USMC, 1st Radio Battalion, Vietnam Veterans

Stories - Con Thien

Mike Murdock - A True Birthday Story - November 10, 1969
The last week of October was soggy all across northern I Corps. Low clouds hung over the DMZ, filtering the weak sunlight so that shapes barely 100 yards away were shadows.

The fire support base at Con Thien, the "Hill of Angels", was a quagmire. Days of heavy rain had turned the red earth into gruel. On the tank trail and other places churned by tracked vehicles the yard deep mud had the consistency of pudding. Passing vehicles splashed parallel channels which quickly refilled with the oozing, relentless, muck. The soupy substance was level with the running boards of trucks and flowed into the floor boards of smaller vehicles.

Marines trying to cross the road were forced to wait until a tank of armored personnel carrier passed, momentarily clearing two semi-solid footholds in the sea of sucking, clinging mud. As a vehicle passed, the young men would jump into the closest track, regain their balance and leap to the second track. Men too slow or with legs too short to clear the sometimes waist deep furrows found themselves encased in the slime, tugging mightily to extricate themselves before the next speeding vehicle approached. Boots hastily pulled on without being tightly laced were frequently left behind, and once the mud closed over anything in it's grasp, all trace of the item disappeared. Woe be unto the individual who had the misfortune or poor judgment to allow his weapon to slip below the surface.

The single track road leading south towards Cam Lo and Route Nine was all but impassable. Nothing moved north or south except absolutely essential men and materials. Men trudged forward, bent from the waist, laboriously pulling each foot from the mire only to plunge it once more into the filth, driven downward by the weight of weapons and equipment. Vehicles slewed and slid along, spraying everything and everybody with the ever present mud.

The low weather, coupled with a high tempo of operations further west, severely limited the helicopter transportation available. The limited air lift placed an increased burden on the ground transport wallowing up "ambush alley" through the fire support bases at Yankee Station and Charlie Two. Anything other than ammunition, fuel and the inevitable "C" rations remained in the marshalling areas at Dong Ha, the 3rd Marine Division "rear". As the supply line stretched thinner and thinner, items other than essentials began to disappear. Eventually, an evening arrived when the last warm Black Label was consumed. Searches through the bunkers buried in the soggy hill side confirmed that the Marines at Con Thien were out of beer.

Beer took on a greater prominence at the fire bases scattered across the top of South Viet Nam. Most of the potable water was so heavily chlorinated that its taste resembled a cross between Listerine and diesel fuel. Clothes or skin washed with this water smelled like chorine almost permanently. Many a thirst was quenched and many a meal was eaten with warm beer rather than water. Beer was a link to the "world", a momentary glimpse back at recently departed days of high school and parties and girls. Beer was the international currency. Beer could acquire things that money could not touch. A young Marine who would not sell his last bar of soap for any amount of MPC would gladly do so for enough beer. (MPC (military payment currency) was monopoly money printed with colorful and idyllic scenes of a peaceful Viet Nam none of the Marines in northern I Corps had ever seen). Soap, cigarettes, and other creature comforts were often available if there was beer to trade. A convoy stranded at some tiny outpost when the road closed each evening might easily persuade an adventurous tank crew to escort them "home" for the promise of a case of beer. Drinking beer was macho, Marines were macho. Marines drank beer. As the rains continued into November, the Marines at Con Thien were out of beer.

As transportation slowed and supplies became harder to find, only war-related ingredients moved. Despite the quicksand roads, the heavy skies, and the frequent enemy interruptions, the Army, that well-spring of endless shinny new trucks and clean uniforms continued to resupply their eight inch howitzer battery with the huge artillery ammunition necessary to support the war. At least twice each week Army ammunition convoys made the trek from Dong Ha and Quang Tri carrying their deadly missiles.

Late one afternoon a fantastic rumor spread through the water logged Marines clinging to the sides of Con Thien: The most recent Army resupply had brought in a pallet (84 cases) of beer! Evidently the Army battery commander intended to issue his men a ration of beer each day as a morale booster. The Army had locked this treasure in a closely guarded CONEX box. This box, a 10 foot square steel container sat squarely in the middle of the artillery battery's area, several yards away from the nearest bunker or gun emplacement. The hinged door of the box was secured with a heavy chain bound with a massive padlock. Access to the CONEX box was comparable to holding the keys to Ft Knox.

The Marines operating the intelligence gathering outpost at Con Thien possessed a small diesel fuel generator. Their powerful radios could not operate on batteries and as the sole source of electricity, they had parleyed their good fortune into admittance to the artillery battery's field mess. Providing the Army with lights was a small price to pay for warm chow once a day. As Marines lucky enough to eat in the Army field mess passed the CONEX box they would cast furtive glances in its direction, but extra attention brought instant jealous reactions from nearby soldiers. No dragon ever guarded her horde more suspiciously than that beer was guarded.

As days passed and the solder's daily ration shrunk the beer supply, the Marines became desperate. Beer was being consumed, beer, the fruit of the gods, the currency of the world, the mark of manhood, was in the hands of the dog faced, draft-riddled, United States Army!

