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Calendar >  One Digit Midget – Thomas Calabrese

One Digit Midget – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  February 12, 2023  /  13 Comments

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In the Bush

Thomas Calabrese – Anthony Gianni grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and all of his friends were either adamantly opposed, apprehensive or scared to death about being sent to the Vietnam War. They figured that the best thing that could happen was to get a high lottery number and never be called. As the war went on, selective service requirements, deferments and exemptions changed in an effort to make the draft appear fair and balanced to the American people.  One of the important changes was the institution of a lottery, which gave young men a random number between 1 and 366 corresponding to their birthdays. Lower numbers were called first.

If you were a young man and received a low number, you could always try for a student deferment and if that didn’t work, there was always Canada to escape to. Some guys figured that enlisting the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard were better options than the Army and Marines which were the two military branches that were doing most of the fighting and dying in Vietnam.

If a person enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War there was a very good chance they would end up in a combat zone. It was that simple. Tony’s perception of the Marine Corps was mainly based on watching old war movies and seeing film footage of the Vietnam War on the evening news. He was a restless and naïve 18 year-old young man, a combination that could be extremely dangerous. Tony imagined that running around in the jungle and killing bad guys would be more exciting and far more interesting than cruising the streets of his neighborhood. Tony would soon find out that harsh reality is the adversary of unrealistic dreams.

From the time he arrived in San Diego for boot camp, his instructors made it emphatically clear that he was going to war and that it was their job to make sure that he was ready. That point was even greater emphasized when Tony was given the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0351 which was the designation for infantry weapons. It was common knowledge that any of the 03 MOS’s was going to get you sent to Vietnam.  

No matter what he was told back in the states or how well he was trained, it still wasn’t the same as being in the ‘Nam.  Lance Corporal Anthony Gianni arrived in Danang, on August 10, 1967 with the typical ‘deer in the headlights’ look of a new leatherneck in country. The weather was steamy, sticky hot and it sucked the breath right out of Tony’s lungs. He was given orders for 1st Battalion, 26th Marines then told to wait at the transient barracks until a ride to his unit was available. While in the squad bay that held a hundred double bunks, Tony overhead two Marines who had just finished their tour of duty conversing about their past year in country. These two combat veterans reminisced sardonically about how many men they knew that were either killed or wounded during their tour in country. It was like listening to athletes comparing their experiences in sporting events rather two warriors speaking about death and suffering. But it was more than that, there was a detachment or buffer zone to their storytelling as if they weren’t actually speaking about themselves.

After eavesdropping for several minutes, Tony turned to a weary looking Marine, who was lying on a nearby rack and staring up at the ceiling and inquired, “What unit are those guys from?”

            “The Marine answered, “Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, some people call them the ‘Walking Dead.”

When Tony got the word that a C-46 helicopter was headed to his unit, he just followed some other Marines and kept his mouth shut. Little did he know that he was going to the Khe Sanh Combat Base in the Quang Tri Province. It was located 131 miles north of Danang, 39 miles West of Dong Ha City, 12 miles East of Lao Bao Border Gate and 14 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. The terrain around the base consisted of rugged and steep hillsides that were covered with thick jungle vegetation, tree canopies, bamboo thickets and dense elephant grass.

Upon his arrival at the isolated outpost, Tony and several other replacements were greeted by Sergeant Bobby McMillan who quipped, “I hope this meets with your approval because if it doesn’t, you can put your complaints in writing and I’ll submit them to Victor Charlie for review.”

One baby-faced Marine asked, “Who is Victor Charlie?”

For the first few weeks at Khe Sanh, Tony’s duties consisted of working parties and patrols. When he had some free time, he slept on a cot inside a bunker and listened to Armed Forces Radio which was on 24 hours a day. If he had any energy left he read Louis L’Amour western novels that were passed freely around the base. Things would begin to change in a hurry during the second half of 1967 when the North Vietnamese instigated a series of actions in the border regions of South Vietnam. All of the attacks were conducted by regimental-size PAVN/VC units, but unlike most of the previous usual hit-and-run tactics, these were sustained and bloody affairs. Most of the heavy fighting around Khe Sanh occurred on Hill 861, Hill 881 South (881S), and Hill 881 North (881N).

Tony’s platoon took heavy casualties and was continuously operating below strength. He went from rifleman to fire team leader to squad leader and was promoted to corporal in less than three months. To prevent enemy observation of the main base and the airfield, the hills surrounding Khe Sanh Valley were continuously monitored by Marine patrols and observation posts. Killer teams went out every night to ambush roving enemy units. In every activity and in every direction, death was impatiently waiting to take another life.  

