MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
ONCE A MARINE . . .A Journal
SSgt. Earl Matthews Jr.
Submitted by: Frank Matthews
The following are excerpts from some of his letters:
January 25, 1966 - We left El Toro Air Base at two o’clock this morning. We got to Hickman AFB at eight o’clock this morning. We are supposed to leave here at six tonight then stop in Okinawa Thursday. I got about three hours sleep this morning. I got a “room” to stay in, all by myself! Boy, this Air Force really lives!
January 28, 1966 Friday – We got to Camp Hansen in Okinawa at nine o’clock Thursday night. We are to leave here in three weeks to go down south. That is what everyone calls Viet Nam. There are only five tanks left here and I am going down with them. I sure did get tired of riding that plane, but if they would have let me I would have gotten back on it to go back, I miss you so much.
January 30, 1966 – Sunday – This Monday we go to the field overnight. The Company goes out one night a week to play games. They practice what they do in Viet Nam.
February 1, 1966 – Tuesday – I am tired from last night. We run over the field for seven hours. H& S Company went to the field Sunday so we did not have to go because we are leaving pretty soon. That was to be understood, but what I did not know is that we have to send sixteen men out each night to ambush them. We started changing the track on two tanks today, now we are about to go south.
February 3, 1966 – We worked on the tank tracks again today and we are about finished. Next week we are going to the field for four days for a F.E.X. (Field exercise).
February 4, 1966 – Saturday – We finally got the tank tracks on all five tanks today.
February 7, 1966 – I got three hours sleep this afternoon, we stayed up all night last night.
February 8, 1966 – I guess everyone is going to Viet Nam at one time or another. I wish we would get the hell out. Then maybe I could get back home to you.
February 13, 1966 - Sunday – Honey, these weekends are so long, I wish we had to work Saturday and Sunday. I get so lonely just sitting around doing nothing.
February 25, 1966 – Friday – Today we went up to Camp Schwab for the Generals’ inspection. We stood up waiting for four and a half hours and then he came in a helicopter. He stayed about an hour and presented twelve medals to people that had been to Viet Nam.
February 26, 1966 – Saturday – We went to Tank Park this morning and had two hour class on the Infrared search light. I am glad I got it on my tank.
February 27, 1966 – Most of the Sgts. Here are from California. I don’t know any of them and it is better that way. I can just stay to myself most of the time, and I will not get attached to anyone, if you know what I mean.
March 4, 1966 – Friday – We put all the loading gear on the tanks today, so we can hit the beach. A lot of it is old. I sure hope it works okay. I packed my bag today. The one that I will leave in Okinawa, I am taking mostly work clothes down there and plenty of socks and a lot of underwear. I think I have about fifteen sets now, so I can go two weeks or better before I have to wash my whites, how about that?
March 12, 1966 – I am on the ship and it is really loaded with troops and tanks and trucks. They have a little bit of everything on here, I think. I am glad to be away from Okinawa. They can’t work me any harder down there. After I get there I will probably wish I was back in Okinawa, the first fire fight we get into.
March 13, 1966 – These people are going around in circles again. We left Okinawa Friday and everybody thought we were on the way to Viet Nam, but this morning we got up at three o’clock and then the ship anchored at six-thirty and we made a practice landing on Okinawa.
March 15, 1966 – This ole ship is bouncing and rocking tonight. I was reading up on the history of the ship we are on which is the #17 L.S.D. Catamount. It was named after a bar.
March 16, 1966 – It is pretty safe on the ship but I am tired of it. I will be glad to get off and put my feet on some land. It is so cramped up here and it is getting hot now because we are getting close to South East Asia. The chow is rotten, they feed us some kind of goulosh. Something with noodles or something that is mixed up like stew.
March 17, 1966 – We are getting close to Viet Nam because it is getting hot and I mean hot! Guess what. This ship is air conditioned. This is the first ship I have been on that is air conditioned. It sure is nice.
March 20, 1966 – We finally got off the ship yesterday. They were firing about all night last night.
March 23, 1966 – This morning I was working inside the tank and it must have been 130 degrees in there and I got too hot. When I came out I had to sit down for about an hour. I was cold for a few seconds and hot for a few seconds, and real nervous, but I’m okay now.
March 25, 1966 -- I think the chow is better here than Okinawa. Today we had fried chicken and it was good. The salad, well we don’t have any greens but the other stuff is pretty good. The beer is high over here, we have to pay eighty cents a bottle. That is awful and the damned stuff is hot too, and it is that goo beer. I had one bottle and it sure was not worth eighty cents. You know I like beer, but not that stuff, and it gave everyone the G.I.’s.
