Post date: Sep 12, 2014 1:14:58 PM
It was May 5, 1969 and my one year tour in Vietnam was slowly dragging to a conclusion.
My two best buddies, Larry Farmer and Mike Cassidy had already rotated out last month and I've stayed to myself since their departure, choosing not to make any new friendships with Marines I would have to soon leave behind. I awakened before sunrise the my metal and plywood hooch. It was already in the low eighties and extremely humid, but I had grown accustomed to the tropical weather by this time so I was barely perspiring when I pulled my seabag from under my cot. I had put away a pair of clean jungle utilities especially for this day. The original dark brown and green uniform had faded through wear and numerous washings to a light tan and barely discernible green. I had been working on my jungle boots for the last month by rubbing in a combination of saddle soap and baby oil to make them as soft as a pair of house slippers while making sure there was no black left on the leather. The purpose of these endeavors was to show that I had been in Nam' long enough to get them this way. Nobody wanted to go home wearing new jungle utilities.
I got dressed and walked over to S-1. When Montgomery the ill-tempered company clerk got back from chow I was sitting on the hood of the C.O.'s jeep.
“Get your ass off there!” Montgomery snapped. “Before the Captain sees you.”
“I 'm rotating out today.” I grinned like a boy in candy shop.
Montgomery scowled then walked past me and into the hooch without a word. When he returned he had a large manila envelope in his hand. “Good luck back in the world.”
“A knucklehead like you is going to need it.” Montgomery snapped.
I walked down to Motor T. The ground shook under my feet as the drivers and mechanics revved the powerful engines of the trucks in preparation for the day's assigned duties. I caught a ride on a truck that was hauling c-rations to one of the grunt units in the field and would be passing by the Danang airport. The smell of military grade diesel fuel, dust and Vietnamese cuisine cooking in roadside shacks combined to create a nauseating aroma that hung over me like my own personal cloud as I sat in the back of the truck. I probably wouldn't have even noticed the pungent smells until it crossed my mind that I would never be in this environment again. That fact seemed to have made all my senses hypersensitive to the sights, sounds and smells around me.
When we got to the crossroads the driver pulled over to side of the road and yelled out. “This is it.”
I grabbed my seabag, jumped to the ground then gave the driver a hand signal that I was clear. He gunned the engine and pulled into the oncoming onslaught of Vietnamese bicyclists and moped riders without waiting for an opening in traffic. As I walked the last two hundred yards to the transit barracks I came across five inebriated soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were drinking beer and smoking grass in the middle of the trail. I put my seabag on my shoulder and tried to walk around them. When I stepped over a soldier's luggage, I lost my footing and knocked one of them to the ground. That's all it took to get them riled up.
“Sorry about that.” I shrugged.
“You stupid jarhead! I'm going to kick your stupid clumsy ass all the way back to the world!” The soldier cursed as he brushed the dust off his uniform.
Drunk or not, there were still five of them and only one of me. I went through a whole year in Nam' with only a few minor wounds and now I was going get my ass kicked during my last few days in country. Damn! I quickly tried to devise a plan of action that would minimize the damage to myself, but nothing seemed plausible or within my capabilities. Even retreat was no longer an option as the soldiers encircled me.
“Can anybody join in or is this a private party?” came a voice from behind me. “
When I looked around I saw a Marine who looked like he had been chiseled out of a block of granite, like a statue who had stepped down from its stand in the town square. He stood about six foot six inches tall and had to weigh at least two hundred and fifty pounds. His biceps were about the same size as my thighs. I was six foot two but felt like a dwarf compared to this human mountain. He had a large scar that ran from the bottom of his left eye to his chin. One of his forearms was crimson in color. It looked liked a napalm burn to me. His other forearm had three large circular scars, obviously from bullet holes. His right ear was a mangled piece of cartilage and skin. The thing that really caught my attention were his blue eyes, almost un-human in their brightness and clarity.
The first soldier was either too drunk or too stupid to know any better. He threw a punch that the big Marine easily caught with his open hand. His grip was so powerful that when he closed his hand around the soldier's fist, the soldier fell to his knees in pain.
Another soldier charged forward, but a crashing straight left punch to his chest laid him out. He fell to the ground grasping for air. The other three soldiers quickly lost their appetite for a serving of this battle. Their drooping shoulders and downward gazes was an unmistakable signal of surrender.
The Marine turned and walked away.
I called to him. “Thanks.”
