A young reporter on a 1967 medevac mission gone bad returns to face hard memories at Marble Mountain.
When revisiting a significant experience in one’s life, it seems there always comes that moment when your heart begins beating faster and you feel your throat suddenly constrict with fear and anticipation about what you might find there. That moment came for me near the end of a recent trip back to Vietnam on the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
I had asked our guide to help me find any physical remains of the Navy Hospital that was once located at the base of Marble Mountain a few klicks southwest of Da Nang. Ngu Hanh Son, “Five Elements Mountains,” is a cluster of marble and limestone hills named for the five elements: Kim “metal,” Thuy “water,” Moc “wood,” Hoa “fire,” and Tho “earth.” The mountains contain a series of caverns providing shelter for several sacred, hand-carved shrines dedicated to Buddha and Confucius.
I spent a week at the Navy Hospital in early January 1967, recuperating from shrapnel wounds that I received during a medical helicopter rescue of wounded Marines I was reporting on. I had only arrived in-country three weeks before, but getting wounded was the easiest part of that experience. Handling the sights and sounds of critically wounded Marines fighting for their lives around me was another matter.
It would be the longest seven days of my life.
I was a freelance reporter doing a story on the pilots of the 263rd Marine Medical Helicopter Squadron. They flew H-34 Choctaw medevac choppers from their base at Marble Mountain. It was not exactly the quickest bird in the U.S. inventory, so the H-34 was a prime target for the Viet Cong.
We had just finished flying two missions that morning, and I figured I’d had enough of hot landing zones and wounded Marines when the buzzer rang three times in the 263rd’s ready room—the signal to scramble for yet another pickup. Marine Major Bert McCauley, the pilot of the H-34 I’d just ridden with, nodded to me and said, “Ready for one more joy ride?” I nodded, but wondered if I might be pushing my luck.
In minutes, we were at the pickup area, and McCauley buzzed over once to make sure Charlie wasn’t hiding down there with automatic weapons, waiting to take down another chopper. McCauley was a pro at going in under fire and had two Silver Stars to prove it. The Marine on the ground radioed up and assured him that the landing zone was a “piece of cake,” free of enemy fire.
With both door gunners at the ready, McCauley dipped the chopper into a sharp right bank and landed in the clearing. Four Marines of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, had been chewed up by an antipersonnel mine. I jumped off the helicopter and helped Chief Navy Corpsman John Goodwin carry one of the wounded men and push him aboard in a mass of blood and bandages. After being on the ground for less than three minutes, McCauley gave the bird full throttle, and we started to take off.
Both door gunners suddenly started blazing away with their M-60 machine guns as we began taking fire. The Viet Cong had been hiding in spider holes dotting the clearing, and now the medevac started to shake, rattle and roll from the hammering of their automatic weapons fire tattooing its underbelly. I looked to my right and saw a young, bespectacled Marine clutching his stomach, grimacing in pain and shaking his head. I grabbed his hand to give him some support, when suddenly my right forearm and elbow felt like they were on fire and my shirt sleeve was dripping wet. Rolling up my sleeve, I saw blood streaming from several holes below my elbow.The right door gunner shook his head and swore, raising his hand to me as a signal to stay calm.
We landed at the chopper pad at the Navy Field Hospital at the base of Marble Mountain within minutes. As I walked away from the chopper, a backward glance was enough to let me know that I was lucky to make it back in one piece. Gas was pouring out of a side fuel tank through a bullet hole the size of a silver dollar. Another round had shot out the right tire, and there were several bullet holes visible on the underbody.
Inside the aid station, Navy doctors and corpsmen worked feverishly to save two of the Marines who came in with me. One had caught shrapnel in the face, chest and groin. The other had lost part of his right leg at the knee. Although conscious, he didn’t make a sound. I learned later that the Marine with glasses—whose body had no doubt shielded me from more serious injuries—did not make it.
A doctor came over to me and asked what happened. I said, “I was doing a story on medevacs and….” He interrupted and laughed, “Well, from the looks of it, you got a helluva story.” Thirty minutes later, they wheeled me into an operating room and dug five pieces of the chopper and a hunk of fatigue shirt out of my arm. I spent a week there recuperating.
