49 years have flown by. Marriage, children, a career and retirement and still Vietnam haunts me and the Marines I served with are clear in my mind.
Images that can never be forgot include, Doc Long racing across the wire at Khe Sanh with a 180 pound marine on his shoulder, Gunny Latona walking up the hill and the whole company standing to cheer, after the horrors of August 22nd. But today I want to talk about one marine who was special to me our best machine gunner, Charles Keathley.
Family, friends and members of his team knew Keathley better, but I can only tell what lingers in my memory as his platoon commander. I knew Keathley for only five months, but those days were filled with the kind of stress that tells a lot about a man. Will he move forward at the sound of the guns? Will he be there when you need him? There were fifty men in my platoon and I trusted them constantly with my life, but if I had to pick one, Keathley was the one I wanted covering my back.
I can still see him as he was then, 19 years old and full of life. I was crouched down along a jungle trail looking at a map with my platoon sergeant as the platoon passed slowly by. I looked up see Keathley approaching, tall and strong with 80 pounds of gear and an M-60 machine gun over his shoulder. Sweat was rolling down his dusty face but he gave me a grin as he passed by.
In that far off war new troops rotated into the platoon on a regular basis. I joined Bravo, First Battalion, Ninth Marines in December and Keathley came in February the worst of all possible times to join us. We were on the outside perimeter of the combat base in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam, Khe Sanh. We were surrounded by 20,000 NVA troops who were looking for a chance to overrun us.
What I remember best about Keathley was his calmness. He had the physical confidence of a large man but it went deeper with him. It made him a valuable man whose calmness worked on his team. He was the chief gunner on a machine gun team located in a rocky trench/bunker about 25 feet from my command post ( picture a 4 foot by 7 foot hole in the ground) We were first given orders to build our gun bunkers high with clear fields of fire and three or more layers of sandbags above, to protect against mortars. Keathley and his team built the best bunker on our line. It looked like a mini castle with sandbag fitted carefully. It must have taken them a week to build it and within two days of finishing it I was called into a company meeting and told, “The Colonel says that all those bunkers have to come down. They make too good a target and need to be level with the ground and camouflaged.” Marines are not taught to dig in and fight in the defense so we were learning as we went.
If I remember right, Keathley cursed once fluently and set about dismantling the castle.
We were on a rocky hill about 800 meters off the airstrip, closer to those NVA controlled hills that towered above us and we were told we weren’t allowed to patrol beyond sight of our lines so we were pretty much stuck in place. I got to spend a lot of time visiting the troops and it quickly became apparent to me that Keathley was something special. He had sandy hair and blue eyes and an easy smile. I remember SSgt Houk my platoon sgt telling me Keathly had an IQ about 130 or more. He was smarter than the average marine, probably smarter than me.
A couple of incidents come to mind that made him stand out. I came up on him one morning when he was red eyed and tired. I asked him what was the matter and he said, “Well, we got this assistant gunner in two days ago, and I caught the son of a bitch asleep the first night. I smacked him on the helmet so hard it rang. Anyway, last night I stood my watch and then woke him for the 12 to 2 watch and I kept myself awake just to see if he would go back to sleep. I don’t want to get my throat cut cause this idiot can’t keep awake.” He could have reported the guy but he took care of it himself and he and his assistant gunner became good friends.
A second incident showed his ingenuity. When I was checking the trenches one day I noticed that he had a gun can down in his fighting hole that had copper wire coming out of the top of it. “Keathley” I said, “What the hell is this?” He looked up from under his helmet and gave me a small grin. “It’s a still L.T.” I was intrigued so he showed me how it worked. He had found some un-popped pop-corn which lay about an inch thick on the bottom of the metal box and he had covered it with a half inch of water and some sugar. After the mixture had fermented for a couple of days he had set a heat tab fire under it and the way I understand it, the steam created in the closed gun case went up the twisted copper coil and as it cooled it dripped down into an empty metal canteen. When I saw it, there was about an inch of grain alcohol in the canteen. He let me taste it. It didn’t taste like much, but it was potent.
I suppose if I had been a “by the book” officer I would have told him to break it down and maybe run him up to the Captain for punishment, but I was so in awe of his ingenuity that I couldn’t help but grin and say, “Don’t get too drunk Keathley” and continue on my rounds. We were surrounded. We couldn’t get mail or ammo some days. How in the hell did he get what he needed for a still?? Many of the southern boys knew how to brew moonshine and ammo cans were a dime a dozen, but where did he get that copper tubing? Turns out there was a Seabee outfit at the airstrip who built the bunkers for the brass. He had actually gone down there and traded something for it.