Private First Class Schmucatelli was standing radio watch, monitoring the situation reports and time checks of the Marines standing the "lines" and operating the evening's listening post outside the perimeter. Suddenly, four of his platoon mates burst into the operations bunker. Smeared with mud, they demanded the unit's bolt cutters, part of the inventory of items each successive Marine dutifully inventoried and signed for when assuming radio watch. Schmucatelli was extremely apprehensive about relinquishing control of any of the items he was signed for. Previous personal counseling sessions with the First Sergeant had impressed upon him the importance of "taking charge of his post and all government property in view". No amount of cajoling or threatening could convince Schmucatelli to deliver the bolt cutters. Finally, after a hushed consultation the quartet of Marines confided in Schmucatelli that they needed the bolt cutters to "unlock" the Army's CONEX box. A young man of screwed judgment and unusual analytical skills, Schmucatelli immediately produced the bolt cutters, admonishing his fellow conspirators that their loss would result in another, more instructional, visit with the First Sergeant. Armed with the bolt cutters, the four Marines disappeared into the rain storm pounding Con Thien.

Schmucatelli's mind soon began to conjure up countless situations which would prompt the First Sergeant to need those bolt cutters in the middle of a dark, rainy night. Each sound from outside the bunker brought visions of the approaching First Sergeant, something to be anticipated with much more apprehension that any North Vietnamese sapper foolish enough to be out on such a miserable night. Finally Schmucatelli could stand the waiting no longer and stepped out into the night, turning toward the Army artillery battery invisible in the rain. As he anxiously searched for signs of his returning bolt cutters, the artillery battery burst into a frenzy of light and activity. Flashlights criss-crossed the area, men could be seen running from bunkers and shouts pierced the distance between Schmucatelli and the turmoil. Schmucatelli's heart sank, his friends had been discovered, the bolt cutters would be lost, he would spend more quality time with the First Sergeant, and worst of all, there would be no beer. As the rain pounded his helmet, Schmucatelli forlornly watched the artillery battery and tried to compose some plausible excuse for his dereliction of duty.

Slowly the activity beyond him became more orderly and concentrated in four specific areas. Schmucatelli was sure the would-be beer thieves must be cornered. In addition to any official reprimands his friends would receive he was sure they would also be handled none to gently by their captors. As his mind raced, trying to decide if he should call for reinforcements or just wait for the inevitable, he noticed that the four concentrations of activity did not converge as they should have with four captured Marines. The soldiers were not cornering his platoon mates, they were preparing their four howitzers for an emergency fire mission! Life was good again, perhaps his friends would survive the night, perhaps he would get the First Sergeant's bolt cutters back, perhaps there would be beer. As the roar of the huge cannons began to split the night and high explosive and steel began to rain down somewhere out on the coastal plain, Schmucatelli resumed his anxious wait.

Slowly, stealthily, four apparitions appeared out of the night. These things weren't his comrades, these things weren't even human! Four characters from some grade B horror film approached him. Four squishing, dripping, misshapen globs of mud, unrecognizable as any known living creature, each carrying two cases of beer (and one also carrying a pair of bolt cutters) panted up to the operations bunker door. The Marines had arrived and the situation was well in hand. Amidst laughter and gulps of air, Schmucatelli's friends explained how they crept up the ridge to the CONEX box, froze in it's shadows as the artillery battery came alive in preparation for the fire mission, and then, masked by the noise and confusion of the moment, captured their objective! Schmucatelli, with the bolt cutters once more safely in their proper place, added that he was glad he had loaned them for the "mission". His friends exchanged glances and then explained that unbelievably, they had found the key in the CONEX box's lock! The bolt cutters weren't even used! Perhaps the sweetest part of the entire escapade was that the eight cases of beer now in the possession of the Marines had been the last cases in the container. Now they had beer and the Army didn't!

Next morning, the CONEX box was found securely locked, but the key was nowhere to be found. Once the chain was cut and the loss discovered, the entire battery area was turned upside down. When the battery commander learned that the last of his beer was missing, life became miserable. Extra duty was meted out for the most minor infractions, and the CO's rage, transmitted to his noncoms, soon permeated the entire command.

The day after the Marine's raid on the Army beer locker was November 10th, the 194th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Although holidays arrived and passed in Viet Nam with little more than a pause, the Marines always found time to celebrate their heritage. In trenches in France, in swamps and jungles in the Pacific, on frozen ridgelines in Korea, and in countless other locations, sometimes in the midst of battle, the greeting "Happy Birthday Marine!" had been repeated for almost two centuries.

Despite his foul mood as a result of the beer theft, the artillery battery commander greatly admired the Marines, and offered the meager fare available in his field mess for a birthday celebration. A crude cake was prepared and plans went forward for all Marines not occupied with duties to assemble in the artillery battery for a cake cutting.

Late on the afternoon of the 10th the Marines gathered on the hill at Con Thien. Most were covered in mud, many were injured, and all were weary. The combination of the foul weather, the rigors of life literally scratched from the earth, and the ravages of regular and violent contact with the enemy left the young men near exhaustion. Nevertheless, it was the 10th of November and they would remember their fellow Marines and the heritage which made them the special breed they were. As the cake was cut, the Army commander remarked that the traditional toast would be missing from the Marine's celebration that year. From out of the gathering stepped five young men carrying armfuls of beer. Amid whoops and backslapping, they proudly passed out their treasure. C ration cans and canteen cups were soon filled and when all present, to include the Army battery commander, had a beer, the Marine company commander raised his can and toasted "Gentlemen, the United States Marine Corps!" Handshakes and birthday greetings were exchanged all around and as the weary Marines, now one year older, began to descend to their bunkers in the mud below the ridge, the Army commander thanked the Marine lieutenant for sharing his precious beer. Knowing what a priceless commodity beer was, the Army officer remarked that this was just another illustration of the discipline of the Marines. While his soldiers had broken in and stolen the last of the Army beer, the Marines had the fortitude to save theirs for this occasion. HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARINES!


[Swan note: For those who have not figured it out, Private Schmucatelli was actually Mike Murdock.]