Imperialism moved forward, not as a result of commercial or political pressure from London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, or even Washington, but mainly because of men on the periphery, many of whom were soldiers, pressed to enlarge the boundaries of empire, often without orders, even against orders.
–Douglas Porch, professor, Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island, 1996
“Dave, are we fucked?”
My teammate, corporal David Merwin, First Platoon, First Force Recon Co., United Stated Marine Corps was at his badass best at this moment. Four hours earlier, Dave and I locked out of the forward escape chamber of a submerged Navy submarine, surfacing in the Straight of Formosa for what was supposed to be a twenty minute swim to a spot on the beach. It was a training mission to clandestinely reconnoiter suitable helicopter landing sites for a Combined Forces Exercise in which elements of the U.S. Marines and marine forces of the Government of the Republic of China would stage a mock invasion of the mainland.
Our launch had been scrubbed the night before due to the swiftness of the litoral current. It was not much slower on this night, but Central Command said it needed to go off because the main exercise was to take place in six days. So, we’re in the water trying to swim an Easterly compass course while being pushed Southwest by a current that was about a half mile an hour faster than we were swimming. By a miracle, we avoided getting swept out into the South China Sea when we managed to push into a cove at the very southern tip of the island, and in the quiet eddy finished the swim, dragged ourselves inland and got our bearings. The rest of the exercise went off about as planned and, three nights later we were pulled off the island by a chinese fishing vessel hired for the mission.
Others of us were not so lucky. I was relaxing back at base camp a few nights later when I was called out of the base movie theatre by my commanding officer. By then, the mock invasion was in full swing, with several hundred troops, support vehicles and weapons making landfalls off ships. Some advance troops, members of a combat recon platoon went missing. My CO volunteered me and Gunnery Sargent Patterson to go looking for them. We were dispached in the dark by helicopter to God knows where with a map and instructions to poke around in the area where they were supposed to be and then rendesvous with a helicopter at 800 hours the next day at some other place. If this sounds like the stupid idea a half drunk captain thought up at the officers’ club, it damn sure was.
Gunny Pat and I were duly dropped off in the jungle and began our search in the dark. We did not know where we were and we did not find the missing men. We did run into other troops. A column of Marines came by us as we paused by a stream. They were carrying what looked like a log wrapped in a shelter half. It was a dead Marine. He’d been bitten by a cobra. We’re losing a guy on an exercise without a shot fired in anger. Disheartening.
Daybreak found us at a bend in a road beside a native village. We decided this was the rendesvous location. We moved out on a dry rice paddy to wait for the helicopter. Hearing the sound of a helo in the distance, we broke open a smoke bomb and waved as it came over. It kept on going. We were in a flight path, and helicopters were passing over regularly. They were not taking notice of us. By now, the villagers had all gathered around the rice paddy and they just thought it was hilarious that we were waving and setting off smoke signals and the helos were flat out ignoring us.
Eventually, one of them landed. “What do you want?” the pilot asked. “You’re supposed to pick us up, right?” we said. “Not that I know,” he replies, “Where are you going?” “Any fucking where you are, sir!” I said. He ferries us back to his base and we go into base ops to explain that we need to get back to our outfit at Kaohsiung Naval Base. We are instructed to get on the mail helicopter. The helo takes off, gets to two thousand feet and has a massive engine failure, which the pilot manages to correct before we crash. He lands us back where we started and we are now looking for alternate transport.
Eventally, we hitch a ride with a supply truck and, two days later, get back to our outfit. We head over to the officers’ quarters to report back to our CO, and are informed that he has been rotated back Stateside, and his replacement has been wondering why the hell we were missing roll call.
The troops we were looking for were eventually found. They never got to the beach. They were making their landing by rubber boats and they were swept out to sea, ending up on an out island. Scuttlebutt was the natives were friendly. Fed them, did their laundry. Could have been worse.
I made none of this up. If you have served in the Armed Forces, you understand it was SNAFU. If you do not know what that means, you could look it up in Wikipedia.
Cpl. USMC, 1957-60