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Veteran Profiles

Lance Corporal Phillip Mort, USMC

Part 2 - Surviving the Tet Offensive of ‘68

Read Part 1

"I don’t understand the fascination with war video games. Video games are not the real thing. Kids think that once you get shot, all you have to do is hit a button and you go on. In real war, when you get shot, you go down and it hurts... and you may never get up again. War in not fun, war is pure hell... a terrible thing."

It was hot outside. The temperature was already pushing 102 degrees and was headed higher. The humidity was so thick that the word "oppressive" would not do it justice. But thankfully, the weather was supposed to change that night and the weeklong hot streak that had settled upon the area would finally be lifted. One week was more than I cared to suffer.

For Phil Mort, the 102 degree, 100 percent humidity was just a reminder of what life was like day in and day out while serving his tour in Vietnam. It set the tone for the interview that was to follow.

"So you want me to tell you what it was like to lose a friend?" replied Phil to my opening question. "OK, I can do that, but first you need to tell me how many friends and how often?"

"Wow," I thought, this was going to be harder interview than I had imagined.

"First off, you have to understand. I, like just about everyone else, was in my own world. All we wanted to do was survive and go home. Every day I saw death and destruction. People I saw in the morning were dead in the evening. When fresh replacements showed up, you didn’t want to know their names. You didn’t want to know where they were from; you didn’t want to know anything about them. It was easier that way. One day they would be there, and the next day they were dead. The only way you could survive was to become numb to the world around you.

"The Tet Offensive was in full swing. Everyone was getting attacked, so my unit was constantly on the road. Everyone needed ammo and we were the best way to get it to them in the quantities they needed.

"On a return run from Khe Sanh, we ran into an ambush at a place called ‘Rock Pile.’ It was called that because it was a pile of rocks. The Viet Cong had built a hospital deep within it and we were always getting ambushed there. When the mortars started to fall, I jumped out of my truck and hid behind it. Seconds later I saw a shell explode 15 feet away. It was pure luck that it missed me. We lost a lot of good soldiers that afternoon before the battle was over.

"We no sooner returned to our base at Dong Ha than we got orders to load up and head to Hue. Hue was the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Prior to the war, it was one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam. But it was ground zero for the Tet Offensive. It was nearly captured by the Viet Cong and was only reclaimed by the US Marines and the South Vietnamese after weeks of block-by-block fighting that left the city in ruins.

"The convoy for Hue was miles long. The first truck to roll had left hours before I ever left the base. I passed a truck that had hit a mine in the road. There was nothing anyone could do but push it off the road into a rice paddy. There was not time to stop and mourn. The convoy had to keep rolling. I was just about to cross a bridge when I saw a friend from Fountaindale, Denny Martin. He had parked his jeep in the water and was cleaning it. I only had a few moments to stop and talk to him before I had to get rolling again. It was a surreal moment, catching up on old times next to a blown up truck in a rice paddy.

"But back to your original question – what was it like to lose a friend. It was hard. Before I had left for Vietnam, I had married a girl from Emmitsburg. She was a Catholic, and I was a Reformed. As we planned on raising a family, I agreed to become a Catholic and George was my teacher while I was in Vietnam.

"We didn’t have churches or meeting rooms to meet in. Instead, George would give me books and material to read and we would talk when we could. I really grew to like him. George had 30 days left in his tour, and when we finished talking about religion, he would talk about going home. He was looking forward to getting married to his long-time girlfriend and raising a family. An avid baseball fan, he already had tickets to the first game he could attend upon his return.

"I was about to graduate and become a Catholic. One morning, after a fierce mortar attack on the base, I dropped by to say hello to George and was told he was dead – a victim of the mortar shell. I never had a chance to say goodbye.

"It really hurt me. His death broke my heart. I had seen so much death and destruction that I hand long ago become numb to it, but losing George cut through all that numbness. It cut me to the bone.

"There were a lot of guys from Emmitsburg who fought over there – Jimmy Washer, Jerry Wagerman, Sunny Humerick, Pat Topper, Billy Smith, Bob Hardman. Even though we rarely got to see each other while in Vietnam, when we did, it always allowed us to escape the horrors of the war, even if only momentarily.

"Upon our return from Hue, we were sent further south to Phu Bai and Camp Evans, then back to the camps up North. It was a continuous loop: first North, then South. We couldn’t wait for the fighting to end so we could resupply the troops; they needed the supplies then.

"While supplying the bases up North along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), you could see the B-52s drop their bombs on enemy positions north of the border. The B-52s would no sooner make their turn home after dropping their bombs than you would see columns of dirt thrown high into the air. The planes would no sooner disappear than the VC (Viet Cong) would shell the base as if to say, ‘You missed us. We’re still here.’

"One day, at Con Thien, a newly arrived officer wanted to take some photos of the DMZ and ordered a driver to take him to the top of a local hill. They had no sooner stopped than a mortar round landed in the truck’s cab. I was sent to retrieve the remains of the truck. There was nothing left of the diver and the lieutenant. The inside of the cab looked like someone had taken a fire hose full of hamburger and sprayed the inside of the truck.

"The only way you could survive those scenes was to become numb to them. War truly is hell on Earth."

Read part 3

Read other Veteran Profiles

Ruth Richard's: Emmitsburg During World War II
LtCdr Hillman's: 50 Yard Line Seats for a Show I Would Rather Have Missed

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