CHU LAI, Vietnam — Eighteen rifles, stuck in the hot sand by their bayonets, stood in a semicircle in front of a tent. A camouflaged helmet rested on each rifle butt.
The rifles were symbols of the men of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd United States Marine Regiment killed at Van Tuong last week in the biggest American battle of the Viet Nam war.
Inside the tent, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Muir, knelt with his men at memorial services. Colonel Muir appeared to be holding back tears. Some of the Marines sobbed.
“They did not come back,” said the chaplain. “O god, for those who fell in battle, we know you are with them. And for those who are here, we give you thanks.”
The black mountains of Chu Lai come down to the sea with rice paddies in front of them and then a wide area of orange sand that is covered by lifeless bushes that are shoulder-high. The South China Sea, flat and lukewarm, begins where the land ends.
It was here, on the sand and in the bushes, and under a terrible sun, that the United States Marines fought a battle for the first time in this place in Asia called Viet Nam.
They fought all day Wednesday and into the night, and they fought again on Thursday. Their big American tanks and armored vehicles were useless to them. The enemy, these little Asians in black shirts, knocked the armor out right away.
The Marines were hit with shots coming out of the bushes in the sand. They fought with rifles and machine guns. When the Viet Cong were not on the sand any more, the Marines went into the mud of the paddies after them. The fighting was continuous and the dead were everywhere and now everybody knows that America is in a war.
The Marines say they killed 564 Viet Cong. The Marines do not give their own casualties because this is a war. But their dead were in the sand Wednesday and Thursday, waiting to be put in boxes and sent home to America. The broken bodies of the wounded were being taken to field hospitals. And the rest of them, the kids of eighteen, nineteen, and their early twenties, have had their lives changed forever by this day on the sands and in the mud in front of the black mountains of Chu Lai.
“A lot of boys came off that ship,” Daniel Kendall, nineteen, a lance corporal, was saying, “and a lot of men are going back.”
Kendall is from Boston and he is in I Company. He thinks I Company is the best company in the Marines and when it was put together in October, back at Camp Pendleton, San Diego, they got to know each other right away because they all knew they had thirty months to live together. And on Tuesday afternoon, when they were taken out of their tents at Da Nang and put on a cramped troop ship without being told where they were going, nobody in I Company was worried.
“We all know what we’re doing,” Terry Hunter, twenty-two, a corporal, said.
“We got the smartest officers and the best noncoms and the best men,” George Kendlers, who is twenty, called out.
“India Company is the best in the Marines,” another one of them called out.
“Yeah, we’re the best,” the kids started to yell, and the gray ship pulled out of Da Nang and went into the sea. They were given chili and rice and cold milk. They liked the cold milk. It was the first they had had since coming to Viet Nam.
“They give us this, they must have some wild operation planned for us,” Kendlers said.
None of them had been in action before, outside of having a few stray shots thrown at their camp. After dinner, they were told where they were going. They were going to land on the beach twelve miles to the south of the town of Chu Lai.
“Intelligence says a lot of Viet Cong are dug in in the area,” one of the officers said. “But this is one of those things. You may not fire a round. Or you might get your behinds shot off.”
“Just remember what you’ve been taught,” Bruce Webb, the company captain, told them. “When you’re fired on, go down, then come up and shoot. Don’t just lay there. After you shoot, move. Move even if bullets are all around you. You run up less casualties when you move.”
They went to bed at 9 p.m. and were up at 4 a.m. and had eggs and pancakes for breakfast. At 6:50 a.m., with the sun breaking over the black mountains in the distance, I Company came through the water and onto the sand and bushes, and it was the first time they ever had been in action.
Walking quietly, with no talk, they went into a small cluster of filthy huts with dirt paths between them. They call these places villages here. The village was empty. On the paths leading from the village to the sand and bushes, they found women and children hiding. The women held their children and looked at the Marines and said nothing. The women knew where the Viet Cong were. But they would not tell the Marines. The Marines were the enemy.
