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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
J. Wilborn
Posts: 55
(2/17/01 1:31:57 pm)
Reply KHE SANH (part 2)
It was Easter Sunday, one of Christendoms most holy of days---a truce or cease fire had been negotiated
somewhere, Paris France, I think, for the wars participants. Like most times before, those would come
and go with flagrant violations on both sides---always the other sides fault but a breech of trust, none the
It was a violent time in that war torn land---the TET OFFENSIVE had kind of ‘petered out’, but the body
counts and the live action news shots got their moment of fame. Most significant of all, it had only been 10
days since the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis---local military
commanders were instructed to be aware of and respond to posssible upheavels among the black military
personnel in their respective units and commands---after all there was much hate and discontent boiling in
cities back in the States caused by that tragic episode.
President Johnson had made the cold and impersonal declaration that he would not pursue nor would
he accept his partys nomination for re-election. Senator Robert Kennedy, the slain Presidents brother
was barnstorming throughout the country, spouting profound cliches that made the ‘hippies’ cheer and be
rowdy---sad, but he too would be assassinated in June out in Los Angeles----.
I was attached to a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion---the SEABEES---it’s sole mission was to
support the Marine Corps---build messhalls, barracks, airfields, bunkers and the list of requirements
seemed endless. With more than a thousand officers and enlisted men, I was a Senior Chief Petty Officer.
I was the second to the most senior of all the enlisted personnel. I served as the Plans and Training
chief--the Battalion S-2 Chief. My secondary duties was the battalion career counselor--- the shipping over
chief. Let me tell you that it was difficult to talk reenlistment incentivies to a short timer sailor right after a
rocket attack, in fact many of the ratings had to have a ten thousand dollar bonus enticement to snare
someone that was riding the fence about staying in or getting out..
In my duties I got around to most companies, platoons, and squads---for the training and sometimes
just a lot of ‘sea-stories’. I think the men liked me---it was somewhat like the rabbit and carrot or the mule
and the ear of corn thing. I would order the schools and training for them if they qualified.
The battalion Master Chief had a lot of health problems (later in the deployment he would be airlifted
out to a hospital ship) due to kidney stones. When I first reported on board the Captain (Skipper) as well
as the battalion Chaplain (Padre) suggested that it would be very appropriate for me to show up for
religious services, you know the men looking up to me thing---I did’nt mind and I think the men come to
admire me for it---I sure never became a forceful missionary, but I was always there. I came to know the
Chaplain very well---wonderful guy but one of the most physically uncoordinated and non-mechanical men
I had ever met. He had a typical Jewish surname but displayed the Chaplains insignia of a cross on his
uniform. Of course he had a Chaplains assistant but the young mans duties sometimes took him other
places doing other things and the Chaplain would come over to the S-2 office and request Senior Chief
Wilborns assistance. I was never plagued with a heavy work schedule so I always helped on his requests.
It was to be a foregone arrangement with my S-2 officer, Lt. Palmer Sell that such an arrangenent was
alright and formal written orders never were needed.
That Easter Sunday morning I was in the Chief’s Mess having early breakfast...still smoked then--that
with my coffee and other bad habits like swearing. In barged the the Chaplain and the screen door cought
his boot heel and sent him sprawling. Myself and several of the other old Chiefs rushed to the Holy Mans
aid---picked him up and brushed him off accompanied to his sputterings and mutterings. No, he did’nt
have time for coffee but he needed my assistance immediately....Steve, his young assistant had gone to
DaNang on the mail plane the night before and this development had occurred just a hour before.
The Chaplains services were needed at Khe Sanh---to conduct non-denominational religious services
at that site to commemorate Easter for the joint force troops stationed there---could I go and help---would I
go and assist him. By now that kind-hearted Sky Pilot had regained his composure and his breath --- his
flushed face was like an open book---good thing he was’nt a gambler and just a preacher for he could’nt
hide his expectations from me.
