up.” He said, “Them sons-a-bitches ain’t going to be doing that. We’re home now.”
How many was in our company, about 100 or 110 guys? That’s how many Marines got on that sandbag wall and we had every possible armament known to the Marine Corps, and we cut loose on em. Guys were whooping and hollering. This was the most fun contact because nobody was going to get hurt. The next morning we went out there and there was tatters of that NVA flag hanging. That arch had been shot to shit. There was the residue of a rocket lying on the ground and there was bits and pieces of people.
We cut loose on that. They had no idea we had come back in. It wasn’t 150 yards north of the compound back towards Da Nang, maybe 200 meters at the outside. We was popping LAAWs at em, M-79 rounds. It was all rice paddies and grave mounds out there. We laid right there on the sandbags and just primed up for em. They must have thought all hell broke loose with 100 guys cut loose at about one time. The captain said, “Get it,” and we got it. That was fun. The next day we sent guys out there and I mean it was shot to shit.
Thornton: You remember anything else about that time?
Duncan: I don’t know if you remember the one instance where we were in the house playing cards during the day and a little kid comes in with a sandbag and he was just standing there. We were all playing cards, you know, and we’re busy and blah, blah, blah. Finally somebody notices this little kid, I’m talking 6, 7 years old about like Dum Dum. Finally somebody notices him and says, “Hey kid, what do you want.”
The little kid didn’t say a word. He opened this burlap sack and a couple of us just kind of peeked in it. It was a mortar round that hadn’t gone off. And that little kid was left standing there with the sack still open and there wasn’t a Marine in that house. I don’t know how we cleared that house so damned quick, but we were all standing out in the courtyard. Hah-ha! I thought that was hilarious! This little kid, he brought it in for money because we paid for dud ordnance. Otherwise it would be a booby trap. There he was standing there with like a 60 mortar round or something like that.
In reality, we were lax with children. Now an adult walked in and people would eyeball em. With kids we all kind of got used to them. I’ll never forget that little kid and that mortar round. We moved pretty quick. We had him finally come outside with it and we got it all lined out. But in this little hootch it felt kind of claustrophobic all of a sudden. Yes, we always paid for the ordnance. Otherwise it would come back and haunt you.
Thornton: Do you remember all the different C-ration meals?
Duncan: Beef and potatoes? Beans and weenies? They came with 12 in a carton and I think there was only like six flavors. Then we had the LRRPs, the long rations. Hey, with a bottle of hot sauce they were pretty good. Everybody carried a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce because that made everything taste good. The connoisseurs.
There was one guy there named “Snuffy” Smith, a little short sergeant on his third tour. He could take pound cake and I think peaches we got and he could make the damnedest cake out of it that you ever ate. You mix it all together and you cook it, man it was excellent. That guy taught me a lot about cooking C-rations. He said, “If you don’t learn to do something with it … he said, “I’m on my third tour over here. How do you think I feel about eating this stuff?” (He was) a rich guy from New York City. He and his Daddy didn’t get along at all. Him and I got to be kind of, not close by any stretch, but friendly. When Tex and them got hit, he was the man. A kind of short guy, had one tooth broke.
(Then when Montana got hit) we picked up your radio message and you said, “Trouble, guy down,” we packed up and I mean we beat feet back there. We got into that area where this guy stepped on the booby trap and then everybody just went, “Aw shit!” We’re all in there. And this (area) was known to have booby traps. We had to back out of this place while thinking, “We’re all going to get some booby traps now.” That was one time we charged headlong and we should have stopped and regrouped it before we walked in. Because that went through everybody’s mind. It was like the light came on at the same time and everybody went, “SHIT!” We’re in here now and what do you do? But that guy (Montana) was with us no time, one – two days at the most. I don’t remember his face, name, nothing.
Thornton: What happened in the Nov. 10 ambush?
Duncan: Him (Thornton) and I were sitting in a trellis, is the only thing I can call it. It looked like a trellis. There was a covering over us with some kind of shit growing on it. We were sitting on a bench. An order had come down, because somebody had an accidental discharge with a .45-caliber, that they were not to be loaded. So I’m sitting there, my machine gun is on the ground. It’s got a silver top-plate on it. I don’t know why I never got that thing painted black. Anyway, we’re sitting there, I’ve got an empty weapon for my sidearm, Roch’s sitting there with his rifle and we’re shooting the shit. The trail, I mean, walks right through the damned trellis.
