Thornton’s last day at CAP 2-7-2, and after
On the morning of Jan. 11, 1971, I had no idea that I had already spent my last day at CAP 2-7-2. I had been in the bush for 10 months to the day, aside from R&R and a stay on the hospital ship. I assumed I had another couple weeks of patrols and ambushes before being called to the rear for processing and boarding my freedom bird.I was putting on my gear for yet another patrol when the Marine on radio watch shouted, “Hey Thornton, get your gear and meet the supply truck on the red line.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
He spoke into the handset, then listened for awhile.
“You’re rotating, man, you’re going HOME!” he shouted.
Slightly dazed, I was soon surrounded by every member of CAP 2-7-2, shaking my hand, punching my shoulder or clapping me on the back.
There were cries of, “You lucky fucker!” and “Have a beer for me!” and lewd suggestions of things I could do back in the World … the land of round-eyed girls and the Big PX.
Lightening my load …
With a few minutes to spare, I handed out the extra gear I wouldn’t be needing in the rear. I gave away my grenades and most of my M-16 magazines and left my claymore on the ground for whoever wanted it. I gave away a few other extras, then took the actual and “Country” Roach aside for a few words about tactics and that night’s movements. Then the supply truck radioed it was approaching our ville. Pounds lighter, I headed for the red line with a few buddies.
The supply truck soon appeared and after a last round of handshakes I tossed my gear into the truck bed and hauled myself up. In a few moments my buddies were dwindling figures alongside the road. It was a hurried, confusing half-hour.
I was surprised to find that I was not headed for CACO 2-7, but for 2nd CAG Headquarters in Hoi An. I figured I would spend at least one night at 7th Co., but that was not the case. The supply truck took me directly to 2nd CAG where I reported and was told to find a rack in the transient hootch.
The next two weeks were like being in limbo. Aside from our busy chaplain, I didn’t know a soul at 2nd CAG and wasn’t eager to make new friends. I shared the transient hootch with a constantly changing cast of guys just out of CAP School, guys returning from R&R or the hospital, guys waiting for orders, etc.
Sleepless in Hoi An …
The new-in-country boots left their gear scattered around and talked loudly about kicking Charlie’s ass. I woke up every time one of them dropped a rifle or stumbled against my rack in the dark. Hell, I woke up every time somebody walked in the door. I missed the seasoned guerrilla fighters of CAP 2 who did everything quietly, especially at night. Some boots asked questions about life in the CAPs, but few listened to my answers beyond the first few words. I mostly ignored them.
The old-timers passing through often kept to themselves, like me. I recognized a handful of guys from my CAP School class who had also survived a year in the bush and were waiting to go home. They trickled in to 2nd CAG one by one, looking weathered and dangerous. Sometimes we old-timers sat on our racks or squatted gook-style behind the transient hootch and talked. But like me their bodies were in Hoi An while their minds were back in the villes where they had spent the previous year.
On the positive side, I remember taking my first shower at 2nd CAG, howling with delight at the unlimited supply of clean water cascading down. Who cares if it was cold? At least I didn’t have to haul every drop out of a well with a bucket!
I spent my nights at 2nd CAG on guard duty atop Tower #3. The headquarters compound had, I think, three such towers — wooden platforms held 40 feet above the ground on wooden utility poles. The platforms were carpeted with sandbags and each had a low parapet made of more sandbags to absorb incoming bullets (maybe). I seem to remember having a field telephone and some pop-ups in Tower #3, along with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun on a tripod.
Somebody walked me through the steps of loading and firing the .50, but I never used the big gun. I wondered how useful it would be in an attack, since the muzzle could not be depressed to aim at a target closer than, say, 100 meters from our concertina wire. If attacked, my plan was to use my M-16 until the first RPG took off my head.
What, me worry?
Actually, I had little fear of the Viet Cong or the NVA mounting a ground assault on the 2nd CAG compound. In my experience, frontal assaults against fortified compounds were not Charlie’s style. The Charlie I knew was stingy, wanting to kill four or five Americans for every fighter he sacrificed.
No, I was much more concerned about mortar attacks. The 2nd CAG compound was a big, clearly defined and very tasty target. Roughly the size of a pair of side-by-side football fields, it was thickly populated by Marines protected by nothing but corrugated tin. A few lucky mortar shells or 122mm rockets could kill a lot of people, including officers. In that sense I was in more danger at 2nd CAG than I had been in CAP 2-7-2. A single CAP is a small, hard-to-hit target and Charlie rarely wasted a mortar shell on us.
Ground or mortar attack, there was little I could do atop Tower #3 but give warning if I saw something. It was odd looking down on the world from 40 feet in the air, but I had plenty of practice standing watch, so I had no problem filling that role.
There were other strange things about standing watch on a tower. I was so used to looking at nighttime South Vietnam from ground level that it took me a couple of nights to figure out what I was seeing from the top of Tower #3. Bushes, paddy dikes and houses all cast slightly different shadows when you’re looking down on them.
Room at the top …
And it was strange being able to see for miles. Unhampered by nearby trees and houses, my view extended all the way to the mountains in the west, the sea to the east and many miles north and south. I was able to watch distant firefights, airstrikes and gunship attacks. Sometimes these events were so far away that I watched the light show of tracers, flares and explosions in complete silence. I remember feeling relieved and guilty that I wasn’t out there in the action.
While not on guard I tried to stay out of sight so I wouldn’t get tapped for the frequent work details. Maintaining the large headquarters compound meant bodies were needed to fill sandbags, push brooms, spread paint and load and unload trucks. I shamelessly dodged the work whenever I could, though I didn’t mind riding shotgun on an occasional truck bound for Da Nang.
I should have been cheerful during my time at 2nd CAG. While I didn’t get much sleep, the work was intermittent and easy. I was relatively safe, healthy and well-fed, and I was short — within days of catching my freedom bird. I was almost certain to survive Vietnam in one piece, unlike many friends and fellow Marines.
Instead I felt numb, rootless, almost invisible. It wasn’t until years later I began to figure out why. When they took me out of CAP 2-7-2 they took away my job, my home and all my friends in half an hour. For months I had lived every minute with three imperatives — to stay alive, to keep my friends alive and to fight the Viet Cong. All three of those driving forces were gone.
From being a key member of a closely-knit team doing dangerous and important work, I became another body filling sandbags. I went from making daily life-and-death decisions to having all my decisions made for me. As a leader of CAP 2, officers sought my opinion. As a transient at 2nd CAG, officers didn’t even see me.
The good news is … you survived Vietnam. The bad news is … there’s nothing back in the World to match the danger, excitement and meaning of Vietnam.
Good luck figuring it all out.
Posted May 11, 1999