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the motorcycles of the sky

March 19, 2011

I arrived at my new unit in Vietnam just before it sailed to the Philippines to switch

ships.  The USS Iwo Jima was going back. We were moving to the USS Princeton, an

aircraft carrier redesignated as an LPH (Landing Platform, Helicopter).  We docked

at Subic Bay, a huge naval base.  While we were transferring gear, two of my new

co-workers stole a wall locker by throwing a sheet over it and telling the sailors at

the gang plank that it was a coffin.


My assignment was casualty clerk.  I would be helping process the wounded and

dead Marines and sailors that were flown onto the ship.  The experienced clerks

tried to prepare me for the task.  They told me tale after tale, and they had plenty

of fresh ones.  The two units that our group supported had just been in a savage

battle, part of the Tet Offensive.  They had taken 81 KIA’s and about 400 WIA’s.

The clerks got speed from the ship’s pharmacy for the three straight days of

paperwork.


When we got back to the Gulf of Tonkin, the battalion landing team and helicopter

squadron our unit supported landed on the Princeton.  It was amazing to see all of

the 16-18 birds in flight at the same time, because they were so labour-intensive.

For every hour in the air, they were supposed to have five hours of ground main-

tenance.


A few months later I found out how delicate they could be.  I loved flying in them.

They’re the motorcycles of the sky.  I would go up any chance I got.  Sometimes

that meant picking up the mail, sometimes picking up a body.  Once I was riding

with a bunch of grizzled combat veterans.  I wanted to show them that I was with

them in spirit if not in the flesh.


When we landed and the tailgate dropped, I jumped up and charged out the back.

I hit my helmet square on the gate frame and flopped back on my butt.  The guys

walked slowly by me, laughing and shaking their heads.


The matter of a chopper’s finicky nature came on another flight, though.  I was

flying with four or five others along the coast when the crew chief patted me on

the knee and said, “when we go down, stay with the bird.”  We were landing on

a beach.  About 30-40 feet from the ground, the engine stopped and we landed

with a solid thud.


I thought the chief made an excellent suggestion.  Here we were in a cove (albeit

a beautiful one) in a hostile land with very few weapons.  I could have gone beach-

combing or taken a dip, but instead chose to stay just close enough to the chopper

to not get in the way while it was being fixed.  Two hours later, we were airborne

again.


It was much safer on the ship, but not without its dangers there, too.  We were

usually near Tiger Island, which was just inside North Vietnamese waters.  It was

heavily fortified, we were told.  One day the Princeton was used as a decoy to keep

attention away from two troop-laden ships passing south of us.  We sailed right at

the island.  I don’t mind sharing that my ass was tighter than a frog’s ass, which is

waterproof.


The Princeton was 888 feet long, the same as the USS New Jersey, the legendary

battleship that worked in our area.  It was incredible to watch the Jersey fire its

16-inch shells.  Even in daytime, it put off a huge fireball.  Supposedly, one shell

could put a piece of shrapnel in every square inch of a square kilometre.  I was

in-country one day when a shell went over.  It sounded like I was under a train.


Although sailors and Marines famously don’t get along, I had no problem working

with the Navy corpsmen.  They were smart and competent.  The ones who went

into combat with our units were highly regarded and invariably called “Doc”.  One

of the corpsmen I worked with named Stewart would look at new corpses coming

in, shake his head sadly and always say the same thing: “Poor bastards.  They never

saw it coming.”


He was like a character out of “Catch-22”.  I got into the habit of picking a body at

random and saying “Hey, Stew.  What about this poor bastard?  Did he ever see it

coming?”  Stewart would shake his head and say, “no, he never saw it coming.”


The other casualty clerks and I had another rude practice.  We’d often go to meals

with fellow Marines from the com shack (the radio room).  If the mess hall was

crowded, two of the clerks would go ahead of the others, sit down at one of the big

tables and talk shop.  The gory accounts would usually clear the chairs of sailors.


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I don’t have any photos of the Princeton, but here’s a vessel I spent a lot of time in:


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