We’re sitting there and we’re just kind of talking real quietly and I said something and he said, “Shut up!” And I made a comment. Of course I always had a comment. He said, “We got gooks.” I looked and bigger than shit we had three of them walking down the trail. I’m sitting there thinking, “God, I’ve got an empty weapon on my hip and I got a machine gun sitting down there I was afraid to pick up because it’s got bipods on it. Afraid to make even the slightest sound, the slightest sound.
Well, Roch, I hear his safety go off. We’re sitting there and we lose sight of these guys. Cuz the way the trail comes down it comes right parallel with us. We lost sight of ’em because the trail curved around to the right, and then they walk right into us. I mean from me to Roch they’re there, three of ’em. Their weapons were slung. They’ve got bags of warm rice. They’re going to eat. And I swear to God the front gook he looked in, he turned and it was like he said, “Oh, shit.” To me that’s exactly what he said.
They made one move with their hands and the night sky broke into just the loudest … he (Roch) had full automatic. He squeezed the trigger. Explosions in our face, because these guys were carrying heavy charges on their back. The bullets were going through the front guy, the second guy and the third guy. The sky was lighting up, it was getting so loud, and the next thing I know Roch and I, 15 feet behind where we had been, lying on the ground, but we’re facing back out. I mean it wasn’t like we got blown over there, we’re just lying there. We’re yelling, “Gooks!” Of course, we didn’t need to yell gooks, everybody in our unit, with all the explosions, knew we had gooks. And boy everybody flooded out there and there lay these three gooks dead. I did not fire a round.
The next day I went back to the rear and I told the captain, “This weapon will be loaded from here on out. If you want to throw my ass in jail it’s better than being dead.” And I said, “They were in my face and I didn’t have a way to protect myself so it won’t happen again.” He said, “I don’t want to know about it.” I said, “I’m just telling you. There will be a round in the chamber. We ain’t out here playing no more games.”
That’s what happened. We captured some nice weapons. Rocket was a hero in my book. I still love you. Man when all those explosions went off, I mean they were right here, they are right here in your face. The guy behind him was just, his head was like if you had an eggshell in a membrane and you crunched this eggshell all up, but it was still in an envelope, and you could take it. And I put my foot on his head and, “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” and it’s like everything in it was just, from the concussion, he was right behind this (second) guy and plus he had bullet holes in him. I mean Roch emptied 20 rounds at em. I got something (shrapnel) in my finger. I don’t know how I did that, it was all the way up my ass. I should have had a hole in my body somewhere to get to that. Oh combat was fun.
Thornton: Remember the night I lit your cigarette?
Duncan:Hah! I asked Roch if he would go to the hootch and light me a cigarette. He says yeah, so I gave him my cigarette and the old trusty Zippo lighter that could light in the biggest torrential downpour. I asked him to go in and light me a smoke and I give him the smoke and that.
He’s gone the longest damned time. And he comes back out and he’s, “Bleah! Bleah! Duncan, I don’t see how you can smoke (he’s whispering because we’re on watch) these motherfucking things.” He’s cursing and everything like that. And he hands me the cigarette and you know being a smoker, a smoker can tell in a heartbeat just from the smell of it. He had lit the filter and not only lit the filter, I mean he smoked the damned filter! I almost died laughing! I’m trying to be quiet and I’m howling! “You dumb fuck,” I said, “You smoked the filter!” “I don’t care, they all taste like shit to me anyway,” and he would never light another cigarette. He said, “I’ll stand out here on watch. You go light your own damned cigarette and come back.”
That lighter was my 20th birthday present from Mike Harper, the guy that was with us … had it engraved and everything.
When I came back from the hospital (you told me how) you got ambushed going across the rice paddy. You was moving out across somewhere and you were on top of the rice paddy and the gooks opened up on these guys and got em pinned down behind the rice paddy dike out in the water. And the gooks were in the treeline. And Harper in the midst of them cutting loose on em like nothing, stands up and fires a LAAW right into the middle of them and breaks the ambush. I mean stands up with the gooks just laying in, like I said you guys told me this. Harper never said a word. These guys told me what he did. That was the first instance. He was not afraid. I think he wanted to die even at that point in time and he was not afraid to die. He was never once afraid in Vietnam.
Thornton: Do you remember Christmas in Thanh Quit?
Duncan: You do remember, I guess it was at this time, when it did get so slack on us, no combat, that the guys started infighting amongst the unit. That Country and Shirley got into a fistfight over a card game, which never happened, but we had gone a long time without any confrontation with the enemy. I remember it was like two days after that fight that we had some kind of contact with the enemy. They shot at us, we were in the grave mounds, and I don’t remember exactly which grave mounds. It seems like they were out by themselves. It was a high-dollar cemetery. A lot of big monuments and things and then there was a paddy that came across and a treeline over here.