March 26, 1966 – Today did not seem like Saturday. Of course everyday over here is just about alike so far. A few gets hurt and a few get killed, but I guess that is the way with any war, but everybody that has been in wars before says this is a crazy one. I am just glad that I am in tanks and not the infantry. Every night you can hear the guns going off around here. The first couple of nights I did not get much sleep but I am getting a little more now. After you get so tired you will go to sleep about anywhere. We are right in the middle of the grave yard. This is about the worst base over here because we are so far north.
March 28, 1966 – Yesterday and today really went by fast. We were real busy all day Sunday and until Monday morning about two o’clock. Then I lay down but I could not go to sleep until daylight. The infantry got hit pretty bad last night and that was on my mind. The V.C. ambushed a squad of them. They really hit hard in all directions. Well the chow sure changed, it is some kind of noodles every meal. I never go in the morning because I cannot eat those powdered eggs.
March 30, 1966 – We are at Phu Bai now. Yesterday we moved to this position. We are out of the grave yard. We are over by the air strip. It is a better area, we even have a big tent, but no lights yet. There is a shortage on flashlights over here, I do not even have one on the tank.
April 1, 1966 – We drove our tanks through Hue, the old capital of Viet Nam, and those people were giving us the finger when we went by them. Some things I sure do not understand over here. I really wanted to shoot hell out of them.
April 3, 1966 – I just got back to this area and I am writing this letter by candle light. I had to stop writing last night. Something came up and we had to put out the candles.
April 5, 1966 – We are about ten miles from the big city of Hue. Last night there was a full moon and I saw a BIG snake that should have been in a zoo. That is about the fifth one I have seen. Last night we killed five V.C.’s (four men and one woman). She was the one that threw the grenade at them. These V.C. keep their women with them. I got so sleepy last night but I stayed awake until four o’clock this morning. Today I got about four hours sleep. I don’t like to sleep at night so I stay up most of the time just looking for the V.C. because some of these young kids will go to sleep on watch, so I don’t take any chances. I would rather lose a little sleep and stay alive. This is a hell of a place. I have not had a shower for four days now. Last night it rained all night long. It sure is worth more than sixty-five dollars extra a month for this stuff.
April 8, 1966 – I am sure glad I have the infrared light on my tank. It is really good to turn that thing on and see way out there. The infantry keep running over to the tank saying, Sarge, I think there is something out there, so I check it out. They really rely on my tank.
April 10, 1966 – My tank hit a mine yesterday and it blew the track right off. It took four hours to get it going again. Four tanks up the road hit a mine five minutes before I did. I saw them when it blew up. Nobody got hurt on the tank but the infantry around the tank got hurt from the debris flying around. I was scared for awhile but now I am okay. Today is Easter and we are working as usual.
April 18, 1966 – I feel pretty good except a little tired. I guess you get tired of hearing me say how tired I am all the time. We were on a search and sweep mission yesterday.
April 23, 1966 – I am so tired right now. The way we stand watch over here is kind of getting on my nerves. Four days ago all the infantry moved out to go on this big search and sweep mission and we stayed back here to hold this battalion area. We only have a few people here and the tanks, and we are standing twenty-five percent more watch. This two or three hours sleep in a day and night is not too good. We have to stay alert day and night while they are away and they will be gone two more days.
April 24, 1966 – Today we went on a four hour drive around the hills. We did not get any V.C. We saw a few people in the rice paddies. They were probably V.C. but if they do not have a gun you cannot shoot them. The other day this woman with a baby in her arms came up to this fence. She was acting like she wanted medical attention, so seven or eight marines ran over to her. They gathered around her, she started to hand them the baby and she blew up. She had a grenade and it hurt four or five marines and killed herself and the baby.
April 25, 1966 – Last night the old V.C. tried to blow up the bridge about two miles from here in Hue, so artillery fired flares all night long. It was almost like daylight for about six hours, so I did not get any sleep yet.
May 1, 1966 – I’m glad Melvin Hall asked about me, tell him hello.
May 4, 1966 – I slept all night last night and took a nap today. It sure is a lot better back here in the area than out on those hills where we stayed for thirty days. That sure was roughing it. I took two showers since I have been back already.
May 9, 1966 – Monday – We left Wednesday morning at four o’clock and we went up to the line that goes into North Viet Nam and came back this way, we have been traveling through all the little villages getting the Vietcong out. We got about twenty already that are known V.C. and we are burning all the houses, and the ones we cannot or do not burn, we blow them up. The old women and children are the only ones that do not run into a hole. Well, this is a crazy war, they are killing all the livestock, you know the pigs and water buffalo. I don’t understand why they are doing that but I guess it is too much trouble to gather them up. They said this operation would take forty-eight hours but it looks more like forty-eight days the way it is going. I sure would love to get out of this mess. It is no good, somebody shooting at you. I don’t see how anybody could ever get use to it, seeing people die, even the enemy, gets to you after awhile. I am glad I am in the tank, I feel pretty safe in there. I almost live in that thing.
