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Phu Bai Fireworks on the Fourth of July: Dan Shea Interviews the Mystery Marine

By Dan Shea

Another snapshot of in-country small arms use- the infamous “Mad Minute” where everyone fired everything at anything outside of the safe zone. This is a legendary US tactic from Vietnam. There are those who swore by it, and there are those in authority who swore at it and forbade it. Herewith, the story of an atypical “Mad Minute” that rocked the night early on, for different reasons than one usually hears. We hope that the Mystery Marine never gets his paycheck docked for this one.

SAR- So, M— , When did you land in-country?

MM- August of 1965 we boarded a troopship from San Diego to Okinawa for advanced guerilla warfare training, but the boat pulled into Okinawa and kept on going. We had an LST landing at DaNang, in the middle of a firefight at Marble Mountain- we had no gear, no weapons. It was pretty impressive to us, and we unassed the LSTs, and they put us into a C130 right to Chu Lai - white sand and all.

SAR- Part of the runway was done for the C130 landing?

MM- Operation Starlight was just ending, and the runway was not completely up yet, but there was enough for us to land. I got off the C130 and walked by two six-bys of dead Marines in body bags, headed out of the fighting. That was quite a shock. At this point, there were operations going on, and we still didn’t have weapons. I ended up at Regimental HQ... the First Sergeant came out and four of us were at attention and he asked us which unit we wanted. He pointed to each unit, 1 / 4 down by the river, 2 / 4 in the mountains, or 3 / 4 down in the sand- I chose 1 / 4. At 1 / 4 the company issued weapons on the spot- I received an M14- almost new- web gear, 5 magazines, bayonet, etc.

SAR- Was the M14 semi auto?

MM- It was issued as a semi auto only. Marine fire teams were composed of four riflemen, three on semi auto aimed fire, and one had full auto. He was the “Automatic Rifleman” for the team. The squad of 13 men had three fire teams and a squad leader. One M79 40mm grenade launcher was usually issued. The squad leader had a 1911A1 pistol and many times the M79 or a rifle, or both. We did have 12 gauge shotguns as well. I never had one.

SAR- How effective was the theory of the fire team- three on semi and one Automatic Rifleman?

MM- There was an active black market in selector sets for the M14s and as soon as you could connect with the “Dealer”... you had it full auto. We found that full auto fire made us feel better, and was more effective at suppressive fire. My five magazines grew to ten. We felt that part of our mission was peace through superior firepower. We had a sniper pinning us down once, and we called in a 105mm fire mission on that one sniper. A bit of overkill, but it was certainly effective, the company commander had called it in and he caught hell over it, but the trees were disappearing and we liked it. Sniper was gone, so it worked.

SAR- Did you ever receive any of the M16 series?

MM- In the last few months I was there, the Recon units were receiving the M16 series, in late 1966. That was when I first saw these.

SAR- How was the sand on the weapons? Chu Lai was notorious for that...

MM- We stole the runway pads from the Engineers and Seabees to improvise our bunkers, and have floors. We kept our weapons clean- that made all the difference in functioning in that sandy, dusty place. Ammunition and hand grenades were refreshed on demand- never any problem there. We had frags and willie peter. We just picked out what we wanted, I usually had three or four frags on me, didn’t like Willie Peter too much. It comes back and just a touch is agonizing.

SAR- How long were you at Chu Lai?

MM- About six months- then 4th Marines moved to Phu Bai- we had to deal with the military problems at Hue. We had an ammo dump there at Phu Bai, and they were rotating Battalions- we were called the Gypsies, because the 4th kept moving around. My platoon had ammo dump guard duty. I was A-gunner on the M 60 on that duty. I still had the M14 - we were secure so I didn’t have to hump ammo, but I had to deal with listening posts and small patrols. The perimeter was probed a lot. Duty was rotated from secured to the line or out on a mission. Personally, I didn’t go out unless I had to. I saw General Westmoreland show up once for a base tour. Westy didn’t go out either.

SAR- How was the ‘sixty?

MM- I was the A-gunner, but I did fire it, and found it excellent- keep your eyes closed between the bursts... at night, and I just about blinded myself- yes, I am joking, but the flash could really ruin your night vision. Sort of take aim, close eyes, fire. Open eyes, aim, close eyes, fire. I know it sounds crazy, but at least you could see something to aim at under the illumination, where if you tried to stay on the sights at night, you were going to blind yourself totally- no realistic aiming at all.

Phu Bai had a chow hall, barbers, everything you might want. Phu Bai was the jumping off point for the new operations in Khe Sanh and moving north.

SAR- Was tracer used much?

MM- We had all we wanted. I figured that if I fired one, Charlie knew where I was. They helped you spot and get on target, but tracers do work both ways. Today I still like them for plinking and shooting my AR15s and registered M16s etc. There was one event with tracers that was fairly remarkable.

SAR- Really? In a firefight?

MM- No, well to tell the truth, it was a particularly dull night, and it happened on the Fourth of July 1966. We were sitting up on perimeter at Phu Bai, and I had this pile of tracer, and I had this rifle, and I had these magazines, and it seemed like a natural thing to do for an American Fighting Man to celebrate the Fourth of July, so I stuffed two mags full of twenty rounds each and placed the buttstock on a sandbag, and launched the first mag full auto into the air out over the jungle. It was so pretty watching the tracers arc up and burn out that I immediately emptied the second mag the same way.

SAR- Sounds pretty neat...

MM- Yeah, except the entire base opened up- people shooting every shadow, burning every tracer they could find, and the Squad leaders running up and down the line trying to get a cease fire, and find who started it, but the Mad Minute went for thirty minutes. I jumped down into my foxhole holding the M14, and the barrel had gotten so hot that I knew that I was in deep do - do. So I crawled under the concertina wire out to one of the listening posts and traded rifles with the Marine there- they were pretty pissed off about it, being out front with a Mad Minute and all, but they traded rifles anyway, and when the squad leader came checking rifles, my M14 was cool.

SAR- So, you got away with this?

MM- Sort of, they kept saying they knew I did it, but they couldn’t prove it, and I got sent out to the listening posts regularly. The next few days were full of formations and accusations, lots of asschewings, as they explained to us how much money the United States government had spent in our Mad Half Hour, between the 60mm and 81mm mortars firing illumination rounds, and the incredible amount of ammo that the M60s and M14s had fired off in that two mile perimeter.

SAR- So, do you think there is an Amnesty on this event yet... care to take public credit for it?

MM- No, just call me the “Mystery Marine”, Gunnery Sergeant Lambert probably still has a case of the redass about this... I wouldn’t want LP duty today.... One of those nights on a listening post, part of my penance for my obvious but unchargable guilt that night, things heated up and the mortars were firing illumination rounds to deal with the probing from Charlie, and we were laying on our ponchos 100 yards out in front of the concertina wire, and we heard a short round- whoosh- whoosh- whoosh, and the canister landed right between the two of us, and launched its parachute right over us, spinning and burning, bright sparkly light, and we ran like all get out screaming “Don’t shoot! Friendly” as we got hung up on the concertina wire. If there was ever a time, that was it, but no one opened up on us. I’ve already done my penance for the great Phu Bai Fourth of July USMC Night Exhibition and Training Fire incident. - MRB


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