‘What do you want me to do Padre,’ I asked, still standing close enough to him that I could sense his
shivering excitment and anticipation. ‘We have to catch transportation over at Delta-Med Senior Chief
(most times he called me John) and go up to Khe Sanh. We’ll be coming back for our Battalion Easter
services by noon’ he exclaimed, still shivering like he was getting ready to run a foot race.
‘I’ve been up there so often and I know the village chieftain and the refugees that are in the camp and
all the children---well, I can do something for everyone today--it is such a special day John’ he stated, all
in a single outburst, still trembling, not at all composed as you would expect the Chaplain to be.
‘I have all my vestments and books and sundries in the mount-out box---they have that little foot
pumped organ the French missionaries left up there so I’m ready to go on that end’. I still had’nt received
a response for my question of what I would need so I decided to just go military---that was formal enough
for me. ‘And, oh yes John, Chief Arivich said that he had some colored, hard-boiled eggs for the troops,
you know Easter eggs, but we could take them along for the children---his mess cooks are putting them in
my jeep now and they are also loading my mount-out box for us’.
‘Okay Padre, let me run over to the Armory and get a bandoleer of M-l6 ammo and an M-l6 as I only
have my .45’--- Wow, did I say something wrong for his eyes flew open like someone ‘goosed’ him. ‘What
for John---this is Easter Sunday and it’s a truce’ he declared so honestly that I wanted to reach out and
shake him. ‘Just in case everyone did’nt get the word Padre, I’ll protect those eggs that the stewburner
made for the kids’, I said jokingly to the still wide eyed minister, the ‘good guy’.
Bless him, he must have suddenly realized the situation, for a grin split across that flushed honest
face, as he threw up his hands and pronounced ‘I’m in the Lord’s hands John, the Lord and the Senior
Chief Wilborn so ‘lay on McDuff’---I thought silently to myself who the hell is this guy McDuff-- he did’nt
have a thing to do with this Chinese fire-drill operation I’m experiencing.
I headed out through the screendoor and toward the Armory to get the M-l6---outside I marveled at the
early morning sunrise just beginning to show through the heavy Eastern clouds---the panorama of
reflected light in the buttermilk colored sky made me think of what the Seabees call ‘Jesus Clouds’. It
made me realize this was going to be a different day for me and maybe for other people also. Still would
have to inquire about this fellow named McDuff so he would’nt be left behind. Let’s see now McDuff, is he
over in Delta Company----yea, he might be that 3rd class steelworker--hmmm, why would the Padre want
Chief Aravich drove us over to Delta-Med---our transport was to be a ‘Huey Slick’ with just enough
room for the Chaplains mount out box and the egg crate---this was a volunteer mission for the aircrew, a
young army warrant officer. He asked if I could operate the M-60 door gun to which I responded that I’d be
happy to---should have told him to let McDuff do it.
Airborne now, off the chopper pad, which was an extremely large red cross signifying medical
facilities, to be readily seen from the air. The helicopter followed the CuaViet River up through Cam Lo,
the Rock Pile, over the violated top of Hill 881, and on into the red ravaged valley of Khe Sanh.
All along the river banks the green was gone, replaced by a dull lifeless brown---the work of the
defoiliant, AGENT ORANGE. It did’nt take but a few minutes to arrive at the besieged site of death and
destruction---I had never been there and I could not help but gasp at the incredulous scene below us. .
Even though the Huey’s underside was armored, I prayed that we would take no ground fire, after all
had’nt the Padre reminded me about the truce before we departed...Hope it was holding. The young
warrant pilot handled the ‘slick’ as easy as he drove his car back home, as he feathered the controls and
settled the moth-like craft onto the red, war torn junkpile called Khe Sanh.
We were not in the need of helping hands for there were so many young, eager hands to help they
almost got in each others way---the seemingly spontaneous bursts of joy to see that Christian insignia on
the Padres uniform---he must have known how they felt---I had never seen anything like it before--the
adulation and open sentiment....probably not for the man but what the man stood for.
