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an unforgettable Christmas in a pagan land

March 18, 2011

It turned out that my assignment in the Western Pacific was Camp Hansen on

Okinawa.  It was a major disembarkation point for Vietnam-bound Marines.  I

was at Special Landing Force Alpha of the Ninth Marine Amphibious Brigade

That looked impressive on my Permanent Record, but all I did was write TAD


Temporary Additional Duty orders were required for just about all travel in the

Corps, especially to another unit.  At the end of each month, officers and staff NCO’s

would take courier runs to ‘nam.  By going the last day of the month, spending the

night in-country and returning the next day, a courier got two months of combat

pay and those two months of their regular pay tax-free.

Until I got an assistant, I averaged 20-hour days and all-nighters were common.

Other clerks in the office were under the same stress, so late one night we had the

Great Paper Clip Fight.  We picked teams and started at opposite ends of the room.

The goal was to take a desk in the middle.

We unbent the clips enough to shoot with rubber bands.  A hit was supposed to

sideline a participant for ten seconds.  Alas, just like the games of childhood, no

one would admit to being “got”.  When we ran out of clips, we used our hand-to-

hand combat training.  My friend Don flipped me headfirst into a wall and the

war was over.  “I didn’t like the way your eyes were rolling backwards,” he said,

after I regained consciousness.

The only Okinawan I had much contact with was the papa-san who cleaned the

office.  He had been forced to join the Japanese army just before U.S. forces invaded

in 1945.  All he said in English was “American cigarette number one” and “American

chow number one”, depending on what we’d handed him.

In the spring the island had protests at Kadena Air Force Base because of the B-52’s.

That’s the airplanes, not the Athens, Georgia, rock band.  The planes would leave

every morning, bomb Vietnam, and return in the evening.  We were not allowed

anywhere near the protesters, especially the women.

We had our own protesters to worry about.  Anti-war sentiment was heating up in

the states.  We did a few days of mob control training.  I wondered if I would be able

to bear a weapon against lawfully-assembled Americans.  I am still grateful that I

never had to.

And we had enough problems in our own barracks.  These long, thin buildings had

no interior walls.  Those were created by partitions and wall lockers, which divided

each end into cubicles (cubes) with two bunks each.  A shower room with sinks and

toilets was in the middle.

There was this crazy guy Stevie on the other end who would freak out from time to

time.  His cube mate could usually quiet him down, but one day Stevie completely

lost it.  His friend wrestled him down, then calmly said, “Stevie, your knife is cutting

into me.”  We never heard or saw Stevie again.

Every payday there was a poker game in one of the cubes.  Guys would pay back all

the money they’d lost from the payday before, then lose all of their next paycheck.

Because I didn’t gamble, they’d approach me and say “five for ten”, meaning they’d

pay me $10 next time around for $5 that day.  I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to

try to collect from a bunch of deadbeat Devil Dogs.

I would go off base occasionally for a steak dinner or to shop.  My most memorable

excursion was when a staff NCO wrangled a truck from the motor pool.  He, my

friend Don and I went on a drinking binge in Naha, the capitol city.  We went to the

cliffs where many Japanese soldiers jumped to their deaths to avoid capture by

Allied forces.  We climbed around.  We staggered back to the truck.  We climbed

back in and headed for the base.  I fell off the truck and cut my knee.  Fortunately

that’s the only war wound I got.

The most memorable event on the base during my stay happened Christmas Day,

1967.  We were allowed to sleep late.  About 8 a.m. I heard a distant explosion and

roused up.  I looked over at my cube mate and we both went back to sleep.  Later

I learned that someone had stolen a grenade and rolled it into the cube of a guy he

had a grudge against.  The guy and his cubemate were killed.

Several months later I was allowed to go on an end-of-the-month courier run to

Vietnam.  I got a decent look around.  Shortly after that, a clerk position opened

up in a unit that supported a helicopter squadron and a battalion landing team.

It was on a ship.  I took it.  I’d make more money and maybe get some stories to

take back.

What happened next shook me to my very soul.

  1. March 18, 2011 9:08 am

    Thanks for leaving us hanging pal!

    • March 18, 2011 12:00 pm

      It will all be tied up in the weekend posts. If you’re desperate for a synopsis, let me know.

  2. March 18, 2011 11:51 am

    OOooooo a cliff-hanger!

    • March 18, 2011 12:02 pm

      Hey, beanie. What can I say? I’m still new at blogging and thought I’d run a short serial. Conclusion Sunday. Don’t touch that mouse!

  3. March 18, 2011 1:43 pm

    I’m afraid to read what might be coming next! Probably doesn’t help that I just watched Born on the 4th of July this afternoon. What a war!

    • March 18, 2011 2:39 pm

      Spoiler alert: I get back alive.

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