Colonel David E. Lownds took over as commander of the 26th Marine Regiment and sporadic actions continued throughout the fall, the most serious of which was the ambush of a supply convoy on Route 9. That proved to be the last overland attempt at resupply for Khe Sanh. Everything was brought in by chopper or supply plane after that point.  In December, there were numerous sightings of North Vietnamese troops in the Khe Sanh area, but the sector remained relatively quiet as the enemy did not engage. A little too quiet, everybody with any kind of combat experience expected hell to break loose at any minute. While things were at a lull, the Marines enjoyed Christmas with hot chow, pies and ice cream flown in from the rear area.

Corporal Tony Gianni had a natural curiosity about the daily combat operations occurring around   him, unlike most of the other Marines who were completely content to do their jobs, keep their heads on a swivel, complete their tour of duty and go back to the ‘world’.

He sometimes hung out with the sniper teams, machine gunners and the recon scout teams and learned a lot from all of them. There were times when he would discuss strategy with the platoon commander.

One of his fellow Marines, Pfc Benny Gregg questioned him one day after a routine patrol, “Tell me why you want to know so much? I can barely focus on what I need to do.”

Tony pondered the question for a minute, “I wish I could give you an explanation that makes any sense. It sure wasn’t this way back in Kansas City. I figure if my mind is working overtime then my body will have to keep up.”

Pfc Gregg took a long swallow from his canteen and responded, “If it gets you through the ‘Nam then go for it.”

It was December 27, 1967 and Sergeant McMillan officially became a short-timer when he reached the point that he only had 30 days left in country. It was kind of an unofficial policy that short-timers did not go in the bush when they got this close to going home. There were two reasons for this; the Marine would be too hyper and more focused on leaving Vietnam than doing his job. The other reason was that it would be too demoralizing for the other leathernecks to see one of their buddies make it this far and then get killed at the end.

Somebody had to take Sergeant McMillan’s slot as platoon sergeant so Lt. Hubert Whitney called Tony to the command bunker to inform him of two things, “You’ve been promoted and you are the new platoon sergeant.”

            “Roger that,” Tony said.

The attack that everybody was expecting finally came on January 21, 1968 and it came with a vengeance. North Vietnamese forces began a massive artillery bombardment which killed 14 Marines and wounded 43. The base’s main ammo bunker was hit and 90 percent of its artillery and mortar rounds were destroyed. For the next eight days, the base received incoming rounds from enemy artillery. Snipers did their best to pick off Marines so when the leathernecks moved from bunker to bunker, they ran in a zigzag pattern to make themselves a more difficult target. Sergeant Gianni always remained calm and in control through these arduous times and his men sought to emulate his strong demeanor. On 29 Jan, 1968, the Marines of Khe Sanh received word that the truce was cancelled and the Tet Offensive was about to begin. This would have demoralized the battle weary Marines if Tony didn’t lower the tension with his timely sense of humor, “We don’t need our stinkin’ truce, we’re just getting our second wind.”

It was so far from the truth that Marines couldn’t help but break out in collective laughter.

Tony learned quickly about the tactics of the NVA and never forgot any of it. On February 25th, his platoon was on patrol and began receiving small arms fire from several NVA soldiers. The enemy ran off and the Marines instinctively wanted to pursue them enemy, but Tony stopped them, “Standfast!” He situated his men in strategic locations near a rock formation then moved forward by himself.

When he sensed that the enemy were hiding in the dense undergrowth about twenty five yards ahead, Tony stopped and threw two grenades, one to the left and one to the right of the trail.    When they exploded, the enemy assumed that they had been detected and opened fire. He gave the North Vietnamese a brief glimpse of where he was standing then ran back to his men’s position as bullets nipped at his heels. What would have been a meatgrinder for the Marines quickly turned into an effective ambush of the North Vietnamese soldiers when they followed Sergeant Gianni to where the other Marines were hiding.

During the siege of the beleaguered base, Tony would regularly leave the base with a sniper rifle and find a location that offered concealment and a clear field of fire to the enemy’s artillery positions. He remained silent throughout the night and at first light when he could distinguish his targets, he would shoot as many of the enemy combatants as he could before returning to the base.

The months passed and the casualties continued to mount for the Marines and 19 June 1968, the evacuation of Khe Sanh began. It was called ‘Operation Charlie’ and all useful equipment was either withdrawn or destroyed, and personnel were evacuated. The official closure of the base came on 5 July 1968 and Tony was one of the last Marines to leave under the cover of darkness. For some inexplicable reason, Sergeant Gianni was overcome with sadness at leaving. Despite the horrors and suffering he witnessed and endured, Khe Sanh served two useful purposes in his life; it made him a man and a hardened combat veteran.

