Today is Easter, and I am thinking back to the year 1967 when we were running a patrol in South Vietnam. Normally, on Easter Sunday, we should have been celebrating the event, but in Vietnam we had to treat it like any other day. On the front lines, we did not celebrate holidays. Spiritually speaking, it made no difference for most of our Marines because their moral and ethical state was so compromised. Our days were all about killing, maiming and destroying. We were doing Satan’s work, not God’s.
I mentioned to the troops that it was Easter. It was the day for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Some of the men knew it was Easter, but most did not. One of the Marines responded by saying: “I wish he would resurrect us from this hell hole.” I agreed and added an “Amen” to his wish.
Religion just was not something we practiced in Vietnam. It didn’t seem to fit there. Our tour was about duty, honor, and country. We had no choice, but to do what we were ordered. Officers and politicians made the decisions for us.
I had hoped we might be able to celebrate Easter by not running any patrols, but the powers to be decided otherwise. We were scheduled to run a patrol late that afternoon. I was not looking forward to it, but I never looked forward to any of our missions.
I am nothing special. I feared death like any warrior, but I also trusted God that He would guide and protect me. I have always taken comfort from the words of the Apostle Paul, when he said, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Being a Christian and having been saved at a very young age helped pave my path through Vietnam. Romans 8:31 states, “If God is for us who can be against us?” This is a powerful and comforting statement, and one that needs to be remembered.
Fear of death, however, can be confusing. It can draw you closer to your faith, or it can alienate you from your beliefs.
They say there are no atheists in fox holes, but I beg to differ. Many Marines did become more religious when the fighting began and their lives were in danger, but there were also several Marines who cussed God out loud for what they were experiencing. Being a Christian, this was difficult for me. I don’t condone swearing at God, but I also believe you can’t judge someone until you personally wear their jungle boots. Most of the Marines I knew did not have a Christian upbringing, and they did the best they could with what they had. In Vietnam, we suffered physical and physiological wounds that were unimaginable. We were sent on missions that involved atrocity after atrocity.
We were put in a position daily where we were ordered to commit acts that normally you would not even consider undertaking. War does strange and harmful things to people, especially if they are only 18, 19 or 20 years old. We had to grow up fast. As soldiers, we were called to do a man’s job, and most of that “job” involved OJT (on-the-job training). We often felt unprepared for the situations in which we were placed, and too many men were called early to their final muster. We had to constantly watch our six to survive. We had to be vigilant just to survive because death could come at any moment.
Late in the afternoon, on that blessed day in 1967, twelve of us assembled to receive our orders prior to the patrol. There was the platoon leader, a radio operator, a .30-cal. machine gunner, eight other Marines, and me—a corpsman. We had been on patrols many times, and we knew our jobs. The point man led the way, and the rest of us followed about twelve spaces back from each other. There was no talking, and we were all on constant alert. Since we were entering a very hostile area, our anxiety level was very high. Consequently, we all were sweating profusely. Our heart rates were elevated. These reactions were normal because you never knew when the Grim Ripper would appear. The day was humid and warm, but the sky was overcast and our vision was limited. We had hoped to be in position before nightfall and before we were enclosed in total darkness.
We walked near a small hamlet and saw a few “gooks” who looked suspicious. I use the term “gooks” in my description here, but sometimes we also used the term “dinks.” I realize both words are derogatory terms for Asians, but this terminology helped soldiers to depersonalize the Vietnamese. If they were less human, they were easier to kill. We turned subjects into objects. Anyway, one of the “gooks” kept looking back at us. A Marine yelled, “dung lai,” which means “stop.” After questioning this man, we suspected he was a Vietcong (VC) so we called in a helicopter and had him flown to division headquarters for further interrogation.
We were in the Happy Valley region, which is in the I-Core area south of Da Nang, and it is a very beautiful location. As with life itself, however, beauty and ugliness often existed side-by-side in Vietnam. We had been on patrol about three hours, darkness had prevailed, and we knew a night ambush was possible. We had not had any contact with the enemy, but our scouting reports had confirmed the Vietcong were in the area. Not long after we were settled for the night, the VC started sending Morse code messages from bamboo gongs. At that point, we knew they were aware of our location. We also knew we were in trouble.
Suddenly, we began receiving incoming rounds in our perimeter. One of the Marines yelled, “Grenade!” We all hugged the ground during the explosion. Since it was pitch dark, the squad leader instructed the radio operator to call headquarters for an illumination flare. A short time later, a flare appeared. It lit up an area the size of a football field. It was so bright you could read the date on a coin.
We spotted several VC running for cover, and soon, all the shooting stopped. The light of the flare was so brilliant it reminded me of the spiritual light of God. It felt heavenly and celestial. There was a holiness to it. Time seemed to stand still. It was quiet, serene, and so very peaceful. I found it hard to believe we were still in danger and a war was going on. The light immediately made me think of Jesus and the day being Easter Sunday. The brilliant illumination lasted for about five minutes. The flare then extinguished itself and fell to the ground. Since the Vietcong knew our position and no other shots had occurred, we figured it was time to “dee dee” (leave). The Marines located a pick-up zone (PZ), and a couple of Huey UH-1s transported us back to our Command Post (CP).
For me, this patrol was different. One reason was the light, and another was the fact that no one was killed or wounded! I had done a lot of praying that day for the safety of our troops, but experiencing no fatalities or injuries was an extreme rarity. It very seldom happened as we were in a free-zone where many Vietcong and NVA traveled. I often think of the brilliant light from that flare, and it makes me recall another light that is still shining all over the world. It is a light that has shone for the last 2000 years. If I remember correctly, the only time in history that there was no war is when Jesus walked the earth.
During each year, we celebrate many great holidays, but the greatest event that changed the world happened on Friday, April 3, 33 AD. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead three days later on Easter Sunday morning. The resurrection of Jesus grounds our faith, undergirds our mission, and establishes our hope in the life to come.
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
Second Battalion First Marines Hotel Company
Da Nang, Vietnam 1966/1967
I wrote this story because many of us were unable to adapt to life following our experiences in war. Articulating these experiences on paper can ease our pain and help with the transition from military to civilian life. We find solace in our writing as we search for peace and as we strive to adapt to society following military action. The opportunity to express our feelings and thoughts through the art of writing is very important. It provides an emotional and spiritual experience that helps us to cope with life after the trauma of war.