Phu Bai was a raw, unpolished Marine Corps base. Many of the structures were only tents or dilapidated buildings. The airport could handle jets, but all the facilities were primitive. Our “home sweet home” was two or three rows of plywood and screened-in buildings with tin roofs. Each building had room for 15 cots. The living conditions were very poor, but it beat being in the field and sleeping on the ground. We didn’t have to worry much about being shot here. On the other side of the base, there was a PX that sold cases of soda and other necessities.
On Sept. 28, 1967, my friend Gordon “Gus” Gustafson and I decided we would walk the half-mile to the PX and buy some goodies. There wasn’t a road. We just walked over rolling hills dotted with various buildings and tents. The ground was dry and dusty with a distinctive red-colored dust.
Our mood was light as we walked and talked. It was nice to be out of the field and in the relative safety of the base…but everyone that spends time in the field has diarrhea at one time or another, and mine was calling now. When it calls, you go.
The Avenging Angel
We happened to be walking past a plywood bathroom. I saw a sign on its door that read: GUNNY JOHNSON ONLY. Well, that was too bad for Gunny Johnson—I had to go, whether his sign on the door “reserved” the place for him or not. So I did.
But once I opened the door, the avenging angel materialized—Gunnery Sergeant Johnson himself, standing there right outside, glowering at me. He yelled at me for using his bathroom and demanded that I pull out the catch tank and burn the contents. The way that these bathrooms worked is that there was a barrel under the seat which was removed after use, doused with diesel, and burned. The indignant Gunny wanted me to remove all traces of my presence.
I apologized to the Gunny and assured him I would take care of the matter. He still wasn’t a happy Marine. I began cleaning up—as the Gunny posted one of his sergeants nearby to watch me do the job. I had everything under control. I pulled the barrel out, poured on a large volume of diesel, and threw in a match.
The whole embarrassing situation was vanishing in a puff of black smoke when a helicopter came in for a landing, throwing red dust and dirt all over the place. The Gunny’s minion standing over me decided my job was done—or at least he did not like the dirt and dust, so he scurried back to his dingy little office.
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A Short Respite
I decided I had had enough. The red dust was heavy and was getting into my eyes, and the fire had gone out. I pushed everything back in place and closed the outhouse door. My debt to Gunny Johnson was paid in full. That was the end of the matter—or at least it should have been.
I called the Gunny everything I could think of in both English and Vietnamese as Gustafson and I continued our stroll to the PX. But since Gus and I were out of the field we were determined to enjoy ourselves here, Gunny or no Gunny. The PX was a fun place to go. Rear echelon people thought it was terrible because there were so few items in the store from which to choose, but Gustafson and I had a great time shopping. It had been a month since we had drunk soda. After rummaging through candy, stacks of soda, and things we had little access to, we each bought a case of Pepsi and a few other items. Then we started back to our hooch.
We were happy and our conversation turned to our homes back in the States and what we planned to do when we first got back. Our minds were miles away. By this time I had almost forgotten about the outhouse mishap and the way that Gunny Johnson had lorded over his pathetic bathroom.
‘The Shock of My Life’
As we came over the crest of a small hill, I got the shock of my life. Gustafson stopped in his tracks. What had been a well-kept outhouse was now a smoldering pile of ashes. The outhouse had apparently caught fire and burned to the ground. I realized the barrel must have still been burning when I kicked it back in its place.
We just stared in stunned silence for a few seconds. Then Gustafson said: “Oh, my God! You burned down Gunny Johnson’s shitter!”
Suddenly I wanted to be back in the field. In an instant that seemed safer than being here. Still, the odds of escape were good—the Gunny had no idea who I was. He had never seen me before I used his bathroom and in his fit of outrage he had not bothered to ask me to identify myself. Also, thankfully he was nowhere in sight.
We took a very long route to avoid passing anywhere near the “fallen temple.” Once we returned to the safety of our hooch, we couldn’t stop laughing. If he could have found out who I was, he probably would have killed me.
The above is an edited excerpt derived from Jerry Dallape‘s book, Vietnam Guns and Fury. It appeared in the 2023 Summer issue of Vietnam magazine.