- Another Vietnam
ON August 29, 1983, the New York Times reported that “two American marines were killed and fourteen wounded this morning as fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and Moslem militiamen turned this city into an arena of exploding shells, machine-gun fire and snipers’ bullets.” I heard this news on the car radio while driving across the Sneads Ferry Bridge, on my way to the back gate at Camp Lejeune, home of the Second Marine Division. My platoon of fifty-four marines and fourteen assault amphibian vehicles (“amtracks”) was scheduled that morning to begin four days at the machine gun range.
Six weeks later I sat atop a tall sand dune in predawn darkness looking out on the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was calm and the breeze was cool and salty. On the distant horizon, lightning flashed. My platoon’s fourteen amtracks were lined up below me, side by side, noses pointed seaward. At dawn the U.S.S. Manitowoc, an amphibious ship, would arrive offshore. We’d drive the amtracks out to the ship, and then drive up the lowered stern gate into the tank deck. Then we’d head for Morehead City where the ships of the Amphibious Ready Group were loading Second Battalion, Eighth Marines (2/8), bound for Beirut.
The morning reminded me of other beautiful fall mornings when I’d caught bluefish in the surf. I lived with two other lieutenants in a one-story cinder block house a block off the ocean, next to a trailer park. In October I’d be on the beach in my waders at sunrise, casting a Hopkins lure far out over the building waves and then swimming the lure in through the clear cold water. Sometimes I’d catch speckled trout or rockfish, but mostly I caught blues. I’d clean the fish and then go to work and when I’d get home we’d grill them and drink beer and watch the sunset. As I sat on the dune watching the sky lighten in the east, I listened to the gulls’ cries. I got a feeling that blues were feeding in the surf and I promised myself I’d be back to fish the cold water again. Behind me, maritime oaks stood scattered amidst patches of sea oats and stretches of open sand and farther back, [End Page 627] the flat country was packed with Carolina pines. As the morning turned gray, I could better see the shapes of our fourteen amtracks on the beach and I could see the Gunny walking along the line, yelling reveille.
Around five the Gunny climbed the steep slope of the dune and tossed me a C-rat box. He was lean and tireless, wore starched utilities, and set his soft cover square on his bald head with the brim down over his eyes. We opened our C-rat boxes. I pulled out a green can and held it up, squinting to read the black letters—“Ham and eggs.”
“I got beans and doggy dicks,” said the Gunny.
I opened my can with the tiny opener, called a “John Wayne,” that came with the meal. I peeled back the can top and looked down on a waxy yellow-white layer of congealed fat across the can’s mouth. I pulled a white plastic spoon out of the box and stirred the fat down into the colorless mixture. A soapy aroma drifted up.
“I ever tell you about eating C-rats in Vietnam with Korean marines?” the Gunny asked.
The first hints of light were forming on the horizon. Gulls hovered over the amtracks.
“Well,” the Gunny said as he chewed, “we killed two in the wire one night. Next morning, these two Koreans drug the bodies in. I was sitting on top of my amtrack eating.” The Gunny put a spoonful in his mouth and kept talking. “One of the Koreans pulled out a John Wayne. He took that itty-bitty thing and started opening up the neck of one of the corpses and started working it down, like gutting a fish.” The Gunny talked and chewed at the same time. “They pulled out...