In part three Marine Corps veteran Ron Irwin disclosed how his passion for flying finally got him in the air over Vietnam, but how that dream come true transformed into a horrible nightmare. Now in Part Four of my conversation with Ron he describes his final 33 days in country and discloses a totally unexpected current undertaking.
Hamilton: Now you were disillusioned but you were getting “short” (meaning he was getting close to going back to the U.S.) as they say. What was it like after everything you went through finally being very close to leaving and what were your most memorable moments?
Irwin: By far my most memorable day of my last few days was on the 33rd day prior to my scheduled departure. That afternoon another Marine and I sat on a sand dune and watched as a company of American Army soldiers, who had just arrived, were being bunched up in a tight group where they began pitching their tents for the night. It was one scary sight.
Hamilton: Seeing American soldiers pitching tents was scary?
Irwin: Nah! Soldiers, at least American soldiers weren’t scary and neither is pitching a tent. What was scary was that they were in a tight formation at the orders of their Major who was clearly a moron.
Hamilton: Why do you call the Army major a moron?
Irwin: Two reasons. One is that even the newest boot recruit knows that you never bivouac in a tight formation in a combat zone.
Hamilton: Why is that?
Irwin: That is because we were surrounded by Viet Cong who watched our every move and a group of soldiers in a tight group simply presented them with an irresistible target for a mortar attack. And also because even as far away as we were we could see that he was a Major because he was wearing his metal rank insignia shining brightly in the sun and making him yet another high priority target.
Hamilton: So then what happened?
Irwin: What happened was we considered going down there and telling the Major of his errors, but knowing just by watching what he was doing it was clear that he would take no advice from two Marine Corps Corporals. So we did everything we could to prepare for that mortar attack we knew damn well was coming, which was pretty much nothing except a prayer or two or three. And sure enough right about 2:15 a.m. the mortars started falling. By the time it ended 80 American men had been killed almost all of them from the group of soldiers who had arrived earlier that day. The only good news about it was at least those guys wouldn’t have to endure 13 months in Vietnam hell.
Hamilton: I am so sorry to hear that, I am sure it must have hurt.
Irwin: Oh it did and all these years later it still does. But I think it also explains my last three days in Vietnam
Hamilton: What do you mean?
Irwin: Well in my final three days upon reflection it became clear that I simply didn’t give a damn anymore. Three days before my departure I was sent down to our flight line to pick up a General — a Marine Corps General. The kinda guy you would think would be the most gung ho warrior on earth.
So being “short” as they say, on our ride back I asked the General if I could ask him a straight up question and get an honest answer. He said “Sure Marine what is it?’ So then I asked the General “Sir with all due respect what the f**k are we doing here in Vietnam?” His answer was startling. “The truth is Marine I don’t know.” HOLY SHIT even the top brass don’t know why the hell we are over here. Over the course of the war that means nearly 3 MILLION Americans went to Vietnam for no known reason. What the hell is going on here?
Hamilton: Now that would be deeply disturbing? I am very sorry to hear that.
Irwin: Yeah I was pretty shook up so the very next day they send me to Da Nang to deliver a package of top secret documents — probably Playboy magazines. But anyhow I delivered the package and I had eight hours before my return flight to Chu Lai so I decided to go for a nice long walk as far away from all things military as possible. I headed out of the base and just kept on walking for several miles. Keep in mind I was wearing a helmet and flak jacket and carrying a rifle and 80 rounds of ammunition, a bayonet, a 45 caliber pistol and six hand grenades. Imagine seeing some guy dressed like that walking through your neighborhood.
Hamilton: I am sure it would very scary.
Irwin: But the good news is that I was soon surrounded only by rice paddies with no people visible to me; that is until I saw a hooch in front of my path. Painted on the wall of the hooch were the words “COLD BEER.” I thought “Nirvana” and I quickened my pace. Upon entering the hooch I was greeted by an older Vietnamese man and woman and a woman I’d guess was maybe 24 years old and smokin’ hot. But at that point I had been away from women so long I was beginning to see the lizards in a different way. I quickly learned that the cold beer and hot woman were both available for about $5.00. I went all in and very soon we had consummated our hastily formed relationship. We then moved to the front of the hooch where I could enjoy my cold beer with my instant sweetheart.
Next came the entertainment in the form of two F-4 Phantom jets dropping napalm maybe 500 yards away from our position. It was close enough that I could feel the heat. Finally a little warning sounded in my head because I realized the most likely reason for the napalm was that either VC or NVA were very close and probably wanted to be somewhere else very quick, like maybe a hooch serving cold beer.
Only a few seconds after that thought had passed through my feeble brain I saw two NVA — that’s North Vietnamese Army by the way — soldiers heading straight for the hooch each carrying an AK-47 rifle. So I quickly chambered a round and lifted my rifle and told my girlfriend to tell her buddies to put down their weapons and come in and I would buy them each a cold beer and if they didn’t do that right now they would be meeting Buddha in three seconds. I raised my rifle as she began shouting to them in Vietnamese. Happily, they put down their weapons and came into the hooch where I lived up to my promise and one of them quickly took my girlfriend to the same little room for some loving. That was my signal to leave which I did walking backwards down the paddy dikes for at least a mile.
Hamilton: That seems to me to have been extremely risky.
Irwin: Oh it was that alright but it didn’t occur to me just how risky until almost two years later when I finally realized just how easy it would have been for the mom or dad to simply step into our love nest, pick up my rifle and shoot me. would have simply disappeared MIA.
