Altar Boys With Machine Guns
by Christopher Noe
“We were both altar boys living in Long Island. After high school graduation, he turns to me and says, ‘I want to join the Marine Corps.’ I look over at him and reply, ‘Are you serious?’ He said ‘yea, I want to go into law enforcement.’ So that was his plan. I thought it seemed strange but I supported his decision.
That summer he took off for Vietnam. I can only imagine what he must have gone through. However, I’ll never know for sure. In the later part of October 1966, he was accidentally shot by one of our own guys. My best friend was dead. To this day it haunts me just thinking about it. In 1968, I finally decided that I also wanted to join the Corps. It was my way of honoring my friend’s death.”
These are the words of Robert Noe. This is my uncle and his story. He recently spoke to me about his nearly 10 years of service with the Marine Corps and his time in Vietnam. I was captivated as he continued…
“It all started in Parris Island. Boot camp normally would be a thirteen week process but during the Vietnam era it was sort of like a hurry up program. I was cut off from the civilian world and had to adapt to a Marine Corps lifestyle. There are yellow painted footprints outside of the Receiving Building, where thousands of prospective Marines have gotten their first taste of military life. That’s where I got mine. We were all scared. They took all of our personal belongings. I thought I was prepared but apparently my hair wasn’t short enough. The next thing I know I’m getting it butchered. We got up at 5:00 am everyday for inspection, infantry training, and calisthenics. We were shuffled around like cattle. Drill Sergeants tried to cram everything down our throats. Whenever you screwed up, the whole unit paid for it.”
While listening, I thought about the film Full Metal Jacket which depicts life at Parris Island and tried to picture how scary that must have been for him.
“I’ll never forget Staff Sergeant Rutherford. He made a point that everybody would remember him. He said once, “If you ever see me on the outside, I want you to knock me off from wherever I am. If I’m sitting on a bar stool, I want you to knock my ass to the turf!” And wouldn’t you know it, it was probably half a year later while I was in North Carolina, I looked over and said, ‘I think that’s the staff sergeant.’ I went over and did exactly what he said. I gave him one hell of a whack and knocked him off his bar stool. He got up and gave me this look. I said to him, ‘I was just following orders Sir.’
“Before we went to Nam, they sent us to California where we did some more infantry training at a place called Camp Pendleton. It was a simulated war experience where I managed to get killed every time. I laughed and thought, ‘Hopefully I won’t be in the jungle.’
I laughed along with him. A little humor doesn’t hurt.
“We got on a plane and only made it as far as Hawaii and had to land because a gyro went out. As we sat around drinking Fog Cutters (a popular drink in the `60’s), comedians Steve Allen and Jonathan Winters come walking through the terminal. They were just getting done with a USO tour and asked us, ‘Are you going or coming back?’ We all shouted at once, ‘We’re going!’ They said ‘Well keep your head down and good luck.’
So after my fourth Fog Cutter, the next thing I know I’m in Okinawa. We waited there three-four days for our orders. We went to De Nang to a place called Freedom Hill. That’s where we got our weapons, ponchos and field jackets. We got there in April and it was hotter than hell. I asked, ‘Why did we need ponchos and our field jackets?’ Sergeant said, ‘Wait until the monsoons.’ Suddenly I was cold, wet, and mushy. After that I knew why.
As a Junior Troop, I tried coming up with ways to make extra money and looked into flight pay. All I had to do was fly around for three and a haf hours and that was it. ‘What could possibly happen in that short time?’ I thought. So there I was, a temporary assigned duty gunner with an M50 hanging out the window of a CH53 helicopter, just enjoying my flight pay. Suddenly, we get a call from Medevac and had to turn around and go back because all hell was breaking loose. I returned fire and picked up our wounded. We made it back okay, but a wounded soldier lost his leg and he was sent home.”
Meanwhile, I am listening intently and frozen still. This wasn’t a movie, it was real.
“Working nights in the welding shop had its close calls, too. Charlie had this routine where once this television program would go off the air, the harassment fire of rockets and mortars would come. One night they got pretty close. In fact, they took out one of the towers that we used as a control tower for helicopters coming in. It came crashing to the ground. Another shot came between the welding shop and the hangar. I dove into the bunker. There was a loud concussion and a lot of ringing in my ears. So much confusion was going on at the time. When the smoke cleared and the fog lifted from my head, I realized what was happening. They asked me if I was okay. With a little blood in my ears I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m fine.’ I wasn’t wounded but it was frightening.
My God, I thought. Did this all really happen?
On my third night after leaving Freedom Hill with my squadron, we got hit three times. After the third time, I go, ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough. I need to sleep. Go ahead and kill me!’ You always knew when Charlie was nearby. It was just a feeling everyone got. As for my stress, at first I thought I was handling it okay. But after awhile it seemed that everyone was finding ways to relieve themselves. I used to drink real hard. I was a terrible drinker. I would drink until I passed out. The grass over there was fantastic. I smoked it a few times. Uppers and downers were available, as well. We needed things to help us sleep and of course to wake up, too. After awhile one day just blended into the next.”
I couldn’t even blame him for what he did. My eyes were glazed with tears because the stress must have really gotten to him and so many men out there in the jungle.
I have a very good friend who says I suffer post-traumatic stress. I think maybe its more like wishful thinking. I probably did when I first got home, but I try to not think about it. When we got out of Nam in `75, I had diarrhea of the mouth. I would talk about the war 24/7. So for me that was my therapy. I would do anything just to get it out of my head. After awhile it seemed like no one was listening or even cared. I was like, ‘Okay?’ So I just never said anything more about it after that. If someone were to ask me how I was treated when I came home, I would have to say, ‘Not very well.’ You know that cliché of someone throwing a beer bottle at you? Well that actually happened. In California, I had one person throw a beer at me. When I got home to New York I had a person buy me a beer. It went from one extreme to the next. It wasn’t wise to walk around in uniform back then. Even with the short hair you still stood out like a sore thumb. It was just obvious that you were in the military.”
It’s sad that our nation has always been divided like that. Listening to him, I wanted to buy Uncle Bob a beer.
“I do not regret my years in the service. I was actually treated better in the Marine Corps, even by my commanders, than I was at the Post Office, where I worked for 22 years. I thought that was just sad. When I try to describe what it was like in Vietnam, I tell people that it’s like being blindfolded and touching an elephant. You’re not sure what part of the elephant you’re touching. I do try to avoid things like Memorial Day. I pretend it’s not there and simply avoid it. I had been approached by the VFW a few times but I could never commit to that. After spending almost 10 years in the service, I just wanted to forget about the military for awhile and be a civilian. I wanted to catch up, go to school, get a job, and even let my hair grow out a little bit. Why not focus on other things that are important, like family get-togethers or sports? I tried marching in a couple of parades in my town and I hear the clapping and the cheering and I think, ‘You know dudes you are just 30 years way too late.’ It almost seems phony. But it’s not too late to cheer for our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do I agree with everything that’s going on? I would say probably not. But the types of weapons that we do have are much better than they were 20-50 years ago. It’s obvious. But the stress never seems to go away. Even 2,000 years ago I’m sure the Romans had stress. It’s just a given. That’s war.”
This was my Uncle Bob’s story. I thanked him for his time. I also wished him good luck on his upcoming bike ride in June. He is riding over 100 miles for his brother, who is suffering from MS. The next time you take a ride out on the bike trails, you just may pass a war hero; my uncle and my friend.
Originally published in the May 21, 2009 issue of Desplaines Valley News
Copyright 2009 Christopher Noe. All rights reserved.