Dysentery and my tropical cruise
Diarrhea was the obvious symptom. A couple of bouts of diarrhea a day were a nuisance. Five to 10, annoying but tolerable. Ten to 20 meant you were suffering and your military effectiveness was marginal — you were still on the TO, but worthless except in emergencies. At some point you would be sent to 1st Med Battalion for treatment — unless the CAP was shorthanded. Then you might be kept in the bush until you were too weak to hump your gear.
When you had the shits you also had some combination of other symptoms including stomach cramps, fever, chills, headaches and general weakness from dehydration and malnutrition. Water and food did you little good because they went right through your system and out the ass end. Some Marines believed the folklore that you could stop diarrhea by eating the peanut butter from C-rations. It had the same density as modeling clay. Others thought C-ration cheese would stop you up. I tried both without effect.
When the dysentery got bad you were listless and had little appetite for food. You were thirsty, but if you took a long drink of water you’d better grab some toilet paper. In five to 10 minutes you’d be heading for the bushes with your butt clenched like a fist. No matter how hot or thirsty you got, it was better to take only occasional sips of water.
Most likely we got dysentery from drinking water from the rivers and wells of rural South Vietnam. There’s no telling what kind of bugs were in that water. Whatever they were, our guts weren’t used to that kind of fauna. Our villagers and RFs showed few ill effects from drinking well water. Everybody avoided drinking from the river except in cases of dire thirst. It often looked clean, but it was an open sewer.
Spill one, fill one
CAP 2-7-2 got two 5-gallon cans of filtered, chemically treated water each day on the resupply truck. Occasionally somebody miscounted and we got shorted a can, since CAP 2 was usually the last of the CACO 2-7 CAPs to see the resupply truck. The water tasted pretty foul, but we used it for drinking, coffee and cooking during the day. We also used it to fill the canteens we carried on daytime patrols and night ambushes.
During cold, rainy weather, 10 gallons was more than enough drinking water to supply 12 to 14 Marines and a corpsman. In the hot, dry months of summer it was nowhere near enough. I have often seen Marines on operations or long patrols refill their canteens from wells … sometimes from the river. That’s how you got dysentery, especially from river water. In training we were told to use iodine or halidon (sp?) tablets to treat water in the field. Problem is, I never saw any water purification tablets in Vietnam.
After six months in the bush, I had reached the stage where I had diarrhea about 15 times a day — more if I drank enough water to satisfy my thirst. I had no appetite for food, though I was pretty thirsty. There was nothing solid coming out of me, just equal amounts of gas, stinking brown water and bright, fresh blood. I kept diving into our cases of C-rations looking for toilet paper.
Doc was giving me some pills that helped a little with the diarrhea. I don’t know what they were, but they didn’t help enough. Finally one morning he told me to catch the resupply truck, then make my way to the 1st Med Battalion hospital in Da Nang. I stopped at CACO 2-7 HQ long enough to store my gear, then hitchiked to 1st Med.
At the hospital they first made me check my M-16 and magazines at their on-site armory. I felt naked. I knew I was pretty safe at 1st Med, but I also knew that any sense of security in Viet Nam was false. After some waiting around and a brief examination, I was given some paperwork and told to head for the 1st Med landing pad where I waited some more. I didn’t care. I felt listless and I was good at waiting. Finally they put me on a CH-46 and flew me to the U.S.S. Sanctuary, along with a dozen other sick or injured Marines and a few stretcher cases.
Cruising tropical waters on the Sanctuary (AH-17)
I don’t remember much about my days on the Sanctuary. I must have been really sick. I wound up in an internal medicine “ward” with about 60 other guys. It was an interesting room. The ward was about 50 feet square with a steel floor and ceiling and steel walls. Various sized pipes criss-crossed the ceiling and the adjoining “head” contained rows of sinks, toilets and showers (Hooray!). The “beds” were stacked five-high from floor to ceiling. Each bed was a simple rectangle of pipe and stretched canvas with a thin mattress. I got a bottom bunk. Lying on my back in bed, there was enough room to put my fist between my nose and the bottom of the rack above. I described my new surroundings in a letter to my mother dated Sept. 13.