Those seven days spent at Marble Mountain with wounded Marines gave me a different kind of profile in courage, equally humbling and miraculous. But those memories are filled with a sadness that I tried desperately to forget.
Now, four decades later, I’m back at Marble Mountain, and the memories are as fresh and painful as if they happened yesterday.
Mr. Hung, our Vietnamese guide, drove us to within a few kilometers of the mountains and pulled off the road into a marble carver’s shop. I readily recognized the saw-tooth profile of the Marble Mountain looming over the shop, but saw nothing else that looked familiar to me.
“I believe you can see where the hospital was located from the rear of this shop,” said Hung, “but I don’t think there’s anything left.”
The shop owner smiled as we entered. Mr. Hung explained in Vietnamese to the young woman why we were there and asked if it would be possible to intrude for just a moment. She nodded and led the way through the shop to an elevated veranda on the back of the building.
From the veranda, the view was mostly of a quarry of marble in different shapes and sizes, and beyond that was a row of houses. I could see nothing that took me back to my experience in 1967.
I was disappointed. A wave of sadness overcame me as I felt I had somehow let down those wounded and dying Marines. I was unable to pay my respects and say goodbye. They had done their part, but I could not carry out my end of the mission.
Hung noticed my disappointment. “I know of another place where we can look,” he kindly suggested. I thanked the shop owner for letting us interrupt their morning, and as we started to leave, my wife picked up a small marble statue and asked Hung what it represented.
“The Buddhist goddess of mercy,” he said. “She protects us from bad things happening.”
Somehow, it seemed appropriate, so we bought the tiny statue.
We climbed back into the van, and Hung drove a few kilometers toward the beach, finally pulling into a dirt tract that was part of a series of new streets for more residential development. Then, to the east just a few hundred meters away, I spotted the old macadam runway of the 1st Marine Air Wing, empty and glazed with sand from disuse. Hung pointed toward the mountains, which now appeared closer and much more familiar from this vantage point.
“There,” he said. “I believe the hospital was over there.”
I wanted to be alone, so I left Hung and walked across the dirt street, stopping at the edge of a drainage ditch. It was noon and blistering hot, just like that day 43 years ago when I staggered off McCauley’s medevac into the triage of the Navy Hospital.
Gazing across the sandy landscape, I could see what looked like an old helicopter landing pad several hundred feet away. Beyond it was now an empty space, the place where the series of metal-roofed Quonset huts that comprised the hospital had once stood. I knew it. I could feel it. I could almost smell it.
As I stood there, I closed my eyes and suddenly I was back there in the moment, reliving that experience—the agonizing groans and cries of wounded Marines seemed to reach out and grab me, holding me, forcing me to confront their pain and suffering one more time.
…A weak voice crying in the night like a child lost in the forest…a brain-damaged Marine who lost part of his skull in a landmine explosion…a Marine encased in a plaster cast gasping for air with his one lung that was not shot to pieces by a Viet Cong machine gunner…a Marine, blinded in a burning tank that was blown up by an enemy mine, cursing wildly as he rips the bandages from his eyes one more time.
In the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, a place the corpsmen called the “Ward of White Lies,” I remembered the rows of beds holding blood-soaked, bandaged Marines, the constant hum of the respirators and, worst of all, the sweet-sour smell of imminent death.
“You hold their hand and tell them they’re going to make it,” a corpsman had once confided to me, “when the odds are 10-to-1 they won’t.”
Suddenly, I felt Hung hovering at my side. It was time to go.
I opened my eyes and took one last look at Naval Support Facility Marble Mountain—where it used to be at least—and bid a silent goodbye to all those brave, young Marines who never left. The memories of them will always be with me.
Robert Stokes covered the Vietnam War from December 1966 to November l968, first as a freelance reporter and then as a staffer for Newsweek magazine. His 1980 novel, Walking Wounded, is based on his experiences covering the war.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.