Hamilton: But what about the two NVA, couldn’t they have also killed you?
Irwin: Not likely because I had the drop on them and also because they just wanted the same thing I wanted, a cold glass and a piece of ass. But yeah, if they had another couple dozen troops coming up from behind there is a very good chance we would never have done this interview.
Hamilton: Ok those two days were clearly wild and risky what did you do on your very last day?
Irwin: Well I figured I needed to throw a little party to celebrate my departure the next morning so I wanted some beer. Now understand there were no 7-Eleven stores around and we had no beer in our compound. But I knew that the Korean Marines did have beer. I just wasn’t all that sure where they were. No problem I just borrowed the Colonel’s jeep and headed off in the general direction of where I thought their compound might be. It was pitch black with no lights and no signs of any kind. There weren’t even any roads so my speed was pretty slow and the ride was bumpy, but I kept on going until out of the darkness six Asian men with rifles pointed directly at me jumped up as I slammed on the brakes.
For a second or two I just thought “13 months in this hell hole, only hours left and then THIS.” But as that thought passed through my mind the six guys lowered their weapons and approached me speaking English with a clear Korean accent. They were the perimeter guard for the Korean Marine compound. I had found it — GREAT! I bought two large bottles of Korean beer for very little money and headed back to my compound.
Hamilton: I can see how you would be very frightened given those circumstances. Were the remaining few hours less stressful?
Irwin: Oh yeah. We had a tiny little farewell party and I got up and out early the next day. First it was the standard C-130 ride to Da Nang and then we stood in a very loose formation by the chartered civilian 707 that had pulled up near us and let the new troops off the plane. Did you ever see the movie Platoon?
Hamilton. Yes as a matter of fact I did. Why?
Irwin: Remember the scene when the new troops arrive and get very nervous when they see the condition of the departing troops?
Hamilton: Yes, that was a very powerful scene.
Irwin: Well that is exactly what happened on our departure day only the number of troops was many more, but the dynamics were identical. We were all looking pretty ratty and everyone had a deep tan and plenty of dirt on our bodies. The new guys were spit and polish and very pink for the most part. As they saw us their faces quickly turned to severe fear and pain. We were all so thrilled to be actually leaving all we felt was pure joy. We were so happy to get into a clean aircraft cabin being served by several beautiful young women.
As the Captain began his take off role he got on the P.A. and shouted for us to “turn off the lights and lower the shades — we are in a damn war zone ya know.” That caused an up roar of laughter from the cabin. Oh yeah we knew we were in a war zone, and we also knew there was no way in hell we were dimming the lights or lowering the shades. Then the Captain made a very aggressive turn getting us off shore pronto. I think he was scared. All of his passengers were in deep relief.
Hamilton: So that’s about it, anything else you want to tell me.
Irwin: Just two things if you don’t mind.
Hamilton: Sure, go ahead.
Irwin: Well we stopped overnight in Okinawa. We were all placed in the same barracks and pretty much every one jumped into the large group shower room. Within seconds there was literally rivers of mud flowing down the drain. We had no idea just how utterly filthy we had become but the final shower scene will never leave me.
And the other thing I think you might want to know is last September 2017 I attended the Airshow at MCAS Miramar, in San Diego. There I and a couple hundred other Marine Corps Vietnam veterans were honored with a commemorative pin. It was actually rather moving. But then I became truly shocked when my eyes fell upon an A-4 jet. It was one of the A-4 Skyhawk jets that I had last seen in Vietnam 50 years before. Not just a similar plane, the actual plane. That caused deep shivers.
Hamilton: Wow that is truly amazing.
Irwin: Yes and deeply inspiring because it caused all of my experiences that happened a half century ago to come rushing back. As those memories swirled in my mind I began to think that it would be a good thing to tell this one tale to our modern world so that coupled with abundant humor it might also help put forth the idea that just maybe war should be avoided whenever possible.
Then one day as I was walking around my neighborhood in Burbank when I ran into a guy a lot younger than me — but then pretty much everyone is. Anyhow as we talked I began telling him some of things I just told you. His eyes lit up and he revealed that his dad was also a Vietnam veteran. As our conversation continued I also learned that his name was Richard Perry and he was an award-winning writer and very interested in working with me on a script for a stage play and for a possible movie and/or TV series. So we got to work. Right now we are very near completion of the stage play and hope to have it on stage in L.A. by next Spring.
Hamilton: I must say I didn’t see that coming. Please keep me informed.
Irwin: Absolutely! And you and anyone else can keep up with our progress by simply going to www.ronirwin.net and clicking on the 51-50 The Play tab.
Hamilton: Is that the name of your play, 51-50?
Irwin: Yessir! You see 51-50 is police code for crazy and I do believe that much of what I did and experienced in Vietnam was absolutely crazy. But I survived by laughing at myself and my situation and that is most likely what kept from truly going completely off the deep end.
Hamilton: Well it has been my pleasure meeting you and hearing about your experiences in Vietnam. I wish you great success.
Irwin: And just one thing if I may?
Hamilton: Yes, of course.
Irwin: I simply want to say it again, I make no claim of being any kind of war hero. If anything I was more a war nut case. Millions of Americans served bravely in the Vietnam War, many if not most of them enduring far more than I can even imagine. To those people my most sincere salute. And my thanks to you David for your most kind interview.
Hamilton: Well said and you are genuinely welcome.
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.