SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 2
Vietnam War Poems

By Greg Lake
 
 

Greg Lake, just out of boot camp
Greg Lake, as he is today.

Vietnam Trilogy


Ambush

Falling down,

it's like you've been hit with the tip of a cane stick,

that far end at the apex of its swing

that crack right at the end, at the tip, and you are down in the mud

of that rice paddy...damp, wet, heat...

then, those high pitched noises that sound like hornets going by,

so close, so quick, radiating their own heat

Rapid in that sun that causes those light bulb flashes, absorbing your entire vision

then you wipe that mud that has been splattered on your face

from those sweet, high pitched hornet noises going by and you realize

I've been hit

Simultaneous with those singing hornets, still closer

again the mud is splattered on your face and you roll over in that heat

and as you get up, all the light bulbs flash as those hornets swarm into you

impacting your flesh..strobing..intensifying..

A white blinding light, into, and beyond your horizon


Patrol

That moment and pain, you know the sensation

that pinch in your side, right where the flak-jackets weight has shifted

when you get ready to stand back up, and push, because everything has shifted

it's so Goddamn hot and tiring, plus the cigarette, stale most likely or damp, smoked too quickly

not really enjoyed

and all the ammo you carry, plus grenades...sweat constantly stinging in your eyes

nerves that have been stretched beyond the limits of your tolerance

but you have to stand and take the endless Hell that you are living

much lke Sisyphus it goes on in its cycle

wading waist deep in the mud and the endless damp, fucking wet endless damp

stinking clothes that wrap you like a shroud in the premature burial ceremony that has become your reality

that reality that you can't explain because it is so far beyond anything that Mom and Dad

or letters home could ever convey

yet still, you pull yourself up and try to shake and arch your shoulders to lift that burden

no matter, it still remains and the heat beats down on you like a piece of road kill

so that you, like many others before can walk endlessly forward into history


Nightmares

Nightmares, nightmares.

they usually come in your sleep, but when they come in your waking hours

then they are truly those hideous things not to be dismissed or disregarded

Ghostly they stalk you and waking does not dismiss these specters

both old friends and foes they are with you like your heart beat and breathing

Turning, changing your position, standing up, walking outside, trying to dismiss them

like an ache in your hip

or turning changing position like an old dog scratching trying to get rid of fleas and snapping at flies

they are still with you and with you they will stay...

Sounds, or not sounds, sometimes the very absence of these memories becomes so resonant

that their silence is deafening

like the fading tone of a bell that is beyond your hearing

that resonant tone is still deafening in your ear

the clap of it peals forever in that memory that will always deprive you of your sleep

they are never absent in your hearing, or in your memory of hearing

Images that are as much a part of your landscape as are your dreams

whether waking or sleeping they are sown upon you as a tattoo upon your skin

Nightmares are a constant in your world. In your world of memories

that are now more real to you than anything that you can touch

just because they are so far beyond the touching

a paradox that few can understand, in that Gustav Dore black and white etching that boils

within the inner mind of yours that has become a realm of no escape or explanation

That same ghostly white color that is the illumination of a flare in the dark of night

that floats down upon you and becomes the reality, or non reality, of your world

that sound PHUT PHUT PHUT and it's encompassing horror is the pillow upon which

I rest my head when these nightmares come

Far and away, far and away I would banish these memories

but they are mine and they will stay with me

Hellish as they may seem

they are constants


 



 
 

A Passing Thought




Seventy-nine degrees….and cold

I can still remember the day, outside, standing by the pool

Santa Ana, Ca. Everyone warm, comfortable, laughing, relaxed

Another beautiful balmy day in Southern Ca., so why are

Goose bumps forming on my arms

Imperceptibly rising, one by one, until my arm, my being my whole body is chilled

Just weeks earlier I was in 100-plus degree heat and humidity, sweating under the load of a heavy pack, combat gear, rifle, helmet, all the equipment needed and necessary to stay alive in the sweltering jungle, rice paddies, horror

Of Vietnam

Excusing myself from my brother John I walked inside and donned a long-sleeve Pendleton shirt recently purchased in a local Mall. As I moved, unnoticed by the others frolicking by the pool…I was used to being unnoticed, having walked the Point position on innumerable Combat patrols in Nam, I couldn't help the swirl of mixed emotions that were forming inside of me…An intense and bitter hatred, anger, and wish to disrupt the idyllic existence of all surrounding me.

