What follows is true. Details of what happened are taken from memory, and knowing the fallibility of memory over time, I’ve attempted to describe an event that happened just a couple of weeks after Christmas of 1967 - as I remember it. The actual names of the people involved in this account are used throughout and I apologize for any errors of fact, interpretation or omission. Others who were there have their own version of this one death chronicle, and there are many, from “Hell’s Hotel.”
Read on as I recall the death-night of brother Marine Joel Frederick Koester. He was a corporal from Weapons platoon and was killed on January 10, 1968. Two of our outfit’s finest Navy Corpsmen, “Doc’s” Dave Johnson and Michael Hill, tried desperately to save him. This is dedicated to all warriors and their families.
Con Thien – Numba Ten
Nui Con Thien (Con Thien Mountain) had a bad reputation long before our arrival in late 1967. Skuttlebutt was that she was taking up to a thousand rounds of incoming a day; an almost unbelievable concept until you actually saw the place and experienced something that intense.
At the main gate to Con Thien a large plywood sign, red with yellow lettering welcomed us to The Place of Angels. Marine grunts tagged her The Graveyard, and our enemy and missionaries had long christened her The Hill of Angels. It was said to be spiritual place. By all accounts the names were all well earned because of the high death toll on the denizens inside her perimeter. It ranked high on our shit-list of places where you wanted to spend the least amount of time. This reddish-brown smudge was very near the DMZ (demilitarized zone) separating North and South Vietnam, and uncomfortably close to the Laotian border.
On every horizon mounds of debris blanketed dunes of shattered bunkers lying amid a trackless warren of connecting trenches. It looked like a war refuse site. Photographs offered little evidence of which compass direction your lens faced when you snapped the shutter. It was mostly a lifeless place, save for Marines, Corpsmen, and rats. The stale air around us was filled with the familiar smells of war; cordite, diesel fuel and death.
The surrounding terrain was sprayed long before our arrival with defoliants such as Agent Orange. Tree lines were bulldozed back 300 yards or more from our razor-wire perimeter exposing more reddish-brown clay and mud. It offered us semi-good fields-of-fire but only a small feeling of security. Craters of various shapes and sizes littered the countryside towards every horizon.
No place was really safe if an incoming round hit too near you. Living on the edge was the order of the day. But few complained, we were there that day, someone else would be there tomorrow. Some brushed it all off saying, “It don’t mean nothin’ man.” We even had some lighter moments and we adapted and improvised as usual.
The NVA were constantly probing our lines and shelling us daily. We were told that all of “Uncle Ho’s” soldiers were looking forward to killing as many Americans as possible. They didn’t shy away from a firefight and like “Mr. Charlie” (VC) struck only when it was to their advantage. They traveled in large numbers almost unimpeded from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, to strategic entry points and targets in South Vietnam. We and others at places like Khe Sanh, The Rockpile and points further south, were in their way.
I was barely nineteen and one of the radio operators for Hotel Co., 2d Bn., 1st Marines. Christmas of 1967 was spent at Yankee Station, a small knoll on the south side of and a short but still dangerous walk, from Con Thien’s main perimeter.
My nights were spent on radio watch, praying for uneventful Sit-Reps (Situation Reports). Typically I would transmit in near-whispers to our listening posts or other units outside the wire; “Hotel One Alpha, Hotel One Alpha, this is Hotel, if all is Secure, Key your handset twice over…” After hearing two clicks of their handset I would call the next unit and the next, a process repeated until daybreak when all were back inside the wire.
When it was time to hit the sack and catch a few winks, I would burrow in my appointed niche in our bunker and wrap myself in a poncho liner, which offered some protection from late-night visitors, rats. Everyone slept in full uniform, most with boots on.
A Marine Dies
At Con Thien I saw death again and touched it with my own hands. It’s fatal claws dug deep into a lone Marine one night on our perimeter.
December was a mostly overcast month with dreary rains, which made for light incoming and in war even bad weather could be your friend at times. January began as a repeat of that when the cool quietness of one rainless night was abruptly shattered by the thunderous slam of an artillery blast. It shook the earth hard and the strength of the impact seemed very near our command bunker.
Was it an outgoing short round or was it incoming? We had no time to even begin thinking about it. Almost immediately from the darkness someone barked, “Corpsman Up! Corpsman Up!”
I ran from my position to get Doc Hill in the CAS (company aid station) bunker next door and we both made a dash towards screaming voices where we found Dave Johnson working on a wounded Marine lying in a trench. That Marine was Cpl. Joel Koester though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Doc Hill, our senior corpsman instinctively took over. Dave had been trying to somehow keep Joel’s brains from falling out of a gaping wound. Both were doing everything they could to save him. I had just glanced over when I jumped in and only saw a gash on Joel’s left forehead.
While Joel’s head wound was being treated I remember rubbing my hands over him searching for the wetness of blood - any blood. I remember being in that crowded space in the trench trying somehow to lend a hand. Others were near and thankfully one of them brought a flashlight. Then was a voice yelled something like;
I can’t get a fu*ken vein! The voice then uttered in a nervous but matter-of-fact manner, I’m losing him! Damn it - his veins collapsed!
According to Mike I radioed “Dust Off” for a Medevac chopper. Mike managed to get an I.V. started and continued CPR on a hairy flight back to Charlie Med.
