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Calendar >  The Heart Is A Refugee – Thomas Calabrese

The Heart Is A Refugee – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  October 12, 2019  /  12 Comments

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Sanctuary Of Another

Thomas Calabrese — Claymore The M18A1Claymore is directional anti-personnel mine developed for the United States Armed Forces. Its inventor, Norman MacLeod, named the mine after a large medieval Scottish sword. Unlike a conventional land mine, the Claymore is command-detonated and directional, meaning it is fired by remote-control and shoots a pattern of metal balls into the kill zone like a shotgun. The Claymore can also be victim-activated by booby-trapping it with a tripwire firing system for use in area denial operations.

When Ray and Jane Moore’s son was born on March 1, 1950 in the small town of Escondido, they might have reconsidered their decision to name him Clay if they thought it foreshadowed his future endeavors. After high school Clay joined the Marine Corps and quickly realized from his drill instructors who were all Vietnam War combat veterans, that they enjoyed the mention of his name, “Hey Claymore, get your tail in here,  Claymore come here, What are you doing.”  It was Claymore this and Claymore that. In fact Clay thought the only reason that he was made squad leader was so that his drill instructors would have another reason to use his name.  He was tempted to ask why his fellow recruits were always called by only their last names, but decided to keep his mouth shut and do what he was told.

Upon graduation from boot camp, Clay was assigned the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0311, Rifleman, the primary infantry designation for the Marine Corps. His next set of orders sent him to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in Oceanside, California for Basic Infantry Training. Clay finally found the answer that he had been waiting all these weeks to find out when his platoon went to the range to learn about setting up anti-personal mines. He saw the MI8A1 Claymore mine for the first time and everything began clear at that point. It was also where he met Josh Gibbs, a big country boy from Topeka, Kansas. The two young men became best friends and that friendship continued after their arrival in Vietnam.

When both Marines arrived at Danang as new boots in country they were approached by Staff Sergeant Tim Spear, a seasoned combat veteran as they sat in the terminal and waited for their ride to their unit, “You gyrenes looking for a good unit to join up with?”

     “We got orders for 26th Marines,” Josh held a manila envelope.

     “Orders can be changed,” Staff Sergeant Tim Spear snapped back.

      “We might be boots in county, but we know better than to volunteer for anything,” Clay responded.

       “A smart Marine, don’t see too many of those around here,” Tim smiled, “I’m a pretty good judge of green meat and you guys look like you might have potential.”

       “Why pick us, like my friend said, we’re just got here, why don’t you get some Marines who are more experienced than us?” Josh inquired.

      “Another good question, guys develop bad habits after they get to the Nam’, it’s easier to get Marines that haven’t formed any opinions yet.”

       “The terminal is full of Marines that just got here, why us?”  Clay asked.

       “Going with my instincts, take a ride with me and if you don’t like what you see or you’re not interested then I’ll give you a ride back to your unit and tell them you were with me. You got my word that you won’t get into any trouble.”

Clay looked at Josh and shrugged, “What the hell, we got nothing to lose by checking it out.”

The three Marines got into a jeep that was parked outside the terminal and drove 68 miles down Highway One to a small village outside Chu Lai. The three Marines exited their vehicle and Tim began to explain, “The Combined Action Program or CAP is an operational program. It is a combination of Marines, Navy Corpsman and reinforced by Vietnamese militia. Most of the Vietnamese in the unit or either too young or too old be drafted into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.  Any questions?”

       “Yeah, a whole bunch,” Josh said as he scanned the area.

        “I ain’t got time to answer them,” Tim answered called out to the Marines in the area   “I got a couple new guys, show them around,” then added, “What’s your names?”

      “Josh Gibbs.”

     “Clay Moore.”

Tim quipped, “If you’re half as good as the other Claymore we use around here, you’ll be alright.  Take look around and if you’re interested, let me know, if not I’ll take you back to your unit at first light.”

