Vietnam vet talks about his experience: Part 2: Mortars, mosquitos and a place we never were
A Conversation with a Vietnam Veteran
In part one we learned about Ron Irwin’s first day in Vietnam. It was very dramatic and set the tone for what came next. As we continued to chat Ron told me about mortar attacks, mosquitos and a place we never were. Here then is Part Two of my conversation with Vietnam veteran Ron Irwin,.
Hamilton: Your first day in Vietnam was fairly intense, so what happened next?
Irwin: Well I gradually got more or less acclimated to the situation. I mean the weather was horrible; very hot and very humid always. The food was atrocious, so much so that even though we had a mess tent most of us preferred the World War Two left over C Rations.
Hamilton:Why the C rations over the freshly prepared food?
Irwin: Because the prepared food was loaded with nasty stuff, mostly bugs. I mean a slice of bread would look like it was raisin bread only the “raisins” were actually bugs. At least when the C rations said “ham and lima beans” what was in the can was ham and lima beans.
Hamilton: Sorry to interrupt I was just curious about your food situation. It sounds pretty nasty.
Irwin: Yep it sure was as was the heat and the humidity and the almost over powering boredom occasionally smacked by a mortar attack or a perimeter penetration. I mean day after day after day the planes would take off and come back and take off again and we would be hot and filthy with no relief in sight and then BOOM followed the one word I came to really detest “INCOMMING” meaning, of course that mortars were coming at us usually around 2:00 a.m.
Hamilton: How did you handle that?
Irwin: Mainly it was a matter of jumping into bunkers or foxholes and praying the bastards wouldn’t get lucky but I remember one attack that was uniquely scary because it came way too close and I was saved by an impossible miracle.
Hamilton: Please explain.
Irwin: Well as was typical about 2:00 a.m. the mortars started falling only this time I had been ordered to get to squadron headquarters to destroy secret documents in the event it looked like we would be over run. So I began running in the direction I needed to go and suddenly I swear in the middle of a pitch black night I could see a mortar falling in my direction. I know that sounds crazy but I swear it happened. Anyhow I immediately dove underneath a water buffalo.
Hamilton: Are you telling me you dove underneath an animal to avoid being hit by a mortar round?
Irwin: [slight chuckle] Nah, to us a “water buffalo” was basically a large water tank on wheels. When I saw it I figured that if I was under it I had less chance of getting hit or at least less chance of getting killed if hit. And my theory seemed to work because the instant I hit the ground I heard a loud boom and a second or two later I heard shrapnel pinging of off the water buffalo.
Hamilton: Wow! Then what did you do?
Irwin: I got up and kept running to where I needed to be.
Hamilton: How often were you attacked with mortars?
Irwin: Near as I recall maybe six to eight times. I was in Nam before the Tet Offensive in 1968 so we had it relatively easy. But there was one incident I found uniquely memorable.
Hamilton: How is that?
Irwin: It was the usual middle of the night affair but somehow as the last mortar fell and it became quiet “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones started playing nice and loud from someone’s tape recorder. I don’t know who or how but it really did happen and it was very spooky. But the song absolutely fit the mood.
Hamilton: So what was your problem with mosquitos?
Irwin: Well besides the fact that there must have been billions of ‘em around our area one of the little buggers, no doubt a Viet Cong mosquito bit me and soon thereafter I got a very high fever and my bones started to ache like crazy.
Hamilton: What was that all about?
Irwin: Well I went so see our Corpsman and he was convinced I had both malaria and dengue fever so he sent me over to the field hospital which was basically a tent with eight or ten cots.
Hamilton: That sounds horrible. What happened next?
Irwin: For ten days I laid on a cot and felt like pure hell. Making it even worse about day eight the helicopters started bringing in causalities and I got to look out the tent and watch as they stacked bodies of dead Marines like cord wood. I became even more nauseated. But finally on the evening of the 9th day the Corpsman told me that if my fever didn’t break by the next day I would be medevacked to a nearby hospital ship that had air conditioning, real food and women. I prayed for fever and woke up at 98.6 degrees. Damn it. But I was told before I could return to duty I needed to see the psychiatrist because I might have become depressed.
Those medical guys were sharp as a tack. So off I went and chatted a little with the doctor who then prescribed a medication which in its proper dosage would easily calm a rampaging elephant but I later learned he had accidentally prescribed four times the normal dosage for me. Dude I was super stoned for the next two weeks. Best war ever. Heck one day someone accidentally tripped off a twenty millimeter canon on one of our jets. Everyone hit the deck except me. I just floated around saying “Weee!!!” That got me reassigned from my squadron to the Marine Air Group and that really crushed me.
Hamilton: Why was that such a bad thing?
Irwin: It was truly horrible because the squadron was leaving in three days for Japan and I was going to go with them. But because of the transfer I stayed in Vietnam. One mosquito and a stupid doctor is all it took to keep me there another six months. But it could have been even worse.
Hamilton: That sounds bad enough, what could have been worse?
Irwin: That same day I was so completely stoned, Captain Moon Mullins volunteered for one last mission. He was all set to go home the very next day and Captain Mullins already had a lifetime supply of air medals and even a Distinguished Flying Cross or two I believe, and he was one very nice man but he volunteered. He took off and flew his mission to Laos, a place that according to lying Lyndon we never went and there he got shot down and killed. Less than 24 hours from going home and dead in a place we never were. That is the ultimate definition of SUCKS.
Next Irwin talks about his reassignment to the Marine Aircraft Group 12, Chu Lai, Vietnam where he met his commanding officer who in later years reminded him a lot of Colonel Sherman Potter of the great old television series about the 4077th “M*A*S*H.” Coming up in Part Three of this interview with a Vietnam Veteran.
David Hamilton attended Northwestern University and his a freelance writer who has written article, scripts and short stories for a variety of publications, including Time Magazine, National Journal, the South China Morning Post and others. He now resides in the Los Angeles area.