Part of me watched the entire scene from nearby yet my other being could only capture bits and pieces, but enough for a lifetime of late-night replays.
Losing Joel was déjà vu. Most of us had “been there – done that” many times over and our losses were taking their toll. In August near DaNang we lost Doc Gallagher the night VC forces blew up the Song Cau Do bridge at Phong Le. Then in October near Quang Tri - deep in the Hai Lang Forest we lost eighteen from our company alone in a well-planned NVA ambush on Operation Medina. On the eve of Thanksgiving we lost John J. (JayJay) Martinez and Frances J. Muraco (Rocco), both got it on the same night patrol. Now this.
I never wanted to become numb to the deaths Nam had forced upon me. I thought many around me felt similarly. From my first day in country I tried hard not to look at death nor the wounded or dying. I’d hoped that the fewer bad memories I had the easier it would be to revert back to the human being I was before Vietnam. But war has its own agenda and on occasion its horrors become mesmerizing, addictive, and deeply disturbing.
Most of us had seen death up close and personal after only a short time in country, sometimes on our first day. In The Farewell Chronicles, Anneli Rufus wrote that seeing death’s horror transports you out of anonymity and into a new status; you are a witness. “ And like those who witness horrible crimes or terrible tragedies you did not ask for this, nor do you like it, and you yearn to escape and turn the clock and fade in nothingness. You are now and forever a witness to a drama and a member of a secret club: those who have witnessed horrible things. Such is each witness to a death – the bearer of dead chronicles, and a kind of inadvertent bard.”
War Redefined – Death Without Honor
War redefined death for me. When we weren’t trying to avoid it, we were witnessing it; when we weren’t trying to impose it, we were trying to save one from it; and if we didn’t get too close to anyone – it wouldn’t hurt too much if they got hit.
And where was the honor in dying from a stray round, a Bouncing Betty, or from stepping on a land mine? If I was going to die there I wanted it to be with dignity, not just because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I felt robbed somehow because in a real war nothing makes any sense or happens the way of the Hollywood movies we consumed growing up. Real war was total madness. In my dreams I had gone mad and Vietnam was where they sent me.
Was the young Marine who was killed in that trench next to us the Native American dude from Pecos River country, the Cholo from El Paso or the FNG ("Friggin’’ New Guy) from Boston who spoke with a heavy accent? Was he the lucky jarhead scheduled to leave the next day for R&R (Rest & Relaxation) in Hawaii to meet his wife? He was all of those.
News of the incident spread quickly and quietly around the perimeter - spooking everyone. The relative safety of daylight was still hours away. We never knew whether that incoming round was friendly fire or not.
Of all the different ways one could die in Nam, the drill after each death was already scripted. If still useable their ammo and gear were always quietly and methodically redistributed. Personal affects were inventoried and passed on to our rear. A sharply dressed Marine officer in Dress Blues, and a Navy Chaplain perhaps in Dress Whites, would visit his next of kin with the dreadful message and offer their service and assistance.
Someone in our higher echelon would honor his memory in a letter to the family and rightfully say what a brave Marine we all had lost. On behalf of the President of the United States and the U.S. Marine Corps, an American flag would be presented to his family at graveside services. A bugler in dress blues and wearing white gloves would play Taps, while a squared-away seven-man rifle detail dressed the same, would fire a 21-gun salute from the barrels of their highly-polished M-14s. Friends and family members would embrace and share in their grief.
Mourning & Reactions
“Mourning is a multipurpose rite: we mourn our lost ones while mourning ourselves, preemptively.” We never had much time for that. We just sucked it up and moved on. Sometimes our own frustrations cursed the dead while simultaneously cursing the enemy.
Jeez-us Aitch Kha-reist! Those fu*ken dinks!
That stupid shit! He knew to keep his fu*ken head down!
The day after that incident the company gunny paraded Joel’s shrapnel-riddled helmet around and berated everyone about what happens when you don’t keep your head down. Holly (L/Cpl Tom Holleran) came unglued. He knew Joel personally and besides, what the Gunny did was wrong. Others held him back from strangling the shit out of our Gunny, who so righteously deserved it. Our gunny was an asshole and he luckily got a quick transfer right after that and became somebody else’s asshole.
Getting Home In One Piece - Plans
At the end of the day we all just wanted to help each other get back home preferably in one piece and alive. From our first patrol we knew we were just fighting for each other. We had no politics or glorious causes. Getting home safely meant watching out for one another – and we prayed to God we wouldn’t screw it up. The sooner we learned our role the sooner we were able to pull our load and be counted on whenever the shit hit the fan.
We often spoke of our plans once we got back to The World. Vietnam and the war were in our minds, not of this world. We were going back to school, a sweetheart or wife, back to family and back to work in stores or on a family farm. I just wanted to get back to a normal life and start making new memories to replace those that would surely follow me home.
On January 10, 1968, the war in Vietnam ended for Cpl. Joel Frederick Koester of Freeport, Illinois. Two days later he would have been 19.
For some, Vietnam is not just the name of a place - it’s still a war.
For many it’s one of the most popular and I understand one of the safest tourists destinations in Southeast Asia, in spite of their horrible human rights record. As for me, Vietnam is the place where I grew up.
i FC – The Farewell Chronicles, Anneli Rufus.
Mahalo Nui Loa to my wife and my partner for her support as well as for her love and understanding during this and other projects.
Luis A. Parker