I can only guess---probably most of the young army personnel had never seen a Navy Chief before,
so I just kind of stood around, wearing my .45 Colt, cuddling up to a borrowed M-l6 rifle and hoping that it
would’nt be needed. I must have looked very formal with two full bandoleers of ammo circling my torso
like a bulky dinner cumberband.
The troops of course knew the Chaplain was coming for Easter services--actually he would have to
conduct four separate events, as all the troops could’nt go at one time for security reasons. There on the
high ground they had prepared for him, the stacked sandbags looked new, new and neat. The area had
been swept clean by the troops so in and around the entire service area it was to be like a big clean
ampitheater. The high ground for the old musical pump organ, the brass ornaments, and candle
Even in this hellish place there seemed to be a festive mood for everyone involved---off to one side of
the prepared compound was the waiting group of refugees---children in their drab native clothing and the
I heard a comment one time that the major population in Viet Nam, North and South were Christians,
Catholics I think it was. When the Padre would look their way all the refugees would wave at him,
especially the children---they would wave over and over, everytime they thought he looked their way.
The old pump organ began to play--not sharp melodic notes like a piano, but wheezing sounds like and
old work horse that had eaten moldy hay, but one could tell what it was playing---some song I
remembered from my boy-hood days---I think it was called Rock of Ages.... quite suddenly the sounds
changed---the young black man in dirty fatigues who was playing the ancient old insturment, switched
easily to another identifiable swing sound...A Closer Walk With Thee.
The Chaplain had donned his vestments and was sitting on an arrangement of sandbags, off to one
side. As the young black solider played, he rythmically pumped the foot pedals on the old organ with
his dust covered combat boots...his head back like he was looking up to the Heavens, eyes closed, and
he began to sing. He started to sing the song Pete Fountion would make so much of a trademark a few
years later.
Other black soliders began first as an accompaniment to the song by clapping their hands to the
rythmn of the singer---it was a beautiful gesture and suprisingly other soliders joined in---I did’nt realize a
song could be so fitting---so binding--so healing for those wretched hills and vales reverberated to that
glorious melody---white or black or whatever, the mood was such that it become indescribable---the
bodies swaying, the hands clasping and the young solider sang and played his heart out.
The song ended, the mood changed, the assembled group waiting expectantly, as the Chaplain rose to
his feet---majestic and in command---not so much the clumbsy, inept man I had come to know so well but
now a man for what he represented, and for whom he served.
So long ago---I shall not breech those long lost memories and try to recall the holy words uttered there
on that red, red soil of Viet Nam but it is there in the deep recesses of my mind and there it will always be.
I did’nt stay in that area all the time---I wandered over to the command bunker---met with the
commands Sargeant Major, had coffee and fruit cake from one of the C-ration boxes, and thanked the
good Lord that Khe Sanh was’nt my duty station. As I went from place to place that day, the old organ
music could be heard--sometimes solo and other times with singing to be heard.
In one of the fighting positions, I think it was the 155 howitzer battery there was these giant
binoculars---the army Captain called them the ‘big eyes’ and he asked me if I wanted to look across that
field of devastation and see where Victor Charlie (VC) served. Gigantic things, those ‘big eyes’ and so I
climbed up where the Captain was standing and looked through the eyepeices that seemed the size of
dinner plates.
The landscape swept by when I moved the ‘big eyes’ and I was amazed at the clarity of the total
destruction---the piles of junked and burned air craft, vehicles, discarded oil drums---the ‘big eyes’ were
much to large and heavy to hold so they were mounted to a swivel type post. When I slowed down the
sweeping arcs and movements I was able to zero in on the terrain west of the perimeter---the sound of the
old pump organ was obviously reaching out to those limits for there, clearly in the open for God and all the
world to see was the enemy...the unknown scourage---Old Victor Charlie, Old Charlie Bad-Ass.
I was astounded---I looked away to my host, the young army Captain and he was grinning up at me
---’Did he moon you Senior Chief, or give you the big bird’ and the Sgt./Major beside him guffawed
loudly...I must have looked like the country boy going into the city for his first visit, for the roaring laughter
continued even when I went back to looking for the same guy again.