He replied without looking back.” Don't take it personally. I just didn't like the odds.
When I got to the gate, I showed my orders to the M.P. at the gate and walked inside the compound. The place was teeming with activity. Marines, soldiers and sailors from all over I Corps were scheduling or awaiting flights back to the world. On a hunch I followed a smiling soldier who looked like he knew where he was going. It turned out to be a good guess. He lead me right to the place where I was assigned a flight on May 9.
My next stop was the messhall. By the time I got there it was full. The mood was festive and filled with cheerful anticipation. Everybody had a smile on their face and a story to embellish. I got my chow which consisted of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and pudding and looked for a place to park my backside. Every table was taken except for the one where the Big Marine who had helped me earlier was sitting alone. I don't know exactly what it was; fear nervousness or embarrassment, but I did not want to be around him.
Suddenly I heard his voice. “This seat's empty, Corporal.”and extended his catcher mitt of a hand. “Staff Sergeant Butler.”
I shook it. “Corporal Ciprani.” then sat down across from him.
When I was dropped off at the transit barracks, I was filling pretty full of myself until I encountered those Airborne dudes. Despite the odds and the appreciation I felt that the Staff Sergeant showed up, I still had a problem accepting the fact that someone had to rescue me. I ate in silence and rarely looked up from my tray. The Staff Sergeant sitting across the table seemed very content with the lack of small talk. After I finished my meal, I stood up to leave.”Thanks again for your help back there.”
“Have you got a place to sleep?” Staff Sergeant Butler asked.
“I was going to do that next.”
“Come with me.” Staff Sergeant Butler said. Whether it was an order or a suggestion, I wasn't about to say no.
The Corporal in charge of the sleeping barrack who stood about five foot eight couldn't have been more agreeable when Staff Sergeant Butler approached him. He just looked up at the mountain before him and nodded weakly.
The next thing I know I got a rack with clean sheets in a room with four other beds, but I was the only person assigned to the room. I thought to myself that this looked like a place where they put officers. Later on, I found out it was reserved for field grade officers and civilian personnel.
I awakened early the next morning to see that Staff Sergeant standing next to my rack.“The bullshit level in this place is too high for me. Let's get out of here.”
“I didn't know I could leave once I checked in?”
“That order is for idiots and drunks who'd get lost and miss their flights if they left the area.” Staff Sergeant Butler responded.
I smelled the stench of stale beer, urine and puke as we approached the beer garden that was located behind the transit barracks. I noticed that several Marines were passed out and lying under the wooden tables.
I didn't hear what Staff Sergeant said to the guard at the rear gate, but he let us out without question.
A jeep was parked nearby. Staff Sergeant Butler got in and started the engine I looked over toward the terminal.
“Don't worry, we'll be back before your flight.” Staff Sergeant Butler promised.
Staff Sergeant Butler drove south on Highway One until we reached China Beach. The view was breathtaking. There was a wide stretch of sparkling white sandy beach and an ocean so bright that it could have been illuminated from by a billion light bulbs.
We approached the gate to STACK ARMS and were waved through. Stack Arms is a designated area for infantry units to get some rest and recreation without leaving country. I came here with my company during my fourth month in Nam'.
Staff Sergeant drove down to an isolated area and past a sign that read; NO ACCESS PASS THIS POINT
There was a small cabana and several young Vietnamese women waiting for us.
One of the women was standing next to a grill and was cooking various types of fish. Boy did they smell good! Another woman handed Staff Sergeant Butler and myself two ice cold beers. I wasn't much of a drinker, but I had no trouble downing the entire can in less than two long gulps.
We ate fish, rice and vegetables under the shade of the cabana. The negativity I had felt earlier had already faded away and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
That evening we went down to the outside theater and watched the THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Afterward we moved a couple lounge chairs to the edge of the water and slept to the sound of crashing waves hitting right next to us.
When the sun rose the next morning, Staff Sergeant caught me staring at the numerous scars on his body. I couldn't believe that he got that many injuries and wounds in combat and was still here in country. “Not very pretty, huh?”
“Not so bad?” I had to know so I asked. “Did you get them all in combat?”
