On a very warm morning in the summer of 1965, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school and bored, really bored. I also felt useless. My future? I didn’t have a clue. Living in San Jose, California, my buddy Ron and I would drive over the hill to Santa Cruz almost every day. We were jobless and usually so broke we had to scrounge for old soda bottles to turn in for the deposit and then buy gas with the change we got. We were pretty proficient at rationing our gas; we’d get to the summit of the mountains, turn off the ignition and coast down most of the far side to the Pacific Ocean. We’d have to fire up again as we crested the slight rise near Santa’s Village in Scott’s Valley, but we could get to Santa Cruz and back on three gallons of regular. More than once we ran out of gas on my street coming home, and had to push my ’51 Ford the last few yards into my driveway.
With little else to do that summer, I’d often go downtown to see all the movies that were showing. Starting at Williams Street at the Studio, I’d watch my way down to the Crest Theater, at the St. James end of 1st Street. The Marine Corps recruiter was located upstairs on the second floor of the Liberty Building on North 1st Street, next door to the Crest. A life-sized cardboard cutout of a stern-faced Marine in dress blues stared down through the glass door from the top of the stairs, beckoning to young men like me who were looking for a future. I doubt if that cardboard Marine influenced me all that much, but at least I knew where the recruiter was when I went looking. And so one afternoon, after watching an endless stream of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies, I climbed those stairs and asked to be in the Marine Corps. (Yes, I had lost my mind.)
Before 1965, I’d never even heard of Vietnam. By the summer of 1966, I was fighting in a war in Vietnam.
My first rifle company, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines was rather instrumental in the grand scheme of things in July 1966, being the Battalion Landing Team destined to be knee deep in Operation Hastings at the DMZ. In October 1966, I transferred farther south to Charlie 1/5 to 60mm mortars, where we were always in the middle of the excitement. Firefights, heat, thirst, leeches, rain, heat, immersion foot, mosquitoes, thirst, heat, ambushes, heat and always, always, thirst. I was certainly no longer bored.
Between operations, back around Hill 54 north of Chu Lai, just about everybody had to go on regular daytime patrols. The rifle companies did all the nighttime ambush stuff outside of our wire, and they were responsible for listening posts and outposts at night. But even a sorry-assed mortarman (that’s me) occasionally had to go out on routine patrols around our hill. Simple enough. In the morning somebody assigned guys to the daily patrols. Times varied, but we typically had patrols out all day. Sometimes I’d get a morning patrol, sometimes the later patrol, which was a bit worse because of the heat. It needed to be done, but considering how well secured we felt our area of responsibility was, it got to be little more than a mundane daily routine.
We’d muster at the command post at the appointed time loaded down with our weapons, cartridge belts, two full canteens and soft covers. Usually there were eight or 10 of us. One of us would always be packing a radio. Our patrols were in predesignated areas, and we’d go out a couple of clicks, rarely more than three, patrol the area for an hour or two, then return to the hill. The Hill 54 area was pretty flat so the walking was easy—not like the east, Cigar Island and the like, where you had to be on your toes every second. We kept our separation, quietly moving ahead, always looking around for something suspicious.
That was the routine we followed—most of the time. But one spring day, somebody had other ideas. We knew our area was secure and we’d all been on working parties that morning filling and humping sandbags, and now here we were on what seemed to be a somewhat worthless patrol. As we prepared to go outside the wire, somebody quietly suggested we go out the two clicks and then find ourselves a nice shady spot, set up a radio watch and get some much-needed shut-eye. That sure made sense to me, barely concerning myself with our responsibility, or lack of it.
It was a gorgeous sunny day—hot, as always. We patrolled out a couple of clicks, passing a water buffalo or two while carefully avoiding any hooches or villages. We then swung around toward a hedgerow of sorts where some trees hid a depression full of dry leaves and stuff. The perfect spot, we all agreed. We carefully formed a perimeter, arranging ourselves so we could see out through the foliage.
Tucked in the shade, hidden from everything and everybody, we settled in to relax. A couple guys dozed off in no time. I felt a bit uneasy, however. Not because of danger—there wasn’t anybody around for a mile at least—but because I knew what we were doing was wrong. Not wrong enough, however, to keep me from lying back and swigging the last of a canteen of Kool-Aid water (Loudmouth Lemon!). Lying there with no sound but the hiss of the radio got me just about ready to doze off.
Then without warning, what sounded very much like a buffalo came charging through the brush to my right! Everybody sat up quickly, rifles swinging around at the ready, prepared to blast away at anything and anybody! Seconds later I was astonished to see a little Vietnamese kid walk right into the middle of our secure, shady nest…and just stand there with a big grin on his face. In that instant, as I struggled to process what was going on, the kid yells out, “You want Coca-Cola?”
What!? What did he say? What’s a kid doing here? How did he find us? Are we fucked up or what, that a kid can just walk on in without us knowing? This is embarrassing. All of these thoughts raced through my mind in that moment. This situation was rather disconcerting to us all, but back then I didn’t know the word disconcerting so I used the only terms I knew to cover the situation: “Jeeesus H. Keeriist! What the hell?!!” The kid was selling Coca-Cola! Ice cold Coca-Cola! This little half-pint was hauling around one of those big woven straw bags, filled with rice husks to keep the big chunk of ice from melting too quickly, and under the layer of husks were about a half-dozen big bottles of Coke.
He looked to be about 10 years old, weighing in at about 50 pounds soaking wet, clad in light shorts, T-shirt and thin sandals. This situation wasn’t covered in our training. Again, I started wondering and thinking: I don’t have any money. I don’t think anybody has any money. I want one of those Cokes! He’s only a little fella. I’ll just take the Cokes. Here again not one word of this had passed my lips when one of the guys muttered, “I’ve got money.” Problem solved, and a hell of a load off my mind. We bought everything he had. Ice cold Cokes. Geez, were they good! Only while we were sitting back and sweating out the Cokes did it occur to us: The nerve of that kid! He didn’t even seem remotely intimidated by our capacity as trained killers. He was treating us as little more than customers! How insulting was that!?
I’m thinking the reason why I remember this incident so well is because of how stupid we were. There we were, the baddest of the bad, professional killers out on a combat patrol, in control of the entire world around us. But it only took a 10-year-old kid to remind us that we were really just a bunch of silly knuckleheads. Thirsty silly knuckleheads. And, I’m thinking, that kid is probably a millionaire today…somewhere.
Marine Joe Holt rotated home from Vietnam in April 1967 and concluded his four-year tour as a seagoing Marine serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
This story was originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam magazine.