When I arrived, the Sanctuary was cruising off the mouth of the Da Nang harbor, but sailed north soon after — I think to cruise off the coast at Hue. My memories of life aboard the Sanctuary are fragmentary. I was pretty sick at first, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty because I wasn’t carrying my share of the load in Thanh Quit. I worried about the boys in CAP 2-7-2, but in a disconnected fashion. Being on the Sanctuary was like being in another world — a world that was less real to me than the world of my ville. I was safe, clean and well fed, but away from my “home,” “family” and “job.”
I remember lying in my “first floor” rack, taking “shipboard showers” in the head, and waiting in endless lines for meals in a steamy mess deck. I remember the bosun’s whistle sounding over the intercom and a voice calling for the sweepers to man their brooms for “a clean sweepdown fore and aft.” I used to wonder who the sweepers were because I never saw anybody manning a broom. In fact, while I saw an occasional sailor walking from one part of the ship to another, I never saw anybody doing any “seamanship.”
The one exception was the day the Sanctuary was resupplied by a Navy ship called the U.S.S. Navasota. The two ships cruised along, side by side, maybe 30-40 yards apart. A couple of lines or cables were passed between the ships and small carts suspended from the cables shuttled back and forth carrying boxes and bags of whatever. I was interested to see a handful of sailors on the two ships semaphoring messages back and forth with their hands. I wondered if they were old friends, or just strangers passing the time.
My favorite activity was standing at the ship’s rail enjoying the warm breeze and watching the water, day or night. I found that very soothing and almost hypnotic, especially after dark. The white hull of the Sanctuary was lit by floodlights, which also lit the green water so you could see a foot or two below the surface. I kept hoping to see a fish, but never did. When standing on the “land” side of the ship, I often saw artillery or aircraft flares over the shore two or three miles distant. At least once, I watched a firefight on shore. There was no sound, just flares and criss-crossing tracers with an occasional flash from a grenade or anti-tank rocket. I had no idea who was shooting at whom, but I was glad it wasn’t me.
Floating between heaven and hell
The Sanctuary cruised off the coast at Hue for awhile — a few days maybe — then turned around and cruised back to Da Nang. The patients often had little idea where the ship was or where it was going, unless somebody asked a crew member. They sometimes didn’t know, either. It was a bit like being in limbo, somewhere between the relative “hell” of Viet Nam and the relative “heaven” of the World.
My treatment was pretty uneventful. I was given antibiotic pills to take a few times a day and otherwise left pretty much alone. I would have liked to spend much of my time sleeping, except they made us get up and stay out of our racks most of the day. The “hands-on” treatment was provided by Navy corpsmen. There were Navy nurses on the ship, and I saw them occasionally, but their role in my ward seemed to be supervisory. There was none of the handholding you see military nurses doing in the movies. In fact, I don’t recall ever speaking to a nurse after being admitted. They seemed sort of starchy and unapproachable. I suppose they were pretty busy.
Adjoining my ward was a smaller room full of mostly malaria patients. Seeing them made me determined to take my malaria pills religiously when I returned to CAP 2-7-2. There were guys my height (6’1″) who were wasted to 90 pounds by malaria and could barely lift their heads. I felt lucky to have only dysentery. There was a running debate in CAP 2-7-2 whether it made sense to quit taking malaria pills, get malaria and spend a month or two in the hospital. Some guys argued it would be worth getting malaria to get out of the bush for awhile. After seeing the malaria ward on the Sanctuary, I decided I’d rather be ducking bullets in Thanh Quit.
Despite the close quarters, I made no friends on the Sanctuary. We were all transients and the faces changed each day as new patients arrived and old patients left. I’m sure there were casual conversations, but I don’t remember any names or faces. Even the corpsmen remained strangers. There was more of a divide between Marines and corpsmen on ship than in the bush. Of course, the corpsmen knew better than anybody that their patients would all be leaving sooner or later.
I wound up spending about 12 days on the Sanctuary. The doctor wanted to keep me longer, but I convinced him to release me because I was scheduled to go on R&R as soon as I got back to CACO 2-7. Unfortunately, somebody at CACO 2-7 canceled my R&R when I was admitted to the hospital so I arrived back at CAP 2-7-2 the same day I left the Sanctuary. I was pissed off about that. I could have spent several more days lounging at the rail of the Sanctuary, cruising tropical waters courtesy of the Navy.