Later in the month he got to put his machine gun to good use. When the enemy took a small hill 100 meters in front of our lines I led most of the platoon on an assault to take it back. I left Keathley and his team to cover us by fire from the lines. We were hurled back from the crest of the hill by automatic rifle fire and a hail of hand grenades that killed Sgt Mosso next to me in line. As we were tumbling back off the crest of the hill, Keathley poured fire on that hill with his machine gun giving us time to regroup. We lay 20 feet off the crest of the hill and Keathley’s M-60 fire kept them from raising their heads. We took a bunch of casualties but we finally took the hill and brought back our dead and wounded. When I came in I went up to thank him for the covering fire. “Lieutenant, when I saw all Sgt Mosso go down and all those grenades go off I lit up that hill. I think I went through 6000 rounds this morning.”
When we finally broke out of the siege in early April we moved out of the combat base and up into the dangerous hills that surrounded the airstrip. I don’t know where he found it but somewhere on the blasted hill Keathley found an orphaned baby Vietnamese pot bellied pig that he befriended. It was about the size of a large kitten but with a cute little snout. It had wiry black hair and a sort of grey skin. Keathley would sit there on the side of the hill holding that little pig as it would nuzzle into his chest. The pig became a platoon favorite and when Keathley had to go on patrol he would leave the pig with a friend or else at the bottom of his foxhole. We were there about 10 days and I think he took it with us when we were lifted out onto Rt. 9, but I don’t remember what happened after that.
April, May and June were very difficult times for Bravo 1/9 and we were constantly on the go. The weather was hotter than Khe Sanh and we all lost weight. There were platoon, company and even Battalion sized patrols and Keathley was always there with the M-60 over his shoulder and a quiet grin on his face.
It was late in June and we were out on a large sweep near Dong Ha Mountain, an area we called, “Indian Country” when I had a very unusual conversation with Keathley. The terrain was hilly and covered with enough brush to an NVA regiment. Initially I left the guns back to give us cover if we ran into something but after an hour on that hot day we had gone 800 meters and I called the guns up. We had a short sharp exchange that didn’t cause any casualties, but we knew the NVA were out there. As we were swinging back towards the Battalion we were strung out along a trail when our rear guard spotted NVA coming up behind us. I don’t know who called for it, but Keathley lay down on the trail and the squad threw leaves and grass over him. He would trigger the ambush. I don’t know what went on in his head cause he was in an exposed position. Afterwards he told me he was worried about whether he had a round seated or the safety off. If he moved it could tip off the enemy. If the round was not seated and safety off he could die.
He let the NVA come trotting up the trail until they were 15 feet away when he opened up killing the lead man and two others. Then the whole platoon opened fire. We followed them down to a clearing where Johnson was killed and I called off the sweep.
That night we talked a bit after dark and Keathley told me. “When they came up the trail I could see them for 30 meters or so and they couldn’t see me. They were moving quickly and as they got close I could see that they were just kids and when the leading guy looked up and I could see his eyes, when he finally saw me. I pulled the trigger and blew three of them away. I know I had to do it but they were just kids… maybe younger than us.”
We talked on for a bit and then tried to go to sleep. It was a scary time. The next hot day passed waiting for the call to move out of the hills and back to the lowlands. I don’t know what the delay was but we didn’t move out until nearly 18 hundred hours. Way too late in my opinion. We had enough time to get out of the hills but when we approached the bottom of the hills it was twilight and we passed through a grove of trees and to the left and right I saw a score of neatly cut fighting holes close together. We were walking through an old NVA base camp.
When we got out to more open land we quickly set in for the night. I let my radio operator dig in while I went around and set the guns into position and made sure our perimeter was tight. On my trip around the lines I stopped by Keathley’s hole which was deep and well positioned. “ Lt. could I talk with you for a bit?” he asked.
“Sure, but it will have to wait until after I finish checking the lines and get something to eat,” I said.
When I got back to Keathley’s fighting hole it was fully dark. Out in front of the gun there were 50 meters of open fields and then the darker shape of a tree line looming ominously. It was another warm June night but quiet and very still. Keathley’s “A” gunner was asleep beside the hole so I jumped down into the hole which was chest deep. We stood shoulder to shoulder looking out towards the darkness. We spoke quietly.
“What’s up guy? Something bothering you?” I asked.