Staff Sergeant Butler laughed. “Some, most, I stopped keeping track a long time ago”
We stayed at the beach until 1300 hours then drove to the Freedom Hill, PX. Staff Sergeant Butler bought two full bags of “pokey bait” which consisted of candy, potato chips, cookies and various snacks as well as a variety of soaps, lotions and shampoos. Our next stop was a small village. As soon as we arrived, villagers began rushing up to the jeep. An older man and woman whose teeth and gums were blackened from betel nut embraced Staff Sergeant Butler as soon as he stepped out of his seat. He handed the three bags to the woman, who immediately began passing out the goodies. A young boy about eleven years who was missing his left leg hobbled over on a single crutch, Staff Sergeant lifted him up and placed the young boy on his shoulder. The Vietnamese villagers were overjoyed to see the Staff Sergeant. He was like a big green Santa Claus.
I noticed an area that was covered by a large camouflaged tent with its flaps rolled up It had stacks of lumber, corrugated metal and various crates and wooden boxes under it. I noticed the words U.S. Government stamped on the side of one crate. I guessed that the Staff Sergeant had something with these materials being here.
A beautiful young Vietnamese woman with raven hair and a porcelain complexion walked up. A little boy about three years old was following close behind.
Staff Sergeant Butler turned to me. “This is my wife, Mai and son Danny.”
The boy's blue eyes gave no doubt that the Staff Sergeant was his father. For the next two hours I watched Staff Sergeant Butler smile and laugh among people that for the last year, I've had little respect for and even less trust in. This definitely adjusted my attitude and opened my eyes. The villagers made me feel completely welcome and I'm sure it had everything to do with me being with Staff Sergeant Butler, but it still touched me deeply. When it came time to leave I swallowed hard and tried to keep my emotions in check.
Staff Sergeant kissed his wife and held his son in his arms. I didn't know that there could be that much gentleness in those strong arms.
Staff Sergeant Butler tapped me on the shoulder as he walked passed. “Not all of them are gooks.”
May 8...1615 hours. I was scheduled to leave at 0900 the following day. We were less than an hour away from the transit barracks so that they gave us plenty of time to get there before nightfall.
We were making good time when Staff Sergeant Butler pulled off the road. He reached the seat and pulled out a pair of binoculars. He looked out over the rice paddy then handed the binoculars to me.
“Three o'clock...see those seven men?”
I picked up the seven men walking on the rice paddy dike. “Got 'em.”
“They're Viet Cong.”
“Moving in daylight? That's not like them.” I responded. “Is it?”
“Our night ambush teams go out before sunset and come in after sunrise. The Cong know this because they got scouts watching our movements. That's why they like to move between that gap of time. This bunch is hauling supplies and ammo for their buddies.”
I took another look through the binoculars. “I don't see them carrying anything.”
“You'd be surprise how much they can strap to those puny bodies and hide under their black pajamas. Take another look. Don't they look a little chubby to you?”
When I looked again, I noticed that they were pretty wide around the middle.
“We need to make a slight detour before I get you back.” Staff Sergeant Butler drove to the other side of the rice paddies. There was a small village about three hundred yards away that he gestured to. “That's where they're going. I'll take care of 'em then we'll get back on the road. You find some cover. I'll don't want you getting yourself killed your last day in country.”
“That's a negative.” I immediately replied.
“I'm a Marine. I don't need you to protect me. Last day or first day in country, we're still at war?” I was scared, I won't deny that fact and deep down I would have been quite content to drive away, but once Staff Sergeant Butler decided to stay and fight I was honor bound to stand with him. Staff Sergeant Butler knew we didn't have time to debate the issue. He handed me an M-16 and two bandoliers. He checked his 45 caliber pistol and grabbed a pump action twelve gauge shotgun. We found a stand of palm trees and tall elephant grass that was next to the trail He pointed to a log. “Get behind that. When you have a clear shot at the last V.C. in the patrol, take it. That will be my signal to take out the point man. You work your way forward with your fire. I'll work my way back. Got it?”
I got in the prone position behind the log. Staff Sergeant Butler knelt behind a rock wall. I pulled out several magazines and set them out for easy reloading. Waiting was always the hard part, the heart thumping anticipation just before combat where my mouth was so dry that I couldn't t swallow and I was too afraid to blink because I thought I would miss something.
I watched the enemy walk past me in single file. I could make out the barrels of AK-47's pointed downward under their black shirts. In the daylight I could clearly see the strained expressions on their faces. This was a too close and personal to my liking. I focused on their torsos. When the last Cong got directly in front of me I aimed and squeezed off a short burst. He immediately went down. I took out the next man with a slight movement of my weapon. Out of the corner my eye, I saw Staff Sergeant Butler stand up and move forward. He was firing the twelve gauge and literally lifting the enemy off their feet with the powerful blasts. I'm sure it was all over in less than ten seconds although it seemed much longer in my mind.
