“Hill 52, Song Thu Bon”

Forty-seven years from

my “best” graduation date:

riverside hilltop!


  • (What a gorgeous valley – too bad some damnfools scheduled a war there to spoil much of my enjoyment – the steep lone hill at the western end of a long valley sat just above the shallow pre-monsoon stream whose curving bed featured water-smooth polished rocks between each bend and fine-grit sandbar shallows on alternating sides of the curving river which would rise to great torrents during typhoons and months-long South China Sea- and Indian Ocean-borne monsoons twice yearly.  The river, properly named Song Thu Bon, ran into the distant blue mountains disputed by American troops and our playmates from North Vietnam.  I ran out of map to see if the Thu Bon river broached those razorback ridgelines or was born in those Annamite mountains, home of native peoples the French called Montanyards, a variation of the disrespectful terms tacked onto them by the Vietnamese and Khymers who displace those former lowland dwellers into those forbidding mountains ages  in the past.  This dank, dark and rich land, with elephants and tigers in the highlands and fecund fecally fertilized soil in the lowlands is IndoChina’s Dark And Bloody Ground, much like Kentucky of our still a-borning immigrant early colonial history.  Those mountains – that overlooked Song Thu Bon – I see them still, both foreboding and welcoming, with deer and trout in their deeply cleft valleys and highland streams, strewn with boulders big as small houses, whose steeply inclined slopes featured thickets of double-and triple-canopy trees and writhing sharp-spiked vines, and whose daytime temperatures and humidity soars only to bring forth wintry chills with equal wetness from the day’s sweaty climbs come each evening, were where I encountered myself for the first time.  And the hill, a bit of dirt atop a massive boulder, really, was my painter’s perch upon which to view this panorama.  I saw many firsts there.  Some of them worth the frightening regimental combat air assault as my photographer, John Gentry, and I corkscrewed down in a three-helicopter wave as the lead aircraft in the combat assault.  It took the regimental CO to tell the platoon commander to let us ride in the first bird to hit dirt that morning that kicked off Operation Pickens Forest, the Marine Corps’ first “named” operation in Vietnam in just about a year.  After the big “ops” of 1968 and 1969, the brass decided to quit springing set-piece “named” operations by fresh and rested units and just leave those troublemaking “grunts” (infantry) out in the bush away from those sensitive folk stuck supporting those same grunts back in the rear with all the gear and all the beer and all the buxomless really bad hastily-arranged USO shows that drove those poor souls stuck in creature comfort approximating limbo for what served as partial recreation.  Drugs, brothels and eventual over-flowing racial warfare made staying out in “The Bush” the saner of the two sites by 1970.  And the little hill that could by the banks of Son Thu Bon, where my “foxhole” fighting position was a scant six inches deep and I wore a red-yellow-black Aztec-themed headband woven into the shotgun shell loops on my thoroughly illegal floppy camouflaged “Bush Hat” instead of the regulation issued helmet. I was home. And sometimes still I remain. There was a PBS special decades ago about Tarawa – actually Betio Island on Tarawa Atoll – in the Pacific War To Maybe End All Wars after the first try failed: a Marine combat artist recalled in the documentary that sometimes I still sees that shell-torn and body-strewn island right in front of my very eyes.  And sometimes, he says, I am there still. I understand.)

7 thoughts on ““Hill 52, Song Thu Bon”

    • Safer than either Bush. Got more sleep – even with radio watches – only made one ambush and one night listening post but a good dozen night marches: all fecallessly I assure you. I had not realized just how dangerous “The Rear” was until the 60 Minute-like (or actual) episodes with Harmby REMFs smoking smack outta a real shotgun receiver group. Mostly in the grunts it was All Green All The Time with no time or room for happy horseshit either by lifers or bigos (not three surprisingly sometimes both in one neatly bundled ball of three-bags-full. And this hay hem, I shall fulfill – if not do actual justice to – the pledge of “remember Jim Long.” After a tour of the tree, I shall be back anon and so do.


      • You mean you did not see the slim-longfingered nervously waving his lit cigarette like an orchestral conductor’s baton antics whist you two played chess? Besides: this comment on Hill 52 Song Thu Bon, not “Jim Long USMC.” But I accommodate. I was there but a few months into Jim Long’s arrival – fresh off my recurring paranoia which included Smitty from photo as well and perhaps included every other human but the banyan tree outside the snuffies’ barracks about which we bounded so glitteringly effusive, crushing mushrooms and all manner else vegetative in our three-man cloverleaf football drill to avoid the searching eyes of Charlie India Delta’s big ford van’s sweep-searching headlights. You, if you recall, sir, were the one who held out Jim to me and said “don’t forget Jim Long” in my chronicling haikuishly of those days and those among us who endured and enjoyed and changed them at least five-ever. You were the one to clue me in on Larry Estrada’s location – as I recall he and Jim chattered away about the Willamet (sp?) valley as refuce post Corps. As to Jim’s location: got not a clue your goodnessship.


  1. Willamette! Knew that was the way, just got tentative. I recall the rap session – a failed Thursday whose only success was the avoidance of another Field Day Thursday at K-Bay Towers, otherwise nomened EM Barracks. Perhaps we shudda: but considering the indistinct – though not impossible, just massively improbable – possibility it happened, where would that have left us? Not sure about thee, but I could not have carried off the necessary maturity and (forget single-) mindedness required for such an endeavor would have turned me raving (ok, moreso than what transpired and continues so to do). A movie? Wag The Globe? Marty Handlesman – see: I knew Shakey’s name would come to me – would have made a convincing foil as the outgoing Secretary of State sure to poison our smoke-clouded plans to turn The World into a frisbee park. You wanna tackle the first draft?


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