A Wasted Life

One second you are alive and the next you are dead. That happened to one of the best Marines I ever knew. This story is about him and how he died.

We arrived at the Marble Mountain Airfield early in the Vietnam War. We were on the beach next to the South China Sea. Navy Sea Bees made the airfield and the aircraft parking areas from Marston matting. The connecting roads between the airfield and the tent areas were leveled sand. The mess hall provided one meal a day and improved to two meals over a period of time. The showers were the open-air verity with no hot water for the twelve months that I was there. The breeze off the South China Sea could be cool at times.

Marble Mountain was a helicopter airfield adjacent to the big airfield at Danang. A road passed around the big airfield and through the city of Danang and then over a river bridge to a road that ran between the Navy Sea Bees and Marble Mountain. It was a public road going south. When we first arrived, the city of Danang was a liberty destination. We had port and starboard liberty and not much security back at the airfield. After the Viet Cong became active in the area, liberty in Danang was cancelled and truck transportation between the airfields only ran during daylight hours. Vietnam was the first helicopter war and we were making a big difference towards winning that war. The Viet Cong knew we needed to be neutralized.

Before Marble Mountain had its first major attack, the security at the airfield had increased to machine gun positions every one hundred yard around the parameter. That level of security didnít stop the Viet Cong. They cut the throats of the Marines at one machine gun position and fifty Viet Cong attacked the airfield at night. They disabled fifty percent of our aircraft with grenades and satchels charges.

That attack was enough to change our security posture at the airfield. We needed more security and we needed it fast. The next plan was to lay two rows of concertina wire around the airfield with a minefield in between. This plan also needed troops behind the wire during the night hours. We had foxholes with passageways in between inside the parameter. A little like what they did in WWI.

Each Squadron provided personnel to man the parameter for a thirty-day period. My Squadron selected me to be the Platoon Sergeant for the southern parameter. You could look across the parameter during the daylight hours and see the mountain that the airfield was named after. It was about three or four miles south of the airfield and maybe two hundred feet tall. The space between the airfield and the mountain was empty and flat. If we had been attacked from the south, we would have had a great field of fire. We didnít think the Viet Cong would be that stupid.

My troops were aviation personnel and they didnít think they were real Marines some times. They tried to convince me that they had forgotten what they learned in boot camp and in one or two cases, that boot camp hadnít happened at all. I had one exception to rule and that was Corporal Hare. Corporal Hare was very intelligent and he remembered all that he had learned as a Marine. He wasnít from my Squadron and I didnít know him before this assignment. I made him my Assistant Platoon Sergeant and he took on the job like a real Marine would. I didnít have to tell him what to do and he was smart. Every outfit in the Marine Corps needs a Corporal Hare.

Some of the rules of the parameter were no smoking, no lights and no talking unless necessary. We needed to be silent so we could hear the enemy. During our stay on the parameter, we were issued SIDS. These are devices that listen for small seismic movements caused by people or other things. Our area was full of noise, but nothing could be seen on the surface. I will tell why later.

Someone at Headquarters decided our parameter should be moved further south. I think our aircraft were being snipped at as they took off flying south. At any rate, the engineers that laid the mines came back and picked up the mines and my Platoon was assigned the duty of picking up the wire. It would be my personnelís last assignment as a platoon.

Most supervisors need to be everywhere at once. They tell people what to do and solve problems as they occur. Of course I had my secret weapon, Corporal Hare. We started at one end of the minefield and picked up wire on both sides at the same time. We were moving from west to east rolling and collecting more than half of the wire. My back was facing west when I heard two explosions, a kind of pop pop noise. I turned and saw a body on the ground. I ran to the body and it was Corporal Hare. I wanted give Corporal Hare first aid and save his life, but there wasnít any first aid for Corporal Hareís wounds that would work. He had stepped on a Bouncing Betty mine. I told all the troops to get out of the minefield and stay out. Those with brains on their clothing were told to change their uniforms. One Marine argued that he could clean his own uniform. I raised my voice and told him that changing to another uniform was an order.

I was the person in charge. What did I do wrong? A recently cleared minefield is a dangerous place. I know that now and I knew it then. The only way to pickup the wire from the other side of the minefield was to cross the cleared minefield. My plan was to work the wire on both sides. I needed to supervise from the middle and set an example for the troops that the minefield was safe. They would have to crossed the cleared minefield to remove the wire. I should have died that day because I walked over that live mine several times. Corporal Hare was doing what I was doing when he died. He was supervising from the minefield and setting an example. Had he been less of a Marine, he would have been with the other Marines rolling wire at the edge of the minefield.

When engineers lay minefields, they make a map and check it several times for accuracy. They use the same map to remove the mines from the field. An Officer certifies that all the mines have been removed. Someone made an error that killed Corporal Hare. We actually lost two good Marines that day in Vietnam. Corporal Hare would have been an excellent individual and a fine Marine. He was intelligent, ambitious and a leader. The other Marine that had to be emotionally wounded was the Officer that certified the minefield as clear. He has a heavy burden to live with for the rest of his life. Maybe a third person to fault for Corporal Hareís death is the Sergeant in charge. It was my idea to set the example so my troops would work in that cleared minefield. Could I have done better?

We found out after the War that the Viet Cong had an underground hospital located between our parameter and Marble Mountain. Maybe thatís what we heard on our listening devices?