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Veteran Profiles

Lance Corporal Phillip Mort, USMC

Part 4 - Vietnam – take two

Read part 3

"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."
              Lance Corporal Phillip Mort, USMC

For many, a tour of duty in Vietnam was a life-changing event. Unlike every war America had fought before, Vietnam had no formal lines of combat. US troops would fight valiantly to free a village or hill from the control of the Vet Cong only to be ordered to withdraw the next day by arm chair generals fighting the war in the safety of plush setting of Saigon or the Pentagon, ceding the village once again back to the enemy – then ordering the troops to retake the village or hill again the following week. For many solders, it was a senses waste of lives.

Unwelcomed upon their return, many feltl bitter about the perceived blame placed upon them for the state of affairs in Vietnam, and the growing anti-war movement that demonized those who had answered their countries call to duty, while at the same time glorifying those who had fled the country to avoid the draft.

It was not a happy time for Vietnam vets. Phillip Mort was no exception.

With six months left in his hitch, Phil’s return to his old stomping grounds in Emmitsburg was more a nightmare then a reprieve from military life. When his 30 days of leave were up, Phil returned to Camp Lejeune.

Actually, to be accurate, he escaped to Camp Lejeune. Things had not gone well for Phil during the 30 days. With his marriage clearly over, Phil found he had nothing to lose, that attitude landed him in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital following a major car wreck in Fairfield.

Unable to stand the tedium at the hospital, Phil walkout without permission – going on AWOL for all intents and purposes. The next day he called his sergeant and told him what he had done. The Sergeant, understanding his plight, told him to report to the base. Nothing more was ever said of the accident or his escape from the hospital.

Once back at Camp Lejeune Phil struggled to regain some semblance of normalcy, but like the hospital, the ho-hom nature of daily life at Camp Lejeune ate away at Phil. Mowing lawns and KP duty, while clearly less hazardous then his assignments in Vietnam left Phil feeling empty.

When he asked for a more useful assignment, he was offered a LST sailing in the Mediterranean. While some might have jumped at the chance for a free Mediterranean cruise, Phil saw the assignment as just another way to waste his life. So he asked what for many was the unthinkable – a return to Vietnam to finish out his tour with the buddies he had left behind.

Phil sergeant agreed, but as tours in Vietnam had to be a year long, Phil first had to agree to a six-month extension of his original enlistment. He agreed.

Shortly thereafter, Phil found himself once again on a plane headed to Vietnam. While many on the plane spent the trip worrying about what was to come next, for Phil, the ride was spent planning reunions for old friends.

Unfortunately for Phil, in classic a military screw-up which solders defined using the acronym of SN-FUBAR, he discovered his unit had been rotated out of Vietnam, so the commitment he had been give to resume service with his buddies could not be honored. Having been previously been trained as a machine gunner, he was instead assigned to serve as a door gunner in a Huey helicopter unit at the Phu Bai Marine Air Base.

"Bird 20 was my helicopter. It had 2 pilots and two gunners. Every day we flew out into the surrounding country to support troops on patrol and convoys making supply runs. If a patrol got into trouble, we would be called in and ‘rake’ the area with bullets where the enemy were firing from.

"As the helicopter would come into range of ground fire, the Viet Cong would shift their fire from the troops on the ground to the helicopter. That was expected as a single helicopter had more firepower then an entire squad of troops.

"As you came in, you could see the bullets coming towards you. A machine gun round looks like a beer can coming at you. Not the bullets themselves, but the bright light surrounding the tracers. Tracers are bullets that are built with a small pyrotechnic charge in their base. Ignited by the burning powder, the pyrotechnic composition burns very brightly, making the path of the bullet visible to the naked eye. This enables the shooter to follow the bullet trajectory in order to make aiming correction.

"But as a military adage puts it, ‘tracers work both ways.’ All I had to do was point my gun in opposite direction - let me tell you, a 50 caliber machine gun can put a heck of a lot more bullets in a shorter time and over a wider area then a AK-47. Once the VC (Viet Cong) new they were being zeroed in on, they would stop shooting.

"The ‘skin’ of the helicopter offered no protection from incoming rounds. The bottom line was, if a bullet was going to hit you, it was going to hit you. Fortunately, it was the helicopter, not me, that was hit. One day we got hit so bad that the helicopter was put out of action and I was transferred to another helicopter, and the war went on.

"Life as a gunner on a helicopter was a lot different then my prior job as a truck driver. Every night I got to sleep in the same rack. When not in the air, I could head over to the enlisted club on the base and drink beers – we called it ‘swinging with the wing’. But I still had to do my fair share of KP and guard duty.

"One night, while performing barracks patrol, I came across a Sergeant who was trying to kill himself. He had received a ‘Dear John’ letter from his wife. He was only 18. He couldn’t take it anymore. I sat and talked to him, eventually I was able to take the rifle from him and get him help. But it left me wondering if people back at home truly knew what we were going through.

"Every day we faced death, the only thing that keep most of us going was knowing that we had loved ones at home that loved us – getting a "Dear John" letter destroy that illusion and left little to live for.

"I often wonder what happened to that Sergeant - thankfully, while he loved one proved unfaithful, his marine family did not let him down. The medics jump in to help him, and when I left, I knew he was in good hands.

"My second tour ended in 1969 – I was still only 20 years old. This time, when I returned to Emmitsburg, there was no thought of returning to Vietnam. I had done my duty and it was time to get on with my civil life – and I did.

For a while.

"No matter what job I took, none seemed as fulfilling as serving my country. And when my country called again to help free to people of Kuwait, I once again answered it. But I’ll save that story for later.

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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