Tony was already a short-timer with over 12 of his 13 month tour completed when he decided to take his R&R in Singapore. His unit so badly depleted and unfit for combat that they were reassigned to garrison duty in Danang. When Tony returned to Vietnam he had only three weeks left in country before catching his flight back to the ‘World.’

 It only took him two weeks of his 30 days leave in Kansas City to realize that things had dramatically changed and that were never going back to the way things were. Everybody looked at him differently, some were hesitant to ask him about the war while walking on eggshells. One anti-war activist even condemned him as a killer for his participation in the armed conflict. Tony did not mention that he was at Khe Sanh because there too many uncomfortable memories associated with that piece of hell to discuss it with civilians who had no concept of what they were talking about.

He made up an excuse that he was called back to duty and while his parents were saddened to see him go, they said they understood that he had to follow orders. Tony felt bad about lying to them, but it was for the best. After returning to Camp Pendleton, he signed up for another tour in Vietnam and left three weeks later. When he arrived in Danang, he had a completely different perspective than he did the first time. He volunteered for CAP. (Combined Action Program) and with his experience, he was quickly accepted. CAP was a United States Marine Corps counterinsurgency program that consisted of a thirteen-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a U.S. Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon of older youth and elderly men, in or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese hamlet.

War takes on a life of his own, some people would say that statement is an oxymoron since the war’s primary purpose is take lives.   It also can protects the lives of the weak and defenseless if the power is in the hands of the right people.

 Staff Sergeant Tony Gianni was one of those select few and had seen the brutality of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong firsthand and vowed to stop them whenever and wherever he could. This is not to say that he totally agreed with his country’s strategy on how to conduct the war, but that wasn’t part of his job description.

Tony had empathy and outrage, but he never let his emotions cloud his judgment because he was a professional warrior. The rules of engagement were simple for him, he showed no mercy for the merciless. After a group of Viet Cong guerillas tortured and killed innocent and defenseless villagers in his sector, Tony and his CAP unit tracked and caught up to them near Phu Bai. Staff Sergeant Gianni took an M-60 machine gun and two hundred rounds of ammunition and did a frontal assault on the enemy’s position. He shredded everything in his path and when he was done firing, the barrel of his weapon was red hot and smoking. Mission accomplished, a dozen bullet ridden bodies were sent to the rice paddies of hell.

Tony had a strict routine that he followed before going out in the bush. He meticulously cleaned his weapons including his k-bar knife and went through the boxes of his c-rations and took out what he wanted and gave the rest to the local villagers. Mama-san washed his jungle utilities and he had one of the young boys in the village put three coats of saddle soap on his boots.

While out in the bush on one routine patrol, Corporal Larry Dever mixed rice with his c-rations and commented, “You know what they say…everything goes better with rice.”

            “Tony commented, “You know what I say…leave it to Dever.”

When they weren’t on patrol, the members of the team would alternate going to Freedom Hill or China Beach for a little relaxation. Tony didn’t want the villagers to be without some protection because he knew that the Viet Cong were especially cruel to any South Vietnamese person who cooperated with the Americans.

The CAP concept in Vietnam was opposed by some who considered ‘hearts and minds’ programs a waste of money, men, and material. CAPs were often ignored at best and despised at worst by many area commands and commanders. The prevailing concept was; “Get ’em by the throats and their hearts and minds will follow.” This attitude made the CAP Marines’ job that much more difficult. However, the concept eventually gained backing from Marine generals Wallace Greene, Victor Krulak and Lew Walt, and with their support, the program expanded expanded to 102 platoons comprising 19 companies and 4 groups, and spread through the 5 provinces of I Corps.

Toward the end of his second tour, Tony decided to go to Sydney, Australia for his second R&R and upon his return, he was called to meet with General Walt about taking on more responsibility, “Job well done, Sergeant.”

            “I’ve been lucky to have a group of good Marines and Vietnamese to work with, Sir” Tony responded.

            “It’s more than that. I’ve done my research and from the time you were at Khe Sanh, you’ve been a valuable resource to the Marine Corps This war needs men like you and specifically I need you,” General Walt said.

            “I serve at your pleasure, Sir.”

General Walt explained, “The CAP program is expanding and I want to put you in charge of 25 platoons in I Corps. I’m dividing the rest of the platoons among other hard charging Staff Non-Commissioned officers. CAP means a lot to me and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it’s successful.”