There were two dozen Marines lounging around the area, some were socializing with the local villagers, others were congregating among themselves.

Corporal Todd Richards called out, “You hungry?”

          “Yeah,” Josh responded.

           “Come on over then,”

After brief introductions, Clay and Josh sat down on empty c-ration boxes and Todd served two large bowls of chicken noodles with broth over rice, “Everything we eat around here has got rice in it.  C-rations actually taste pretty good with the right accessories and seasoning.”

          “This is really good,” Josh commented.

           “Yeah,” Clay added.

The two Marines had another large bowl of soup then were assigned hooch to crash (sleep) that had several other men in it. They were given a straw mat and poncho liner and found a place to lie down.  They didn’t have long to wait to find out why they were Vietnam in the first place. It was 0300 when they were awakened by Tim, “We’re going out.”

Clay and Josh were handed M-16’s and three bandoliers of ammo and followed the other Marines and armed villagers down a narrow path. They couldn’t see more than a few feet in the darkness and were confused, scared and didn’t know what to expect. The Marines and villagers found concealed places on both sides of the trail. Clay pushed the elephant grass out of his line of sight.

Tim appeared out of nowhere and told the wide eyed Marines, “Wait for the first shot and if someone is on that trail, then they’re the enemy…kill them.”

Clay and Josh looked in amazement at the seasoned combat veterans next to them, calm and focused on the task at hand. Most of them were their age or slightly older, but seemed so much more mature and experienced.

For what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only ten seconds, a platoon of North Vietnamese soldiers came walking down the trail. It was so silent that Clay thought that someone would hear the beating of his heart. When he didn’t think that he could stand the suspense any longer, an NVA soldier ankle hit the tripwire that was stretched across the trail and two flares illuminated the area. In less than a second, it went from pitch blackness to complete brightness.

Several Marines popped up from their positions and opened fire with their pump shotguns. Clay and Josh stayed down and began firing at the images on the trail. Clay caught a fleeting glimpse of one enemy soldier, surprise and terror etched upon his face. He would never forget the first firefight of his career, although there were many more to come.

 At first light, Tim approached the two Marines, “Made your decision?”

        “I’d like to stay,” Clay stated.

        “Same with me,” Josh seconded.

          “Done,” Tim said and did an immediate about face. There was too much work to do to waste time making small talk.

The CAP concept seems to have been at least partially based on Marine pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, during the Banana Wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In these programs, Marine units would pacify and administer regions, while providing training and security for local forces and villages. There are also connections to other pacification programs, such as the Philippine Insurrection.

“CAP came naturally for the Marine Corps because counter-guerrilla warfare was already part of the USMC heritage. From 1915 to 1934, the Corps had a wealth of experience in foreign interventions fighting guerrillas in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Santo Domingo.

It was a whole different way of fighting then what Clay and Josh had learned back in the states. In CAP units, villagers who helped the Americans were considered prime targets of the Viet Cong and there were bounties placed on the leaders of villages that had a joint combat unit. The village of Din Luc was a prosperous village of some thirty-five hundred people and had a recorded history going back to the late eighteenth century. In recent years, most of the inhabitants of Din Luc were engaged in tilling the exceptionally fertile paddies bordering the river and in tending the extensive orchards of mangoes, jackfruit, and an unusual strain of large grapefruit that was a famous product of the region. The village also supported a small group of merchants, most of them of Chinese descent, who ran shops in the marketplace, including a pharmacy that sold a few modern medicines to supplement traditional folk cures of herbs and roots and a bicycle shop.

Before the Americans arrived the National Liberation Front (or N.L.F., or Vietcong, or V.C.), kidnapped and later executed the government-appointed village chief and set up a full governing apparatus of its own. The Front demanded and got not just the passive support of the Din Luc villagers, but their active participation. They forced the women to cook food for their fighters and care for the wounded and sick while the men were used as pack animals to carry ammunition and supplies for the fighters.