That night we had just got kind of settled in and they opened up on us from the treeline. And I remember that we returned fire, nobody got hit, we didn’t find any pieces of them either, the next day. And I remember Shirley and Country next day sitting side by side with each other drinking coffee. All the animosity that had been like the day or two before was gone. I can remember thinking to myself that, “Man, you know, we’re just a family here,” and we never had any problems until we had slack time together.
After a month or so with no combat, guys started nitpicking at each other. After that contact it was right back to normal. All fights were forgiven, all bets were off. I just remember thinking about that right after it happened, after we got through that little bit of combat and nobody got hurt and these guys were bosom buddies again.
Thornton: Where you there Jan. 18 (1971) when Tex and those guys got wounded?
Duncan: That night I was in on my monthly R&R, you know when you could go back to the rear. I was not there. I was still in the unit, but I was like Doc the night the LAAW blew up. I was back at headquarters. I listened to it on the radio. Sure did. It would say it was about March that I went back to the rear and I spent my last 60 days back there, I think it was. I don’t remember a whole lot. Tex and them got hurt. I was in the rear for my nightly R&R, came back the next day. I don’t remember a whole lot of any trouble for us, any bad trouble with anybody getting hurt, because I don’t think anybody did from then on.
Thornton: So you got pulled back to CACO 2-7 and what did you do back there?
Duncan: I was in charge of the EM club. They had nothing else to do with me. They pulled me back to the rear, I had a bad ulcer. My stomach was just killing me. Dying. The doctors back in Da Nang told them I had to come out of the bush. Apparently I was nervous it was eating a hole in my stomach. They put me back there and Capt. Mallard was still in charge. He was the mustanger, a big man, flat top. And Dudenski and there was another staff NCO back there and they had been running the club. And I remembered that every time you went back there there was no beer, no soda, no nothing, and these guys were skimming the money. They were taking the profits and sticking it in their pocket.
So Mallard was in a quandary what to do with me. And I can remember he was standing on the steps of his hootch and I was out in the compound same as Dudesnki and this other staff guy. Mallard said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ve got nothing else for you to do back here. He says, “You’re going to run the EM club.” I said, “Hey, that’s fine, I just have one request,” I said, “If I’m going to run the EM club, I handle the money.” And then I proceeded to tell him that for the 10 months I had been in country I had come back here, no beer. If I did get a beer it was piss warm and blah, blah, blah. More or less let the two staff guys know that I thought they were skimming and scamming the money. That’s why Dudenski did not like me.
So he put me in charge of the EM club with those stipulations. I handled all the money, I reported to him only, on the money. I told him what I was doing with the money, how much I was making, I showed him a P&L, I mean I had the books down pat. And I ran a tight EM club. When the boys came back they had cold beer, cold sodas. I got with the Koreans. I had frozen pizzas. Whenever anybody came every day, seven days a week. I had movies, got set up with a good run of movies. They’d come in, they’d drink half a dozen beers and eat a couple of two-dollar pizzas, or dollar pizzas I think they were. And that was my job, I ran the EM club. Party.
It seems like, toward the end, I went back out. I know I did. Before I rotated out of the country I went back to the bush for a short time. I went back to 2(-7-2). I can remember that I traded for the M-60. I went out, I had an M-16, and I felt naked. I felt naked walking without that M-60, the first night. After that night, the next day, I asked the gunner if it would be all right if I carried the machine gun for the rest of my tour. They had no problem with it. So I must have gone back out for, oh, a short time.
A lot of Vietnam to me, if it wasn’t for you and guys like you bringing up certain instances that start me thinking, is a fog. Just like I said, up at Phu Bai, that is a damn fog. I was there, I know who the sergeant was, I can visualize a picture in my head what the terrain looked like compared to what 2(-7-2) looked like. But as far as specific instances, faces … gone.
Then the last of my tour when I went back out, and I think it was voluntary that I went back, everybody was gone. Huck was gone, you were gone, Harper, Willie, Mac, everybody was gone and I went back to a strange unit. I wasn’t green, but it wasn’t my unit any more.
Thornton: When did you rotate officially?