May 15, 1966 – I finally got to wash my face and brush my teeth today. My tank broke down this morning, so they had to tow me back to the area where we stay at night some time. I am writing this letter fast. Maybe tomorrow or pretty soon we will get a break. I sure do need one so I could catch up on my sleep and letter writing. I thought we were real busy last month, but this month we do not get a break even in the day time, not even for chow. I shaved today for the first time in about six days and it sure was hard to cut off.
May 24, 1966 – Tuesday – We sure have been catching hell, we were doing pretty good until we started to leave this place and go back to Phu Bai. We started out today and it rained so much the tanks just got stuck, one right after the other and the bridges were blown up so we had to build them back and every night we would stop along the way and the V.C. would hit us with mortars and rockets. We almost lost two tanks in the platoon and we did lose six men, two were killed and four wounded. This was just tankers, the Infantry lost more. This war is hell at times and since the fifth of May we have really caught hell but we are at the last bridge now. Should get to the black top highway # one late today. Then thirty miles to the air strip.
May 25, 1966 – We made it back to highway # one and we are set up beside the road repairing the tank, so we can drive back to Phu Bai. I am writing this letter tonight in the tank by flashlight. I was so tired when I wrote that letter at the bridge yesterday, I kept falling asleep.
May 29, 1966 – I guess we will never get out of here next month either. There are still a lot of v.c. in this area. They almost wiped out a platoon of Infantry this morning in the day time. That is very unusual over here, they usually hit at night.
June 3, 1966 – Friday evening – I am up on top of a big hill now. I can see the mountains all around. It is right pretty if you look at it one way but if you think about all the rotten v.c. in these hills, they are not so pretty.
June 5, 1966 – We are down by a little stream so we washed clothes and washed up a bit. Boy that water felt good. One of the men came jumping out of the water and he had a leach right on his you know what. It scared him more than it really hurt. It was funny after they got him off but you better believe everybody came out of the water.
June 26, 1966 – Sunday morning – I got a good nights sleep last night. I guess it was because I was so tired. They even had a fire fight this morning about three hundred yards from here and I didn’t even wake up. Somebody said they got eight v.c. Some of these young guys gamble over here. Some of them lose two hundred dollars in one game. They say they might get killed anyway so it doesn’t matter. I don’t think a person should ever plan on getting killed. There is one thing for sure I am not planning on it because I have too much to live for.
July 15,1966 – We are supposed to get three more new tanks from Okinawa. I will be glad when they get here because we sure do need them. There are supposed to be a lot of v.c. up past Hue at Quang Tri and we might go up there.
July 17, 1966 – What is so hard about being in a place like this is seeing people die. I get so mad when I see this, I think about killing these damned Vietnamese, but that would be wrong and I know it.
July 19, 1966 – It is so odd about this place. Things go quiet for awhile, then all at once it happens. The other day I saw them bring in seventeen dead marines and they were all real young too. That is what makes a man fight I guess, when he sees something like that.
August 3, 1966 – Two more tankers got hit the other night. I didn’t know them. They were from “B” Company down around De nang. One got hit by a sniper, and the other one was hit with an anti-tank weapon. Some kind of Russian gun.
August 4, 1966 – The other day two Marines and an Air Force guy got wounded by a grenade two miles from here in a whorehouse. A Viet Cong threw the grenade in and it killed the girl. One of the guys was almost killed and the other two were wounded. They say that most of these whores are v.c. and they are doing that to get information, I don’t know. To get wounded that way is a hell of a thing to live with, but you can know one thing, if I get wounded over here it sure will not be that way.
August 7, 1966 – My life seems like it is going so fast sometimes. Then at the same time it seems so slow when I start counting the days I have left in Viet Nam. I hope very much that I can get out of here in December or January, but it is too early to tell. It could be February before I get home at the latest. There are so many things I want you and I to do together before I die or you die. I know this letter is very sad in a way but it is on my mind. You know me, I write the way I feel and today I am in a very sad mood, not because I think any thing will happen to me but that is always a possibility. I am keeping my head down and my eyes open.
August 18, 1966 – The other day I went to De nang, down where the Battalion is. Well two nights and three days later they got hit right where I spent the night too. There was one officer killed, two other officers hurt. An officer that I knew for a long time got hurt and twelve troops were wounded. I guess the good man up above is just looking out for me. I have been real lucky so far. That is where I saw Fred Siverly but I don’t think he was there when they got hit. He was probably out in that hill that they stay most all the time unless his tank breaks down. Then they come in to get it repaired. I don’t think I am getting old, but I will be twenty-nine in about twenty nine days. I was talking to the First Sgt. Awhile ago. He will be thirty-nine September 17th. He has the same birthday as me. He said “we would have to get together and have a beer.”
