Report to the red line
It was the first week of January 1971 and I had been in the bush for 10 months, long enough to be comfortable and long enough to hate it. I had been with the men of CAP 2-7-2 for the entire time, except that by January only Roch and Nelson were left from the group I knew as CAP 2. Mac, Crazy, Rivas, Perez, and Willie had rotated, Kubina, and Erp had been medevac’d. Ledford, Angel and Jungel had all been transferred to other CAP’s and then rotated or been medevac’d.
The new guys who had arrived one at a time, to replace the rotated, wounded, or killed were all great guys. They were strong, brave, decent young men and not the drug smoking misfits portrayed in the movies of Vietnam. As good as they were, though, they weren’t the same as the originals. This may have been a common feeling, despite the fact that CAP 2 had been around for years before I arrived.
The Marines sitting around the day haven when I arrived in the bush were always in my head and in my heart, the “original” members of CAP 2. So as my tour drew to an end, I felt to some degree as if Roch, Nelson and I were the last surviving members of something that was gone. This was not a rational, thought-out feeling. It was just an emotional tie to those with whom I had shared so much and who had then moved on.
As I faithfully colored in the blocks on my short-timer’s calendar, I always imagined that a day would come when I would get the magic, long-awaited radio call. I visualized sitting in a day haven, readying my gear for the night move, when the PRC-25 would crackle to life and a voice from above would call out to me, “Have the Lame-Duck get his gear together and move up to the red line.”
As Roch so eloquently described, there would be a host of conflicting emotions as those remaining wished me well and said good-bye. The new friends, Duncan, Hucklebuck, Country, and others would express their jealousy with wisecracks and back-slaps, as I moved up to Highway One for the last time. As it turned out, this scene was only a dream and would stay that way.
Instead of the treasured radio call, I got a message saying I could have a three-day in-country R&R if I wanted it, nothing more. I told the message bearer, whoever it was, that I couldn’t go because I was tapped out. This condition was the result of overestimating the value of several poker hands, much to the delight of the now richer Marines of CAP 2.
Before the opportunity could slip away completely, Nelson came up to me and said, “I’ll give you some money Doc. Why don’t you go?” So with $35 in borrowed MPC, I grabbed my gear and got on the supply truck and headed to the R&R center at China Beach for three days of rest. At the end of my R&R, I hitchhiked back to CACO 2-7 and retrieved my gear from the medical hut where it had been stashed.
Before I could make my way out of the compound, one of the company clerks came up to me and said, “You’re not going back out to the bush, Doc. Your replacement is here. You got orders to go to 2nd CAG.” This was followed by, “…and the supply truck’s leaving so you better get on board”.
I was numb and disbelieving as I climbed into the back of the six-by headed for Hoi An. We stopped at all of the CAPs along the way, dropping off the evening chow and supplies as we worked our way down the highway. When we stopped at CAP 2 I convinced the driver to give me five minutes with the CAP, but he said I had better move it. I walked down the trail with the guys who had come for the supplies, still feeling dazed.
When I arrived at the day haven, the CAP members were getting ready for chow and moving out for the night. There were a few mumbled good-bye’s, a handshake or two and that was it. No joyful kidding, no well-wishing. After a few minutes I said, “So long,” and walked back up to the trail to the waiting six-by.
As the truck traveled down the road to Hoi An, I remember feeling as if I wanted to cry and also feeling angry at being cheated out of the big moment I waited for, for so long. I would rather have stayed in the bush until the last day.
At 2nd CAG, I joined two other corpsmen who had come into the country with me. Rick Uht had been at 9th Company until becoming the senior corpsman at 7th company, and Anderson from 3rd Company. Anderson stayed at 2nd CAG for the last weeks of his tour, while Uht and I were transferred to the 1st Marine Division. We were both assigned to 1st Medical Battalion and to A&S (admissions and sorting), which was the triage and ER area. I spent the next several weeks dealing with the destruction of human lives caused by war on a daily basis. That, however, is another story.
So, in the end, I felt doubly cheated. I didn’t get to experience the magic radio call, and I didn’t get to finish my tour as a CAP corpsman. Twenty nine years later, it shouldn’t be such a big deal, but it is. Every time I see the fuss made over the troops from Desert Storm, or the recent release of POW’s from Kosovo, it reminds me of the bittersweet ending of my own tour through hell-on-earth.
Fortunately, I managed to re-establish contact with the CAP and went to the reunion in June, 1998. The feelings of those three days have gone a long way toward replacing the disappointment from 1971, but I would still give a lot to have gotten that magic radio call, “Report to the red line!”
Posted May 12, 1999