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In 1967, I was serving in Foxtrot Company 2nd Bn 1st Marines in Viet Nam. I had been there 8 months and in combat most of the time. I had become the CO's radio man and had become quite close to him. The other members of the company referred to me as his body guard.
Many times, I would doubt if I could survive the whole 13 month tour without getting killed or wounded. But I just kept on doing my job and praying. Often in my spare time, when not in the field and sometimes even when in the field, I would draw and sketch pictures or cartoons of my fellow Marines. I got to be known as "Picasso" or "Rembrandt" to the more knowledgeable guys.
After some very heavy fighting, we were transfered to a mountaintop base near Laos. There, we were to monitor an NVA buildup in the area. This was prior to the Tet offensive and the North Vietnamese were building up troop strength to attack Da Nang. We had been on the hill for a couple of months, all knowing that something big was coming.
One night, I was on radio watch when a coded message came in ordering that I be sent to the rear on the next resupply helicopter. No reason was given and after confirming the message, I was sent packing the next day. All I took with me was my sidearm (pistol), helmet and flack vest. "Dont worry, you'll be back" they said. I never went back.
I reported to 1st Division HQ and was told that I was to be transferred to the G-3 shop (Div. Operations) to work as an Illustrator. I had never heard of this before, but found out it was doing a little of everything in the graphic arts. Overlays, viewgraphs, leeroy lettering, map tables, etc. I even was called on to illustrate signs for the Officers Club's slot machines and hand lettering dinner place cards for the General's table. You should have seen who was coming to dinner. Everyone from Omar Bradley to Ann Margaret.
One day, a Lt. Colonel asked if I had served with F/ 2/1. I said yes and he told me that the survviors were being brought to Charlie Med in DaNang. They had been badly mauled by a large NVA regiment and had barely held on until help had gotten to them. I drove his jeep down there and when I entered the hospital, I saw wounded and dead marines everywhere. The worse cases had been taken in first, the lesser wounded waited, lying or sitting against the wall in the hallway. The dead and dying were there, also. I was detailed to identify the KIA's, as many were stripped of ID or unrecognizeable. One Marine looked at me in my clean uniform and asked, "Where have you been?" The guy who took my job had been seriously wounded, as was The Captain. Only one officer was left unharmed and he was the Arty FO. We had 39 killed and over 90 wounded.
For years, I wondered about my luck. Had my drawing in the field been noticed by someone? Or my college art school records been seen? For whatever reason, I was spared. Now, 44 years later, I am going to Virginia Beach to be reunited with the survivors and their families. Even some relatives of Marines who died will be there. A wife, brothers and sisters, even some who were just babies when their dad died. One Marine has even said he is bringing a drawing I did of him 45 years ago. He has kept it framed and hanging in his house all these years. It will be a very emotional experience.
I am sure I'll have to tell this story to some of the guys, who have wondered all these years..."What happened to you?"
Editor's Note: You can view Arnold's original post here.