Idling by the pool, so innocent, so unaware, so untouched and far removed from the experiences of my past year.

It became so clear in my head as I returned outside.

Time stopped…Every person was immobile, frozen in an image like stop motion. Only I was able to move and act freely, without consequence. Straight up to the pretty boy, jock type, blond, perfect Southern Ca., prototype, not moving, as I said frozen, like everyone else in this moment of surrealistic joy, that I have created to allow me to contemplate…Do I slowly slit his throat with a straight razor or embed my Marine issue K-Bar deep into the back of his head, right behind his ear so I can then twist it and scramble his worthless little Surfer brain ? Do I go to the girlfriend next, or to the loud mouth that shortly before was espousing his reasons why HE was not in Vietnam because he had a college deferment, and after all everyone knew that only stupid, low-classed boys were in Vietnam anyway.

Those without money, those without education, those without the means to enjoy his life of privilege and leisure.

Like a ghost I could choose freely upon which person I would unleash this rampage of carnage and destruction, of death and mayhem.

I hadn't been this happy for years, and then the beach ball came splashing up out of the pool, bouncing off the lounge chair next to me knocking over and disrupting my temporary time warp…Damn !!!!

I could only quietly relish the momentary freedom and bliss that had existed in my mind moments before.

My brother, puzzled that I had dressed and put on a woolen shirt in this nice warm weather asked….Are you cold ?

Yes, John, I answered..I’m cold.

He had no idea how really cold I was and I am.

Neither did any of the others around the pool, still laughing, still playing…Unaware that Death had been beside them that warm and balmy day in Santa Ana.


For What?

Once again, a kaleidoscope of color. The lush green of newly emerging stalks of rice like thousands of innocent little new born baby fingers pointing gently upwards, wiggling, welcoming the blue, blue sky above.
Joyous to have been released from the impediment of the muddy paddy that had held them, waving and mirrored in the flat surface of water laid across the seemingly endless dikes, almost like a mirage in the distance of a desert. To the right and to the left the quietness, the loudness, of the jungle on the edges that surround you, beckoning...Come...Come.

Alone, isolated, separated from the Platoon, the Squad, the Company of men behind you 

Pointman...An insane and dubious position at best...Your fingers, not gently but tautly wrapped around the stock of hard wood and cold stoic steel of the long barrel of your only friend and comfort, the M-14 that you carry has become an extension, a new and welcome body part as you move forward into this ongoing and surrealistic tableau.

Hearing sound that you have never heard in the quiet and stillness, 
Vision as keen and concentrated as a Peregrine Falcon, majestic Eagle or the Jaguar within the dark blackness of the labyrinthine Amazon jungle at night

You move forward.

Pure and stark insanity and yet a feeling of exultation, power, curiosity, terror all at once

Pointman...First to be exposed to enemy fire...first to encounter, discover and avoid booby traps carefully concealed by your opponent...first to be shot, wounded, or secretly and hopefully killed to bring an end to this; the killing would avoid the pain and violation of your flesh...Could I take that pain ?

The bad dream would be over, the tension, strain, the safe haven would be obtained

These images flood your brain as you move forward,
waiting to encounter the next fire fight, the killing, the wounding...the depravity and the ugliness of bloated, dismembered bodies rotting on the ground and you hate it.

You want to scream, you want to cry, you want to be away from this horror, but most of all, you hate.

You hate yourself for being here, you hate those safe, back in the World as we call it, you hate your government for putting you here. You hate and you hate and you hate until you ache, like a cancer within you, disemboweling you, contradicting everything you know.

Not prescient of the 40 plus years of flashbacks, isolation, alcoholism, broken marriages, anti social behavior that are waiting patiently for you, you move forward.