CAP units were implemented to stop the N.L.F. from terrorizing villagers who had no way of defending themselves again the heavily armed and brutal guerilla forces. The Marines developed a fierce loyalty to their South Vietnamese counterparts and developed an emotional attachment to the families. In less than six months Clay became an integral part of the unit and nobody was surprised when he was placed in charge of the minefields surrounding Din Luc. One of his first duties every morning was checking that the Claymores and the other mines were still operational and had not been tampered with by a sapper probing the perimeter. It wasn’t usual for the Marines to be awakened by a single or multiple explosions when one of the enemy combatants took a misstep as he tried to navigate the minefield.

Male villagers were assigned guard duty and the entire perimeter was under 24 hour surveillance. There was no way that an enemy force could sneak through the minefields or escape the keen eyes of the sentries. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese wanted desperately to destroy Din Luc and inflict major casualties so they changed their strategy.  The Marines felt so strongly about the value of their mission that most of them signed up for a second or third tour in Vietnam rather than leave their friends behind. There were even incidents of Marines falling in love with Vietnamese women and marrying them so they could bring them back to the states.

Tim was often called Tip, as in ‘Tip Of The Spear’ and Josh picked the moniker of  ‘Shotgun Gibbs’ for his proficiency with the pump action twelve gauge shotgun. The Viet Cong knew that a surprise attack was out of the question so they decided to use overwhelming force to destroy Din Luc. A large enemy force unleashed a barrage of mortars on the village. The villagers immediately ran to the heavily fortified bunkers that were strategically placed throughout the area.

The enemy gunners walked their mortars through the minefields, clearing a path for a human wave of NVA soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas to charge forward just after dawn.

          “Let’s go!” Tim yelled out.

Clay and Josh grabbed their weapons and followed. Tim had an M-60 machine gun and he was mowing down the enemy with long bursts and Josh was firing so quickly that it was hard to see  his hand pump the shotgun and eject the spent cartridges, Clay had an M-16 slung over his back and was firing high explosive rounds from an M-79 grenade launcher. Three Marine Corps snipers had unlimited targets to choose and they didn’t miss. The Marines eventually were able to push back the enemy force, but Clay, Josh and Tim were wounded as were many of the villagers and several members of the CAP team. Clay took a bullet through the fleshy part of his upper left arm. Josh was hit in the right leg, but it missed the bone and the artery and he was able to continue fighting. Tim sustained the most serious wound, a round to his lower abdomen and was bleeding badly.

The three Marines struggled back to the village to reload and get medical treatment. Navy Corpsman Danny ‘Doc’ Cascone examined the stomach wound, “You’re hurt pretty bad, Tip. You need a medivac.”

      “Give me some morphine and wrap me up so I don’t bleed out,” Tim grimaced.

One of the inherent risks of being in a CAP unit was that it was difficult, if not impossible to call in air or artillery support because there would be too many civilian casualties. The Marines and the South Vietnamese would have to win this battle on their own. The NVA and VC launched two more waves, reminiscent of the Japanese banzai attacks of World War II. Tim stepped in front of a NVA soldier who was about to kill a young woman villager and was fatally wounded in the process when he took three rounds to his chest.  Clay and Josh arrived a second later and killed the enemy fighter.

Tim struggled to breathe as his lungs filled with blood, “It’s on you now my brothers, finish this, Marines!”

Clay and Josh organized the surviving members of the CAP unit and with a dozen of the village militia they counter attacked the enemy force. It was brutal fighting, even hand to hand at times, but eventually the Marines got the upper hand. The NVA and Viet Cong suffered significant losses and once they started retreating, helicopter gunships were able to come in and finish the job.

When Clay and Josh returned to the village, they saw the young woman crying over the body of Staff Sergeant Tim Spear. The two Marines stayed for another tour and Clay eventually took over command of the CAP unit. It was with great sadness that both men left South Vietnam, knowing that the mission was not complete and villagers were still in danger.  They did not leave the war without suffering physical and emotional wounds. Their emotional ones would take much longer to heal.