The letters that follow came in after Earl was killed on 9-9-66. His body came in on his birthday September 17th.
August 19, 1966 – Friday evening – We have been getting a lot of rain over here, and it has been a little cooler than usual. This is going to be a short letter. I was planning on writing later this afternoon, but we are leaving here going to Quaing Tri – That is up close to the DMZ – up at Dong Ha where Hasting went on. We are going up there by the air strip, so it will probably be about the same job as here – just watching the strip up there. When I saw Don Singer, he told me he would go home in December. Anyway, I will be next. If I make it to Dec., I can stand on my head the rest of the time and I know I will make it to then because it is really just around the corner you know.
August 26, 1966 – Friday evening – This is the first letter I have written since last Friday. We left Saturday morning and we are up about 7000 yards from the DMZ. We have been up here about 4 days now and have been catching hell! I started to write a couple times but we have been shooting all we could at this big rock that is an ammo dump for the v.c. I have fired a few hundred rounds in the last 2 days and the air planes have been hitting that thing one time after the other. The ole v.c. have quit firing back now. They were in caves in that rock and hard to get out. This is the same area where Hasting took place, my platoon the 3rd. of “C” Company tanks have been making out pretty good. Nobody got hurt yet. We all live in the old tank. This morning we were moving down this trail and I look back behind the tank and I saw a pigtail hanging out from under a helmet. It was a girl. I said to myself no it can’t be – this close to the front lines, but it was. She was climbing those hills just like a marine, with that camera. I guess she was a war correspondent or a reporter. One thing about these operations the time sure does fly. I have to keep asking what day it is and sometimes I have to ask 3 or 4 people because nobody keeps up with the days. Staying alive is the important thing to everybody at a time like this. I haven’t shaved in 7 days. I did wash up a little while ago. I have my camera out here and I will take a couple pictures before I shave. There is no water here. They fly in a little once in awhile – just for drinking.
August 31, 1966 – Wednesday evening – We are back about 10,000 meters from where we were before. We pulled into here yesterday. Now we are firing long range artillery fire about 10 to 14 miles. The artillery can’t fire that far but we can so that is what we are doing. Shooting up on the DMZ and sometimes over, I think, and we really have been using up the ammo. I have fired more in the last 2 days than I have in all my time in tanks I think. I am glad to be back in a way, but they hit this place 2 nights ago before we got back here. Killed 78 v.c. only about 12 marines got wounded and 3 dead. I don’t think they will try this place again anytime soon. The name of this place is Cam Lo. It is a small village above Dong Ha and Quang Tri.
September 2, 1966 – Friday evening – It rained last night and it sure is hot this afternoon. We fired about 150 rounds last night anywhere from 7 to 14 miles. Up around the DMZ . This morning we had to break out a lot of ammo and load the tanks again. I don’t get much sleep, just a nap now and then because we are shooting off and on for 24 hours a day but that is better than moving around and getting stuck in the mud with the tanks.
September 3, 1966 – Saturday – I slept most of the day. We were supposed to get hit last night but old Charlie didn’t show up. We fired 202 rounds somewhere out there anyway – so this morning at 2 o’clock we were breaking out ammo to shoot. I sure was glad to see daylight come. This afternoon I washed 2 sets of clothes. When I hang clothes out, it is like running them through a dryer. It only takes them about 15 minutes to dry and that is not even wringing the water out of them, so this sun gets pretty hot in the daytime. I am use to it now but when I first got over here I could only work about 15 minutes and then take a break – but not now. I can really tell these new guys when they come in.
September 5, 1966 – Monday evening – I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday. We were busy all day straightening out ammo because the General is supposed to come and see us today. Well he just come in, I will be glad when he leaves so I can get some sleep and the troops also. When you stay up all night except for a couple hours sleep you get kinda tired and sleepy the next day. I’ll bet he got a good night sleep last night probably in an air conditioned room down at De nang. There I go complaining again, but I get so fed up sometimes at these big wheels over here. But there is one thing for sure they don’t bother us at night, they stay back in the rear somewhere. We are short a lot of people in the company. Some of these guys are going into their 14th month and they are still here. I know they feel awful. They keep saying we are going to get a lot in. The First Sgt. Says we will be over strength around Nov., Dec., Jan., Feb. so things look good right now. I know the first of the year we had 7 people too many in our platoon. This rotation is messed up at times over here.
September 6, 1966 Tuesday evening – We are still here at Cam Lo and this whole area stinks like a pig pen. We are set up in an old rice paddy or a water buffalo pasture or something. We got in a new CO today. I heard someone say he was an ex motor transport officer. Oh, one of the PFC’s in our platoon got accidentally shot today in the leg. He and his buddy was playing with a 45 pistol – the bullet went right through. (The end of the journal.)