Dappled

A half moon, even at this late hour, 11:30 PM reflects some dappling, discoloration and reflection

moving out silently, four of us, Faulkner, Lake, Henson and Ferguson

Faulkner, half crazed Jungle Bunny, literally, skinny Black kid / Blood brother

the shared blood of fallen or wounded Marines in this abysmal nightmare called night patrol, ambush, insanity, war, VietNam...............Lake, the Point as always, another skinny, loner from the projects in mid 40's - 1950's, Oakland, Ca., / Henson, Sgt. Henson, the squad leader, always willing to come with us on patrol yet relinquishing full control to Lake. the Point, confident that the movement through the night and darkness of the jungle will be another period of disbelief and magic

G.K. being as smooth, quiet and confident as a big cat

Ferguson, the white haired, pinkeye Albino, another throw away to VietNam that nobody knows

Well, I know him and trust him and the others with my life

As always, rain incessant, not a deluge but just enough to shield sound in this night. An ally in our movements. A return to another nameless Hamlet that during our day patrol wielded info. concerning VC involvement, so we come, in the night to monitor any clandestine meetings

The worst part is there is an open area that we must cross, about 35-40 feet.

to get close to the hooch showing a glimmer of candlelight

Patience, no rush, wait.......a cloud passes the moon / Ferguson / Faulkner the rest we move as one

using the dark, momentarily offered

Damn, we're good, silent and together, unspoken, bred by months of combat and jungle warfare

A hand movement sends Ferguson to the backside, Faulkner takes front and Henson and I burst in, M-14's in hand

Three men, older, squatting, they do that, in the center

one showing great relief, the other two scowling and angry

One older woman, Grandmother perhaps, sitting in the far corner chewing betel-nut and showing thankfulness in her eyes. a very direct stare that I will never forget, approval and relief.............

The two we brought back with us, having discovered that they were responsible for beheading the previous village chief, were turned over to the ARVN, and at 4:10 AM we got to get a welcome rest.

The next day.................Another long day patrol / Another night patrol which was taken by Maas's team / And then again the next day / The day that Cpl. Jennings was shot and killed and the Golden Guinea was wounded.


Pointman

My reason for becoming Pointman:

To give you an idea of what the function of a " Pointman " is and the reason why I chose that to be my job and position while in Vietnam. The Point leads all patrols and needs to have a full understanding of map reading to get the unit of Marines involved to their objective. While stationed in Okinawa , the second year of the three-year cycle that all groundpounders, or "grunts " as we called ourselves , go through I was chosen from our battalion to attend a Combat Map Reading and Intelligence School being held for a group of young lieutenants to hone their skills as leaders of Marines . 

It was a six-week long course held daily and at the conclusion there was a final exam, just like in a college course to see how well you had learned the material that had been presented. The end result of that final, I finished first place with a higher score than the 31 lieutenants who had taken the course. This is just to lay the groundwork for the upcoming chain of events that led to my going to ‘Nam. 

After serving the three-year cycle as an infantry Marine — one year in the States, Camp Pendleton, one year overseas, Okinawa and then a final year back at Camp Pendleton — if on a four-year enlistment, you got to finish your last year at a different duty station less rigorous than that of a grun. 

In my case, I was scheduled to be reassigned to Treasure Island here in the Bay area and serve as a gate guard checking I.D.s, both civilian and military, for everyone entering that base. Cool, I thought to myself this will be easy after the previous three years. But that was the time that President Johnson decided that he needed 50,000 more Marines to be sent to Vietnam. My orders for my last year of easy duty were rescinded, I never saw Treasure Island and the easy life, rather I was reassigned to a Marine company, 220-plus men, and was sent to Vietnam. 

I did not know any of these guys who were all relatively new and young, not like the previous tours where you knew and lived with the guys almost like a marriage where you were aware of everyone's strengths and weaknesses . During our trip to Vietnam, we were informed that we would stop for a month in Okinawa first for a month for two reasons: to get the men accustomed to the heat of that part of the world and to have a brush- up crash course of training in field combat operations both at day and at night. 

Being one of the older and more seasoned Marines than these new guy, I decided to become the Point upon our arrival in the ‘Nam, telling my platoon commander that besides the map reading and intelligence school training, I had also participated in a jungle warfare and survival training course in the Philippines in 1963. 

I knew my capabilities but did not know how well any of these newer guys were trained. I did not want someone less qualified than I was to be the first man out on patrol where combat operations who might lead us into an ambush or get us lost in the bush because they did not know how to read a map correctly. 