After their separation from the Corps, Clay and Josh shared an apartment in San Marcos, California and bounced from job to job; truck-driving, construction, warehouse work. Nothing seemed to soothe their restless souls. They were living paycheck to paycheck and trying not to look too far down the road. Although they seldom spoke of it, both warriors had problems moving on with their lives.

On April, 30, 1975, 1,191 evacuees, including 100 American government and contractor employees from South Vietnam checked into a hastily prepared reception of this Camp Pendleton Marine Corps. Thousands more would eventually follow and the Marines gave the resettlement operation the code name ‘New Horizons.’ They eventually settled in on a section of the base called ‘Camp Talega.’ The Department of Defense was desperate to find individuals who spoke Vietnamese so they placed help wanted ads in the local newspapers for qualified individuals.

Josh noticed one of the advertisements, “What do you think… we speak enough of the language to get by.”

       “A paycheck is a paycheck…probably easier than digging ditches,” Clay responded with mild interest.

With their experience in Vietnam and knowledge of the language, Clay and Josh were quickly hired. It was during their third week on the job that another group of refugees arrived by bus from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

      “Clay! Josh!”  The young woman’s voice echoed across the brown hills.

When both men turned, they recognized Julie Lam, the young woman from the village of Din Luc that Staff Sergeant Tim Spear died protecting. She rushed into Clay’s arms and broke down in tears. She was in a new country, but knew she would be safe now.

Clay talked to his parents and they agreed to sponsor the Lam family. They moved to Escondido, found a small house and started their new lives. It took a crazy Asian war and a twist of fate to bring Clay and Julie together.  Josh was the best man at Clay and Julie’s wedding two years later at the Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting hall in Vista, California. His toast at the reception could not have been better phrased, “Raise your glasses to the happy couple. Whether you’re from Escondido, California or Din Luc, South Vietnam.  It can be the calm of peacetime or the chaos of war, one thing has always remained true and certain; the heart is a refugee in search of the sanctuary of another’s unconditional love.”

The End

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  • Published: 1 month ago on October 12, 2019
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  • Last Modified: October 11, 2019 @ 3:08 pm
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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12 Comments

  1. Larry says:

    Another interesting story…every week is something new and exciting

  2. Cary says:

    I remember being on Camp Pendleton in 1975, it was definitely a strange time in American history. Story brought back memories

  3. Clyde says:

    This story was a nice twist on the Vietnam War. I never knew about the CAP units and refugees on Camp Pendleton…Thanks Tom

  4. Jeremy says:

    Clay Moore was an American hero and a great character.

  5. Janet says:

    I enjoyed the story ,very good character development

  6. Steve says:

    Good story

  7. Marsha says:

    I also enjoy these stories,learn something too.

  8. Kyle says:

    It’s amazing how some of the things in this story had me flashing back to when I was in the Corps

  9. Stephanie Boren says:

    another good one

  10. Tanya says:

    Interesting story…thanks

  11. Tony says:

    I regret Posting this so late because I was not able to get around to reading Mr. Calabrese’s Sunday story until today. There is more truth then fiction to this story then most reader’s will not fathom. The Combined Action Program (CAP) was an effective element against the enemy in Vietnam. Men living among the villager’s often eating the same food as the locals and committed to fighting along side of them day or night. The men assigned to CAP in the small Hamlets and Villages made life long friends and after the war assisted or sponsored the Vietnamese Refugees that were able to escape and arrive in America to start a new life with no more then the clothes on their backs. After the war in Vietnam and when they were permitted to, some CAP Marines returned to Vietnam to seek out the people in the villages they were assigned to defend. The Program could have used more men and especially Marines that had the ability or school trained prior to Vietnam to speak the language, Great story and interesting for all to read.

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