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Friendly Fire

by Jerry Richter

Rifle fire rattled from the river bank as the ship passed by. The crusty Marine sergeant hit the deck and flattened out. Three much younger Naval officers remained standing, casually smoking and enjoying the breeze. One of them looked down and said in an amused and almost condescending way, “What’s the matter Sarge? Can’t you recognize friendly fire?”

It was the Summer of 1965 and we had been beached on a jungled river bank in the oppressive heat and humidity of  the Mekong Delta, unloading cargo to resupply a South Vietnamese Navy base. While there, we received the survivors of a Marine company that had been pinned down in rice paddies in constant combat for two days and had suffered heavy casualties. We were to return the Marines to their base, about 120 miles from our current location, at a leisurely pace. The intent was to give them ample time to sleep and rest in a safe environment, eat hot, non-C-ration food, shower and use our laundry facilities. In other words, give them a short sea cruise to unwind and recoup.

The Marines had assembled on the river bank ready to board. They formed a single file, their uniforms caked with red mud, stress and exhaustion obvious on their faces and in their eyes. Their muddy boots grated on the steel bow ramp as they dragged themselves aboard. The first aboard was Gunnery Sergeant Smith. In the Marines, a Gunnery Sergeant, or Gunny, holds a special place in the hierarchy between the enlisted troops and the officers. This one fit the typical mold: hard-as-nails tough, strict disciplinarian, certified “old salt,” a veteran of WWII Pacific battles. In other words, nobody’s fool. He stood on the ramp and instructed his men to unload their weapons and give the ammunition to a member of the ship’s crew who would lock it in the ship’s armory. As the Marines wearily filed aboard he carefully inspected each weapon to make sure all ammunition had been cleared. After surviving days of heavy combat, the last thing he wanted was a Marine wounded or killed by an accidental discharge.

Since every Marine is a rifleman first and foremost, they were trained to have a close, personal, almost mystical relationship with their rifles, even memorizing a creed, with lines like this:

 

            This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

            My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

            My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.

 

But even Marine riflemen were not permitted unfettered access to loaded guns. Which has made me wonder, all these years later: if such highly trained and disciplined individuals are so tightly constrained, how do we so easily trust people with unknown or dubious training to be armed in public spaces?

After our “guests” were settled we got underway and steamed down the coffee-colored river toward the South China Sea. As our passage stirred the water to a beige foam, we heard the rattle of rifle fire, which is when the Gunny dropped to the deck.  At the officer’s question–“What’s the matter Sarge? Can’t you recognize friendly fire?”–the old Sergeant got up and, with no sign of embarrassment or sheepishness, brushed off his pants and looked at the young man. He squinted, screwed up his face quizzically and said, “Friendly fire, sir? With all due respect, sir, when a bullet leaves a gun, it ain’t got no friends.”