Everyone agreed that would be my position and quite frankly were relieved that I had chosen that job for myself because in actual fact it was extremely dangerous . The guys all thought I was quite insane for volunteering as Point but I had my reasons. I had full confidence that I was the most qualified for that position plus my line of thought went even further concluding that the enemy would not fire upon the first man, because that would be an alert to the rest of the Marines that a firefight was imminent. 

We would go on patrols pretty much on a daily basis. Then there were the big combined combat operations with larger units. There was a time in the early, mid-’60s, for search and destroy. We would go out almost like a shooting gallery, hoping that the VC would shoot at us so that we could react and then go and you know kill some of them. That was our job. 

Later, I was informed at a 40-year reunion in Florida that I had led 226 combat patrols and operations, both day and night while in ‘Nam. So there you have it .

If history were to repeat itself, I would do it again and have never regretted my choice as Pointman. I would not, however, have gone to Vietnam if I had known the real truth surrounding our involvement there. See the series "Vietnam: A Television History " (1983) to get the facts, rather than the lies we were given by our government .
 
 

Two Marines are tended for their wounds during Operation Starlite, also known as the battle of Van Tuong. It was the first major offensive regimental size action conducted by a purely U.S. military unit during the Vietnam War. Greg Lake was taller of the two men on the right center of the photo.
Photo courtesy of Greg Lake

 
Editor’s note: 
Greg Lake is a combat veteran (965-1966) serving with Delta Co., 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, stationed at Chu Lai in the Quang Ngai province. Thirty-plus years after the war, his brother suggested that he write down some of his experiences. Lake indicated there was a bit of the Gael in him somewhere.

He joined the Marine Corps at age 17, following his brother. There was also another reason. "I figured if I joined the Marines, I may gain some weight. Plus, I can say after my time in the service, I was in the Marines. Not the Army, not the Air Force, not the Navy, the Marines. If you're gonna do it, do it full blown and be part of the best," he said.

"And I'm still very proud of that. I'm not proud of what we had done during the war. But they can never take the title. There's an expression, once a Marine always a marine. And I'm very proud of that," Lake asserted.

As he explained, a Point man is the lead soldier in a unit cutting a path through dense vegetation if needed and constantly exposed to the danger of tripping booby traps or being the first in contact with the enemy.

For one of my most remarkable experiences in Vietnam, we were going on one of our patrols into a village that usually we would get quite a bit of incoming fire. Rifle fire and firefights. I'm walking on the clear of this trail. Maybe 15 or 20 feet in front of me was a Vietnamese man. Not in uniform, with a rifle. And we stopped. Locked eyes for a moment. All the military and marine training and government bullshit, shoot him. All my, this is difficult. All my moral upbringing and this was in just a flash. It was— I have nothing against this guy. And I'm not gonna shoot him. 

And evidently he had the same thought. We backed up, and didn't shoot each other. If there was one person on this planet that I could sit down and have a conversation with, it would be him. I don't now what went through his mind. But thankfully, he must have had a similar experience. 

We were both so young. God, I was 21. And it's hard to say with Vietnamese or Asians their age. But he was also very young. It was like, when you hit the moment of truth, now if you're firing at someone from a distance of a couple hundred of yards, and they're faceless enemy, that's one thing. But 15 feet apart, I did not pull the trigger. Neither did he. And surprisingly enough, after that, going into that village, we were no longer fired on. And I don't know if he told them, ‘hey, leave these guys alone.’ I don't know what happened. But that was, God, I get short of breath just thinking about it. Very extraordinary experience. 

I had not even ever even mentioned this to anyone for almost 40 years. It was something it was like well I'll just keep that one to myself. If I had mentioned it, you know what I would have gotten? ‘Greg, you should have shot him. You should have you should have.’ All my inside told me don't shoot him. I never met him. I have absolutely nothing against him. I had been put in his country in his backyard, burning his— if someone had come to my neighborhood, in the middle of the country, and was burning my house, shooting my livestock and raping my women, I would be just like him. I'd be out there with the rifle, shooting at them. So there was a paradox, like yeah, I'm kind of on this guy's side. We're the bad guys is what was going through my head. We don't belong here and I'm not going to shoot him. 

Lake indicated that the writing of these pieces has been cathartic and he is is moved and proud to share them with other veterans and their families.


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