A second village was approached. To get to it, they had to go over a small bridge. The front of the village was lined with bushes and shrubbery. I Company moved up to the bridge. They started to go across it when one of the bushes in front of the village moved and a machine gun began firing from a trench under the leaves.
The Marines and mortars dropped into the village. They called for an air strike. Armed helicopters lumbered in. Swept-wing jets dove at the village after the helicopters moved away. When the air strike stopped, all the bushes began to move and there was firing both ways and then black shirts were climbing out of the trenches under the bushes and running back through the village. I Company came after them. They came across the bridge and into the village and Captain Webb was talking with two corporals, a radio man and a runner, and they were going along one of the trenches with the bushes over it when the booby trap exploded. It killed the three of them. I Company now knew what war is.
“He’s not dead,” another officer kept telling them. “They’re taking him out by helicopter. He’s all right.” The officer didn’t want the men to know that their commander had been killed in the first half-hour of the first action of their lives.
Now they were out into this sand with the bushes and the fire was coming at them. Not concentrated fire. But a shot here, a shot here, a machine gun from somewhere else, and all of it coming from holes and bunkers as they came through this sand, with the bushes tearing at their hands. Every few minutes, Michaels, who was carrying the radio, would hear something on it and he’d call over to those around him.
“Smith got hit. He’s dead.”
“Smith,” the one near him would say. He’d turn to somebody else. “Smith got killed.” It would go down the line.
They moved over three Viet Cong bodies killed by their machine guns. A helicopter was downed in one of the rice paddies in front of them. A line of tanks and armored carriers was going in to get out the helicopter pilots. I Company was to go with them. There was a line of eight armored vehicles. The tanks went first. The first tank pitched through the sand and into the mud of the paddy and nothing happened to it.
The Viet Cong fired at the second vehicle. It was an armored carrier, and they tried to get it with a .57-millimeter recoilless rifle. The shot missed. The I Company Marines in the carrier were climbing out to fight. The second shot from the .57 hit and covered the carrier with black smoke and the bodies fell out of the black smoke and into the mud.
The water ran out at noon. Fire was too heavy for helicopters to land with supplies. The Marines of I Company went through the sand with the sun glaring at them and the shots trying to kill them and they were licking their lips and trying to forget about water while they fought. These should be stories from a book about 1944. They are about 1965.
In the afternoon, a young boy popped up in front of them. He had crawled out of a hole which had an opening so small you could walk by it and not notice it. He pointed down into the hole. The boy started running. A small hand came out of the hole. Then a black shirtsleeve. Then a rifle. The Viet Cong pulled himself out and started running. The I Company machine-gunners caught him in the middle and his body fell in two parts.
I Company dug in for the night. There was firing all night and all morning and Michaels, the radioman, kept calling out to the ones near him the names of buddies who were killed.
Friday, their faces orange from the sand, their lips encrusted with it, their eyes bloodshot, Terry Hunter, Daniel Kendall, and George Kendlers sat in a foxhole with their rifles and a 3.5 rocket-launcher and they were in with another outfit because I Company was not in the battle any more. I Company had been blown apart. The others who were left had been taken back to the beach.
“It’s still the best company in the Marines,” Kendlers said in the foxhole. “We just had bad luck. Up on the hill, when the captain got killed, I wanted to go right in. When they started shooting at me later, I felt good. I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t get shot at.”
“We’re all real good buddies,” Kendall said.
“We always went to the Pike together. Back in Long Beach. I Company always was together.”
“The Pike? Is that a gin mill?”
“Gin mill? No. It’s an amusement park. It’s got rides,” Hunter said.
“Dancing,” Kendall said. “You know, an amusement park.”
Somewhere close, artillery was going off. Jets screamed in the sun overhead. They sat with their chins down so the sand wouldn’t blow into their eyes. They talked about an amusement park in Long Beach where young kids go. Then Kendall’s eyes came up and he saw a guy walking toward them from another hole.
“What are you, soft?” he yelled. “You’ll get shot right through the ass doing that.” The other two looked up.
They all looked the same. Three kids in a foxhole with faces that are very old.