As we talked, he revealed a beautiful smile. His eyes, not covered by sunglasses like the captain’s, were dark green. I was infatuated.
About three weeks after I was sent out to Bravo I/I, we had come into the battalion rear area briefly with only a chance for a rushed meal at the mess hall and no time to take a shower or get a change of clothes.
We were preparing to head back out to the bush. I was sitting on the ground in full gear, weighed down by a flak jacket, a medical bag, and a backpack, awkwardly leaning on my helmet—by this time, I had learned the invaluable lesson of trying to take a break whenever and under whatever conditions possible—waiting for the order to move out. Our company captain had come out of his office to speak with our lieutenant. The captain, who was in his late twenties, was not bad looking. He sported black framed sunglasses and was shirtless, his pale chest covered in thick hair, his arms tanned to the point where the sleeves of his T-shirt would have normally come.
He was accompanied by John Marks, our company's senior radio operator, who was also shirtless. Marks was about six feet tall, with thick black hair, broad shoulders, muscular arms, and a smooth, tanned body—no T-shirt boundaries on his arms. He had a thick, luxuriously black moustache, and as soon as I saw it, I longed to run my fingertips through it, to feel its sensuous bristle.
He came over and asked if I was the new Doc. He mentioned how he had been friends with the last Doc in 1st Platoon—the one I replaced, the one who had been killed by a booby trap in December. He offered me a cigarette noting that his girlfriend had sent him several cartons for his 21st birthday last week. I declined.
During our brief conversation, he mentioned he was from Altoona and we commiserated on the commonality of our home state. As we talked, he revealed a beautiful smile. His eyes, not covered by sunglasses like the captain’s, were dark green. I was infatuated.
When our staff sergeant shouted for us to move out, Marks grabbed my arm and helped me get up. He stayed behind to speak with the captain, and when I turned around, I saw his broad back glinting with sweat in the sun.
Two weeks later, there was a company-size “search and destroy” operation in an area south of a well-traveled bridge crossing the Da Nang River. Called the “Arizona Territory,” it was sparsely populated and known to be heavily booby-trapped. What we were searching for or supposed to find, I have no idea. At one point we crossed the berm, a raised earthen bed for the tracks of the train that long ago ran between Hanoi and Da Nang. Most of the tracks and ties had disappeared years ago and about ten yards to our right was the rusting hulk of an overturned freight car. As the berm was thought to be saturated with booby traps, we gingerly crossed it single-file, one at a time, maintaining a far distance between each other, in case something should be set off.
We warily trudged through fields of tall, cutting elephant grass, and traversed tree-lines, difficult to maneuver as the trees were close together and the vegetation was thick and high. The company was spread out over the area and our platoon followed the captain and his entourage. As we struggled through the heat, we heard a loud explosion ahead, and everyone briefly froze. Then we heard the cries.
I ran beside the column of the now-stationary men, and in my haste, fell several times flat on my face. As I ran, the long column of Marines pulled me up when I fell and gave me words of encouragement:
“That's the way, Doc!”
“You can do it, Doc!”
I finally came upon the chaotic scene at a tree line thick with undergrowth: Marines and the captain standing apart, a Marine from the captain's entourage calling in a MEDEVAC chopper. Fred, our senior hospital corpsman, was administering artificial resuscitation to an injured Marine, a prone body with a bloody mess where the head should be. Fred had tried to secure battle dressings, but the wound was so extensive that they were of little use in stemming the flow of blood. He had also started an IV and had given the bottle to one of the Marines to hold up.
When he saw me, Fred shouted to start CPR. We alternated— me pushing on the chest, him breathing into the mouth—but after a few moments, we realized our efforts were futile; the airway was blocked. He finally said we would do a tracheotomy, getting out his surgical blade. I pulled the Marine’s head back, placing one hand under the nose and the other under the neck, trying to clean the blood and gore from his throat in preparation for the incision. With a start, I felt it through the blood. The moustache.
Fred made the cut and inserted the length of tubing. We alternated breathing into the tube, breathing for Marks; when his blood would fill one our mouths, the other would take over. The black of his moustache would occasionally glisten through the blood. The one not breathing for Marks would continue administering CPR, pumping on his blood-covered chest.
Some of the Marines hovered around us, a look of panic and fear in their eyes. The captain shouted to “break up this cluster fuck,” lest another booby trap go off and wreak further havoc. They scattered, posting themselves around the perimeter of a nearby open area and setting up a landing zone for the MEDEVAC helicopter.
The ever-increasing clatter of the chopper could be heard as it approached. As it landed, the draft from the blades flattened the elephant grass, blowing the discarded battle dressing and IV set-up wrappers. Some Marines, using my poncho liner as a stretcher, carried Marks aboard the chopper while I ran alongside him with the IV bottle. Fred continued to breathe into the tube, leaving in the chopper with Marks.
As I wiped the blood from my hands and face and gathered my scattered gear, one of the Marines explained what had happened. Marks had had his flexible radio antenna up, the one made of thin strips, which was meant to bend like bamboo at the slightest resistance. But the reception was bad and the captain had insisted that Marks retract the flexible antenna and pull up the fixed one made of aluminum tubes. Apparently, this fixed, inflexible antenna had gotten caught in a tripwire in a tree, triggering a booby trap about eight feet off the ground, hidden in the overgrown vegetation, blowing off the top of Marks's head.
We continued the “search and destroy” operation, trudging through the elephant grass and tree lines. Within the hour we learned by radio that Marks had died in the chopper on the way to the First Medical Battalion.
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From August 1968 to August 1972, Mike Felker was a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman; as a hospital corpsman he served as a combat medic with the First Marine Division in Viet Nam, during the war there, from December 1969 to December 1970.