“Clear.” Staff Sergeant called out.
By the time I reached Staff Sergeant Butler, he already began checking the bodies. Two V.C. were badly wounded but still alive. Staff Sergeant Butler shot each man through the heart. He looked at me to see what my reaction was. There were two ways for me to look at it. He was killing helpless humans in violation of the Geneva Convention rules of combat or he was putting two dying Viet Cong out of their misery. I chose believe the later.
We loaded their weapons and ammo into the jeep. Staff Sergeant thoroughly searched each body for any intel. We dragged the bodies off the trail and left them to rot or be consumed by maggots various scavengers.
I still hadn't come down from the rush of combat yet and was sweating profusely.
“Breathe in deeply and exhale slowly” Staff Sergeant Butler said. “It works for me.”
When we reached the transit barracks, Staff Sergeant Butler parked outside the gate. “Ever heard the saying. Best Revenge Is Living Well?”
“Can't say I have.”
“My dad used to tell me that when I was growing up. It basically means that sometimes the best way to deal with your enemy is not to shoot them like we do over here but to have a good life. You can whine and complain about what you saw and feel guilty about some of things you did in Nam' when you get back to the world or you can take those negative feelings and turn them into something positive.” Staff Sergeant Butler said.
I didn't know how to answer so I just mumbled. “Okay.”
Staff Sergeant Butler smiled. 'Believe me, this will make more sense when you get home. Get some sleep, your flight leaves in the morning.”
I got out of the jeep and Staff Sergeant drove off
I didn't sleep at all that last night in country. Questions and unexplained feelings were bouncing off the inside of my skull like a pinball in an arcade machine. When I heard my flight number called I got in line and followed the Marine in front of me. I don't know what made me turn around, but when I did I and saw Staff Sergeant Butler standing under the sign that hung over the terminal doors that read; Through These Doors Pass Some Of The Best Fighting Men In the World. He gave me a big smile and a casual salute and then he was gone.
I came from a large Italian family so there were numerous invitations awaiting me when I got back to Kansas City. I told my mom that I didn't feel like socializing just yet so when she asked me to visit the lady who moved next door a few months ago and who I didn't even know, my answer was a definite no. My mother persisted
“Her son is a Marine and is in Vietnam. I told her all about you. She wants to give you a welcome home gift. You don't have to stay long. You don't want to be rude, do you?”
I saw the name on the mailbox, Daly then knocked on the door.
A pleasant middle aged woman with a friendly smile opened the door. “You must be John Ciprani. Please come in”
“I don't know anybody else who would admit to it.”
“I know you probably didn't want to come over and see some lady you don't know.” Mrs. Daly quipped
How did she know that. Was it that evident on my face.
“I'll be right back.” Mrs Daly went into the kitchen and returned with a cake box. The aroma was tantalizing and unmistakable.“Your mom told how much you love Pineapple Upside Down Cake and I have this special family recipe. Let me know if you like it.” Mrs Daly handed me the box.
“If it tastes as good as it smells then I'll probably eat it before I get home.” I grinned in anticipation.'Thank you very much.”
I turned to leave then noticed a wall filled with Marine Corps memorabilia. There were numerous commendations as well the Silver Star, Bronze Star and several Purple Heart medals.
Those are my son's. He's on his fourth combat tour.” Mrs Daly explained.
“Four! I was lucky enough to get through one.” I responded in disbelief.
“He had a tough time adjusting to civilian life. I did get a chance to see him in Hawaii two years ago, but he doesn't ever come home anymore.”Mrs. Daly responded softly. “I wrote and gave him your name and unit. I asked him to look you up. Did you ever see him?”
I thought for a second. The name Daly didn't stir up any memories. “I don't think so.” then saw a wooden sign hanging over the front door as I was leaving. I was dumfounded. My jaw dropped open and my feet refused to move,
The sign read; THE BEST REVENGE IS LIVING WELL
“I noticed your sign.” I stammered.
“That was my husband's favorite saying.”
“Your name is Daly. Is that your son's name too?” I asked.
“His name is Robert Butler. His father Robert Butler Sr. passed away while Bobby was in high school. I remarried a few years ago.”
“Do you mind if I sit down? There's something you should know about .”