Duncan: I got out 10 days early. I had 11 months and 20 days in country. Maybe I got there in May and left in April. That was more like it because I was 10 days shy of 12 full months, which I didn’t bicker. I remember going to Okinawa. I remember the bastards dumping my sea bag out three or four different times getting out of Vietnam, Okinawa, before I ever got on the plane to get out of Okinawa to go back to the States. I do remember that. Searching for ammunition …
I’ve often wondered why so much of that is foggy. Some things I remember clear, sharp, intact. But you know what, I found that what I remember clear and sharp, you don’t remember the same thing, and you and I went through it, just like the night the gooks walked in on us. When you killed em. You and I both see two different stories there. And that’s what I’ve learned about everything. Everything that I think I remember, if I talk to somebody else who experienced that day or night or thing … what they picked out of it that I don’t necessarily recall.
Thornton: Yeah, Doc says I was leading the patrol when Montana got wounded, but I don’t remember a thing about it.
Duncan: I believe you were (leading the patrol when Montana got wounded). I’m pretty sure you were out there. At the reunion I listened a whole lot because I felt like I was getting the story for the first time even though I lived the story. I wanted an outside opinion because I don’t know if it’s that your mind reacts differently under stress — well we all know it does — but how you perceive things.
I mean the night the LAAW exploded, for years I thought I had it cut and dried, boom, boom, boom, this is how it went down, where it went down, and the whole nine yards. And after the reunion I’ve got myself wondering so much of what I thought was real was not. And now I don’t know if I remembered it correctly, or they remembered it correctly. As far as location, what house we were at and all that stuff.
Thornton: Doc says the LAAW blew up at The Balcony. I remember the general area, but don’t remember it being the Balcony.
It was the big house. It was one of the nicest houses that we stayed at. It’s the same house that Harper and I popped the LAAW one night (in a separate incident). Willie had gone back to the rear. Mac was in charge. The gooks had been firing at us, man it just seemed like every night. Remember how they tried to draw our fire? One night we were at the Balcony. Rice paddies here (pointing), Balcony sits here (pointing), and then there’s a treeline right over here. And this is a two-story house so to speak. It had a balcony that went around.
Harper asked Mac if him and I could go up there and pop a LAAW at ’em. Harper said, “I’m just tired of this shit.” And Mac thought about it and said, “Yeah, what the hell. Go ahead.” Harper and I went up on top of this house, up onto the balcony part. It was clay tile roof. It was a fancy house for Vietnam. And he popped the law. And I mean it went right … because they fired again before him and I shot at em, or he shot. We saw exactly where there were at and he laid the LAAW in on em. Well he just cleaned the shingles off the fucking roof. You know backblast just tore the hell out of that roof.
That’s where I had it pictured that the LAAW exploded. That’s always been in my mind because I remember when I went to check on Gallagher he was laying on the porch under the overhand under the balcony portion of this house. That’s where him and I had left each other. That’s where I had said my final words to him. And then we moved out and walked around the back side of the house, and I was just about at the window when the orange flame and everything, I mean it was very clear that something bad had happened. I see it as the Balcony.
What would have happened with that 40 NVA that were dressed as ARVNs? Think about it. Forty against 12. They were every bit as armed as we were, not quite as heavily armed, but you knew damned well they were hardened soldiers. They were combat veterans of no telling how many contacts. And you think about that, 12 of us against 40 of these guys who knew as much if not more about warfare. I’ve often wondered. Actually I wanted it. I wanted that contact with them because it was daytime. Let’s get out here, us against you, you’ve got us three-to-one. Let’s do this and we’ll find out. I really did want that contact and they just disappeared on us. They did.
But we were so tight-knit in that respect, in my opinion, that I trusted my life to 11 other guys. Implicitly. When I laid down at night, when it was no longer my watch. Whoever was on that watch, in my opinion, my life was in his hands, his ears, his eyes. That’s the way I looked at it. Like I said, maybe we kind of lived vicariously through each other, all of us, and the facts get intermingled.
The only problem I ever had was the LAAW. That haunted me. It really did. To this day it will pop into my head. Just, I don’t care. It’s not like I’ve been thinking about anything. If I’m laying in bed, if I’m out working in the yard, that thought will come into my head periodically. And I drive it out as quick as I can. I get it out of my head as quick as I possibly can. I hate that night. I hate it. That’s my worst time.
I focused on the fun. When I think of Vietnam, I don’t tell war stories unless, like Debra said, when I would really get drunk. Not just drinking, I’m talking when I would really just get to where (I had) no inhibitions. So much of it was tears and I put Vietnam behind me as quickly as I possibly could. That’s why when you guys started getting this reunion and everything together, man after 30 years of pushing and pushing and keeping it all out of my head, other than the good times. I remember the good times, you lighting my cigarette, you coming in with an NVA battle dressing and stuff like that. Anything that would make me laugh, that would be okay for me to think about. Anything else, no. No way.
Posted on Feb. 18, 2000