            “So will I,” Tony vowed.

General Walt added one thing, “This extra responsibility comes with a promotion. Good luck, Gunnery Sergeant Gianni.”

Tony was tough, but fair with his men and he made it emphatically clear that being in CAP was voluntary and no Marine had to stay if he wanted to go somewhere else. He emphasized, “We’re going to earn the respect and loyalty of the Vietnamese people with our actions, we’re not going to demand it. If you got a problem, you come see me. Remember, we’re warriors, not pogues.” (Pogue is military slang for non-infantry staff and rear-echelon units) “Do your jobs and the rest is my responsibility.”

The teams under Gunnery Sergeant Gianni’s control unleashed hell on the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong guerillas and it didn’t take long before they stayed out of his sector. General Walt saw the progress and gave Tony more responsibility.  The CAP units began doing joint missions with the Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA operatives and inflicted major losses on the enemy. The Community Action Program was a more effective method than Search and Destroy, but the widespread implementation of CAP throughout South Vietnam was logistically impossible. The Vietnamese who worked with Gunnery Sergeant Gianni and his Marines were intensely loyal, but many Vietnamese people had spent millennia trying to fight off foreign rule. For this reason, among those who held political ideals in South Vietnam, the majority were likely to have one burning desire at the heart of their idealism: independent Vietnamese rule. The greater western question of communism and capitalism was of little importance to them.

Once the American people lost interest in continuing the war, Tony knew the end was near and an American victory was no longer possible. Tony knew enough about Thailand to know that it would never face the same threat from communism as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos so he decided to move there. Unlike Vietnam, Thailand was never colonized by the Europeans and this meant that their history, culture, and religion stayed largely intact for hundreds of years. Thailand’s constitutional monarchy also had a strong stabilizing influence over the nation and the king was currently the longest serving monarch in the world. His popularity unified impoverished people in rural areas and reduced the recruiting base for communist insurgents.

Once the word came down that the United States was withdrawing, Tony and his men began taking fully loaded convoys of military equipment to Thailand. In cooperation with the Thai government and the CIA, Tony built a massive compound in Chiang Mai where many of his fellow combat hardened Marines came to live. Several hundred Vietnamese who had helped and fought with Tony and his CAP teams during the war also came here for fear of retaliation from the vengeful Communists.

Tony and his Marines used this location as their home base to fight communism in the surrounding countries. Despite taking several hundred millions worth of materials and arms, the United States never missed any of it because they left behind over 5 billion dollars’ worth of military equipment in Vietnam.

Over the next ten years, Tony Gianni became a very powerful and wealthy man, as well as a close friend to the king and a valuable asset to the Central Intelligence Agency.

When asked about his time in the Vietnam War, Tony simply said, “You never want to be a one-digit midget (under ten days left in country) and still be in the bush.” Only a combat veteran knew what he meant and now you know too.

The End

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13 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Another good story. Been to all the places in this story except Australia.

  2. john michels says:

    Nice story Tom especially for a Viet Nam war story

  3. wolf says:

    Enjoyed it. liked the history lesson about Khe Sanh.

  4. Clyde says:

    A very good story with some truly memorable lines. Very thought -provoking especially for Vietnam War veterans…thank you.

  5. Steve says:

    I really enjoyed the story…one of your best.

  6. Tom says:

    A great story which I fear is far too true. I never had the pleasure of going to Nam…always had a II-S deferment and then my lottery number was 347. But I knew lots of veterans.

    I love these two statements:
    “harsh reality is the adversary of unrealistic dreams” and

    “War takes on a life of its own, some people would say that statement is an oxymoron since the war’s primary purpose is to take life”.

    I doubt the young men and women serving today would survive in that environment. Thanks for the great, inspirational tale of Marines.

  7. John says:

    Good as usual

  8. Tamra says:

    This was an interesting story but I did not understand some of the military lingo! I was not plugged in this time!

  9. David says:

    Another intriguing and well written story.. I was able to read it during halftime entertainment, which was not very entertaining at all.

  10. Guy says:

    Very informative and very entertaining. Good combination.

  11. Bart says:

    Good story about what it was like.

  12. Jon Gregory Nielsen says:

    Thanks a lot for writing this story. It was a real education for me to read.

    TONY: “We don’t need our stinkin’ truce, we’re just getting our second wind.”

  13. Marty says:

    Great job Tom. I was in the draft and you explained what life was like at that time so accurately. The rest of the story was such a rough time for our military. Thanks for your
    service.

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