Keathley didn’t answer right away but rearranged the three grenades he had set on the berm.
“Look L.T. I don’t know how to say this… I couldn’t talk about this to these other guys. They wouldn’t understand. It isn’t going to make sense…” He stopped.
“Well, why don’t you just say it. It can’t be that bad.” I really liked Keathley and didn’t like seeing him so obviously upset.
“Well, remember when we were coming down off that last hill this evening? We were strung out and it was getting onto dusk when we came through that copse of trees and there were all those NVA fighting holes…?” He paused there.
“Yeah, I remember. It was like a tomb or something… scary as hell,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I saw myself dead there,” he said and stopped.
I looked over but I couldn’t see his expression and I sure as hell didn’t know what to say. “Well, shit it was a scary place. We all get scared from time to time. I was really freaked last night.”
Keathley turned towards me and I could tell he was looking straight at me. He was always a straight talking kind of guy. “No… No… I know what you mean, but this was different. I saw myself and I was dead.”
I turned to look away at the far tree line. I didn’t know what to say. He was so serious. Was he trying to get out of the field? Many did want to get out. I wanted to get out of the field. What am I supposed to say? “You know that you have only been in the field for 5 months. I really can’t get you a job in the rear.” Sometimes you could move guys to the rear but they tended to be the shit birds of the platoons and Keathley was hardly that.
“No, that’s not it… I’m not asking you for anything. It is not like I can avoid this. I’m dead. There is nothing that can be done. I just wanted to talk to someone,” he said.
I tried again to talk him out of his belief. We all had fears, but I never heard anyone so sure, so certain. We talked for a bit and I couldn’t shake his vision.
“I saw myself dead.” Finally I got up and left him standing his watch.
The next day we walked 10 clicks and across the Cam Lo River where trucks were waiting to take us to Camp Carroll and any relief at that move was short lived as we were sent out on a night march and on to more busy days. Sometimes I forgot about Keathley’s vision. He did nothing to make me remember it. He just he did his job with the same calm and efficiency.
About a week after the talk I woke one day with a fever of 104 was medevaced with malaria to the hospital in DaNang. After a week of sweats and chills in the hospital I ran into Sgt Leon who had come down on his way to R and R. He filled me in on what was happening with the platoon.
“I hate to tell you Lieutenant but “Keathley’s dead.”
“Ah, shit. Keathley? Not Keathley?”
“Fraid so L.T. It was really weird how he died. We were working the same area and it was mostly quiet. Capt. Williams sent two ambushes along the same trail. He sent out one first and then half an hour later, the second ambush was sent along the same trail and ran into the first which opened fire. Keathley was the gunner with the second group. He apparently rushed to the front to suppress fire and drew a hail of bullets that killed him. It was at that point that the first group heard cries in English and realized they were firing on friendlies.”
Later I heard from one of the troops who went on that ambush. When they called for a medevac the captain cancelled it saying that it would be too dangerous to try to bring in the dead and wounded. The next morning when they carried in Keathley’s body L.Cpl. Smith from Philadelphia was carrying a corner of the poncho with Keathley’s body as they came into the Company CP. The Captain was at the gate and made a comment about “another dead grunt” Smitty dropped his corner and his rifle and decked the Captain in front of the Battalion commander who did nothing.
Keathley was well respected and loved in the platoon.
Sgt Leon added. “You know it was really weird. Things were pretty quiet in that AO. It wasn’t Keathley’s turn to go out but Ricci was sick. Normally he covered for the guy with no complaint but I heard him bitching to Sgt Chapman. He really didn’t want to go out on that ambush.”
So I told him about Keathley’s vision. I don’t know but it sure seems to me that Keathley saw something and didn’t want to go on that ambush but duty called. And when duty conflicts with fear in Keathley’s world, duty wins.
He was that kind of guy.
Looking back you wonder what it was all about. It would be nice to say his death served a larger purpose. But we didn’t save the world for democracy, we didn’t save America’s freedom, we didn’t even save South Vietnam. But we did serve and too many paid the full price.
It is a tragedy that this short life should end on that dusty trail. We can’t change the event, we can’t bring back the life. But we can remember.
Remember Charles Keathley.
I have no idea what he would have done with his life but we have all been made poor by his loss.
In the Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller says “Attention must be paid.”
Keathley was no Willie Loman. He died young but he filled his short life with a strong sense of duty and calm courage. The tragedy is that we miss a life filled with more of the same.
He would have made our world a little better place.