Vietnam, U.S. Marine Corps
[Joseph Giannini was a U.S. Marine Corps Platoon Leader in Vietnam. He works as a criminal lawyer, is a hard-core surfer, and writes short stories. He is from Brooklyn, and now lives in Long Island with his family. He was interviewed by Nina Talbot at the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights, on October 19, 2010. Men Don't Cryem> is one of Giannini's short stories.]
Men Don't Cry
by Joseph Giannini
The alarm is set for 4:30 A.M. I wake suddenly at 4:28 A.M. A trick I learned in the Marine Corps. I re-set the alarm to 6:30 for Nikki. I have to be on the 5:58 train from Amagansett to New York City. I have a robbery case, on for trial, in Kings Supreme Court. Get out of bed. Pull on a pair of sweats. Walk into our kitchen. Give Cody a milk bone. Let him out back and Mr. Hobbes in from his nightly hunt. Pour some cat food into a bowl and milk in another. Put them down. Get the coffee going. Turn on the radio. It’s set to NPR. I’ve tuned into a program about men crying in public. Listen while I brush my teeth, shave and shower. The consensus: Crying in public isn’t cool. Unless it’s from grief. There are other exceptions. Nothing about war.
Vic, my Dad, taught me not to cry in public. He was a tough guy. Grew up on the rough streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Built like a fireplug. Large square shoulders. Strong arms. Big hands. Powerful legs. He loved to fight and to box. Was an undefeated Welter Weight Champ in the Army. His toughest fight, in the ring, was against a very fast black boxer. The guy kept moving and avoiding Vic’s punches, then countering and scoring effectively. Vic saw that when he threw his right the guy usually moved left. Vic threw two left jabs. Feinted a right. Then shot it where he thought the guy would move. He did. The punch landed. Broke his jaw. Blood spilled from his mouth and left ear.
I was five when Vic started teaching me how to box. Everything off the left jab. Double it up. Go up and down. End with a hook. He was involved in the boxing game. Would sometimes take me to the local gyms. By 6 I was meeting some of the pros, like Rocky Castellano and Lulu Perez. Regulars on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. With Vic I saw some of the greatest fights and fighters: like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Carmine Basilio. He was teaching me to be tough.
One night Vic came into my room. I jumped up to greet him. Standing on my bed I was equal to his shoulders. Holding up his opened palms he said, “O.K. kid, let me see what you’ve got.” I shot off two left jabs. Both slammed into his right palm. Then a straight right that missed his left palm. Hit him in the mouth. He started to counter with a left hook. I flinched as he caught himself. He touched his lower lip. Looked at the blood on his fingers and said, ”You’ve got heavy hands.“
My father taught me many things: Men don’t hit women; men don’ t show affection in public; nothing is black and white; don’t judge a man by his color; Republicans are for the rich man, Democrats for the working man; lose your head, lose your fight; always get in the first punch; life doesn’t get easier and men don’t cry.
In December 1967 Vic is 47. I’m 23 in Vietnam leading a Marine rifle platoon. My Battalion, First Battalion Third Marines, aka ”The Home Of The Brave,“ is ordered to occupy a hill up north near Gio Lin. Called Alpha Three. It’s right below the DMZ, aka the Dead Marine Zone. Our mission is to defend the hill and the Navy Seabees building a combat case on it.
It’s the monsoon season. Cold, windy, with unrelenting torrential rains. We chopper in at dusk. Move onto the Hill under the cover of darkness. In no time we are soaked to the bone, freezing, and miserable. We stake out a perimeter and dig in. There isn’t any dry ground. Ultimately we lay down in the mud. In my mind I keep repeating ”This will be over some day.“ I curl into a fetal position. Wedge my hands between my legs. Try to grab my Beach Dream, about lying on a beach in the sun back home. The cold rains keep washing it away.
This soon to-be Combat Base will be part of the McNamara Line. A string of bases extending from the China Sea west to the Laotian border. The concept being, the defenders will use electronic surveillance to detect the North Vietnamese Army coming down from the DMZ. Then intercept and destroy them. I don’t think so.
The night slowly passes without incident. The next day one of our patrols walks into a command-detonated claymore. Suffers two KIAs and several WIAs. The NVA are watching us from their camouflaged positions in the surrounding jungle. The incoming starts: artillery, mortars, recoilless rifles. Most deadly, rockets with delayed detonating fuses. These rockets can penetrate anything the Seabees can build. We dig deeper, knowing that surviving is just luck. This hill could be a smaller Dien Ben Phu. A 1954 battle in the French Indo China War. The Viet Min, now the NVA, surrounded 15,000 French soldiers and decisively defeated them. Ending that war and beginning this one.
The incoming is continuously intermittent. Leaving your hole is a deadly decision. Some Marines have been killed using the piss tube or shitter. We become giant filthy rodents. Fearfully darting in and about.
On December 7, the sun breaks through. The rains stop. I look up and out. It’s quiet. I wait. Listen. No incoming. Cautiously I come out. It’s still quiet. I begin to stretch and look around. Suddenly two short whistles, artillery rounds, go right over my head. They explode in my platoon position. Right where the Fucking New Guys are standing. They disappear in a large brown cloud We have been suckered! I dive back into my bunker. Rounds continue falling onto our position. Deafening thumps shaking the earth. More so on my previous platoon, Bravo One, tied into our right flank.
Someone yells, ”Corpsman up, Corpsman up.“ I push down my fear and run to the new guys. One has been hit in the right hind. A huge piece of flesh has been ripped away leaving a gaping red crater and his leg dislodged from his hip. The other has lost his right arm–severed at the elbow. I find his muddy limb. Put it with him in his poncho. Both are carried toward the Field Hospital. Lucky bastards. Only two days In Country and they’re rotating back to the World. Million Dollar Wounds.
I run over to Bravo One’s position. Some of their bunkers have taken direct hits. There are many casualties, including the platoon leader, Lieutenant Grosshans. Bravo one was my first command. I had the platoon for five months. I was getting too close to them and they were taken from me. They start calling out to me,”How bad is it Lieutenant?“ Meaning how bad are they hit. They all have multiple shrapnel wounds. I assure each one, ”You’re OK and you’re out of here.“ Each Marine is laid in his own poncho and carried away. The sun disappears behind low gray clouds. Cold, wind-driven rains sweep over the hill. I don’t hide my tears. Out here, men cry.