By: Ed Creamer
In August of 65 the entire Marine Air Group -36 (MAG-36) boarded the U.S.S. Princeton, with all their helicopters, and left the west coast. While making stops in Pearl Harbor (for briefings) and Subic Bay Philippines (to load beer), we anchored off the coast of Vietnam on the last day of August. The one good thing we can say about sailing into Vietnamese waters on the 31st was it qualified us for $65 combat pay for the month of August. Oh, and we could mail letters for free. Big Whoop.
I would like for you to visualize a small hill, maybe a couple 500 feet high with very little vegetation growing on it. Well, that’s where they set us when we off-loaded from the ship. No Starbucks, no grocery stores, no hotels and most assuredly no bars, not that Marines would ever go in such a place mind you. They told us we were at Chu Lai but they lied. We were several clicks away from Chu Lai. We later found out it was Ky Ha, Republic of Vietnam. My feeling is this was punishment for something we had done in previous lives.
Having marked off an area for Maintenance and Admin offices, the aircraft were staged just outside the area. Our squadron, HMM-362, was set on the upper slope of the flight line area with the UH-1E squadron (VMO-2) on the downside next to the South China Sea. As for billeting, there was none. (See above 2nd paragraph about no hotels.) Most us set our shelter halves (half a two man tent) up next to anything that would give us room to sleep and hold what few personal belongs and clothing we had. Most of the Maintenance Officers set up next to the flight line. The remaining officers found spots on the hill to set up. Staff NCO’s and junior enlisted (those that were left – see next paragraph) were set up on the other side of the flight line.
Approximately one third of the Corporals and below were pulled from each of the squadrons and used to establish perimeter defense. Seems nobody had hired cops to do that for us. Also, the Infantry folks were off protecting the jets at Chu Lai. We were on our own.
The first night few of us got any sleep wondering if this was what war was suppose to be like. As for our perimeter defense Marines, well they were engaged in a fire fight and continued firing all night. The next day we were told the folks they were firing at were Seabees who were staged at a small inlet a few hundred yards away from the Air Group. For some reason, this seemed to have been a small item somebody forgot to mention to our perimeter folks.
If I can voice an opinion it’s this was the last time Marine Aviation folks, always trained to function as infantrymen, actually performed as infantrymen. They set up aiming stakes, fields of fire and ran day and night patrols in front of our position. It wasn’t until months later the Division finally sent tanks to set up on top of the hill facing the enemy. But, to be truthful, the biggest problem most of us had was heat rash and sun burn. Both of which our flight surgeon, Doc McDonald, treated in the same was. “Go swim in the salt water of the Spouth China Sea.” And here we had gone and left our swimming suits back in the States.