Yes, the old organs sounds were reaching out and touching, for quite a number of the North
Vietnamese troops were fully exposed ---they seemed to be listening ---I kept the ‘big eye’ trained rigidly
on that group for the slightest movement of the big glasses would cause them to jump all
They could hear the old organ for in an almost international flair, I detected the slapping movement of
hands and rythmic swaying of the black clad bodies---Amazing Grace was being offered up--- I had to tell
my host and again as I looked away from the big eyepeices, the young Captain was gone---the Sgt. Major
was talking into the field telephone... ‘We have to go Senior Chief---we have an emergency over in Grey
Sector---one of the new men has gone berserk and is trying to get to the 81 mm mortar...swears he’s
going kill every damn **** he can today’. I could still hear the sounds of the old pump organ and the
singing wafting up the war ravaged valley, as I climbed down to follow the peacekeepers--over to their
own troops--to hold the truce and cease fire obligations---Amazing Grace continued playing.
The Padre and I would leave Khe Sanh around noon time---leave the same way we had come... same
young warrant pilot. I had helped pass out the colored eggs to the tribal children---they did’nt know what
they were for---the Easter Bunny thing would have been too difficult to explain---we peeled several eggs
and showed them that they were to eat....I bet some eat until they were sick, their parents included---the
crate held 30 dozen eggs--
The throng of milling soliders there to see the Chaplain off was just unbelievable---such an outpouring
of devotion. Later as I reflected back on the events and the scene, I mused in my mind that if one well
placed mortar or rocket round had of been fired, the results surely would have been catastrophic.
The Padre’s religious things were packed away in the mount-out box and taken to the landing pad
where the ‘slick’ was just beginning to spool up. The Chaplain, the man I so easily called Padre was
literally beaming, awash with the feelings of Godliness that he had delivered into this Ungodly land this
day---sure the good against the evil---I just did’nt know. I looked around for Old McDuff ---maybe this
unreligious Seabee Senior Cheif could ask him about the good and evil thing. Still had’nt spotted the
elusive Irishman named McDuff.
I could not hear him over the sounds of the ‘slicks’ engine noise but I got the craziest of inclinations
that the Padre was humming all the way back to Dong Ha. He had that satisfied look on his face and in
his eyes, like he knew something that I did’nt know. We used to say it was like the cat that got the canary.
I kinda felt like humming too--kinda.
We unloaded the gear at Delta-Med---no eager hands this time ---just me and the Happy Padre---yes,
he was still humming The Closer Walk to Thee and so contented looking. Like the perfect timing it turned
out to be, Chief Aravich drove up in the Padre’s jeep to give us a ride back to Camp Barnes.
At the Battalion chapel, the Chaplain called out to me as I headed for the Chiefs Mess---first words he
had spoken since leaving Khe Sanh---wonder if he’d go back to his humming again later.
’Will I see you at 1300 John?’ the kind and gentle soul questioned me ‘that will be the time we’ll have
our Easter Services,’ he remarked. I must have seemed to hesitate in my response for he added quickly
‘that will be okay if you were’nt to come Senior Chief, I’ll understand but I imagine all the men would
appreciate seeing you there, especially today’.
That sly old Sky Pilot had me snookered ---his last statement was like he had set the hook--who ever
said something about the fisherman...this fisher of men was standing right there in front of me. ‘Sure
Chaplain’ I stated formally to him---I had’nt called him Chaplain in the longest time---’let me get some
chow, change uniforms, and I’ll be there with bells on’-- as I turned on my heel and headed off for the
surprises at the chow hall.
He called out to me in a jolly sounding voice as if he had to have the last word ‘but you’ll be out of
uniform if you have bells on John’!
I still was within ear shot as I heard the peels of his uninhibited laughter behind me. What a man ----
what a friend!

John H. Wilborn Sr. U.S. Navy (Retired)
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